The Dylan Files #3 - "Thin Wild Mercury Music": 1965-1966
“I try my best to be just like I am, but everybody wants you to be just like them…” – Bob Dylan
There’s a telling scene in D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary Dont Look Back, which documented Dylan’s British tour in early ’65. The young singer Donovan is brought in to meet Dylan. He performs a nice little song for Dylan. It’s all very nice and pleasant.
Then Dylan takes the guitar, and performs It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.
Juxtaposed against Donovan’s featherweight piffle, Baby Blue is not a song so much as it's a magical rune from some advanced futuristic civilization.
It’s hard to discuss the music that Bob Dylan unleashed during 1965 and 1966. It was so incredibly original. It's fraught with history. It affected so many people.
This music was tougher and smarter than anything anyone had heard before. It was revolutionary—not in some lame political way. Dylan figured out that politics were too confining and phony for an artist to say anything of lasting import. No, this music was revolutionary in its fierce and naked individualism, its melding of traditional forms with modern sounds.
"Money doesn't talk, it swears..."
While The Beatles were charmingly asking for Help, still striving for the “toppermost of the poppermost,” Dylan was spitting “how does it feeeeeeel, to be on your own…,” daring radio stations to play his hard-edged and venomous ("vomitous" as Dylan called it) six minute single, and not caring if they did.
While the Stones and the Yardbirds were still essentially grasping what American music was all about, Dylan was changing the rules of what American music really was.
And while the next wave of great American rock bands were still woodshedding in their garages, Dylan was expanding the parameters of popular music to include anything and everything in the artist’s purview— including the missing pump handle, Shakespeare rapping in the alley, and Mona Lisa’s highway blues...
He incorporated beat poetry, hokum, witty aphorisms, and inscrutable word puzzles into a hard and potent expressive form—rock n roll as legitimate art.
"You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows"
This music was alive, post-modern—like a Burroughs cut-up novel with a backbeat, like John Dos-Passos writing fever dream dispatches from somewhere southwest of Lewis Carroll's Wonderland, like comic nuclear acid vision poems written by Walt Whitman and illustrated by Lichtenstein.
Dylan becoming the musical fellaheen, creating a new musical language out of time and place—the world askew, more sinister, more colorful, more dangerous, and more inviting.
"The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face"
The "rural" ideal of the folk world (never mind that the folk revival took place in urban centers, primarily performed by white, middle class young people) focused on community and tradition. Of course, there was an unstated tension inherent in the folk revival of the late 50s and early 60s between playacting and authenticity. No one talked much about it. The credo was, of course, authenticity and fidelity to traditional forms. Yet it was for most of the white Village folkies mere playacting; an approximation of authenticity. So there was a bit of hypocrisy involved in the hullabaloo over Dylan "going electric."
There’s a screaming irony that the city, teeming with people, is ultimately an isolating and lonely place. One turns inward, and Dylan’s music reflected this inward shift. Metaphorically and musically, he had drifted from the country into the city--from the outward to the inward. This was urbane music; witty and self-aware pop art, critical, street, existential.
"Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues, you can tell by the way she smiles"
Dylan was at once subverting and reinventing traditional musical forms. He had gone through folk music, not abandoned it, just gone through folk, like he had once gone through Guthrie. The music he created during this period—three groundbreaking albums, the historic performances—melded the mythological concepts of folk with the modern mechanical age.
"God said to Abraham, kill me a son, Abe said, 'Man, you must be puttin' me on...'"
On July 25, 1965 Bob Dylan performed his electric music at the Newport Folk Festival. Aided and abetted by session player Al Kooper and members of the Butterfield Blues Band, Dylan shocked and angered many of his old folk music cohorts. Bringing It All Back Home had been out for some months, and Dylan was knee deep in the recording of Highway 61 Revisited, but the reaction to his electric music at the '65 folk festival was scathing.
"When you got nothin', you got nothin' to lose. You're invisible now you got no secrets to conceal"
Pete Seeger was apoplectic (there is, of course, some debate about whether or not he actually sought out an axe to cut the power cable), and many of the old guard felt that Dylan had turned his back on his roots. Certainly the music was confrontational and provocative--"ain't gonna work on Maggie's Farm no more..."
But this was perhaps the first time a popular performer didn't play for the audience. Dylan played for himself, for his own vision of that "thin wild mercury sound". So, ultimately, the music he created in '65 and '66 is the most authentic music Dylan had (until then) ever performed.
Maggie's Farm, Newport 1965. Historic performance--Mike Bloomfield shreads. Asked afterward by Maria Mauldaur about the performance Dylan responded "my hands are on fire."
And yet despite the modern mechanical and electrified noise this was still, at heart, folk music. It was something that detractors didn’t understand at the time. The purists, the ones who booed him at Newport in ’65 and the ones who booed him as he toured with the Hawks in '66, saw folk music as a static form, crystallized in amber. When an art form is reduced to mere essentials, to a monochrome schematic, it ceases to be worthwhile and relevant. This is what folk purists in 1965 didn't understand.
"They asked me for collateral, and I pulled down my pants..."
In 1966 Dylan and the Hawks toured Europe and Australia. They were booed almost everywhere. Levon Helm quit the tour early, replaced by drummer Mickey Jones.
And yet despite (or because of) the hostility, the music performed on the 1966 tour is perhaps the most devastating rock n roll ever performed. I do not say this lightly. The music is raw and aggressive. It’s gloriously loud and rebellious—as if Patrick Henry and James Dean wielded Fender Stratocasters; punk rock 10 years before punk rock. Even the acoustic sets have a sharp metallic edge.
"Something is happening, and you don't know what it is..."
He had not only changed rock n roll, but he had redefined and reshaped folk music. Within the space of a year and a half, Bob Dylan had changed the course of music history. But by the time he had returned from Europe in late spring of 1966, Dylan was in bad shape—the daily ritual of loud and riotous rock n roll, the constant movement, the hostile fans, and the drugs had clearly taken a toll.
Coming home he was facing another long tour, a film to complete (the ill-fated Eat the Document), and a book he was contracted to write. But mentally, physically, and spiritually he was wasted.
(On July 29, 1966 Dylan had a motorcycle "accident" near his home in Woodstock NY. Lots of theories surround this—let’s just say the accident got him out of a lot of obligations, and probably saved his life…)
“The accident” was the best thing that ever happened to him.
"And like a fool I mixed them, and it strangled up my mind. And people just get uglier, and I have no sense of time...Oh mama, is this really the end?"
And so Dylan retreated from the edge, from the thin wild mercury sound. He had gone through something once again. On the other side of this music he found himself back in the country, back home…
Like a Rolling Stone, Europe 1966. Footage from Eat the Document. The most powerful version of this song you will ever hear.
Bringing It All Back Home.
Highway 61 Revisited.
Blonde On Blonde.
In the space of a year and a half Bob Dylan released three of the greatest rock n roll albums of all time. That's not hyperbole, that's fact man. And there's no way I can cogently write reviews for these works. I'm only offering brief notes. You should just listen to these albums.
Bringing it All Back Home.
This was a statement, a declaration, a “barbaric yawlp”.
In early 1965 most popular rock n roll artists were British—the British invasion. American rock n roll artists were an afterthought in light of the Fab Four, the Kinks, and the Stones. So when Dylan titled his fifth album Bringing It All Back Home, an album recorded with a rock band, he was letting the world know where this type of music came from.
It wasn’t the first time Dylan had recorded with a rock band. He had recorded a couple of rock n roll songs while working on Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (most notably Mixed-Up Confusion). But this was different. Bringing It All Back Home was different. This wasn’t the scruffy and earnest Chaplinesque character that had recorded Blowin in the Wind and John Birch Blues, oh no. This was hip, tough, hallucinatory art. This raised the stakes for everyone.
Highway 61 Revisited.
Highway 61 runs from Minnesota to New Orleans, roughly following the route of Mississippi River. The album, replete with historical and fictional characters acting out dusky twilight dreams on Desolation Row, comes on like a latter day Huckleberry Finn. It's a generous raft.
Blonde on Blonde.
It may not be the grand statement that Bringing it All Back Home was, or the artistic triumph that Highway 61 Revisited was, but Blonde on Blonde is arguably the finest popular album ever recorded. This is just perfection.
Recorded in Nashville with professional session players, the late night beauty of Blonde on Blonde is staggering.
It's difficult to write about this one. The music is at once obtuse and nakedly personal. If you listen you'll find phrases and themes taking on new and personal meanings that Dylan couldn't have possibly imagined.
And thanks for Visions of Johanna Bob...thanks for this album...
Dont Look Back-- dir. D.A. Pennebaker
The groundbreaking cinema verite document of Dylan's '65 tour of England. Captures Dylan at the moment of his transformation. One of the greatest music documentaries of all time. Features the very first music video for the proto-rap Subterrainian Homesick Blues (cameo by Allen Ginsburg).
Eat The Document--dir. Bob Dylan
Unreleased film documenting the 1966 tour with the Hawks. Dylan tapped Pennebaker to film the tour. Unfortunately this was never edited properly. Furthermore, according to Howard Sounes in "Down the Highway" Dylan threw away a lot of the live footage that was shot. What's left is a rather expensive home movie that is disjointed, nonsensical, druggy, and utterly fascinating.
Scorsese made excellent use of available footage for his 2005 documentary No Direction Home. Hopefully Eat the Document gets a pro edit, and is released someday.
Most bootleg copies have a crazy sequence of a completely wasted Dylan trying to carry on a conversation with John Lennon in the back of a car. Classic lines:
Dylan (slurring, wasted): I wish I could speak English man.
Lennon (wry, deadpan): Me too Bobby.
I urge people to check out Bobsboots.com for a comprehensive overview of Dylan bootlegs. It is a fantastic resource! I am only going to mention a couple of my favorites here.
Thin Wild Mercury Music (Highway 61 Revisited/Blonde on Blonde outtakes--65/66) Spank
This is great stuff. Worth it for the alternate takes of Visions of Johanna (titled Like a Freezeout here), and She's Your Lover Now (titled Just a Little Drink of Water here).
We Had Known a Lion (Hollywood Bowl 9/3/65) VigOtone
Great recording of one of Dylan's early electric live shows.
Genuine Live 1966 (World Tour '66) Scorpio
An 8 CD collection of Dylan and The Hawk's tour through Australia and Europe. Incredible recordings and package. Includes A Phoenix in April (Sydney), While the Establishment Burns (Dublin, Copenhagen), The Children's Crusade (Melbourne), The Genuine RAH (London), and A Nightly Ritual (Liverpool, Sheffield).
This is the ultimate document of Dylan's historic '66 tour with The Hawks.