The Crux of the Biscuit

MJwycha

MJwycha
Location
Pennsylvania,
Birthday
August 05
Bio
Crux of the Biscuit emerged fully formed on Jan 5 2009. The Crux primarily discusses music, makes fun of music, and celebrates music. The Crux also reserves the right to discuss movies, books, and other aspects of pop culture. And if you don't know what the crux of the biscuit is please, for the sake of humanity, educate yourself. Or look for the answer on my banner.

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APRIL 2, 2010 9:41AM

The Dylan Files #3 - "Thin Wild Mercury Music": 1965-1966

Rate: 13 Flag

“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.  

 

                              w-08f

 

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..." 

 

1965.

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." 

 

                      f-30f


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"

 

 

                             g-13_17

 

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…

 

                       t-21f

 

 Like a Rolling Stone, Europe 1966. Footage from Eat the Document. The most powerful  version of this song you will ever hear. 

 

 

 

 

Capsule Reviews:

 

Bringing It All Back Home.

Highway 61 Revisited.

Blonde On Blonde.

 

Whoa.

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...

 

 

 

 

Movies

 

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.


 

Bootlegs

 

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. 

 

Books
 
Film
Dont Look Back (dir: D.A. Pennebaker)
Eat the Document (dir: Bob Dylan)
 
Other links
Expecting Rain (the Bob Dylan site)
Bob Dylan.Com (Columbia Records)

 

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Comments

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All I can say is YES (not yelling, appreciating ... )
Thanks
Nice content... Hitched to Mpls. coffee house, to see him in the 60's...
Followed many a band via thumb, he was the first... Thanx for the memory... RRR
Good stuff. Nice compendium of all things Dylan from this period and I truly appreciate your descriptions. Every time I try to even put anything about Dylan into words, things tend to fall apart rather quickly. So I think what you've done here is commendable. I have to say though, I've always been impartial to Desire. Perhaps something on it for your next post? Well done.
Thanks again.
I've got Lennon and Nilsson on right now. "Subterranean Homesick Blues".
"...the pumps don't work 'cause the vandals took the handles"
Dylan presents a challenge to a biographer in part because of the sheer volume of his work. Your decision to break this down does justice to the work you cover. Its hard to imagine this time period in his life. It's as if Orson Welles did Citizen Cain, then did three equally groundbreaking films in the next 18 months, all while flying around the country playing the lead role in Cain live performances every other night.

Dylan also presents challenges to biographers because he never saw much benefit, until very recently, in explaining what he does. He was too busy doing it. I love the clip of Dylan responding to a reporter who had breathlessly asked about the monumental decision to tour with Tom Petty. Dylan shrugs,

"'Cause I felt like it."

I don't believe your praise for this work is over-the-top. He confounded his fans, who didn't know what to expect next. Some people never made it past the scratchy sound on his records. But the music has stood the test of time as well as anything ever recorded.

I look forward to posts when I might have more to add. I first saw him with The Band on the "Before the Flood" tour, though I had listned to these records prior to that. Your generous writing on this man's career is worthy of its subject, and I appreciate being able to click and listen while I read. Highly rated.
Beautiful piece. I grew up with this music. In particular these three albums, all released into the middle of my teenage years. This music changed my life forever. You captured important truths about it with your writing. Thank you.
Bob Dylan is a hottie. I love him.
You're creating a treasure here, MJ. Thank you. Thank you. (r)
Very nice. I first saw Dont Look Back when it came to a campus theater when I was in college--I didn't know much Dylan, but it was still very cool.
Great comments and analysis and thanks so much for keeping up this project. You've captured a lot of whjat made Dyland so important and popular. A couple of cavils however.

I think you were too hard on the Stones and Yardbirds. Re American music, you used the word "grasping". "Reinventing" would also serve.

And while I like Blonde on Blonde, I'd go with Highway 61 of that trio.

By the way, I remeber reading an account of him singing Ballad of a Thin Man when his switch to electric was still controversial. Apparently, at one concert, to quiet the boos, he kept repeating the lines
"But something is happening here and you don't know what it is,
Do you, Mister Jones"
He did this for two or thre minutes till everyone quieted down and some folks started cheering.

I may have read this in Rolling Stone around 1970, but can't swear to the source. It's not in the Sounes book or the Scorcese doc. Have you ever heard this story?
This is absolutely wonderful. I have seen everything except the eat the document film. Thanks for this wonderful piece and choice quotes. He really was (and is) brilliant. LOVE IT!
Small town Kansas. I'm 15 and my Art teacher plays Blonde on Blonde on a school owned "hi fi". My life is changed forever. I ride a bus to Kansas City, and using funds obtained from fencing goods stolen from my burglaries, I buy every album that came before. "To live outside the law, you must be honest."
Thanks Scarlett!

Hollen--thanks for the comments. I will be getting to Desire era Dylan in a couple of posts. The next post will cover his departure from public life, The Basement Tapes and his move to more country flavored material (roughly the years 1967-1972). Don't worry, I'll get to it!

jimmymac--great comment. This was a difficult one to write. How to convey the importance of this work. I really believe that Dylan, and this era in particular, will be remembered a hundred years from now--it's a lasting work, it transcends time and place.
I do look forward to writing about his later work, which I don't think had been fully appreciated yet.

Abrawang--Oh, I'm stuck now. I've got to see this through. It's a personal challenge at this point!
You're right, I didn't make myself as clear as I would have liked when talking about the Stones and Beatles et al, and it wasn't my intention to disparage them at all--poor word choice. I was trying to convey just how influential Dylan's music was to everybody--how these albums, this music raised the bar for everyone. Dylan was, of course, influenced by the rock n roll of the Beatles and the Stones while he made his transition, but his knowledge of American music was so encompassing that his move to rock n roll was fully formed and mature--the British bands were still (imo) maturing. the Stones released great stuff prior to 66, but look at the artistic growth between "Out of Our Heads" 1965 and "Aftermath" 1966. Same with the Beatles. Dylan moved everything down the road 100 miles.
And I see where you are coming from in regard to highway 61. In many ways it is a better album than Blonde on Blonde. But ultimately it's like: What's a better Shakespeare play: Hamlet or King Lear? Yeah, it's like that :-)
Thanks for commenting--hope you continue to follow this journey!
65/66 is the period in his career that I love and and I do mean love. I still listen to Highway 61 and Bringing it All Back Home regularly. How many 45 year old albums can stand that test of time?
I lived through this and didn't get as much out of it as you did. The anti-woman sentiments blinded me to much of the innovation.
Dylan is not of this world! ...not entirely. Absolute gems permeate his art. Taking an art form and using it in an almost inexplicable manner taking it where it had never been before. Call it Talent, Genius. I listened to and watched his performance of his Chimes of Freedom at the Newport Festival in 65...over-the-top. The thing is, without the spirit of the 60's there would have been no place for Dylan. Without that pessimism and yet youthful optimism floating around, a Dylan trying to be born in this era of Reagan/Bush would have withered and died, or gone into the family business...Guthrie was his mentor and idol. And Guthrie was anti-capitalism, pro-'The People'. It was the spirit of the 60's that kept that spirit that was Dylan alive, nourished him, gave him his stage, his platform. We are Dylan. But most of us have done 'some hard travelin too', and cannot escape the black hole of an America whose principles and humanity have been so corrupted, distorted, subverted and used against its own. J.F. Kennedy said, Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country, and was then murdered. It wasn't enough that his voice was silenced, his message too was silenced and replaced by a mentality that seeks compensation for only its own group above all others and the whole, each group demanding to be the dominant culture. Unfortunately Dylan offers no answers, but for a brief period where he expressed a longing for basic Judaeo-Chrisitian ideals. Something this country would do well to re-embrace., i.e. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Dylan presents us a picture of what we can be, but has left us to find out how to get there on our own...
Great stuff.

What about "Rinaldo & Clara?"
we need to figure out a way for you to be recognized--you are one of the finest music critics working--astute and passionate, without the pretense of most music writers...thanks for bringing everyone into the world of bob...
msm44--Renaldo and Clara was filmed during Dylan's Rolling Thunder Tour of 1975--Stay tuned, I'll have a few things to say about that strange, disturbing, (sometimes) wonderful mess of a film!

mistercomedy--thanks man! Like I said in an earlier comment, this one was difficult to write. I'm really looking forward to getting into the less well known aspects of Dylan's career. As celebrated as Dylan is, I honestly don't think his career is fully appreciated.
Rated now, will read manana. You keep up hippin' folks to the good word.
I do LOVE Dylan - Buckets of Rain, Boots of Spanish Leather, Dont Think Twice, Shelter from the Storm, Mama youve been on my mind are just a few of my absolute favorites - of course it is almost impossible to name just a few.
Great article except for the mild dissing of the Stones and Yardbirds, and oh man Al Kooper a "session musician"? The guy who formed Blood Sweat and Tears? Really?