Alive in 1964 - revisited
Time and place: two hours of an October night in Boston some years ago.
I haven't seen Dylan often, but did see him once in the 60s - and this is that story as seen from afar.
Nick posed a wondering the other month when he sampled “Live 1964 – Concert at Philharmonic Hall” on his radio show - something along the lines that he had wondered what the people thought while hearing some of the Halloween concert songs for the first time especially the songs yet to be released on “Bringing It All Back Home”.
Symphony Hall, Boston MA
The imagery of “Gates of Eden” and “It’s Alright, Ma” wasn’t exactly to be expected by those wanting or expecting protest and folk songs. But I believe that outside of a small percentage of insiders in the folk scene, most listeners at that time balanced their reception to hear what they needed to hear. Something was happening in 1964, and it was leaving the folk scene behind. The Fifties were ancient history – and the short lived American folk music (as popular music) revival was nearly history too.
Nonetheless - how did it feel, sitting there, listening for the first time? I thought that wouldn’t take much thought.... but maybe a nostalgia wallow kind of got in the way.
I wasn’t at the NYC Philharmonic Hall concert on Halloween 1964, but was at Boston Symphony Hall one week earlier. Bob Dylan was there too.
24 October 1964, Boston, Symphony Hall
Bob Dylan (vocal, harmonica, guitar, & single spotlight)
- The Times They Are A-Changin
- Girl From The North Country
- Talking John Birch Paranoid Blues
- To Ramona
- Who Killed Davey Moore?
- Gates of Eden
- If You Gotta Go, Go Now
- It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)
- Mr Tambourine Man
- I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)
- A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall
- Talkin WW III Blues
- Don't Think Twice, It's All Right
- With God On Our Side
- It Ain't Me, Babe
- The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
- All I Really Want To Do
This was very much the same set list as one week later – but without a guest appearance by Joan Baez.
Of course we each have all heard all of Dylan’s songs for the first time, some time. But the time and place of hearing a song the first time is sometimes worth remembering - especially when it more or less coincided with the sequence written, as Dylan developed in style and content. And also especially before the mythology began: - the books weren’t written - set lists weren’t posted within minutes - downloads of the concerts weren’t available within hours, web-sites weren’t rampant.
The folk telegraph and newsletters did keep some university campuses in touch. Campus radio stations and some commercial stations played something other than the top forty formats. But most people listening had lives of which music was just a part.
Many in the audiences then, including me, would have been hearing many of Dylan’s songs for the first time. The albums were coming out twice a year – the songs were flowing faster. And songs in concert could be from the next album not yet released, or songs not to be released for many years. Outside of a few cities a Dylan appearance was rare.
Most listeners would not yet have their expectations so firmly set as later listeners might - their ears were more open to the changes around them – including what Dylan was saying in his songs. The words he was singing might be unexpected – but they fit in for many of his listeners as something they wanted and needed to hear.
The U.S. culture-society was at some turning points in 1964, some good to come and some not so good. The general mood was fairly optimistic at that time.
The Vietnam mire was not at all yet the obvious quagmire that it became later in the Sixties. The anti-war movement was small. Yes, Kennedy had been murdered a year before, and the Cuban Missile Crisis was two years previous. Nonetheless the overall current in 1964 was forward at least for another year or so.
Lyndon Johnson was to be elected president in November, within two weeks of this concert, with the largest popular vote landslide in history. The Civil Rights Bill of 1964 was a positive move forward, giving civil rights in areas previously hidden.
The Voting Rights Bill of 1965 was working its way through Congress. Affirmative action was in motion. Immigration restrictions were being eased to remove racial bias. The ‘war on poverty’ was one war worth having god on your side.
Two years later, it seemed not so positive and four years later it seemed positively sour as Vietnam came to dominate the latter 60s, along with unresolved racial issues. But in 1964 there was lots happening and it wasn’t all bad and the majority of Dylan’s listeners accepted much of what was happening.
The times - they were changing. Dylan said so. The album confirming this came out in February of 1964. And – this was barely seven months after the freewheeling Dylan had hit the stores in 1963. And – this was also barely seven months before another side of the same songwriter was in stores in late summer of 1964. And - another seven months after that until he brought it all back home in early 1965.
Four landmark self-written albums – within two years – with no room on the albums for many worthy songs - who could top this two years of song writing? Sorry - no prizes given for the answer to that question – Highway 61 and Blonde on Blonde not that far away, as it turned out... and other lifelines and a lifetime of great music still beyond that.
Let’s get back to latter 1964. I didn’t have all of the first four Dylan albums yet until a few weeks after this concert. At least half the songs sung at the concert would have been new to me. I couldn’t have heard the three “Bringing It All Back Home” songs – Tambourine Man, It’s Alright, Ma, or Gates of Eden.
While Tambourine Man had been played around and about, “It’s Alright, Ma” was sung for maybe the second time in public concert in Boston that night, and “Gates of Eden” for the first time in concert. And I wouldn’t have heard Talking John Birch Paranoid Blues, Who Killed Davey Moore?, or If You Gotta Go, Go Now. The latter may have had its first real concert performance that night – the other two had been around and about, but not in my hearing.
And I probably hadn’t heard some of the “Another Side of Bob Dylan” songs – that album had only been released for about ten weeks and I didn’t have a copy until after the concert. For sure I hadn’t heard “To Ramona” before... what a beautiful song to have not heard, but to hear in concert for the first time.
Most of the other songs in the concert had probably passed between my ears, somewhere in 1963-1964, since they were on Freewheelin or Times They Are A-Changin, and the real Dylan recordings did get minor airplay on some radio stations – and late evenings and weekends sometimes allowed some listening time. Covers of Dylan’s songs were played far, far more than Dylan’s versions. I can’t honestly say that I was particularly enamoured of Dylan’s versions before the concert, but it wasn’t a big issue either way at the time.
So why was I a Dylan listener at all at that stage? Having left my southern version of Hibbing behind, and having long since decided that the early Elvis was a spent force, and that Buddy Holly was truly gone, and that early rock and roll was something you were meant to grow out of, I had spent the previous three years in Boston taking advantage (when time permitted) of access to the Boston Symphony Orchestra and multiple classical music stations on FM radio. Beethoven and Mahler had become the composers and songwriters of choice, though much other classical music fit in too.
But sometime in 1963 or early 1964 a girl with green eyes (see also movie of similar name) and I crossed paths. She was a part-time groupie in the Jesse Colin Young scene. Jesse (who was really Perry Miller – another guy with an alias) was a solo performer then, this was before he was joined by the Youngbloods.
You know how the next bit goes – I didn’t want to meet her kin, or make her spin – but being friends seemed a good prospect – hence you do what you gotta do, and classical music fell a bit by the wayside in a low level pursuit of the campus folk concert and local coffee house scenes – going to concerts by Jesse Colin Young, Ian and Sylvia, and the like, culminating in a Dylan concert in the autumn of 1964 in the same Symphony Hall I had listened to twenty or more Boston Symphony concerts in the previous couple of years.
Now - a one man symphony of a different kind.
Outside the hall it was a cool autumn night with certainly a buzz of anticipation inside. Lucky on the seating - we had close to centre seats – maybe six rows from the stage.
At the concert I sat and listened and heard for the first time I now reckon - unable to imagine songs being sung in any other way. A lyrical parade sung and shared between performer and listener. How else could a story be told? And the stories were all worth telling.
The hall was full – maybe 2500 in attendance, with another 100 on stage in chairs behind the magician – otherwise on his own, except for his harmonica and guitar, with a single spotlight on him while performing, and a wooden stool beside him with a glass of water on top. He did make one minor joke when sipping about it being water in the glass. Compared to the following week, I’m reasonably sure the fuel in Boston was less potent than whatever he might have used on Halloween night. But the concert didn’t seem to need anything extra to fuel it and keep it moving.
Bob made only a couple of small comments during the evening – this was Boston and more innocent in audience than would be New York. Each song spoke for itself. Except he did introduce Gates of Eden as a song he had recently written (out in California....) – hoping we’d understand it – and thanked the audience afterward for the enthused applause.
Otherwise the songs were sung by Dylan and the songs sang to the audience
with gently sardonic wit, or
with sweet and bitter love, or
with unimagined imagery, or
with ringing passion.
Some of the songs did all of these things - on several levels.
The audience was respectful – seated throughout – serious and sustained applause for every song – laughter in the right places. No stage rushes in those days – no banter from or to the audience – again, this wasn’t the New York that Dylan was so engaged with.
Seventeen songs – to me all have stood the test of time. Sure – the time and place for performance of a couple of the songs has passed, but all the songs remain valid and fresh to me today.
But who then amongst us at the concert would have imagined listening to any of the same songs in later years? That wasn’t in thought at the time – the magic was there then.
Could anyone have realised the impact of repetitions through the years of ‘the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked’? It was Lyndon Johnson that night; there would be others and worse.
The overall imagery of It’s Alright, Ma staggers even today. What a marvellous song. Go read the words. And Hard Rain – what twenty one year old had the talent to pen such an eternally riveting song? Who needed folk music any more? Not those who were inside those Gates of Eden to be sure. Hmm - maybe it was those outside the Gates of Eden? What’s real and what is not? It didn’t really matter. The analytical mind would struggle to explain in words – but the illusions sufficed at that time and later.
The song man – the performer: the words mixed in with the melodies – written and sung with imagery beyond my imagination – a visual landscape in the mind – no drugs needed to listen when the bits between the words fit in so well time and time again – with the words themselves condensed or stretched and twisted into places that no such words could fit. And the interlaced harmonica spoke too in unexpected ways.
And then it was to walk through the back streets of Boston, wondering what it was that the magician had just done in spinning those words to those tunes. And wondering, just a little, what would come next.
That concert was a turning point in my appreciation of Dylan – his train a-travelin’ and my train a-travelin’ were at the same symphony hall station that night.
As he wrote “Then you heard my voice a-singin' and you know my name.” It was pretty simple, really. It still is.
A few months later the girl with green eyes went her way, leaving me to go my way, but that’s part of a different story altogether.
Chapter 2 of the 1964 music story would soon enough become the 1965 music story – with “Bringing in All Back Home” in early 1965. The singer-songwriter’s evolution was increasing in intensity. I didn’t hear anyone complaining – except for my flatmate who was more into Brahms and The Beatles. I graciously shared my hard earned stereo equipment with him and his records – and he graciously shared his opinion with me that Dylan was a relatively clever guy with words, but not a great deal more. No future for Dylan; no future for my musical tastes. Time would tell.
Less than a year after the Boston concert – following a diversionary and busy first eight months of 1965 finishing off my degree at university – time to move on, heading west in early September 1965.
Four long days into the drive westwards from the Boston area to the San Francisco area, with all belongings in the back and boot of my car, sleeping in the car on quiet side roads in Kentucky, Kansas and Utah, and now an hour or two out of San Francisco, in the dark, coming to California for the first time, the radio kicked back into action to tune into something wonderful, that seemed to go on and on and on rolling through the car – wide awake now, wondering what it was, and what was happening, and where I was coming from, and where I was going, and what’s going on here since this music can’t be for real.
“Like A Rolling Stone” heard for the first time. And it blasted me away, to still ring in my ears these years later.
What a great way to roll into the Bay area. Highway 61 – Revisited was in the air!