Sunday, 6 February 2011

Waking Up to Dylan

Bob Dylan at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, it must have been 1966. Julie and I were 16, for goodness' sake. We'd made it down from Arbroath, don't know how. I think we told our folks we were staying with Julie's sister in Edinburgh or something, but instead we blew everything we'd been saving for a year, and got the train to Manchester. It was the first time either of us had been away from home.

First half of the concert was the Sermon on the Mount for us. Just Dylan, his guitar, and a concert hall full of his charisma. I remember him playing 'Visions of Johanna,' and it was like nothing we'd ever heard before. The chords looked simple enough, but the lyrics! How on earth could I remember them? In the interval, I tried writing some of them down on the back of my ticket, with a pencil I'd liberated from school. The ticket wasn't big enough, of course...

Backstage, in the interval, he murdered the corduroy-capped hobo. Then a street punk came out of the chrysalis, toting a Telecaster, making the folkies in the audience howl. It was loud, though! First crack of the snare drum like a gunshot, an assassination of Archduke Ferdinand for the hard core fans, people older than us who'd been brought up on English folk music, all that hey nonny nonny stuff. Julie and I didn't know enough to not love electric Dylan, the wall of noise he was making with these leather-clad dudes.

Then came the clapping, the chanting. It was like this enormous static charge, building and building. Most people around us were against the electric stuff. I remember this big Yorkshire guy next to us, bearded, shouting, 'Get shot of the band,' over and over.

Every Dylan fan knows about the 'Judas' moment, when a fan accused him of selling out. But the song that stuck in my mind most wasn't the final 'Like A Rolling Stone,' it was the one before the Judas shout, 'Ballad of a Thin Man.' It was this funereal bluesy stomp, with Dylan up front, snarling about sword-swallowers and one-eyed midgets. Anyone that didn't get his circus show, he was saying, could go straight to hell as far as he was concerned.

Afterwards, on the long walk to the train station, shivering in the May dawn, waiting for the train, it was that chorus that went through my head: 'You know something's happening here, but you don't know what it is, do you Mr Jones?' And later, when I got home to all the recriminations, that song kept me warm long after. Arbroath in the 60s was full of people related to Mr Jones.

Mind you, when I moved to L.A. I found he had family there, too.

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