Forever Young

In the booklet for Biograph, his 1985 career anthology, Bob Dylan mused on the differences between his rapturously received 1974 "comeback" tour and the contentious series of shows he had given eight years earlier. On the surface, these two tours were similar. In both cases Dylan was backed by the Band. In both cases he mixed a solo acoustic set with a full-bore electric one. Even the song selections, which drew heavily on the period from Bringing It All Back Home to Blonde on Blonde, were remarkably similar. But Dylan knew that something had changed by 1974.

"What [the audiences] saw you could compare to early Elvis and later Elvis, really. Because it wasn't quite the same, when we needed that acceptance it wasn't there. What they saw wasn't really what they would have seen in '66 or '65. If they had seen that, that was much more demanding.... People didn't know what it was at that point. When people don't know what something is, they don't understand it and they start to get, you know, weird and defensive. Nothing is predictable and you're always out on the edge. Anything can happen."

His Biograph comments aside, Dylan has never made too big a deal of the booing and heckling his electrified sound met from folk purists in 1965-66. (In comparison, he has shown much more bitterness about the abuse he took from old fans during his born-again Christian shows of 1979-80.) Perhaps he believes that time has so clearly proven him right that there's no point in restating the obvious. But it also may have something to do with the fact that Dylan simply doesn't enjoy revisiting his past. Although he willingly plays his classics onstage, unlike most of his contemporaries he has rarely used a song that was left over from a previous album's recording sessions. It didn't matter if the track was as monumentally brilliant as 1983's "Blind Willie McTell." Once Dylan was off to the next album, he generally wiped the slate clean.

Such scorched-earth behavior helps to explain two facts about Dylan's career: One, he is the most bootlegged artist of all time; and two, even after these bootlegs became wildly popular, he was reluctant to release them properly. He didn't sanction the release of 1967's legendary The Basement Tapes with the Band until 1975, not so coincidentally a few months after he had reasserted his creative mastery with Blood on the Tracks.

Perhaps even more beloved than The Basement Tapes is a bootleg of a May 1966 concert recording with the Band, which has long been called the "Royal Albert Hall" show but was in fact recorded at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, England a week earlier. About three years ago Dylan finally gave the green light to legitimize this recording. The mastering and packaging were already prepared when Dylan inexplicably pulled the plug. A year and a half ago rock critic and long-time Dylan watcher Greil Marcus theorized that only after Dylan had made a real cultural impact with a new album, as he had with Blood on the Tracks, might he loosen up enough to allow this prized bootleg to be issued.

Well, sure enough, Dylan released Time Out of Mind, a solid-selling, Grammy winner that's brought him more plaudits than anything he's done in two decades. Hot on its heels -- a mere 32 years after it was recorded -- Columbia/Legacy has now released the Manchester concert under the unwieldy title The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966 -- The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert. The set's release is already reopening the floodgates of fascination with this period of Dylan's career. Eat the Document, the film of the 1966 tour shot by D.A. Pennebaker (and edited by Dylan himself) is now showing at the Museums of Television and Radio in New York and Los Angeles. The New York premiere on October 5 was preceded by a seminar called "Ferocious Electricity," featuring Marcus, Pennebaker, and New York Observer columnist Ron Rosenbaum.

What comes through with enhanced clarity and power on Live 1966 is that Dylan was pushing the limits of live performance far beyond what his chief competition, the Beatles and the Stones, had even contemplated. At this point, while Dylan was hammering out a 45-minute acoustic set and another 45 minutes of all-out rock every night, the Beatles were sailing through apathetic 25-minute shows for screaming teenyboppers. They were trapped in a time warp, forced to play "Rock and Roll Music" onstage while in the studio they were wigging out with tape-loop extravaganzas like "Tomorrow Never Knows."

Dylan, on the other hand, was braving the full depths of his streams of consciousness onstage. To hear him tear into something like the Tex-Mex border lament "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," with those wild vocal swoops that have been much parodied over the years, is to be convinced that his studio recordings of this period were mere rough drafts for his live performances. For perhaps the last time in his career, Dylan was still in the process of creating his myth and not imprisoned by it. As he himself put it, on this recording you feel that nothing is predictable, that anything can happen.

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