Forever Young

What did happen that night was the stuff of rock legend. After a well-received seven-song, 45-minute acoustic set, Dylan came out with the Band (sans Levon Helm and then known as the Hawks), plugged in his electric guitar, and all hell broke loose. Live 1966, the bootleg, also offers Dylan's solo acoustic set for a full context. Unlike his British shows of the year before -- documented in Pennebaker's Dont Look Back film -- Dylan is not just going through the motions here. In fact, he reserves many of his most introspective songs for this acoustic set, delivering a ghostly "Visions of Johanna" and possibly his most compassionate version of what was then an unreleased "Just Like a Woman."

But, fine as the acoustic performance is, the real action starts in the electric set. The vaguely uncomfortable decorum that dominated the acoustic segment explodes in the face of Dylan and the Band's astonishingly loud, raucous attack. Dylan's voice, so subdued earlier, sounds as if it has been jolted by the same current running through his guitar's pickups.

At first the crowd seems too stunned to react. Dylan and the boys kick into a shambling rockabilly throwaway called "Tell Me, Momma" (sort of a cross between "From a Buick 6" and "Odds and Ends"), with Dylan preemptively mocking the malcontents in the crowd for their purist rigidity: "Tell me, momma/What's wrong with you this time?"

In fact, what surely must have bothered the angry contingent who wanted the "old Dylan" was not simply that he was playing an electric guitar. After all, by this point even the most dedicated folkies were beginning to explore electric accompaniment. No, it was the sense that he was laughing at them, ridiculing their beliefs. It's what Joan Baez referred to with some irritation in later years when she called the Dylan of this period the "Dada King."

In Manchester, the Dada King actually got a laugh out of the crowd when he introduced his second electric song, "I Don't Believe You" ("It used to be like that, and now it goes like this"). Compared with the live version from the same tour issued on Biograph (recorded from a mono feed from the film crew), this one is infinitely more powerful, with Rick Danko's pumping bass much more audible, and Robbie Robertson's snaky R&B licks taking center stage. Even Dylan's seemingly random harmonica wheezes -- which all but massacre the Biograph version -- are tolerable here.

Not until the intro to the third song, a gracefully revamped "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down," does the uneasiness become palpable. Dylan's adherents and detractors start shouting at one another, and crowd sentiment tends to swing in the direction of the cleverest retort. Hecklers start a sarcastic slow clapping, aimed at distracting Dylan and the Band.

For most of the set, Dylan maintains a dignified silence in the face of hostility. When the derisive clapping becomes too loud to ignore after a rock-hard rendition of "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat," Dylan begins mumbling gibberish into the mike. It was probably funny at the time, but all these years later it's positively hysterical to hear a youthful Dylan sound so much like the incoherent mumbler he became two decades later. As the crowd quiets to hear him, Dylan, with absolutely impeccable timing, ends his mumbling by drawling, "If you only just wouldn't clap so hard." The audience bursts into applause, taking his side for the moment.

By the time Dylan kisses off his old fans with a frighteningly sneering "Ballad of a Thin Man" -- abetted mightily by Garth Hudson's sinister organ runs -- the detractors have had enough. Shortly after the end of the song, a voice in the crowd shouts the most famous of all rock and roll heckles: "Judas!"

Dylan waits for a few seconds, before shouting back, "I don't believe you." He continues strumming his guitar, and as the band tentatively starts to join in, he raises his voice to its angriest pitch: "You're a liar! Off mike, he turns to the band and can be heard saying, "Get fuckin' loud."

The song they kick into, "Like a Rolling Stone," may be the closest thing Dylan has to a definitive tune; over the years we've all heard him play it enough times to be thoroughly tired of it. But the Live 1966 version is unlike anything we've heard before. The song is slowed down, with a heavier beat than its studio version (thanks to the fabulous drumming of Levon Helm's temporary replacement, Mickey Jones), and there's more than a little blood on these tracks. This anthem, which Dylan himself has called an expression of revenge, never sounded this furious in any of his subsequent performances. His voice is so emotionally charged it sounds as though the music is lifting him off his booted feet. After seven relentless minutes, the song comes to a crashing end, with Robertson peeling off a series of harsh, metallic riffs. The crowd, overpowered by something undeniably majestic, finally offers unqualified, but strangely brief applause. One detects that all the air has gone out of the hecklers' balloons.

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