You could argue that there are better live albums than Guitars Kissing, and I'd agree if the argument included James Brown's Live at the Apollo 1962, Otis Redding's Live in Europe, the Who's Live at Leeds, and Van Morrison's It's Too Late to Stop Now. Few of them, though, are suffused with the tension, drama, and raw-nerved desperation that define Guitars Kissing. Having performed for weeks before audiences enraged at Dylan's decision to go electric -- and thus sullying his pristine folk-based art with walloping drums, swirling keyboards, and the resounding crack of Robbie Robertson's bullwhip guitar -- the tension in Manchester is palpable from the first notes of "Tell Me, Momma," a searing blues. (In contrast, Dylan sounds at ease throughout most of the acoustic set, turning in contemplative, maybe definitive readings of "Visions of Johanna," "4th Time Around," and "Desolation Row.") The tension is there in the defensive introduction he offers for "I Don't Believe You," the second song of the set and an acoustic number in its previous version on Another Side:
"This is called, 'I Don't Believe You.' It used to be like that, and now it goes like this." And how it went was a tangle of jagged riffs from Robertson, machine-gun drums from Mickey Jones (a fill-in for regular Hawks drummer Levon Helm), a bass line from Rick Danko that pokes curiously around the guitar figure, cascading keyboards from Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel, and a vocal from Dylan that's loaded with anger, surprise, disbelief, and indignation. "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down" comes in as a taut plaything, "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" is alternately unnerving (Dylan can't decide if he's playing with the lyrics or is outraged by the tale they tell) and creepy (thanks to Hudson's eerie organ wails), and "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" is a slashing blues stomp -- meaner, funnier, nastier than it sounded on Blonde on Blonde. In his new book, Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes, Greil Marcus masterfully defines the interplay within the group: "Listening to the way each musician seemingly plays off of every other's barely unfulfilled desire rather than whatever movement he has in fact made makes it impossible to believe that six people could ever know each other better."
After a chaotic, howling "One Too Many Mornings" (which begins only after Dylan pleads for the slow-clapping audience to hold it down a bit) Dylan takes the piano for "Ballad of a Thin Man," in which the outrage in his voice on "I Don't Believe You" becomes the shock and terror of the poor sap who stumbles into "Thin Man"'s funhouse of underbelly oddities and nightlife atrocities. By this point the heat and anger radiating from the audience becomes gasoline poured on the fire stoked throughout the night by the band. When "Thin Man" ends, someone in the crowd has had enough and lets loose the best insult he can summon: "Judas!" he yells to the beleaguered ex-folksinger, who responds with a seething: "I don't believe you" -- slight pause, then some faint guitar strumming -- "You're a liar!" Then, turning to the Hawks, he barks out an order -- "Get fucking loud!" And they do, tearing into "Like a Rolling Stone" with a ravenous drive and determination, like if they play the song hard enough and mean enough and fucking loud enough it will kill not just the animosity and righteousness and piety of the audience, but the audience itself.
I'm not exactly sure how recordings made more than 30 years ago pertain to the very recent reminder that Bob Dylan is indeed mortal, susceptible to the same medical maladies as you and I. All I know is that, in the nearly two weeks that separated his hospitalization and release, Guitars Kissing is where I've turned on a daily basis to help me grapple with the thought of a world without Bob Dylan. I didn't turn to it for solace: With the exception of the acoustic half of the set, Guitars Kissing is aggression incarnate -- frightening, hostile, sheer confrontation -- a fuck-you to anyone foolish enough to pigeonhole him and a statement of purpose for those who've signed up for the long ride. I don't know, maybe music so full of rage, commitment, and confusion is the only thing appropriate when faced with such unpleasant news.