Examining the nightingale’s code

C.P. Lee, Like the Night: Bob Dylan and the Road to the Manchester Free Trade Hall, Helter Skelter, 1998. Paperback, 190pp, £12.00.

Reviewed by Bob Pitt

WHEN BOB Dylan performed for the pope in 1997, it caused something of a furore in the press (though others of us, it must be said, were more horrified by the revelation that the former voice of youth rebellion was now an enthusiastic golfer). Mark Steel, for example, commenting on the papal concert in his Guardian column, condemned Dylan for capitulating to religious reaction and betraying the political ideals of his youth.

In reality, he traded in those ideals some thirty-five years ago. The singer’s leftist period was only a brief phase at the start of his musical career – his last “protest” album was The Times They Are A-Changin’ in 1963 – and he subsequently repudiated these early political songs in the most provocative manner (“I knew people would buy that kind of shit, right? I was never into that stuff”). The number of songs recorded since then with some sort of progressive political content can be counted on one hand, with a couple of fingers to spare. The 1971 single “George Jackson”, “Hurricane” from the 1976 Desire album and “Julius and Ethel”, an outtake from 1983’s Infidels, are the few that come to mind.

Meanwhile, Dylan’s personal ideological position shifted sharply to the right, and by the 1970s he was lurching from backing the right-wing Jewish Defense League to propagating fundamentalist Christianity. One of the songs that did make it onto Infidels was “Neighborhood Bully”, which indignantly rejects the view of Israel as an oppressive power, portraying it rather as an innocent and isolated victim of hostile Arab regimes. (The Israeli state “got no allies to really speak of”, Dylan insists. What, not even US imperialism, Bob?) Comrade Steel’s accusations of selling out politically were thus somewhat belated, to say the least.

In any case, truth to tell, the early “protest” material often wasn’t up to much. Songs that concentrated on denouncing specific injustices worked well enough – “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, “Hollis Brown”, “Percy’s Song” or “Who Killed Davey Moore?” – but when it came to political generalisations, Bob usually fell flat on this face. It wasn’t that he hadn’t come into contact on the folk scene with some politically more sophisticated people – Dave Van Ronk, whose arrangement of “House of the Rising Sun” Dylan appropriated for his first album, was a member of the faction led by Tim Wohlforth in the US Socialist Workers Party. But little of this political sophistication seems to have rubbed off on Dylan. I mean – “How many times must the cannonballs fly, before they are forever banned?” Give us a break.

In Like the Night, C.P. Lee deals with the transitional phase during the mid-sixties when Dylan moved on from his “folk” style and began performing rock songs with electric backing – his classic period, as most would now agree. The book revolves around the famous May 1966 concert at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, the recording of which has finally been released officially by Sony, after decades of persistent bootlegging. Following an opening acoustic set, Dylan reappeared with a loudly amplified group (most of whose members would later find fame as The Band). His performance was interrupted by a growing barrage of boos and jeers, interspersed with episodes of sustained slow handclapping, and culminating in the heartfelt cry of “Judas!” by one particularly aggrieved folkie, just before Dylan and his musicians ended the show with a ferocious rendition of “Like A Rolling Stone”.

Some of the bitterest critics of Dylan’s new musical style were to be found on the left. Like the Night relates a perhaps apocryphal anecdote about how, before the Glasgow concert, the local Communist Party (more likely the Young Communist League) held a special meeting “to decide how best to demonstrate their feelings about the direction that Dylan’s music had gone in. After much heated debate it was decided to buy tickets and attend the shows. If Dylan persisted in his madness of using an electric backing group positive action would have to be taken to point out to him the error of his ways. A vote was then taken on how best to protest. Slow handclapping followed by a walkout was decided on as the best way of registering their displeasure. This they duly did”.

The irony was that the acoustic set which made up the first half of Dylan’s 1966 concerts passed off without any audible opposition. Yet, unlike the previous year’s British tour, during which he had made concessions to audience expectations by including a few of his old protest numbers, the 1966 set consisted exclusively of the more recent material with its stream-of-consciousness lyrics and not a single overtly political idea in evidence. Clearly it was not so much the lyrical content as the amplified music that the folk dogmatists took such exception to.

An entire book about a single concert might sound like an exercise in musical trainspotting. In fact, Like the Night shows a real feeling for the social, political and cultural background to the events, as well as communicating the excitement with which the author and others responded to the music. The book is also enlivened by interviews with members of the audience whom Lee has tracked down, including some of those who participated in the barracking of Dylan. (Time has not mellowed them: “He looked like Mick Jagger, posturing and strutting. It was all the worst elements of Pop.”)

The book may not have the literary aspirations of Invisible Republic, Greil Marcus’s study of Dylan’s Basement Tapes, but on the plus side it generally avoids the pretentiousness of that work. Mind you, I could do without the in-depth textual analysis of the songs. The lyrics of “Visions of Johanna”, “Fourth Time Around” and the like should, I think, be understood less as profound poetic statements and more as a product of unwisely mixing acid with amphetamines.

All the same, there was some great music made that night, and it’s worth paying tribute to. Ageing Dylan fans like this reviewer will obviously appreciate the book, while younger comrades who only know Dylan from his recent performances, as a croaking parody of his former self, should first buy a copy of the concert recording in order to understand what everyone got so worked up about back in 1966.

Published in What Next? in 1998