Saturday, April 10, 2021

The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival (2007).

It's hard to tell what time it is.  The scene looks to be about mid-day, though it's impossible to tell for sure with all the color washed out.  Instead, the choice of camera turns everything into simple blacks and whites, reducing the entire sky to the same, monotonous shade of faded gunmetal gray, like an old photo album picture brought to life.  It's almost as if in trying to capture the event, the cameraman somehow discovered a curious way of making all time stand still.  The picture looks almost postcard perfect as the singer steps up to the microphone.  The cinematography has him look all dressed in black, although this could also be a trick of the light.  His eyes seem both focused and distant as he takes his place before the crowd, like he's in his element, and would rather be somewhere else.  Perhaps that ambivalence is reflected to an extent by the song he chooses sing for an opening number.  Before that, however, there are introductions to be made.  A woman's voice can be heard over a PA system.  

"At every period, every time has its heroes.  Every need has a solution and an answer.  Some people, the press and magazines, sometimes think that the heroes that young people choose lead the way.  I tend to think that they happen because they grow out of a need.  This is a young man who grew out of a need.  He came here, he came to be as his is, because things needed saying.  And the young people were the one's who wanted to say them.  They wanted to say them in their own way.  He somehow had an ear on his generation.  I don't have to tell you.  You know him.  He's yours: Bob Dylan".  "All I really want to do," the singer tells us, "is baby, be friends with you".  His voice is the same, familiar combination of the off-key and the melodic.  It's a trademark that is so distinctive, that even to this day it remains somehow unrepeatable.  The closest singers I can think who come anywhere close can be whittled down to just three candidates, Leon Redbone, along with the two Toms, Petty and Waits.  

That list might be expanded to include an act known as the Band, however that still remains about it.  I recall something that author Dave Barry once said about Dylan's style of singing.  Barry described him as "singing in a voice so unpolished, so non-showbizzy, so drastically unlike, for example, Bobby Vinton, that you either loved it or hated it, and the side you picked indicated pretty clearly whether you were going to be a willing participant in, or an opponent of, The Sixties (107)".  This is the subject at the heart of Murray Lerner's The Other Side of the Mirror, a chronicle of Dylan's Newport Folk days.  The trick here is that singers like Dylan, and the films people make of him, rarely exist in a vacuum.  I might just be able to understand how a lot of the readers out their might wish for the subject to be treated in some kind of isolation.  My own experience, however, is that life never allows itself to be so kind.  If you want to understand why someone would go to the trouble of cobbling together a concert film out of old footage of a singer, then it usually means there's a lot of backstory to go over.  It seems to be the only way of finding whether or not Lerner's film has any sort of worth to it.

1963: Origins and Context.

The film itself is something of a continuation.  Several decades previous to it, Lerner was responsible for this film's original predecessor.  It was released way back in 1967, under the unadorned and simple title of Festival.  It was Lerner's attempt to capture what he regarded as a moment that might just be able to hold some kind of significance.  He sort of wound up with more than he bargained for.  Dylan is very much a part of that earlier documentary, however, it was never the intention of Lerner and his crew to make him the main subject.  Instead of being the main focus, Dylan winds up sharing stage and screen time with a host of folk singers, groups, and acts, the majority of which have probably faded from living memory.  That's a shame when you think about it, as some of them, like Mississippi John Hurd and Pete Seeger, deserve a great deal of recognition in their own right.  Other acts, such as Peter, Paul, and Mary still have some remaining fans scattered here and there.  The funny thing about Festival is how time has reshaped its own notoriety.  Since Dylan is one of the few cast members to remain in the public awareness, that means anyone approaching what was then Lerner's second film will often find themselves chafing in their seats, waiting for the documentary to get to the main event.

It's the sort of irony that I don't think anyone can ever say they really intended.  Instead, it seems to be a quirk of history.  The film becomes less a documentary about the Newport Folk Festival, and more a snapshot of historical curios, and one superstar.  It's less about the titular festival itself, and what it was trying to achieve, and instead is more viewed as like that one time Dylan had a run in with a bunch of old folkies, and they booed him off-stage for some reason.  The documentary has in effect become something Lerner never intended to make, and yet it still remains the lens through which the popular majority views it.  If it's the blame game folks are interested in, then I won't play.  The exercise isn't just pointless, it's also probably out of date.  This has the effect of rendering any sense of recrimination and backlash both too little, and too late.  All I can do is bring together some background materials that will help the reader gain a better sense of the actual content in the images they will see on-screen if they ever decide to give The Other Side of the Mirror a look.

The story really begins with the Newport Festival itself.  It was the brainchild of George Wein, an early independent musical entrepreneur and producer.  He got his interest in arranging and sponsoring live concerts from his exposure to African American Jazz as a young boy growing up in a liberal household of Jewish parents.  Wein's first big break was the Newport Jazz Festival, the precursor to the later Folk Revival venue.  The Jazz concerts were somewhat groundbreaking for their time, as one of the earlier festival's stipulations was that no color lines were allowed, making Wein one of the first white practitioners of racial integration in America.  The Jazz venue was a big success, and a continuing course of seeking out and absorbing offerings from other musical genres led Wein to an interest in Folk Music.  It didn't take long for him to see a similar potential for the acoustic ballads of the American landscape.  In particular, the Newport Folk venue allowed for the discovery of new talent, as well as a voice for the old forgotten blues singers of the 1920s, and even further back to the late 1800s.

Lerner's second film about the festival starts in 1963.  The whole thing begins in medias res, with a handful of familiar faces up on stage, getting ready to sing their first numbers.  Lerner never gives the viewer any more than what is happening up on the stage, with a few reaction shots of the audience scattered about.  I suppose there's nothing to complain about this, in the strictest sense.  The film has a limited goal, and it sets out to accomplish this with a skilled sense of brevity.  I just wonder if the audience isn't being sold a bit short from one angle in particular.  There's no real problem with Lerner's footage as it stands.  In particular, as the film goes on, the need for context becomes less and less, the story being told in the footage more than able to stand on its own.  It's just during the movie's first opening segment that I think some insight into how one player in particular wound up on-stage that day which could have helped grant the viewer a better appreciation of what was being shown.

The way that one singer got up on Newport stage for the first time in 1963 happened like this.  It really all came about because of Wein's growing association with the Civil Rights Movement.  A number of organizers for the Movement formed themselves into a group known as the Freedom Singers.  They came to Wein with the request to be allowed to perform at Newport.  Wein was up for the idea immediately.  The Singers then asked him if they could bring some of their friends along to enjoy the concert?  Wein agreed once more.  What made him eager to accept the second request was his constant ear to the ground, keeping a sharp watch out for upcoming talent that could lend their song to the Festival.  What wound up happening was that Wein and the Freedom Singers decided to make their concert debut into an actual Civil Rights march.  They gathered up their allies, which included a lot of the audience members, and they marched through the town straight into the festival grounds.  The Freedom Singers led the way, tagged along by a friend of theirs, Joan Baez.  She in turn had allowed one of her friends, a young protege named Robert "Dylan" Zimmerman, of Duluth Minnesota, to join in (web).

As difficult as it is to believe now, there was a time when people seemed to think that it was Baez, rather than Dylan who was the main draw on the folk music scene.  Whether that's true or not as far as the musical sub-genre itself goes, I don't know.  I'm not even sure that it matters all that much any more.  The important point is that it was at this particular Newport concert where I think Dylan might have gotten his first real, massive big break.  He had his make already in the record business with his first self-titled album.  By the time of that first Newport performance, however, he was still just that kid who'd released The Free-Wheelin Bob Dylan.  He literally had nothing else to his name at the time.  It made his initial appearance before the Newport audience something of a big public break.  He'd been in concerts before this.  However, this one might have marked the singer's first real important moment of public notice.

Because he was still such a relative newcomer at the time, the first initial introduction we are given to him turns out to be something of a minor revelation.  The figure that greets the viewer for the first time in the middle of an afternoon Festival workshop definitely looks familiar.  There's just one catch.  It's not Dylan.  This isn't the familiar image the world has long since grown accustomed to.  This is no ragged, mystical troubadour peering out in a mysterious manner at the viewer from the sleeves of future record, like some dime store oracle that might be willing to tell all his secrets in weird, illuminated, musical code.  None of that is on display in the opening segment of Lerner's film.  All we've got is just this shy, awkward, nervous looking kid in bluejeans from the northern Mid-West, hunched over his guitar, somewhat out of his depth, and looking not quite sure just what he's supposed to do next.  One of the few words people tend to associate with Dylan is a term like "fresh-faced".  It's definitely not the word to describe him now.  These days he's more like a desert outlaw looking back on years of hard and glorious living.  It is still the best description that fits the youngster on-screen way back in 63, however.

This guy has none of Dylan's professional mannerisms  He doesn't carry himself in quite the same way.  He hesitates a bit too much, for one thing.  Sometimes he doesn't have all he needs in order to perform for the concert goers.  This gives him a constant, open-faced, apologetic air as he turns round in front of a live crowd to ask one of the elder folk singers behind him for guitar pick.  Also he keeps stumbling over his own words as he tries to introduce the first number in his set to the audience.  "This here's a song about iron ore mines", Dylan informs us.  It is one of barest statements ever made in showbiz history.  It shouldn't take more than seven to ten seconds to deliver and get the point across.  Dylan, meanwhile, appears to struggle to find the right words needed to string the whole sentence together.  On another occasion, Baez has joined him on-stage, and the  young man from Duluth has to keep turning to her for advice.  "We'll do, uh, yeah, you know, umm", is how he starts his next introduction, all while having trouble getting comfortable in his own seat at the table.  In these moments he comes across as nothing less than a very unseasoned Elvis Presley imitation.  

To top all of it off, Dylan finishes his rather labored introductions by declaring of the song that "It tells a story", he chuckles, with an actual nerdy smile on his face, "if you like stories".  He then strikes a chord, pauses, it's not what he's looking for apparently.  He tries another chord.  Still wrong.  He starts to fidget with his guitar, trying to tighten the strings into the right key.  An awkward, yet indulgent silence has descended on the crowd.  A few faint, encouraging chuckles can be heard.  The look on Baez's face pretty much sums up the moment.  Meanwhile, Dylan is still looking for the right chords.  "Well", is all he can think the tell anyone.  "Maybe it doesn't do anything," Baez quips, coming to his rescue.  "Maybe it doesn't tell a story", Dylan agrees, much to everyone's amusement.  This then is probably how the majority public made its first acquaintance with "The Voice of a Generation". 

It isn't until Dylan starts to play that you begin to see a difference.  The singer himself may have been very young at this stage, yet already the voice was familiar.  It's the same alternative melodic drawl, somewhere between singing and speaking, that emerges every time Dylan begins a song.  His first number, the one about iron mines, is a now little known number of his own composition.  It's called "North Country Blues", and its detailing of the collapse of a small town seems to carry the sort of macabre resonance that would later inspire an author like Stephen King to use it as one of the epigraphs for his later novel of Salem's Lot.  Both the song and the novel seem to speak of a kind of primal, vital spirit that is slowly being drained from the land, leaving everything corrupt and desolate.  It's in these moments that the audience begins to catch the first faint glimmerings of the kind of musician Dylan would (and has) become.

By and large, however, what becomes pretty clear is that while the 1963 Newport Festival really did amount to the Tambourine Man's big break, he was still not the focal point of the evening.  That focus remained firmly (and rightly) fixed on the issue of Civil Rights.  In his first big appearance, Dylan's material tends to stick mainly to the more topical side of his repertoire.  Included are such era centric numbers as "Talkin' World War III Blues", "Only a Pawn in Their Game", and "With God on Our Side".  This latter number appears to have been performed twice, once during a morning workshop, and again later, on what is presumably that same night.  Lerner sometimes likes to eschew chronology in film's like Festival.  He seems to want not so much to detach his subjects from their history, but rather to find ways of presenting them as representatives of a series of timeless moments.  The filmmaker is thus able to try and grant his subjects a certain amount of immortality.  Here in The Other Side of the Mirror, Lerner seems more content to stick with a clear chronology.  It's what's needed for the kind of story this particular documentary has to tell, namely the growth of both the artist and his art.

The 63 footage concludes with Dylan on-stage at night, asking all of is fellow performers up to join him for one final, collective closing number.  These include Baez, Pete Seeger, the Freedom Singers, and Peter, Paul, and Mary.  While the night was very much in honor of the Freedom Singers and their cause, what sticks out is who the crowd cheers for the most.  What's remarkable is that Dylan does not receive the biggest ovation.  That's a right that the audience prefers to confer on Baez and Pete Yarrow's gang.  It's one of those interesting tell-tale clues of history.  Dylan might have been on the make at this particular concert, though he was still not, at that point, a name in his own right.  Either way, everyone closes with a group recital of "Blowin' in the Wind" with Dylan leading at the main mic.  It's a moment the singer is able to make his own, yet he does it to highlight the cause for which that night's concert is in service of.  Still, it's one of those beginnings that tend to start things that are not easily stopped once they get going.  After that night, Dylan's career path began to take shape in a serious way.


This can sort of be gleaned from taking a quick look into the type of audience he is performing for.  That first crowd at Newport 63 stands out as both a type and contrast.  In it can be seen a lot of the young, fresh faces that would go on from there to places like Woodstock, however what's notable about them is the way they almost have to fight for space with a lot of older, Eisenhower and Roosevelt era individuals, men and women who are much older than them.  It probably takes a beat or two for some of us to realize that we might be looking at a somewhat rare sight for that decade.  Here could be an example of both kids and parents coming together to enjoy an evening of talent from the new musical scene.  However it's the very fact that the older still tend to outrank the young that sends a clear, if unintentional message.  This evening also belongs in part to an older type of concert goer, ones that represent the generation just past.  A good example of this can be found in the occasional on-screen presence of Pete Seeger, a man who fought in World War II, and by 63 had a great deal of seniority over both Dylan and Baez.  It was men like him that set the expectations for the evening, and the faces in the crowd reflect that.

The one that stands out to me the most, however, belongs to a middle aged woman in a light brown, cream overcoat that stretches all the way to her ankles.  She's wearing a modest dress, tasteful enough for a social gathering like this, yet nothing fancy.  On her curly-haired head she wears an early set of Ray-Ban sunglasses to cut out the glare, with a polka-dotted babushka tied round her neck.  The entire image itself is more or less a living cliche.  Here we have a proud representative the previous decade.  When someone like that comes to a gathering like Newport, she expect everything to be "just so", no more, no less.  Any deviation, no matter how minor, is cause enough for a scandal in her mind's eye.  She stands to my thinking as a kind of symbol for what a lot of the people at the festival believed would be the hoped-for future of the music scene, something that managed to find a balance between the old and the new.  The kids meanwhile, all tend to dress like a bunch of college freshman.  You'll swear if you scan the crowd hard enough, you're likely to find Benjamin Braddock somewhere in among them.

It's a closer look at faces like these that provide a decent snapshot of where a lot of the participants of the 60s were at that moment in time.  A lot of the older artists seemed to be laboring under the idea that they could assume control of what was about to happen.  They seemed able enough to sense changes coming in the air, and to their credit, they really did sympathize with a lot of it.  It's not a question of sincerity, or a lack thereof.  Instead, I think that not the fault, so much as the shortsightedness lies elsewhere.  Perhaps the biggest mistake of Wein and a lot of other Newport allies was in assuming they could find a way to lead this particular charge.  A great part of their error seems to have lain in a fundamental misreading of their circumstances.  They weren't mistaken about the Civil Rights Movement in and of itself.  It's more that some of the Folk purists couldn't quite seem to wrap their heads around the particular direction the whole thing was heading in.  This blinded them to the genuine contributions made to the Movement in places like Motown, or Stax Records.

This may sound crazy, yet it really does seem as if a lot of the missteps at Newport came from a lack of artistic insight.  It was an aesthetic blind spot that limited their ability to see where the majority of African-American music was heading, and how this in turn was heading in the same direction as the rest of the student protests of that decade.  It has to be nothing less than one of the great musical ironies of history.  The rest, however, remains the same.  Because they couldn't tell where things were headed, Wein and the Newport organizers soon found themselves in the unenviable position of misreading the main narrative of the times.  In practical terms, this meant that a lot of their audience began to show the sort of changes in their outlook and style that some of the older crowd just remained a bit short-sighted towards.  They also didn't seem aware that Dylan was one singer in particular who took a great deal of his inspiration from the continuing evolution of African-American popular music, and he kept his eye on the pulse of the Movement better than Wein or a lot of others did.  The first real signs of this sea-change begin to make themselves known to Lerner's camera by the very next year of 1964.

By the time we reach Dylan's next outing at Newport, it's clear that Sam Cooke's changes have finally come, and the direction things are taking can still be seen reflected in the crowd.  This time the faces tend to shift a lot more toward the younger crowd.  You begin to see a lot less kids dressed in college prep material.  Instead the fields are now occupied by teenagers in less formal attire, such as sweaters, t-shirts, bluejeans, and sandals.  The hair of the audience shows the first signs of growing just a bit longer.  More than that, there are a lot more specks of brown amidst the sea of white, and a lot of the music on-stage reflects that.  Most of the old timers have been relegated to managerial positions.  We're beginning to see a lot of younger faces occupying the stage.  More than any of these things, there is Dylan's own music.  You can hear it in the kind of lyrics he delivers while the spotlight is on him.  

This is our first taste of the singer most of us are familiar with by now.  The songs are no longer just simple anthems of protest.  They've become gnomic utterances that often leave some, if maybe not all of the interpretation up to the listener.  His first number out of the gate in 1964 is "Tambourine Man", for instance.  This is followed up with "It Ain't Me, Babe", and "Chimes of Freedom".  The single holdover from 1963 on display is the aforementioned "With God on Our Side".  Even then, while perhaps its a mistake to call it an after thought, or something just tossed off as a kind of sop to the crowd, it's clear to the viewer that Dylan's technique and inspirations are expanding right in front of the camera, and Lerner is there to capture it all in real time.  It happens over the course of a single day.  Bob makes his first appearance at a daytime workshop.  The next time the cameras pick him up, its on the main stage of the same venue, later that night.  Before he even comes on, however, Dylan seems to be leaving a bigger impact on the concert than during his first appearance.  His musical DNA is starting to seep into the other acts.  First up is Johnny Cash, who provides his own rendition of "It Ain't Me", followed by Zimmerman's former partner declaring, "I tell you what I'll do.  I'll do Bobby Dylan singing Joan Baez, okay"?  Both amount to a series of tell-tale signs of what's ahead.

In addition, there are the visible changes apparent in the singer himself.  The Dylan we meet in 64 looks and sounds a lot more familiar to us.  He's not hanging back, or disinterested.  Instead, it's more a matter of the visible sense of growing confidence in himself that he's able to project for the audience.  Gone is the awkward hayseed quality of his initial debut.  This young man is a lot more "street", is that makes any sense.  He's started to learn a bit more on how to carry himself in front of others.  He's not as shy anymore, and not once does he ever seem to stumble or stutter.  Instead, whenever he decides to speak up, his spoken words are often quick and to the point.  He's figured out how to communicate with the crowd in a way that works for both of them.  Part of it has to do with the evolving sense of mystique he is able to lend to his act.  By always telling the audience just enough information to get their interest, and then withholding the rest while hinting that there's always more to know, Dylan has begun to cement his status as an artist in these few brief snippets of film.

The results seem to be paying off for him in ways the Festival itself is having trouble dealing with.  It is possible that this is making some of his fellow compatriots uncomfortable.  In an interview shown earlier in the day, Baez brings up the subject of idolatry.  "I don't think it hurts anybody", she hazards as a guess.  "I don't think it hurts those kids, what they're doing.  The fact that they ask for things like "We Shall Overcome".  They know what it's about, most of them.  The ones who ask know what it's about.  And I think that's wonderful".  The camera pans across the first signs of kids wearing beards and the sort of jackets popularized by both hipsters and Nam vets.  Baez admits she thinks its important for such kids to find an alternative to the life they've been given.  Her words sound casual and easy going, yet there's an undercurrent of nervousness to it all.  She can sense some kind of change in the air, and Dylan appears to be somewhere at the center of it all.  She, meanwhile, seems in danger of being left behind.  It shouldn't come as that much of a surprise to anyone if this moment of cultural transfiguration leaves her feeling more than a bit uneasy.  It proved as monumental as it was unavoidable.

Part of it is on display not just by the changing look of the crowd, but also the way they react to Dylan himself.  He caps the night off with a decent rendition of "Chimes", and then starts to head off stage to thunderous applause.  The sound of the crowd is almost defining, to the point where Peter Yarrow, that evening's MC is visibly having trouble trying to get anyone to calm down and listen to him.  They won't even let the poor guy try and bring the next act up on-stage.  Dylan wasn't even supposed to be that evening's finale, and yet the crowd is relentless, slowly taking control of the situation through nothing more than popular demand.  Finally, Yarrow relents, and a very bemused and Laughing Dylan walks back on-stage to try to get everyone to just chill out.  That, believe it or not, is the moment Lerner decides to call cut on the whole action.  It can seem abrupt, yet perhaps he realized it was the right moment to go out on, when a generation voices its opinion in cementing the new sound of their decade right in front of one of Rock's key ambassadors.  This leads everything right into the story's final chapter.


Right off the bat, you can see how much difference two years can make in the life of a single artist (except for when it doesn't).  We open once more on a daytime performance.  We can hear Yarrow just off camera, and his words are telling.  While the stage is Dylan's for the moment, practical necessities mean the Festival now has to treat him as a special case.  "After Bobby is over," Yarrow informs the crowd (and by extension, us), "there won't even be any closing remarks, or anything.  Just split, as fast as you can".  Yarrow's tone here is more decisive and authoritative than it was this same time last year.  He's at least one Festival representative that's sort of grown hip to how things are shaping up.  The result is a show-runner who is less of the informal and easy-going George Wein, and a lot more of the seasoned, professional, Bill Grahame type.  That can mean just a small handful of things.  The biggest implication is just this.  The nature of the Newport Festival itself is changing.  It's reflected in the crowd, who now looks as if they are well on their way to Monterey Pop, and from there onto a simple stretch of land on a farm owned by some guy named Max Yasgur.

George Wein's little side project is no longer the major generational trendsetter it was designed to be.  It has not been able to lead the Movement, instead, it has become merely an aspect of the 60s itself, and is now in the process of being dragged into a much larger than context than its creators were able to envision when they got started.  The biggest signal of this, as always, remains Dylan himself.  His opening workshop numbers of "If You Got To Go", and "Love Minus Zero", are welcome opening appetizers.  In fact, if I'm being honest, Lerner's film has got to be the first time I was ever exposed to the latter song, and I can't say there's anything to regret about that.  It's what happens after that set, however, that shows just what kind of changes are going on with the whole scene.  After the morning's workshop, the camera cuts to what looks more like the aftermath of a Beatles concert, more than a folk festival.  The crowds have the singer surrounded in his car, chanting "More-more".  Their intended target just sits there in his vehicle, not really sure whether to notice that the latter half of Dick and Jane keeps knocking on the rear windshield behind him.  "Where are all my friends?" he asks us.

The whole change of scene must have fascinated Lerner to no small degree, because the sequence involves the  director taking his camera out into the crowds to gauge their reactions.  There's not doubt the number of people flocking to Zimmerman after that first performance speaks pretty much for itself.  However, Lerner does manage to dig up a few supposed holdouts in the audience.  "People start to idolize these artists, you know?" one kids tell the director.  "And when that happens, you know, like Dylan yesterday.  Everybody comes over, just masses of them, and they all just sit there, thinking "It's Bob Dylan!"  Another one asks, point blank, "Who needs him anymore?  I mean he's accepted, he's part of your establishment and, forget him".  This is the last time we will ever see the camera taken out into the audience.  After that, the lens remains focused on the singer and the music.  There might be a bit more to say about these contemporary opinions later on.  Right now, these are all still just the final movements of a kind of informal, extended, three year prelude.  Now it's time for the main event.

By the time the singer walks up the stage for what will turn out to be his last performance there for quite a while, he is no longer the gawky teenager from Minnesota.  Gone is tow-headed little Bobby Zimmerman.  The figure that makes his way up to the mic is now and forever Dylan.  The next set he's about to play is going to be cited by future scholars as a moment that changed the course of American musical history.  There's an interesting bit of backstory to it, however.  It seems the whole legendary electric set was the result, answer, or response to a moment or slight of musical snobbery.  "According to Jonathan Taplin, a roadie at Newport (and later a road manager for the acts of Dylan's manager Albert Grossman), Dylan made a spontaneous decision on Saturday that he would challenge the Festival by performing with a fully amplified band the following evening. Taplin said that Dylan had been irritated by what he considered condescending remarks which festival organizer Alan Lomax had made about the Paul Butterfield Blues Band when Lomax introduced them for an earlier set at a festival workshop.  Dylan's attitude, according to Taplin, was, "Well, fuck them if they think they can keep electricity out of here, I'll do it. On a whim, he said he wanted to play electric."  Dylan assembled a band and rehearsed that night at a mansion being used by festival organizer George Wein (web)".

I guess it proves little except for how some people wind up making a difference in ways they can't be bothered to stop and think over.  If that's the case, then the whole thing is a semi-cautionary tale about learning how to read the room.  Either way, a die was cast, and Dylan took the stage that night in 1965 with Michael Bloomfield on guitar, and future Rock Bottom Remainder Al Kooper on electric keyboard.  What happened next seems to have gone down as more or less the stuff of legend.  A bare bones description of the event makes it sound almost anti-climatic.  All Dylan and his band do in Lerner's film is launch right into what I still can't help regard as the best permanent version of "Maggie's Farm" that I've ever heard.  It's a real improvement over the somewhat plodding and dolorous album version.  On a record, it comes off sounding sluggish, and tired.  To be fair, that might have been Dylan's whole point.  He might have been trying to convey the state of mind of a workman, maybe even a Southern Slave, whose life of servitude has pushed him to the breaking point.

If that's the case, then I can't blame the songwriter for getting his original point across.  For whatever reason, however, most of it to do with the sense of sheer excitement contained in the performance, it's always the Newport version that I find myself coming back to whenever I think of Maggie and her farmstead.  What Lerner is able to pick up on the soundtrack is a driving back beat that manages the skill of being swift and steady all at once.  This helps provide just the right anchor for the guitar riffs of Dylan and Bloomfield, and the singer's vocal performance is an example of Bob in his prime.  Here is the 60s troubadour of legend, belting out his lyrics with all the power and ambition that have since made him a household name.  This time the protagonist of the song isn't just fed up.  He's mad as hell, and not going to take it anymore.  It's a mood that the all the musicians are able to convey with an enthusiasm that proves infectious.  You find yourself wanting to tap or stomp your foot as the band rips into it.

I'm not sure how much time passes after that.  I don't notice any jump cuts, although that could just be a testament the skill of Lerner's editing department.  Whatever the truth is, the next song we pick up on is the final electric number Dylan performed that night, and it's a rendition of "Like a Rolling Stone" that does credit to both the song and its lyricist.  That must have been all Dylan had in mind, for once "Stone" is over, we see him sling the guitar off his shoulders as the band removes their equipment, then both of them head off-stage.  I haven't gotten to the reaction of the audience yet, though it's what plays a key role in what happens next.  Lerner and the Festival producers had mics set up at various points throughout the fair grounds.  That means depending on which soundtrack source you listen to, the audience is either audible, or drowned out while the music is playing.  In both versions, however, Dylan comes through plain as day.  The difference is that on some tracks, you can hear the crowd voice their opinion just a second or two after Dylan  begins the first verse of Maggie's Farm.

That's not the choice Lerner went with, and for good reason, he wanted to give the audience as clean a concert experience as his footage and recordings would allow.  So instead, it's pretty clear the director opted for using the sound from mics that were closer to Dylan and the band, and further away from the audience.  As a result, we don't get to hear their thoughts on the matter, as Dylan is allowed to have his own voice heard in full.  Martin Scorsese, however, made the very deliberate choice of going with a soundtrack that picked up the crowd reactions as the first electric number began.  It's included as one of the set pieces in the latter's PBS biography of Dylan, No Direction Home.  My advice is to first allow yourself to enjoy the performance uninterrupted on Lerner's documentary, and then go back and take in the same event from the viewpoint of the audience, as provided by Scorsese.  The results really do turn out to be eye-opening.  There you get to witness one of the best performances in the history of music, and its being shouted down at by a field full of pissed of folkies.  The result is a contrast that is both iconic and somewhat pointless at the same time.

Conclusion: An Important Record of Musical Change.

Looking back on it now,  I'm sort of puzzled that anyone could even bother about such a musical choice.  At the same time, I almost want to say it's kind of possible to see where others in this whole affair were coming from.  I can't say I agree with them.  However, it is possible to gain a sense of their motives.  As I said above, it has to do with the belief of the Festival owners, and a lot of other folkies.  They genuinely seemed to believe they had their finger on the correct pulse of the times, and that they could control it.  That in and of itself isn't the biggest deal, however.  What sort of compounds their mistake, and makes their hostile reaction to Dylan's performance something more of a downer than it had to be is that some unspoken level of possessiveness got involved somewhere along the way.  Wein and others could see how the musical tastes of their audience were taking shape right before their eyes, and its like they couldn't accept the very movement they were apart of.  Instead it's like they dug in their heels and refused to take a good look at what it all meant, and that's the part that I find troubling about the hisses and catcalls that greet Dylan as he strikes that first electric chord in public.

It really does seem as if the anti-electric members of the audience are determined to try and take back control of the situation.  After Dylan finishes his set, the jeers can be heard trying to drown out the genuine applause and excitement.  There must have been some unseen drama playing out backstage as well, as it turns out the evening doesn't quite go as planned.  Once more, out comes poor, long-suffering Peter Yarrow again.  From the look on his face, he seems pulled in two directions.  He kind of dug what Bob just did, at the same time, it's causing him a minor, albeit genuine form of headache.  From where he's standing, the idea of being a fry-cook somewhere on the planet Venus probably doesn't sound so bad right about then.  Either way the audience can't be bothered with what either he or Dylan might think or want at the moment.  They've got other ideas crowding out all other thoughts in their minds.  One half is all but demanding a public apology for what they've just heard.  All the other half can think about can be reduced to just one word: "Encore".  After barely a minute of trying to contain the dividing peanut gallery, Yarrow is spared once more when Dylan takes the stage and performs two final acoustic numbers.

I can't hep thinking that his final two choices for that night were made with a pretty clear intent.  His big send off is the telling "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue".  The song is making two important meanings in the context within which it is performed.  The first is to signal everybody that the show is over, it's time for everyone to go home and get a good night's sleep.  The second, however, turns out to be a bit more pointed, and permanent.  I fully believe that what the viewer is looking at is Dylan signaling his farewell to the particular musical venue, if maybe not the genre, that helped give him his first big level of public awareness.  The whole thing can viewed as either petty or justified, depending on how you choose to look at it.  For me, what makes it significant is that I'm not sure this was an isolated incident.  To me, it helps to see at this moment in time as just one part of a much larger trend.  The social upheaval of the 60s was starting to coalesce, and take its final determining shape, and that made Dylan just one out of a large swath of artists and performers who knew they had to change their style to match the times.  It was a shift that most were on board with, except for a few holdouts.

I'm not sure what could have made a segment of the Newport crowd want to try and dig in their heels like that.  It all amounts to tilting at so many windmills, or like shooting at a non-existent target.  The exercise is so damn pointless that it's wonder anyone even bothered to try.  I'm not at all convinced that the negative reactions to Dylan's first, public electric set were based on much of any kind of objective judgment.  If that were the case, then the reactions would have been a lot more measured and cautious.  Some may have admitted that it's not quite the kind of sound they're into, however, there's not doubt talent was involved, and perhaps it will amount to something in its own right.  That, at least, is a gives you a good idea of what a responsible reaction to Newport's first Rock concert would, could, or should have been like.  Instead, one of the great stories of that night is that Pete Seeger threatened to chop the cables to the Festival's sound system with an ax.  There's a kind of irrationality there which I just find troubling.  It's the kind of thing you can wrack your brains for years trying to figure out.

The good news is Lerner was more interested in the music itself.  He seems to have known better than to get involved with any sort of petty personal squabbles.  He's a director who always knows what his job is and sticks to it.  In his case, it meant being on hand at the right place and time to capture a moment that in retrospect turns out to be kind of priceless.  He and his crew were there to capture the molding and making of both an artist, as well as the maturation of a modern American art form.  If this makes the film sound pretentious, then the fault is all mine.  The film never comes off as dull to me.  On the contrary, it's one of those heightened slices of life where you can sense something palpable in the air.  You can tell just by looking that big things are happening right before your eyes, even if you can't quite put a name to it.  The curious part is how that just manages to add to the charm of things, somehow.  You're left with the impression that you might have just witnessed something special.  This is all down of course to not just one, but two talents involved.  I think we have not just Bob Dylan, but also the efforts of Murray Lerner himself to thank for making The Other Side of the Mirror an important and essential piece of captured history.  It's one that's meant to be enjoyed. 


  1. (1) I've seen this, but not in many years. I remember it being fascinating, though; granted, I'm fascinated by Dylan, especially in his early years. I think you captured it pretty well in your opening; very evocative, well done! (And throughout, really.)

    (2) I don't know as much about Baez as I do about Dylan, and indeed most of what I do know I know mainly because of the overlap in their stories. But yeah, she was definitely one of the people who was vastly more prominent than Dylan at the outset of his career, only to then be almost totally eclipsed by him in the popular culture. Baez fared better than Dave Van Ronk, though, so she's got that going for her. Also, she was a stone-cold fox. That rarely hurts.

    (3) "North Country Blues" rules. I'd forgotten King used it in "Salem's Lot." (Just a single line, and a powerful one.) In case you've never heard it, here's Baez's version, which is gorgeous: I think I actually prefer it to Dylan's. Hers is maybe a bit too formal; Dylan's roughness is very appealing. But her voice is so lovely that I think it really makes this one sink in.

    (4) The importance of the Civil Rights movement to folk music of this era, and vice versa, is really quite fascinating. Is there any modern equivalent? My knee-jerk reaction is to assume there isn't, but there must be. At any rate, it's pretty wild to see a stage full of literal social-justice warriors, swinging their metaphorical swords over their heads mightily. Did it work? Well, it didn't NOT work, that's for sure. Beyond that, who can say?

    At the same time, it's easy to see why a guy like Dylan would have eventually begged off from that, feeling that it was perhaps a bit beyond him to constrain himself purely to that form of expression. Easy to see why that devastated so many people, too. I empathize with everyone in this scenario, which in and of itself is kind of an interesting reaction given the subject at hand.

    (5) Regarding the mixed-age crowd of the '63 festival, I'd be curious to know how much of a country-music audience Newport attracted. Country was obviously prone to attract an older and more conservative audience, so there may have been genuine culture-clash happening here. (By the way, given your interest in the sixties, I highly recommend to you the Ken Burns documentary "Country Music." It's incredible. Only part of it deals with the sixties, of course, but it does so in a terrific manner.)

    (6) "You'll swear if you scan the crowd hard enough, you're likely to find Benjamin Braddock somewhere in among them." -- lol

    True, though.

    (7) Isn't it wild to consider that things can change as much as they changed between 1963 and 1964? A year doesn't seem like a particularly long time in some ways; but in other ways, it's an eternity.

    (8) Cash's version of "It Ain't Me Babe" is terrific. So is Baez's, though I prefer Dylan's to both. Want to hear that song in a haunting manner? Listen to both the Dylan and the Baez versions and pretend -- you may not even have to, it may have been true -- that they are both singing about each other. Chills down the spine, boy.

    (9) "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" is another of the Dylan songs where I prefer the Baez cover.

    (10) "future Rock Bottom Remainder Al Kooper" -- LOL

  2. (11) That version of "Maggie's Farm" is like pure thunder. I'm not a huge fan of that song in general (I agree with your assessment of how it sounds on record), but this version of it is something else. It's practically the birth of punk music; not really, but the attitude is certainly there, and maybe more than a bit of the intent as well.

    (12) Regarding "Like a Rolling Stone," I will never prefer ANY version of that to the studio one, which is literally perfect. However, that one in "No Direction Home" comes close. You see riveting concert footage, including Dylan commanding the band right before they play this song. His command? "PLAY FUCKING LOUD." And they do. Glorious.

    (13) "It really does seem as if the anti-electric members of the audience are determined to try and take back control of the situation." -- It's (here's that word again) fascinating stuff. There are plenty of other times when a musical artist struck out in a direction their audience perhaps was not universally interested in, of course, but I'm not aware of there being *that* many others where there is such an intersection between that and factors impacting broader society. There was a point of view -- and a not insubstantial one -- in which Dylan's music would have been seen as merely a subset of his activism. That it never actually was that in full didn't matter then; it matters now, but even now, it only matters on, like, a half-and-half level. Again, I kind of feel for everyone in this scenario. Somebody should make a multi-season television series about Dylan, man; that's got "Mad Men" level potential.

    (14) Lordy, I forgot he closed his encore with "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." That, as the younguns say, was a baller move.

    (15) "The good news is Lerner was more interested in the music itself. He seems to have known better than to get involved with any sort of petty personal squabbles. He's a director who always knows what his job is and sticks to it." -- Well observed. This was a fantastic post, Chris!

    1. (2) By the way, for the record, yes I am aware of the perfect Ronk points out about Dylan and the Animals. Thanks Martin Scorsese!

      (3) Now that is an interesting version. You might be right about this being the better version. That's interesting because so far, with one exception, what I've heard from her left me less than impressed. I think a lot of it has to do with the way she sometimes lets her voice drag on in a warble. Just not my thing, I guess.

      Which makes this all the more of a pleasant surprise.

      (4, 5) I tend to think that, on the whole, the protestors of the 60s come off as somehow a lot smarter or shrewder than what's happening now. Then again, mass media wasn't as a digitized as it is now, so maybe they just had that in their favor.

      That said, even Seeger got in on the same bus as the rest of them, even going so far as to have an iconic appearance on the Smothers Brothers Show. Thanks for the heads up on the Burns doc!

      (7) Guess it all depends on how much shit is going down. Mat no one have to live in interesting times.

      (8) If you want to here the wackiest, total goober version out there, listen to the cover by the Turtles (the "So Happy Together" group).

      (10) History is full of ironies for some. Could have been worse. I could have brought up the future singer songwriter of "Baby, Can You Dig Your Man".

    2. (11) That's got to be the something-gillionth time I've heard it describe as one of the first Punk moments. I'm not as big a listener to that genre, so I'm afraid I can't comment either way.

      I'll just say maybe everyone's onto something and just leave it at that.

      (12) I'll admit I can't find any version that tops the record, although maybe his duet performance with Tom Petty comes close for me. That "No Direction Home" footage really is eye-opening, though.

      (13) I don't think Dylan was never not invested in a lot of the struggles of that decade. It's just that I think he was more aware of the broader picture than the Newport crowd. By then, he was already hanging out with guys like the Beatles, after all. He also seems to have realized that ideology tends to just get in the way or morality, more often than not.

      (14) Either that, or a covert middle-finger.

      (15) Really the main catalyst for this whole thing was just being lucky enough to notice what was happening on-stage in the footage, and realizing the story that was being told.

      That's really where my strengths lie, anyway. I said before I'm no music critic, and this kind of proves it. I offer only a handful of insights, at best. What makes it work at all is that I never managed to overstay my welcome on that score.


    3. (3) I love her voice; don't always love the way she uses it. She makes for an interesting contrast in that way with Dylan, who has (and always had) a terrible voice, but knows (and always knew!) how to use it.

      (8) I know I've heard that, but I can't remember whether I like it or not.

      (10) I almost brought it up myself! (Weirdo that I am, I still wish somebody would discover a full-length version of it and put it out. I kind of ... dig that song.)

      (11) Yeah, it's definitely a well-worn observation. I almost certainly stole it from someone way smarter than me, but I'll be dang if I can remember who.

      (12) I need to buy a copy of that movie. It's pure gold, start to finish. Amazingly, I still have not seen the one Scorsese did on the Rolling Thunder tour.

      (13) Good point.

      (14) Oh, it's both; it's a middle finger most of the people in that audience would not have realized for the flying bird it was.

      (15) Well, Dylan's songs were often about telling a story, so I'm not sure being a music critic is necessary. I think you did fine, either way.

    4. (3) Maybe that does sum up Baez. As for Dylan, what can one say, he makes what should a be a contradiction somehow turn out right. Talent is large part of that. Just wish I knew what else it was.

      (10) They say familiarity breeds contempt. If that's the case, I wonder what the opposite effect could be on a piece of lost media like that? Probably solidify it as some kind of underground classic or something.

      For what it's worth, I kind of might know a bit of what you mean about liking a song like that. I have this weird history with songs of that nature. I grew up in the 80s, and yet maybe because I was kid, it took a sweet damn time for me to actually discover Rock and its history.

      By the time I made my way back to the music of my decade, it was kind of a surprise. Not just that it sounded a whole damn lot better than I gave it credit for. It was also just how charmingly antiquated a lot of it come off sound like. It's that typical 80s sound I'm thinking of now, the one everyone likes to rank on, and somehow can never quite get out of the system. I refuse to complain, the fact that it survives all the naysaying must mean they've done something right.

      Besides, if you can't get behind a music video featuring Richard Pryor and Willy Wonka (and what appears to be both Dylan and Larry Fine, the second of the Three Stooges (which is quite a feat considering I didn't even know he was still around back then, which just makes me wonder how come they didn't put him in the movie, that's like a classic missed opportunity) then there's just something wrong with you, no ifs, ands, or arguments:

      (14) It's also a pretty sure thing no one realized the bird was even dropping a load on them at the same time.