Sunday, November 22, 2015
More Cowbell? Me and Dylan, And My First Concert (50 Years Ago)
Many other concerts naturally followed, from Blind Faith to U2 and beyond, many while I served as senior editor at the legendary Crawdaddy. But that first concert remains vivid, and historic, as it was one stop on what many consider the most significant (and craziest) tour ever—Bob Dylan’s first full road trip after going electric.
In 1965, still in high school, I was a huge Dylan fan—I can honestly say that it was his “protest” phase that made me turn left. He had only recently picked up the electric guitar at Newport and hit the top with “Like a Rolling Stone.” I took a really bold step: ordering a pair of tickets for a Dylan show at Kleinhan’s Music Hall in Buffalo in early November. Even more amazing: this would be my first rock concert.
That wasn’t anything to be ashamed of back then. Only a few kids I knew had ever been to shows, usually girls who drove up to Toronto for the Beach Boys. Few bands came to Buffalo, only twenty miles away but another world, with a thick knot of highways and byways to navigate and a then-huge downtown.
I didn’t know what to expect from the concert. This was long before the “rock press” appeared, wire service tour reports were virtually unheard of, and the net, of course, did not exist. No sets lists posted online. All I’d heard was that the show opened acoustic and then went electric—and was causing disturbances everywhere. No idea who was in the backing band.
A Buffalo paper (I still have the clipping) ran a three-paragraph story, with the last two amounting to this: “He has performed at the Lincoln Center and Town Hall, and has made a series of personal appearances in England. Dylan’s music has dropped most of its original overtones of the wandering troubadour. His beat is sharper and heavier and the words are more complex.” This was the state of “rock journalism” back then.
Somehow we made it to the hall. Immediately I was thrown into the freakiest crowd I’d ever encountered, although “freaky” was not yet in the lingo. Most seemed to be from the University of Buffalo, at the time one of the most politically active campuses in the East. Numerous kids had long bushy hair, like Dylan, far scruffier and wilder looking than the British invasion band members. Many girls had devilishly long, straight hair. Some wore political buttons. A few antiwar protesters shouted slogans outside. It was exciting and, for me, exotic.
I still have a stub so I know that my girlfriend and I were in row J of the left-center balcony. Dylan came out alone, with just a stool next to him. It held a change of harmonica, a glass of water and, evidently, some pills that he dipped into from time to time. He’d already been associated with “drugs,” whatever that meant, and I wondered if he was popping illegal substances or just fighting a cold.
The first set was all one could have wished, although I can’t say for sure which songs he played, except that it was weighted toward the newer non-electric ones such as “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” I specifically remember that he played “Desolation Row,” which I loved and which went on forever—not a bad thing in this case. Okay, no controversy so far.
After intermission, spent largely staring at the odd menagerie of counterculture precursors, I settled back in my seat, nervous, no doubt, about the coming reaction. And a large part of the crowd, it turned out, had brought their “A” game. A band came out with Bob—actually The Band, as it turned out, although they were then known as The Hawks (that’s Robbie Robertson on the left and Levon on the right in the photo above, and see here for cool photo of Levon with Band members in 1964). They immediately started playing “fucking loud,” as Dylan famously ordered them when heckled in Great Britain on the same tour.
No idea what the first tune was, but I do know what happened between songs: heckling, pointed cries of “We want Dylan” (the folk one, that is) and “Put down the guitar!”—and the ringing of a cow bell somewhere down the balcony!
Dylan plunged ahead, with more noisy protest, and the cowbell, after the song’s final note. And so it went, although I recall that the cowbell slackened after awhile. Beyond “Like A Rolling Stone” and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” I can’t say for certainty what they played. Since I’d never been to a rock show before, I had no idea what other bands sounded like live, if the sound system was always this crappy, if performers rarely or always spoke to the audience, and how much of an encore, if any, could one expect.But I had to start somewhere, and this was it.
A few weeks later, the heckling and cowbells got too much for Levon Helm, and he left the tour—to work on an oil rig. He was absent when the troupe famously went on to England and were heckled there, too.
Several months later, Dylan released Blonde on Blonde and then stopped touring—after his motorcycle accident, which some still suggest was faked to give him an excuse to give up the rigors, and controversy, of the road. Levon returned, took part in a few of the Basement Tapes sessions, then stayed on as The Hawks became (briefly) The Crackers and then The Band. And after they played their Last Waltz about a decade later—see “Don’t Do It” from that gig—Levon kept on drumming, acting (Coal Miner’s Daughter, among others), singing and rambling.
Or, as the highlight of that 1969 concert in Buffalo, captured below a few months later, put it: “Slippin’ and Slidin.”
is author of a dozen books (click on covers at right), including the new "THE TUNNELS: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill." He was the longtime editor of Editor & Publisher. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @GregMitch