NS Internet Column
Bob Dylanís web site is one of the most beautiful I know, and certainly the most efficient. It offers samples from every track he has ever recorded, and a selection of whole songs in delicious live recordings: official bootlegs from every period of his career. On a fast connection, at a quiet time on the web, it delivers wonderful music at the best quality your speakers will allow. But at busy times it sounds like itís being played on a toddlerís cassette recorder, which the child now and again kicks, hard. Bootleg quality, in other words, just like the tapes you could buy in the Portobello market of the "Albert Hall" concert in 1966, when Dylan and the Band first toured with electric instruments.
I got an email from Sony records telling me the concert was about to be released as the Bootleg series, Volume Four on the same day that one of their press officers was telling the New Statesman that she had never heard of it. But then I was a potential customer, and the web is perfect at that kind of marketing. By the time the CD could actually be bought, there were samples of up to a minute and a half of every song, as well as the complete version of "Baby let me follow you down" up there.
This is one of those concerts which solemn people like Greil Marcus regard as the turning points of Western civilisation, even if it did actually take place in Manchester. Thirty years on, it still has the power to transport you to a time when the air was full of hope, change and hallucinogenic powders. The first thing to notice about the recording, even on a really grungy tape, is how very far out if it Dylan sounds. He talks like a man who is gargling with diamonds. Between two songs he tells a long story in a sly, confiding tone where none of the syllables mean anything at all: theyíre just a kind of hip glossolalia until the last moment, when he snaps into English: "If you only just wouldnít *clap* so hard". And they applaud him more, and whistle delightedly.
The whole concert is full of notes of confused aggression like that. Thereís a jangling electricity in the air which ought, canonically, to produce great music. Somehow, it doesnít quite do so. Perhaps it was simply too loud for the musicians to hear themselves. The most successful song is "Ballad of a thin man", whose elliptical sneering lyrics are perfectly suited to the atmosphere, but which is also the quietest of the electric songs: the band is holding back to make room for Dylanís piano, even though this is almost inaudible. But for most of the set, it is hard to tell whether more hostility is coming from the audience or the stage. The final, famous exchange, when someone in the audience shouts "Judas" and Dylan, after a pause, replies "I donít believe you", then after a pause adds "Youíre a liar", has always had a mumble after it. On the CD you can hear the final words: he turns to the band and tells them "play fucking loud."
Some people hear that as an artist demanding his right to forge ahead into an uncharted future, "literally burning himself out, not to please the audience Ö but for the sheer joy of doing it, travelling with intrepid companions out into unknown aesthetic realms, shining lights into unexplored darkness" as the sleevenotes have it. But I just hear the corruption of power: the chance to get up there in front of an audience and be as rude as you like, because the guitar in your hands lets you smash their eardrums in.
The contrast with the acoustic first half of the concert could not be greater. It has not been widely circulated. It is also a perfect gem, which refracts a horrifying light on the more recent songs on the web site, for it shows what his voice was like before his throat was shredded. Both "Visions of Johanna" and "Desolation Row" have an extraordinary fragile delicacy, as if they had been recorded after 24 hours without any sleep, just at that moment when you realise the sun has come up outside while your mind was elsewhere. The electric CD now seems an interesting example of how wrongly history can be written; the acoustic one has real point and originality still.
There is a final irony. The Dylan site, of which the whole point is to sell CDs for Sony, may be a perfectly evolved dinosaur. CDs themselves are threatened by a digital format known as MP3, which takes up a tenth as much space for very little loss of quality. It can be copied as easily as any other sort of computer file, and is small enough to squeeze through phone lines at a reasonable speed. The recording industry is terrified. It certainly might gut their profits completely, and, if it did, there would no longer be any money in the sort of rock star arrogance which is what this concert all along was really prefiguring.
This stuff written and copyright Andrew Brown. If the page looks bad, that's my fault, unless you're using Netscape 4.x. Then it's yours. Upgrade, and do yourself a favour.