Ryde, Isle of Wight – The Isle of Wight Festival of Music was Bob Dylan's personal possession long before his appearance there. Indeed, before the festival ever began. Not that there weren't plenty of other good reasons for buying a ticket to Ryde – the Who, Joe Cocker, the Band, Richie Havens, Tom Paxton and dozens more.
But this was Dylan's first scheduled public performance in more than three years. It was clearly going to be the Event of the festival, no matter what Dylan had done. On TV, the resemblance to Woodstock was striking – the same traffic clogups, the same hordes trudging afoot toward the pre-hallowed festival turf.
British TV newsmen, as bewildered as their American counterparts had been three weeks earlier, asked some of the 200,000 who came to Ryde why they were there. "Oh, Dylan, it's Dylan," exulted one 16-year-old Manchester girl. "I'm very heavy into Dylan and, oh, if I couldn't be here with him that would end it for me. It's going to be so fah-out!"
The press had caught the scent and had actually tried to get up close to the 29-year-old singer (who reportedly got something around $84,000 for his performance) during the week he spent rehearsing with the Band at the 16th century Forland Farm, at Bembridge. Despite a pair of guards at the boarded-up wrought-iron gates, one reporter, Chris White, of the London Daily Sketch, did get in to talk with Dylan, who told him he'd always wanted to come to the Isle of Wight because it was the home of Alfred Lord Tennyson.
Dylan said he had no thoughts about future engagements after the festval. "We will consider any offers we get," he told the reporter. "But basically we're just having a holiday."
That "holiday," according to guitarist Robbie Robertson of the Band, consisted in almost non-stop jamming. In fact, Dylan's appetite for music-making far exceeded the Band's. "He just likes to play all the time," Robertson said. "We had to say, 'Give us a rest.' We could hardly finish our first album because he wanted to play all the time."
For his part, Dylan said: "It's nice to be working with the Band again. We're just getting in a bit of practice."
The Wednesday prior to the festival, Dylan had given a 20-minute press conference. He turned up in jeans and a white shirt, his hair trimmed comparatively short, his beard a gold-miner's stubble. For his part, Dylan seemed amused and annoyed with the irrelevance of most of the questions on dope and his marriage.
What about the huge expected crowd? "The more the better, I just hope it's a good show." Some new arrangements of Dylan's material had been worked up during the week at Forland Farm, but "everything we will do is on record."
Somebody asked about his change in attire and style. Dylan said his old style was gimmicky and that he no longer needed gimmicks. Another reporter asked whether Dylan had perhaps turned square; does he think of himself as square now? Dylan suggested that this was a question for his fans.
Was there anyone in England that Dylan was eager to meet? "Anyone who is around. I'd like to meet Georgie Fame." What kind of performance could the I.o.W. audience expect? "My job is to play music," he said, evenly, calmly. "I'm just going to take it easy. You've got to take it easy if you're going to do your job well."
What of the Beatles' offer to use their recording facilities. "I'd sure like to, I love the Beatles."
There was some disappointment along Fleet Street that Dylan had not been prophetic, according to their lights. The British press gave Dylan unprecedented coverage during his stay – front page photos, however ill-conceived (there were some beauties), were the rule – and they had hopes that Dylan would fit the mold which had been set for him.
To place the festival in its proper socio-political context, it is worth noting that three times as many came to Ryde as had attended the huge anti-Vietnam demonstration at Trafalgar Square a year ago – one of the largest British tribal gatherings of its sort prior to the festival.
The nomads arrived from all over England, not to mention Europe, Scandinavia, the United States and Canada, and quickly turned the 100-acre site into a vast tent city along Woodstock lines. One shack built by Americans and Canadians of iron sides, plastic sheeting and a grass roof, was called, appropriately enough, "Desolation Row."
As is usual at large-attendance festivals of this sort, a feeling of community soon developed at the festival grounds. "We came," explained a girl of 18 from Ealing, London, "mainly for the groups but also because we are all the same kind of people here. We all think more or less the same way."
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