On May 16th, 1966, Bob Dylan released Blonde on Blonde, arguably the best album of his career. The next day, he would be in Manchester, England, for a concert at the Free Trade Hall, the 11th date of the European leg of his world tour.
Dylan was in his lightning-rod phase, being seen as a turncoat by the folkie community aghast that he dared to rock out with an electric guitar. The primary objection, which came to a head in Manchester, was that plugged-in Dylan was less legit than acoustic Dylan, less likely to provide listeners with music that spoke to them and who they were, and less communally in stride with the problems of the age.
This battle had been playing out since Dylan had hit England. Dylan would perform a set alone onstage, armed only with his acoustic guitar, and that would go down well. But then he'd come back out with his backup band the Hawks – later, of course, to become the Band – and it would be at that point, with the acrimony increasing throughout the electric set, that a donnybrook would play out each evening.
The more pissed Dylan and his musicians would get in response, the more mercurial, magisterial, untouchable the music became.
"It was not light, it was not folky," said guitarist Robbie Robertson of the period in Clinton Heylin's Behind the Shades. "It was very dynamic, very explosive and very violent."
"It was like, as if, everything that we held dear had been betrayed," says one fan in C.P. Lee's Like the Night. "We made him and he betrayed the cause."
According to Robertson, the shows were solely recorded because of a prevailing incredulity within the Dylan camp. "The only reason tapes of those shows exist today is because we wanted to know, 'Are we crazy?'" he recalled. "We'd go back to the hotel room, listen to a tape of a show and think, 'Shit, that's not that bad. Why is everybody so upset?'"
But aggrieved they were, and Dylan doubled down in his genius, and went right back at them.
The tape from Manchester would remain unreleased for 32 years, until it finally made it to light as The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4, attesting that Blonde on Blonde may not have even been the best new Dylan music you might have heard in that particular week, 50 years ago. Let's take a look at the blow-by-blow of this evening of rancor and genius.
First Set: Acoustic
"She Belongs to Me"
Part of the knock against Dylan was that he was now singing about himself in his electric rock songs, whereas folkie Dylan was more communal. It's a weak argument. The instrumentation was different – but Dylan's songwriting was going where it was going, and that was a matter of compositional art, not if anyone else was playing along with him. Everyone's decently pleased here, though, as the acoustic set opens with a lilting number that has an aspect of English minstrel song about it. And the man is in impressive voice.
"4th Time Around"
This waltz introduces the swirling sleight of hand that will dominate the night. We're going down the rabbit hole, Alice is coming out for a dance in 3/4 time, Dylan is trafficking in mists. His guitar playing here has a fluidity that was rare for him, a sprightliness of a loomer working skillfully at the wheel, spinning gold.
"Visions of Johanna"
People are pretty well into the gig now – they're still applauding the prior song when Dylan starts this one and everyone shuts the hell up as fast as possible for this tale of coughing heat pipes and the memories of an unwinnable love that accompany them. There's a touch of raspiness in Dylan's voice. The "ghost of electricity" bit sounds, in these English digs, like some psychotropic twist on Dickens.
"It's All Over Now, Baby Blue"
Time to rein it in, and time to be prescient. The dense psychedelia of "Johanna" is balanced out with what is perhaps Dylan's most melodic ballad. But it's also a finger-pointer, as in, "Grow the fuck up, people – I'm evolving and you must, too." Dylan takes a few bars to feel his way into the song, strumming on his guitar until he's ready to formally start the first verse. It's a subtle gesture, but the more you hear it, the more you know what it's about: The crowd is on his time now.
Not a lot of people could go up on a stage with just a guitar and sing an 11-minute lyrically labyrinthine song that might as well have been sourced from Eliot's notes to The Waste Land. Dylan coughs at the start, a throat-clearing before the descent further down the rabbit hole. The guitar figure is suggestive of 17th-century English ballads, but while the music is akin to a pastoral, the lyrics are anything but. This is ultimately a song about a spurned lover who is now over the woman who tries to come back to him. So over her that after reading a letter he received from her he invented all of this out of sheer boredom. Again, the theme of moving past what was, to what would be. "Her sin is her lifelessness," Dylan reports. Whereas, this singer has a lot of living to do.
"Just Like a Woman"
It's important to keep in mind that a Blonde on Blonde song like this one is likely being heard for the first time by this audience. Meaning, everyone is listening hard to see what Dylan is up to: "Maybe he's back to protesting!" Alas, no. Unless that means protesting just how cruel love can be when the parties who once shared that love are virtual strangers needing an introduction at a party. Dylan sings the final "But you break just like a little girl" line with a bottomless sensitivity, the harmonica coda then unfurling like a koan on the affairs of the heart.
"Mr. Tambourine Man"
And so we come to the end of acoustic set, with the trademark pied piper number of a guy who wrote more than a few. Dylan's voice is druggier, his flourishes at the end of lines having more breath behind them. Triplet figures in the guitar push his voice along, and he repeatedly underscores the "to" in "There ain't no place I'm going to" with a slightly out-of-time beat in his voice. There's more coughing. Again, the throat-clearing. The unplugged session is over. It is battle time.
Second Set: Electric
"Tell Me, Momma"
Who the hell writes a song this good, and then doesn't release a studio version? Dylan spoke of Robertson as the most mathematical guitar player he ever knew, and listen to his riffage here to know exactly what that means. Garth Hudson's organ peals are downright Shakespearean in their flow and intensity, but it is Robertson's fretboard brilliance that provides Dylan with the needed emotional backing to scream his head off. Dylan's melismas are huge, just these long carpets of extended vowels. "But I know that you know that I know that you show that something … is tearing up your … miiiiiiinnnnd." Indeed, sir.
"I Don't Believe You"
There is an edge to things now. The careful listening of the acoustic set has been replaced with a vibe that something is amiss. Part of that stems from the volume. "I felt like I was being forced back into my seat," C.P. Lee remembered, "like being in a jet when it takes off." This may be the loudest rock & roll to date, but Dylan introduces this number from 1964's Another Side of Bob Dylan – an acoustic album, of course – with "This is called 'I Don't Believe You.' It used to go like that, and now it goes like this." Everyone here knows this song and now they're worried that he's gone and done something to it. Nervous laughter follows. Robertson plays corkscrewing guitar themes throughout, and that earlier earthiness in Dylan's voice is completely gone. He's soaring now, the hoodoo poet at the front of the stage, Buddy Holly meets Sun Ra meets talismanic overseer.
"Baby, Let Me Follow You Down"
Rhythm and blues as deeply cut as any by Arthur Alexander, with a hopped-up Slim Harpo shuffle groove to start. The Beatles get a lot of props for inspiring Dylan to bust out an electric guitar, but don't forget the Animals, who had a massive hit with "House of the Rising Sun," a former Dylan staple, and chart success with this number. The hecklers are now audible. People are feeling emboldened. Pissed. For the first time in the show, they disrupt the count-in by chanting and clapping. Dylan breaks off his harmonica intro. He resumes, plays over the disrupters, and it's not until the full band leaps into the fray that the crowd becomes inaudible. Dylan sings like a man just punched who is now punching back. Essentially, a crowd asked a little elfin dude if he wants to throw down. Dylan wants to throw down.
"Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues"
The version recorded three nights earlier in Liverpool – where the crowd was even nastier – became the B side of "I Want You," and the best flipside of Dylan's career. Here it's more elegiac, with Dylan, for the moment, trying to rise above the bear-baiting and spin this narrative. The song is counted in with Dylan's boot pounding the stage, and quickly, before the crowd can get going again. Mickey Jones could be a workmanlike drummer (Levon Helm had left the group by this point), but he was a powerful one. Those stretched out, Mickey Waller-type fills were his kind of thing, and his barrages bolster the intensity. Dylan stretches syllables over four bars at a time, and his off-mic "alright!" sets off one of Robertson's few solos, and one of the best of the decade.
"Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat"
The only Blonde on Blonde song in the electric set, and the crowd does not want to hear it. This time they counter with mock applause, and a slow handclap to disrupt the musicians. Dylan introduces the name of the song like he's talking to small, dull children. A heckler shouts something about playing protest songs. Applause follows. The slow handclap becomes frenzied, in-synch clapping. The band start anyway, the revved-up Bo Diddley beat sounding both incongruous and apropos. Weird night.
"One Too Many Mornings"
Another folk item, restyled. Rick Danko's backing vocal is perhaps the most beautiful in Dylan's career. The song, previously a gentle, ruminative number, feels epic here. Dylan has to resort to mumbling nonsense words over and over again until everyone decides that maybe they don't want to miss what he's saying. At which point, he says, "If only you wouldn't clap so hard." Begrudging laughter. The boot once again serves as the count-in, and away we go. "It's a restless hungry feeling that don't do mean no one no good," Dylan sings, and you just think, "Amen, brother."
"Ballad of a Thin Man"
Here comes the screed. One of Dylan's nastiest songs is even more bitter in this context. At this point you can sense that he wants to be interrupted, wants to see how far the crowd will take it. Robertson's guitar has some Otis Rush flare to it, a bit of Southside Chicago toughness in tough old Manchester. Still, the song is a holding pattern. Everyone knows the set is almost over. And everyone knows what matters most is what will happen next.
"Like a Rolling Stone"
Now this is theater: the crowd's last chance to make a statement on the night, and Dylan's, too. For all of its poetry, the studio version of "Like a Rolling Stone" was, musically, very much an R&B groove, albeit with rubato organ phrases that bordered on the celestial. The music here is much more in that celestial mode, like it's ether-borne, rather than anything originating from mind, guitar, bass, drum, organ, voice. The final showdown begins when someone in the audience, from out of the tension of the attendant silence, shouts, "Judas!" In the annals of heckling, that's a pretty good one. Dylan responds with "I don't believe you" – a nice little reference, too, to the earlier song. There is venom in his voice. "You're a liar." Another pause, before Dylan turns to his band and orders them to "Play fucking loud!" And goodness do they, right on command. Dylan puts his entire body into the "How does it feel?" line, like he is jumping straight down someone's soul and punching the crap out of it. Then it is all over. Dylan says, "Thank you," and "God Save the Queen" plays on the PA. Time to be rolling on.