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.”
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.”
The highest pre-Dylan points – which were provided by Tom Paxton, the Who and Richie Havens – almost made the festival audience forget that they were, essentially, waiting for Bob.
Paxton, hardly a super-star back in the States, was a surprising knockout before the British audience, performing songs like “Rambling Boy,” “Last Thing on My Mind,” and “Crazy John.” His “Talking Vietnam Potluck Blues” got a terrific standing ovation. One of his two encores was a song called “Forest Lawn,” which deals with the bullshit America puts you through even after you’re dead. Even after being told, in the most emphatic terms, that Paxton was not coming back onstage, the audience continued standing, chanting “Paxton, Paxton, Paxton, Paxton . . . ” for a full four minutes. Overwhelming delirium prevailed, and there were tears in many eyes, when the singer-songwriter did re-appear one last time to say: “Thank you, thank you – you have made me happier than I have been in my whole life.” A wonderfully emotional moment.
It was an excellent night for Pete Townshend of the Who, who got off some of the nastiest guitar heard during the entire festival (and in the Who’s whole history, one critic wrote). The Who had arrived at the last possible moment via helicopter, which slopped in on a near-crash landing, following contractual negotiations. They wound up getting paid twice what they’d been signed for – but less than one-sixth Dylan’s $84,000.
“Young Man Blues,” a section from Tommy, then “Summertime Blues” and “My Generation”; all these were frequently interrupted by standing ovations. The encore, “Shaking All Over,” swept up the whole audience on the sheer momentum of its thundrous riffs, shook them, left them exhausted, as finally the Who receded from the stage, leaving the stage strewn with bashed and wasted equipment.
It is understood that Dylan told Wight’s promoters he’d not appear unless Richie Havens (who, like Dylan, is represented by Albert Grossman) was also on the bill. As the last rays of sun glowed upon the horizon on the festival’s closing night, Havens, accompanied handsomely by Paul Williams on guitar and Daniel Benzebulon on congas, wove a charged, spell-binding set out of “Maggie’s Farm” and “Window of Experience” and “Hey Jude.” One song spring-boarded the next, building in intensity to his second and final encore, an exciting, powerful “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
And then followed a one-hour wait, while the Band set up. It was to be a set by the Band, and then Dylan, maybe two, maybe three hours of Dylan.
In all, it had been a placid festival, and as technicians arranged the Band’s equipment and instruments onstage, the audience prepared itself with various combinations of speed, acid and hash. Dope had been readily available, often for free, and lovingly consumed all through the weekend. Now it was time for one final set-up.
Perhaps all the dope, coupled with the good vibes, was responsible for keeping Wight trouble-free. Islanders had anticipated, with no little trepidation, something on the order of soccer fan booze crazies, except with long hair and loud music. The 150 men who constitute the Isle of Wight police force had their weekend leaves canceled, and braced themselves for the worst. The festival security force, with their haughty Alsatian hounds, looked a bit out of place. But all in all, Wight authorities were pleased. Said Superintendent Arthur Maynard: “Everything has been very good-tempered. The kids have been well-behaved and there has been no trouble of a serious nature.”
During Dylan’s performance, a lovely 19-year-old girl, who said her name was Vivian and that she came from “nowhere,” appeared naked with a similarly naked young man, in the midst of a sea of foam pumped into a recreation area, and before 200 persons, made love. There was no attempt to stop them – but there was plenty of encouragement. “Beautiful,” bellowed several who saw it: “Freaky, baby!”
And then: the Band. A nice hand for them, as they jiggled and thumped right into “We Can Talk About It Now.” They were in soaring good form, pouring good country rock and roll into the damp night air: “Long Black Veil,” “Chest Fever,” “The Weight,” “I Shall Be Released,” “Loving You,” “Ain’t No More Cane on the Brazos,” and “Don’t Tell Henry.” Forty-five minutes of solid good-rocking Anglo-Saxon music.
On came Bob Dylan, one of the very few artists who could afford not to wear skin-tight, flared, sexy trousers. Boy Dylan in a loose white suit (Buddy Holly probably owned a suit like that), white shoes, white tie and yellow shirt, behind a sparkling stainless steel chin-height barricade of microphones. The stomping and the cheering and the crying and the crush toward the front-stage area was still strong as Dylan began his first song, “She Belongs to Me.”
“Great to be here, great to be here,” he said as he finished the song. “It sure is.”
There was a slightly more down-home resilience to “I Threw It All Away” and “Maggie’s Farm” than on the recordings, possibly due to the Band’s mellow, sinewy backings. “Highway 61” positively rocked.
Then the Band departed for a time, allowing Dylan to play acoustically: “Will Ye Go, Lassie Go,” a hardy perennial on the British folk scene; “It Ain’t Me Babe”; “To Ramona”; “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
In “Like a Rolling Stone,” Dylan hit upon a new device of adding the world “girl” at judicious places – “You mustn’t let other people get your kicks for you, girl!” the sang, goosing the song along all the better, with the Band, who had re-joined him now, adding their resonant voices to the chorus.
“I Pity The Poor Immigrant” took on sea chantey tones with Garth Hudson’s accordion accompaniment. Song after song rolled on, “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” “Lay Lady Lay,” “One Too Many Mornings.” And then Dylan announced: “We’re going to do one more for you.” Just the slightest sardonic grin. “This was a big hit over here by Manfred Mann, a great group, a great group.”
A whoop of anticipation, and sure enough, it was “Mighty Quinn,” mighty funky.
Bob smiled broadly and waved his goodbye as the audience fell into their chant: “More, more, more more, more . . . “ So he did an encore of two more songs, the first of them a new Dylan song, a slow, gentle ballad called “Who’s Gonna Throw That Next Throw,” then followed it with a prancing “Rainy Day Women No. 12 and No. 35.”
And that was it. He had sung for one solid hour, from 11 PM to midnight. “Thank you, thank you, great!” he told the audience, still smiling, as he left for the last time.
This story is from the October 4th, 1969 issue of Rolling Stone.