Bob Dylan - Ballad of a thin man, from half a century ago

As Bob Dylan approaches 70, we present an exclusive, unseen extract from Robert Shelton's definitive, newly expanded, biography. Here, he goes behind the scenes of the singer's controversial 1966 'electric' tour

Inside the plane, the band members were already dozing off, a pile of slumping bodies. Bob probably needed sleep more than anyone, though he had revived now and seemed eager to use the minutes until the plane was ready to depart. Literature: "Rimbaud? I can't read him now. Rather read what I want these days. 'Kaddish' is the best thing yet. Everything else is a shuck. I never dug Pound or Eliot. Shakespeare was commissioned to write. He wasn't a mystic, just one of the arch-queens of all. I dig Shakespeare. A raving queen and a cosmic amphetamine brain." On his new music: "There was never any change. No instrument will change love, death, in any soul. My music is my music. Folk music was such a shuck. I never recorded a folk song. My idea of a folk song is Jeannie Robertson or Dock Boggs. Call it historical-traditional music. I want to write songs now. Until Bringing it all Back Home songwriting was a sideline. I was still a performer. Then I knew I had to write songs. I don't have to look to anyone to tell I'm good. I know, I'm honest. Get some of those literary people, some of those poetry people to sit down with my records, that would be good." On civil rights: "Look at the South. Blacks are taking over the town. But how groovy is it? Power, that's all it is. Rich blacks will take over. The kids are just a start. If I was black, I don't know if I'd want to go to school with whites." The words poured out of him. "It's bullshit. All is death, I'm afraid. I don't want to see myself die. I'd just as soon drive a car off a cliff than do something I don't believe in. Got to beat the pressure... I saw Chuck Berry at St Louis Airport. You can listen to Buddy Holly when you're all alone, but Chuck Berry? You have to be out on the highway."

***

"First of all," he said, animatedly, "you have to realise that if you are going to write for poets and literary people..." He stopped short. "I think a poet is anybody who wouldn't call himself a poet. Anybody who could possibly call himself a poet just cannot be a poet. They have just settled for the romance of their ancestors and their historical knowledge of facts that never were. And they would like to think that they are a little above it all. When people start calling me a poet, I say: 'Oh, groovy, how groovy to be called a poet'. But it didn't do me any good, I'll tell you that. It didn't make me any happier."

***

After the outing, we returned to the motel. I assumed Bob wanted a nap before the concert but he said I should come down in half an hour. When I did, he was pottering around in a faded old shirt and jeans – we were suddenly back four years to simple times in the Village. I turned on the tape recorder for another two hours.

He was less frenetic than he'd been in the airplane, but no less articulate, no less candid. We talked about Hibbing, New York, Dinkytown, Woodstock, Memphis and London. Dylan flicked on the television and, without ever losing the continuity of his thread, became engrossed in a horror film. Some miscreant was brewing an evil potion. "Hey, look at that!" he exclaimed boyishly, "He's going to get his back full of cyanide!"

He shuffled around the room, hanging up clothes, one eye on the TV. We talked about his hat, his first gigs, and the folk scene. Would he ever write his autobiography? He snapped: "No, not interested." Mine might save him time, if he liked it: "What I'm hoping from your book – I told Albert [Grossman, Dylan's manager] about it. His reaction was 'what?'" We both laughed. Bob continued: "Well, I told him, just, 'uh-huh, uh-huh'. He gave me a few 'uh-huh's and I assured him." He wants to protect you, I said. "Of course he does, but..." He stormed about managers in general, the losers, winners, manipulators."

"How the hell can you get any work done on a tour like this? How can you write?" I asked.

"It's very hard, man. It's killed me, ever since September, it really drove me out of my mind. I never really had it like that before. It was a very weird time. It really had me down." He would cut down next year. "It embarrasses me to talk about the career thing, because it's very hard to talk about. It's been so dumb. Because in my own mind, I know how lucky I am, and I don't know how long it could go on."

We talked about people who had been important to him along the way. "Suze [Rotolo, Dylan's former girlfriend who died in February this year], I will be kind to her the rest of my life. Suze, any time she wants anything, she could always come to me." But he had no patience with some others: "Just con-people – they shouldn't be associated with me, because they are just going to get hung up by idiots that know they have known me." We ranged wide and free, in time and in geography. Dylan recalled his earlier encounter with Robert Graves in 1963: "I met him in England. He talked to somebody while I was singing 'Hollis Brown'. And I didn't even know who Robert Graves was. He got up and talked to four young guys who called themselves 'professionals'. They sang in the Blue Angel, or something like that. One played the accordion, one played the string bass and one played the Gretsch rhythm guitar, and the other one sang and played slide trombone. And Robert Graves went over and talked to them, to find out about music, while I was singing. So I stopped singing and said: 'Who's that guy?'

"As to Ewan MacColl: "I thought he was dead. So many people are like him, man, the things that MacColl has said about Tom Paxton and Phil Ochs are downright nasty, just worthless, and obvious – yeah, it's very limited. Traditional folk music in America is great music, and it's so criminal the way people want to stick it in a little bottle, with water in it, and keep it in a swamp."

Time passed quickly and I was afraid I was wearing him out. "Don't worry about it, I'm OK. He played around with a little cowboy-hat he had bought for his daughter, then dramatically pulled out his "rabbit suit", brushing it off for another night's performance, and saying how unusual it was to be dressing up for a concert. He laughed at himself. I turned off my tape recorder. "I wish you could come down to El Paso next week," he said. I told him I had to see people. He said two concerts in Oklahoma had to be cancelled because of further work on Blonde [on Blonde]. "You couldn't make it to Europe in May, could you?" Dylan asked. I said I doubted it – I had to work. "Well, I've got to go to work. Drop back after the show."

Dylan's reserve of energy to tackle another concert for 3,000 people amazed me. He'd been doing this since autumn. At Denver Municipal Auditorium, where the acoustics were a jangled echo, the audience was unaware that he'd done this 17 times in less than a month. After the concert, I returned to Dylan's crowded motel room. The air was charged, Dylan obviously quite stoned. He started to describe Lennon and McCartney beating a retreat from his Albert Hall concert a year earlier. He mimicked the Beatles running downstairs, halting for breath at landings, looking to see if they were pursued, then running down another flight. It was good pantomime. The Hawks [Dylan's backing band] roared. Fans began calling up and friends dropped in. Bob was expansive, but couldn't conceal his fatigue.

***

The most balanced and sympathetic reporting was in the Sydney Morning Herald by Craig McGregor, whose report to me was later reworked into the introduction to Bob Dylan: A Retrospective. Dylan spent most of his time writing, reading and playing new material, but he made tentative efforts to meet compatible people, holding court in hotel rooms. A road manager invited McGregor to the first Sydney concert and backstage, on April 13, in the 10,000-seat Sydney Stadium, where Dylan was somewhat unnerved by a revolving stage which swept 90 degrees after each song. McGregor found him during the intermission, squatting on the floor, chain-smoking, and tried to explain to him that he was "a writer," not a member of "the press," which Dylan was ranting against.

***

The Times reported that Dylan's voice was "all but drowned out by his accompanists," while The Sunday Times critic found himself with "about 9,000 in the audience, agreeing with the heckler who shouted, 'turn the drummer off!'". Praising the opening half for its "savage melancholy," he felt the group created "pandemonium out of chaos". The Morning Star called the concerts "Dylan's musical disaster... one of the Albert Hall's most bizarre musical occasions... rare moments of brilliance came wrapped up in slurred phrases and ridiculously accented diction".

The new edition of 'No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan' by Robert Shelton is published in hardback by Omnibus Press (£19.95)

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