1966. The night popular music changed for ever. Bob Dylan swapped his acoustic guitar for a Stratocaster and one fan lost his cool. This is the story of Keith Butler, rock legend

Andy Gill
Saturday 23 January 1999 00:02

On a bitterly cold January afternoon, a dozen or so people are gathered on the stage of a deserted concert hall in Manchester. Photographers bustle about their business, while a video crew sets up opposite a semicircle of chairs. One by one, the people in the chairs are interviewed by an ebullient chap with a broad Lancashire accent. As their interviews conclude, they leave the semicircle, taking their chairs with them, until eventually only one chair is left. The man in the last chair, a fifty-ish fellow who is swaddled against the elements in casualwear and car-coat, takes a breath and starts to speak.

"Hi," he says. "I'm the guy who shouted `Judas!' that night in Manchester. My name's Keith Butler. I live in Toronto, Canada, but back then I was a second-year student at Keele University."

The whole scene - the group of observers hanging on the interviewee's every word, and the confessional tone of his announcement - is strangely evocative of an alcoholic at his first AA meeting. There is a palpable sense of relief in the air, a distinct air of what American therapists call "closure". But if there are any addicts present - there are several, in fact - Keith Butler isn't one of them. For unlike most of those gathered here - including the interviewer, at least one of the photographers and, yes, myself - Keith is not possessed by an obsessional interest in Bob Dylan. Which is why we're all here today.

The Free Trade Hall in Manchester was erected on St Peter's Fields, the site of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, where Nadine Jones's local militia ruthlessly cut down the crowds who had come to hear the Chartist orator Henry Hunt. To commemorate the 21 dead, the original hall was erected by public subscription in the 1830s; when it burnt down, the current hall replaced it. Following German air-raid damage, the interior was completely renovated, and by the time Bob Dylan and The Hawks played there on 17 May 1966, the hall had become home to the Halle Orchestra. Though it's now fallen into desuetude, the ghosts of the hall's illustrious past can be glimpsed on the wall of the Green Room, where a small block of signatures of the great and the good have been preserved from over-zealous redecoration: Louis Armstrong, Burl Ives, Artur Rubinstein, Andres Segovia, Yehudi Menuhin, Sir Thomas Beecham, Sir Adrian Boult, and Chris from The Piss (not, I fancy, a guest conductor with the Halle).

His 1966 concert was not the first time Dylan had played the Free Trade Hall; on 7 May the previous year, he gave a solo performance there. The '66 show has, however, become probably the most famous rock concert in history. Bootlegs - and an official recording released last year by Columbia - reveal the audience's disaffection with Dylan's new electric sound, as he and The Hawks attach electrodes to Bob's back-catalogue and send a million or so volts shooting through the songs.

The catcalls and slow hand-claps are easily drowned out by the barrage of sound from the PA system; but then, just as they're about to launch into "Like a Rolling Stone", a voice rings out, clear and chastening: "Judas!" Stung, Dylan ripostes with "I don't believe you" - a cutting reference to his song of that title, which deals with a lover's sudden, baffling disaffection - followed by an acid "You're a LIAR!", before turning round to The Hawks as they lead into one of rock's most majestic performances, to instruct them to "Play fucking loud!" - and do they ever.

"I've been obsessed by this particular recording for 20 years," admits the broadcaster Andy Kershaw, the interviewer who has brought these veterans of that show's audience back to the Free Trade Hall to muse upon that night's events. "In my first year at Leeds University, a friend gave me a tape of the concert and I just thought it was the greatest rock'n'roll performance that I'd ever heard. I still do. I can't understand why anybody thought there was any point in making rock music after the Free Trade Hall concert."

He's not the only one. The musician and playwright CP Lee wrote an entire book about this one show. "It was incredible," he recalls. "The level of animosity, antagonism, excitement, discovery, was all there in the air at the same time. It marked me for life - I knew I'd never see anything like this ever again. And I never have."

Some of the credit for the dramatic nature of the performance, Kershaw believes, is due to the man who cried "Judas!".

"If he had not shouted what he shouted, you would not have had the seething resentment, the anger, the contempt, that was Dylan as he pitched into the final song," Kershaw contends. "Judas's timing couldn't have been better. What it unleashed from Dylan was something so subversive, so angry and contemptuous, that what followed was punk rock, 10 years before Johnny Rotten. Rather better played. To me, the recording was a kind of Holy Grail, and being a sad obsessive and freelance Dylanologist, one day I said to myself, `I shall find that man!'"

Luckily for Kershaw, the concurrent release of the album and CP Lee's book flushed Judas -- or, as we should now call him, Keith - out into the open. For 32 years, Keith Butler had been blissfully unaware of his own notoriety until, suffering a night-time asthma attack on Thanksgiving Day last October, he took a stroll down to the local all-night doughnut shop. There, leafing through a copy of that day's Toronto Sun, he came across an article about this old Dylan concert that had just been released. It seemed strangely familiar.

"This was like something out of The X-Files," he says. "It totally blew my mind. And when I saw those words, `Any bloody pop group could do this rubbish!', in part of the article, the words just

leapt off the page at me. I knew they were my words." Back in May 1966, Butler and his friend Chris Cuttance, broiled in embarrassment by Dylan's riposte, had stormed out of their balcony seats and down into the foyer, where they were accosted by a velvet-suited film crew who invited them to share their dissatisfaction with the American TV audience. Keith's comment became part of the rarely seen tour documentary Eat the Document, which, as luck would have it, was running at New York's Museum of TV and Radio last year. "I've taken the kids with me to New York to see that film," says Keith, "So that they can see their dad as a kid of 20."

And so, through a circuitous chain of contacts including CP Lee, Andy Kershaw and Scott Bauer, the author of the Toronto Sun article, Keith Butler finally made it back to the Free Trade Hall, where he joined other audience veterans from that night in an afternoon of reminiscence. People such as Barbara, who drew a round of applause when, between "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" and "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat", she walked down the central aisle of the stalls to hand Dylan a message. She and her friend Doreen were so disappointed at not being able to hear the words that they found a scrap of paper and composed a note requesting that Bob "tell the band to go home", using sweet wrappers to draw straws as to who should be the messenger. "It's just as well you drew the short straw," chuckles Doreen, "otherwise he'd have never got the note!"

Like Barbara and Doreen, Keith Butler was annoyed at what Dylan was doing to these songs he loved so much. Although Dylan had by then secured several hits with electric material, Keith had never been able to afford a record- player, and was more familiar with Bob's earlier, folky material, which had inspired him to blow his first grant cheque on an acoustic guitar.

"I can't remember, to tell you the truth, what song was on what LP," he admits, to the incredulity of the Dylan obsessives. "I think it's fair to say that, of the stuff I heard that night, the things I remember are the things I played myself. I remember I enjoyed that first half. The second half... it just wasn't the same, was it?"

Keith's relative unfamiliarity with Dylan's catalogue is confirmed when, under Andy Kershaw's interrogation, he can't immediately bring to mind a set-list that is indelibly imprinted on the minds of virtually everyone else present in the hall.

"Why did you do it, Keith?" asks Kershaw. "I was very disappointed about what I was hearing," explains Butler. "But I think what really sent me over the top was when he did those lovely songs - I think it was, er, there were two of them..."

"`She Belongs To Me'?" suggests Kershaw, as the CD is located and the track-list consulted.

"No... `Baby Let Me Follow You Down...'"

"Oh, I see," notes Kershaw, before hopefully prompting for poetic irony: "And `I Don't Believe You'?"

"No, `Baby Let Me Follow You Down', and the other one was `One Too Many Mornings'. I was emotional, and I think my anger just welled up inside of me. I think it was `One Too Many Mornings' that really sent me over the top."

Keith remembers more clearly the intense humiliation he felt after Dylan shouted back at him. "I was just very embarrassed," he says. So was his friend Chris Cuttance. "He was not impressed at all. Who likes being shown up, right? Then he said something like, `Come on, let's get out of here', and out we went."

It's the television interview that remains clearest in Keith's mind. "Remember, at that age, living in England, you hadn't come into contact with a North American accent," he explains. "That's probably my key memory, because it's a story you tell, but the actual shout that's gone down in history, I don't remember much of that at all. I've probably tried to forget it."

Keith's undoubtedly the sensible one in that respect. He's retained a passing affection for Dylan ever since, attending other shows but not following his every move assiduously. "I turned my back, but it's certainly not turned me off Bob Dylan for life," he says. Other matters concern him more. "If you ask me how I feel now," he reflects, "when you get to 50, you realise you haven't done much with your life, you haven't been as successful at work as you maybe thought, your marriage has failed. What's happened between October and now has taken me out of what was otherwise quite a difficult time, in that sense."

Others are not quite so well balanced in their attitude to life and Bob. Dylanology may be readily accepted as an academic pursuit in many American universities, but the nature of the man's work - complex, prolific and infinitely variable - also makes it something of a psychiatric condition. The pressures on the man himself must be colossal - Dylan was the first celebrity to have his garbage sifted for clues to his personality, the first pop star to become a recluse - but his most obsessive fans are in their own way just as trapped by his fame, unable to shake off the urge to analyse, question and theorise. Even as Keith Butler is explaining his part in the events of that night, someone whispers in my ear, "I don't think it's him" - already weighing and judging this latest slice of Dylanological evidence against the mountain of hearsay that has accumulated upon this evening's events. Compared to those of us afflicted with Dylanoholism, Keith is as sane and straight-arrow as they come.

Perhaps we should seek help. I'll go first.

Hi. My name's Andy, and I've been a Dylanoholic for 34 years. I've not listened to Bob now for 72 hours. It's hard, but I'm taking it one day at a time...

`Ghosts of Electricity', an hour-long special about Bob Dylan's Free Trade Hall concert, airs on Andy Kershaw's Radio 1 show at midnight on 28 January. CP Lee's book `Like the Night' is published by Helter Skelter, pounds 12. Andy Gill's book `My Back Pages - Classic Bob Dylan 1962-1969' is published by Carlton Books, pounds 14.99

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