Reviving A Memory
On October 2, 1965, I attended my fourth Bob Dylan concert at Symphony Hall, in Newark, NJ. It was a concert that’s barely been mentioned or written about except as far as I know by me in an article I wrote for Bobdylan.com a long time ago. For years there were no photos and if anyone recorded it, it has yet to surface. Last summer, a friend shared a photo from the show of Dylan at the piano. It was a close-up, but that photo could have been from anywhere.
A few days ago, a photo appeared on the Levon Helm tribute page on Facebook, Electric Dirt Farmer of Dylan, Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson by photographer Thom Cronin that totally blew my mind because it was so close to the vantage point from which I witnessed the show. I’d been carrying around in an image in my mind of that show for more than 49 years and this photo brought it to life.
I was 14, and my family had moved to North Jersey two years before. I had a job a couple of days a week after school and on Saturday mornings. So the day of the show, I rode my bike home, and immediately called up the theater to see if tickets were still available. They were, so I took a bus to Newark. I’m pretty sure this was the first concert I bought a ticket to myself without asking my parents. I’d just seen Dylan a little over a month before at Forest Hills, so I figured if I asked them to get me a ticket they would have said, “You just saw him.” So I bought the ticket which was maybe four dollars, probably less. The ticket said “stage site,” and in those days it was not uncommon for people to be seated on the stage so that’s where I thought I’d be sitting.
It was still several hours to the show, so I got on a bus to go back home. As I took my seat, I couldn’t help but notice a Cadillac limo going in the other direction headed towards the theater. As I looked out the window, I thought I saw a lot of hair through the rear window of the Caddy. But I didn’t have enough money on my for another bus fare.
When I returned to Symphony Hall that night, I saw a bunch of kids from my class at junior high school. To put this in perspective, I was a long-haired, poetry reading and writing, anti-Vietnam war button wearing, folk-singing freak and I took a lot of shit for it. And to add another dimension to it, Bob Dylan was pretty much universally despised in the entire town. The town I lived in was also the home of Lorre Wyatt, the guy who said he wrote “Blowin’ In The Wind” and eventually recanted his story. But no amount of proof (and there’s a lot more proof now than there was then) could dissuade the people in that town from believing Wyatt wrote the song. So when I saw these kids from my class in the lobby, my reaction was oh no! The enemy! They were all wearing jackets and ties which was pretty standard for going to a concert back then. I was wearing some dumpy sports jacket and jeans. I thought it was pretty funny when they said to me, “What are you doing here?” especially since my first Dylan concert was in the same theater almost two years before, when the theater was known as The Mosque. So I answered them, “The question is, what are you doing here.” Of course I knew what the answer was, Dylan had two hit singles, “Like A Rolling Stone” and “Positively 4th Street,” and the second was still high on the charts at the time of the concert.
I walked away to find my seat, expecting to be led to the stage. Instead I was directed to go down into the auditorium. All the way down. A couple of rows of folding chairs had been set up in front of the regular seats and my seat was in the first row, second chair in from the center aisle. Holy shit! I couldn’t believe it!
There were a couple of guards against the wall on each side of the stage. I figured this was because of the stage rush that had happened at Forest Hills where a bunch of kids jumped on the stage during the electric set chased by cops in and around the musicians.
The opening acoustic set was exactly the same as Forest Hills starting with “She Belongs To Me, and ending with “Mr. Tambourine Man.” On the third song, “Gates of Eden,” Dylan started coughing. After finishing the song, a guard brought out a glass of water and Dylan said, “Excuse me, I just got over a case of Leprosy.” Watching him during the set, his face was stoic resembling the cover of The Times, They Are A-Changin’, except his hair was way longer.
When the band took the stage after intermission, the contrast between how they looked and how Dylan looked was somewhat astonishing. They were in suits and ties and had really short hair, which would grow as the tour continued. I had no idea who they were and Dylan didn’t introduce them. At Forest Hills, the audience was so far from the stage that unless you had binoculars (which I didn’t) it was pretty hard to tell what anyone looked like. Not long after the show, a friend had a program from the concert the night before had Carnegie Hall, which listed the musicians, under the heading: Levon & The Hawks. I then realized I’d seen Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson at Forest Hills, and also realized that they along with the organ player, Garth Hudson were on an album I had by blues singer John Hammond, So Many Roads.
There was a line of huge Fender amps that ran across the stage. They started with “Tombstone Blues,” and it was probably the loudest thing I ever heard in my life. Since Dylan was holding down the rhythm, along with Helm on drums and Rich Danko on bass, it allowed remaining musicians, Richard Manuel on piano, Hudson on organ and Robbie Robertson to kind of have a free for all throughout the show.
The song that blew me away however came early in the show when Dylan pulled out, “Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” from his first album. I went pretty crazy seeing that. I couldn’t believe it. Of course years later, such surprises became pretty common and one of the main reasons to go see him, because you just never knew when he was gonna pull out something he hadn’t played in years or never played.
Unlike Forest Hills, and the shows that happened later in the tour and around the world the following year, there was no booing. Also unlike Forest Hills, at Symphony Hall there was an encore, “Positively Fourth Street.”
In the months after the show, I longed to hear that sound again. The following June, a single, “I Want You” was released and the flip-side was a live version of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” recorded in Liverpool just a few weeks before. I played it several times a day at top volume. But it would be at least four years until the Royal Albert Hall bootleg surfaced.
I didn’t know it at the time but I wouldn’t see Bob Dylan again until more than eight years later in January, 1974. For a few years, I wondered what happened to Levon & The Hawks. When Music From Big Pink was released three years later, I bought it without hearing it, without thinking about it. When The Band had their live New York City debut at the Fillmore East a year later, I was there, and little did I know I’d find myself backstage at one of their concerts a few months later.
Decades later through other strokes of luck, I’d have other front row seats at Dylan concerts and occasionally be up at the stage at some general admission shows. And though I’ve seen Dylan more than 100 times since, that night, that show in Newark remains kind of hard to beat.
Special thanks to Thom Cronin for being there that night with a camera for letting me use his photos.