Going electric with Bob Dylan in NewportTwo concerts almost 40 years apart
Like multitudes of young guys in the early 1960s, I was in the basement bashing my guitar while listening to Bob Dylan records. The songs were basically driven by three or four chords, which were clearly delineated in a book by a guy named Mel Bay. Although it took me a few months to figure out that I was playing the guitar upside down; I learned quickly and was singing, Blowing in the Wind soon enough. Needless to say, as my guitar picking improved, my grades in school did not.
In 1965, my cousin Paula drove from San Francisco to Pawtucket in her green VW bug. She knew I loved Dylan and played my guitar. It wasn’t a tough sell for my parents to let me go with Paula to the Newport Folk Festival; she was very responsible in their eyes. Paula was cool. This was the year that Dylan went electric, and got booed by a few precious, professional folksters.
We left Pawtucket, and headed to Bristol to cross the Mount Hope Bridge. (Note: In the photograph, my sailboat is on a lay line heading toward the old Festival Field. There is a Walmart there now. Also note the Newport Bridge wasn’t there in 1965).
If you were coming to the festival from points west, you had to take the ferry from Jamestown. When we got to Festival Field, Paula met some of her older friends then told me to meet her at her car after the gig. So I went roaming around the festival grounds looking for a way to sneak in; I was short on cash because I blew most of my money on hot dogs. I climbed up a fence and saw the Jim Kweskin Jug Band doing a sound check, but the fence was too high to jump over, so I looked for another way inside the grounds. Later I simply wandered over to the ticket lines, and walked into the festival. It was like I was invisible; go figure.
In ‘65 the audience consisted of people on the tail end of the Beat period, and the emergence of the hippy movement. This was a pretty heady scene for a 15 year old. Once inside, I caught up with Paula and heard a duet by Dick and Mimi Farina. Mimi was Joan Baez’s sister. They sang a song called “Pack Up Your Sorrows,” and the audience sang along; the crowd was relaxed and benevolent. Later in the evening this would change.
Dylan’s new album “Bringing It All Back Home” got lots of radio play that summer. I wore out that record by playing it so much. The anticipation of seeing this guy was intense and the crowd was excited. After being introduced, leather-jacketed Bob Dylan, with a Fender Stratocaster slung across his wiry frame, walked onto the stage with his band and tore into “Maggie’s Farm.” The crowd went wild. “Sellout!” some people yelled. They booed the guy but I could sense he really didn’t care. He and his band put all they had into the songs and eventually, the crowd settled down — somewhat. It was a great set of music.
Several months later, I was at a Dylan concert at the old Rhode Island Auditorium. His back-up band was The Band, without drummer Levon Helm. I sat right in back of the stage and ‘til this day, that performance is still in an active file in my brain. He played two sets, one electric and one acoustic; Like A Rolling Stone had charted and Dylan’s audience was now buying what he was selling. The rest is history.
In 2002 Bob Dylan returned to Newport. The old Festival Field was long gone, and now the venue for this historic Folk Festival is Fort Adams. I was working for the ferry company that summer; the MV Nelseco did the summer run from Fort Adams. My job was to be the dock guy there in the summer and help secure the lines for the ferry at the beginning and the end of the day. After the ferry left the Fort Adam’s dock the day Dylan was to perform, I figured I’d walk over toward the stage and maybe hear some of his set; there were 12,000 people in the audience, baking in the August heat. The festival was sold out, because of, ahem, Dylan.
As I approached the ticket line, a guy looked at me and saw the logo for the Block Island Ferry on my shirt. He nodded, and I walked into the grounds like I was there in an officious capacity. Whatta country! Dylan for some reason came on late, and I ended up seeing his entire set. He was in great voice and his band was superb, as he faced north toward the old Festival Field where he got heckled and booed 37 years ago. He had on a fake wig, a beard and a cowboy hat. (I got nothing for you on that one.) Finally, I have the dubious distinction of sneaking into the Newport Folk Festival, twice, and seeing one of America’s most iconoclastic performers play in Rhode Island.