07 February 2008

The Other Side of The Mirror: Bob Dylan Live At The Newport Folk Festival 1963-1965

The Other Side of The Mirror DVD has been available for a few months now, so apologies for the lateness of this review. It is yet another artifact in the, seemingly, ever-increasing world of Dylan related archives: in recent months we have also had a mammoth three CD 'best of', a few more books to weigh the old shelves down and 'semi-legal' DVDs of TV performances. Even for the most die-hard of raving loony Boblings much of this stuff is entirely superfluous or, at least, not entirely necessary. The Other Side of The Mirror is, however, a different case altogether. Compiled by Murray Lerner from his seminal footage of Dylan performances at Newport, the DVD all too clearly exhibits Dylan's whirlwind development in two years from earnest 'folk-protest' Guthrie - worshipper to the coolest cat in the known universe, spouting surreal 'skippin' reels of rhyme' and shouldering an electric guitar. There's no narration: we are allowed to just watch Dylan grow through three festivals. I swear he seems to morph physically as much as artistically, during this blindingly brief spell, when he truly was the most important singer on the planet.

Dylan in 1963 is all working shirt and big boots. His hair is pretty short and Pete Seeger really seems to approve. We see him singing at a small 'workshop', with various very trad. musicians sat behind him looking like they just stepped down from the hills. Bob gives a rare live performance of 'North Country Blues' and then we are transported to the main stage for the evening show. This is where 'King' Bob is first seen accompanied by 'Queen' Joan Baez. There is something that always makes me feel like throwing up every time I see early footage of these two together. With the knowledge we now have of how things panned out, it seems obvious that Dylan never really wanted Joanie around and the way she just seems to appear at his side looks creepy in the extreme. It must be conceded that Dylan happily used Baez to get his career off the ground but you can always nearly see him thinking 'You again! Just go away, woman!' as she caterwauls along to 'Blowin' In The Wind' or 'It Ain't Me Babe' (didn't she get it?). Baez also has one of those voices that always has to be louder than everyone else's, even when she's singing harmony. It's like listening to an ego inflating. She was utterly horrendous. Poor Joan must be either one of the most forgiving people of all time or a total sucker when you consider how many times she reappeared in Dylan's career. I fear the latter is the case.

For me, the most fascinating footage is from 1964. He's still strumming an acoustic, so the folkies still love him but the material is probably the most radical of all on the DVD. Lyrically, 'Mr. Tambourine Man' and 'Chimes of Freedom' were songs like no one had ever heard before. Guthrie had been replaced by Rimbaud. Dylan was also dressed noticably sharper in a very cool jacket, jeans and cuban heel boots. Still, the 'trads' were so dull they didn't mind at all because he was still 'acoustic'. They clearly weren't listening. Poor Bob still can't quite get away from Joanie, though. She's up on stage as he sings 'It Ain't Me Babe' and you can hear her say she doesn't know any of his new songs and it shows! Seems she never got the hint until she followed Bob to Britain in '65 and it was clear there was no way he was ever going to let her sing with him anymore. Life can be cruel. Dylan certainly could be cruel but he knew his art deserved better treatment than campfire singalongs.

By '65 Dylan's mind-set was million miles from that of the likes of Baez, Seeger and Lomax. He was just about to step into the vortex that wouldn't stop until he fell off his bike in '66: Dylan The Iconoclast was in town to stick it to the lot of them. He did sing some acoustic songs in the summer afternoon sun but we get to see some fans already beginning to moan that he's sold out to 'the man' and who needs him now? If only they'd had the wit to shout 'Judas!'. These sort of whingers have dogged Bob's career ever since. Good job he doesn't care. There's a nice bit where the electric band he has lined up for the evening show rehearse and the poor bloke from Peter, Paul and Mary (I know he's definitely NOT Mary), who seemed to always be trying to keep things together when mayhem took over at all these shows, begs them to shut up so he can test the mics. Dylan remains imperially aloof. It's like 'Who cares, man?' The evening 'show' of three electric songs that follows is the stuff of well trodden legend. For all those who now claim they didn't boo, the booing is all too clear. I suppose we don't really know what Dylan thought at the time but he happily went on to be booed all over the world after this! The performances we get of 'Maggie's Farm' and 'Like A Rolling Stone' are far from great musically but they were epoch making in so many other ways. After 'LARS' Bob eventually returns to the stage and 'Peter' or 'Paul' assures the crowd that he's getting is acoustic guitar. They were then treated to brilliant versions of 'Tambourine Man' and, tellingly, 'It's All Over Now, Baby Blue'. If they had been listening properly they would have noticed that Dylan, after all the booing, still had the iron balls to come back on and tell 'em to 'stick it'. They probably thought they'd 'won'.

There it is. Amazing footage of the most important musical artist of the last century or so turning into the singular person he remains to be. Long may he reign. This really is essential for anyone with an interest in all things Bob.


The Purple Gooroo said...

Nice review, Bear!

I'll have to check that out--for the record, I think the Newport version of "Maggie's Farm" rocks..it's on "No Direction Home" (the bootleg series), isn't it?

Anonymous said...

Yes, it is. It is pretty good, I concede. It's better than the album version. I suppose I just don't think the overall performance was that great...especially when you consider how great things got to be later on. Still, he was just trying things out then.