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Didja know? Dylan and the Band debuted in Austin 9/24/65

Posted by mcorcoran on October 2, 2011

Originally published in Sept. 2005)

Bob Dylan did interviews at the Villa Capri before his Austin debut.

by Michael Corcoran

Bob Dylan and the Band. Allusive, majestic, snarling lyrics run through the organic groove grinder. The most important, influential songwriter in pop music history backed by four Canadians and a Southerner whose musical instincts and depth earned them the right to call themselves the Band.

Forever entwined in rock music mythology, Bob Dylan and the Band were a magical combination that debuted right here in Austin 40 years ago. Tickets were $4.

Later they would make enduring music together in the basement of a big pink house near Woodstock, but in 1965, 24-year-old Dylan and his mostly younger backing group were rock ‘n’ roll guerrillas on an artistic upheaval mission, slinging evil electric guitars in front of audiences who’d felt betrayed by the sound-over-message, trend-over-tradition shift.

On Sept. 24, 1965, Dylan opened his first Texas concert, a sold-out show at Austin’s Municipal Auditorium (later renamed Palmer Auditorium), with a solo acoustic set including “Gates Of Eden,” “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “Desolation Row” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” After a short break, he returned with Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Levon Helm — then called the Hawks — and launched into a loud, biting “Tombstone Blues,” followed by “Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” “It Ain’t Me Babe,” “Ballad Of a Thin Man” and the big hit at the time, “Like a Rolling Stone.” Dylan played the piano during “Maggie’s Farm,” the song that was practically drowned out in boos when Dylan and the earsplitting Butterfield Blues Band opened with it at the Newport Folk Festival just two months earlier.

“It was so in-your-face,” show promoter Angus Wynne recalls of the Austin electric segment. “You couldn’t really understand the words — quality concert sound systems were nonexistent back then — but you could feel the energy. It was like being knocked over by this huge burst of sound.”

In Austin, 1965 was the cusp between the beatnik generation and the hippies, but Dylan and the Band were basically playing what would later be called punk rock.

The Austin show was only the fourth time Dylan had played electric, and the first time he hadn’t heard boos from folk purists who pegged him as a pop sellout trying to glom onto the Beatles phenomenon.

“It never entered my mind — or heart — not to love the electric stuff,” says Stephanie Chernikowski, a former Austinite, now a top New York photographer, who was at the show. “Dylan and the Band were stunning. There were moments that felt like you were the only person in the room with them.”

Three months later, Dylan cited Texas audiences (he played at Southern Methodist University in Dallas the night after Austin) as among the most accepting of the tour.

But Gilbert Shelton, the “Fabulous Freak Brothers” cartoonist who was then a student at the University of Texas, had craved more life from the Austin concert crowd. In an account printed in the November ’65 edition of Texas Ranger magazine, he described the audience as “mostly high school couples, all dressed up for church, almost . . . (who) sat like a bunch of toads, watching Bob Dylan rear back and shout, jump across the stage . . . waving around (his) Fender Jazzmaster electric guitar. . .”

Shelton had met Dylan and the band, which he could tell “had recently joined Dylan because they still had their Canadian haircuts and clothes,” at the Villa Capri Motor Hotel on Red River Street the night before the concert.

Shelton describes a crazy scene of “go-go girls” from Dallas who just wanted to touch Dylan, a local beatnik turning up with cheap Mexican rum and a late-night listening session that ended with everyone grooving to “Highway 61 Revisited,” Dylan’s first all-electric album, which had come out three weeks earlier.

Wynne, a 21-year-old fledgling promoter, had decided to try to book Dylan in Austin and Dallas after repeatedly hearing “Like a Rolling Stone” on the radio after its July 20, 1965, release. “I looked at the back of a Dylan album and it said he was managed by Albert Grossman, so I called information in New York and got the number,” Wynne recalls. “When I called and made my pitch, dylan_bandsomeone yelled to the other room, ‘Hey, do you want to go play in Texas?’ and someone yelled back ‘Yeah, sure.’ ” That’s how things went back in the days before big-scale national tours.

Dylan had met the Hawks, the former backing band of Ronnie Hawkins, a year earlier through John Hammond Jr., whose father had signed Dylan to Columbia. They were reacquainted in August 1965, according to Clinton Heylin’s “A Life In Stolen Moments: Day By Day 1941-1995,” when Grossman’s secretary took Dylan to see the Hawks at a club in New Jersey. He hired away guitarist Robertson and drummer Helm, an Arkansas native, to play concerts in Forest Hills, N.Y., and the Hollywood Bowl that would showcase songs from the new album.

To avoid a repeat of the Newport Folk disaster, Dylan rehearsed his new band, including bassist Harvey Brooks and keyboardist Al Kooper, night and day for two weeks before the Aug. 28 Forest Hills Stadium show. He also decided to open with a 45-minute solo acoustic segment, followed by a set with the band, to ease the folkies into the new material. But the audience of 15,000 reacted just as negatively, with an estimated one-third of them booing lustily throughout the electric set.

The Sept. 3 Hollywood Bowl show, although sprinkled with hecklers, was more enthusiastically received. Still, Brooks and Kooper decided not to continue with Dylan. Kooper admitted, in an interview for Martin Scorsese’s stunning “No Direction Home” documentary, that he made up his mind to quit after seeing Dallas on the itinerary less than two years after the Kennedy assassination. “If they didn’t like the president,” Kooper said, with a laugh, “what would they think of this guy?” He had no intention of being Dylan’s John Connally.

Dylan flew up to Toronto on Sept. 15, nine days before the Austin show, to rehearse with the Hawks. Three nights later he was back in New York. The Hawks were ready.

Bob Dylan and Robbie Robertson of the Hawks 1965.

Although Helm quit the group two months later, after musical disagreements with the front man (not to mention an aversion to being booed night after night), Dylan and the rest of the Hawks forged on to Australia and Europe with a series of fill-in drummers before settling on Mickey Jones of Dallas. Most of the audiences were contentious toward Dylan’s new musical direction, scenes of which dominate part two of the Scorsese documentary.

Then came Dylan’s motorcycle accident in July 1966, which, though not seriously injuring him, gave Dylan an excuse to lay low for a while.

During this period of mental healing, Dylan woodshedded daily with the Band, the informal sessions captured on an Ampex reel-to-reel tape machine. May to August 1967 was a summer of inspiration, as a relaxed Dylan started to get more of a feel for the Band’s earthy instincts. And the group had obviously been influenced by Dylan’s use of poetic license in his songwriting. The oft-bootlegged sessions (officially released in 1975) were called “The Basement Tapes.”

After blaring a hundred frantic solos a night behind Dylan’s spitfire lyrics (and the gritty Southern roots of Ronnie Hawkins before that) the Band, off the road for the first time in years, fell into a more unforced approach to collective song making, and painted the masterpieces “Music From Big Pink” (1968) and “The Band” (1969).

When Dylan toured again, almost eight years after his 1966 world tour ended with the legendary concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall, his backing group was once again the Band. This time they weren’t anonymous sidemen but artistic peers.

Bob Dylan and the Band opened their 1974 tour with two sold-out shows at Chicago Stadium, the Band performing “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down” right alongside Dylan classics no longer burdened with acoustic/electric distinctions. Their hurried debut, on Sept. 24, 1965, in Austin, must’ve seemed like a hundred years ago.

5 Responses to “Didja know? Dylan and the Band debuted in Austin 9/24/65”

  1. […] Bob Dylan and the Hawks first concert, September 24, 1965 from MichaelCorcoran.net […]

  2. Rob De Witt said

    I was there that night with my very pregnant wife; my daughter who still lives in Austin was born 12 days later. What I mostly remember is drunken frat boys hollering for ROCKNTOLL, DYLAN!! throughout the short acoustic set. When he came back with the Band, they cranked it up and made no attempt at music, just FUCKING LOUD!

    At 20, we were too old for the room, and left after the earaches set in.

  3. Mark Armand said

    First time I’ve heard of any Musical disagreements with Levon Helm….

  4. jaw444 said

    Oh, ok, it works today, good. if i could delete the above comment i would. But i will now post what i tried unsuccessfully to post last night, it’s a long post, reading the article here about Austin and other history was thought provoking for me. OK,here goes nothing:

    i read Levon’s autobiography (This Wheel’s On Fire) and he wrote a lot about deciding to leave the band, because of not just the booing, but people hating them so much that they were throwing bottles and tomatoes and cups of ice at them on the stage, i remember him saying in the book, “i went into performing music to make people happy.” and he said that it hurt him really bad that they were so hated. He didn’t say anything about musical disagreements. His last concert on Dylan’s tour in the last part of 1965 was November 28. After that he was replaced by Bobby Gregg. He quit. i heard it was because he was tired of playing in a back up band but i don’t remember Levon saying that. He might have, i read the book when it first came out, mid 90s.

    I appreciate this article, it’s an important piece of the story. I was at the previous concert, the last pre-Band concert, on Sept.3 at the Hollywood Bowl, and it was nothing like the way this concert is described–that audience loved Dylan, the sound was great, Dylan cared very much for the audience to hear the words of the new songs which were just released a few days before, Desolation Row in the acoustic set and then Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues and Ballad of a Thin Man, those songs had never been heard before, except the Forest Hills audience, one week before. i have a recording of Forest Hills, there’s a lot of booing, but not predominant. Contrary to what the article says (and to what Robbie Robertson says in his recently published autobiography) there was no booing at Hollywood Bowl, that audience LOVED Dylan. There’s a good recording of the whole thing on You Tube, search terms Elston Gunn Hollywood Bowl 1965, great audio, you can clearly hear the connection between Dylan and the audience, and Dylan sounds relaxed and communicates with the audience, often humorously, it was at times like a small club performance vibe, but in a massive venue. Some girls yell in unison, YOU’RE SO GROOVY, and Dylan laughs kind of self consciously and mumbles something. i think it’s the same girls yelling out “Hollis Brown, Hollis Brown.” But warm and friendly, not booing the music he was playing.

    People were so silent during Desolation Row, the first of the new songs, wanting to hear every word, except for bursting out laughing in the unexpected weird funny parts. New Bob Dylan songs!! People were hungry for that. And LA was a land of Top 40 AM radio for kids, which most of the audience was, we loved rock. We loved Dylan. We loved Like a Rolling Stone. what’s not to love. And dylan at Hollywood Bowl is enunciating each word so clearly, so emphatically and expressively, being the artist that he is, with an audience that is there to HEAR him. He wants those lyrics to be heard, he knows he has something and he wants to share it, he believes in it.

    You can here that on the recording on You Tube. Al Kooper in his autobiograpjy writes about leaving the Dylan tour, i think he mentions the caution about going to Dallas, and he said they were receiving death threats, and he wasn’t positive in his description of the Forest Hills experience. He says that Hollywood Bowl was completely different. He said something i didn’t know about, that there were movie stars in the audience including Gregory Peck and some other big stars from that generation, and he said the Byrds were there.

    So, it was more of an honoring of the art and the music, there was so much love for Dylan there that if anyone had booed, they would have gotten stuffed under a bench with someone’s tee shirt in their mouth. At the end after the band left the stage while the audience was calling for an encore, the master of ceremonies or whatever he was, some radio DJ, came out and said “Bob Dylan’s gone. He wanted me to tell you that he enjoyed playing the Hollywood Bowl. It was nothing like Austin is described here. During the rock set, Dylan is singing the amazing lyrics very clearly and in the new previously unheard songs, the audience is dead silent, listening. Ballad of a Thin Man, incredible song for those times that people in LA were just waiting for. the sky was opening. Before the last song, which was Like a Rolling Stone, Dylan was delaying starting the song while fumbling with his gear, and then he says to the audience, “Anybody got a C harp? He calls this out a couple of times, he says “Just throw them up here,” his voice sounds warm, humorous and friendly, iike in an intimate venue where there is that kind of connection with the audience. He takes one of the harps that lands on the stage and uses it on Like a Rolling Stone.

    I’ve heard before that there was a small amount of booing at Hollywood Bowl, but it wasn’t from anyone who was there, it was a journalist who was basing it on some unknown uncited information. i was there. There was no booing. There’s a really good audio recording of it on You Tube and you can hear the audience very well. you can hear the friendly interactions i described above and others. You aren’t going to hear booing. It was LA, home of Vito’s Sculpture Studio where the Byrds rehearsed before they had a studio or a drum kit, late 64. ground zero of the hippies, the first people to happily call themselves Freaks. This was not the old world of theEast Coast, where many many people in the audience loved Dylan too and just had to contend with a bunch of self righteous reactionary barbarians who were determined to act out their small minded narcissistic anger at the artists for doing the art they chose to do. Art isn’t some kind of service industry. geez.

    Bassist Harvey Brooks described his 1965 experiences at Forest Hills and Hollywood Bowl. After describing the stage actually being violently rushed at Forest Hills, knocking Al Kooper off his seat at the organ, as security staff muscled them off the stage, he describes his Hollywood Bowl experience:

    “…As we drove up the long driveway to the entrance and then the backstage area of the Hollywood Bowl, I could see the Dylan fans entering the venue. I couldn’t help but notice how different their attire and attitude was than those fans at Forest Hills. The California audience was laid back. They got what we were doing right off the bat.

    I was standing next to Bob about to play for a mix of movie stars, folkies and hippies. It was thrilling. I kept my cool and casually took in the surreal view from the stage. At the Hollywood Bowl, there is a moat that separates the audience from the stage area. But I could make out the faces of the first two or three rows, spotting the likes of Gregory Peck, Mel Brooks, Peter Fonda and Johnny Cash watching from below.

    We started off with Tombstone Blues, the same as Forest Hills. Except, this time there were smiles and people dancing in the audience….”

    http://www.beachamjournal.com/journal/2015/08/forest-hills-and-the-hollywood-bowl-the-days-after-bob-dylan-went-electric.html

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