An (almost) eyewitness account of the night Bob Dylan made history the first time
In more than three decades as a reporter, I have been fortunate enough to witness more than my share of history, from elections to wars to most everything in between.
So I’m a little embarrassed to say I have almost no memory of my first brush with history — the night Bob Dylan, the 2016 recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature, went electric and shook up the music world.
It was July 25, 1965, and I was a 13-year-old kid at a summer camp in Sturbridge, Mass. The folk-music era was at its height and somehow a group of campers and counselors wound up at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island.
Newport was the Woodstock of the pre-Woodstock years, a homing beacon for singers and fans who saw themselves as avatars of peace and change as Vietnam, civil rights and other social issues exploded around us.
We camped somewhere on the festival grounds, a green spit of land in a state park with gorgeous views of the ocean and fierce mosquitoes. Did we bring our guitars? Of course.
The bill that weekend offered an array of acoustic greats and not-so-greats. Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Lightnin’ Hopkins and others played, sang and held workshops. And Bob Dylan — then a “protest singer,” now a Nobel laureate — was the headliner.
Bob Dylan appears in a film still for “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid” (for which he also did the soundtrack) which was released in May 1973 and filmed in Durango, Mexico.(Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)
Bob Dylan performs at the John F Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia during the first international live aid concert against hunger in Africa on July 13, 1985.(Micelotta Frank / AFP/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama, background, presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Bob Dylan on May 29, 2012.(Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty Images)
People look at books by Bob Dylan who was announced the laureate of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, Sweden, on Oct. 13, 2016.(Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP/Getty Images)
His songs defied convention. So did his nasal voice and enigmatic verse. We knew “Blowing in the Wind” and “Masters of War” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” We knew our parents didn’t understand him. So we pretended we did.
His half-electric “Bringing It All Back Home” album had been released that spring, and our tiny, tinny transistor radios were just starting to play his latest mesmerizing song, “Like a Rolling Stone.”
Dylan apparently appeared on the main stage after Cousin Emmy and the Sea Island Singers, whoever they were. It was already dark and we were probably tired, mosquito-bit and whining. Maybe we were still at the workshops or at another stage.
But I have no real memory of watching Dylan pick up his Fender Stratocaster, tune endlessly with guitarist Mike Bloomfield and keyboardist Al Kooper, and start bleating into the microphone.
I’ve read that he was introduced on the main stage by Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary fame, and the performance was short, loud and brutish. Dylan and his band played only three electric songs: “Maggie’s Farm,” “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Phantom Engineer.”
Films have been shot and books written about whether the audience really booed Dylan for playing his first electric set in public and forever betraying the cause of folk music.
My guess, having heard Dylan play many times since, is they were booing the brief set and the crappy sound system. Seeger supposedly threatened to pull the plugs because it was so loud.
But if that was history, I missed it.
Inside the business of entertainment
The Wide Shot brings you news, analysis and insights on everything from streaming wars to production — and what it all means for the future.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.