This is a video of my talk at BRLSI in July. It’s not great quality but you get the whole thing! I originally put it on YouTube but it got blocked because of my use of two Bob Dylan songs. This was a bit disappointing but I have decided to upload it here instead. I hope Bob won’t mind too much, he always seemed to understand the true value of copyright theft and plagiarism!
“Ringo Starr, George Harrison, John Lennon and Yoko Ono were sitting behind us. The talk of the festival was that they might join Dylan on stage.”
The organisers of the 1969 Isle of Wight festival, brothers Ronnie and Ray Foulk, had managed to pull off the amazing coup of getting Bob Dylan to headline. Woodstock, which had taken place two weeks earlier on his doorstep in upstate New York, had tried to persuade him but he’d turned them down. He’d been in semi-retirement for three years after a motorbike accident, and this was his comeback.
In this picture, we’re waiting in the VIP area just below the stage for him to come on; it took about two hours because there were some problems with microphones. The chap sitting next to me is Vernon Warder, my boyfriend of the time. He had long holidays from art college and was working at the festival, doing artwork for the signs on the front of the stage, and helping with security and management. As a result, he had a VIP pass and, being his partner, I got one, too. Otherwise it was £2 for a ticket.
I was aware that Ringo Starr, George Harrison, John Lennon and Yoko Ono were sitting behind us. The talk of the festival was that they might join Dylan on stage. It never happened. I was a huge Beatles fan, but had not seen them live; I kept turning round to look at them. We were about three rows from the front and could smell the hash that someone was smoking behind us.
When Dylan finally came on, he was barely 10 feet away from me. It was so exciting. He played for only an hour, for which he got some stick in the press, but it was incredibly exhilarating. He did two encores.
After he finished, I went back to my parents’ house on the island, where I grew up. Even though I had been away at college for two years, there was no way they would allow me to stay out all night. I remember it was a real struggle trying to find a lift, because we didn’t have cars and couldn’t afford taxis.
Throughout the festival, I went back and forth between the VIP arena and backstage. I once bumped into Lennon and remember thinking, “Oh, he’s not very tall, is he?” I remember being really excited about going into a portable toilet after Ono had been in there. I wasn’t even aware of the celebrities: Jane Fonda, Elizabeth Taylor and Eric Clapton were all there. That’s how young and naive I was.
I first saw this photo last summer. Some friends of mine who live on the Isle of Wight went to the launch of Ray Foulk’s book, Stealing Dylan From Woodstock, his account of the festival. One of them texted me: “Were you sitting in front of the Beatles at the 1969 festival?” I said yes, and she wrote back: “Your photo’s in the book!”
This was my first festival. I went to the Isle of Wight the following year, when Jimi Hendrix played shortly before his death. I’ve been to others since, but nothing will match those two experiences.
Next Sunday (27th September 2015) I am organising a night commemorating the 50th anniversary of the song “Like a Rolling Stone” and the album it is from “Highway 61 Revisited”, at the Musician Pub in Leicester. I’ve got a few days to go and I’m beginning to get a bit nervous now. Some of Leicester’s best are coming to perform their favourite tracks from the album and other songs from the other great mid 60s records, when Dylan decided to “plug in” (“Bringing It All Back Home” and “Blonde on Blonde”). 50 years is a long time but the songs and music have not lost their power. In fact, to my ears, they seem even more startling and profoundly modern. Not only have they stood the test of time but they are in the pantheon of great 20th Century Art along with T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, Jackson Pollock’s evocative splatterings and Charlie Parker’s mindbending improvisations. It had never been done before and it will never be done again. It stands alone!
Of the three great “electric” records “Highway 61 Revisited” is the pinnacle. It is the first Dylan album that he was part of a real band rather than a soloist with backing musicians. “Bringing It All Back Home” paved the way with some really exciting performances, especially “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” but half of it was acoustic although the songs were like nothing heard before. Dylan had rejected political protest and replaced it with a kind of explosive, image laden, nihilistic stream of consciousness. Popular music had never experienced anything like it. “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” takes an Everly Brothers lick and creates a blast of vitriolic energy which is mindblowing: ” Old lady judges watch people in pairs, limited in sex they dare, to push fake morals insult and stare, while money doesn’t talk, it swears, obscenity who really cares, propaganda all is phony”. But, in this record he is still making sense. “Highway 61″ moves the song writing into a different realm. This is a world in which the songs seem to mean something but you can’t quite place what it is. ” Ballad of a Thin Man” epitomises this: “Something is happening but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?”. A series of bizarre incidents follow involving sword swallowers, professors and geeks and how your imagination is being attacked! This is the ultimate statement of the Hip/Straight divide that was emerging in the growing counterculture of the 1960s. Most of the songs on “Highway 61” defy logic. They are absurdist and mysterious and yet seem to pertain to a deeper meaning that washes over us and draws us in. “They’re selling post cards of the hanging, they’re painting the passports brown, the beauty parlour is full of sailors, the circus is in town” and all through the song we learn that “Desolation Row” is either the place to be or the place you are prevented from going. “Right now I can’t read too good, don’t send me no more letters no, not unless you mail them from Desolation Row”.
Perhaps the ultimate Dylan song is “Like a Rolling Stone”. Bruce Springsteen described the beginning of this, the opening song on “Highway 61 Revisited”, as the “snare shot that sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind.” Folk singer Phil Ochs was even more rhapsodic about the LP: “It’s impossibly good… How can a human mind do this?” When I first heard this song I moved from being a fan of Pop Music to someone who wanted to play and write songs and that desire has never left me. That’s why I’m looking forward to the gig next Sunday and am also quite nervous about it. It is commemorating something that changed my life!!