They sat around like some sort of Algonquin Round Table, occasionally cracking a joke, arguing, talking of poetry and music. It’s a hotel party, a circle of people that included a few hangers-on, some nominal folkies, and, of course, Bob Dylan and Donovan. The untidy scene plays out like Greek tragedy in D. A. Pennebaker’s film Don’t Look Back.
Thrust into action at the Savoy Hotel, London, an argument breaks out between Dylan and a hanger-on—apparently glass has been thrown out the hotel window and Dylan wants to know the culprit. He wants them to “be groovy or leave.” The drunken partygoer points to Dylan and says, “You’re a big noise, you know?” Dylan—in the prime of his powers, in tune with the spirits, words ejecting from his lips like a rhetorical firehose—replies with an emphatic “And I know it, man.”
Then, fresh-faced Donovan is cutting through the drama with a rendition of “To Sing For You,” everyone’s engrossed, including Dylan who before the third verse, exclaims, “Hey, that’s a good song, man!” It’s a beautiful song, but without a doubt the style is at least partly lifted from one Dylan had honed over the last few years. Dylan was a man at the center of the folk world and Donovan was being called the British Bob Dylan. But this shouldn't undercut Dylan’s appreciation of the song, which is genuine. The revelers are smiling and Donovan, who days before had only just turned 19, is soaking it in.
Donovan finishes playing and whether he’s handing the guitar or Dylan grabs it is up for interpretation, but in the scene, you can hear the younger Donovan request a song: “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” Dylan of course, shatters the world, there in the Savoy Hotel, May 8, 1965. It’s amazing anyone’s able to walk away from that. As he goes through the verses, Dylan cracks a wry, knowing smile and looks around at the circle of people. Is he connecting the blistering lyrics to someone there, is he acknowledging the song-to-song competition, or does he just know the song is that good?
Throughout Pennebaker’s cinema verité documentary we don’t often know what Dylan is thinking. But we do know the ’65 tour in Britain, the half-electric-half-folk album that preceded it in March, the album to come that August, the Newport Folk festival, and the entirety of 1965 is a watershed moment for the musician. It’s not just “Dylan went electric.” It’s: “Dylan changed and he changed the world, too.”
That January, Dylan had huddled together with musicians to record Bringing It All Back Home; it’s hard to imagine he understood the effect the album would have on popular music. Music critic Dave Marsh encapsulates the impact in 1979’s Rolling Stone’s Record Guide:
“...By fusing the Chuck Berry beat of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles with the leftist, folk tradition of the folk revival, Dylan really had brought it back home, creating a new kind of rock & roll … that made every type of artistic tradition available to rock.”
Bringing It All Back Home had opened up the portal, and soon to follow were the Byrds, the Beatles and everyone else that came after. While the first track is the blistering “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” the capstone on the album is, of course, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” a track that extols the vagaries and outcroppings of a relationship and its end.
By late April, Dylan was in England for the eight-date tour that would end with two nights at the Royal Albert Hall. Even though he’d just released an album half-full of electric songs, Dylan was still performing as a solo folk artist at this point, despite the fact that “...Homesick Blues” was a top ten hit in the UK at the time. For all the thoughts society has on Dylan’s “cool,” Pennebaker’s film shows a brash, argumentative young man with strong convictions and interests, who is often tossing between silence, jokes, or intense conversation. The wheels are always turning, though, behind the shiny black spectacles.
In June, Dylan had started recording what would go on to be one of the greatest albums ever, Highway 61 Revisited, where he dug in on electric. One month after recording “Like A Rolling Stone” and days after releasing it as a single, Dylan was on stage at the Newport Folk Festival, and depending who you ask, being booed for playing electric backed by Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Some say it was the bad sound, others say the booing stemmed from not being able to hear Dylan’s vocals, and yet others say it was backlash from playing electric. Likely it was a combination, and then mob mentality took over.
Dylan wasn’t stopping, though, and days after the festival he was back in the studio finishing up the album. In the five months separating Bringing It All Back Home to Highway 61 Revisited, he’d taken a newly sprung formula for “folk rock” and followed it up with might and main. The smoother, more cohesive Highway 61 is Dylan taking his lyrical gravity and matching it with shuffling rock ‘n’ roll that would inspire a million albums and soundtrack a million moments.
Bob Dylan changed music forever in 1965, taking the good will he’d built up with folk audiences for years and turning it on its head, being booed, albeit not for long. The result is an all-time banner year that included a legendary tour captured in a legendary documentary. But that’s not how this story ends. By October Dylan was recording his next album, New York sessions that later ended up with the name Blonde on Blonde.
Written by E. Ryan Ellis
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