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The Halloween Concert That Reinvented Bob Dylan

Philharmonic Hall, New York City, October 31, 1964

National Archives/Hulton Archives/Getty Images

On Halloween night 1964, a twenty-three-year-old Bob Dylan spellbound an adoring audience at Philharmonic Hall in New York. Relaxed and high-spirited, he sang seventeen songs, three of them with his guest Joan Baez, plus one encore. Many of the songs, although less than two years old, were so familiar that the crowd knew every word. Others were brand-new and baffling. Dylan played his heart out on these new compositions, as he did on the older ones, but only after a turn as the mischievous tease.

“This is called ‘A Sacrilegious Lullaby in, in D minor,’” he announced, before beginning one of the first public performances ever of “Gates of Eden.”

He was the cynosure of hip, when hipness still wore pressed slacks and light brown suede boots (as I remember he did that right). Yet hipness was transforming right onstage. Dylan had already moved on, well beyond the knowing New Yorkers in the hall, and he was singing about what he was finding. The show was in part a summation of past work and in part of summons to an explosion for which none of us, not even he, was fully prepared. 

The times seemed increasingly out of joint during the weeks before the concert. The trauma of John F. Kennedy’s assassination less than a year earlier had barely abated. Over the summer, the disappearance in Mississippi of the young civil-rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, and the recovery of their beaten and murdered bodies, had created traumas anew. President Lyndon Johnson managed to push a civil-rights bill through Congress in July 1964; by early autumn, it seemed as if he would trounce the archconservative Barry Goldwater in the coming election and usher in an updated New Deal. But in August, Johnson received a congressional blank check to escalate American involvement in Vietnam conflict. On a single day in mid-October, the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, was overthrown and the Communist China exploded its first atomic bomb. A hopeful phrase of the decade was quickly winding down, and a scarier phase loomed.

Dylan’s style and his art were changing too, with an accelerating and bewildering swiftness befitting the times. As early as the summer of 1963, he had put the folk establishment on notice in “For Dave Glover,” a prose poem he was asked to write for the Newport Folk Festival program, asserting that, although he had great respect for the older folks songs and their traditions, he would write new songs as he liked, for himself and his friends. In January 1964, he complained in a letter to Broadside magazine about the pressures and guilt that had come with his growing fame. Out of the blue, a letter then appeared in Broadside from Johnny Cash, praising Dylan as “a Poet Troubadour,” and bidding the world to “SHUT UP! . . . AND LET HIM SING.” But the din around Dylan had barely begun. In late July, his performances at the Newport Folk Festival of new material, including “Chimes of Freedom,” followed, two weeks later, by the release of Another Side of Bob Dylan, badly shook the older folk-music establishment. In Sing Out! magazine, Irwin Silber published “An Open Letter to Bob Dylan,” complaining that Dylan’s “new songs seem to be all inner-directed now, inner probing, self-conscious—maybe even a little maudlin or a little cruel on occasion.” Noting, with a familiar left-wing combination of vagueness and menace, that he was not alone in his disquiet, Silber warned Dylan not to turn into “a different Bob Dylan than the one we knew.” (Dylan responded by instructing his manager, Albert Grossman, to inform Sing Out! that he would no longer send the magazine his songs for publication.)

Bob Dylan Playing Harmonica Philharmonic Hall, Lincoln Center NYC 1964.
Photograph by Daniel Kramer

Little did Silber know that Dylan was not simply becoming different; he had also been listening to the Beatles. But neither did Dylan’s approving fans, for whom Dylan remained the great folk-music star, no matter what he sang. At Newport, Dylan stuck almost entirely to playing his new songs, including one he introduced to an afternoon workshop session as “Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, Play a Song for Me”—and the response was enthusiastic. Amid what the Top 40 disc jockeys hyped as the English rock invasion, led by the Beatles, Dylan still stood onstage alone, singing and playing with nothing more than his acoustic guitar and rack-clamped harmonica. When he wasn’t alone, he performed, at Newport and elsewhere, with Joan Baez, whose presence and endorsement of Dylan’s new songs banished any doubts about their legitimacy. Dylan’s politics hadn’t actually disappeared, as Silber charged, but only become less preachy and much funnier, as in the joke-saga “Motorpsycho Nitemare” on Another Side. Dylan had always sung intensely personal songs. His most powerful political material often involved human-sized stories, like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” And amid the disorientation of late 1963 and 1964, who was to say that a turn to introspection was out of place?

The Beatles, with their odd chords and joyful harmonies, were exciting, but what was “She Loves You” compared to the long-stemmed word imagery in “Chimes of Freedom”? Who else but Dylan would be brainy enough and with-it enough to toss off allusions in his songs to a Fellini film and Cassius Clay? To his fans—among whom, as a self-centered precocious thirteen-year-old, I counted myself one—he may have been evolving, but so were we. The Bob Dylan we now heard and saw seemed basically the same as the Bob Dylan we knew, only better.

That Dylan’s management booked Philharmonic Hall for its star’s biggest show of the year, on Halloween night, was testimony to his allure and growing stature. Opened only two years earlier as the first showcase of the neighborhood killer Robert Moses’s new Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall) was, with its imperial grandeur and bad acoustics, the most prestigious auditorium in Manhattan—and for that matter in the entire country. Within two years of the release of his first album, Dylan’s New York venues had shot upward in cachet (and farther uptown), from Town Hall to Carnegie Hall and now to the sparkling new home of Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. When the expectant audience steamed out of the old mosaic-tiled IRT subway stop at Sixty-sixth Street, and then crammed into the cavernous gilded theater, it must have looked to the uptowners (and the ushers) like a bizarre invasion of the beatnik, civil-rights, ban-the-bomb young.

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez In Green Room Philharmonic Hall Lincoln Center NYC 1964.
Photograph by Daniel Kramer

As if to make sure that we knew our place, a man appeared onstage at showtime to warn us that there would be no picture taking or smoking permitted in the house. Then, like Bernstein striding to his podium, Dylan walked out of the wings, no announcement necessary, a fanfare of applause proclaiming who he was. He started the concert, as he normally did, with “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Here we all were, the self-consciously sensitive and discerning, settling in—at a Dylan show like any other, whatever the plush surroundings.

Two hours later, we would leave the premises and head back underground to the IRT, exhilarated, entertained, and ratified in our self-assured enlightenment, but also confused about the snatches of lines we’d gleaned from the strange new songs. What was that weird lullaby in D minor? What in God’s name is perfumed gull (or did he sing “curfewed gal”)? Had Dylan really written a ballad based on Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon? The melodies were strong, and the playing on the “darkness” song had been ominous and overpowering, but it had all moved so fast that comprehension was impossible. It had turned into a Dylan show unlike any we’d ever heard or heard about. And in our programs, there was Dylan’s latest prose poem, “Advice for Geraldine and Her Miscellaneous Birthday,” which warned that if one crossed the line, people will “feel / something’s going on up there that / they don’t know about. revenge / will set in.” The piece concluded with a string of injunctions, some serious, some comic, some Dada-esque: “beware of bathroom walls that’ve not / been written on. when told t’ look at / yourself . . . never look. when asked / t’ give your real name . . . never give it.” Way ahead of his listeners, Dylan was already mulling over sentiments, thoughts, and even lines that would one day wind up in “Ballad of Thin Man” and “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

Thanks to an excellent tape, finally released in its entirety to the public as a compact disc forty years later, it is possible to appreciate what happened that night—not just in what Dylan sang, but in what he said, and in the amazing audible rapport he had with his audience.

The show was divided in two, with a fifteen-minute intermission. The first half was for innovation as well as for some glances at where Dylan had already been. Two of the most pointedly political older songs, interestingly, had never been issued on record, but the audience knew them anyway, or at least knew about them, and responded enthusiastically.

Back in May 1963, Dylan had been booked on The Ed Sullivan Show, the premier Sunday night television variety program, where Elvis Presley had made three breakthrough appearances seven years earlier and had agreed, on the final show, to be shown performing only from the waist up. The downtown Irish traditional folk group the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem had appeared on Sullivan twice, vastly enlarging their following. (They played Philharmonic Hall a year before Dylan did.) The Limeliters, the Lettermen, the Belafonte Folk Singers, and other mainstream folk acts had also performed on Sullivan’s program; in March 1963, Sullivan hosted the popular Chad Mitchell Trio. For Dylan, an edgy topical singer, playing The Ed Sullivan Show would mean huge exposure. He chose as his number the satirical “Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues.”

(For readers too young to remember: the John Birch Society, which still exists, was notorious as a hard-right political group that saw Communist conspiracies everywhere. The Chad Mitchell Trio had enjoyed a minor hit with its own mocking song, “The John Birch Society,” in 1962.)

Upon hearing Dylan’s selection at the rehearsal, just before airtime, a CBS executive got cold feet and, over Sullivan’s objections, ordered him to sing something less controversial. Unlike Presley, Dylan would not be censored, and he refused to appear. Word of his principled walkout burnished Dylan’s reputation among his established fans, old and young. Little did we know that the song had also been dropped, along with three others, from the original version of Dylan’s second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.

Bob Dylan's Stuff 1964.
Photograph by Daniel Kramer

Dylan included the banned number on his 1964 Halloween program. It required no introduction, as its notorious identity is revealed early in the song’s first verse, but Dylan wanted to make a point, and so he introduced it, with a mixture of defiance and good humor, as “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues”—a title that now to us seemed to cover the craven mainstream media as well as the right-wing extremists who were thumping their tubs for their favorite, Senator Goldwater. It was a thrilling moment for the audience, getting to hear what CBS had forbidden the nation to hear while also exulting in our own political righteousness. It also sustained Dylan’s connection—and our vicarious one—to the left-wing moral dramaturgy surrounding the right-wing 1950s blacklist, which had carried on for some key figures long after Senator Joseph McCarthy had fallen in disgrace. “Got a shock from my feet that hit my brain / Them Reds did it, the ones on Hootenanny,” Dylan sang—a jokey slap at the ABC-TV officials who had banned Pete Seeger from appearing on their weekly show that had capitalized on folksinging’s new popularity (and had recently gone off the air), and a note of support for Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and others who had boycotted the show in protest.

“Who Killed Davey Moore?” the other older political song, was about the death of a young featherweight boxer who, after losing a title bout to Sugar Ramos in Los Angeles in 1963, fell into a coma and died. The incident sparked public debate about whether boxing should be banned in the United States. It also inspired the political songwriter (and Dylan’s rival) Phil Ochs to compose a narrative song, describing in detail the flying fists and pouring sweat inside the ring and the “money-chasing vultures” and blood-lusting fans outside it. Dylan’s musical take on the episode was at once simpler—a reworking of the incident “Who Killed Cock Robin?” theme—and more complex, pointing out the many people who bore responsibility for Moore’s death and reciting their lame excuses.

On the concert tape, the audience’s instant adulatory reaction stands out most of all. As soon as Dylan sings “Who Killed ... ,” the cheering starts. Although Dylan had not released the recording of the song, he had been performing it in concert as early as his Town Hall show in April 1963, less than three weeks after Davey Moore died. It was a time when a folksinger, at least this one, could have a song achieve familiarity without even putting it on a record, let alone getting it played on the radio.

Another response to “Davey Moore” also stands out on the tape, when Dylan comes to the song’s line about boxing no longer being permitted in Fidel Castro’s Cuba and elicits scattered but determined applause. Maybe some of the Sing Out! old guard were in the audience—momentarily, if just momentarily, relieved and encouraged 1. Certainly there were younger people there, the Red-diaper babies and other political types, who still wanted to hold on to Dylan as the troubadour of the revolution.

Dylan, however, would not be typecast as anything, and even his rendering of “Davey Moore” pulled in other directions. “This is a song about a boxer,” he said before he sang it. “It’s got nothing to do with boxing; it’s just a song about a boxer really. And, uh, it’s not even having to do with a boxer, really. It’s got nothing to do with nothing. But I fit all these words together, that’s all.” The irreverent introduction undercut solemnity, even though some people wanted and expected and even demanded solemnity. (Others in the audience did not, and made that clear in their impromptu badinage with the singer.) Dylan’s laughter in the middle of his introduction even sounded intoxicated. Was he drunk on Beaujolais—we all knew from one magazine story or another that Dylan drank Beaujolais—or maybe, even cooler (this was 1964, and some of us were very young), had Dylan been smoking pot? (It would only come out much later that he had already moved from Burgundy on to much harder stuff than marijuana, including his first LSD trip back in April.) Perhaps he was intoxicated in a different way, giddy from the hall and the affectionate crowd and the joy of playing Lincoln Center. No matter: his mellow, at times merry mood was infections, and it had nothing to do with sermonizing.

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez Philharmonic Hall, Lincoln Center NYC 1964.
Photograph by Daniel Kramer

It did, however, had something to do with sex. Nobody in the audience had yet heard “If You Gotta Go, Go Now,” and its rollicking monologue of a sly, self-aware, take-it-or-leave-it seduction sent everybody into stitches. Coming after “Gates of Eden,” it was a bit of comic relief, but hip comic relief. In the song, the singer knows very well that the object of his affections is no virgin. Casual sex is no longer taboo; the repression surrounding this part of life has lifted. But what Presley had done with his body and his voice, Dylan was doing with his words—coy, conversational, and comical, feeding the youth conspiracy of candid pleasure (and pleasant candor) but with jesting, gentle persuasion.

Sometimes, the audience knew Dylan’s words better than he did. Nearing the end of the show’s first half, Dylan strummed his guitar but completely forgot the next song’s opening line. As if he were still performing at the Gaslight down in Greenwich Village, or at a Newport festival workshop, and not in serious Philharmonic Hall, Dylan asked the audience to help him out, and it did. On the tape, two voices, unmistakably New York voices, carry above all the others, one rapidly following the other with the cue: “I can’t understand . . .” The song, “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met),” had appeared on Another Side less than three months earlier, but his fans knew it so well that it might have been “Perry Peggy-O.” (It may even have been more familiar to most of the audience than “Perry Peggy-O.”) Dylan, a master of timing, did not miss a beat, picked up the line, and then sang the song flawlessly.

Dylan interspersed these funny moments with his new masterpieces, “Gates of Eden” and “Its Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” calling the latter “It’s Alright, Ma, It’s Life and Life Only,” and he performed “Mr. Tambourine Man” for the first time in New York. These songs have become such iconic pieces over the intervening decades, their twisting images so much a part of a generations’ subconscious, that it is difficult to recall what they sounded like when heard for the first time, and in concert. Dylan knew that they were special, and that they would fly over his listeners’ heads the first time around. He even joked about that onstage. (On the tape, some laughter greets Dylan’s announcement of “It’s Alright, Ma,” as if the song title were a put-on, and he pipes up, “Yes, it’s a very funny song.”) During these performances, the audience was utterly silent, trying at first to catch all the words, but finally bowled over by the intensity of both the lyrics and Dylan’s playing, even when he muffed a line. We would not get the chance to figure the songs out for another five months, when they appeared on Bring It All Back Home—and even then it would take repeated listening for any of it to make sense. At the time, it just sounded like demanding poetry, at times epic narrative, proving once again that Bob Dylan was leading us into new places, the exact destination unknown but still deeply tempting.

Bob Dylan Philharmonic Hall NYC 1964.
Photograph by Daniel Kramer

Dylan did not waste any words of introduction to “Mr. Tambourine Man” even though he’d yet to release it on record. (The truncated rock version by the Byrds, which became a number one hit on the Billboard singles charts, did not appear until the following April, two weeks after Dylan finally released his own version on Bringing It All Back Home.) But enough of the audience had heard the song, at Newport or perhaps at one of the shows leading up to this one, so that its opening words brought an outburst of applause. The rest of us, uninitiated, sat back to wonder how lyrics about weariness and stripped senses could fit such a delightful, dancing melody.

It turned out to be a song of Dylan singing again to his muse. He had done so in one of his earliest compositions—”Hey, hey, Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song”—but now he called out to an abstract figure—“Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man”—and wanted a song played to him. Dylan would later point to an oversized Turkish tambourine, played by Bruce Langhorne, as an inspiration, but neither Langhorne nor anybody else any longer served Dylan as Guthrie had done. He was weary, unable to keep a grip, but also unsleepy, and with no particular place to go, he would follow the musical figure to his “magic swirling ship,” out to the inspired windy beach beyond crazy sorrow.

Like all of Dylan’s compositions, “Mr. Tambourine Man” contained bits and pieces gathered from hither to yon. Dylan himself had alluded in an interview to Federico Fellini’s film La strada (The Road), in which an innocent, sprightly young woman falls into the clutches of a brutish he-man performer; much later, the brute, alone, learns that the woman has died, and the film ends with him sobbing uncontrollably on a beach 2. Dylan aficionados have located some specific references, including the words “jingle jangle,” which appear on a recording by the hip comic monologist Lord Buckley, whom Dylan is known to have enjoyed. Finally, though, the song is not a direct translation of anything else; it is about precisely what it says it is about—an artist, at his wit’s end, looking for respite from his distress if only for a night, and turning to a shadowy musical spirit to play him a song that he will follow.

The other two new songs showed where his muse had taken him, and they were more obscure—as they remain. The title of “It’s Alright, Ma” evoked Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right, Mama,” one of the first songs that Elvis Presley recorded in Memphis—but the reference certainly didn’t occur to me at the time, and probably didn’t to more than a few others. Instead, the title got a laugh, then Dylan joked about it being a funny song, and then he began hammering dropped-D tuning runs in a minor key which announced that something dark and sinister was about to come. The opening line swipes the title of Koestler’s novel about Communism’s stupid cruelties, but changes it so that darkness arrives not simply at noon but at the break of noon. The break of noon? Dawn cracks and breaks, and Ginsberg’s “Howl” doom cracks on the hydrogen jukebox. But noon doesn’t break—except that now it did, making the darkness at noon sound all scarier.

The song didn’t seem to have anything to do with Koestler’s book, and its opening verses about “the handmade blade” and “the fool’s gold mouthpiece” made it difficult to understand what the song actually did have to do with. But some startling images and proclamations, restating Dylan’s escape from folk-revival pieties, carried listeners along: “He not busy being born / Is busy dying”; “While others say don’t hate nothing at all / Except hatred.” One line leaped out, about how even the president of the United States must sometimes stand naked. After Vietnam, Watergate, and the long age of Reagan that followed, the line has brought predictable, beery anti-authoritarian cheers from concertgoers. But nobody cheered in 1964—nobody knew it was coming—and the line was actually perplexing, given our assumption that the incumbent was the good guy in the upcoming presidential election. The rest of the song charted dishonesties, blasphemies, and hypocrisy in American life in a manner more like Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” than like any folk song ever written. The hypnosis that is modern advertising, the fake morals that limit sex but bow down to money, the rat-race society that twists people into meanness and conformity: Dylan had written a song of Ginsberg’s Moloch, exposing the human corruption and self-delusion that had driven the best minds mad. What hopeful sound there is comes from a solitary individual, directed at another individual—but the words are trembling, distant, unclear, seeking a humane connection, and they are directed at someone who is asleep. The subversive singer is tolerated only because he keeps his truly dangerous thought-dreams under wraps. Otherwise, he’d probably get his head cut off.

“The Gates of Eden,” as he called it that night, took us furthest out into the realm of the imagination, to a point beyond logic and reason. Like “It’s Alright, Ma,” the song mentions a book title in its first line, but the song is more reminiscent of the poems of William Blake (and, perhaps, of Blake’s disciple Ginsberg) that it is of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, vaunting the truth that lies in surreal imagery.

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez 'MASKS' Philharmonic Hall, Lincoln Center NYC 1964.
Photograph by Daniel Kramer

After an almost impenetrable first verse, the song approaches themes that were becoming familiar to Dylan’s listeners. In Genesis, Eden is the paradise where Adam and Eve had direct communication with God. According to “Gates of Eden,” it is where truth resides, without bewitching illusions. And the song is basically a list, verse after verse, of the corrosive illusions that Dylan would sing about constantly from the mid-1960s on: illusions about obedience to authority; about false religions and idols (the “utopian hermit monks” riding on the golden calf); about high-toned intellectualism. None of these count for much or even exist inside the gates of Eden.

The kicker comes in the final verse, where the singer talks of his lover telling him of her dreams without any attempt at interpretation—and that at times, the singer thinks that the only truth is that there is no truth outside the gates of Eden. It’s a familiar conundrum: If there is no truth, isn’t saying as much really an illusion, too, unless we are all in Eden? (“All Cretans are liars,” says the Cretan.) What makes the one truth so special? But the point, as the lover knows, is that outside of paradise, interpretation is futile. Don’t try to figure out what the song, or what any work of art, “really” means; the meaning is in the imagery itself; attempting to define it is to succumb to the illusion that truth can be reached through human logic. So Dylan’s song told us, as he took the measure in his lyrics of what had begun as the “New Vision,” two and a half miles up Broadway from Lincoln Center at Columbia, in the mid-1940s. Apart from Dylan, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso may have been the only people in Philharmonic Hall who got it.

Bob Dylan With Dark Glasses NYC 1964.
Photograph by Daniel Kramer

I can’t recall much about the intermission, except that a goodly number of people were smokers and there was a rush to the entry hall for a fifteen-minute nicotine break. (Too young to smoke, and seated in the top tier, I didn’t stray downstairs.) The evening’s second half brought us back to familiar ground: songs from Freewheelin’ and The Times They Are A-Changin’, including what has proven to be one of Dylan’s most enduring ballads, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” a song of contained outrage so perfectly written that it has outlived almost all of the era’s other finger-pointing songs. Then came three duets with Joan Baez, she sporting at least part of the time a plaid Glengarry cap. (Baez also sang “Silver Dagger,” accompanied by Dylan on the harmonica.) Dylan and Baez—the king and queen of the folk movement, known to be lovers—had been performing together off and on for well over a year. Baez had brought Dylan to the stage during several of her concerts, including one at Forest Hills in August, and now Dylan was returning the compliment. They sang of desire, rejected and requited, and American history, their harmonizing ragged in places, but with an ease between them that further mellowed the mood even as it upped the star wattage onstage.

Plenty has been made since about Dylan and Baez’s relationship in these years, some of it unflattering to one or the other or both of them. Much as the Kennedy’s Camelot would have its debunkers, so the magical kingdom we conjured up around Bob Dylan and Joan Baez would come crashing down. Nearly forgotten, however—but captured on the Philharmonic tape, even in that night’s laid-back, knockabout performances—have been the rich fruits of their singing collaboration. Joan always seemed, onstage, the earnest, worshipful one, overly so, in the presence of the Boy Genius, and Bob would sometimes lightly mock that earnestness, as he did between songs at the Philharmonic. But when singing together, they were quite a pair, their harmony lines adding depth to the melodies, their sheer pleasure in each other’s company showing in their voices.

When I listen to the Philharmonic tape, my favorite duet is of the then-unreleased song “Mama, You Been on My Mind.” Baez sings “Daddy” instead of “Mama.” Then, during one of the brief instrumental interludes, she interjects a “shooka-shooka-shooka, shooka-shooka”—nothing one would expect from the folk queen, something more like pop or rock and roll or even rhythm and blues than folk music. Was our Joan listening to the Beatles, too? I don’t recall hearing it this way at the time, but now it sounds like another little portent of things to come.

Dylan closed, solo, with his encore. Shouted requests filled the air, for “Chimes of Freedom,” for anything, even for “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” “God, did I record that?” Dylan joked back, basking in the revelry. “Is that a protest song?” He chose “All I Really Want to Do,” another crowd-pleaser from Another Side. He seemed to start out with an attitude, his voice rising, half snapping near the end of the opening line—“I ain’t looking to com-PETE with you”—but he settled into a kind of emphatic exuberance. Was this a cryptic envoi to Joan Baez? (If it was, she didn’t get it, and maybe Dylan didn’t either, not fully.) Was it an envoi to us, or the part of us that wanted to make of Dylan, in our own way, something more than he could possibly be? Or was he just itching to plug into an amp and play rock and roll?

During the first half of the concert, after singing “Gates of Eden,” Dylan got into a little riff about how the song shouldn’t scare anybody, that it was only Halloween, and that he had his Bob Dylan mask on. “I’m masquerading!” he joked, elongating the second word into a smoke-ringed laugh. The joke was serious. Bob Dylan, né Zimmerman, brilliantly cultivated his celebrity, but he was really an artist and singer, a man behind a mask, a great entertainer, maybe, but basically just that—someone who threw words together, astounding as they were. The burden of being something else—a guru, a political theorist, “the voice of a generation,” as he facetiously put it in an interview some years ago—was too much to ask of anyone. Indeed, it missed the whole point as he was laying it out in his songs, which was that the songs themselves were what mattered, their words and images alone. We in the audience were asking him to be a leader and more, but Dylan was slipping the yoke. He certainly enjoyed the fame and fortune that had headed his way. But beyond a certain level of acceptance, all he really wanted to do was to be a friend, if possible, and an artist writing and singing his songs. He was telling us so, but we didn’t want to believe it, and wouldn’t let him leave it at that. We wanted more.

Bob Dylan Lifted By Joan Baez At Party After Lincoln Center Concert NYC 1964.
Photograph by Daniel Kramer

Less than three months after the Philharmonic Hall concert, Bob Dylan showed up at Columbia Records’ Studio A in Manhattan for the second session of recording Bringing it All Back Home—and he brought with him three guitarists, two bassists, a drummer, and a piano player. One of the first songs they recorded was “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” a Chuck Berry-ish rock number, less sung than recited, about lures, snares, chaos, not following leaders, cooking up illegal drugs, and keeping an eye out for the cops. That spring, Dylan would tour England and return to his acoustic playlist, but the film made of that tour, Dont Look Back, shows him a conscientious trouper who is obviously bored with the material and the audience’s predictable responses. The new half-electric album appeared in March; by midsummer, “Like a Rolling Stone,” recorded in June in the opening sessions for what would become Highway 1 Revisited, was all over the radio; and in late July came the famous all-electric set at Newport that sparked a civil war among Dylan’s fans.

He was no longer standing alone with his guitar and harmonica. The once pleasant joker now wore menacing black leather boots and a shiny matching jacket. No more Joan Baez. A bit of the old rapport reappeared when Dylan was coaxed back onstage to play some of his acoustic material. “Does anybody have an E harmonica, an E harmonica, anybody?” he asked—and E harmonicas came raining out from the crowd and thumped onstage. But now the envoi was unmistakable as Dylan serenaded the folkies with “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” as well as “Mr. Tambourine Man.” A year after that—with the Vietnam War tearing the country apart, urban ghettos beset by arson and riots, and conservative backlash coming on strong—Dylan would suffer his famous motorcycle crack-up, concluding the wild period when he pushed his innovations to the limit with Blond on Blonde and with his astonishing concerts with the Hawks (with Bobby Gregg, then Sandy Konikoff, and finally Mickey Jones playing drums), not least the “Judas” show at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, England.

In retrospect, the concert at Philharmonic Hall was Dylan’s springboard into that turmoil, turmoil that he somehow survived. His trial would reach a spiritual, musical, and literary apex sixteen months later in Nashville, Tennessee.

  1. The relief would have been all the greater given they had heard "I Shall Be Free No. 10," one of the songs on Another Side that Dylan did not perform at the concert, which included the following lyrics: "Now, I'm liberal, but to a degree / I want ev'rybody to be free / But if you think that I'll let Barry Goldwater / Move in next door and marry my daughter / You must think I'm crazy! / I wouldn't let him do it for all the farms in Cuba."

  2. Alternatively, the allusion could be to the famous final, freeze-frame scene on a beach in François Truffaut's Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows). 

Bob Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz  Copyright © 2010, 2011 by Sean Wilentz. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC.