“I want to be Bob Dylan,” the beloved philosophers Counting Crows sing in “Mr. Jones.” It’s hard to argue: Dylan is cooler than cool (ice cold, even), a genius among geniuses, an artist whose self-reinventions — from folk hero, poet and rock-and-roller, to born-again Christian, drug addict and actor — have defined generations of American culture. On Halloween of 1964, Dylan stood alone with an acoustic guitar and harmonica on the stage of Philharmonic Hall (now Alice Tully Hall), in the midst of his first transformation, singing his old protest songs along with new pieces about love and introspection.
The huge crowd reacts wonderfully to the new songs, which are by far the highlight of the recording. In retrospect, the gorgeous “To Ramona” and epic “It’s Alright, Ma” don’t sound like such dramatic departures from “The Times They Are A Changin'” or “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” protest songs which had by then become folk classics. The way the concert holds together, after all these years, makes “Live 1964,” the sixth of the Dylan Bootleg Series, a great album and certainly paints a wonderful portrait of the artist as a young man.
The first three volumes of the Bootleg Series were compiled mostly from demos and studio outtakes, the fourth from a 1966 Royal Albert Hall concert that documents the transition from acoustic to electric, and the fifth (which came out last year) from a 1975 tour in which Dylan first played songs from “Blood on the Tracks,” and “Desire.” Out of the three full concerts, “Live 1964,” is the most raw, but like the others, it allows for insight into how Dylan grew from a one-man folk act into an icon.
Earlier in the year, he had released the aptly-titled “Another Side of Bob Dylan,” an album which radically abandoned protest for introspection. “Live 1964” captures the audience reacting warmly and excitedly about the 23-year-old’s growth, cheering just as heartily for songs from “Another Side” as from the earlier “Freewheelin.” When Dylan plays then-unreleased songs, which would come out on a year later on “Bringing It All Back Home,” the crowd’s response reflects awe and wonder, and rightfully so: they are, by far, the highlights of the concert. On volume four of the Bootleg Series, the audience didn’t respond so well to what must have been an equally jarring change: Dylan’s exchange of an acoustic guitar for a Stratocaster.
At Albert Hall, someone even yelled “Judas!” to which poor Dylan responded “I don’t believe you! You’re a liar,” before ordering The Band to “play fucking loud.” But Dylan had been labeled as a traitor to the folk movement way before he plugged in his Stratocaster. “Another Side” came out in the summer of 1964, shocking fans with profoundly introspective songs about life, love, and waiting for drug dealers (“Mr. Tambourine Man,” which is soporific and lovely on “Live 1964”). Gone were the protest, the rebellion, and the anger; yet his melodies only grew more gorgeous, and his poetry more interesting. Those who went to hear him play that Halloween got to see a combination of two Bob Dylans, the old and new. “I have my Bob Dylan mask on, I’m masquerading,” he says halfway into the first set.
I’d guess that he’s referring to his folk singer stage: the two old-school talking-blues songs are approached with a joking offhandedness that suggests Dylan had begun to dismiss his first records. On the other hand, however, are the gorgeous “”A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” and “With God on Our Side,” perhaps the best antiwar song ever written — all classic folk songs performed with piercing fierceness. To be fair, Dylan’s attitude about his newer songs is similarly cryptic. He introduces the album’s best performance, the aching “Gates of Eden,” as “a sacrilegious lullaby in D minor — no seriously– a love song!”
The irony with which he talks to the audience is by no means a downside. If anything, it adds to the sense that way back in his early days Dylan enjoyed a close relationship with his audience, which would inevitably fade as time went on; there is no between-song banter (besides “Judas!”) in the other bootlegs. In this one, when he forgets the words to one of his songs, a young New Yorker yells out its first line (“I can’t unduhstehand”) and Dylan happily picks up right away. The only relatively annoying aspect of the album is Joan Baez, who sings her consistently irritating harmony on four songs. Compared to the beauty of Dylan’s lyricism and guitar playing, her voice is grating and uninspired.
In “Letters to a Young Poet,” Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “With nothing can one approach a work of art so little as with critical words.” I wouldn’t even know how to begin a review of Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” or “Blood on the Tracks,” works of art if such a thing is possible in rock and roll, and luckily I don’t have to. Those meticulously-crafted studio albums sound, as Dylan himself has described them, exactly as he meant them to. The Bootleg Series, which has been a consistently great group of live recordings, has allowed fans to think about Dylan and his music in whole new ways. “Live 1964” is no exception; a bit flawed but full of highlights, it is a great listen. You can hear, firsthand (or is it secondhand?) what made him a hero of the folk movement, not to mention damn near anyone who’s ever picked up an acoustic guitar.