I was on stage with Bob Dylan in Newport the night he went electric – The Forward
The 1965 Newport Folk Festival started out as a wonderful dream for me – then it became a nightmare, then it became a wonderful dream again.
We arrived in Newport on Thursday, the first day of the festival. For a lot of the Butterfield Band guys, it was their first time away from Chicago. The festival was a major event for us, and Newport itself was so beautiful. It was a beautiful summer day, and everyone seemed to be singing, playing or just talking about music.
I quickly realized that I was not really dressed for the occasion. I was wearing my tapered pants and pointy shoes—the whole “cool Chicago jazz guy dating Playboy bunnies” thing, totally wrong for Newport. Everyone walked around in jeans and sandals; at one point, I spotted Joan Baez running through the fields, beautiful and barefoot.
Inappropriate clothing aside, I was so excited to be there. I didn’t know my world was about to fall apart.
When I met the Butterfield Band to rehearse our set, Paul Rothschild – the A&R guy from Elektra Records who was going to produce the band’s debut album – gave me a look and said to Paul Butterfield: “I don’t hear any keyboards with The band. I don’t want him here. And that was it. In a minute, I went from the best time to being completely alone and without a concert. It just destroyed me.
I wanted to go home, but I couldn’t. If I had the money for a plane, train or even bus ticket, I would have left in an instant. Instead, I had to wait a few days to be able to go back to Chicago with the guys from Butterfield. I was stuck, which was awful because everyone was having fun and having fun, and I was miserable because I had been relieved of my duties. It was a real disappointment.
I don’t remember much of the day after the festival, probably because I was so dazed by my sudden rejection. But Saturday night, I found myself at a party with Michael Bloomfield and Bob Dylan. Bob had done a short acoustic performance at the festival that afternoon, which everyone expected of him, but now he was talking to Michael about the possibility of forming a band for his closing performance of the festival on Sunday – something that people were certainly not expecting.
“I don’t know if anyone is going to come play with me tomorrow night,” I overheard him say to Michael. “Al Kooper was supposed to come, but I’m not sure he’ll be there, and I might need a group.” Michael called me and introduced me to Bob. “Barry is a great keyboard player,” he said. “Hey, why don’t you use the Butterfield band to support you?” “That’s a great idea,” Bob replied, and they left together to discuss it.
To be honest, Bob’s early folk stuff wasn’t really my style. I was not a peace and love, protest type. But “Like A Rolling Stone”, which had just been released a month earlier, seemed a bit cooler to me. You see, Bob was rock and roll at heart, just like us. Bob grew up listening to Gene Vincent and Little Richard and Buddy Holly and all those rock and roll greats, just like Michael and I did.
Michael and I also had a territorial and maybe even sartorial connection with Bob. We were three Midwestern Jews who had similar backgrounds, similar attitudes, and even the same clothes—when I met Bob at the party, he was wearing tapered pants and pointy boots, just like me. Bob could tell we were cool, that we were in Newport to play music and not just to “perform”. He knew we weren’t putting him on some sort of popular protest pedestal either; if he wanted to play electric music to a folk festival crowd, that was fine with us.
Michael and Bob came back to where I was standing. “Would you like to play with me?” Bob asked. “Are you kidding?” I said. “Sure!” And that was it. Bob Dylan, on a whim, had decided to form a gang, and had decided that Michael and I had what it took to be part of it. And as soon as he invited me to play with him, it was like Newport had gone back into “wonderful dream” mode for me.
We did our soundcheck the next afternoon, and I was thrilled. I knew Bob was taking the next step towards something new in his life and his music, and it was magical to be a part of it. At some point during the sound check, he started playing “This Land Is Your Land” on the organ, and I sat down next to him and fell in with him on the instrument.
It seemed symbolic for him to play that Woody Guthrie song while all those musicians were up there on stage with him, plugging in their electric instruments and finding their sound levels. It was like he was saying, “This is where I’m going now. I respect everything you’ve given me, but we’re going to do something really radical now.
Michael was on guitar, of course, and we had Jerome Arnold and Sam Lay from Butterfield on bass and drums. Al Kooper showed up during the sound check, which gave us both piano and organ – a combination that would be popularized by The Band, Procol Harum and others in later years, but which was still quite unusual for the time. We went through the songs Bob wanted to play: “Maggie’s Farm”, “Like A Rolling Stone” and “Phantom Engineer”, later retitled “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”.
Everything sounded good, except Jerome wasn’t getting the changes on “Like A Rolling Stone”; he was a blues bassist, and this song was a bit out of his comfort zone. “I can play bass for ‘Like A Rolling Stone’,” Al suggested. Jerome was okay with giving Al the bass for that song, and I took over for Al at the ‘organ. It was a kind of spontaneity. Bob was wearing this awesome polka dot shirt, and he looked so cool and in control, even though we were all totally doing it.
In some ways the soundcheck was just as intense as the set we were playing later that night. Peter Yarrow, who was on the festival board and was to host the evening show, kept yelling at us to refuse. Every time Yarrow yelled at us, I could see Michael glaring at him like, “Oh wait, motherfucker. Wait.” Anyway, he hated these pompous people, the pseudo-intellectuals who know everything, and Yarrow was the embodiment of it all.
Albert Grossman, Bob’s manager, spent all soundcheck fighting with Alan Lomax. Lomax was famous for discovering and recording all those old folk and blues singers, and he hated the very idea of electric music being played at a folk festival. Grossman was there to support his artist, and neither of them backed down. These two old hipsters ended up rolling on the ground, punching each other.
It was really weird. Yarrow was yelling at us, and Grossman and Lomax were fighting over there. I sensed a battle line drawing, and we were all on a mission together. Bob was our boss, but the more tense people got about what we were doing, the more I also saw that look in Michael’s eyes that said, “I’m just going to put this down your throat.”
When we went on stage with Bob that night, I was terrified. I used to play in blues clubs, bars and mafias, not on festival stages in front of thousands of people.
The thing with me, though, is that I was always terrified before going on stage. Playing the very first note after getting up there is the hardest part; but by the time I get to the second note, it’s just automatic.
The magic was definitely there that night, for all of us, as soon as the lights came on and we saw Dylan walk out, all in black, with that Stratocaster strapped on. It was a statement in itself, but it was also so much more. You felt how important his presence was and how important what he was doing was; you knew that made sense.
I wasn’t even aware there was so much negative crowd reaction, to be honest. I mean, I wasn’t deaf, but I heard the cheers mingling with the boos, and I knew there were people out there who appreciated what we were doing. The others weren’t even listening; they were in shock, reacting to the moment and their sense of betrayal. They were so angry that Bob was turning his back on the folks, they couldn’t figure out what he was doing. For years Bob had been doing his folk thing, and now, all of a sudden, it meant the end of the folk era as they knew it. Bob’s performance closed that particular chapter, but he also opened a new one by creating folk-rock – an accomplishment that was more important than the crowd’s reaction.
For me, the song that really went down well was “Like A Rolling Stone”. Kooper’s bass playing really made a difference on the low end, and Bob’s vocal performance was really, really cool. When we played “Maggie’s Farm,” Michael responded to the boos by turning his amp up all the way; he started to really burn, blasting them in the name of rock and roll. I heard later that Pete Seeger tried to cut the power with an axe, because he was angry that Michael’s guitar was drowning out Bob’s voice, but if you listen to the tapes of the show, the voice from Bob is loud and clear. I knew Michael was playing a little too loud, but never mind. We were warriors on a mission to support the gang leader.
By the time we finished our short series, the mix of cheers and boos was even louder and more intense than it was when we started. Yarrow came up and told the crowd, “Bobby is gonna come back on stage and play a song acoustically”, and Bob finally came out and played “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” by him. But we didn’t hang out for any of that. We had done our thing, and now it was time to pack up and go. I walked offstage that night feeling like a hero. , and I didn’t want anything to break that spell. I had done my thing with Bob, and it was more than I could have ever hoped for, going from not being able to perform at the festival to taking that momentous leap in the musical unknown. I knew that some kind of force, some kind of destiny, some kind of thing had happened and affected me, and I wasn’t going to blame it.