"I wanna get out of here as fast as you wanna get out of here"
1966-05-24, Olympia, Paris, France
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Bob Dylan does not like playing on his birthday.
I base that conclusion on the fact that he's only ever played three shows on May 24. Compare that to last week's newsletter, May 17, where I had eight shows to choose from. He hasn't played a birthday show in over a decade. As best I can tell, he's only acknowledged the occasion onstage once, ending a 2000 show in Germany with "Thank you! I will remember this birthday for a while."
The first of those three birthday shows turned out to be a historic one. It’s probably the second-most-famous show on his first-most-famous tour. Unlike the better-known “Judas” concert, though, this show is more remembered for the visuals than the music. And from the tape, it sounds like it made for a pretty terrible 25th birthday.
That photo right there shows why this show is remembered. Dylan reportedly got the largest American flag he could find - procured on short notice by his manager Albert Grossman, the tour’s sound engineer Richard Alderson tells me - just to rile up this Paris audience. The flag’s appearance was a one-night-only engagement, but it certainly made a strong impression.
This deliberately provocative gesture was the culmination of all the hostility that characterized the atmosphere around Bob's 1966 tour. That Manchester "Judas" happened a week earlier, and the general vibe apparently hadn't improved. Though the popular narrative emphasizes Dylan boldly standing up to booing audiences not understanding his vision, by Paris he mostly just seemed defeated.
Take the press conference. The press conference at the '66 show in Melbourne I wrote about a month ago didn't go well for the reporters, who never got a straight answer. But Dylan seemed engaged and thoroughly enjoying himself at their expense.
In Paris, he just seems miserable. He brought a marionette he claimed was named Monsieur Finian to sit next to him, but that seemed about the extent he was willing to engage, even on his own piss-taking terms. A representative sample:
Do you think you've taught others?
Are you aware of having been to school?
You're often called a philosopher and a poet. Are you?
I don't know.
What is a philosopher and a poet in your opinion?
I don't know any.
A month prior, Dylan might have parried those inane questions with funny, surrealist answers. But such repartee is nowhere to be seen now. He just wants to go home.
And can you blame him? The tour been an emotional drag for all the reasons so often cited - angry audiences, too many drugs - and Paris seemed particularly hostile. John Bauldie's book The Ghost of Electricity collects press clippings from the 1966 tour. Here's one that ran in France-Soir in advance of his visit:
Dylan was expected to play Paris last year but he cancelled so that he could put up new curtains in his apartment in New York's Greenwich Village. Still, Bobby is forgiven for everything he does, and young Americans have let their hair grow long and begun to wear their trousers too short to look like him…
This failed ex-student has just been named the number 1 American writer by the New York Times - an honour previously given only to Hemingway and Faulkner…
Bob Dylan is already a legend … he used to be a beatnik, moving from cafe to cafe to sing his songs. For the last two years he has been driving a Cadillac and has just bought a Rolls Royce which is chauffeur driven. He has an entourage of ten people who, so it's said, only like to stay in old buildings and who drink only tea, into which they dip their sandwiches.
It goes on like that. The half that isn't merely aggressive sounds made-up, unless the writer took months of ludicrous press conference answers at face value. Had they really existed, an entourage of old-building connoisseurs who drink tea sounds pretty damn wholesome! (Also, I searched to find that Times award because it didn't sound like a real thing. I think he's misrepresenting this 1965 poll of Ivy League undergraduates naming Dylan their favorite writer, which references Hemingway and Faulkner).
People also took umbrage at Dylan staying in a fancy Paris hotel. Here's Paris-Match's objective and unbiased report from the scene:
In the corridors of the Georges V there are curious figures with hair a bit too long and strange clothes. They contrast bizarrely with the elegantly dressed hotel management. At meal times, under the parasols of the courtyard restaurant, these weird characters sit at small tables next to smart foreign tourists. The wine-waiter is somewhat embarrassed to serve them milk - not just glasses of milk, but huge half-litre pitchers. Bob Dylan their leader - or their god - doesn't come down. He takes his meals in his room. That doesn't mean that he's less obvious than the other members of the group. On the contrary he's a pale person with an incredibly thin body. He has the cruel eyes of someone who judges…
First they drink tea and now they drink milk! Seems pretty unthreatening either way. Somehow both writers overlook the genuinely problematic substances being consumed en masse.
You can go on quoting mean things people wrote about Dylan in 1966 for hours, so I'll stop there. What really struck me about these was: These were pre-emptive strikes! He hadn't even played the concert yet. Clearly the word from earlier dates had reached Parisian shores, and they were prepared to play their part in the expected conflict.
That overt hostility didn't seem to bleed over in the show itself. At least, not at first.
Though there were reports of angry reactions to the flag, you don’t hear much of that on the tape. What you do hear? People clapping. Laughter when Dylan makes a joke. Someone shouts "We love you!" Outside of a few semi-audible hecklers, Bob seems to start with a largely receptive audience, ready to pick up what he's putting down.
Unfortunately, he makes that impossible. The entire acoustic set comes off as a willful act of self-sabotage. For one, he takes endless amounts of time re-tuning his guitar between songs. This sounds like a nit-picky complaint until you actual hear it. Six minutes can fly by doing something you like. But listening to someone tune his guitar for six straight minutes? Utterly interminable. (And the recording cuts the previous song, "Desolation Row," short - meaning this tuning was probably even longer. One reviewer claims 14 straight minutes of tuning! I believe it). At one point, Robbie Robertson later recalled, he told Grossman offstage, “Tell him to give me the guitar and I’ll tune it real quickly. People are getting hostile out there.” Bob did not take him up on the offer.
When he finally does play a song, he does so at a snail's pace. 1966's acoustic sets are not exactly known for their speedy tempos, but this is at another level. To confirm my impression, I used one of those "tap along to the find the BMP" sites to compare last month's "Visions of Johanna" in Melbourne to this one This one is almost 20% slower - and the song was pretty damn slow already. At this pace it is near unlistenable.
As if that and the tuning wasn't enough, he twice seems to deliberately bait the audience by claiming something is a request, then playing an unreleased Blonde on Blonde song they'd have no reason to know yet, and probably no one requested (it’s the same set every night, after all).
You can hear the crowd turn on him. "Aw come on now, I wouldn't behave like this if I came to see you," Bob drawls in reply to some unheard heckle. At another point, he frankly says, "I wanna get out of here as fast as you wanna get out of here."
Stop for a minute to remember - this is supposed to be the half of the show people actually like. Bob, standing alone with his acoustic guitar and harmonica. That's what they came to see! And it has gone off the rails as much as any electric set.
In a sign of just how backwards this show sounds, the usually "controversial" half appears to go over much better. I don't hear any boos or heckling when the band comes out. Maybe the loud music's drowning some out, but even in the quiet moments - like a rambling introduction to "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" - I don't hear much in the way of audience disruption. Bob's non sequitur jokes even get laughs. What's captured on a soundboard tape isn't necessarily the full story, but you can certainly hear plenty of people digging the electric set way more than they were the acoustic.
It's a great performance too. The band immediately pulls Bob out of his funk. He's also playing the same electric set every night by this point, and this is as good as you're likely to hear it. This "Like a Rolling Stone" might be even better than Manchester's. And, unlike that one, it wasn't provoked by anything specific. No "Judas" shout at least. I guess the provocation was the entire night, the entire trip, the entire tour. And at the end, the audience explodes with applause and cheers.
Lord knows so-called fans treated Dylan like dirt throughout 1966, but, at this show, it's hard not to kind of take the crowd's side. They sounded willing to meet him more than halfway, and he went out of his way to antagonize them early on with a crummy performance. When he finally began making an effort, the audience forgave him. It was probably not a birthday he'd look back on fondly, but he salvaged it by the end.