"It was a bit of a dog fight."

1966-04-19, Festival Hall, Melbourne, Australia

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Bob Dylan in 1966 is one of the most overwritten tours in musical history. That's overwritten, not overrated, of course. It's certainly not that. But entire books have been written about 1966. No one who writes anything about Bob can avoid this one year.

And not even the whole year! The tour only ran from February through May. Dylan's motorcycle accident in late July nixed further dates. The most famous tour of all time (don't fact-check that) only ran for four months.

I don't have any sweeping pronouncements about 1966 that haven't been made many times before. But the beauty of this format is, I don't need to make sweeping pronouncements about this or any year. I'm just looking at one show. So, picking at random for our first ‘66 show, I selected this lesser-known show on April 19, the first of two nights in Melbourne. Does this specific show match up with the legend?

One pro of 1966 have been written about so much: there is a wealth of information. I found more material about this one random show than I did for all 25 dates of Spring 2000 put together. For instance, here's an ad I found for this gig:

I love the chutzpah of the promoter confidently predicting what songs Dylan would play. He only got two out of five right, too. Clearly he hadn’t looked at recent setlists; this was not a year where they changed much. (One rare tweak: Bob did play "Positively 4th Street" at two Australian shows. Today’s wasn't one of them.)

Also, if you ever wondered how '60s fans were constantly mobbing musicians' airplanes when they landed, here's an answer: They give Bob's landing time and location right there in the ad!

It worked. 400 fans mobbed the airport when he landed. Some tried to break through security to get to Bob, who hustled right past them into a conference room to face off with 30 journalists for one of his (in)famous mid-’60s press conferences.

It didn't start well; apparently the first few members of his entourage to walk in looked Dylan-ish enough that journalists started asking them the questions. When Bob himself arrived, it quickly devolved (or evolved - he was starting to turn these into an art form). A small sample of this particular press conference:

What's your greatest ambition?
To be a meatcutter.

Can you enlarge on that?
Large pieces of meat.

What do you think about Australia?
Since I was a little boy I have heard about Australia. I once knew someone who knew somebody who knew somebody whose grandfather was supposed to have been to Australia. This gave me a tremendous curiosity to find out whether this fellow really did have a grandfather.

You also came here for the money, I take it?
I take it.

Ridiculous questions getting ridiculous answers, but, according to at least one reporter, in good humor. Some of these press conferences, as seen in Don’t Look Back and Eat the Document, were pretty testy. Bob seems in better spirits here, at least partly enjoying the inane back-and-forth (that’s just judging from the transcript, at least; no recording survives).

The reporters reportedly enjoyed the exchange less. One started faux-interviewing the wall, claiming that was just as informative as talking to Bob. Here’s a longer description, from Melbourne paper The Age:

It was a hot, crowded conference at the airport. Radio interviewers, cameramen and reporters - and many followers who had sneaked in - jostled in suffocatingly on top of Bob Dylan. Somebody thrust forward a copy of Antoine de Saint Exupery's book "The Little Prince" to be autographed. One interviewer prattled on about a visit to Healesville Sanctuary. Another wanted "approval" for a technique used by the Beatles.

Questions - likes, dislikes, psychological, sociological, racial equality, bourgeois living, pop art and ballads - some silly, some provocative and some just insulting.

Beneath his mop of shaggy hair, Dylan, the acclaimed "king of folk music," rocked backwards and forwards on his feet as if feeling faint from the onslaught. His voice was barely audible.

Some of the queries he threw back at the questioners, others he shrugged off as if they weren't worth the physical effort of answering, and for a few he wove long answers of fairyland fancy from the beat world - nonsensical, but sharply amusing.

When it was all over, enterpreneur Ken Brodziak breathed deeply: "Thank goodness he kept his patience."

If you were hoping for more outright hostility, a radio interview he did on this trip with a local DJ - either Ken Sparkes or Stan Rofe, sources differ - should suffice. Neither party comes off very well here.

Now, for the concert itself. Melbourne 4/19/66 has been rarely bootlegged, probably because the recording is incomplete and not a soundboard (the following evening’s Melbourne show circulated much more widely before they all appeared on the Live 1966 Bootleg Series).

In a great retrospective in Isis 186, multiple attendees describe Dylan swaying and stumbling during the acoustic set, presumably under the influence of something (or multiple somethings). As one put it, "He stood there tuning up his guitar and swaying unsteadily. He looked pretty out of it. He tuned up a bit more and sang his first song. After this he tuned up and swayed a bit more. After his third song he spent so much time tuning up that people in the audience started to hiss. 'Oh, man,' Dylan said with a look of disgust." 

I tried to verify this on the tape, but if there were extended between-song tuning breaks, they've been edited out. The recording just sounds like a standard 1966 acoustic set - but then again, looking like he might keel over at any moment more or less was a standard 1966 acoustic set. And as they do, the music walks a fine line between mesmerizing and somnambulant. You have to lean in far enough you feel you might fall over too. 

The rather aggressive tape hiss makes it hard to pick out more nuance than that, but there's a silver lining: The one instrument that cuts right through is not Dylan’s voice or guitar. It's the harmonica. I've never paid a whole lot of attention to the harmonica playing in '66 before, but it's a treat to here it centered as it is here. Soundboards are great, but imperfect recordings have their advantages.

As for the electric set, Australian audiences were apparently no more polite than the British ones would be a month later. Another attendee, only 13 years old, recalled: "At the start of the second set, even before they made a sound or played a note, people got up and yelled. I thought it was the rudest thing. They were booing, it was appalling, completely unwarranted. People were shouting and being abusive but then there were others trying to drown them out and telling them to shut up. It was a bit of a dog fight, really disruptive and my mother yelled at them." (God, how I wish the taper had been standing near her mother).

Again, this may be true, but you can't really hear it on the recording. I didn't catch any dramatic "Judas!" moment; the songs all end with what sounds like enthusiastic applause. Another attendee estimates that 20 people were being extremely disruptive - but that's in a room of over 5,000, so it could have been visibly obvious to everyone in the audience without being audible on the tape.

You know what is audible, though? Drummer Mickey Jones, subbing in for Levon Helm who had bailed after being booed one too many times. Like the harmonica in the acoustic set, the drums in the electric set come through more clearly than the rest on this recording. And again, I've never paid much attention to Jones. He sort of gets treated as a footnote to history, a literal asterisk: Bob Dylan and the Hawks* (*plus one other guy who isn't a Hawk). 

But he's great! He drives the music forward at a breakneck pace, often playing a little ahead of the beat as if daring the guys to catch up. Even on "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" - as close to a slow song as this set gets - he sounds like he is barely able to restrain himself. So much of the power of the 1966 shows comes from tension. Jones fits right in. It’s a far cry from the more laid-back Levon.

And this was Jones’s first tour, too. Sandy Konikoff had subbed in at the earlier dates this year. But Jones would remain through Manchester and the end. And, by his account, these first Australia dates were a trial by fire. He described the experience in a DVD he put out a few years back:

I'm thinking, "Is that booing? What?" And then we went from there to Sydney and, "Oh my gosh. It is booing." And from there we went to Brisbane and there was a little more booing. And then we went to Melbourne and Adelaide and Perth and there was more booing. And I'm sure the next city we were going to… Word of mouth. [It] had spread a little bit like wildfire.

Four songs from this show aired on the Australian TV show Bandstand. Sadly, no recordings appear to remain. So we're left with this partial audience tape. It's not going to knock Manchester Free Trade Hall off its pedestal, but listening to a more obscure '66 show offers a fresh way to hear a tour that sometimes threatens to become a cliché.

It almost may be a more accurate way to listen. What most audiences in the rooms heard was probably more similar to this recording than to the pristine soundboards. By all accounts, Bob’s electric sets could be rough on the ears even for those who didn’t object on principle. Live sound wasn’t great in 1966; The Beatles would retire from the road only a few months later because they couldn’t hear shit. And while, the occasional airplane mob aside, Bob didn’t generally inspire the same screaming-girls phenomenon as the Fab Four, he certainly suffered the same issue of playing large spaces not designed for rock concerts without any real way to compensate.

So he just made it louder. This appears badass in retrospect - play it loud, maaaan - but probably just sounded shitty if you were actually there. So, a slightly shitty recording might be the truest representation of actually being at this show. Just get someone’s mom to yell at you while you listen.

1966-04-19, Festival Hall, Melbourne, Australia

Sources: Many of the press quotes come from John Bauldie's book ‘The Ghost of Electricity,’ which collects all sorts of interesting primary source material on the 1966 tour, and is now back in print. The fan quotes come from Isis issue 186.