Robyn Hitchcock on Seeing Dylan at the Isle of Wight
1969-08-31, Isle of Wight, England
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Today, another installment in the occasional “Expert Recommendation” series, where a great musician who just so happens to be a Bob Dylan superfan discusses a show they’ve seen. We’ve heard from drummer Jon Wurster and The Hold Steady’s Franz Nicolay. Today, the great Robyn Hitchcock writes in.
In addition to his classic work under his own name and with The Soft Boys, Hitchcock is one of the best interpreters of Dylan’s catalog out there. One of the most prolific too. Setlist.fm lists 78 different Dylan songs - yes, 78! - that Robyn’s performed live, and honestly even that’s probably not everything.
For him, it all started over 50 years ago, at Bob’s famous 1969 comeback show with The Band at the Isle of Wight. He was kind enough to write about his memories of the evening for us. Over to Robyn…
Maybe this gig carried the weight of too much expectation.
In 1969 Bob Dylan was the most important person in my world, and in the worlds of millions of other like-minded young people. Along with his hypnotic voice and Mediterranean God looks, he had always been the man with insight, which he intuitively let loose on the world like a wolf with a moral compass. He'd looked out at politics and society, then inward at himself and his crawling, stoned brain, then jumbled them up, become a pop star, fallen off his motorcycle, withdrawn to the mountain and…discovered the meaning of life. What was that? It was, apparently, to grow a beard, raise a family, and act humble.
Bob Dylan was usually about three years ahead of his followers, he was moving so fast back then. By 1969 they were just about ready for Dylan 1966, whose image adorned the festival poster:
Help Bob Dylan sink the Isle of Wight
I've been going there ever since to help him continue with the process…
At the time, I lived in Winchester, Hampshire. I couldn't believe my luck that my visionary hero was going to play 30 miles away, across a narrow strip of water. On the Isle of Wight, of all places. Cutting edge in Tennyson's time, it was now even further behind the zeitgeist than most of Dylan's followers. I rocked up with some friends, braved the outdoor sanitation (none) and rip-off catering (almost none) and sat through the first major British Rock Festival in the chilly embrace of an English late August. There were maybe 200,000 of us. Many were still arriving, from all over the world, when Dylan and the Band walked offstage…
At 16, I was rapidly learning that the counterculture that I aspired to through reading underground magazines and listening to record albums with gatefold sleeves was largely a shoal of pleasure-seeking groovers hustling for money, drugs, sex and food. I was magnetized. I sat cross-legged in a field in my purple trousers, waiting for the king magnet to appear.
He was an hour or so late, which inflamed anticipation still further.
Years later, a friend who had been the press officer for the event explained to me that the major cause of the delay had been something to do with herding VIPs (including three Beatles, their wives and Syd Barrett) out of and then back into their special paddock. Meanwhile, apparently, there was only one backstage toilet, so Dylan himself had to pee out the window of his caravan. "I want to be exalted, man," he told a writer friend who was with him. Nobody in the audience knew any of this at the time.
Around 9pm Dylan glided onto the stage. From where I sat, he was a little white ant surrounded by some darker ones. But the sound was very clear. I had a cigarette in my left hand: at the end of the show an hour later it was still unlit.
Within a minute it was clear that we were seeing the Nashville Skyline edition of Dylan. He sang in a smooth, helium voice that deliberately stepped around the barbed, ironic, soulful way he had sung in the past. He sang old songs like "She Belongs To Me" and "Like A Rolling Stone" in a weird happy-clappy tone: it was as if all the pain had been drained away. There he was, at the other end of the field, shunning what everybody else was into (especially the Previous Him). Photos published the next day revealed that he and The Band were the only performers not wearing sexy tight bell-bottoms.
"Great to be here, sure is," he said to the crowd after the first song. Eight years later, when my first proper band, The Soft Boys, started playing gigs around London, we would chant in unison, "1,2 - great to be here, sure is - 3,4" at the top of the set. Dylan's show was not what I'd hoped for, but it still went in deep.
The show whizzed by in a blur. He played three or four songs solo acoustic in the middle of the set, and you could hear how nervous he was from his fluttering voice. He sounded like a canary in the wrong cage. On "Mr Tambourine Man" he seemed to have inserted the wrong harmonica into his harp-rack. This was Dylan's first advertised appearance since his bike crash three years earlier, and he seemed fragile. Which is how he probably felt…
I can't remember if there was an official encore or not - only that suddenly the show was ending. "We've got one more for you. Recorded by Manfred Mann, a great group." With the "Mighty Quinn," Dylan and the band were gone. My friends and I stood up and shuffled off through the night to catch the ferry to the mainland. In the crowd, I heard somebody chant "Build a bonfire, build a bonfire, put Bob Dylan on the top…" to the tune of "Oh My Darling Clementine".
Bob Dylan's reappearance onstage in 1969 reminds me now of a bee that awakes prematurely from hibernation on a sunny day in March and buzzes around groggily in the hostile environment. It also reminds me of dreams where I've met my loved one off a train or a plane, and I don't recognize them - they've changed into somebody else.
Maybe this gig carried the weight of too much expectation.
Thanks to Robyn Hitchcock for sharing his Isle of Wight memories!
Robyn just released the book Somewhere Apart: Selected Lyrics 1977 - 1997 last month and he regularly shares music and more on his Patreon. He performs twice-weekly Live from Sweet Home Quarantine streams (the next is tomorrow); find out how to tune in here.
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