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The Judas thing

Bob Dylan 1966I suppose I’ve always thought of the man who shouted “Judas!” at Bob Dylan in Manchester in 1966 as a dull-witted denier of truth and progress. To my astonishment, however, after spending the last couple of months listening, on and off, to the 36-disc box of the surviving music from that tour, I’ve come to see things a little differently.

According to researches by Andy Kershaw and C. P. Lee, the Judas man was a Manchester law student named John Cordwell. His interjection was the most prominent and celebrated of the many voiced in disapproval of Dylan’s alliance with Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and Mickey Jones during the second half of each show, most of which featured a between-songs commentary of grumbles and shouts and whistles, occasionally luring the singer into responses that ranged from the wry to the exasperated.

Of course, the music they played after the interval was head-spinning, earth-shaking and world-changing, fuelled to a greater and greater extent as the tour went on by anger at the pincer attack from a combative Fleet Street on the one hand and outraged folk purists on the other. But after listening to many of these concerts, it’s hard to avoid the somewhat heretical conclusion that the finest and most enduring music came in the first half.

If he was feeling impatient to get to the second half and the revolutionary music he’d been concocting with his new friends, it never shows. The seven songs making up the basic acoustic set — “She Belongs to Me”, “Fourth Time Around”, “Visions of Johanna”, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, “Desolation Row”, “Just Like a Woman” and “Mr Tambourine Man” — receive a high degree of care and attention. The approach each night depends on the condition in which Dylan takes the stage, but the performances are never less than nuanced and fascinatingly varied. I could listen to every one of these versions of “Visions of Johanna” end to end without wearying of the experience. And apart from the voice, there’s the harmonica: which, in 1965/66, he was playing with a much underrated inventiveness and a powerful interest in developing the architecture of a solo.

Some of these concerts — like those at the Sheffield Gaumont and Birmingham Odeon, or the first Albert Hall show — find him in pristine form, honouring these songs with great concentration and spellbinding delicacy. Elsewhere his altered consciousness, shall we say, makes itself evident in a looser approach to the songs’ contours and details, producing results sometimes even more compelling than the more faithful treatments. The Olympia music hall in Paris and the second Albert Hall concert are particularly striking examples.

By no coincidence at all, these are the shows on which he spends most time responding to the audience. When he’s whistled for taking forever to tune his guitar before “Desolation Row” in Paris, for instance: “I’m doing this (tuning up) for you. I don’t care. If you want to hear it that way, I’ll play it that way.” And, as the noises of restlessness continue: “You just can’t wait. You have to go to work at 10 o’clock? Oh, it’s a drag for me, too, y’know. But that’s folk music for you. Folk music, it does this all the time.” And then: “Oh, come on now, I wouldn’t behave like this if I came to see you…” (It’s his 25th birthday, and Françoise Hardy is in the audience.)

It seems to me that the record company has made a mistake by issuing the first Albert Hall show as a stand-alone two-CD set. It’s beautiful, of course, and relatively unblemished by the sounds of a disputatious audience. But the second London concert was what the legend of this tour was all about: full-on music, full-on conflict, everything on the brink of falling apart, Dylan stoned to the gills and taking a last chance to harangue the dissenters during the final date of a psychologically gruelling tour, During a four-minute monologue between “Tell Me Momma” and “I Don’t Believe You”, he says this:

I love England, I like it a lot (sniggers), but we did all this in the States from September on, and we’ve all been playing this music since we were 10 years old, and folk music just happens to be a thing which interrupted … which was very useful, you know … but frankly the rock and roll thing in the United States was (sniggers) … forgive me … forgive me … Anything I sing now, don’t hold against me … I realise it’s loud music and all that kind of thing, but if you don’t like it, that’s fine. If you’ve got some improvements you could make on it, that’s great. But the thing is, it is not English music you’re listening to. It’s a shame that we’re here now and it might sound like English music to you, if you haven’t really heard American music before, but the music is-a, is-a, is-a … (laughter) … I would never venture to say what it is. 

Quite. But I find myself thinking about people listening to Bob Dylan in, say, 50 years’ time, and wondering what it is they’ll be listening to, which of the many Dylans will have survived the years. The one who sang “Like a Rolling Stone”, no doubt. But maybe the acoustic songs, where his wisdom and subtlety as a writer and performer are most in evidence, are the ones that will turn out to have the real staying power: “Johanna”, “Tambourine Man”, “Baby Blue”, “Don’t Think Twice”, “Desolation Row”, “It’s Alright, Ma”, “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and the rest (among which we’d have to include “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Shelter From the Storm”).

The tumultuous music he made with the Hawks in 1966 enriched the culture and was perfect for its historical moment. But perhaps that shout of “Judas!” was not quite as wrong-headed as it seemed.

* Please don’t mistake this for a review of Bob Dylan: The 1966 Live Recordings. Somebody else can take that on. The photograph is a still from the unreleased film of the tour shot by D. A. Pennebaker.

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11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Crowe #

    Another superb and considered piece of writing, Richard. Thank you. Perhaps I, too, will now review my opinion of the “Judas-shouter”.

    March 8, 2017
  2. Richard Harris #

    Well, at least he didn’t shout, “Play Cherokee!” Although that would have been interesting…

    “One too many mornings” is my Desert Island Bob song. Always has been.

    March 8, 2017
  3. Rick Hanley #

    “it’s hard to avoid the somewhat heretical conclusion that the finest and most enduring music came in the first half”

    My feelings exactly after many years of listening to Live in 1966 at the Free Trade Hall. As you say, the harmonica playing was magical.

    “perhaps that shout of “Judas!” was not quite as wrong-headed as it seemed”
    I can’t agree. It was as ugly as a Sun newspaper headline.

    March 8, 2017
  4. Clinton Heylin’s ‘Judas’ (Route Books) covers this period well, I think

    March 8, 2017
  5. peter flanagan #

    The guy provided history with an entertaining little icon, other than that it had no greater or lesser significance than someone expressing displeasure with Clapton if he doesn’t do Layla one night. Artists express themselves, they’re not performing animals. (Apols for stating the bleeping obvious) It goes on still, for Dylan in particular. The amount of garbage I’ve heard spouted at dinner parties, about how “disgusting” it is that “you couldn’t even recognise Blowing In The Wind,”etc, etc! Dylan ‘experts’ who believe he has a duty to be who they imagine him to be.

    March 8, 2017
    • GuitarSlinger #

      Absolutely , Hear Hear and a preach it to the congregation brother Amen ! Dylan was being Dylan the Artist first and foremost as all should be but seldom are providing the UK audiences with the rare opportunity to see and hear an artist / musician evolve before their eyes .. warts and all. The fact that many turned their backs being their lose .

      As far as Mr Williams asking which one of Dylan’s eras will survive ? As ridiculous a question as that is …. for me the answer is simple . All of them . Not that I’m in love with everything Dylan album ever made mind you . But rather to put it simply there is not a single era for which there is not at least one album that I love and listen to regularly . When it comes to Dylan’s music many times current events inspire a trip back to a specific album or song due to its relevancy today

      [ ” Idiot Wind ” and especially the line ” its a wonder you still know how to breath ” is at the top of my Dylan playlist in light of our ( US ) ‘ so called ‘ presidents reign of confusion and chaos ]

      As for the ‘ Judas ‘ screamer ? Suffice it to say he was the epitome of the ‘ folk nazi ‘ mentality then with now the mere memory or mention of his outburst eliciting abject disgust .

      March 8, 2017
  6. Steve Welton #

    A good well considered window on this much raked over incident. I like the idea of listening to all the surviving recordings carefully and using them as the basis of a refreshingly balanced conclusion.

    March 8, 2017
  7. JohnCaruth #

    Lo and behold. Richard Williams. Used to read him more regularly in the late lamented Melody Maker. He was then and now a good authority on the subject of Bob Dylan. This piece as several have noted is well considered and accurate in its assessments. My problem with the 36CD set is getting to listen to it in its entirety! My wife does not like what she hears (accoustic or electric) and I keep wishing amazon at offered us auto rip with the set so that I could listen happily without disturbing anyone on my mobile or my kindle! Ah well. Finally, keep up the good work Richard and thanks for this one. Cheers….

    March 9, 2017
  8. Stephen Lubera #

    You who wrote this make me sick.you consider your words and subject carefully,all except for the most important word of your article,”judas”.he gave up our lord to be brutally murdered.you think that is not so “wrongheaded” ? I think you must be sick with vengeance for bob Dylan .no matter what you ever say you will never convince me that “judas”shout was justified. Or that you don’t have some deep hatred towards bob Dylan.

    March 9, 2017
  9. Don #

    I was at the North Sea Jazz Festival many years ago, and stood at the back of a nice hall where Elvis Costello was performing. At one point he put down his guitar and stood alone, singing off the mic (!), acapella. It got very quiet, almost as if we were at a classical performance.

    Successfully, if barely, did I resist the urge to shout the infamous name.

    Thanks for another fine, thought-provoking piece Richard.

    March 10, 2017
  10. Ed Grummitt #

    Excellent piece Richard. I find it so difficult these days to shoehorn my brain into 1966 – I do remember assisting in an acoustic performance of The Times They Are A Changing by one John Bates in a dreary room above Barclays Bank, Eastwood, while simultaneously trying to point out that Dylan had gone a bit beyond that. But generally I was years behind you.

    However, I did get “It’s all Right Ma” and others of that period instantly. BBC TV recorded an Albert Hall show (I can’t remember which or when) and I bootlegged it to reel to reel via a jack socket on the back of the TV. I nearly wore the tape out – instant conversion.

    I think when we’ve all gone, you may very well be right that the acoustic performances from 1966 may become the ne plus ultra. But it’ll be a near thing. And I’m sure we’ve all shouted daft things at bands, so I’ll let the Manchester chap off.

    March 11, 2017

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