Arthur James O'DeaComment


Arthur James O'DeaComment

Indifference best surmises Sheffield in terms of Bob Dylan’s 1966 World Tour. Hosting one in a run of forty-odd worldwide shows, in terms of performance and reception the Gaumont cinema/theatre witnessed a demonstration in upheld continuity and the assuaging of crowd hostility. Indulged as the tour that marked Dylan’s immersion in ‘electricity’, Sheffield yields little analytical or apocryphal notation in what has become an intense period of concern for the orchestration of the grand, artistic Dylan narrative.

Were Liverpool, Manchester, London, Glasgow, Edinburgh or, even Bristol the focus of IBWM’s Assignment #2, the notoriety of a British response to Dylan’s culminating performances of the nineteen-sixties could be proffered with ‘front-line’ tales of adulation and disdain. Yet, the convenience of such ardency would hasten a general feeling of treading water in the deep scholarly reservoirs of Dylan and the ‘obvious’ British cities. The dormancy – in terms of the crowd at least – of the Sheffield performance on May 16th, 1966, signals an unlikely moment of no return.

Of his Manchester performance delivered the following night, the bootlegged extraction of which has endured varying degrees of ‘availability’ since 1970, Dylan’s perceived defection into electrified music warranted one in attendance to audibly exclaim that the performer now represented “Judas”. Subsequent religious confabulations need not be exhaustively probed to a point where one overlooks the reality that Bob Dylan (nee Zimmerman) was Jewish-born, and this ‘Judas’ tag carried a distinctly hurtful intention. Though his initial response – “I don’t believe you... you’re a liar... (then to band) Play it Fucking Loud” – perhaps signalled the depth to which Dylan dealt with the attack, for Dylan-enthusiasts it was a moment upon which their devotion could be leveraged. In a definitive, publicised manner, the perceived treachery of this dichotomised Jesus/Judas performer (‘messianic’ was a term loosely bandied about by Dylan’s more earnest followers) had been infiltrated by an audience member. Made to look human and flawed – he was after all playing the devil’s music – the Manchester experience served to engender a clearer narrative of what Dylan was and what he may yet become.

An arcane motorcycle accident in New York State during the later summer of 1966 determined the beginning of an eight-year absence from touring, (the final date of the previous extravaganza coming ten days after the Manchester show in London’s Royal Albert Hall.) Although the importance attached to the Semitic slur would take time to globally manoeuvre itself to a position of timely prominence, the Sheffield performance now signals an unbeknownst cusp of a determinative change in the manner of which Dylan would be regarded and understood. Although heated audience interaction had been on demonstration throughout the tour, the notoriety of this moment in Manchester, coming after an unremarkable night in Sheffield, invigorates a fresh discussion; no longer ‘Why Manchester?’ This has been questioned and answered. ‘Why not Sheffield?’ Herein lays my concern. 

There is scant reason to believe that there existed any intrinsic ‘difference’ between the fandom and enthusiasm of both the Manchester and Sheffield crowds. Despite covering three continents, the set-list of songs performed over the duration of this tour remained more or less static. The Manchester recording signifies the master rendition of the show in its totality, yet, as demonstrated by various bootleg snippets from other nights on the tour (Sheffield being inclusive in this) a fairly solid standard of performance arose each evening in the same vein as the Manchester sample. Ultimately, nothing of the Manchester performance stood out as particularly incendiary. The aggression that murmured throughout the tour was a broad reaction to what was being seen, and – on account of sound-systems perhaps incapable of conveying any meaning from the electrified segment – heard. The absence of any ‘reaction’ in Sheffield can be traced perhaps to the events of the previous year which will be touched upon shortly.

In the throes of Dylan’s initial 1960s ascendancy, his surrounding mystique hinged on far fewer understandings of what kind of an artist/performer he could be. A creative decision to split his stage performance between a first-half, solo acoustic set, and a second-half, electrified performance with his new band The Hawks (soon to become The Band) appeared to clarify the one or t’other choice fans had to decide upon. In essence, much like the discussion of Dylan being a poet or a songwriter, the premise of an irredeemable distinction between either incarnations of Dylan was largely facetious and media-driven. At a time when The Beatles had ceased to consider touring a viable creative outlet, the arrival in Britain of an American star like Bob Dylan provided ample opportunity for contentious discussion and the subsequent selling of papers. In Sheffield, to their credit, the bait did not seem to take.  

Via D.A. Pennebaker’s filmed recording of Bob Dylan’s 1965 British Tour (Dont Look Back) and snippets of the 1966 equivalent (Eat The Document), an appreciation of the media scrutiny on Dylan can be rendered. Throughout the British tour of 1965, Dylan, despite executing some ‘electrified’ tracks in studio, was still toeing a solo, acoustic set. Bereft of our eased accessibility to music, it is well established that the British crowds of 1965 would have had little or no exposure to Dylan’s experiments with electricity and, as such, the ramifications one year later harbour some clarity. To those who were carefully listening in 1965 – the distinction between listening and hearing would make for a heated discussion between Dylan and a Time magazine reporter – Dylan’s lyrical sophistication was nonetheless heightening. Yes, there was still room for ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’, but, as demonstrated in Sheffield a year prior to the ’66 performance, new, complicated songs like ‘It’s Alright, Ma, (I’m Only Bleeding)’ and ‘Gates Of Eden’ were becoming features of his set. They may not have shocked quite as much as the electric guitars of a year later, but, they should have given some inclination to Dylan’s reluctance to sit creatively still.

Coming to the end of his first British tour in 1965, Dylan’s manager at the time Albert Grossman – as capture in Dont Look Back – would inform Dylan that the English papers had began referring to Dylan as an ‘anarchist...because he offered no solutions.’ The irony of an earlier minute or so of captured footage in which the burgeoning anarchist is displayed shyly interacting with some awestricken youths maybe four or five years his junior (Dylan was around 24), bears significance here on account of these young men and women being of Sheffield stock. Broad characterisations do little to speculate the reasoning behind a quiet, respectful Sheffield audience and it’s brash Mancunian counterpart, yet, the fans we briefly encounter do not appear concerned with any socio/cultural questions that this American singer-songwriter is ‘supposed’ to be answering. As one particular fellow in attendance eventually blurts out, ‘I don’t know what to say really’, to which Dylan laughingly replies, ‘me neither’, before wishing them all the best and expressing his gratitude that he’ll see them at the show.

Of the show one year later in May ’66, the symbolic importance of what didn’t occur doesn’t really require its Sheffield setting to enamour itself upon us. In much the same way that the ‘Judas’ incident was thought to have occurred in London’s Royal Albert Hall until the mistake was rectified, the sameness (despite what I personally believe to be his greatest recorded live performance available) of this tour renders places and towns or cities as obsolete. In stark contrast to Dylan’s next Sheffield performance, thirty-two years later in June 1998, performed would be a set-list of songs unique to that night. Although only minor changes occurred over the course of the British element of this ’98 tour, no two evenings were identical and this is the experience that truly drives a Dylan audience. A city of no distinct importance to Dylan, that the last show he would perform pre-‘Judas’ can be so easily overlooked determines the rootless nature of an unpredictable performer. Sheffield mirrors countless other cities and towns in relation to its Dylan-related past. Ultimately, Sheffield and Bob Dylan are irrelevant to one another. Yet, for those of us whose intrigue in Dylan manifests itself in scholarly pursuit, Sheffield is a wonderful example of a city that Dylan continually encounters in his own global endeavour to live the Johnny Cash lyric of having ‘been everywhere.’


Arthur James is @ArthurJamesOD. Picture credit to Paul Kamblock.