Have I ever told you about my cousin Mitchell? He’s a few years older than me, and as we all know, having a cool older cousin or sibling when you’re growing up is a huge advantage. One of the things that I will be eternally grateful to Mitch for is that he took me to two of the most memorable concerts that I’ve ever attended, concerts that I was too young to go to on my own.
Both of the concerts took place at what was then called the Mosque Theatre (now Symphony Hall), in Newark, NJ. First, there was a glittering Saturday night with Ray Charles. The Genius was at his peak in those mid-’60s days, and his performance, with the big band, and the Raelettes, was unforgettable.
Then there was Dylan. Another older cousin, Joanne, had turned me on to Dylan a few years earlier. I vividly recall the day that she showed by the cover to the Freewheelin’ album, and played me some of the music. Seeing him live of course was a whole other thing.
Once again, it was Mitch who provided me with a lifetime memory when he took me to see Dylan at that very same Mosque Theatre. There is no way I would remember the date, but thanks to the Internet, I now know that it was October 2, 1965. So it was only a month or two after Dylan famously “went electric” at Newport. It was apparently one of his early shows with the Hawks, including Levon Helm.
The first half of the show was acoustic, but the second half was plugged-in. People were still screaming things at him. Someone yelled out “rock and roll sucks” when the band appeared after intermission. That guy probably tells his grandchildren what a great show it was now.
Dylan, never exactly a sparkling conversationalist on stage, only said one thing to the audience that night. It came right before he sat down at the piano for “Ballad of a Thin Man.” “You’ll have to excuse my voice, I just got over a bad case of leprosy.” Short, weird, and I still remember it more than 45 years later.
Aside from being Dylan-related, all of the above doesn’t have much to do with the new Columbia Records/Legacy release of Bob Dylan In Concert – Brandeis University 1963. The new album documents a rare early Dylan performance that took place on May 10, 1963.
John Kennedy was still President. There were no Beatles yet, at least none that we knew about. The Cuban missile crisis had just scared the hell out of all of us. Freewheelin’ was still a couple of weeks away. At that point, what the world at large knew about Bob Dylan was from that one hit-or-miss, self-titled debut album.
According to the legend, the concert tape was found in the archives of Rolling Stone co-founder Ralph Gleason where it had languished for more than forty years. “It had been forgotten, until it was found last year in the clearing of the house after my mother died,” said Gleason’s son Toby. “It’s a seven inch reel-to-reel that sounds like it was taped from the mixing disc.”
The album’s seven songs were drawn from the two sets that Dylan played at Brandeis that night. It’s a passionate, angry, funny, intense performance. In other words, it’s pure Dylan. The track list includes deadly serious takes on “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” and “Masters of War,” and the pointed political commentary of “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” and Talkin’ World War III Blues,” along with lighthearted romps through “Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues,” and “Bob Dylan’s Dream.”
It is important to note that Dylan’s debut album, the only one available at the time of this concert, included only two original songs. So the idea of Dylan as a songwriter was still new. Imagine being in that audience and hearing this artist perform these songs. Based on their reaction, those fortunate people knew that the were present at the dawn of creation.
In the end, that’s what Bob Dylan In Concert – Brandeis University 1963 is — a historical document, albeit a hugely enjoyable, somewhat poignant one. If you’re a Dylan devotee, as I am, just grab it now. You know you have to. In one way, it’s not really a good starting point if you’re new to Dylan because although much of the material is timeless, it really is an ancient artifact. On the other hand, it’s very much the beginning, and there’s nothing quite like starting at the beginning.