Forty-four years ago this week, I attended my first rock concert. Many others naturally followed, from Blind Faith to Springsteen, Elvis Costello, U2, Lucinda Williams, and the Swell Season, along with about eight years as the #2 editor at the legendary Crawdaddy. But that first concert remains vivid, and historic, as it was one stop on what many consider the most significant (and craziest) tour ever -- Bob Dylan's first full road trip after going electric.
In October '65, still in high school, I was a huge Dylan fan, especially after he went electric and hit the top with "Like a Rolling Stone" just that summer -- and got booed at Newport. I took a really bold step: ordering a pair of tickets for a Dylan show on Nov. 20 at Kleinhan's Music Hall in Buffalo. I still don't know how I managed to get tickets from my local music shop, but even more amazing: This would be my first rock concert ever.
That wasn't anything to be ashamed of back then. Only a few kids I knew had ever been to show, usually girls who drove up to Toronto for the Beach Boys. Few bands came to Buffalo, only 20 miles away but another world, with a thick knot of highways and byways to navigate and a then-huge downtown. And until senior year, I didn't have a license that would allow me to drive after dark. Now I was all set, if I dared make the trek to Buffalo.
Didn't know what to expect from the concert. This was long before the "rock press" appeared, wire service tour reports were virtually unheard of, and the net, of course, did not exist. All I'd heard was that the show opened acoustic and then went electric - and was causing disturbances everywhere. No idea who was in the backing band.
A Buffalo paper (I still have the clipping) ran a three-paragraph story, with the last two amounting to this: "He has performed at the Lincoln Center and Town Hall, and has made a series of personal appearances in England. Dylan's music has dropped most of its original overtones of the wandering troubadour. His beat is sharper and heavier and the words are more complex." This was the state of "rock journalism" back then.
Somehow we made it to the hall. Immediately I was thrown into the freakiest crowd I'd ever encountered, although "freaky" was not yet in the lingo. Most seemed to be from the University of Buffalo, at the time one of the most politically active campuses in the East. Numerous kids had long bushy hair, like Dylan, far scruffier and wilder looking than the British invasion band members. Many girls had devilishly long, straight hair. Some wore political buttons. A few protesters shouted slogans outside. It was exciting and, for me, exotic.
I still have a stub so I know that my girlfriend and I were in row J of the left-center balcony. (Funny, my memory tells me right-center). Dylan came out alone, with just a stool next to him. It held a change of harmonica, a glass of water and, evidently, some pills that he selected into from time to time. He'd already been associated with "drugs," whatever that meant, and I wondered if he was popping illegal substances or just fighting a cold.
The first set was all one could have wished, although I can't say for sure which songs he played, except that it was weighted toward the newer non-electric ones such as "Baby Blue" and "Tambourine Man. " I specifically remember that he played "Desolation Row," which I loved and went on forever - not a bad thing in this case. Okay, no controversy so far.
After intermission, spent largely staring at the odd menagerie of counter-culture precursors, I settled back in my seat, nervous, no doubt, about the coming reaction. And a large part of the crowd, it turned out, had brought their "A" game. A band came out with Bob - actually The Band, as it turned out (complete with Levon Helm, who had bolted for awhile) - and immediately started playing "fucking loud," as Dylan once described their live desires.
No idea what the first tune was, but I do know what happened between songs: heckling, pointed cries of "We want Dylan" (the folk one, that is) and "Put down the guitar!" -- and the ringing of a cow bell somewhere down the balcony.
Dylan plunged ahead, with more noisy protest, and the cowbell, after the song's final note. And so it went, although I recall that the cowbell slackened after awhile. There's no setlist posted online today, but a show two weeks later in California featured these songs in the electric half, according to a setlist on the Web: "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," "Long Distance Operator," "It Ain't Me Babe," "Ballad of a Thin Man," "Positively 4th Street," and "Like a Rolling Stone."
By the end, I felt that I enjoyed the first half more - it might have been acoustic but still "new" Dylan - but only because the sound quality (then horrific for live rock shows) made lyrics, and the little bit of Dylan patter, impossible to hear. Since I'd never been to a rock show before, however, I had no idea what other bands sounded like live, if the sound was always crappy, if performers rarely or always spoke to the audience, and how much of an encore, if any, could one expect.
But I had to start somewhere, and this was it. Now I'd been to the finest school, all right. Ah, but I was so much younger then, I'm older than that now.
Several months later, Dylan released Blonde on Blonde and then stopped touring - after his famous motorcycle accident, which some still suggest was faked to give him an excuse to give up the rigors, and controversy, of the road. No more ring-them-cowbells for Bob ever again. For a look at him doing Rolling Stone a little later on that tour, go here.
Greg Mitchell is editor of Editor & Publisher and author of nine books, the latest "Why Obama Won." He was executive editor at Crawdaddy for nearly all of the 1970s. He is currently working on a book about his life in music. Contact him here .