Dylan Went Electric 50 Years Ago This Week, And The Fan/Hater Was Born

bobdylan50 years ago this week, on July 25, 1965, Bob Dylan plugged in his Fender Strat at the Newport Folk Festival and changed the course of Rock history.

But how exactly this event changed Rock has been, and will continue to be, the subject of plenty of debate.

For one thing, the historical facts as to what exactly transpired that day have never been confirmed. We do know that Dylan played three songs – “Maggie’s Farm”, “Like A Rolling Stone”, and an early version of “It Takes a Lot To Laugh” – before walking offstage with his band to a chorus of boos from the audience.

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The conventional wisdom is that the fans at the folk festival were disgusted with Mr. D’s rock & roll performance. Legend has it that Pete Seeger was so incensed Dylan wasn’t playing acoustic that he ran backstage threatening to cut the band’s power cable with an axe.

But in later years Seeger disputed this story. He said that he was fine with Dylan’s performance, but the Newport stage speakers couldn’t handle the volume of Dylan’s band, and the sound quality was badly distorted, and he simply wanted to fix the sound. I guess with an axe.

So that became a second interpretation. People were booing not because they didn’t like what Dylan was doing, but because the sound was so bad. There is even a third theory: people were booing because the set was too short, and they wanted to hear more of this exciting new music.

Of course we all know that recollections often get “adjusted” over the course of time, and human nature being what it is, nobody wants to put themselves in a bad light. Who wants to admit that they were the schmucks who booed the first public performance of “Like a Rolling Stone”?

I think there’s been a lot of revisionism going on. Listen to the clip of the performance of “Maggie’s Farm”, above. It doesn’t sound distorted. It sounds smokin’. People ought to be honest. There’s no way they were booing because wanted more. They were booing because the Bob Dylan they loved had changed. And they didn’t like it.

Dylan would have to deal with these fan/haters for years to come. There was the famous “Judas” outburst at a concert in Manchester, England in 1966, captured in the film Don’t Look Back. Hell, I can personally remember going to a Dylan concert in the 1980s, and this middle-aged woman nearby stood up after every song and yelled “Solo! Play Solo!” What is wrong with these people?

I think the problem is that the Rock revolution of the 1960s invited fans to identify with and feel close to the artists like never before. Think of the devotion that Beatlemania spawned. Fans began to feel that these artists belonged to them. And fans felt the license to demand that their favorite artists give them what they wanted, and the license to get angry when they didn’t. And so the fan/hater was born.

This sense of fan entitlement was something new. It completely ignored the fact that all great artists need to change and grow. I believe that if the Beatles had stayed together, a large percentage of their “fans” would have bitterly complained that they didn’t sound like they used to. Today, you could go through the message boards for any band or artist, and you will find the same fan/hater sentiment.

It’s one thing genuinely not to like the new works of your favorite artist. It’s quite another to demand or expect they will always stay the way you want them to be. That’s an attitude that was born on July 25, 1965 in Newport, R.I.

Photo credit: By Alberto Cabello from Vitoria Gasteiz (Bob Dylan) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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