“Dylan’s electric set at the 1965 Newport (Folk) Festival may well be the most written-about performance in the history of rock & roll,” writes Bob Dylan biographer Clinton Heylin. Although Heylin may have forgotten the media coverage surrounding Elvis Presley’s and the Beatles’ appearances on TV’s “Ed Sullivan Show,” he certainly has a point.
In what we might now call a “tipping point,” Dylan’s electric and electrifying performance in July 1965 symbolized the defection of folk music’s leading light to the more profane and commercial world of rock `n’ roll. (Dylan actually already had released a semi-rock album, “Bringing It All Back Home,” earlier in 1965, and his new rock single, “Like a Rolling Stone,” had just come out by the time Dylan appeared at Newport. In addition, several other electric bands, playing blues and gospel, performed at Newport. But the symbolism of Dylan choosing to deliver his first live rock performance at the leading folk festival was unmistakable.)
As the legend goes, Dylan was met with anger from an older generation of folk music supporters and boos from the audience. He left the stage after only a few songs with his band - guitarist Michael Bloomfield and other members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, plus organist Al Kooper and pianist Barry Goldberg - and returned just by himself, with tears in his eyes and an acoustic guitar in his arms, to perform a few final songs.
Now, with the release on DVD of Murray Lerner’s documentary, “The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan Live at the Newport Folk Festival, 1963-1965” (Columbia/Legacy, $19.98, not rated), new viewers can join the 15,000 or so who witnessed Dylan’s performance and decide for themselves what happened. They won’t be able to see the backstage wrangling, which may or may not have involved folk godfather Pete Seeger attempting to literally pull the plug on Dylan and his cohorts, but they will be able to hear the songs Dylan performed and the crowd’s response.
From that vantage point, it’s apparent that Dylan’s foray into rock was greeted with as much applause and cheers as boos and catcalls. Although Dylan and his band - which had rehearsed for the first time at the festival - were at times ragged, they were undeniably loud and impassioned.
Dressed in a black leather jacket, Dylan sang “Maggie’s Farm” and “Like a Rolling Stone” with ferocity and determination.
Some observers have written that whatever booing took place was due in part to the bad sound mix for Dylan’s band, while others have noted the audience’s consternation over Dylan leaving the stage after performing only three songs.
Goldberg, who played piano with Dylan that night (the DVD liner notes incorrectly list him as playing organ), remembers “how exciting it was and how blown away everybody was.” He recalls, in a recent interview with The Sacramento Bee, that the band “felt like we were on a mission. Michael (Bloomfield) just turned up his amp to nine.”
Goldberg heard a lot of cheers from the crowd that night.
“What I remember is that people really dug it,” he says.
The movie captures Dylan heeding the pleas of emcee Peter Yarrow and returning to the stage to perform acoustic versions of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue,” which includes the prophetic line, “Strike another match, go start anew.”
This viewer can’t see any tears in Dylan’s eyes, but there is plenty of sweat running down his face as he delivers an emphatic and emotional performance.
Of course, there’s more to “The Other Side of the Mirror” than the evening of July 25, 1965. The documentary offers striking evidence of how much Dylan changed from 1963 to 1965 as he aged from 22 to 24.
In 1963, he’s a phenomenon - a workshirt-wearing young man dazzling both the audience and his fellow performers with his sense of humor and poetic and profound songs about labor (“North Country Blues”), war (“With God on Our Side,” “Talkin’ World War III Blues”) and civil rights (“Only a Pawn in Their Game,” “Blowin’ in the Wind”). His climactic performance of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” sharing the stage with Joan Baez; Seeger; Peter, Paul and Mary; and the Freedom Singers showed his place at the center of the alliance between folk music and the civil rights movement. Unfortunately, their performance of “We Shall Overcome” is not included here.
By 1964, Dylan is performing more introspective songs - “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “It Ain’t Me Babe” (a duet with Baez) and “Chimes of Freedom.” He’s also become almost bigger than the festival itself, as the crowd delays a packed evening concert by roaring for more Dylan.
For 1965, the movie shows Dylan performing acoustically some of his new songs - “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” - at afternoon workshops before his history-making electric set the following evening.
The DVD includes an interview with Lerner, who years earlier had made the Newport documentary “Festival.”
Four days after his 1965 performance at Newport, Dylan returned to the studio to record “Positively 4th Street,” his blistering put-down of old folkies and the Greenwich Village scene from which he had emerged.
There was no turning back.