Bob Dylan and JFK - November 22, 1963 - November 22, 2014
Dylan at the piano - he didn't pick up the guitar
Dylan at the piano - he didn't pick up the guitar
The last time Bob Dylan played the Jersey Shore he went for a walk and was stopped by young, rookie female cop who thought him a suspicious character walking aimlessly about a residential neighborhood. The girl just didn’t recognize Bob Dylan, even when he introduced himself.
That didn’t happen when Bob Dylan came to Philadelphia to take the stage at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia November 21-22-23, a trilogy of shows that were billed as the first time Dylan has played a center city theater since 1963.
Those who were there will flashback to October 25, 1963 - Philadelphia Town Hall – the Scottish Rite Cathedral at 150 North Broad at Race Street, a beautiful building that was leveled in 1983. The same setting was the preferred recording space for Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra after the Academy of Music was remodeled in 1950. The Academy acoustics were fine for the live performances, but recoded flat and served Dylan well when he performed there.
As usual, Dylan took a walk around the Academy of Music neighborhood and found McGlinchy’s Bar behind the Academy, where he had a beer and was recognized by some who remembered him from when he performed in 1963. They recall a younger, wilder Dylan who stopped by Dirty Franks on Pine Street, where he was asked to leave for being “a drunken asshole.”
For some reason it is somehow comforting to know that the conscience of a generation, the Godfather of folk and protest songs, with a doctorate from Princeton and having been awarded the Tom Paine and presidential Freedom awards, the heir to Whitman and Ginsberg as the poet and songwriter of our age, can also be a drunken asshole.
Dylan was much more reserved this time around.
Dylan’s current major theater tour coincides with the release of a new, restored digital version of the legendary Basement Tapes as well as the release of a new version of some of the Basement Tape songs covered by new artists including T. Bone Burnett, Elvis Costello and Marcus Mulford of the Mulford Family.
While the concerts certainly attracted the aging hippie crowd - the over-under was fifty five, the Basement Tapes recordings should be of interest to the younger crowd, not only because of their role in the history of the music, but also the continued interest by the new artists in the nearly half-century old Big Pink Basement tape recordings.
It may be technically true that Dylan hasn’t performed in a center city Philadelphia theater since 1963, but he has performed on his “never ending tour” at the Tower in Upper Darby in West Philly in 1994 and at the Electric Factory in Society Hill a few years ago, but it has been fifty years since Dylan made his mark as a major theater attraction in both New York and Philadelphia.
It was in 1963 when Dylan performed with Joan Baiz on the same stage as Martin Luther King, Jr. during the march on Washington, released his celebrated second “Freewheelen’” album for Columbia, received an honorary doctorate degree from Princeton, performed at Carnegie Hall and received the Tom Paine Award.
Then everything started going wrong – Newsweek called him a fake for trying to manipulate the media, they booed him at the Tom Paine Awards and he began to break up with his girlfriend Suzie Rotolo – who is seen walking down McDougle Street with Dylan arm in arm on the album cover.
What happened between his celebrated theater shows in October and being booed while receiving the Tom Paine Award? John Kennedy was killed, an event that influenced Dylan and his entire generation, and still continues to haunt us today.
And so on November 22 it overshadowed Dylan’s dark theatrical performance as much as the echo of the basement tapes.
Dylan’s principled interest in social issues and causes branded him political, and one of his first benefit concerts was for the civil rights Freedom Riders, but he detested being called “the conscience of his generation,” and refused to support other causes though he did perform at Live Aid, and much to the chagrin of Bog Geldorf, sang a song about a farmer and called for the struggling American farmers who feed the world, a remark that sparked the founding of Farm Aid, which he also supported.
But he once said he didn’t vote in the 1960 election because he didn’t recognize any candidates who looked and thought like him. Of John Kennedy he said he was a fake and pretender.
But later, Dylan told Kurt Loder in a Rolling Stone interview that Martin Luther King and the Kennedy brothers are spiritual icons who planted seeds that are still growing today. And in his autobiographical Chronicals Dylan recounts how his mother told him she saw JFK when he visited his hometown of Hibbing, Minnissotta, which led him to say that he would have voted for JFK for just visiting his hometown.
Dylan’s mother and father Mr. and Mrs. Zimmerman,were in the audience when he performed at Carnegie Hall. Dylan had legally changed his name from Robert A. Zimmerman to Bob Dylan in 1962 and arranged for his parents to be in the audience for the Carnegie Hall show, a big step for him to go from playing coffee houses, cafes and nightclubs to performing solo at Carnegie Hall.
The night before – October 24, 1963, Dylan performed Philadelphia’s Town Hall.
A few days earlier he was interviewed for Newsweek and they branded Dylan a fake pretender who manipulated the media and maybe didn’t actually write the hit song, “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Instead, Newsweek reported, the hit song that was fanning revolution was instead written by Millburn, New Jersey high school student Lorrie Wyatt,” who fellow students claimed sang the song before Dylan, and Newsweek printed the false rumor even as Wyatt denied it.
In the two months between Town Hall and Carnegie Hall and the Tom Paine Award, JFK was killed, and the assassination was still on his mind and he talked about it when he accepted the award.
As he put it: “So, I accept this reward - not reward, (Laughter) award in behalf of Phillip Luce who led the group to Cuba which all people should go down to Cuba. I don't see why anybody can't go to Cuba. I don't see what's going to hurt by going any place. I don't know what's going to hurt anybody's eyes to see anything. On the other hand, Phillip is a friend of mine who went to Cuba.”
Dylan said: “I'll stand up and to get uncompromisable about it, which I have to be to be honest, I just got to be, as I got to admit that the man who shot President Kennedy, Lee Oswald, I don't know exactly where —what he thought he was doing, but I got to admit honestly that I too - I saw some of myself in him. I don't think it would have gone - I don't think it could go that far. But I got to stand up and say I saw things that he felt, in me - not to go that far and shoot. (Boos and hisses) You can boo but booing's got nothing to do with it. It's a - I just a - I've got to tell you, man, it's Bill of Rights is free speech and I just want to admit that I accept this Tom Paine Award in behalf of James Forman of the Students Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and on behalf of the people who went to Cuba.” (Boos and Applause).
For full speech see: http://jfkcountercoup2.blogspot.com/2014/11/dylans-tom-paine-award.html
Although Dylan took exception to being called the social conscience of a generation, he did accept the Princeton doctorate and took the Tom Paine Award in honor of those American students who disregarded the tourist embargo and illegally traveled to Cuba. Dylan had met them through his girl, Suzie Rotollo,
It wasn’t honoring the students who went to Cuba that bothered the audience of 1500 well heeled liberals whose donations kept the non-profit organization afloat, it was Dylan’s remark that he could somewhat sympathize with Oswald – the man accused of killing JFK. Oswald himself had tried to get a visa to Cuba and like Tom Paine, he handed out leaflets in New Orleans and got into a scuffle with some anti-Castro Cubans.
But the audience wasn’t buying that speil, and was ushered off stage – getting the hook, and the incident inspired him to write a poem in which he tried to explain himself.
From the toast of the town to being shunned by liberals, Dylan decided to hit the road, literally, and drove cross country to perform few college dates and visit a few new places, including New Orleans French Quarter, Oswald’s old neighborhood, and Dealey Plaza in Dallas where Kennedy was killed.
In Dallas, as did the Beatles and David Crosby, Dylan went to Dealey Plaza to see where President Kennedy was killed. The Beatles ducked in the back of their limo as they drove past the Texas School Book Depository Building and Grassy Knoll and then retired to their rooms at the Dallas Cabana Hotel, where some of the witnesses and suspects had famously stayed on the weekend of the assassination.
When Dylan was looking for Dealey Plaza and the first few Dallas pedestrians couldn’t direct him to the spot, Dylan was perplexed, and then finally found a pedestrian who directed them to the site and said, “You mean where they killed that son-of-a-bitch,"
So when Dylan performed at the Academy of Music on November 22, 2014 – the fifty first anniversary of the assassination, the event hovered in the background like a dark cloud over the dark stage on which he performed.