October 25, 2020

Peter Stone Brown Archives

Archives of musician and writer Peter Stone Brown

Halloween at Philharmonic Hall 50 Years Later

Philharmonic PosterAfter 50 years, it might be the concert and the weekend of music I remember best. It was Halloween and a Saturday and until that day Halloween meant costumes and going for blocks trick or treating. And Halloween on a Friday or Saturday meant an extra long night of trick or treating. But not this time. Bob Dylan was at Philharmonic Hall, my second Bob Dylan concert. My parents had sent away for tickets for my brother, our friend Jim and I at the enormous cost of 12 bucks. I’d been a teenager for 3 ½ months and my step-mom probably wasn’t enamored of the prospect of us going to a then still new concert hall wearing jeans and a sports jacket. In those days you dressed up for concerts. But I don’t think they put up too much of a fuss and sometime that afternoon we took the bus to New York, 20 miles away. We walked up 8th Avenue from Port Authority Terminal to 49th Street, and our first stop, Sam Goody’s, which called itself “The World’s Largest Record Store.” (In the next decade in another city, I’d work at Sam Goody’s, but that’s another story.) Records! The very idea of records sent a big light bulb or maybe more accurately fireworks off in my brain. (And even now there are times it still does.) Sam Goody’s was a full catalog store which meant they had every record in print. My brother and I raced through the racks pulling out all the records we wanted. We had enough money for one apiece. We created quite a comical spectacle laying out about 20 records on top of the browsers, and narrowing it down to two. After that, walked to Lincoln Center and Philharmonic Hall.

The energy was high at Philharmonic Hall, outside and in. The hall was only two years old and Bob Dylan was the first non-classical musicianto perform there.

I’d discovered Bob Dylan a little more than a year before and in that one year there was plenty to make him controversial. For one thing, there was the town I lived in, the home of Lorre Wyatt who once claimed he wrote “Blowin’ In The Wind” and eventually recanted several years later. Just about the entire town believed him. There was Bob Dylan’s speech at the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee Dinner where he was given the Tom Paine award and managed to insult everyone in the room. My parents were sort of into folk music though classical music was their primary preference. My dad had seen Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly perform. They liked some of Bob Dylan’s songs, but they knew he was my hero, not theirs. And my step-mom may have liked what his songs said, but she didn’t trust him. Throwing a slight mind-fuck into my 13-year-old mind was the latest issue of Sing Out!, the folk song magazine. My brother and I had a subscription and latest issue arrived sometime between the release of Another Side Of Bob Dylan and the Philharmonic Hall concert. In that issue was “An Open Letter To Bob Dylan” by the magazine’s editor Irwin Silber who wasn’t happy that Dylan didn’t sing any protest songs at that summer’s Newport Folk Festival. He also didn’t like that Dylan was hanging out with his friends, and thought he needed to ride the subway more often. It was enough to make me wonder whether Dylan would sing any of the songs I’d come to love during the previous year. At roughly the same time there was a long article and interview with Dylan in the New Yorker, that described the Another Side session and in which Dylan talked of writing more personal songs.

Back then you went to see Bob Dylan not only to hear your favorite songs, but also to hear new songs and what he had to say. It took a couple of decades but bootleg records eventually forced Dylan to stop playing new songs in concert before he recorded them. At the time of the Philharmonic concert, Dylan had not yet performed any of the songs from Another Side in New York City. He sang five songs from the album, and introduced five other new songs, “Mama You Been On My Mind,” “If You Gotta Go, Go Now,” “Gates Of Eden,” “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

Photo by Daniel Kramer
Photo by Daniel Kramer

Our seats were in the balcony in the first row. Dylan, obviously in good spirits was loose and very funny. Back then people didn’t talk at concerts. They listened. If you said anything at all, you whispered it between songs. At this particular concert, the audience also in good spirits, often shouted requests or sometimes funny questions, and this night, Dylan responded. “Play ‘Corrina Corrina!” “I haven’t got my drums.” “What do you do for a living?” “I hope I never have to make a living.” “Play Mary Had A Little Lamb.” “Is that a protest song?” Listening to the album released 40 years later, it’s often hard to hear the questions. A couple of times he seemed to start playing a song, and abandon it before singing. Before “If You Gotta Go, Go Now,” plays what sounds like the beginning to a different song, stops and says, “Don’t let that scare you. It’s just Halloween. I have my Bob Dylan mask on.” The best example of how he could relate to an audience and turn what could have been an awkward situation into comedy is when he forgets the first verse to “I Don’t Believe You,” running through the song on his guitar, going up the neck, stopping and saying, “Oh God.” Then after strumming some more, “Here’s the second verse of it, finally asking, “Does anybody know the first verse of this song?”

It’s hard to tell from the album, but Dylan was playing and singing loudly throughout the night. On the breaks between verses he’d bring his guitar right to the microphone and play even louder. The best example of this is the totally crazy version of “Don’t Think Twice,” where he’d shout out the first line with the following line much lower. The wild harp break was a sign of what was to come two years later. For years I wondered if I really heard what I heard that night on that song until a bootleg answered the question six years later.

Listening to the album today, the thing I noticed is how clearly Dylan articulated each word emphasizing the lyrics. For the past five decades, comics imitating Dylan will mumble incoherently usually in the Blonde On Blonde voice, as well as critics who clearly weren’t paying attention saying they couldn’t understand him when in reality he was making his words quite clear.

In the end, the songs that totally hit me that night, the songs that I knew were on a totally other level were “Gates Of Eden,” “It’s Alright Ma,” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” I left Philharmonic Hall that night with the last song in my head where it stayed for about five, maybe six months until I heard it again. I would never see Bob Dylan engage with an audience that way again. He was only 23.

That night my brother and I stayed with friends in the city, and the next afternoon we headed downtown to Greenwich Village and the Village Gate for the very first Broadside Hoot. Broadside magazine was a mimeographed songbook/magazine that printed the new songs by Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton and the other songwriters in Greenwich Village and sometimes from around the country. Phil Ochs was at the Philharmonic Hall concert and probably some of the other songwriters onstage were as well. A year before Sing Out! had a cover story on all of them that included Dylan.

The show cost one dollar. The performers were Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Eric Andersen, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Len Chandler, Julius Lester, Peter La Farge, Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, and surprise guest Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. There may have been a couple of other performers I can no longer remember. Each singer did one song, and most of the songs were brand new. Ramblin’ Jack did Woody’s “1913 Massacre.” It was my first time seeing all of them except for Pete Seeger. Phil Ochs seemed to be the catalyst for the show, and a few months later an album, The Broadside Singers was released with all the performers playing together doing many of the songs played that afternoon. Near the end of the show, Ochs took the stage again with Eric Andersen, saying there’s two songwriters we can’t leave out, and the two sang Lennon and McCartney’s “I Should Have Known Better.” The Broadside Hoots (I went to most of them) continued on a monthly basis until sometime the following spring. By that time, Bringing It All Back Home was out, and within a couple of years most of the musicians on that stage would have bands on their records.