The Magic Years

When Bob Dylan Shocked the Newport Folk Festival in 1965

On May 4, my new book will be published. It’s called The Magic Years: Scenes From a Rock and Roll Life, and it chronicles my fifty year history of producing music and movies with artists like Bob Dylan and The Band, George Harrison, Martin Scorsese and Wim Wenders. What follows is an excerpt from the prologue.

Strapped to a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar, Bob Dylan launched into the opening chords of “Maggie’s Farm” almost before the band was ready. The Newport Folk Festival of 1965 was going to close with a commotion. I had just turned eigh- teen, and was an apprentice road manager for Dylan’s manager. This explosive moment launched me on a lifelong journey, one beyond anything I could have imagined at the time.

I was standing in the stage wing, transfixed, ten feet from the band. Mike Bloomfield, acting like bandleader, brought his Butterfield Blues Band rhythm section — drummer Sam Lay and bassist Jerome Arnold — into some approximation of sync with Dylan’s rhythm. Al Kooper, in a loud polka-dot shirt, hunched over the Hammond organ and did his best to fill in the spaces, but it wasn’t starting well. I ran out toward the mixing booth in front of the stage, where Peter Yarrow had commandeered the board. It was worse out front. In his nervousness, Bloomfield kept raising his guitar volume and was now drowning out every- thing else. The first tune ended on a sour note and there was only light applause from the audience. I gazed behind me and a look of shock seemed to be the dominant emotion in the sea of blue work shirts and peasant blouses. The man in the tight pants and orange shirt was not their Bob Dylan. What was going on?

A chorus of boos filled the air before Bob started his radio hit “Like a Rolling Stone,” but by the end the fans were still booing. Voices from the crowd called for their favorite tunes from the folk era. The band looked nervous, but without a word to the audience Bob plunged into “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” The band found their groove, but when the tune ended, the booing got worse. Dylan turned to Bloomfield and said, “Let’s split.” To the surprise of the other musicians and the road crew, he unplugged his Fender and walked off the stage.

Instantly the crowd went silent. People started yelling at each other in the aisles. “Look what you did!” “He’s gone, asshole.” Peter Yarrow bolted from the mixing console and I followed him backstage. Dylan was sitting on the bottom steps of the stairway leading up to the stage. He was clearly shaken, rubbing his eyes. Peter ran up onto the stage and seized the microphone. “Hey, show Bobby that you love him. Let’s get him back.” The audience roared approval. Dylan sat still on the steps. The audience began to clap in rhythm. Dylan refused to budge. Peter appeared at the top of the stairs, pleading with him to return.

Johnny Cash wandered out of the artists’ tent holding an acoustic guitar. For a minute he watched the triangular drama of Peter, Bob, and the crowd. He moved over to Bob and handed him the guitar. “Play them a song, son.” Bob took the guitar and slowly walked up the thirty steps to the stage. When he appeared in a lone spotlight holding the acoustic guitar, the cheers of the audience were deafening. He leaned toward the microphone, raising his harmonica holder. “Does anyone have a D harmon- ica?” Out of the crowd, three of Hohner’s finest sailed through the air onto the stage. Dylan danced out of the way and, grin- ning, picked up one and placed it in the holder. He started to strum the guitar.

You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last.

But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast. Yonder stands your orphan with his gun,
Crying like a fire in the sun.
Look out, the saints are comin’ through

And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.

When he finished the song, he rushed through “Mr. Tambourine Man,” then turned and, without a word, walked quickly off the stage. He had said his piece. They did not own him and, like a lover leaving a bad relationship breakup, he would not turn back.

Great cultural movements are not developed in clarity and order. I could feel that I had just witnessed something profoundly important, but I had no idea what its long-term effects would be. And as I chased the intensity and freedom that Dylan’s Newport set had allowed me to taste, my life also unfolded in a series of random acts of good fortune — being in the right place at the right time. I experienced some of the great rock-and-roll moments of the sixties from one of the closest vantage point possible, I found myself in the middle of a new movement in film during the seventies, and I stopped in several more unexpected places on the way to the present. I could never have foreseen where I am now. My current business card carries the title Director Emeritus, Annenberg Innovation Lab, University of Southern California, and I dedicate most of my time to writing and speaking about Big Tech monopolies and examining the great contradictions of the tech revolution. Maybe it seems strange to connect our current culture all the way back to a divisive show Bob Dylan played in 1965. But they’re part of a common story about our culture, and in these pages I tell my version of it.

In 2015 and 2016 I wrote a book called Move Fast and Break Things, which considers the monopolization of the Internet and its destructive effects on society, and especially on artists. That story has become more common in the years since, and here I intentionally do not tell it again. In many ways, this book is the complete opposite. Move Fast and Break Things is about technology, oligarchy, determinism, and our ruthless present. The story I tell here is about art, democracy, serendipity, and history. It’s about the messiness and chance that are essential to the development of culture, even when aspects of that process age better than others. But the daring messiness of the period from the early sixties to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 contrasts strongly from the nihilistic cultural and political stagnation of the current moment. The great cultural historian Jacques Barzun wrote a book titled From Dawn to Decadence. In it he described a moment that feels very true right now: “The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result.”

At this very moment, those painfully functioning institutions are putting our society — savaged by a pandemic, a financial depression, and a racial justice crisis — into danger. How we emerge from the crisis, and the role an optimistic culture could play in that renaissance, will be a lesson hopefully learned from the thirty years of upheaval depicted in this story. The business analyst Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” This book is about the sense of possibility that allows culture to be its most vital and powerful, even in difficult times. It’s about culture eating politics for breakfast.

The history of America is filled with periods of upheaval like the one we are experiencing now. They tend to show up every fifty years. From 1850 to 1865 we fought over slavery. From 1902 to 1915 we fought over the power of corporate monopoly and women’s right to vote. From 1962 to 1970 we fought over the civil rights of our Black citizens. And today we are fighting for those same civil rights and battling new corporate monopolies that threaten our democracy. And though the battles seem never to end in permanent victory for the forces of freedom and equality, in each generation progress is made. In each of these earlier battles American artists were at the barricades, refusing, as Marcuse said, “to forget what can be.” But right now the voice of the progressive artist is kept at the periphery, as the critic A. O. Scott makes clear, noting that much of our popular culture — especially our movies and TV — “has been authoritarian, anti-democratic, cynical, and pseudo-populist. That much of the politics of the past decade can be described with the same words is hardly an accident.”

Rather than lamenting what is, this book explores what was, so that we might understand what can be. For as Thomas Paine reminded us at the beginning of this long American experiment in freedom and equality, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”

I want to have a conversation about these themes, so I welcome you to join me in a series of virtual book chats around the country with great artists like T Bone Burnett, Robbie Robertson, Wim Wenders, Callie Khouri and Greil Marcus. And do me a favor, buy the book.

Director Emeritus, USC Annenberg Innovation Lab. Producer/Author, “Mean Streets”, “Move Fast & Break Things”. New book, “The Magic Years”, out 3/21.

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