When Dylan got rocked
by John GoddardFrom The Toronto Star, 11.18.2000.
Copyright 1996-2000. Toronto Star Newspapers Limited. All rights reserved. Distribution, transmission or republication of any material from www.thestar.com is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Toronto Star Newspapers Limited. For information please contact us or send email to Webmaster@thestar.com.
Folk purist met Levon and the Hawks at the Friar's Tavern on Yonge St. and changed the course of pop music history
Patrons of the downtown Hard Rock Cafe can be forgiven for knowing nothing of its true musical connection.
Eyes are naturally drawn to the memorabilia on the walls - Randy Bachman's guitar from his B.T.O. days, a poster for the Elvis Presley movie Kissin' Cousins, a black leather jacket once worn by Iggy Pop.
Easy to miss are details of the room itself, most prominent among them being the overhead Elizabethan-style beams and tiles.
They formed the original ceiling of the previous occupant,the Friar's Tavern, home to an event that Time magazine once called ``the most decisive moment in rock history.''
From 1964 to 1976, the Friar's served as one of the most popular nightclubs in the downtown core, and it was there in the early morning of Thurs., Sept. 16, 1965, that Bob Dylan first met Levon and the Hawks, later renamed the Band.
Today, anybody sitting at the Friar's oddly configured bar, now positioned near the cafe's north wall, would be perched roughly where Levon Helm laid into his drum kit to begin rehearsals for Dylan's revolutionary electric-debut world tour.
It opened two weeks later at New York's Carnegie Hall and passed through Toronto's Massey Hall that Nov. 14 and 15 - 35 years ago this week.
``Maybe it would be ignorance,'' Toronto Hard Rock general manager Tim Eddis says to explain why the historic meeting and rehearsal sessions are nowhere commemorated at the caf , allowing that neither he nor any of his staff knows the story.
But now there may be a chance to pay tribute, he says. Hard Rock corporate headquarters in Orlando, Fla., is preparing to spend $4 million to $6 million over the next 18 months on renovations to the Yonge St. location, opposite the Eaton Centre.
Tentative plans call for expanding the existing caf and bar into the entire first floor of the former Friar's club. Dancefloors and lounges with live music would take over the upstairs.
``Maybe we could bring that history back to life,'' Eddis says. ``Could you send us more information?''
The story begins in 1963 with the matchmaker, Mary Martin. She works now as a talent scout in Nashville but she was born in Toronto, went to the Havergal girls' school, and after a brief stint working for a Toronto insurance company, moved to New York's Greenwich Village.
By chance she landed a receptionist's job with Albert Grossman, manager at the time to the hottest acts in folk music - Peter, Paul and Mary; Ian and Sylvia; and Bob Dylan. She kept her connection with Toronto, however, sometimes returning for a couple of months at a time and becoming one of the biggest fans of Levon and the Hawks.
``We would go to drink at the Pilot Tavern near Yonge and Bloor,'' she says of her and her friends. ``Then after several beers, or gin-and-tonics, we'd go down to see the Hawks at `the Le Coq d'Or.'
``Those boys talked to each other musically,'' she says. ``They had conversations with themselves that were so deeply musical that if you listened, you got to go along. They were the best band that we had ever, ever heard.''
The Hawks had formed as backing players to Toronto rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins, splitting with him in late 1963 to extend their range into early rock 'n' roll songs, bluesy ballads and soulful r 'n' b tunes. In his 1993 autobiography, This Wheel's On Fire, Helm says that the Hawks considered themselves ``the undisputed champions of Canadian rock and roll.''
But they were still playing bars. In search of something bigger, they started travelling to New York, playing club dates and cutting an unsuccessful single there in early 1964. Some of the members also played on So Many Roads, the third album by solo blues artist John Hammond - ``one of the first to see the possibilities of having an electric band,'' Helm says.
In early 1965, still looking to make a record of their own, the Hawks sent a demo tape to Mary Martin. She was back full time with Albert Grossman by then, and passed a copy to a Grossman assistant.
`` `Miss Martin, we aren't interested in talent of that calibre,' '' she recalls him saying - ``meaning, I suppose, `They're a bar band. Who cares?' ''
At the same time, Martin noticed that Dylan was becoming agitated. She dates the period to April, 1965, when a new group called the Byrds recorded an electric version of Dylan's ``Mr. Tambourine Man.''
``He was just sitting in the office sort of shaking his leg and his head, going, `Golly, what do I do next, huh?' '' Martin recalls.
``And what had happened is very simple to explain. Bob Dylan had heard drums, an electric bass and an electric guitar on `Mr. Tambourine Man' - and for a folk singer that was a giant leap to think, `Damn, now I'm going to have to get a band.'
``But that's really what he had to ponder. And he did ponder it, and I said, `Well, go to Toronto and see the Hawks.' ''
Dylan did not go right away.
He went to England and Dylan's biographers all agree that he went through some kind of profound dissatisfaction that spring. He was fed up with playing guitar and harmonica alone in front of reverential sold-out crowds, a mood intimately captured in D. A. Pennebaker's film Don't Look Back. At one point before walking onstage, Dylan says, ``I don't feel like singing.''
In early June, 1965, he returned home. Within days he wrote ``Like A Rolling Stone,'' and on June 15, with an electric band, he recorded it - a six-minute masterpiece that represented, in the words of biographer Paul Williams, ``a whole new kind of music.''
It wasn't folk. It wasn't rock and roll. It was something else - a rich, stately release, perhaps, of all the restlessness and boredom Dylan had been feeling that spring.
On July 20, ``Like A Rolling Stone'' was released as a single and five days after that, at the Newport Folk Festival, Dylan made his first controversial stage appearance with an electric group, put together the night before.
Mary Martin was in the audience and says watching Dylan at that now famous concert where fans booed him off the stage stiffened her resolve to play go-between.
``Bob Dylan still needed his own band,'' she says, ``and I really felt that the boys needed to take that other step before they really emerged.''
The Hawks were playing all that summer at a teenage nightclub near Atlantic City. Martin persuaded a Grossman scout, Dan Weiner, to check them out. She also told the Hawks about the Newport concert, and in early August she brought Rick Danko an advance copy of Dylan's sixth album, Highway 61 Revisited, with ``Like A Rolling Stone.''
The Hawks had still barely heard of Dylan. ``We had no idea how big Bob Dylan was,'' Helm says in his book. In their ignorance, they dismissed him as a folkie - a ``strummer'' they called him - and viewed themselves far more favourably as a hard-edged bar band.
They were worlds apart, but the band's resistance to Dylan still seems astounding given the phenomenon he had become.
At 24 years old, Dylan stood at the centre of a new music that critics were calling folk-rock and that Dylan himself refused to label. Sound, lyrics, and emotion swirled and fit together in his songs in revolutionary new ways.
All that August, ``Like A Rolling Stone'' rode near the top of the charts, soon followed by ``Positively Fourth Street.'' Other artists scrambled to record Dylan songs and sing in the Dylan style. That month alone, 48 Dylan songs were released by other people, including the Turtles' hit, ``It Ain't Me Babe,'' and Cher's ``All I Really Want To Do.''
But if the Hawks were not entirely sold on Dylan, neither was Dylan sold on the Hawks. His first choice on guitar was Chicago guitarist Mike Bloomfield, who had played the Newport gig. Only after Bloomfield turned him down for other commitments did Dylan turn to Hawks' guitarist Robbie Robertson.
``(Mary Martin) knew all the bands and singers from Canada,'' Dylan later told Rolling Stone editor, Jann Wenner, ``and she kept pushing these guys the Hawks on me.''
Dylan invited Robertson to audition in New York with the beginnings of a band, and Robertson suggested replacing the drummer with Helm, which Dylan did. The other Hawks would continue to play the nightclub, while Robertson, Helm and two other musicians would play two electric concerts with Dylan.
The first took place on Aug. 28, 1965, at New York's Forest Hills Tennis Stadium before 15,000 people - the biggest audience Robertson and Helm had ever played to.
Dylan divided the concert into two sets. In the first, he sang seven numbers by himself with an acoustic guitar and harmonica. Then came the electric set. Before they went on, Helm says, Dylan gathered them together and said, ``Just keep playing, no matter how weird it gets.''
Boos and catcalls followed. ``Yeah, yeah, shake it up, baby.'' ``Scumbag.'' ``Where's Ringo?'' A fight broke out. People threw fruit at the band members, although not at Dylan, and at one point a man rushed the stage and knocked keyboard player Al Kooper off his chair.
Six days later, the group repeated the show at California's Hollywood Bowl, after which Dylan proposed to tour. Kooper, however, said he'd had enough. Helm said he would not break up the Hawks.
``Take us all, or don't take anybody,'' he recalls telling Grossman, and Dylan later replied, ``When can I hear the band?''
On Wednesday afternoon, Sept. 15, 1965, Dylan arrived in Toronto by private plane. At midnight, he went to the Friar's Tavern to watch Levon and the Hawks play their final set, and afterward he rehearsed with them until 6 a.m.
The whole next night they rehearsed together, and at one point Dylan gave an interview to Robert Fulford, then a reporter for The Star.
``I know my thing now,'' Dylan told him. ``I know what it is. It's hard to describe. I don't know what to call it because I've never heard it before.''
Two months later at Massey Hall, before the Hawks' hometown crowd, Star reviewer Anthony Ferry let go one of the harshest attacks of the entire tour.
``Here was a Bob Dylan who once was a purist,'' he wrote,``electronically hooked up to a third-rate Yonge St. rock 'n' roll band.'' Fulford disagreed. ``To me the new Dylan seems the better Dylan - more expressive, more exciting,'' he wrote in a column later that week.
``The second half of the Massey Hall concert, with that wild rock beat coming from Levon and the Hawks, was a remarkable experience - great waves of sound roaring off the stage in marvellously subtle rhythms, a tremendous roaring hurricane of a style . . .
``I love it.''