An Encounter with Bob and his band in Belfast: part 2

This article continues from An Encounter with Bob and his band in Belfast. May 6th, 1966.

By Geoffrey Morrow

View from the crowd, ABC Ritz Cinema Belfast, May 6th 1966 (Note wrought iron railings and Compton Melotone organ under tarp at foot of the stage) photo by Tiger Taylor, found on Twitter

By now it must be obvious to any reader of this site that, in the UK at that time, everything as far as the music media went, arrived in the form of photographs.  Indeed even some LPs became available quite a bit after they were seen and heard in the States.

The Bob Dylan that we last had a visual reference to was from his short news-based television appearances while touring in Britain a year previous to this in 1965, and the cover photograph of his last album Highway 61 Revisited.

Even then, it was mostly only through the form of the publicity photographs in the music press of the time that we could tune into him visually, unless you had been among the lucky audiences of the previous year’s concerts in what we in Northern Ireland would refer to as, ‘Across the water’. They had all been acoustically presented and the Dylan that was seen by very few even then, most people wouldn’t catch up with until the film of that tour, Don’t Look Back, was first shown in ‘art’ cinemas beginning in the States two years later.

Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde album would not be released for another two months and the rail-thin Medusa-haired figure on the double-disc folding album cover with his out-of-focus scowl and checkered scarf hadn’t been seen on this side of the Atlantic yet. It wasn’t that future version of him I was scanning around the inky precincts of the cinema for. I didn’t know it, but I was still looking for someone who had already been left far behind. Where the hell was that Bob Dylan? He was nowhere to be seen, but he must be there somewhere out in the darkness. And with an even bolder quick body craning and neck stretching scan of the whole front of the stage expanse, I spotted someone way far over on the other side of the theatre sitting completely alone. A slumped figure under a hazy mop of explosive hair was sitting sunk down low in the front row of the cinema seats, crossed-legged and completely still. It could only be him. He was wearing dark glasses in the dark. My heart began again to turn into one continuous thrum. This was it. The moment I’d come up to Belfast for was here.

Turning to the left and almost crouching, I tip-toed along the length of the dark and narrow corridor that allowed the musicians of the orchestra to take their places up in the pit on both sides.

As I arrived at the short set of steps that rose over at his position, I gradually and quietly emerged up to the second step from the top to see directly in front of me, exactly the above image. I was quite shocked years later to come across a photograph of Dylan in the identical position that he had taken up that day. It was first seen in the booklet accompanying the 1998 Bootleg series volume 4 that captured the sounds and atmosphere of these Ireland/UK 1966 concerts, of which this was the second to be played in Ireland before going on to play other dates in Britain.

As far as I know, this image had never been published prior to these recordings being released 32 years later. There was the same pale face and dark glasses under the penumbra of dark curls that I rose up the steps to behold that afternoon. I was about ten feet away from the slouched figure and at the same slight angle where this shot was taken from and barely able to breathe from the sheer terror that I felt coming over me from my side of the elaborate railings separating our two completely different worlds.

What was I to do? I couldn’t begin to even think of simply standing up and exposing my existence to him. As it was, I was barely able to think. So, I decided what I really should do was absolutely nothing. Just sit there trying to get control of my emotional response to this series of events. I could not get my heart to quieten down. I was convinced that he could hear it. Gradually, as things began to settle a bit, I began to realize that the strange young man sitting right in front of me was fast asleep. With the swirling phantom of the opera crescendos flying out from the various keyboards and fingers of Garth Hudson I couldn’t imagine how he could be, but there he was; completely sphinx-like and unmoving. He was dead to the world in the cacophony of microphones being plugged in with “testing, testing” and all the other rackety goings on from the stage.

I took up my sketchpad and began to draw, barely able to see the surface of the paper in the darkness. I completed one quick sketch and began another on the same page. Completed that one and began a third and then sat back and waited. An hour went by and I swear that every minute seemed like ten. I began to wonder if he was alright. He literally hadn’t moved a muscle. After about an hour and a half sitting down there in the dark, I noticed the beginnings of a slight movement. The leg was slowly uncrossed, and the hands rose in front of a long and back arching yawn. He was alive. Very gradually he shifted in his seat and began to slowly get to his feet. The curled fingers went up to the curls on his head and started that now well known “I fuss with my hair” pincer movement starting at the back of the neck and working upwards.

He looked over to his left towards the small group of people gathered around the camera set-up at the other side of the stage. How he could see anything through the dark glasses in this gloom I simply didn’t know, but he began to stroll over in that direction with a bobble-headed shoulder stretching gait that gradually took him the distance across the front of the orchestra pit railing and almost out of my sight. I sat there completely stunned.

I’d never seen a human being who looked like that before. Was that actually my poetically complex singing hero Bob Dylan?

I decided that I would follow his lead and crept back along the under-stage corridor to the position that I had started from just below the small group gathered around the camera; a gathering of four or five people that now included Dylan. Arriving back there and still in darkness at the bottom of the five or six stairs at that side of the orchestra pit again, I took up my old position and sat down on the bottom step.

Different people (I recognized no one then of course apart from him, but can now identify one or two of them) were looking through the camera and fiddling about with various accoutrements to do with that operation. There was a lady (Jones Alk) with a silk scarf tied over her head leaning on the rail, a couple of guys with slightly long hair for the time, one of them likely Bob Neuwrith and a bigger man with a beard; a couple of other guys now recognizable as members of the band, later ‘The Band’. Technical details were being dealt with and there seemed to be a fair amount of coming and going. Someone joined the throng from the door on the right side of the cinema and the group drifted over to the left out of my view leaving the rail above free and enabling me to emerge a little higher out of the darkness at the bottom of the steps and almost fully into the still fairly dim available light above.

I could see Dylan again now, sitting on an equipment case facing another one directly in front of him. On the edge of the case he was facing, someone had laid out about six different chocolate bars in their wrappers. He picked each up and studied it and replaced it on the case. Beginning again at the end of the row he slowly unwrapped the tip of each candy bar and nibbled at the exposed contents, like a wine connoisseur tasting a precious vintage, then set it down again. He did exactly the same thing with each bar, lost in a concentrated taste test of each one and then setting each one back down. Nothing was said that I could hear. No report on the merits of each bar, just something approaching a kind of awe at the sumptuous range of ‘new to him’ delicacies available in this foreign country that had been specifically brought to his notice and for his exclusive delectation. It was the strangest behaviour by the strangest looking adult that I had ever witnessed.

The lady with the headscarf and Dylan eventually idled back over towards the curving railing they had previously occupied and I slid back down into the darkness like a cautious moray eel below a pair of threatening divers. There were quiet discussions I couldn’t quite make out going on and every so often I could hear Dylan’s distinct timbre of voice inquire as to when the taxi was coming to take him back to the hotel. My astonished young ears couldn’t quite believe how he phrased these inquiries. “When’s the fuckin’ taxi comin’ man, I wanna get back to the hotel”.

Hearing Dylan say the word fuck actually surprised me no end for some reason. It wasn’t like I had never used it all too often myself, but weren’t deities supposed to be different, somehow above all that? A few minutes later. “Come on Richard, where’s the fuckin’ taxi man”. Getting slightly more exasperated with each asking and then back to quieter conversation with the lady in the headscarf at the railing. Something had to give. I had to make something happen before I lost my chance and he disappeared without my even being noticed by him. I decided very gradually to make my presence known and accept the consequences, good or bad. I just hadn’t reckoned on what was about to happen could possibly be that bad. My fall from grace was imminent.

Once again I positioned my sketchpad at an appropriate angle with my pencil poised and very gradually, I eased myself upwards and into the half light of the third or fourth step. The headscarf lady noticed and turned her head and looked down. She stared at me in the gloomy shadows and turned towards Dylan leaning at her shoulder on her immediate left about eight feet directly above me and said, “There’s someone down there drawing you”.

Dylan looked down at me for what seemed about ten very long seconds and said in a slightly louder voice, “I’ll fuckin’ draw him”. It was at this moment that I distinctly felt my mind separate from my body, and, as I began to stand up and very slowly, with all my effort, managed to make my disembodied and bloodless legs work hard to push me upwards towards the top of the steps to where I then stood quite close beside the two silent staring figures to my right on the other side of the railing.

They said nothing. I didn’t look at them directly and just kept moving forward as I slowly passed them until I reached the front and lifted my right leg over the top of the railing. I’d just finished lifting my left leg over when I was surrounded by what seemed to be about five or six very startled members of the group of guys moving around close to us who had sprung into action and had become a tense wall of protection between me and Dylan.

“Wadda ya doin’ here, wadda ya want?”. “Wadda think yer doin’ man?” “Where did you come from?” they all seemed to say at once. I stammered something like, “I’m not doing anything, just drawing” and literally just stood there and hung my head like a thief caught in the act. There were lots of other things being said but it all became a complete blur of voices as I very gradually walked away from the angry Dylan protectors towards the seats at the front of the cinema and then over to the centre aisle leading up to the back of the stalls.

I didn’t look back. I proceeded slowly up the aisle towards the chest-high wooden wall behind the back row of seats and when I reached that spot, I slowly turned around. Dylan was striding up the same aisle after me with some determination. I stepped to the left behind the chest-high barrier and put my hands holding the sketchpad on the top.

“Hey Bob, the taxi’s here” someone shouted up the incline of seats and Dylan suddenly stopped absolutely still facing me about 15 feet away. I could see the subdued glow of the stage lights reflecting on one side of his highly pronounced jawline with his facial muscles clenching and unclenching in a quickly pulsing rhythm of anger and disdain. I saw the light softly accentuating his enormous cascade of curly hair above an odd over-size military-style suede jacket with epaulettes at the shoulders and his boldly pinstriped pants.

I had half my face hidden behind the sketchpad that I was now instinctively holding vertically on the top of the wooden wall, for either something just to hide behind or for real physical protection. He just stood staring at me through his dark glasses. “Hey Bob, come on the cab’s waiting man”, the same voice said loudly from down front. At this point I really didn’t know what was going to happen. Was he going to continue towards me? Was he going to shout at me or even start a physical fight? I was at a point of complete terror that I was literally going to either turn around and run away from or start crying. I honestly didn’t know which would’ve been the more embarrassing.

At that moment he then turned on his Cuban booted heel and started back down the aisle towards the group moving away from the stage railing and off towards the door at the left side of the auditorium without saying a word. I watched him go all the way and breathed again in what seemed like a very long time. A flood of relief washed over me and I put my head down on my hands on the barrier wall and felt I’d just come through something both ominous and truly frightening.

But also I felt that I somehow had been terribly in the wrong. I can still feel the emotions of that moment now as I type, 55 years later. I walked down the incline of the aisle and, hesitating until they had gone, I followed the group out of the side door and turned a sharp right walking away quickly along the alley to the corner where it joined the street. The first of two black taxis arrived as I turned around to see Dylan sitting in the back seat staring out of the window. As the taxi stopped before turning left I was once again in his dark glasses-fixed stare. I was wondering if he even realized that I was the same kid he’d just reduced to a quivering jelly in the darkness of the cinema. I watched as they both turned and disappeared into the traffic knowing that my life had been completely altered in an inexpiable way.

The concert that night was one for the ages. Anyone that has reached my present vintage (72) who was there for any one of the concerts during that tour in 1966 knew they had witnessed something difficult to begin to describe. Something unique and special and precious to have been part of, even at a time of grave turmoil and horror on the other side of the world in Vietnam and Cambodia.

The supposed culpability for this American war of death and destruction (quite apart from his departure from their ‘purest’ ideas regarding the amplification of his music) being laid on the slim shoulders of a young man not yet 25 at the time by a few booing sign holding protesters during the beginning of the amplified second half of the concert, must’ve been soul destroying. Certainly far beyond what we in the rest of the utterly mind blown audience’s imaginations could fathom.

We felt cringingly embarrassed for these idiots. The sheer pressure of his daily existence would’ve laid waste to a lesser mind. The anger and exasperation that I felt truly terrified by earlier in the day, I know now was coming from a person hanging on by his very fingernails to reality and sanity and had been resorting to what C.P. Lee referred to as, a kind of “alchemical pharmacy in order to carry on”.

I’m so glad to have had a long lifetime’s journey within the same timeline of his astounding ability to, not only survive this period in his life, as many close to his world did not, but to have continued to give us his all … and for our what? Our education? Our elucidation? Our entertainment? I say all of the above. I’ve never felt in the least way let down by him at any stage along the way. I’m sure I feel as we all do for just being offered a ticket to come along for the amazing ride: eternal gratitude.

It was only sometime after the above events when I had grown up a bit that I began to come to terms with feeling so guilty about having done something both wrong and sneakily intrusive on that day in May.  I would eventually recognize that I’d been just one of the thousands of young people that had made his life a misery everywhere he went back then, “hunted like a crocodile”, and that it was just part of the times we were all living in. What we know now we didn’t know then.

Eleven days later in Manchester he would endure the sheer impertinence of being loudly called ‘Judas’ halfway through a concert. An accusation that would go down in musical history on a night that C.P. Lee brilliantly captures in his 1998 publication Like the Night : Bob Dylan and the Road to the Manchester Free Trade Hall. Or that a couple of months after that he would disappear from view for a full eight years, retreating away from this on-the-road madness and try to get back to as normal a life as possible after falling off his motorcycle near Woodstock on July 29th.

A certain chapter in the life of the young Bob Dylan had come to a necessary stop. In a contemporary letter to his late childhood friend Tony Glover recently sold at auction, he explained that in the months that followed the 1966 tour “it took a long time to get all that out of my system”. I don’t know if he was referring to the insanity of his reception during the tour, or the ‘alchemical pharmacy’ required to get himself through it. Perhaps both.

If you have read my recent post here about my old art college friend Charlie Whisker’s input into the making of the Series of Dreams video 25 years after the events described above in 1991 (Series of Dreams : who and how) you’ll know that my fascination with Bob Dylan’s art has never waned and it continues to this day. I’ve never considered myself an ardent Dylanologist or an overly obsessive collector of his work; just an average but focused appreciator of a unique talent who has given me a sort of innate aural soundtrack to this life in all its mystery and grandeur and sometimes, yes, its utter confusion.

For songs to work well they must first let you in… but they must also let you out again. Bob has always invited us to come and go as we please. I can’t think of anyone as constant and as generous with their genius as he has been in the modern world of music and song. From Highway 61 all the way down to Key West, it’s been a great privilege and an enormously enduring pleasure.

My three drawings from that day burned up in a house fire that also destroyed a lot of the film archive of another art college friend, John T. Davis. John is a well known and highly regarded Northern Irish documentary filmmaker (Shell Shock Rock, Dust on the Bible, Hobo and The Uncle Jack) and a talented singer/songwriter among many other gifts (Indigo Snow). He was also the cameraman hired by his friend Van Morrison to film Van singing, and Bob pretending to, outside on a hillside in Athens a few years ago that gets posted regularly on sites such as this one.

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3 Responses to An Encounter with Bob and his band in Belfast: part 2

  1. Jamie Johnston says:

    Thank you. Great story. And wasn’t the old ABC Ritz a gorgeous cinema/theatre.

  2. John Caruth says:

    Geoff … I once knew John T. Davis who gave me a wonderful full video of Bob and Van Morrison singing on a hillside outside Athens…and I have still wonderful shot of Bob ons stage at the Ritz with Robbie and Garth working in the background. Thanks for this wonderful memory of what happened that day… it is good to read it here.

  3. gordon macintyre says:

    did he sing ‘baby blue’?

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