On Top of the Hill: Bob Dylan’s Electric Dream

Imagine being the world’s biggest pop star at 24, an icon of one musical genre and the reluctant voice of a stifled, conflicted generation. At just the time your organic rise became meteoric, you re-discovered an old passion for electrified rock and roll, the kind you used to play rambunctiously before leaving it behind in Minnesota.

To people of a certain age or inclination, July 25, 1965, is a date of considerable magnitude. On that date, in Newport, Rhode Island, the most influential songwriter of the twentieth century made perhaps the most important decision of his life, one which has left an indelible effect on pop music and American life.

Dylan going electric” has become shorthand for making a seemingly sudden and drastic change, more likely to alienate a fan base than inspire it. Bob Dylan’s Newport audible, however, was calculated, a necessary move for an agitated folk hero sick of being pigeonholed alongside the Roger McGuinns and Peter, Paul and Marys of the world – both of whose careers, it must be said, Dylan was at least partially responsible for fostering.

After conquering the Newport Folk Festival each of the two previous years, Dylan arrived in 1965 with a message louder than any of the anthems he’d already penned: namely, that he didn’t care what you or any of your disaffected, Keroauc bros thought of his Fender Stratocaster. With help from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Dylan lit a fire under the culture he had such a hand in bringing to the forefront.

In three songs and fifteen minutes, Bob Dylan destroyed and re-built his own temple. Listening to it now, the rollicking “Maggie’s Farm” is perhaps the most abrasive, and even that doesn’t seem to be the affront to sonic norms that people made his performance out to be. At the very least, it isn’t purposefully fucking loud, Dylan’s preferred form toward the end of his 1966 tour.

Going electric was the first major amendment in a career which would come to be marked by counteractive, oxymoronic periods. Dylan repeatedly became his own antithesis, a Minnesotan Jew who became a god and then found Jesus. There’s no good parallel for what Newport ’65 represents, either – when Mumford & Sons released their electrified effort, fans and critics met it with a certain degree of indifference, as if it was to be expected. There will always be the fans who go to shows waiting to pound their feet to “I Will Wait,” knowing it’s coming sooner or later; with Dylan, unpredictability became a standard which has remained for the last half-century.

In hindsight, the actual act of plugging in probably didn’t matter as much to the Newport Folk crowd as the abbreviated time of his set. Even Pete Seeger conceded it wasn’t about electricity so much as it was about the distortion that obscured Dylan’s lyrics, which seems as likely as any other posited theory. Again, though, it’s tough to quantify the impact his Newport ’65 set had. His already incalculable influence transcended genres that night, to the point that it would be a lot harder to point out the music it didn’t inspire than the music it did. Insert your preferred litany of American pop heroes, and there is bound to be a hint of Dylan going electric lingering in the background.

Tonight, when you’re drunkenly singing along to “Piano Man” or nodding along to Taylor Swift at a friend’s birthday party in Brooklyn, spare a thought for an act of cultural treason, committed fifty years ago on a stage not nearly strong enough to hold the weight of the world. Forget the dead you’ve left, strike another match and cry like a fire in the sun. Find your leather jacket, throw on your Ray-Bans and let Bob Dylan change your life. You’ve got no choice in the matter anyhow.

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