The Big Boo
By Ross Muir in the Dublin Review of Books
In his memoir My Mother-City the poet Gerald Dawe writes of mid-twentieth century Belfast’s pervasive Calvinist atmosphere, which lasted well into the 1960s. It’s a portrayal of pre-Troubles Belfast which has become familiar, a place Caroline Blackwood depicted as smothering its inhabitants with “the gloom of her industrialised provinciality, by her backwaterishness, her bigotry and her tedium”. And yet, by the mid-1960s, Dawe identifies something else going on here too, a slight cultural thawing evidenced before the storms, a barely glimpsed, progressive alternative:
I can remember one key factor, which emerged during the late 60s, just before the curtain fell. It was the fleeting growth of a renovated, energetic, non-sectarian generation which was moving into place, at ease with nationality (indeed promiscuously post-modern in that regard, well before ‘hybridity’ became fashionable), critically engaged by literature, politics and world events and motivated by a sense of civil society, defiantly rejecting tribal allegiance as backward looking.
This alternative never quite came into being. The progressive, cultural energy was, Dawe writes, “critically invisible and remains a phantom”.
Fleeting and ephemeral, soon to be shattered under the convulsions that overtook the city in the next years, the emergent promise of an energetic, progressive culture hardly got off the ground; now, with the notable exception of Dawe’s writings, it barely ghosts the footnotes of the pre-Troubles era. Among those gathered for Bob Dylan’s concert in Belfast’s ABC Cinema, on the evening of Friday, May 6th, 1966, many would have been alert to the notion of such cultural potential; some of their lives would have embodied this critically engaged, progressive spirit (though they would hardly have framed it in these terms) and the future that evening in Belfast, for those in that venue, must have felt wide-open.
The ABC Cinema had been named The Ritz when it opened on November 9th, 1936, with Gracie Fields launching her film The Queen of Hearts. One story had it that the site had earlier been occupied by a fairground. This, and The Queen of Hearts, might put us in mind of carnivals and troubadours on the edge of town, revues of rolling thunder. More prosaically, following the demolition of a row of terraces, the ground lay undeveloped for several years and “Barry’s Amusements” took up a temporary residence there, while waiting on the cinema’s construction. “Ireland’s Wonder Cinema”, as it was nicknamed, was still the Ritz when the Beatles played there in November 1963, just a few years before Dylan’s concert.
There are a few photos online of Bob Dylan earlier in the day on May 6th, travelling on the Enterprise train from Dublin to Belfast for Friday night’s concert. One photo shows him on the train as it passes Balbriggan. In the next he is passing Hilden, near Lisburn, where something seems to have caught his attention. He is pictured, one finger pressed against the windowpane, staring out at the nondescript walls of Hilden station. Dylan in the years 1965 – 1966 was endlessly visible, like a celebrity of our own image-saturated era, but for us looking now at these mid-sixties photos, it is the image of him – as he was then – that forms the context. Dylan had just played the Adelphi Cinema in Dublin the evening before – the first show of his tour in Ireland and Britain. His next concert in the Republic would be at Slane Castle, some eighteen years later.
After his infamous appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in July of 1965 – when he plugged in his electric guitar and sparked off a barrage of heckles and controversy –Dylan spent the remainder of the year touring North America, then Australia, followed by Scandinavia in the spring of 1966. The shows followed a consistent format, relentlessly consistent, with the set list varying only slightly night to night. Dylan would play the first half accompanied only by his acoustic guitar and harmonica, before being joined by the relatively unknown Hawks for the amplified second half. As a review of the Montreal concert in February 1966 by Zelda Heller puts it: “He performed [during the first half] in a wailing voice, gentle introspective verse of remarkable literary quality, set to a few hypnotically repetitive sung phrases and an even more monotonous and equally hypnotic accompaniment.” But all that was before the intermission:
Then came the second half. In it he took his burgeoning talent and ground it under his stamping heel … At first it seemed that the amplifiers on the accompanying instruments had been turned up too loud. For it was impossible to hear anything he sang, or rather shouted … But it seems that he had carefully prepared the balance and the volume at rehearsals during the afternoon.
The shock waves of Newport fizzled and sparked around every concert Dylan played throughout those months. By the time he toured England that May there was a nightly deluge of heckles and jeers. Dylan, by this stage, had released two albums incorporating bands and electric instruments; his tour the previous winter and throughout the spring included an amplified second half. Concert attendees knew, presumably, what to expect. On the part of the purists then there was a sense of wanting to be outraged. The ex-fans weren’t going to miss their chance to walk out. The ex-fans weren’t going to miss Dylan.
Most of the audience at the Adelphi in Dublin on May 5th seemed to have enjoyed the show. Yet you wouldn’t have known this from the reviews. The Evening Herald labelled it “The Night of the Great Let-Down”. “They booed …” it announced, “they jeered.” The reportage was picked up by the Melody Maker in England, which stated that the second half of the Dublin show “produced instant reaction” with shouts of “traitor”, slow-handclapping, and catcalls. The media were overstating the case, if we are to go by the letters to the newspapers which arrived in response to their reports. John Bauldie, in The Ghost of Electricity, cites one “Disgusted”, of Foxrock, who found the Herald’s report somewhat wide of the mark:
Admittedly there was some booing and even jeering, but Mr JK [the Herald’s reporter] would lead us to believe that practically the whole audience was participating in this, whereas I doubt if there were forty people responsible … he omitted to mention the enthusiastic applause at the end of each number …
Now that we can hear recordings of the full show (following the 2016 release of The 1966 Live Recordings), it is hard to disagree with Clinton Heylin’s balanced take (in his book Judas! From Forest Hills to the Free Trade Hall) when he states that the second half of the concert was met with “stony silence from some, vocal vituperation by others and audible acclaim from the majority at the Adelphi.”
The pockets of negative reaction at the Adelphi concert were a precursor to the infamous reception that Dylan’s set was to receive later that month at concerts in England and Scotland. Even the cries of “traitor” at the Dublin gig anticipated the “Judas” heckle in the Manchester Free Trade Hall a few weeks later. Heylin writes that the relatively minor dissent voiced in Dublin was still a surprise to Dylan. The hecklers were a minority, “but they were awfully persistent”. Just before his Belfast show the next night, Dylan complained to a reporter of “the lousy reception he’d been given in Dublin”. He kept close track of his write-ups and had already read the reviews which had appeared that day in the Dublin press.
If the Adelphi concert prefigured the war of attrition that was to take place between Dylan and a large portion of his audience in Britain, his Belfast appearance seems unique for the lack of audience hostility. The concert in the ABC cinema wasn’t reviewed locally at the time, nor was it picked up by any of the English papers. The only extant write-up, by Jim Mulligan, is posted online on the Expecting Rain website. Mulligan reminds us that the “haunted and haunting voice”, so familiar to us now from the album Blonde on Blonde, was an unprecedented change of Dylan’s vocal style for the audience, with the LP’s release still some weeks away. Back then, Mulligan reports, “none of us had heard this Dylan”. He recounts that the Belfast audience were on side – spellbound – from the start. Further, and quite uniquely among the audiences for this tour, they loved the amplified second half:
The applause was rapturous at the end. He stood alone on the stage after The Hawks had left and acknowledged the cheers with a slight bow and a bemused expression. This must have been one of the very few places on the 1966 tour where Dylan and the Hawks were not booed. [They had been booed loud and long in Dublin the previous night.] I feel so lucky to have witnessed a moment out of time.
Apart from this piece, the Belfast concert barely exists in the cultural record. There are plenty of advance notices and advertisements, often appendaged to write-ups of the Adelphi gig, and the Belfast Telegraph, four decades later, tracked down attendees who had given brief comments outside the theatre. But there are no contemporaneous reviews: Jim Mulligan’s brief and perceptive memoir may be the only written record of the night. We’re left with the image of Dylan bowing awkwardly from the stage of the cinema, or this report of him taking his leave of an UlsterWeek journalist immediately before the show: “Bob Dylan’s hand was very limp as we shook goodbye. His eyes were looking at the blank wall. ‘Yeah!’ he mumbled. ‘Belfast!’”
Until relatively recently, Dylan’s Belfast concert seemed to have left as little trace on vinyl as it did on print. If anything, the lack of recordings was more surprising than the dearth of reviews: illicit recordings from Dylan’s 1966 tour have exchanged hands ever since the Dylan bootleg The Great White Wonder kick started the entire bootleg industry in 1969. Black market releases from the 1966 tour seemed inexhaustible, appearing regularly throughout the following decades. Soundboard recordings had been made nightly during the tour, with Dylan and his entourage playing back the tapes for themselves and the assorted late-night hotel cast of friends, road crew and hangers-on. This in-house material inevitably found its way to the streets. The first half of the Adelphi concert featured on a 1970 double LP bootleg Looking Back, which paired four of the acoustic tracks from the Dublin concert with the electric set from the Royal Albert Hall. A CD, While the Establishment Burns, was “released” in 2000. This comprised tracks from the acoustic set of the Adelphi but the electric set came from the Copenhagen and Edinburgh shows. If half of the Adelphi set was lost, the Belfast concert, seemingly, had no afterlife. For all the multitudes of tapes of this tour, no rustle of the Belfast concert reached the surface. Richard Alderson – the sound engineer who’d maintained this nightly archive against all sorts of odds – had, it appeared, let Belfast slip by. It took the release of the Biograph retrospective in 1985 to finally unearth a blistering version of “I Don’t Believe You” from the Belfast concert. Clinton Heylin, over thirty years later, noted the archival gap. He stated that the Belfast concert went unreported as “No reviewer bothered to file a contemporary account of any Ulster showdown” and he observed: “Even the splenetic ‘I Don’t Believe You’ released on Biograph in 1985, attributed to Belfast, came from a mis-labelled Columbia reel of ‘the night of the big let-down’ [the Adelphi concert].” So, we didn’t, it seemed, even have this fragment. As it stood, Dylan’s concert at the ABC, which took place during his most creatively luminous period, in a place about to tip into societal and political turmoil, had left no trace in sound or print.
It was almost half a century after the concert before this situation changed with the release of The Live 1966 Recordings from Sony. Undoubtedly, this 36-CD box set of all the extant recordings from the tour is one for the completists. Included among them are the complete Dublin and Belfast shows. It even restored the wonder of Biograph’s “I Don’t Believe You”: Heylin, for once, had been wrong on a Dylan-related fact. The Biograph track came from the Belfast concert after all. Its tattered aura was restored and now, some fifty years on, it could be listened to in context.
Belfast today – Kelly’s Bar in the Cathedral Quarter; the Crown Bar and the Titanic building.
Heylin reports that directly after the concert on that May evening in 1966, Dylan was joined by Roger Daltry of The Who, “fresh from a nearby gig”. As unlikely as it seems now, The Who were playing in neighbouring Lisburn on the same night as Dylan played Belfast. The coincidence of this alerts us that Belfast, in the years directly before the Troubles, was an integral part of the touring circuit for live music. Just a few weeks after Dylan’s gig, Johnny Cash appeared at the ABC in Belfast (on May 20th), also having just played the Adelphi (on May 17th). Just a decade or two later, the idea of Dylan and Cash performing in central Belfast within the same month would seem hardly credible. In the North, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, trying to grasp the cutting edge of popular music meant, for many of us, a fear of missing whatever slivers of the independent or hardcore scene made it across the Irish sea. It strikes me now though, just how much the punk and indie bands owed (knowingly and unknowingly) to a version of the mid-sixties Dylan. And this before Cate Blanchett captured both him and (by extension), them, in her own rendering of Dylan in the film I’m Not There.
By this stage of course, Dylan himself was a frequent visitor to Ireland. He’d first returned in 1984, to Slane in Co Meath, with riots sizzling through the village on the weekend of his concert. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, his “Never-Ending Tour” followed its own waywardly insistent routes across times zones and brought him back, every few years, to some unlikely places. The Dundonald Ice-Bowl was one of the more incongruous venues he played at that time. In those days, my interest had moved from Dylan records to catching bands like Sonic Youth or Dinsoaur Jnr at the Art College in Belfast, oblivious then to just how much the atmosphere of these gigs would have paled in comparison to the borderline anarchy on display at Dylan’s earlier concerts. But I like to think that listening to Dylan early lay at the back of many a punk or indie ethos: that the “thin, wild mercury sound” Dylan spoke of, as partial description of the sound he attained on Blonde on Blonde, and as partial aspiration, was still the gold – somewhat mercurial – standard being sought when a new My Bloody Valentine LP was released or when the House of Love’s guitars shimmered on for days after their gig at Queen’s University’s Mandela Hall in 1989. Now, I go looking for Sonic Youth’s cover version of Dylan’s (perhaps greatest) unreleased song, on a CD I used to have. It sums much of this up, but, inevitably, it’s not there.
Decades later, during the pandemic, Dylan both appeared and didn’t appear. A music-streaming platform appeared to promise a live performance. Or was it a “live broadcast event”? We paid anyway and watched Dylan – there and not there – performing in a fictional bar, a speakeasy made over in textures of David Lynch, for a pre-recorded sequence of “The early songs of Bob Dylan”. (The definition of an “early song” was stretched as pliably as a syllable at the end of a Dylan line: among the songs represented was “What was it you wanted?”, a track from 1989, which, by a certain logic could by now be classed an “early song”.) But “early” and “late” become somewhat interchangeable anyway. When we had watched Dylan play in Galway’s Pearse Stadium in 2004 all the fun was in how the phrasing was strung along in wholly new directions, how lines of “early songs” would be altered, apparently on the spot (I’ve never, since, been able to listen to “If you see her say hello” without the line from that night – “her eyes were blue and her hair was too” – superimposing itself over the recorded version.) As we watched him streamed to our sitting rooms, all these years later, it seems that Dylan is always partially “not there” as the biopic film has it, even when he is. The “broadcast event” seemed to display yet again the rule-of-thumb that whenever Dylan appears to give ostensibly less, in the end it turns out to be qualitatively more than we had any reason to expect.
The day following Dylan’s concert at the ABC in 1966, if money talked, in the Republic at least, it probably swore. On May 7th striking bank employees closed clearing banks in an industrial action which lasted into July. The economy survived on an informal trust system, using cheques that couldn’t be cashed and which were, essentially, IOUs. Commentators have since expressed surprise at how well the economy managed to function throughout this. Of the twenty-two thousand spectators in Belfast on the evening of May 7th watching the Northern Irish football team being defeated 2:1 by West Germany in a friendly at the local Windsor Park stadium, it’s likely that only a few might have had the Dylan concert from the night before ringing in their ears.
But despite all the cultural, sporting, and labour activity, and the progressive spirit that Dawe identified in Belfast at this time, already there were deadly manifestations of sectarianism. Only hours after Dylan flew out of Belfast that Saturday, a recently formed paramilitary grouping, the Ulster Volunteer Force, in their attempt to burn out a Catholic-owned pub in the loyalist Shankill district, instead set fire to the home of a 70-year-old pensioner who lived next door. Matilda Gould was critically injured in the flames which spread to her home and died from her injuries seven weeks later. By this time, two Catholic men, John Scullion and Peter Ward, had been shot dead by the same group. Street disorder, with Ian Paisley at its centre, was to follow throughout the summer of 1966. While the conflict would not fully erupt until later in the decade, Belfast, midway through 1966, was violent and fraught. A case could perhaps be made for May 1966, rather than October 1969, denoting the start of the Northern conflict.
Dylan faced into turmoil when he left Belfast that May. The remainder of the month passed in a ritualised, nightly maelstrom. First up was the Colston Hall in Bristol, three nights after the concert at the ABC, with Peter Gibbs for the Western Daily Press labelling it a “noisy, blaring, ear-splitting disaster”. At Birmingham’s Odeon, the war of attrition between Dylan and his audience was picking up. Dylan, tiring of the sporadic heckling, introduces a song in a drugged, slow, drawl, mocking the disaffected folkies: “Now I’ll sing you a folk-song, that ma granddaddy sang to ma mother when she was a little girl” – Dylan is increasingly contemptuous of these crowds, and of their idea of the music he should be playing – before launching into a blistering rendition of “One Too Many Mornings” (or the “crowning atrocity”, as a reporter for the Birmingham student paper Redbrick described it.) By the time he played the Gaumont in Sheffield, there were bomb scares. On the foot of a telephoned bomb warning the fire brigade searched under the stage while Dylan played above them to a crowd of two thousand. Dylan, the band, and the audience were all oblivious to the danger.
As the tour continued and more reviews poured out, the nightly commotion grew. Dylan delivered introspective, associative, Rimbaldian, verse with mind-boggling accuracy, while still finding space to rejuvenate the phrasing, night after night in the first half of his show. Paradoxically, even though this could not have departed further from the social protest songs that the folk contingent putatively expected, the crowds were resoundingly happy with these acoustic halves of the concert. It seems it took the symbols – the guitars and drums and amplifiers – rather than the content, to turn up the heat. The second half opened to a Dylan armed with an electric guitar and flanked by The Hawks: for some of the audience this was their cue for catcalls and the dead thud of slow handclaps; in some venues this evolved into a jeering battle between Dylan and the paying audience.
May 17th saw Dylan play the Manchester Free Trade Hall – where the shout of “Judas” has since become the most infamous heckle in popular culture. After storming out of the theatre, the heckler paused to tell the press: “He’s a traitor. He wants shooting.” Following more concerts in Britain, and a detour to Paris involving a tetchy performance by a clearly rankled Dylan, he played the Royal Albert Hall in London on May 26th and 27th. The stage seemed set for a showdown. While the mislabelled Manchester Free Trade Hall bootleg masqueraded in its place for many years, the actual Royal Albert Hall concerts make riveting listening. So well-rehearsed is the dissent, its procedures almost habitual, that you can imagine the audience as one cohesive group, the same people who, night after night, cheer and heckle and walk out only to reconvene at the next venue and begin all over again the next night, ad infinitum, a formation marching en masse from gig to gig, pitchforks and flaming torches lighting the skies.
On his final night in England, with a large segment of the audience primed for opposition, Dylan announces: “This is my last visit here.” He is exhausted, the band is exhausted, nerves are frayed. Listening to the concert now, it is Dylan who frequently takes the offensive, delivering barbed monologues at the audience, pre-empting the hollering. At other times he attempts to cajole the dissenters, or he gives up on this and instead sends them up, venomously. Reviews play up the slow-handclaps and walk-outs but even the most disparaging of these can still note the “ferocious appeal” of the music. Even here, at breaking point, the roars of support predominate at the end of each song, before giving way to a wave of heckling. If anything, conflict seems more likely to erupt among the different factions of the audience than between Dylan and the purists.
Dylan left England shortly after these concerts and soon after was involved in a motorcycle crash on the winding roads of Woodstock. This transpired to be an ultimately recuperative accident. Only Dylan could have an ambiguous motorbike crash, but it did provide an exit route from the increasingly tumultuous atmosphere of his recent tours.
A few years after Dylan’s Belfast concert, towards the end of the 1960s, the flooding which had been an intermittent occurrence at the intersection of Belfast’s Great Victoria Street and Grosvenor Road, became a deluge and water seeped into the ABC cinema, destroying its prized Compton organ. While the cinema survived the flood, it was gutted by IRA incendiary bombs less than a decade later. On the same night, in September 1977, the Curzon and New Vic cinemas were also damaged in fire-bomb attacks. The ABC lay vacant for a few years until it was rebuilt and reopened as a four-screen cinema. By 1994 it was closed definitively, replaced with a Jury’s Hotel.
The above piece draws heavily on the following, which are essential reading (and listening) for anyone interested in Dylan’s 1966 tour:
The Ghost of Electricity: Bob Dylan’s 1966 World Tour, by John Bauldie, (1988).
Judas! From Forest Hills To The Free Trade Hall: A Historical View Of The Big Boo, by Clinton Heylin, (Route, 2016).
Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s basement tapes, by Greil Marcus, (Picador, 1997).
Bob Dylan: The 1966 Live Recordings (Sony Music Entertainment, 2016) – with accompanying liner notes by Clinton Heylin.
Bob Dylan ABC Cinema Belfast 6th May 1966, by Jim Mulligan https://www.expectingrain.com/dok/div/belfast66.html
See also: My Mother-City. by Gerald Dawe, (Lagan Press, 2007).
Ross Moore lives in Belfast, where he works as a librarian.
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