“These things are etched in stone whether they’re true or not.”
Not quite what you expect to hear from a man recalling the part he played in one of the most controversial moments in rock ‘n’ roll history, but this is how Al Kooper remembers the moment when Bob Dylan went electric. On July 25, 1965, Dylan and his band faced a grimacing audience when they deviated from their anticipated program and played an electric set at the Newport Folk Festival. Backed by the Butterfield Blues Band, keyboardist Barry Goldberg, and 21-year-old organist Kooper — the man responsible for the organ lick that soars throughout “Like a Rolling Stone,” which had been released as a single less than a week prior to the Newport show — Dylan raced through a seventeen-minute set. Legend has it that Pete Seeger threatened to take an ax to the audio cables; the dicey mix was drowned out by the audience’s vocal displeasure at the unpublicized amplification. In his recap for the Voice, Arthur Kretchmer wrote of how Dylan, the “greatest poet of this young generation,” was “booed for linking rhythm and blues to the paranoid nightmares of his vision.” Even as it transpired, the formative moment of Dylan’s career had the potential to end it before it began.
Fifty years later, Kooper has spent a significant portion of the past few months reliving that set and the album — Highway 61 Revisited — that followed it, in both New York (at Lincoln Center Out of Doors) and Newport. The Queens native was a seasoned sideman before he was out of his teens; the “Like a Rolling Stone” session marked his first encounter with Dylan. He would go on to become a writer, arranger, and producer as well as a touch-of-gold session player, forming Blood, Sweat & Tears and producing Southern-rock revolutionaries Lynyrd Skynyrd’s first three LPs. At Newport Folk on July 26, he joined David Rawlings, Gillian Welch, Dawes, Hozier, First Aid Kit, and a hefty portion of the remainder of the festival’s 2015 lineup for its grand finale, ’65 Revisited, a boisterous sing-along that included renditions of “Maggie’s Farm” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” But while Kooper understands the mythology of that 1965 set, he points out that at the time, the Newport fiasco was more train wreck than triumph, the worst of three plugged-in performances that would define Dylan’s electric summer.
“I think people were very upset that he only played for seventeen minutes, because he was the star for the entire weekend,” Kooper says of the Newport ado. “A lot of people sat through stuff that they didn’t even understand so that they could see Bob play. I think that was what upset people, not specifically the electricity. I didn’t hear any booing. I heard people going, ‘More! More! More!’ By the time we played Forest Hills, all of this had been dispensed in the press, so they all sang along with ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and then booed at the end.”
That August 28 concert in Queens, with Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, and Harvey Brooks rounding out Dylan’s band, proved to be a far more polished show despite the riot it nearly caused. Jack Newfield noted in the Voice that Dylan and his backing musicians were booed “savagely” by the rowdy Forest Hills crowd, which was hypnotized by the first, unplugged solo set and enraged by the amplified, band-backed second. From Newfield’s review: “After the first rock song, the Mods booed Dylan. After the second, someone called him a ‘scum bag,’ and he replied cooly, ‘aw, come on now.’ After the third the Mods chanted sardonically, ‘We Want Dylan.’ ”
This time, Kooper says, the musicians were prepared.
“Forest Hills was a different situation from Newport because we were expecting it,” he recalls. “There weren’t that many surprises, other than there were people that actually got up onstage and were trying to get at Bob. Some person tripped over the chair I was sitting on when I was playing the keyboards and knocked me over at one point. Like I said, they sang along to ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and then they booed at the end, like they were instructed to boo by the newspaper.”
This time they had good reason to sing along. Kooper says the Newport Folk set was both underrehearsed and “miscast,” in that the band could barely navigate the songs Dylan wanted to play. That, he adds, is why the set was over and done with in twenty minutes. The Forest Hills concert gave them ample time to prepare and an opportunity to work with musicians better suited to the material.
“We rehearsed for about a week, and we knew everything, and of course [then] we were in a situation where I was playing with musicians that I knew were the right musicians for the job,” Kooper recalls.
He’d grown up with Brooks and had known Robertson and Helm from before they were the Hawks, the band that played behind rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins. (Along with Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson, Robertson and Helm went on to collaborate with Dylan in the studio and then emerge as stars in their own right as the Band.) “These are all friends of mine,” Kooper says. “It was a much more comfortable situation. They were the right band to play with Bob.” He then notes that the booing subsided by the time Dylan and Co. made their way to the Hollywood Bowl on September 3 — what he deems the best of those pivotal performances.
With the 50th anniversary of the electric summer drawing to a close, Kooper says there’s one artist with whom he hasn’t strolled down memory lane.
“We actually have better things to talk about when we do talk,” he laughs when asked whether he has relived Newport Folk or Forest Hills with Dylan. “I don’t think either of us on a day-to-day basis live in the past.” This summer has been a celebration of “something that happened: the electrification of folk music. I just had a month of it, but I know that it’s not the way my life normally is. I could easily deal with it. I’m just amazed that it was half a century ago, and that I’m still coherent and can still play and all that.”
Scroll down to view Jack Newfield’s coverage of Bob Dylan’s plugged-in set at Forest Hills from the September 2, 1965, issue of the Village Voice