Theologian Paul Tillich, copping a lick from the ancient Greeks, distinguished between two notions of time: “chronos” and “kairos.” “Chronos,” or chronological time, is measured in mundane units like minutes, hours, days, and years. “Kairos,” or “the fullness of time,” describes moments in which conditions are ripe for events to transcend linear time and take on greater, even eternal, significance. Pregnant with meaning, such epiphanies make claims on all who encounter them; it is impossible to remain neutral when such confrontations occur.
Tillich used this conceptual framework to come to grips with the life of Jesus, the event that he believed to be the ultimate kairos. Tillich nevertheless recognized that lesser “kairoi,” or moments of truth, occur as well, such as when the Allied Forces defeated Hitler, or when Picasso laid bare the estrangement of 20th-century humanity in “Guernica.” Although by no means as epochal as those events, Bob Dylan’s 1966 concert at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, England, was, at least by pop-culture standards, one such moment.
Dylan had been straddling the divide between folk and rock for nearly a yearat least since he and the Butterfield Blues Band had cranked up their amps at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Purists who couldn’t see past Dylan’s folkie broadsides accused him of selling out. The incipient counterculture, however, reveled in the surreal blitz of “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” In the apocalyptic “Like a Rolling Stone,” they found an anthem that captured the zeitgeist of their generation.
Lines had thus been drawn long before Dylan and the Hawks played Manchester on May 17, 1966. Nevertheless, it was the recording of this showbootlegged for 32 years and long believed to have been at London’s Royal Albert Hallthat achieved mythic status. And rightly so: Bob Dylan Live 1966 (Columbia/Legacy) sizzles with the tension that existed between Dylan and his audienceand within the singer himselfthroughout his ’66 tour. Not only that, its denouement is one of the most gloriously transcendent moments in all of rock ’n’ roll. (The riveting solo acoustic set with which Dylan opened the proceedings merits a separate discussion altogether.)
As Dylan and the Hawks are gearing up for the final song of the electric half of the show, a heckler, having had enough of their insurgent blare, screams “Judas!” A tentative burst of applause follows, before Dylan, invoking a song he’d performed just moments before, quips, “I don’t believe you.” Then, taking deadly aim at his accuser, he snarls, “You’re a liar,” before turning to the Hawks and shouting, “Play fucking loud!!!” Like a volley of gunfire, Mickey Jones’ rim-shot detonates “Like a Rolling Stone” as Dylan, with the authority of Jeremiah crying out in the wilderness, unleashes rock’s quintessential rant against hypocrisy.
Much has been made of Dylan being caught off guard that night, of his being bested by an upstart fan, and perhaps by his audience, which at least twice seems amused by his false starts. Listening today, however, it’s obvious that Dylanhaving withstood such fire night after night ever since he nearly got booed offstage at a Forest Hills gig the previous Augustwas ready for the onslaught all along. The scorn in his voice on “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” when he taunts, “There was nobody even there to call my bluff,” proves as much: The troubadour-turned-proto-punk was spoiling for a fight.
With every song in the electric portion of his set having betrayal as its subtext, Dylan had been upping the ante since intermission. At stake, however, wasn’t just the now trifling issue of whether he should sing protest songs or abstract love songs, or whether he should plug in his guitar or not. That was part of it, as his introduction of the erstwhile folk-ballad “I Don’t Believe You” attests. (“It used to be like that, and now it goes like this.”) Something bigger was happening, but only Dylan knew what it was.
“Everybody sees you on your window ledge/How long is it gonna take for you to get off the edge,” he wails amid the bluesy maelstrom of “Tell Me, Momma.” This is not, as it at first might seem, a challenge to his fickle audience; rather, this is their hero in the throes of an existential crisis. Dylan’s genius, which had been multiplying exponentially since he recorded “Like a Rolling Stone,” was at an unconscious peak and he felt it: He not only sensed the possibility of going beyond himself, he knewand fearedthat doing so was within his grasp. Standing as Dylan was in the fullness of time, not to have seized the moment would have amounted to more than the betrayal of his fansit would have meant betraying himself.
Judging by the fiendish fury with which they played that night, the Hawks, who as the Band would have their own moment two years later, also knew as much. The circus-of-the-mind swirls of Garth Hudson’s organ and the back-alley stabbing of Robbie Robertson’s guitar were, by themselves, enough to incite a riot. The entire ensemblewhich also included Rick Danko on bass and backing vocals, and Richard Manuel on pianoburned with the same intensity and sense of peril as their leader.
Was Dylan’s Manchester date, as the critical hyperbole of the past few weeks and the apocryphal musings of the past three decades would have us believe, rock ’n’ roll’s signal accomplishment? Dylan would surely scoff at the thought. Nonetheless, it was without doubt much more than one moment among others. And thanks to the bootleggers, the community of disciples who have kept its myth alive, the show is now more than a rumor to the rest of us. Available in unprecedented fidelity, it has now officially taken its place atop the rock of ages.
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