Friday, February 20, 2015

Ralph Gleason, Dylan and 1965: The Year That Was

At a legendary press conference in San Francisco in 1965, Bob Dylan gave a bravura performance which was almost as entertaining as one of his concerts, fending off presumptuous and sometimes stupid questions with replies that were either baffling or surreal or contemptuous, or all three.

Reporter: “If you were to sell out to 'commercial interests’, what would they be?”

Dylan: “Ladies’ garments.”

Reporter (a different one): “Do you think of yourself as a protest singer or a rock and roll singer?” 

Dylan: “I think of myself as a song-and-dance man.”

from David Cheal's 2009 article in The Telegraph, "Bob Dylan: Still in a Defensive Mood."

* * * *
Ralph J. Gleason
Who was that reporter who asked, "Do you think of yourself as a protest singer or a rock and roll singer?" I've been reading a pair of Dylan books simultaneously and can't seem to locate where I read that this was Ralph Gleason.

It's one of the most entertaining press conferences in history, and one many of us are familiar with because it was filmed in its entirety. (Where are my fact-checkers when I need them?)

1965 was an incredible year. Civil rights protests were expanding in the Deep South, the first wave of U.S. troops landed in Viet Nam, and Bob Dylan recorded two remarkable albums unlike anything that had gone before.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of a boatload of major events that characterized that time of change. In mid-January, Dylan recorded Bringing It All Back Home which opens with it's raucous Subterranean Homesick Blues.

Johnny’s in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
I’m on the pavement
Thinking about the government
The man in the trench coat
Badge out, laid off
Says he’s got a bad cough
Wants to get it paid off
Look out kid
It’s somethin’ you did
God knows when
But you’re doin’ it again
You better duck down the alley way
Lookin’ for a new friend
The man in the coon-skin cap
By the big pen
Wants eleven dollar bills
You only got ten

When kids listened to this, their parents must have been scratching their heads.

Oct. 2, 1965 -- Newark, NJ (photo: Thom Cronin)
What's remarkable is how fast Dylan could lay down tracks on an album. I believe most of the songs on Another Side Of Bob Dylan were recorded in one take. That's astonishing. This article, The Most Revolutionary Year In Music, gives you a sense of how much command Dylan had over his medium at such an early age. He was not yet 23 at this point. (His birthday, which we still celebrate here in his hometown, is in May.)

The bootleg albums of Dylan performing live at various stages of his career are nearly all recorded in a single take, from "the Judas concert" to Isle of Wight. By way of contrast, I remember reading an article by someone (or interview with someone) who was tasked with producing the Live Doors album which proved a near impossible task. He said it took nearly a thousand concerts to make one concert album because of all the mistakes (and probably chaos.) He said they spliced together from four concerts just to make one song, and had to do the whole album piecemeal like that.

By mid-year Dylan fired yet another salvo into that exploding music scene: Highway 61 Revisited, which opens with that snare-shot wakeup call, Like A Rolling Stone. Don't kid yourself. He was changing the rules, and the earth was quaking.

* * * *

It's well-known that Rolling Stone magazine, co-founded by Ralph Gleason and Jann Wenner, lifted its name from this "shot heard 'round the world." Less well-known is the backstory.

Gleason was no newbie in the music scene. He was seasoned veteran who had been covering the jazz scene longer than Jann Wenner was alive at the time. A grad of Columbia University in 1938 he spent the 1950's covering the cutting edge of San Francisco's jazz world, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle from 1950 till his passing in 1975, and writing for Down Beat from 1948-1961. He helped found the Monterey Jazz Festival, and was authoring books right up till the day he died. You can tell the kind of respect he garnered by a comment that he and Nat Hentoff were the only two jazz journalists Miles would talk to. Miles could, and sometimes did call Gleason at three in the morning. Hentoff, who wrote for the Village Voice, was centered in the New York/East Coast world whereas Gleason was anchored on the West Face of musicland.

* * * *

The press conference cited above took place in December of 1965. I would be more than a little surprised if we don't see a few articles this coming December on the 50th anniversary of that event. Just under two years later Wenner and Gleason kicked off their new venture, Ralph Gleason its editor. Wenner was just a kid with a dream; Gleason was a 48 year old veteran who surprised a lot of his followers by embracing this new sound. He never stopped his support for jazz, but he saw something important in the music that was happening, and aimed to share that.

The December 14, 1967 edition of Rolling Stone carried part of of the Ralph Gleason piece on that interview, which rolled into an actual transcription of that event. Here's the intro:

When Bob Dylan's five concerts in the San Francisco Bay Area were scheduled in December 1965, the idea was proposed that he hold a press conference in the studios of KQED, the educational television station. 

Dylan accepted and flew out a day early to make it. 

He arrived early for the press conference accompanied by Robbie Robertson and several other members of his band, drank tea in the KQED office and insisted that he was ready to talk about "anything you want to talk about." His only request was that he be able to leave at 3 p.m. so that he could rehearse in the Berkeley Community Theater where he was to sing that night. 

Though much of his music is serious to the core, Dylan was also a comic at heart. Fans know this comedic side of their hero and it's still present, as many noticed in his recent MusiCares speech a couple weeks ago.

Thanks to Gleason, and his magazine, you can find the speech in its entirety online. If nothing else check out the first half here. Dylan is hilarious. Somebody asks, "What poets do you dig?"

Dylan replies: Rimbaud, I guess; W. C. Fields; The family, you know, the trapeze family in the circus; Smokey Robinson; Allen Ginsberg; Charlie Rich – he's a good poet.

The trapeze family? W.C. Fields? Charlie Rich?

Meantime, life goes on... all around you. Keep on keepin' on, Mr Dylan.

The photo of Ralph Gleason appears to be a publicity still. It is believed that the use of this image of Ralph J Gleason may qualify as fair use under United States copyright law. 

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