After recording Highway 61 Revisited, I got a call from Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, asking that I come by his Manhattan office to sign some papers and talk. When I got there, Albert wanted to know what I thought of Dylan and was I available for more work. I told him I was available and had become a real Dylan fan since the recording session.
Albert said Bob likes your playing and wants you to play some concerts with him — one at the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in Queens on August 28th and the other at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles in early September. I quickly signed on and our conversation was over. He said thanks for coming by and ushered me out the door.
Michael Bloomfield, who had played on the album wanted to keep his gig playing the blues with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and passed, as did drummer Bobby Gregg, who was over-committed with studio sessions. Just after the Highway 61 Revisited session, Dylan had heard Robbie Robertson, a guitarist, and Levon Helm, a drummer, in a band called The Hawks at a small club. He was so impressed, he hired them on the spot as the guitar and drum replacements.
About a week later, I got a call from Dylan’s management office to be at the Carroll Music rehearsal studio at 625 West 55th Street to begin preparation for the two concerts.
It was here that I met Robertson and Helm for the first time. They had a Fender Bassman for me at the rehearsal and it was also my amp on stage for the concerts. We began what would be two weeks of intensive rehearsals for the Forest Hills concert.
The new guys totally changed the workings of the band from what we had in the studio. Robbie Robertson and Mike Bloomfield are both very energetic guitar players, but totally different in style. Bloomfield was spontaneous with his parts, while Robertson was stiffer and far more precise.
Where Bobby Gregg was a solid drummer right in the pocket, Levon was always on the edge. It’s always ‘oh, oh, are we gonna make it? Yeah!’ You always made it. But there was always a natural tension with everything Levon did. It’s a style that helped to create the sound of The Band later on. Dylan really related to it.
Because the songs were so strong in their identity, the addition of Robbie and Levon added to what Al and I had originally worked out in the studio. The truth is I never really thought about what the other guys were playing because I was locked into Dylan.
After some rehearsal, we began to relax. But it was tense until we got familiar with each other. Levon and I spent some time hanging out together in the village after rehearsal just talking about what was going on in our lives at that time — the women, the complications, the opportunities, getting high and Dylan’s music, which neither of us knew much about except that we both liked it.
Levon and I were at The Dugout on Bleeker Street eating some steak tidbits and taking it all in. Later, we walked by the Kettle of Fish on MacDougal St. and saw Dylan, Al Kooper and Bobby Neuwirth hanging out. But we opted to continue our conversation and new friendship over a cup of coffee downstairs at the nearby Gaslight Café.
With two weeks of rehearsals behind us, we were ready for the Forest Hills concert. Originally built in 1923 as the home of the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament, Forest Hills Stadium had hosted the Beatles and Barbara Streisand the year before. The Rolling Stones, Simon & Garfunkel, Jimi Hendrix, The Who and Frank Sinatra would play there around the time of our concert.
August 28 was a typically hot and humid time of the summer, but on this evening the temperature began to drop. It soon became cold and windy. The stage where we were to perform was set back some distance from the stadium itself, which held about 15,000 fans.
Due to the stage lighting, we couldn’t see the audience — only the deep green lawn in front of us. Since Dylan had gone electric a few weeks earlier at Newport, uncertainty about what would happen here — his first live performance since Newport — was running high. The audience was self-righteously hostile and they didn’t hide it.
The show got off to a surreal start when the crowd learned that the master of ceremonies was “Murray the K” Kaufman, a rock impresario and Top 40 disc jockey. This didn’t sit well with the purist folk music audience there to see Bob Dylan. The audience instantly greeted Kaufman with loud boos and jeers.
Al Kooper and I were standing next to Albert Grossman, who had this Cheshire cat expression on his face like he was enjoying the spectacle surrounding his artist. This moment was the first time I sensed Albert’s sense of humor and his take on the music business. He knew that all audience reaction — good or bad — boosted Bob’s notoriety and uniqueness.
The show began with Bob doing his all acoustic solo set. He opened with She Belongs to Me and did Gates of Eden, Love Minus Zero/No Limit, Desolation Row and It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue. The closing solo was Mr. Tambourine Man. The opening set seemed to calm the crowd.
For me it was like being a Roman Coliseum gladiator waiting in the wings while the crowd held its collective thumb in a middle neutral position. The thumb was pointing up after Bob finished his acoustic set, but as the amps and drums begin to make their appearance on the stage the thumb started to drop.
During the intermission, Dylan cleared the backstage area and called the band into a huddle. “I don’t know what it will be like out there,” he told us. “It’s going to be some kind of carnival and I want you to all know that up front. So go out there and keep playing no matter how weird it gets!”
As the band walked onto the stage, the temperature dropped further and the wind blew harder. We could hear the ominous grumbling of fans waiting to sit in judgment. Though we couldn’t see them, we could feel the tension in the cold night air.
We kicked off with Tombstone Blues to loud jeers and boos, which faded into mixed approval and applause by the end of the song. It was during the fifth song, Maggie’s Farm, that some of the fans jumped out of the seating area and ran across the green grass toward the stage. I only noticed it when I saw numerous security guards tackling folks as they came onto the stage. Bob never missed a beat and the band played on!
I watched Al fall to the stage, as his organ stool was pulled out from under him. Levon held his own as the crowd rushed at him. Bob, Robbie and I were towards the front of the stage. Robbie and I moved closer to Bob, who had a maniacal grin on his face.
When we got to Ballad of A Thin Man, Bob played the intro over and over again until the audience quieted down. I added that move into my book of “do’s and don’t’s” of on-stage tactics. The concert finally closed with the classic Like a Rolling Stone — drawing cheers from the same audience that had booed us earlier.
The moment the show ended, Bob disappeared. He had left the stadium immediately in his limo leaving us sidemen to fend for ourselves. I left with Kooper, after weaving our way through the crowd, experiencing hot and cold crowd recognition for the first time.
After locating my car, we made our way back to Albert Grossman’s apartment on Manhattan’s lower west side for the after-show party. There we found a smiling Bob Dylan and a very satisfied Grossman.
Soon, we headed to Los Angeles, where our second concert would be held on Sept. 3, 1965 at the Hollywood Bowl. Robbie, Levon and I were told we were flying across the country on a private plane. At first, we were very pleased.
What we weren’t told, however, was the flight was aboard Albert Grossman’s Lockheed Lodestar, a World War II puddle jumper that would take 12 hours and would make three or four stops for fuel. Essentially, we would be keeping the band’s equipment company.
This was my first trip to Los Angeles. I exhaled on landing and took the tour of the LA freeway system as we weaved our way to the Hollywood Sunset Hotel on Sunset Blvd. Al and I were roommates. We stayed just down the hall from Dylan’s suite — arriving two days before the concert.
P.F. Sloan had called Bob to set up a meeting. Sloan had written a tune called the Eve of Destruction, which was a big hit for Barry Maguire. The song was obviously a Dylan imitation. Bob — playing the role of the spider drawing a fly into his complex web — was prepared for a “slice and dice” meeting. I had seen him use the same cutting down-to-size device in tandem with Grossman many times before. Both Bob and Albert enjoyed the edge of a mutual sarcastic banter.
When I was with Bob, I mostly listened to his conversation since most of what he was saying was dramatically different than what I was used to hearing from others. I was in awe of Bob’s intellectual prowess. For me, playing chess with him years later in Woodstock, was a reminder that life is always a game and we are all still playing.
As we drove up the long driveway to the entrance and then the backstage area of the Hollywood Bowl, I could see the Dylan fans entering the venue. I couldn’t help but notice how different their attire and attitude was than those fans at Forest Hills. The California audience was laid back. They got what we were doing right off the bat.
I was standing next to Bob about to play for a mix of movie stars, folkies and hippies. It was thrilling. I kept my cool and casually took in the surreal view from the stage. At the Hollywood Bowl, there is a moat that separates the audience from the stage area. But I could make out the faces of the first two or three rows, spotting the likes of Gregory Peck, Mel Brooks, Peter Fonda and Johnny Cash watching from below.
We started off with Tombstone Blues, the same as Forest Hills. Except, this time there were smiles and people dancing in the audience. The set was loose, but we all followed Bob and met all the endings together.
Bob started blowing on his C harp — I forget which tune it was — but he couldn’t get the harp to play. Bob asked “Anyone out there got a C harp?” Within seconds, someone in the audience threw a harmonica across the moat that separated the fans from the stage. It landed right at Dylan’s feet. He picked it up and began to play. It was sublime intervention if I ever saw it.
The Hollywood Bowl concert was a major success. Kooper had sped off in the limo with Dylan while I was backstage talking to a young lady named Bobbie who was an actress in LA beach bunny movies and some of her friends. She offered to give me a ride to the hotel, but somehow we took a slight detour and I ended up at the beach in Malibu swimming with her in the moonlight. When I got back to the hotel, the after-concert party had ended.
I had to get to the airport the next day to fly back to New York City to rehearse for a three-week gig in Detroit with vocalist Chico Holiday that I had booked before I met Bob. It was not the best time to leave town for three weeks, but the gig was booked and I was committed.
Later, when I checked in from the Cadillac Square Hotel in Detroit as to when the next rehearsals would start, I was notified by Grossman’s office that the rest of Levon and Robbie’s band, “The Hawks,” would be replacing Al and myself on future shows. That is showbiz.
It turned out that the Hawks, who would soon change their name to The Band, were the perfect fit for Bob Dylan. The rest of the story is rock and roll history.