Wednesday, August 10, 2011

48 Years Ago Today: The Lost Bob Dylan TV Broadcast

The more one roots around in 1960s sources, the more things you can turn up that aren't well-reported, or even reported at all. A few years back, I found a listing in the New York Times for an unknown New York City benefit concert with both Bob Dylan and Cecil Taylor on the bill. And I dug around a bit more and managed to exchange emails with another performer who'd been on the bill, who confirmed that the show had indeed taken place and that Dylan had performed (although, unsurprisingly, she didn't recall many details).

But this was one that took me quite by surprise. A 1963 TV broadcast of a Joan Baez concert with a "special appearance" by Bob Dylan. A concert whose date hadn't even been pinned down by those of us who obsessively try to document Dylan's every public moment. And, maybe, only maybe, the live debut of a just-composed Dylan song.

In August 1963, Dylan was accompanying Joan Baez on her concert tour around the northeastern United States, emerging after intermission to play a short solo set, then joining Baez for several duets, usually if not always on Dylan compositions. He squeezed his own recording sessions in on off days, when the tour was near enough to New York City. On August 10, they appeared in Asbury Park, NJ. Then, on August 11, Baez was booked into the Oakdale Musical Theatre in Wallingford, CT. Here's a newspaper ad for the show.

Yes, you're reading that right. Baez and Dylan, on an almost-double-bill with "Mr. Showmanship," Liberace. Twenty years before the Letterman TV show where they actually shared a stage. Somehow I doubt there were many folks who caught the afternoon spectacle, caught a quick dinner nearby, then came back to see Joan and Bob. (So far as I know, nobody had confirmed the date for this show, perhaps not even the location. Heylin and Bjorner have it a few days later.)

The Dylan legend goes that, at some point during this August week, Dylan and Baez arrive at their New England hotel, only to have Bob denied a room over his typically scruffy appearance. Baez threatened to leave with him (presumably taking whatever passed for the tour crew with her), and the hotel relented. This is a pretty good fit, and I've even seen reports that place the incident in Connecticut. As you can see from the newspaper ad, the hotel that lodged the Oakdale performers wouldn't have been expecting a fellow of Dylan's sartorial habits.

Dylan was said to have been enraged at the hotel's treatment of him, and his creative blood ran hot. He quickly put together a response, the legend goes, performing the song at the evening concert. The song is "When The Ship Comes In." Baez almost confirms the account in her memoirs, saying "that evening, by the time the concert was over, he had written an entire song called 'When Your Ship Comes In.' It was outraged, vengeful, strong and lyrical." She doesn't actually say he sang it at the concert, though; but why else might she know he'd finished it by the end of the show?

It's possible, maybe even likely, that this isn't the date. Dylan and Baez may have played another Connecticut date two days later, and at least one Massachusetts date before the week ended. A bit more telling, the next day Dylan was Columbia's studios recording new songs, but "Ship" wasn't among them. Maybe Dylan didn't think he was finished with it yet. He didn't record it until September, after playing it at the March on Washington at month's end.

Lots of maybe's there. Here's something definite. The concert was videotaped for a September TV broadcast. (There's a slight chance it was filmed, but it's not likely.) RKO General, one of those wonderful 1960s proto-conglomerates that supplied movies, TV programs, and tires, had begun building up a library of pop/folk concert recordings for the TV stations it owned and, I think, for theatrical distribution after the TV broadcasts. (They didn't have a national network of stations, and the ones they controlled were mostly in smaller markets; they were trying to do the same thing with sports events.) Their music library began in 1962 with a Kingston Trio concert, and possibly a "soundtrack" LP. I haven't tracked down any others yet.

Yes, it sounds a bit odd. Why would a movie/TV studio, even one once owned by Howard Hughes, be producing higher-cost original programming for its motley set of off-network TV stations that typically ran the "Million Dollar Movie," reruns of shows that had already worn out their welcome on the networks, and knockoffs of syndicated shows like "Highway Patrol"?

Because they were running the world's first pay-per-view TV operation, in 1963, in Hartford, Connecticut, home of Wallace Stevens and the world's largest collection of actuaries. Really. I'm not making this up, even the part about the actuaries. Here's the ad that ran in a local newspaper.

That's right, the TV station, WHCT-TV, channel 18, "Subscription TV," had an audience of only 3400 customers. And the "subscription" in the name was misleading. It was actually pay-per-view.

The local newspapers took the ads, but they didn't review the program. It ran twice, so far as I can tell, on Sunday, September 15, and Thursday, September 19. On 9:00 Sunday night, it went up against "Bonanza," "The Real McCoys," and the 1960's version of "Law and Order," called "Arrest And Trial." Ed Sullivan had been on the previous hour on CBS; his musical guests included Connie Francis, Jan Peerce, Xavier Cugat, and Abbe Lane. Yes, ladies and gents, we're in the pre-Charo era here. On Thursday night, at the same time, it went up against "Dr. Kildare," "The Jimmy Dean Show," and "Hazel." ("Hazel" is still running, in reruns, of course, on something called "Antenna TV" on Sunday mornings, at least in the US. It makes "Jersey Shore" look like "The Sopranos.")

Who knows how many of the 3400 customers Channel 18 had tuned in for Joan and Bob? It doesn't seem to have been very many. RKO wanted to build a library of programs it could run on its other stations, exhibit in theaters (this was still the era when neighborhood theaters were almost as common as neighborhood full-service grocers, and third-, fourth-, fifth-run movies popped up in brief runs. You could seem them in color there. Not like those third-rate black-and-white TV broadcasts), and otherwise exploit to death.

It looks, unhappily, like that didn't happen with "An Evening With Joan Baez." It never hit the theaters. There's no indication it ever was broadcast again, either in Connecticut or on any of RKO's other TV stations, or anywhere else. Maybe the videotapes survived, and are sitting in a vault somewhere. But you'd think somebody would have noticed by now. RKO's film library has been sold and resold, carved up and, for a while, scattered, and the original TV shows probably went with it. In the US, Time Warner now holds most of the rights to whatever's survived. Internationally, the rights are even more scattered, country-by-country; Silvio Berlusconi may hold the Italian rights and such. Is he a Bobcat?

But let's be realistic. Most 1960's videotapes were wiped and reused. There's a better than-average chance that "An Evening With Joan Baez" survived, especially if RKO managed to sell some international broadcasts. But it's not likely.

So there we have it. A Joan Baez/Bob Dylan concert, recorded in 1963 by a major studio for a TV broadcast. And it's just evaporated. No reviews. No reports of what was in it. Nobody remembers seeing it. Nobody even remembered that it happened. The great pay-per-view TV experiment of the 1960's sputtered out by the decade's end, a quite dismal failute, with WHCT sold to a crazy preacher named Gene Scott. (That guy made Glenn Beck look like David Brinkley. Maybe David Brinkley on crystal meth, though.)

Who knows? "Folk Songs and More Folk Songs" turned up after 40 years. Maybe there's a kinescope. Maybe RKO filmed the show and made prints; in 1963 they'd supposedly switched from videotape to film for the sports events they added to their library. I'm not holding my breath, but if people start looking around for this in video archives and such, who knows.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Bob Dylan, Canadee-I-O, and Nic Jones' Return to Live Performance

One of the more pointed disputes about Dylan and the folk process, at least until "Love and Theft"'s sporadic yakuza roots were highlighted, was over the credits on Good As I Been To You (some of which were clearly wrong). The most heated one was probably over "Canadee-I-O," which certainly showed the influence of Nic Jones, though perhaps no more so than other influences on any number of other songs that Dylan had recorded in the past.

Still, Jones's situation aroused sympathy. A stone brilliant, marvelously distinctive interpreter of British traditional music, Jones was very badly injured in a devastating car crash in February 1982, which left him unable to perform or record. Clinton Heylin asked, in one of his more notorious open letters,
"How about an arrangement credit for the man you purloined it from, Bob, a man who has no means of making a living, no longer even able to play the guitar because of a horrific car accident that ended a promising career?" Jones's manager had already rejected the charges, but they persist.

Here's Dylan's version:

And here's Nic Jones's:

And juxtaposing them, I can't buy into the complaint. Jones's performance of the song is accomplished, his guitar work lovely, his rendition almost impossible to fault. His instrumental figures ornament the song beautifully, and he delivers the lyrics with a distancing that highlights the age of the song, probably more than 150 years old when Jones released it in 1980.

But where Jones performs the song, Dylan inhabits it. His version of the song is rough-hewn and immediate. His guitar work is more than simply functional, but it does not ornament the song; it echoes and underscores Dylan's vocal cadences (which to be sure show Jones's influence). He delivers the lyrics without distance, as though they are events he remembers involving people he knew, yet with freshness, as though they are memories he is rediscovering after not coming to mind since the events themselves (a feature of some of Dylan's finest vocal performances).

What these two performances have most in common is that they are extraordinarily good, and bear the individual stamp of each musician.

After his accident, Nic Jones reportedly spent six weeks in a coma. He suffered both extensive physical injuries and, probably, what is today referred to as a traumatic brain injury. After a long, long period of rehabilitation, he managed to regain part of his ability to play guitar (or "do battle with it," as his family described it on his website). In 2010, at a tribute concert, he performed some vocals with the Bandoggs, a group he was once featured in.

On May 28, 2011, a still-fragile Nic Jones gave his first solo performance in nearly 30 years, a brief but thrilling set at a concert honoring him and his music. Publicity for the concert had said only that he would again sing with the Bandoggs. The set concluded with a performance of one of Jones's signature pieces, "Ten Thousand Miles," accompanied by his son on guitar.

Nic Jones and his wife Julia offer what's available of his music for sale here:

It would be fine value for your money as well as a way to support and appreciate a more than deserving musical artist.