Alumni remember the bard’s visit to Ann Arbor 50 years ago
Ed Reynolds has mixed recollections of the summer of 1964. It was in September that the 20-year-old once-and-future student at the University of Michigan got married to a girl he hardly knew. It was also in September that he went to see Bob Dylan perform at Ann Arbor High School.
The tickets were a wedding gift from a friend who had connections in advertising. “They were great tickets,” Reynolds says, “right in the middle of the front row. You couldn’t get any closer.”
The marriage didn’t last, but Reynolds’ memories of the concert have. He recently retired as an attorney for the University of Michigan Health System. As a parting gift he received a set of Dylan’s 40-odd albums on compact disc.
“Most of the time, when I listen to them now,” he says, “sooner or later, into my consciousness comes that concert.
“I made an unwise decision to get married in ’64, and the tickets were a wedding present, so it was worth the two-year marriage to get those tickets,” he continues. “That’s the way I look at it.”
Reynolds had discovered Dylan about a year earlier, just after the release of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the young balladeer’s breakthrough second album. Tracks included the quintessential protest anthem “Blowin’ in the Wind,” along with such other classics as “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.”
“I came as close as anybody could come to driving my mother to an asylum,” recalls Reynolds. “The first time I heard the first cut, that was it. I was poleaxed. It’s a wonder I didn’t play it right through the grooves. Over and over and over. It was the greatest thing I’d ever heard. I couldn’t get enough of it.”
Another Ann Arborite who became enraptured with Dylan following the release of Freewheelin’ was 15-year-old Bill Kirchen, himself a budding musician and later a founding member of the country-rock band Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. Kirchen also played the record incessantly, although his parents didn’t seem to mind.
He remembers how disappointed he was that Christmas to discover that his father had given him an LP of Wagner’s opera music “with a big garish, purple cover.”
Later at the dinner table his father asked if Bill wouldn’t like to play his new record. “I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, sure, thanks, Dad, I’d love to. I can’t wait to put it on.’ So I went out there and I grabbed this Wagner album I had no interest in, and it turned out he’d bought the first Dylan album, and stuck it in the Wagner cover for me. That’s one of my great memories of Bob Dylan and my dad.”
Kirchen was a student at Ann Arbor High and managed to find a unique way to view the bard’s concert there on September 19. “I’d been doing junior theater and I knew my way around the auditorium,” he says. “I crawled up in the light deck and I just sat up there, right above the stage, staring down at him.”At this point Dylan was still in his acoustic folkie phase, and he stood alone in the spotlight with only a guitar and harmonica to accompany his somewhat less-than-mellifluous voice. His repertoire now included a second classic protest anthem, “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” as well as “With God on Our Side,” “When the Ship Comes In,” and “Chimes of Freedom.”
“He had on a suede jacket,” says Reynolds. “The place was full. I don’t remember how big the auditorium was at Ann Arbor High. But I remember thinking, ‘I’ll never see anything as great as this again in my life.’ It was absolutely unbelievable.”
“That was huge for me,” concurs Kirchen. “I think if you don’t know the first 10 Dylan albums, you don’t know why he’s an icon. You’ve got to go back to those to hear what he was up to. He was a great singer, a stunning songwriter.”
The reviews are in
The Michigan Daily’s review of the concert was . . . perplexing.
“That the many-sided personality that is Bob Dylan remains an enigma — perhaps even to himself — was amply demonstrated last night when this uncommonly hung-up kid played guitar and harmonica and sang to an overflow crowd,” wrote Dick Pike.
“Nearly as random as some of his more esoteric ‘verses’ was his delivery on this occasion — obvious to those who had heard the angry lad previously — certainly not at the peak of its potential. But somehow, the unabashedly monotonous guitar style — not always in tune, either — the unsophisticated and occasionally sloppy harmonica work, and the pinched nasal voice (that only Bob Dylan could get away with consistently and still remain a popular performer) only served to throw the weighty content of Dylan’s musical polemics into shocking sharp relief.”
Even the Dailyhad to admit, however, that the singer’s new material, heard by the audience for the first time as it had yet to be committed to record, was mesmerizing.
“Dylan was hard to listen to,” remembers David Garelick, then a junior studying English at U-M. “He had a really edgy, gritty voice, and a gritty personality, and it was hard to like him. But it was a great show. He played ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ which hadn’t been released yet. It was just incredible, and still is. I couldn’t imagine that somebody from my generation was writing these kinds of songs — so rich, the imagery in that song.”
The whole picture
Garelick’s opinion of the frizzy-haired troubadour dropped sharply after the concert, however. “I wanted to interview him for The Michigan Daily,” he says. “I was an English major then. I wanted to ask him all these questions about his poetic imagery and how he wrote his songs and some of his influences, but he didn’t want to talk to anybody.”
Garelick went backstage and found his access blocked by Dylan’s bodyguards. “They were pretty big guys,” he remembers. “The door was closed to the dressing room and I said to one guy, ‘I’m from The Michigan Daily and I’d like to talk to Bob Dylan.’ And he said, ‘I’m his bodyguard and he doesn’t want to talk to you.’ The guy was just kind of a thug.”
To be fair, Garelick recalls there was a “small mob” trying to get to the singer. “I didn’t have a press card or anything,” he says. “If Dylan’s agent had been prepped to it, maybe it would’ve made a difference. But I kind of doubt it.”
“A thunderbolt to the brain”
Regardless of their opinions of Dylan the man or his music, no one who was at that show would ever forget it. Reynolds counts it not only as the best concert he ever attended, but also as one of the most memorable events of his life.
“You’ve got to picture the whole experience,” he says. “Here he is, the person who wasfolk music in 1964, in this auditorium, your typical American anywhere auditorium. The curtains are cheesy and moth-eaten, there’s no set. You’re in high school. You’re in freaking high school. In the midst of all that ordinary stuff, which brings to mind things like lunch in the cafeteria in 10th grade, there’s this person who’s . . . magic. The juxtaposition of all that made for a one-of-a-kind experience. I’ve never seen anything like it since. It was a thunderbolt to the brain.”Jean Conlin also had a one-of-a-kind experience that day, although of a different sort. The 17-year-old student at St. Thomas High School wasn’t a serious Dylan fan but knew enough to recognize him coming out of the Baskin-Robbins on Stadium Boulevard the afternoon before the concert.
“I was driving into the parking lot with my friend, Kathy,” she recalls, “when we saw Bob Dylan carrying two ice cream cones to a car at the other end of the lot. I parked and we jumped out, quite excited, and went up to the car window, which was open. There sat Bob Dylan, and in the back seat with him was Joan Baez!”
Dylan seemed a little surprised but wasn’t annoyed, Conlin recalls. “I don’t think he was used to young girls coming up to him,” she says. “Kathy and I were pretty nervous. I asked him if he was Bob Dylan and he said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Well, I know you are and we wanted to tell you we’re fans and we’ll be going to your concert tonight.’ He just nodded his head and gave a slight smile.”
Later at the concert she and her friend had fun recalling the encounter to their dates. “I was familiar with Dylan’s music because of my boyfriend,” says Conlin. “He was the one that bought the tickets.” She enjoyed the show, finding it both piquant and strange. “When he played the harmonica and guitar at the same time, I remember thinking how odd that was. Kind of like a one-man band.”
The concert at Ann Arbor High wasn’t the first time Dylan performed in Tree Town. About two-and-a-half years earlier, over the weekend of April 21-22, 1962, he appeared at the University of Michigan Folklore Society’s second annual Folk Music Festival. Dylan took part in a hootenanny with Jesse Fuller and other festival performers at Trueblood Auditorium on Saturday night, then did a solo show at the Michigan Union Sunday afternoon.
Marie Kimmey had been president of the Folklore Society before graduating with an architectural degree in 1961. She helped to arrange Dylan’s appearance.
“I think we paid him 50 bucks,” she says. “At that time he was still not known, and we actually had people complain, ‘Who’s this guy? What’s he doing? He plays harmonica and talks. We want our money back!’ But we were thrilled to be pulling this off — and for only 50 bucks. We knew he was going to go places, and he did, within a year or two.”
At the festival after-parties Kimmey had an opportunity to get a closer look at the fledgling superstar. She was not particularly impressed. “He’s about two years younger than me, and I thought he was pretty immature,” she says. “I noticed that he usually had a pretty girl with him.”
Dylan needed a place to stay for the weekend and Bill Sharfman recalls that it was at 519 E. William St., a stately old Italianate structure dating from the 19th century that served as home to a pack of mischievous Michigan students. “We had a motorcycle store in the living room,” he says, “and there was endless jazz being played upstairs.”
Sharfman doesn’t remember a lot about Dylan, who at the time was not yet old enough to vote and wasn’t much of a conversationalist. “What I do remember is that he went around to all the record stores in Ann Arbor, and asked if they had the new Bob Dylan record.”
As for his performance at the Michigan Union, Kimmey recalls the audience reaction was a little disappointing. “I really liked Dylan’s talking blues stuff, which was pretty much what he was doing then. But in Ann Arbor at that time, the large majority of the students were of a preppy kind and not so much into what we were enjoying. I’m sure there were people who loved it. But a lot of the crowd didn’t understand it.”
One of those who did understand was reviewer Hugh “Jeep” Holland of The Michigan Daily.
“As colorful as his red-checkered shirt, as lively as his skipping fingers, as dynamic as his wild harmonica and as ethnic and varied as his audience, Bob Dylan proved his reputation as one of the most promising new stars in folk singing Sunday,” wrote Holland.
“While his guitar playing was intricate and strong, it was the combination of his frantic harmonica and his trance-like, searching voice that most enthralled the audience. Catching a note, Dylan would wrestle with it and squeeze every meaning and emotion from it, only to go after another and another.
“Asked how he likes singing as a career, Bob Dylan answered that it was fine but that he’d rather be riding his motorcycle around the country. With his talent, and the hearty approval he receives wherever he performs, he’s not likely to ride that cycle for a long, long time. Bob Dylan is bound for other roads right now.”