Do Look Back

Bob Dylan Don't Look BackLast week I watched Don’t Look Back, a documentary of Bob Dylan’s 1965 English tour. I had been aware of the film for years but had never managed to see it. A day later, I happened upon a PBS special of Murray Lerner’s wonderful footage of Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, 1964 and in 1965 when he famously angered many in the crowd by having an electric back up band.

Also last week, David McDonough very kindly gave me a present of the recently released double CD of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem In Person at Carnegie Hall- The Complete 1963 Concert. It was an interesting convergence of events for me, and a very enjoyable one, to experience these two classic acts at the top of their game before all their imitators jumped on the bandwagon and tarnished the brilliance of the originals.

As a kid, I never particularly liked Bob Dylan even though I loved many of his songs. Possibly, I was just a bit too young to get the Dylan bug when he first arrived on the scene and the cultural divide between Ireland and the USA was also an obstacle. However, looking back now I see that it was the press coverage of him that turned me off. They made him out to be a self proclaimed Messiah and a spokesman for his generation. I did not realize what a distortion that was and I saw him as a something of a charlatan. I was stunned a few years ago when I read his autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One and discovered that he was constantly battling the image the press created of him. The movies I recently watched reconfirmed that discovery and I found myself seeing him without bias and finally appreciating the talent and freshness that caused all the hype in the first place.

Listening to the CD of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem at Carnegie Hall in 1963 was also an eye opener. It is a powerful performance recorded with just two omnidirectional microphones. The sound is stunningly good and full considering that the only instruments were a nylon stringed guitar, a five string banjo and an occasional tin whistle. However, it is the singing, the performance, the poetry, the banter and the unbridled enthusiasm of the St. Patrick’s day audience that make it so special. That was something that could not be counterfeited by the imitators.

I had simply forgotten how good they were then. As an eleven year old in 1962, I had attended their first Irish concert at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin so I should have remembered. I can still feel the thrill and the excitement of that magic night. Looking back now, I realize that concert probably changed the course of my life.

Fifteen years later, I joined a new iteration of the Clancy Brothers with Paddy, Tom and Bobby and later, after Tom’s death, with Liam. I was part of the group for nineteen years but we never achieved the kind of magic you can hear on that Carnegie Hall CD. We had many great nights, and some not so great, but the chemistry of the original group could not be duplicated. I think Tommy and Liam found some of that chemistry as Makem and Clancy but even the reunion of the original group in 1984 failed to capture it all.

It’s no different with Bob Dylan. There are still flashes of it in his shows but without the backdrop of the early 60’s and the vigor of youth, it’s simply not the same thing. One of the great things about living in this media age is that we have the benefit of time travel. That is really what it is to watch or listen to these classic recordings of a bygone era. So I say, do look back. Look back and enjoy the magic as it is captured in the convergence of time and place. It will never happen again.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! I hope you all have a great one.