Dylan, Newport `65 & the Search for the Green Polka-Dot Shirt

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After successfully discovering the Dylan Silver Elvis photo, I was commissioned by the same party to find the photographer and locate the original of this photo of Bob Dylan.

The photograph was used as the cover for an EP — CBS EP 6270 (France) — released in March, 1966. A larger, digitally edited, version of the photo with titling removed was also included as an insert for a 1993 Dylan bootleg titled “Squaring the Circle.”

Connecting the Dots

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What could be learned from the photo? Based on contemporary images, I thought it was likely taken on July 25, 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival, the day when Dylan “went electric.” There are several black-and-white photos of Dylan wearing a polka-dot shirt that day, one taken of him chatting with his manager, Albert Grossman, others shot of him at the Sunday afternoon sound check. Interestingly, Al Kooper wore the same (or a very similar) shirt during the evening concert.

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Evening concert with Al Kooper wearing the shirt

While some people who I contacted opined that the photo used for the EP was colorized, there were several contemporary reports mentioning that the polka-dot shirt was indeed green. When I reached Al Kooper, he confirmed that it was in fact green. But Al was cryptic in response to my question as to why Dylan was wearing the shirt in the afternoon but Al apparently had it on in the evening.

“Maybe he borrowed it from me. Maybe I borrowed it from him. Maybe we both had the same shirt. Or maybe it was something else,” sez Al.

The lime-green polka-dot shirt spontaneously floating from one musician to another fits into the whole spur-of-the-moment idea for the amplified Dylan concert.

A Brief History of Noise at Newport

On Saturday the 24th, Alan Lomax, one of the doyens of the folk movement, makes one of the worst band introductions in history, informing the Newport audience that the Paul Butterfield Blues Band sure needed a lot of hardware to play the blues, but whatever it was they were going to play it wasn’t real blues, definitely not real Chicago blues, and closed by asking that everyone be kind and put up with them anyway.

The Butterfield Band then proceeds to blow everyone away, at least after the audience gets over the spectacle of Albert Grossman and Alan Lomax thumping on each other next to the stage. Grossman, Dylan’s manager, and since the night before manager of the Butterfield Band, has taken exception to Lomax’s comments, indeed tells Lomax that his introduction was “chicken-shit,” and fisticuffs ensue until the band’s drummer, Sam Lay, jumps off the stage to break things up.

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“Fuck them if they think they can keep electricity out of here.”

Lomax retreats to lick his wounds and to try to get Grossman banned from the remainder of the Festival, an unlikely possibility since Grossman manages almost all the major acts performing that year.

Grossman in turn may have had a sit-down conversation with Dylan for a plan to take his revenge on Lomax with even MORE HARDWARE, MORE NOISE, MORE ELECTRICITY, all delivered by that Voice of the Folk Generation and Big Bubba of Rebellion, Bob Dylan.

Or Dylan may have come up with the idea himself. Jonathan Taplin, part of the Grossman entourage, said that Dylan, after hearing about the Lomax/Grossman kerfluffle, decided on Saturday that he would perform part of his Sunday set with a full-tilt boogie amplified band. “Fuck them if they think they can keep electricity out of here,” Taplin reports Dylan as saying.

Of course, that meant Dylan needed to put together a pick-up band within the next 24 hours. According to Al Kooper, Grossman found him late Saturday afternoon, said Dylan wanted to get together that evening, and to bring along the boys in the band.

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Site of the “Dylan Goes Electric” rehearsal. Netherclyffe, Newport Rhode Island

They met at Netherclyffe, a Newport mansion built in 1883 for Princeton University religion professor Charles Shields, now dorm accommodations for Salve Regina University, rented that week in 1965 by festival organizer George Wein as a general meeting place for staff and Festival organizers, and borrowed for the evening of Saturday July 24th by Albert Grossman.

Dylan, Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper, Jerome Arnold, and Sam Lay rehearsed throughout the night and well into the next morning, with a reporter from the Providence Journal arriving at 4:30 a.m. to find the folksinger he had expected to see blasting away on an electric guitar.

“This is folk music?” someone asked.

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

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Afternoon sound check with Dylan in the polka-dot shirt

So says Maxwell Scott in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, reportedly one of Bob Dylan’s favorite Westerns.The Sunday afternoon sound check is something of a train wreck, with Peter Yarrow freaking out while trying to prod the musicians into getting their act together. “It is essential that you get your levels for your instruments, and for your amplifiers, and get them into your heads!” he declares, and is roundly ignored. A disinterested Dylan is wearing the green polka-dot shirt and spends his time mimicing the roadies’ calls for more tape to secure the equipment.

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Cousin Emmy. Photo by Diana Davies, courtesy of the Ralph Rinzler Archives

In the evening, the band’s amplifiers are set up after Cousin Emmy, a popular hillbilly singer backed by the New Lost City Ramblers, does her bit. According to Peter Yarrow Dylan was in a foul mood, unhappy with his between-acts slot in the evening line-up rather than closing the show, unhappy with the limited time he was being allowed onstage, warning Yarrow that his audience would be equally unhappy, especially since Dylan planned to only play the three songs he and the band had practiced and then was out.

In response, Yarrow makes a rambling introduction as the band comes on stage and warms up their equipment, punctuating Yarrow’s attempt to introduce Dylan with electronic feedback and buzzes. The crowd responds with loud derision when Yarrow declares “…the person that’s gonna come up now has a limited amount of time,” and Dylan walks onstage.

Dylan has switched from the green polka-dot shirt to a red shirt and leather jacket, as pictured on another French EP, which will become an important clue in the hunt for the polka-dot shirt.

And at this point, fact takes a hike and legend has the reins.

The crowd booed after “Maggie’s Farm;” no they didn’t boo; maybe they did boo but it was because the sound mix sucked; no, it was too loud; no, nobody past the first row could hear anything except a wash of noise; no it was the other way around, you couldn’t make out any of the words unless you were out in the crowd; no, it wasn’t the audience that was booing, it was the Festival organizers and other musicians who were booing from the stage; no, no one was booing until Dylan left the stage after only three effing songs; no, Dylan left the stage in tears after being booed.

Dylan left the Fender Stratocaster he used that night on a private plane, never asked for its return and it eventually sold at auction for $965,000. No, Dylan says he has the original guitar, and even if that other guitar was the guitar, then it was stolen. Most of that is true, by the way. Dylan and Dawn Peterson, the person who had the guitar, eventually came to a private settlement, freeing the guitar for auction, and yes, it did go for nearly a million dollars.

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Dylan in costume for “Cross the Green Mountain”

Pete Seeger was so upset that he attacked the power cords with an axe to try to cut the sound. No, Seeger just said he wanted to use the axe. No, “axe” is slang for guitar, and instead of the gentle pacifist being so crazed by Dylan’s electric rampage that he metamorphosed into an axe murderer, what Seeger said was “He’s gone to get his axe” to calm the crowd after Dylan walked off.

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Dylan Newport 2002

Alan Lomax and Albert Grossman had a fist fight while the band played on. No, wait, wasn’t that earlier?

Dylan returned to perform at a Newport Folk Festival 37 years later wearing a cowboy hat, wig, and fake beard, which has been interpreted as his final commentary on the 1965 contretemps. Maybe so, or maybe he had been running late after a video shoot for “Cross the Green Mountain” and hadn’t had time to get out of make-up.

Print the legend.

About that Green Polka-Dot Shirt

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I was taking a three-path approach to finding the author of the green polka-dot photo, simultaneously going down each path because much of research is sending out emails, making phone calls, and then waiting for a response.

Path #1: I had developed a list of possible suspects, which included: Dr. John Rudoff; Diana Davies; Bob Gruen; Barry Feinstein; Jonathan Taplin; Al Kooper and Dick Waterman.

I was able to cross off Al Kooper and Jonathan Taplin after corresponding with them. Neither were full-time photographers, but I had the feeling that the photo hadn’t been taken by a professional, just someone skilled with a camera. The shot was obviously posed — Dylan is holding two walkie-talkies and staring straight at the photographer. That indicated that he knew, or at least was comfortable with, the person taking the shot. Almost all professional photos taken of him offstage from that day were spontaneously captured and taken from a distance.

John Rudoff is one of the few who has published color photos from the early Newport Festivals, including several stunning ones of Dylan and Baez together in 1963. I checked in with him and got a negative response on the polka-dot photo. Diane Davies had been shooting at Newport that year — the photo of Cousin Emmy shown earlier in this article was taken by Davies — but a little research indicated that she wasn’t shooting in color.

Bob Gruen? He was at Newport in 1965, had shot Dylan, and, in fact had taken a photo of Dylan onstage that was very similar to one used for the cover of another French EP that I had discovered in my research. Was that the missing link? But Gruen’s reply was negative. He hadn’t taken the polka-dot shot, nor the photo used on the other EP. Neither had Dick Waterman nor Barry Feinstein.

What if I explored how two color photos of Bob Dylan taken at Newport in 1965 had ended up as the covers of EPs released by the French subsidiary of Dylan’s record label in 1966?

Path #2: Although my track record in getting useful information from large corporations isn’t good, I used the few contacts I had at SONY to see if they had any business records from CBS France, or could put me in touch with anyone at SONY France who might be able to lay hands on the old Columbia/CBS France archives and unearth the name of the photographer, or even better, the negative of the polka-dot photo.

Information there was none, but I did get an email address of the archivist at SONY France. Some back and forth correspondence with her and my fears proved to be true. The old Columbia/CBS France archives were long since cleaned out, especially those related to the 1960s, even more so especially when it came to Bob Dylan. No tapes, no photos, no purchase records, no nothing.

Having been down that road before in other research, I wasn’t surprised. I already knew the archives of the U.S. SONY mothership were as bare as the French satellite when it came to Bob Dylan. Over the years their vaults had been ravaged and pillaged, sometimes by disgruntled employees who had decided to take souvenirs as compensation; sometimes by pure thieves who realized they were sitting on top of a poorly guarded gold mind. Until Dylan’s business offices stepped in and literally moved everything of value to their own vaults, rare Dylan material had oozed out of Columbia, and then SONY, like jello through a seine shopping bag.

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I still had Path #3 in play, although it was a long shot. Had the photographer been credited on the EP? All I had to do was see the back cover of the record jacket, but that was frustratingly hard to do. I finally found a low-resolution scan of the back jacket on the invaluable Searching for a Gem, the definitive online Dylan discography of rarities and one-offs.

And look at that. In the lower right is a credit. Now, all I had to do was find “Bernard Gidel.”

“What Was Most Modern in the U.S.”

Some online research about Bernard Gidel revealed that a French journalist, Louis Skorecki, had written on his blog that in the summer of 1965 he and Gidel had traveled to the U.S. under the auspices of Cahiers du cinéma, Lui, and Jazz magazines, all publications owned by a French fashion photographer turned publisher who apparently had an in with Albert Grossman. The pair not only were accredited as journalists for Newport, but later attended one of the Highway 61 recording sessions at Grossman’s invitation.

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Louis Skorecki interviewing Thelonius Monk, New York, 1965. Photo: Bernard Gidel

Gidel went on to become a well-known photographer, focused primarily on shooting jazz musicians. A little more research uncovered Gidel’s agent, who passed on the photographer’s contact info. M. Gidel replied to my email a few days later, in French, I should add. My French is a bit rusty, so if some of the syntax is off, my translation is to blame.

“…Yes. I am the author of the photo that shows the beautiful green shirt with white dots of Bob Dylan. This photo is a slide (Kodachrome color slide) and was used for the cover of a 45 rpm record (EP) in France. It seems to me that at the time the USA did not use photo cover sleeves.

With my friend Louis Skorecki, we had been sent by a large press organization to observe what was most modern in the U.S. in 1965. We were very young and happy to meet so many artists and creative innovators.

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Françoise Hardy and Dylan in Paris, 1966

We contacted Albert Grossman, who trusted us (because we were young and French?) And we obtained accreditation for the Newport Folk Festival. He also allowed us to attend a recording session for the album “Highway 61 Revisited”, in which Bob Dylan questioned us about the state of French music. He seemed particularly interested in Francoise Hardy and Sylvie Vartan, two attractive singers then in vogue in France …

Without being intimates of Bob Dylan, we were accepted by his team and I could photograph without restriction. In Newport, the photo with the green shirt was taken just before we lent him a dime to make a telephone call.

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Sylvie Vartan and Johnny Hallyday. Dylan asked Louis Skorecki during the Highway 61 recording session: « Hey man, comment va Françoise Hardy ? Et Sylvie, elle est toujours avec Johnny ? »

Louis Skorecki’s blog amplifies the interchange a bit more… “I only met him for real, in flesh and blood I mean, three years later, a summer afternoon of 1965 to be precise, near the phone booths in Newport. ‘Hey Man, got a dime?’ He just wanted ten cents to call. I handed him a coin, trying not to shake. Thirty seconds later he gave it back to me, muttering, ‘She’s not here, there’s nobody on the other end of the line.’ Who? I would never know.”

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The cover for this EP was shot by Bernard Gidel, the same photographer who took the green polka-dot shirt photo.

At the evening concert, (Gidel’s email continues) Dylan was wearing a red shirt and a black leather jacket. I also took color photos of that and one of those photos was used for another EP also released in France…”

M. Gidel went on to note that he had turned over all the slides of Dylan to CBS France, being as he writes, “…very young.”

He ever saw any of them again.

Some research is more productive than other. Sometimes I find what I’m looking for fairly easily. Sometimes I hammer my head up against a wall and end up either bloodied or eventually find a way around the wall. Often I end up with more questions than answers. And many of my research projects result in only partial answers — I found the author of the polka-dot photo, but the color slides my party wanted had long ago disappeared.

I hadn’t found the polka-dot photo, true, but in the weeks searching for it I heard stories that had never been publicly told; visited both Netherclyffe, the scene of Dylan’s pre-”going electric” rehearsal in Newport, and the Viking Hotel where most of the musicians had stayed; and wandered back in time to the Newport Folk Festival, July 24 and 25th, 1965, where you might see two unlikely characters fighting in the dust over the future of folk music or have an electric-haired dandy in a green polka-dot shirt hit you up for a dime so he could call a girl who wasn’t answering.

Sometimes getting there is more rewarding than reaching the destination.

Corporate Storyteller. Tech enthusiast. Mini Cooper fanboy. One-time chronicler of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour. Husband of Peggy. Human of Lily Rose.

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