Stealing Dylan From Woodstock

Stealing-Dylan-From-WoodstockStealing Dylan From Woodstock is an account of the groundbreaking 1969 Isle of Wight festival by one of its organisers, Ray Foulk – though, frustratingly, it never is clear exactly who is writing it: the title page says “written and compiled with Caroline Foulk” (Ray’s daughter), and there are lengthy sections assessing Dylan’s output and various performances at the festival, even though Ray, by his own admission, was remarkably ignorant of the music scene at that time.  There is a generous list of ackowledgements at the start of the book which suggest a few other hands may have been involved.  In any case, the performances were well documented in Brian Hinton’s Message To Love, and the appeal of Ray’s book is surely in his inside info on Dylan: how he was cajoled to play at Woodside Bay and what happened behind the scenes.

On this subject the book does not disappoint.  There are countless new insights into Dylan – one that sticks in my mind is Dylan furiously tearing off stickers saying “Help Bob Dylan Sink the Isle of Wight” while on a visit to Osborne House.  The great man was similarly peeved by the lack of a toilet in his backstage caravan.  By and large, however, Dylan comes across as a polite and unassuming man, quite overwhelmed by the prospect of coming out of near-retirement to play to 150,000 people.

The account of the negotiations with Dylan is commendably thorough: one thing that can never be taken away from Ray Foulk and his brothers is the sheer chutzpah they displayed in aiming, and then succeeding, in booking the greatest alternative music star in the world at that time – though they were certainly aided by the naivete of youth.  It didn’t bode well for 1969 that they had advertised alcohol at the 1968 IOW Festival without bothering to apply for a drinks licence.

The Foulks were also the beneficiaries of great good fortune: finding Dylan his promised villa at the very last minute: narrowly avoiding the explosion of a burger van; equally narrowly avoiding the disastrous crash of the Who’s helicopter.  If there is a God, he was certainly in favour of the brave new world of pop festivals.

At times Ray is perhaps too honest.  Having established his anti-establishment credentials as a teenage CND organiser and Labour Party member, Ray then openly confesses the “megalomaniac ambitions for business success” shared with older brother Ronnie, and how the pair deliberately fostered the idea that the Beatles and others might be jamming onstage with Dylan.  In assessing the reaction to Dylan’s performance this false promise is conveniently forgotten.

There are one or two other revealing moments.  Ray describes the filming of performances by members of the audience as ‘piracy’ (good luck with that idea in the age of mobile phones) and complains after the event that the giant dormitory marquee “seemed to be costing far more than had originally agreed, not least because it had been damaged after being used as a grandstand by scores of Bob-spotters”.  I happened to be watching when half of the roof of Captain Lewis’s ‘biggest tent in Europe’ collapsed under the weight of people sitting on it.  So the extra cost was hardly surprising!

This brings me to a personal gripe.  While Ray can reproduce, apparently verbatim, conversations with his brothers or Dylan’s entourage, I know from previous correspondence with Caroline that he has no memory whatsoever of the man who supplied all the power and light to the 1969 festival, other than that used for the stage.  There were extra costs for Ken Blake too, following Dylan’s performance:  fluorescents off the fence panels that were pulled down and burnt; lights from the toilet tents which were impossible to enter after the toilets had been kicked over.  What Ray did not experience was the festival as seen by the punters or the workers.

I also have a gripe about the title of the book. The Foulks did not “steal Dylan from Woodstock”, since Dylan never had any intention of playing the Woodstock festival, having decisively rejected the idea of being a political figurehead.  Ray Foulk takes great issue with Rolling Stone for comparing IOW 1969 unfavourably with the great festival which preceded it and castigating Dylan over his preference. But Rolling Stone‘s viewpoint cannot just be put down to nationalistic prejudice.  Woodstock was an epochal event because half its audience were under imminent threat of being sent to Vietnam. Performances like that of Country Joe were brave clarion calls of resistance.  Having made his name as a voice of protest, the voice of protest, Dylan could not hack it now that the protest had become a mass movement.  He chose to go to an island instead.

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