Isle of Wight '69 Revisited

Isle of Wight '69 Revisited
Reviewer: Drew A
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Stealing Dylan from Woodstock:
When the World Came to the Isle of Wight
312 pages
June 04, 2015
ISBN 10:
ISBN 13:

Tells,of Bob Dylan's one and only full concert appearance in seven-and-a-half years by all those involved with it and many of those who attended.

When it comes to 1960s music festivals, there are three that are iconic and forever ingrained in the collective memory: Monterey Pop in June 1967, which was the coming-out party for the 60s counterculture during the Summer of Love; Woodstock in August 1969, "three days of peace, love, and music" that featured some of the biggest names in rock music and the largest gathering of hippies, music fans, and countercultural figures on American soil (at the time); and Altamont in December 1969, a poorly organized, chaotic, and violent festival headlined by the Rolling Stones which culminated in the stabbing death of a drug-crazed fan, all captured on film and signifying for many the death of the 1960s dream. There were, of course, many other rock festivals toward the latter part of the 1960s and beyond, but two of the most significant of them all have flown under the radar for the past forty-five years: the 2nd and 3rd Isle of Wight Festivals in August 1969 and 1970, respectively. There has been a lot of mythology and misinformation surrounding the festivals over the intervening years...luckily, for the first time one of the men who was at the forefront of organizing these legendary gatherings is finally telling the real story behind them. When the World Came to the Isle of Wight is a two-volume set, and Volume 1: Stealing Bob Dylan From Woodstock will be out in June 2015 and is the subject of this review.

The Isle of Wight is a diamond-shaped island immediately off the south coast of England in the English Channel, a short ferry ride across the Solent from Portsmouth. As a county within England, it's home to ~130,000 people and has historically been a vacation and retirement destination for the affluent and well-connected. However, thanks to the big dreams and hard work of a family transplanted from Derbyshire, for a brief moment in the late 1960s the island became a mecca for rock music fans from around the world. Hailing from a multi-generational family of coal miners in the Midlands, the Foulk family made their way to the Isle of Wight and settled there. While the four brothers and their sister were of the right age to be part of the 1960s generation, as author Ray Foulk puts it, on the island they were fairly insulated from the wider youth counterculture and would do some major catching up, especially as they eventually planned their festivals. The three brothers central to the story, Ray, Ronnie, and Bill were all young middle-class businessmen in when the idea of promoting a music festival on the island was first thought up in the late 1960s. Using their business sense, some fortuitous connections, and their own hard work and industriousness they staged the first Isle of Wight Festival in August 1968 with Jefferson Airplane headlining. It was a one-day affair and drew a respectable ~25,000 concertgoers while going off fairly smoothly. The brothers (as well as their other brother, sister, and mother...truly a family affair!) were successful in raising local funding and advertising, befriending a local farmer who offered use of his land and saving money by using Ray's connections and career as a printer to make their own tickets and posters. While they lost money on the endeavor, they gained valuable insight into what to do (and what not to do), and the idea was planted to stage another festival the following year. However, this second one needed to be bigger and better in order to draw a larger crowd and gain more exposure. They intended to achieve this by making the whole experience grander: spreading the festival over the three-day August Bank Holiday weekend and booking bigger groups as a draw to get fans to come across the water to the island. The first major headliner they booked was The Who; other big acts like the Moody Blues, Free, and Joe Cocker were added to the bill, as were many smaller bands who filled out the bill across the weekend. However, with the Who headlining the Saturday an even bigger name was needed to headline Sunday night and close the festival. While the Beatles or Rolling Stones would have been obvious choices, the Foulks didn't think they had a shot at either one of them and neither would have made sense in any event: the Beatles hadn't performed live since 1966 (apart from the rooftop concert in January of '69) and the Stones were just getting back onto the road in the wake of Brian Jones' death in July 1969 (their legendary American tour of 1969 would start two months later in October of '69). On a lark, one of the Foulk brothers (who were operating their promotion company under the name of Fiery Creations) suggested Bob Dylan. This was an interesting and ambitious idea for a number of reasons, not least of which was the fact that Dylan had been a recluse since his motorcycle accident in July 1966 and had only made a couple of cameo live appearances at benefit concerts since. Figuring that they had nothing to lose, the Foulks made tentative overtures to Dylan's camp. When they weren't rejected outright, they kept the dialogue open and eventually warmed Dylan to the idea of playing there. Much of it had to do with the Isle being the former home of Tennyson, whom Dylan greatly admired and whose Farringford House remained a shrine to the poet's devotees. The negotiations went back and forth for several weeks and involved a lot of work on the part of Fiery Creations until Dylan finally accepted. Then came to daunting task of raising the required funding, as requested by Dylan's managers Bert Block and Albert Grossman, in time for the festival. Though it wasn't all smooth sailing, a combination of incredibly hard work and several lucky breaks led to the money being raised.  A suitably larger festival site was secured and set up, a house and support staff were rented for Bob and his wife Sara, and the festival was able to stay on schedule and open on time.

Some 150,000 people swarmed the Isle of Wight from the UK, America, Australia, and Europe for the three day festival that followed hot on the heels of the more famous Woodstock Festival of two weeks prior. In fact, the histories of these two festivals are more entwined than is known...certainly more than I knew, at least. Even though the Woodstock festival took place some seventy miles away in Bethel, New York, promoter Michael Lang made a deliberate effort to name the event Woodstock for two reasons: he wanted to use the town's name and notoriety as Dylan's hideaway to attract attention to his festival, and he hoped to entice Dylan out of seclusion to return to the stage at the event. However, it served to have the opposite effect, irritating Dylan to the point that there was no way he would consider appearing. Much of this was down to the fans who made the pilgrimage to Woodstock and harassed Dylan and his family at their home by stalking them and hiding out on their property. Thus, the escape to England to play the Isle of Wight held additional appeal to Bob and Sara. On the whole, the festival went off without a hitch and the atmosphere was enhanced by several giants of the rock scene who were in attendance, from Keith Richards and Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones to Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton of Cream, and most notably three of the Beatles: John, George, and Ringo (Linda McCartney had given birth to Paul's daughter Mary days before and so they didn't attend). All three Beatles and their wives were Dylan's constant companions during the weekend with George acting as unofficial host. George and Dylan had gotten to know each other the previous November in the aftermath of the White Album sessions and would continue their friendship until George's death in 2001. Ringo was a friend as well, whereas Bob's relationship with Lennon was always a bit more complex. Both admired each others talents and had known each other for years, but John was alternately in awe of and paranoid of Bob. However, even though the Beatles didn't perform at the festival, their presence at the event loomed large and gave a stamp of credibility to the entire affair.

From the opening ceremony on Friday night to the final note of Dylan's set late Sunday evening, the entire festival went off, for the most part, without issue. There were issues with inadequate restroom facilities, food vendors prices gouging festival goers, and the noise levels bothering a farmer and his wife whose house immediately butted against the backstage area, but overall it ran smoothly. There were only two big crises, both of which happened behind the scenes: the Who's helicopter made a harrowing landing in the backstage area when the updraft from the rotors blew the plywood boards that acted as a platform all about (luckily no one was hurt although one struck the tail rotor and almost incapacitated the chopper), and the biggest crisis of the night: the two-hour delay preceding the Band's set. One of Dylan's stipulations when he agreed to appear at the festival was that his backing group, The Band, would have a set of their own immediately preceding his own. His record company also insisted on recording Dylan and the Band's show for a possible live album. The two-hour delay was due to technical issues in setting up the additional recording equipment, but it agitated Dylan enough that the Foulks were nervous it might all fall apart at the last moment. However, as soon as the Band finally began their set, Dylan calmed down and he went on to deliver one of the most unique sets of his career. Now singing in the affected country croon he'd adopted on his most recent album, 1969's Nashville Skyline, as opposed to his famous nasal whine, he eschewed almost all of his most popular songs and instead focused on the pastoral songs culled from Skyline and his 1967 album John Wesley Harding. By this point in his life, Dylan was married with five children and enjoyed the quiet domesticity of his home life; this is reflected in his albums during his reclusive period as well as in his set list at the Isle of Wight. Playing for around an hour, his set was rapturously received by those in the crowd although the press reaction was mixed, with history generally agreeing with those who savaged his performance. Indeed, Dylan was so dispirited by the reviews of his performance when he got back home to New York a few days later that he didn't play another concert, save for an appearance at George Harrison's 1971 Concert for Bangladesh, until 1974.

In the meantime, the Foulks were left in the afterglow of the successful festival while facing the daunting tasks of cleaning up the festival site and starting their planning to do it all again next year. While they didn't make much money from the festival, they made enough to pay off the bills they accrued in its planning and execution and learned a lot about what they could do better in 1970. The great thing about this book is how Ray Foulk, who was at the center of the whole enterprise, describes all of the behind the scenes planning, negotiating, and maneuvering that was required to pull the whole thing off. As he makes plainly clear, he and his brothers were not hippies or tuned-in rock impresarios; they were simply young businessmen who happened to also be music fans who thought it would be cool to stage a festival on their little island. The Foulks wore suits and ties to work each day, didn't do drugs, and tried to run their business and turn a profit, the last of which damaged their credibility in the eyes of more left-leaning music fans and critics. Indeed, Ray mentions how they were criticized for not putting on a "free festival" (a criticism that would be even louder the following year) while making a great point that not only did somebody need to pay for the concessions, restrooms, and festival site infrastructure, but the artists themselves weren't playing for free! Indeed, as the highest-paid performer on the bill, Dylan took a lot of flak in the press for how much he was paid (his total, including travel and lodging expenses, amounted to some £80,000), with one tabloid referencing his "million-dollar" payday. Foulk is also refreshingly candid about many of the people he worked with in those days. Two of them in particular come instantly to mind: compere Rikki Farr, whose fast-talking and hip manner (not to mention his being the son of famous boxer Tommy Farr) was both an asset and a liability, and Judy Lewis, hired as housekeeper and cook for the Dylans at their rented house. While Lewis was good at her job, she also tried to get a bit too close to her famous guests and began inserting herself into situations that she was not intended to be involved in when she was hired...this eventually led to her dismissal. Foulk is by no means vicious in his fact, he's exceedingly fair and in some spots, probably too kind given some of the situations that resulted from these actions (I'm thinking in particular of the poor press coverage they got after Farr insulted several reporters from the stage prior to Dylan's set). The goal with these two books is to set the record straight and tell the real story of how three brothers, with help from their family and friends, were able to stage two of the biggest music festivals in history. Stealing Dylan from Woodstock was a stunning achievement but it also meant that they had to do something even bigger and better the following year. As for how they topped that, the final chapter is a lead-in to the forthcoming second volume discussing the biggest live act of 1969-70 (and noted Dylan devotee) Jimi Hendrix. Indeed, the 1970 festival would be Hendrix' final UK appearance as he would tragically die in London a few weeks later.

While the book may seem like it's too specific and too England-centric for a non-Brit (such as myself) to enjoy, I don't feel this is the case. True, I'm a student and fan of the era and its music and also a lifelong Anglophile, but I feel that anyone who is a fan of those times will enjoy the book. In particular, Dylan fans should read this because of the interesting way Ray Foulk places the event in the context of Dylan's career. The Isle of Wight Festival in 1969 was his only headlining concert appearance in the span between July 1966 and 1974 and found Dylan at a point in his life where he was eschewing social commentary in his songs, shunning fame, and embracing being a husband and father. As such, his set at the festival remains unique in his history and the book manages to capture the spirit of the times and of Dylan's life and career at that very moment. Beyond merely being a book about a festival, Foulk does a masterful job in telling the true story of what it took to get Dylan on the bill and what it all meant for all involved. The text is accompanied by photographs of the various artists on stage and in attendance as well as many fascinating behind the scenes pictures. There are candid shots of Dylan, the Beatles, and other various famous faces in attendance. Scans of the original tickets, posters, and promotional materials prepared for Dylan in order to entice him to accept their invitation are included and do a nice job showing the amount of care and detail that went into the promotion of the festival...truly artifacts from a time long gone. The biggest (and really, only) complaint I have with the book are the numerous typos sprinkled throughout the text, as well as a couple of miscaptioned photos. These are minor, however, and don't detract from the impact or enjoyment of the book. It's clear that the authors did a lot of research to fill in the gaps of Ray Foulk's own story as evidenced by the numerous footnotes throughout the book as well as lengthy list of cited source material at the end of the book.

Beyond placing the event in the proper context of its time in the history of popular music and Bob Dylan's career and telling the true story of the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival, the biggest impact Stealing Dylan From Woodstock had on me was that it did the impossible: it made me finally become a Dylan fan. I've long respected and acknowledged his influence but I've always maintained the position that the best versions of his songs were covers by other artists. I had heard many of his songs and even enjoyed several of them but I just couldn't get into his music, or rather I should say that I never put in any real effort to do so. However, over the course of reading this book I decided to make a concerted effort to listen to his music and to my shock and surprise, I found that I really loved it! So even if the book was no good, I would forever be indebted to Stealing Dylan for at least opening me up to a whole new world of music from one of the great artists of our times. Thankfully, as I've written above that isn't the case: this is a great book and I commend and thank Ray Foulk for telling his story and doing it as well as he did. The only difficult thing now is waiting for Volume 2 to be published...

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