Isle of Wight Makes Right: Festival Memoir Holds Riches for Dylan Obsessives

Isle of Wight Makes Right: Festival Memoir Holds Riches for Dylan Obsessives
Reviewer: Jon Pennington
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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.

In the United States, the history of the 1969 Woodstock festival has been heavily documented by memoirs written by Woodstock insiders, such as Joel Rosenman and John Roberts' Young Men With Unlimited Capital, Michael Lang's The Road to Woodstock, and Elliot Tiber's Taking Woodstock. In the United Kingdom, the Isle of Wight festivals of 1968, 1969, and 1970 are just as important from a music history standpoint and arguably have better line-ups than Woodstock (consecutive sets by The Pretty Things, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, and headline act Jefferson Airplane in 1968; Bob Dylan and the Who in 1969; swan song performances by Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison in 1970), but there haven't been any first-person insider accounts of how the festivals actually came to be. At least, not until now.

Fortunately, Ray Foulk's Stealing Dylan From Woodstock, the first installment of a two-volume autobiography called When The World Came to the Isle of Wight, finally fills in an important gap in the rock & roll historical record by providing us with the first memoir written by Ray Foulk, one of the Foulk Brothers who organized the Isle of Wight music festivals from 1968 to 1970. Ray Foulk was the son of a mining engineer, who got knocked down a few notches in the British class system after his father died, but  gradually clawed his way up to professional respectability and eventually a career as a rock festival promoter. He was involved in the left wing of the UK Labour Party and an activist in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, but didn't know much about rock & roll or folk music until a fellow activist introduced him to Bob Dylan's antinuclear lament, "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall." 

Ray Foulk has been a Bob Dylan fan ever since, and Stealing Dylan from Woodstock could practically earn him a doctorate in Dylanology. Aside from providing US readers with a rare glimpse at Dylan through an Anglocentric lens, the book also provides an illuminating window into a relatively undocumented period in Bob Dylan's life, the "middle period" between Bob Dylan's 1966 motorcycle accident in which he sustained a broken neck and his 1975 comeback with Blood on the Tracks and the Rolling Thunder Revue tour. There are even Bob Dylan truthers who claim that Dylan's 1966 accident was faked as a publicity stunt, but Foulk convincingly puts those matters to rest. (Foulk not only publishes in full Dylan's 1969 Isle of Wight press conference that references the motorcycle accident, but Foulk also testifies that Dylan was still dealing with pain in his neck in 1969.) Foulk was also trained as a printer's apprentice, which means that all the reproductions of concert posters and rare Bob Dylan photos in the book (some tinted, some on glossy paper in full color) are never less than exquisitely pleasing to the eye, even if I occassionally spotted a rare typo, such as a reference to the "Wookstock" festival. Dylan obsessives will be especially thankful for the many photos of Bob Dylan with his first wife Sara Lownds, but unfortunately Foulk doesn't seem to remember her saying or doing much beyond being a supportive spouse to His Bobness.

Unfortunately, the temptation to pigeonhole this book as either about rock festivals or about Bob Dylan would do it a great injustice. Some of the more interesting portions of the book are about the unexpected encounters that took place at the 1968 and 1969 Isle of Wight festivals, such as Foulk's account of a mixed doubles tennis match between John Lennon and Bob Dylan on one side and George Harrison and Ringo Starr on the other. Foulk writes with an incredible generosity of spirit and appears to have no axes to grind, although he doesn't talk about the other Foulk brothers much at all. At most, he is mildly peeved with his co-organizer Rikki Farr for overhyping some claims he couldn't back up, but still admires Farr for his hustle and business acumen. He's even buried the hatchet with Mick Farren for leading the White Panthers UK anarchist clique that made a debacle of the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, but sadly we won't to get hear about until Ray Foulk comes out with Volume 2.