Dylan's festival-finishing, problem-plagued and cornpone-chucking Isle of Wight performance took place precisely 40 years ago tonight. In that momentous summer of 1969, August 31st fell on a Sunday, as you'd expect since Dylan's appearance climaxed a weekend of major acts that attracted 200,000 onlookers, including some musically-prominent names such as three of the Fab Four.
I based this supposition on the fact that Woodstock's final day was but 14 days before the Isle of Wight. I mean, does even the protean Dylan change so much in a single fortnight? (The actual answer to that question is: Yes, of course he does. But that's a separate discussion.)
Or is it? For my picking the Isle of Wight a couple weeks after Woodstock could be an almost arbitrary choice. For I could just as easily supposed that Dylan's would-be Woodstock set would have resembled a reportedly spirited one delivered just before the fabled festival, one which, as it happened, was part of another festival, this one stateside. I'm talking about that rarest of all Dylan surprise appearances, his sit-in during the encore of The Band's appearance at the summer-long Mississippi River Festival on July 14th.
It was on a Monday night just two days before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would blast off for the moon that Dylan popped up onstage in suburban St. Louis. Now, the audience never did hear his name—Band leader Robbie Robertson introduced Dylan as "Elmer Johnson", a local they'd met that afternoon. But much of the crowd—and all of posterity—was not fooled.
This all went down in that very corner of the planet where I grew up. I was 30 miles to the southwest that night, a 14-year-old cluelessly whiling away another St. Louis summer Monday night in anticipation of the Apollo program's greatest feat. Dylan and the Band weren't in Missouri, however, for the Festival tent shrouding the stage of the outdoor venue was pitched over on the Illinois side of the river in Edwardsville, on the southern edge of the campus of Southern Illinois University about 14 miles northeast of The Gateway Arch.
Only his third public stage appearance anywhere since his 1966 accident and just eleven weeks after his Johnny Cash Show TV appearance, Dylan performed four cover tunes that night. Included were Leadbelly's "In the Pines" and Little Richard's "Slippin' and Slidin'", and also "I Ain't Got No Home", which Dylan had performed twice in New York at the Woody Guthrie tribute 18 months prior.
I know a fellow—and fellow Dylanologist—who actually witnessed the Edwardsville spectacle, being such a Dylan fan that he'd attend the concert of any Dylan-associated group, even without expectation of a surprise Dylan appearance. My magazine Zimmerman Blues proudly placed on its back cover a dramatic shot of Dylan fronting The Band and adjusting his microphones that evening 48 nights before the Isle of Wight. He appeared somewhat fairer than usual while attired in a work-shirt, but was typically bearded and shaded, behind wire-rim sunglasses.
As for what kind of sound Dylan had for that 12 or 15 minutes, my acquaintance reports Dylan's lead singing was terrific—but he would think that. In fact, this guy is one of those few people who think Dylan actually soared at the Isle of Wight.
There remains faint hope we'll sometime be able to hear for ourselves what the elusive 1969 St. Louis appearance sounded like. That's due to the fact that the sound engineer on duty that night, whom Zimmerman Blues interviewed eight years after the concert, insists that right after his final song, Dylan swung by to request—and claim—the master tape the crew had been rolling on the encore.
I don't normally tell Dylan no, but I know I would have responded, "Uh...I'll make you a copy, Bob".