the delicate art of booing

Sunday’s the day. Freshly healed from an injury that kept him out of action for last week’s loss to his former team, Detroit Red Wings forward Daniel Alfredsson is set to return to Ottawa. It’s good news for the Senators, as the Red Wings appear to be the only team our troubled local heroes can reliably beat. And it’s good news for Ottawans, who will finally have a chance to greet the prodigal winger and to celebrate his contributions to your Ottawa Senators.

There will be a tribute to the former captain whose ship has since his abandonment struggled to navigate choppy waters. Expect thunderous applause. And booing.

Not much booing, granted. But the departed Sens hero will be booed. Perhaps only one spectator among nearly 20,000 at the Palladium will express pangs of betrayal. But the sound of one person booing is still the sound of booing. Indeed, should two people exercise their right to denounce the veteran player as a traitor, local media will be well within their rights to declare: “Fans boo Alfie!” Perhaps Monday’s papers could serve up something along the lines of, “Ottawa fans began booing Alfredsson the moment he hit the ice, and continued to jeer each time he left the bench.” When it comes to booing, numbers seldom matter. The mere act of booing is sufficient. And at any sporting event in any city, a boo or two is a certainty.

So, Alfie, prepare to be booed. You deserted the team and city to which you had given nearly 20 years of your life. And all because the Sens wouldn’t pay you enough money. Or return your or your agent’s calls. Or treat you with much respect or gratitude. Oh, you’ll be booed all right; though, you may not hear it.

Which brings me (as do so many things) to Bob Dylan, a man whose reputation as a voice without restraint rests to some degree on a single incident from the summer of ’65. Dylan’s audacious act of bringing a full band onstage with him at that year’s Newport Folk Festival is perhaps the defining moment of a lengthy career. Indeed, it may well be the most notorious performance in the history of rock and roll — a genre not short of notorious events and characters. For on that day Dylan, the crowned king of folk music, confronted the converted with a wall of noise that supposedly caused the old guard to react with everything from fainting to heckling to ax-wielding. The crowd booed mercilessly throughout Dylan and his hastily assembled co-conspirators’ headlining set. Accepting full responsibility for his “very crazy” actions, a wasted Dylan would later slur with a shrug, “You’re nobody if you don’t get booed sometime.”

Even if it’s by only a handful of people.

In his excellent — despite an awkward forward that fantasizes about a literal dissection of Dylan’s brain — exploration of the mind of Bob, Who is That Man?, writer David Dalton states outright: “The booing of Bob at Newport… is a myth.” Dalton, it should be noted, was there on the day. He admits to having heard muttering by a few purists, but little in the way of booing. After all, as he reminds us, Like a Rolling Stone, a very electric song indeed, was already scaling the pop charts at the time. And the proto-punk/rap assault that is Subterranean Homesick Blues had been on American teens’ turntables for months. As Dalton reasonably concludes, thousands were at Newport that day hoping to see and hear an electric Bob. With full band.

The aural evidence reveals no discernible booing until the moment Dylan and his Butterfield Blues Band alumni prepare to leave the stage. After three songs. And 15 minutes. Paying customers can be forgiven for having expected the evening’s headliner to play a somewhat longer set. “They were feeling ripped off,” keyboardist Al Kooper has suggested. “Wouldn’t you?”

And yet, “They certainly booed,” Dylan would defensively insist at a press conference six months into his Newport notoriety. “I’ll tell you that. You could hear it all over the place.”

As with so much of Dylan lore, it all adds to the legend. Shortly thereafter, the booing would bizarrely become an essential act on the part of a Dylan audience, like throwing undergarments at Tom Jones or jellybeans at The Beatles.  By the following summer, folkies would seemingly come to Dylan’s shows precisely for the purpose of decrying this Judas’s wanton electrification. Dylan, meanwhile, reveled in his hard-won martyrdom, his recognized position as society’s cast-outest outcast. Here was a defiant figure determinedly moving forward and leaving obsolete trad. arr. devotees in his wake. Boo to you too, luddites!

Again, it all adds to the legend. As did the booing reportedly heard at Bob’s 1980s ‘Born Again’ concerts. Contemporary accounts had fans mercilessly casting verbal stones at their fallen idol, a response to the artist’s refusal to include in his setlist even one familiar favourite of yore. (Maybe one of those electrified hits.) Instead, the artist formerly known as Jewish had forsaken all other compositions in favour of newly-penned paeans to the Lord Jesus. No hits, thank you. Boo to that. Funny, really, ’cause not many years later Dylan was being excoriated by the faithful for not performing new material. Funny, also, because I am in a position to now bear true witness to the atmosphere at one of those very concerts, held at the Thêatre St-Denis in Montreal and at the height of Born Again Bobdom. I was there. And I heard not so much as a tsk tsk from the assembled multitude.
I dare say, like me, most in attendance that evening fondly remember it as about the last time Bob put a bit of effort into a live performance.
Yet, I can’t rule out the possibility that someone in the audience booed — though it may have simply been the sound of a patron speaking in tongues. And for the record, I was also present at another infamous night of bona fide Bob-related booing. I refer to the 1992 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration held at Madison Square Garden in New York City. (You might recall my mention of it in my homage to Lou Reed.) It is remembered today as the Night of the Booing of Sinéad. Ms. O’Connor, you’ll recall (or not), had days earlier brazenly torn up a photo of the Pope as her encore following a performance on Saturday Night Live. (This, remember, was well before the Good Pope Francis made Poping cool.) This did not sit well with a populace still coming to terms with Bob Dylan’s having picked up an electric guitar only 27 years earlier. So when the big night came at MSG, invited guest O’Connor, who had kept a low profile amid the controversy, was the talk of the town. Would they boo? Would the no-longer-Christian Bob Dylan, a supposed champion of free speech and raging against the machine and stuff, offer a word or two in her defence? Would Columbia Records insert Sophie B. Hawkins into a stellar lineup that included Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, Neil Young and Eric Clapton?

There was booing. But with an explanation.

See, Sinéad comes on the stage and some 18,000 people, primed for a hostile reaction, begin murmuring to each other about what is or is not about to happen. It’s a rather distracting din that has O’Connor momentarily confused. She can, though, make out a boo or two amid the cheers and chatter. As the band prepares to play I Believe in You, striking the opening chord, they await a vocal. It does not come, O’Connor instead standing centre stage, trying to assess the myriad emotions wafting her way from an increasingly confused audience. This serves to increase the volume of the chatter. The band again tries to take her to the bridge. She again declines, continuing to instead suss out the situation. At which point, you guessed it, the boos begin in earnest. And grow louder. True, some have simply been trying to encourage Lou Reed to return to the stage. But many are booing. Many more, it should be said, are shouting at the party poopers to shut up. Sinéad, the person best positioned to shut them up — by beginning the damn song — has by now opted to instead position herself as Dylan at Newport. The Dylan of myth.

Finally, having gone in a few days from tearing up to tearing up, a shaken Sinéad leaves the stage, in the arms of Kris Kistofferson, a man skilled at recognizing when a woman is at her most vulnerable, and acting upon it.

And so we have the legend of Sinéad being booed from the stage of Madison Square Garden. Right up there with those Born Again shows. And Newport.

And, come Sunday, the booing of Alfie. All it takes is a little imagination.

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