Washington doesn't usually get mentioned in the pantheon of great American music cities but we've had our moments. One of them was Sunday, November 28, 1965 when Bob Dylan played the Washington Coliseum. Curiously, details about the concert itself are scarce — the Washington Post didn't bother to write a review (kind of surprising since Dylan was very well known by 1965), and Dylan's own website doesn't have a setlist from the show. But the singer's visit to Washington was significant for one now-famous image the concert produced.
Life magazine photographer Rowland Scherman lived just down the street from the Coliseum and decided to attend the show with his wife, Joan. He wasn't on assigment for the magazine but brought along a camera and used his press credentials to gain back stage access. Security guards tried to keep him away, but he brushed passed them shouting, "I'm from Life," and got very close to Dylan.
As Scherman told Tracy Johnson in her book, Encounters With Bob Dylan the scene through his lens was a photographer's dream.
Dylan was in that dirty blue spot, doing some song I can no longer remember. I put the 300 mill on him, and I could see the whole thing. His hair, his halo, his harp — the three H’s. So, I went bang, bang, bang, bang — six or seven frames. No motor or anything. Then, I said, “Thank you very much, I’ll be leaving now.” I didn’t hang around. I just kept thinking, “It doesn’t get any better than this,” and went back to watch the rest of the concert.
Scherman had the pictures developed and showed them to John Berg, the art director at Columbia Records, who was dating Scherman's sister at the time. Berg offered $300 for the "three H's" image of Dylan and Scherman accepted. Berg and his colleague Bob Cato subsequently used the image for the cover of Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits album, which won a Grammy award for best album cover in 1968. (Interestingly, Dylan had been opposed to using the photograph as the cover image.)
In one of the unfortunate ironies of the story, Scherman's name was misspelled on the award and the album cover itself.
The Grammy shows up, and my name’s misspelled, just like it is on the album. Not only that, but the gramophone part was broken. I packed it back up and said, “Thanks a lot, but spell my name right and send me another Grammy.” Never heard from them again. What knocks me out now is that he’s turned out to be one of the icons of the ’60s. That makes me proud, along with the fact that it’s in the Library of Congress. I later asked a lawyer to check into unlawful enrichment. I mean, they sold 40 million albums, and I got 300 bucks. I think maybe they should give me a gold star or $20,000. (Tracy Johnson, Encounters with Bob Dylan.)
Getting $300 for a photo on an album that sold 40 million copies? That would be tough to swallow!
Another notable fact about the D.C. show is that it was part of Dylan's first U.S. tour where he "plugged in" and went electric. Generally, these sets were half acoustic (just Dylan and guitar/harmonica); half electric (Dylan backed by "The Hawks" — later to become "The Band", with electric guitars, bass, drums, etc.). Most of the traditionalist folky crowds were openly hostile to the electric set, even booing and jeering, which took a toll of some of Dylan's bandmates. Levon Helm (drummer of The Hawks/Band) left the tour after the 1965 Washington show supposedly because he couldn't handle the negativity of the crowds. He worked on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico before returning to The Band two years later.
Edgers, Geoff, "His Back Pages," Boston Globe, 3 February 2008.
Johnson, Tracy, Encounters with Bob Dylan (Humble Press, 2000)
Free Wheelin' Bob Dylan Archive website