This Saturday, Nov. 21, marks the 51st anniversary of the ill-fated Bob Dylan performance at the Oriental Theater on Milwaukee’s East Side. The concert (using the term loosely) has become legendary in the city’s history – paraphrasing Dylan himself – not for what it was, but for what it wasn’t.
By way of background, Dylan’s appearance was arranged by a promoter named Nick Topping, himself no small legend in the annals of Milwaukee musicdom. Born Nick Topetzes, he was the son of Greek immigrants who ran a grocery store near 4th & National. Topping and his extended family members became mainstays of the Greek community here, and Nick was a well-known crusader for social justice, having participated with Father James Groppi in the raucous open-housing marches of the early 1960s.
After returning from service in World War II, Topping operated a small produce import shop that was stocked with music and Middle Eastern food from all over the world. He also changed his name, having tired of prejudice shown him for his Greek heritage.
Starting in the late 1950s, Topping also became an impresario of sorts, bringing small-venue concerts by folk musicians – such as Josh White, Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul & Mary – to Milwaukee. He also became the local contact for the Chicago-based promotion company, Triangle Productions.
Early in 1964, Topping got a call from a Triangle contact in New York who asked him if he wanted to book a new British band called The Beatles. This was really outside of Topping’s usual profile, but since he was really the only concert promoter in town at the time, he accepted, leading to the band’s one and only appearance in Milwaukee in September of that year.
Given Topping’s love of folk music, it should be no surprise that a young folk singer from Minnesota named Bob Dylan came up on his radar screen about the same time. He learned of Dylan’s upcoming fall tour and booked him for the Oriental on Saturday, Nov. 21.
Tickets for seats on the main floor sold for as little as $2.75, about $20 in today’s money, and as much as $4.40 on the main floor. Balcony spots could be had for $1.75.
Though Dylan had just released his fourth album, he had only recently started writing his own music and had basically a niche following in the U.S. The older, "beat" era folk music lovers viewed him with some suspicion, and the counterculture that later embraced him was yet to emerge. And, of course, since he had not yet "gone electric," his concerts consisted of just himself and his guitar. But, as Topping said later, "I thought maybe he had something to offer."
Few people showed up at the Oriental that Saturday night. The crowd is said to have consisted of around 75 people – versus 13,000 for the Beatles – and reportedly included some of Dylan’s relatives who had come down from Minnesota to hear him.
One person, however, is probably more famous for skipping the concert than for attending: Milwaukee DJ Bob Reitman, who went on to become our city’s leading Dylanologist and now has an encyclopedic knowledge of his music and writing.
"I’d barely heard of Dylan in 1964," Reitman recalls. "Very few people had. I drove past the Oriental and saw the concert promoted on the marquee and thought, ‘Nah, I have to work the next day and don’t want to be out late.'" By his own admission, it’s one of the biggest regrets of his life. And it’s a good bet that by now he has a lot of company.
But as it turns out, there really wasn’t much to regret. Topping had arranged for Milwaukee Sound System to bring in the necessary mike and amplifiers. As the story goes, seeing the small crowd, Dylan invited people to come up and sit on the stage near him (eat your heart out, Reitman) and someone knocked over the amp, disabling it.
Topping quickly had a replacement installed, but it was of very poor quality. Dylan, visibly irked, walked off the stage during the fourth song, not to return to Milwaukee until he performed at the Arena in 1981.
There’s no record of what Dylan sang that night, but from his set list from other cities on that tour, he probably was in the middle of "Gates of Eden" when he called it quits. That song was not put onto a recording until the next year so likely it had only recently been written, giving ticketholders a precious preview.
According to Reitman, for years the official Bob Dylan website did not include the Oriental event as part of the historical list of his concerts, but it was finally added in a few years ago.
Likewise, the concert was not mentioned in Topping’s Journal-Sentinel 2007 obituary, which heavily emphasized the Beatles concert, even though that event was really very much an outlier in his life as a promoter. And while The Beatles disbanded in 1970, Dylan has returned here again and again, most recently this spring – probably not the last we’ll see of him.
No hard feelings, Bob.