How I stole Bob Dylan from Woodstock

Bob Dylan and Ray Foulk 1969
Bob Dylan and Ray Foulk 1969
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It’s 1969. You are 23, and you have never had a passport in your life, let alone flown more than 3,000 miles to New York.

And at the other end of the flight, Bob Dylan’s management are waiting for you and your brothers to convince them why he should play a set on the Isle of Wight, at a festival that started the year before as a fundraiser for a swimming pool.

You would be forgiven for thinking this was the plot of a Hollywood film, but it actually happened to Ray Foulk.

After leaving school at 16, Ray, along with his brothers Ronnie and Bill, founded the Isle of Wight Festival in 1968.

Ray, who has now compiled a book of his memories of the 1969 event, says the trip to New York to sign Dylan up was ‘completely extraordinary’.

‘We went by jumbo jet, which was mindblowing. We left at nine in the morning and arrived at 12 noon because of the time difference, and shortly after we met Dylan’s management and had lunch in a Chinese restaurant in Manhattan.

Ray Foulk now

Ray Foulk now

‘I had to take it in my stride, but I was completely awestruck by every detail as the day unfolded.’

Ray was worried about seeming too young.

‘In some previous literature we sent over we exaggerated our ages. I said I was 27. We were also very worried about it seeming like a family affair – we didn’t mention my younger brother and my sister who were also involved.

‘We talked about it being like putting a man on the moon, and funnily enough in the middle of it all was the moon landing. It was incredibly apt.’

He was fairly low key, dressed in jeans. You wouldn’t recognise him on the street. It didn’t feel real

Ray Foulk

So how did Ray, at such a young age, manage to persuade Dylan to play the Isle of Wight after a three- year withdrawal from live performances?

‘I think they agreed because we were easy about it,’ he says. ‘If we had been tough they probably would have thought “what are we doing here?”.

He adds: ‘Lots of people were shoving money in his manager’s face and it didn’t cut any ice with him, so we took a different angle and we sold Bob on the island itself and it’s natural beauty, the cultural heritage of the place – Tennyson in particular and Keats – and that is what was appealing to him.

‘Then the money issue came along. All in all, it was going to cost us £87,000, – £725,000 today –and we didn’t have any.’

To find the money, Ray and his brothers needed guarantors. Ray’s brother Bill, a student at the Royal College of Art, used his connections to secure some guarantees, and even their mother Ella helped them out.

Ray says: ‘I had to go and visit her accountant with her because she was going to put up a guarantee, and her accountant advised her not to do it.

‘It was for £5,000 – £100,000 in today’s money – so I thought we were sunk on this one, but she said “Look, I completely trust my boys so I instruct you to give me a letter to confirm I am worth that amount of money.” I was taken aback.’

Ray says that the reason the deal was possible was because of how easy it was to contact people.

‘I think things are far more difficult to do nowadays. For instance you can’t get hold of someone by telephone like you could in those days. Imagine trying to get hold of Bruce Springsteen now – you wouldn’t be able to phone up his manager like we did with Bob Dylan.

‘You would get headed off by a whole army of secretarial types before you got anywhere near.’

‘Not many people had a telephone and it was altogether easier to deal with people. For instance if you look at Who’s Who in 1969, you see loads of celebrities in it with their numbers printed. All you had to do was call them up. That helped young entrepreneurs like us trying to get started.’

Ray and his brothers had cut their teeth in rock and roll promotion the year before with the inaugural Isle of Wight Festival.

‘My older brother Ronnie was appointed as fundraiser for a charity raising money to build a swimming pool and he was just looking for fundraising events. It was supposed to be a one-night festival, it wasn’t meant to be a big deal, but then we landed Jefferson Airplane and Arthur Brown too, who was quite big at that moment.

‘In fact it got so big that the charity pulled out and left us to it. Otherwise the Isle of Wight Festival was the property of IWISPA, the Isle of Wight Indoor Swimming Pool Association. Putting on Bob Dylan… that would have been bizarre.’

Meeting Dylan for the first time was a nerve-wracking experience for Ray.

‘We met him at the Drake Hotel and he came to my hotel room with his manager Bert Block. He was quite shy and quiet.

‘He had already committed for the event so it didn’t feel like an interview. He just wanted to know who he was dealing with.

‘He was fairly low key, dressed in jeans. You wouldn’t recognise him on the street. It didn’t feel real.’

On the day of the festival itself, Ray got a ringside seat to the action.

‘I went up on to the stage on the Friday evening as I arrived on site. I was led up there on a ramp, not knowing what they would show me, and looking out over the audience it was a real shock.

‘It was like an ocean of people. It just made my heart skip a beat. I thought, “wow, what have we gone and done here?”

‘When Dylan was performing I had a seat on stage in the wings. I could see the crowd – it was dark by now but you could see the flicker of the lights everywhere and people lighting things.

‘I was focusing on his music and I remember being really impressed with the way it was going down. It all happened so quickly.

‘I was disappointed it didn’t go on for longer, but his contract was for one hour, which he did, but we thought he might do two or three.’

He adds: ‘It was this new incarnation of Dylan in a white suit, singing in this softer voice. It is the only time in his career that he has gone out like that. So whenever you see a picture of Dylan in a white jacket, it is from the Isle of Wight.

He adds: ‘I have seen that image all my life. It was quite important to him because it was the only paid concert he did in seven-and-a-half years. That’s a very big period in an artist’s life – it went from the summer of love in ’67 to punk.’

Getting Dylan to perform on the island was made even more impressive by another legendary festival that happened right on his doorstep.

Ray says: ‘It’s a great story for rock and roll that we nicked him from Woodstock. He was living there and they put it on hoping that would get him out to play, but then he turned his back on it and came to the Isle of Wight two weeks later.’

The festival received a mixed reception.

‘It was very successful – there was no trouble, there was a massive audience, everything went really well, and it did put us in place for the 1970 festival,

which was even bigger than this one.

‘We had a little adverse publicity which was nothing to worry about, unitl a week later when the Isle of Wight County Press came out and they really put the boot in.

‘It was full of readers’ letters, with an article written by the MP Mark Woodnutt. They declared war on us really.’

He adds: ‘When we got Dylan to agree to the performance it made world news, and was front page of the music press and the dailies – The Evening News in Portsmouth, as it was then, was very supportive.

‘But the Isle of Wight County Press did not mention it anywhere until after the festival they let rip with a load of poison.

‘They had articles about ducks crossing the road in Bembridge but not that… it was extraordinary.’

Now, he says, the island’s press couldn’t be more supportive and the Isle of Wight has embraced the current incarnation of the festival.

‘The 1969 and 1970 festivals were a climax of the counterculture and that was wonderful to be a part of.

‘It was a time when the underground culture came out en masse to play. There was nowhere else where that happened.’

Stealing Dylan From Woodstock by Ray Foulk (Medina, hardback, £22.99) is published on June 4.