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Greenwich Village, February 1963

Don HunsteinThe man who took the photograph that appeared on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan died on March 18, aged 88. Don Hunstein’s obituary in the New York Times tells us that he bought a Leica while serving with the US Air Force in England, and attended classes at the Central School of Art and Design. After returning home he eventually became a staff photographer at Columbia Records, at a time when that meant working with Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Glenn Gould, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Leonard Bernstein and many others.

He was in Columbia’s studios when Davis recorded Kind of Blue and Holiday recorded Lady in Satin. But no image of his turned out to have greater cultural resonance than the one he took in a Greenwich Village street on a cold February day in 1963. He had already taken the picture for the cover of Dylan’s debut album (which the art department had flipped, so that Dylan’s guitar looks to be strung for a left-handed player and his coat buttons are on the wrong side). For the second session, Hunstein turned up at the singer’s top-floor apartment at 161 West 4th Street in Greenwich Village.

Suze Rotolo, Dylan’s 19-year-old girlfriend, was present, and a few photographs were taken indoors before the three of them stepped out into the slush-lined streets. Dylan, thinking of his image, put on a thin suede jerkin over his denim shirt. Rotolo sensibly opted for a warm dark-green belted coat. On a nearby side street, Hunstein got them to walk towards him, arm in arm, and started snapping away.

When I interviewed Suze at the time of the publication of her excellent autobiography (A Freewheelin’ Time) in 2008, she told me of a recent conversation with the photographer in which they had disagreed about the precise location of the shot that ended up on the cover. Hunstein said it was on Cornelia Street. She insisted it was Jones Street, a bit further up West 4th. “So that’s going to have to remain a mystery for all those Dylanologists,” she chuckled.

I liked her enormously. When I asked her how it felt to listen now to all those songs written when she and Dylan were together (“Don’t Think Twice”, “Boots of Spanish Leather” and so on), she responded to the sort of crass journalistic question she’d been avoiding for four and a half decades with words that I found very moving. “I can recognise things,” she said. “It’s like looking at a diary. It brings it all back. And what’s hard is that you remember being unsure of how life was going to go — his, mine, anybody’s. So, from the perspective of an older person looking back, you enjoy them, but also think of them as the pain of youth, the loneliness and struggle that youth is, or can be.”

She died in 2011. She and Dylan had stayed in intermittent touch, she told me. A few years after their painful breakup he helped her out when her apartment was destroyed by fire. Among her lost possessions were the coat she had worn that day in 1963, and one of his Gibson guitars.

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A night at Silent Green

CCH Silent Green 1Last summer I was blown away by the latest album from Catherine Christer Hennix, the 68-year-old Swedish-American composer, singer and keyboardist who studied with La Monte Young and Pandit Pran Nath before striking out on her own exploration of sound, light, drones, spirituality and just intonation. Last night I got the chance to see her perform during Berlin’s Maerzmusik festival, at a converted crematorium church in the Wedding district.

Now named Silent Green, it’s an octagonal space with two circular balconies. The floor was covered with oriental rugs, on which the majority of the audience reclined or assumed yoga-style positions. Hennix was positioned alongside one wall, seated at a two-manual electronic keyboard, flanked by the mixing equipment and other devices operated by Stefan Tiedje, her sound engineer and computer programmer. The rest of the audience had chairs on the first balcony. Above us in the upper balcony  were five brass players: Amir ElSaffar (trumpet), Paul Schwingenschlögl (trumpet and flügelhorn), Hillary Jeffery (trombone), Elena Kakaliagou (French horn), and Robin Hayward (microtonal tuba).

Together they performed a piece called “Raag Sura Shruti”, which began with quiet drones from Henna’s voice and keyboard, gradually increasing in intensity until the brass players joined in, coming and going as the music flowed and ebbed and flowed again. If you wanted a shorthand description, you could say that it was as though Terry Riley’s “Persian Surgery Dervishes” had been reorchestrated by Giovanni Gabrieli for the brass choir he had at his disposal in St Mark’s, Venice in the 16th century.

That part of the concert lasted three hours. Not every member of the audience stayed with it. I was fascinated by the slowly changing colours and the stately arc of the music’s evolving narrative. Sometimes it was very beautiful: lustrous, resonant, ambiguous in its tonal movement (thanks to the use of the non-tempered scale), at one point reaching the sort of lung-crushing decibel count normally encountered in another part of the city at Berghain, the techno club with the world-famous sound system. There were other times, understandably enough, when the underlying drones seemed to be hanging around, waiting for something to happen.

Maybe it was my interest in the arrangement of the moving parts that prevented me from achieving the sort of transcendence that this music is ostensibly about. Perhaps I should have been lying down, eyes closed, on one of the Persian rugs, giving myself up to the waves of sound in a non-analytical way. But that didn’t prevent me from enjoying the experience thoroughly and admiring the music greatly, even if it didn’t quite reach the peaks scaled during the New York concert preserved on last year’s album.

Just when the last drone had diminished to a whisper and almost faded away completely, and the musicians had got up from their balcony seats and left the arena, Hennix took over with a closing 15-minute solo improvisation on the keyboard. As she crunched her fingers and fists on the keys, setting up brief, spidery phrases and then splintering them, I thought of how a Chinese boogie-woogie pianist might sound if invited to play a Philip Glass piano étude on one of Sun Ra’s early electronic instruments — the Rocksichord, wasn’t it? — in the style of Cecil Taylor, with an intermittently malfunctioning power supply. An excellent evening all round.

The Judas thing

Bob Dylan 1966I suppose I’ve always thought of the man who shouted “Judas!” at Bob Dylan in Manchester in 1966 as a dull-witted denier of truth and progress. To my astonishment, however, after spending the last couple of months listening, on and off, to the 36-disc box of the surviving music from that tour, I’ve come to see things a little differently.

According to researches by Andy Kershaw and C. P. Lee, the Judas man was a Manchester law student named John Cordwell. His interjection was the most prominent and celebrated of the many voiced in disapproval of Dylan’s alliance with Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and Mickey Jones during the second half of each show, most of which featured a between-songs commentary of grumbles and shouts and whistles, occasionally luring the singer into responses that ranged from the wry to the exasperated.

Of course, the music they played after the interval was head-spinning, earth-shaking and world-changing, fuelled to a greater and greater extent as the tour went on by anger at the pincer attack from a combative Fleet Street on the one hand and outraged folk purists on the other. But after listening to many of these concerts, it’s hard to avoid the somewhat heretical conclusion that the finest and most enduring music came in the first half.

If he was feeling impatient to get to the second half and the revolutionary music he’d been concocting with his new friends, it never shows. The seven songs making up the basic acoustic set — “She Belongs to Me”, “Fourth Time Around”, “Visions of Johanna”, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, “Desolation Row”, “Just Like a Woman” and “Mr Tambourine Man” — receive a high degree of care and attention. The approach each night depends on the condition in which Dylan takes the stage, but the performances are never less than nuanced and fascinatingly varied. I could listen to every one of these versions of “Visions of Johanna” end to end without wearying of the experience. And apart from the voice, there’s the harmonica: which, in 1965/66, he was playing with a much underrated inventiveness and a powerful interest in developing the architecture of a solo.

Some of these concerts — like those at the Sheffield Gaumont and Birmingham Odeon, or the first Albert Hall show — find him in pristine form, honouring these songs with great concentration and spellbinding delicacy. Elsewhere his altered consciousness, shall we say, makes itself evident in a looser approach to the songs’ contours and details, producing results sometimes even more compelling than the more faithful treatments. The Olympia music hall in Paris and the second Albert Hall concert are particularly striking examples.

By no coincidence at all, these are the shows on which he spends most time responding to the audience. When he’s whistled for taking forever to tune his guitar before “Desolation Row” in Paris, for instance: “I’m doing this (tuning up) for you. I don’t care. If you want to hear it that way, I’ll play it that way.” And, as the noises of restlessness continue: “You just can’t wait. You have to go to work at 10 o’clock? Oh, it’s a drag for me, too, y’know. But that’s folk music for you. Folk music, it does this all the time.” And then: “Oh, come on now, I wouldn’t behave like this if I came to see you…” (It’s his 25th birthday, and Françoise Hardy is in the audience.)

It seems to me that the record company has made a mistake by issuing the first Albert Hall show as a stand-alone two-CD set. It’s beautiful, of course, and relatively unblemished by the sounds of a disputatious audience. But the second London concert was what the legend of this tour was all about: full-on music, full-on conflict, everything on the brink of falling apart, Dylan stoned to the gills and taking a last chance to harangue the dissenters during the final date of a psychologically gruelling tour, During a four-minute monologue between “Tell Me Momma” and “I Don’t Believe You”, he says this:

I love England, I like it a lot (sniggers), but we did all this in the States from September on, and we’ve all been playing this music since we were 10 years old, and folk music just happens to be a thing which interrupted … which was very useful, you know … but frankly the rock and roll thing in the United States was (sniggers) … forgive me … forgive me … Anything I sing now, don’t hold against me … I realise it’s loud music and all that kind of thing, but if you don’t like it, that’s fine. If you’ve got some improvements you could make on it, that’s great. But the thing is, it is not English music you’re listening to. It’s a shame that we’re here now and it might sound like English music to you, if you haven’t really heard American music before, but the music is-a, is-a, is-a … (laughter) … I would never venture to say what it is. 

Quite. But I find myself thinking about people listening to Bob Dylan in, say, 50 years’ time, and wondering what it is they’ll be listening to, which of the many Dylans will have survived the years. The one who sang “Like a Rolling Stone”, no doubt. But maybe the acoustic songs, where his wisdom and subtlety as a writer and performer are most in evidence, are the ones that will turn out to have the real staying power: “Johanna”, “Tambourine Man”, “Baby Blue”, “Don’t Think Twice”, “Desolation Row”, “It’s Alright, Ma”, “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and the rest (among which we’d have to include “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Shelter From the Storm”).

The tumultuous music he made with the Hawks in 1966 enriched the culture and was perfect for its historical moment. But perhaps that shout of “Judas!” was not quite as wrong-headed as it seemed.

* Please don’t mistake this for a review of Bob Dylan: The 1966 Live Recordings. Somebody else can take that on. The photograph is a still from the unreleased film of the tour shot by D. A. Pennebaker.

‘A Porky Prime Cut’

a-porky-prime-cutThere’s an interesting new poem by Michael Hofmann in the latest issue of the New Yorker. It’s called “Lisburn Road” and it’s about surveying the scattered detritus of a life. In the final stanza there’s a reference that might be puzzling to some of the magazine’s readers: The ‘Porky Prime Cut’ greetings etched in the lead-off grooves…

The poem has begun with a mention of “A few yards of vinyl records, well thumbed.” The allusion to greetings etched in the run-out grooves (as I would call them) refers to the signature of the cutting engineer who mastered the albums in question. “Porky” was George Peckham, then the finest exponent of his craft in the UK music industry.

Liverpool-born, and a member of the Fourmost before becoming an engineer at the Apple studio in Savile Row, Peckham cut masters in the 1970s at studios on Riding House Street, around the corner from the BBC’s Broadcasting House, and then at IBC in Portland Place, also nearby. He built a reputation and soon, with the record business in full spate, he had more work than he could handle.

When did the habit of etching graffiti into the space around run-out groove begin? Maybe with Phil Spector, who scratched words recording his relationships with his first two wives, Annette Merar and Veronica Bennett, into his 45s. For a while, John Lennon emulated him with a “John and Yoko” message.

“A Porky Prime Cut” was not Peckham’s only signature: “Pecko” and “Pecko Duck” were others. The difference between his marks and those of others was that he was not one of the people who had actually made the music within the grooves, but a technician. For record buyers of a certain level of obsessive interest in the minutiae of the 1970s, they became part of a rich landscape of signs and meanings.

* Michael Hofmann’s “Lisburn Road” appears in the March 6 issue of the New Yorker.