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Bob Dylan in Surbiton

Here’s a building that deserves one of English Heritage’s blue plaques — if, that is, the story about Bob Dylan putting in an appearance at Surbiton Assembly Rooms in the first week of January 1963 can ever be verified.

Mentioned 25 years ago in Clinton Heylin’s Bob Dylan: A Life in Stolen Moments (Day by Day 1941-1995), the alleged performance also gets a brief reference in a new book, Bob Dylan in London: Troubadour Tales, by Jackie Lees and K. G. Miles, an account of the singer’s various engagements with the British capital, from that first visit in the winter of 1962-63, when he appeared in the long-lost BBC TV play Madhouse on Castle Street, learned songs from Martin Carthy, displeased the hard-line traditionalist folkies and fell out with Nigel Denver, through the Albert Hall concerts of 1965 and ’66 and the Earl’s Court comeback of 1978 to his most recent performance in Hyde Park, sharing the bill with Neil Young in 2019.

It’s a slender paperback — you can read it in a couple of hours — with some useful background information and enjoyable descriptions of events such as the filming of the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” clip by D. A. Pennebaker in the snicket called Savoy Steps in 1965 and the session in a Camden Town café with the photographer Ana María Vélez-Wood that produced the cover shot for World Gone Wrong in 1993.

Much of it will be familiar even to amateur Dylanologists like me. But there’s the occasional nugget of wisdom, too. I particularly liked the observation that Dont Look Back, the Pennebaker documentary of the 1965 tour, was not an example of cinéma-vérité — as it is usually taken to be — but a performance.

As for Surbiton, the glancing mention made me curious, possibly because I live in that direction. A bit of research turned up the information that the Wednesday-night sessions of the Surbiton & Kingston Folk Club were started in 1962 by the singer Derek Sarjeant, who had just moved to the area to take a job with the South Eastern Electricity Board. The opening night was on January 14 that year; three weeks later the first guest night featured two visiting Americans, Carolyn Hester and Richard Fariña, who were married to each other at the time. Both had Dylan connections, having met him in Cambridge, Massachusetts the previous summer. Hester’s first album, produced by John Hammond for Columbia Records in the autumn of 1961, featured Dylan’s first recorded appearance, contributing his harmonica to three tracks.

Dylan’s visit to Surbiton seems to have taken place on either January 2 or the following Wednesday, the 9th. Sarjeant died in 2018, aged 87, and no written record of a Dylan performance at his club appears to exist. But we know that Fariña was in London at the same time; he, Dylan and their friend Eric von Schmidt (from whom Dylan had learned “Baby Let Me Follow You Down”) performed at the Troubadour in Earl’s Court on January 12; on January 14 and 15 they recorded tracks for a Fariña/von Schmidt album for Doug Dobell’s 77 Records in the basement of Dobell’s Jazz Record Shop on Charing Cross Road, with Dylan — contracted to Columbia — guesting under the alias Blind Boy Grunt. It seems highly likely that the three of them would have made it to the Assembly Rooms.

The book’s subtitle is a reference to the venerable Troubadour club, where Dylan played on several occasions during that first British visit and where the authors now co-curate a permanent Dylan Room, opened in 2013.

* Bob Dylan in London by Jackie Lees and K. G. Miles is published by McNidder & Grace (£12).

18 Comments Post a comment
  1. I hate to be pedantic Richard and I am not a Dylanologist, but if “The opening night [of the Surbiton & Kingston Folk Club] was on January 14 and Dylan performed there three weeks later that would surely be February 2nd or 9th and not “January 2 or the following Wednesday, the 9th” as stated. Unless of course the world was slowly going backwards then.

    Lovely story though and such a shame that Derek Sarjeant is not around to corroborate it.

    February 11, 2021
    • You misread. The first par says that Dylan played there in Jan 1963. The fifth par makes it clear that the opening night was in Jan 1962 and Fariña/Hester visited that Feb.

      February 11, 2021
  2. Mark Kidel #

    The remarks about Pennebaker’s “Don’t Look Now” and it not being ‘cinéma vérité’: When I made my first rock doc in 1975,”So You Wanna Be a Rock’n’Roll Star”, following the Kursaal Flyers on the road, one of my major sources of inspiration was of course Penny’s Dylan film. I chose the Kursaals (raher than Ace, Kokomo and the Feelgoods, who were on the short list) because they were always ‘in character’. I have made several vérité-ish films since – from Rod Stewart to Tricky. I learned early on that all ‘vérité” is performance, and particularly so when the people being filmed are performers. They deliver fiction in the guise of “reality”. It’s impro of the best kind. There is nothing in that classic Rod film which isn’t in some way “for the camera”. Rod knew just how to produce good “verité” in a way he blazed a trail for other subjects in vérité rock docs in the furure. the Kursaals film inspired the Comic Strip to make “Bad News Tour” which in turn is supposed to have inspired Rob Reiner to do Spinal Tap as mock vérité. I believe this is true the moment you switch a camera on. We all ‘perform’. If you are around people long enough you get moments that are perhaps more spontaneous than others, but it’s still done in awareness of the camera.

    February 11, 2021
    • Mark, I’m glad you enjoyed working with the Kursaals, the feeling being mutual. There are bits of the So You Wanna Be doc that are slightly cringe-inducing, but in our defence I think that off-stage we, or certainly Richie and myself , were very aware of being filmed and were often ‘playing it up for the camera’ e.g. Richie’s ‘down in one’. Conroy too was good at hamming it up. There was plenty for Bad News Tour to ‘lift’, if indeed they did – I mean, obviously I knew New York was on the east coast of the USA but there seemed to be a bit of mileage in pretending otherwise, m’lud. Five-hour version? Do you still have the footage? W.

      February 20, 2021
  3. Colin Harper #

    Derek’s Assembly Rooms folk club in Surbiton is something of an enigma, in so far as it was ever present in the tiniest font in Melody Maker ads, from the early 60s well into the 70s, with his name attached – seemingly, to the casual reader, a minor club with a nonentity host. As an artist, he left a slender body of work – 4 EPs in the early 60s and a 1970 LP, all on tiny labels. But he must have been a sensational entertainer and club host in his day, for his club was periodically mentioned in print as having the biggest membership in Britain with routinely hundreds of people attending each week (the figure of 600 comes to mind from somewhere). If Bob or frankly anyone else popped by once, how would he have known – in a room of hundreds – unless they introduced themselves?

    February 11, 2021
  4. It’s a story that occasionally surfaces round these parts (and I edit Surbiton’s community paper, The Good Life), along with Hendrix apparently making a brief appearance on stage at the Assembly Rooms, which are now part of Surbiton High School rather than the vibrant, varied and occasionally boisterous public hall-for-hire of my youth.
    The folk club was in the small hall, up a rickety, creaking wooden staircase, where regulars always complained that latecomers spoilt the atmosphere by throwing open the entrance door and letting light in to the intimate darkness… then allowing the door to bang closed behind them. I’m sure Dylan wouldn’t have stood for that

    February 11, 2021
    • Colin Harper #

      On that particular trip, Bob would have been the yobbo banging the door. Bert Jansch was tasked with showing him around London one day and he (Bob) was drugged up and chucked out of at least one pub during their perambulations.

      February 11, 2021
  5. Too young to verify Dylan at the Surbiton Assembly Rooms but do remember Mike Gibbs staging a concert there and then Sham 69 there and their fans smashing up Kingston town centre.

    February 11, 2021
  6. Great blog again. You are far from an ‘amateur dylanologist’ though Richard!

    February 12, 2021
  7. Geoff Noble #

    A fascinating account. Although when it comes to blue plaques, my nomination would be for the old Olympia studios in Barnes. Now an elegant cinema, it’s certainly a building with some stories to tell.

    February 12, 2021
  8. ISIS Magazine Ltd #

    Hi Richard,

    Dylan did not appear the Surbiton Assembly Rooms.
    I established this in an article in ISIS Magazine some years ago.
    The information was also reprinted in my book “ISIS: A Bob Dylan Anthology” in 2004. See below:

    “There has been a long-standing rumour that during this visit to London Dylan appeared at the Surbiton and Kingston Folk Club, held at that time on Wednesday evenings at the Surbiton Assembly Rooms. Due to the Christmas recess, the Surbiton folk club only met three times during Dylan’s London stay. The only realistic date for a visit by Dylan to the club would seem to be January 2. On that night, the featured act at Surbiton was The Strawberry Hill Boys – later to become The Strawbs. I have spoken with Dave Cousins of The Strawbs who had already briefly met Dylan a fortnight before at the Troubadour, and he is certain that Dylan was not at Surbiton that evening.

    Club organiser Derek Sarjeant has stated on a number of occasions that Dylan did perform at Surbiton during his first visit to England and even claimed to have photographic evidence. However, on production of a photograph to ISIS subscriber Chris Cooper, the harmonica accompaniment provided during a Carolyn Hester set, turned out not to be Bob Dylan, but Richard Fariña. If further evidence was needed, Carolyn Hester was not in the UK at the time of Dylan’s visit. One interesting aside is that at one such performance at Surbiton, the harmonica playing Fariña introduced himself as Blind Boy Grunt, and this may well have helped attribute to the confusion.”

    Derek Barker.

    February 12, 2021
    • Marou #

      Spoilsport

      February 12, 2021
    • Thank you, Derek. I bow to your scholarship, but I’m still not convinced that the matter is entirely settled. We are dealing with someone who, even then, was a master of disguise and evasion…

      February 12, 2021
      • GuitarSlinger #

        Facts good sir .. only the verifiable facts …. so show us the proof .. or move on

        😉

        February 12, 2021
  9. Patrick Humphries #

    Lovely stuff, well done Derek, and Richard for sparking the debate. Next time: how Bob Dylan brushed against my left shoulder at the NFT…

    February 12, 2021
  10. Colin Harper #

    I passed Chas McDevitt on the stairs at Cadogan Hall a couple of years ago – does that count? Can we start campaigning for a blue plaque there? 🙂 I’m all for a bit of minutiae myself but all this ‘Was Bob there? Was Hendrix there?’ sort of stuff goes too far. Brian Auger, for instance, is fed up telling people he jammed with Jimi at the Scotch of St James on whatever date it was in 1966 – and not the three other places that some people swear it was. But it simply doesn’t matter. And it really doesn’t matter in any way if Bob went to this or this entertainment venue on his London trip in January 1963 – nor which grocery stores he popped into while he was here. All that really matters vis a vis his artistic output and his career from that London trip can be summed up in a few general sentences – who he met who had an impact on him (Martin Carthy etc.), what he recorded (the Grunt thing) and broadcast (‘Blowing in the Wind’ and a couple of other things) while here, and how that impacted his future recorded oeuvre.

    February 12, 2021
  11. GuitarSlinger #

    Hmm … gotta tell ya Richard … quasi unverifiable factoids such as this belong in the same category along with … is it or is it not really Dylan’s Strat ( doubtful ) … is the so called ‘ found ‘ Easy Rider ‘ Captain America bike the real thing ( it aint ) .. did Dylan darken the doorstep of this or that establishment ( doubtful unless proven ) … etc .. et al .. ad nauseam ( emphasis on nauseam )

    e.g. Interesting yellow journalism perhaps and eye candy for the hyper ventilating ___ ologists ( fill in the blank ) and rabid fans maybe … but ultimately … ephemeral cannon fodder for the tin hatted out there with nothing better to do than try to live vicariously thru the lives of others by creating and believing myths with nary a hint of truth . e.g. Pure utter effluence … at best

    Suffice it to say good sir .. if ninety percent of the dribble thats been printed about the ‘ Cosmic Chameleon ‘ had even so much as a hint of truth … it’d be a miracle

    So err … even if this waste of good paper were available in the US … I’ll pass … there’s better books written by more knowledgeable individuals available . And even at that …. in reality … NO ONE other than Dylan himself knows the real stories and all the minute details .. hence his moniker amongst those of us who’ve known him .. ( as much as that is even possible ) the ‘ Cosmic Chameleon ‘… cause like a chameleon .. the second you think you know anything … he’s changed course 180 degrees .

    😎

    February 12, 2021
    • Paul Crowe #

      I for one will be reading it …..

      February 13, 2021

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