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Posts from the ‘Folk music’ Category

The blues came down from Richmond

Around the corner from where I live is an apartment that was once a crash-pad for Paul Simon, Jackson C. Frank and John Martyn. If I carry on to the train station, I pass the building where the Rolling Stones played the early gigs that attracted the attention of Andrew Loog Oldham and the four Beatles. On the way I see another building, now a Nando’s, where Eric Clapton and his fellow art students would while away an afternoon over a single cup of coffee. A couple of doors above it is the site of a clothes shop that was once vital to the Mod culture. I walk on past an independent book shop which, 50-odd years ago, was owned by Pete Townshend (who still lives a few hundred yards away, up the hill, past the house where Syd Barrett once had a flat). Beyond the station lies a rugby ground, the site of the festivals that, starting in 1961, created the enduring pattern for such open-air, multi-stage events.

If, instead of heading for the station, I were to walk in the opposite direction, I’d come to the footbridge to an island where, as the ’60s picked up speed, trad jazz gave way to R&B bands in a semi-derelict hotel whose ballroom featured the Cyril Davies All Stars, Long John Baldry’s Hoochie Coochie Men with Rod Stewart, the Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, the Downliners Sect, the Art Woods, the Graham Bond Organisation, and so on.

The place that featured the Stones was the Station Hotel in Richmond, where the back room hosted the first incarnation of the Crawdaddy Club. The coffee bar was called L’Auberge. The men’s boutique was John Simon’s Ivy Shop. Townshend’s book shop was called Magic Bus. The rugby ground is the home of Richmond RFC and London Scottish; their clubhouse became the second Crawdaddy, where the Yardbirds — mostly local boys — took flight. The Eel Pie Island Hotel is the legendary venue in the middle of the Thames at Twickenham, which opened with local trad jazz bands in 1956, closed in 1970 with Quintessence and burned down while being demolished the following year. Those are some of the locations, and there are many more, including the Hanging Lamp folk club, held in a church crypt, where the local teenager who would become Elvis Costello went to listen to guitarists like Davey Johnstone and John James.

The story of how Richmond and Twickenham — and particularly Eel Pie Island — became a seed-bed for the British R&B bands that, in conjunction with the Mersey Beat, reset the course of rock music is such a great one that I’ve often thought it was worth a proper book, particularly after I came to live here 20 years ago and realised that the buildings and the pavements had tales to tell. I never got around to it. But now someone else has, and he’s done it so well that I’m glad I didn’t.

Andrew Humphreys spent many years working on travel guides, first for Lonely Planet and then for Time Out. He lives in Richmond and runs a publishing company of his own. When he had the idea for the book, he offered it to three well-qualified music journalists, none of whom was interested. Eventually he decided to do it himself, and I’m glad he did because it could hardly have been done with a finer combination of basic enthusiasm, thorough research and authorial skills. Apart from getting the facts right and in the correct order, he’s talked to many of the people who made up the audiences and customers at these places, creating a vivid portrait of an extremely exciting and important time.

Alongside the musicians and their listeners, several key figures are identified. The first is a local businessman called Michael Snapper, who bought Eel Pie Island Hotel — built in 1830, mentioned by Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby, in and out of fashion over the decades — in 1951, when it was all but abandoned. The second is a young trumpeter named Brian Rutland, who persuaded Snapper to let his Grove Jazz Band use the dilapidated ballroom. The third is a rum cove called Arthur Chisnall, who managed one of Snapper’s shops in Kingston, saw his vocation as scooping up lost youth and putting them on the straight and narrow, took over the running of the venue and, responding to police demands that it be properly organised, created something called the Eelpiland Club, which soon became a focal point for beatniks, students from the area’s several art colleges, and other adventurous types.

The fourth is Harold Pendleton, a former accountant who loved jazz, managed the Chris Barber Band, ran the National Jazz Federation, founded the Marquee Club in an Oxford Street basement in 1958, organised the NJF’s first National Jazz Festival at the Richmond Athletic Association’s grounds in 1961 and saw it grow into an event of national significance, with the trad and modern jazzers gradually pushed out by the young R&B bands, first represented in 1963 by Georgie Fame, Graham Bond, Cyril Davies and, at the bottom of the bill, the young Stones.

The fifth is Giorgio Gomelsky, a refugee from Soviet Georgia who arrived in London in 1955, aged 21, and soon became known on the scene as a hustler and fixer, a colourful character never short of an idea. Through knowing Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies he met Brian Jones, whose new band he heard at a pub in Sutton in February 1963. It was Gomelsky who created the Crawdaddy for them at the Station Hotel later that month, first with an audience that could be numbered on one hand but soon with queues down the street. Gomelsky printed flyers, ran ads in the Melody Maker, buttonholed journalists on the music papers, and in general hyped the Rolling Stones as best he knew how. He did a great job, but within weeks he’d lost them to a younger hustler, the 19-year-old Andrew Loog Oldham, who came to see them in Richmond and persuaded them he could take them to the next stage. As, of course, he did, leaving Gomelsky to manage the Yardbirds and cook up countless further schemes — some good, some bad, none of them quite as good as the Stones — before his death in New York five years ago.

All this and much more is in Humphreys’ book, which is well illustrated with period photos, flyers, posters and adverts, and useful maps on the end-papers. It’s also hugely enjoyable, written with a delightful touch and an ear for the colourful anecdote. Here, for instance, is a trad-band musician describing the task of getting their instruments across to Eel Pie Island on the original chain ferry, before the footbridge was installed in 1957: “A decidedly dodgy affair, like the D-Day landings but without the gunfire.”

I hope I haven’t made Raving upon Thames sound like a book of local history. In fact it’s about us — all of us, even if we weren’t there.

* Andrew Humphreys’ Raving upon Thames: An Untold Story of Sixties London is published by Paradise Road (www.paradiseroad.co.uk). The photograph was taken at Eel Pie Island in 1960 for a feature in Weekend magazine headlined “Down Among the Dead Beats”.

Dylan 1980-85

While reading an interview with the filmmaker Jesse Dylan in the (London) Times last week, one quote caught my eye. The interviewer asked him about the continued productivity of his father, who is now in his ninth decade. Jesse replied that his dad wasn’t trying to outdo himself. “He’s just thinking, ‘Should I paint a picture today? Should I write a song?'”

It reminded me of of my own reaction to visiting the Musée Picasso in Paris a few years ago and realising how wonderful it must have been to be him, to get up in the morning and think, “Shall I paint a picture today? Shall I paint a few plates? Shall I make a bull’s head out of a pair of bicycle handlebars or a guitar out of a matchbox and some rubber bands?”

That’s not the only point of comparison between the two, for sure. But Dylan transforms farm implements into sculpture and photographs into paintings with the same unstoppable desire to make stuff. He’s not expecting everything he creates to be the equal of “Desolation Row”, just as Picasso didn’t think a painted soup dish needed to be a rival to the Demoiselles d’Avignon.

Jesse Dylan’s remark might have helped me to make a different kind of sense of the latest volume of the Bootleg Series, titled Springtime in New York and assembled from recordings made in the first half of the 1980s. This was a period that included Shot of Love, Infidels and Empire Burlesque, and most of the tracks on the deluxe five-CD version of the new release are outtakes from those sessions, in Los Angeles as well as New York, plus material from various tour rehearsals and a couple of live tracks (“Enough Is Enough” from Slane Castle in 1984 and “License to Kill” from the same year’s David Letterman show).

There are works of genius here, the two takes of “Too Late” and its eventual metamorphosis into “Foot of Pride” being the prime exhibit, showing Dylan functioning in 1983 at the peak of his powers, creating something that only his imagination could have produced, working away at its shape and structure and detail and angle of attack (and then still not being satisfied enough to put it on the relevant album). “New Danville Girl” has long been loved by bootleggers as a prototype of what would become, 18 months later, the epic “Brownsville Girl”, featuring a friendlier arrangement and more modest production but lacking some of the final version’s finer points. “Let’s Keep It Between Us” is a Dylan song recorded by Bonnie Raitt in 1982 and here performed two years earlier as a confiding southern soul ballad, with wonderful B3 interjections from Willie Smith.

By and large, however, this is an assembly of lesser material. Unlike The Cutting Edge or More Blood, More Tracks, it’s not the sort of compilation that enables the dedicated student to make a close scrutiny of Dylan’s working method over a tightly defined period of time. It’s a whole lot looser than that, and variable in quality. You don’t necessarily need Dylan’s versions of “Fever”, “I Wish It Would Rain”, “Green, Green Grass of Home”, “Abraham, Martin and John” or “Sweet Caroline” — or Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me To Do”, which isn’t noticeably better than those performed by a hundred young British R&B bands in the mid-’60s (including my own). You might, of course, need his gorgeous version of Willie Nelson’s “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground”. But what all of them do is remind us of what Dylan’s backing musicians often say, that he knows a very large number of songs — and if you’re in his band, you have to be ready to play them, at least in rehearsals.

Taken together with the outtakes of songs like “Blind Willie McTell”, “Jokerman”, “I and I”, “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight”, “Sweetheart Like You”, “Tight Connection to My Heart”, “Seeing the Real You at Last” and “Dark Eyes”, some of them pleasingly devoid of the production touches added to the versions released on the original albums, they made me think of what it might be like if Bob Dylan turned up in your village with his band, rented the parish hall and spent an evening entertaining the locals. It wouldn’t be a show. It wouldn’t be for posterity. Nobody would be taking notes or keeping score. There might be false starts and missteps and re-runs. There would certainly be some things that didn’t work quite as well as others. Playing these five discs end to end, flattening out the artistic highs and lows, allowing the kaleidoscope of Dylan’s approach to American music to form and disperse and reform, you get a sense of how much fun that would be.

* Bob Dylan’s Springtime in New York: The Bootleg Series 1980-85 is out now in various formats and configurations on the Columbia Legacy label. The photograph of Dylan in New York is from one of the booklets that come with the deluxe version and was taken by Lynn Goldsmith.

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).

Music from a Welsh chapel

Capel y Graig

Toby Hay and David Ian Roberts are Welsh guitarists who occasionally play together. They’ve just released three tracks recorded in the Capel Y Graig, a deconsecrated chapel in Ceredigion now used as an art space, on Bandcamp. I think they’re marvellous.

I know Toby Hay’s work from a fine 2018 album called The Longest Day, and from the series of morning and evening guitar pieces he recorded and filmed outdoors and put on YouTube in the first week of April (search @tobyhaymusic). He’s the right-handed player on the right of the photograph. His work reminds me a little bit of what the late Sandy Bull, a true visionary, was up to in the late ’60s, and of John Fahey in his Yellow Princess period: a fingerpicker blending various forms of folk, blues and eastern musics.

These three unnamed tracks are pure improvised duets, exploiting the special acoustics of the place. I love the quality of the sound, particularly in the first piece: glistening but raw, with a kind of chiming, pealing quality as the two players set off from a simple modal base on a seven-minute journey guaranteed to lift the spirits. If anyone were doing a remake of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, it would fit perfectly. Hay switches to piano for the second piece: an old and charmingly out-of-tune instrument whose overtones match the environment. The final track, another guitar duet, is more contemplative: there’s something of a worn music-box about the sound.

Capel Y Graig is a former Welsh Calvinist Methodist chapel, opened in 1765 and rebuilt in the mid-19th century. It’s in the hamlet of Furnace/Ffwrnais, between Aberystwyth and Machynllech, where iron ore was once smelted in a little rural works beside a waterfall on the River Einion. The chapel was in use until 2001, with living quarters in which to house the itinerant preachers so popular in Wales. It’s now an artspace operated by a small non-profit organisation.

“We let the space guide us as to what to play,” Hay says. “It’s an extraordinary place to play music. The building has a life of its own. One of the most unusual, and powerful natural reverbs I have ever heard. Listening to these recordings now reminds me how important it is to play music with friends.” For me, the whole set is something I’m happy to leave on infinite repeat, allowing it to define a mood in these lockdown days.

* For the month of May, all proceeds from the recording will go to Ty Hafan, the Welsh children’s hospice. If you want, you can explore and buy the music via this link: https://cambrianrecords.bandcamp.com/album/capel-y-graig-improvisations

Freedom songs

Wormwood Scrubs 2

The huge white chapel of HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs is cocooned in 20ft mesh fences topped with rolls of razor wire. Built along with the rest of the establishment in 1874, it is Grade II listed and, on the inside, very handsome. Last night it hosted a unique occasion: a concert at which Rhiannon Giddens and her partner Francesco Turrisi, the star attractions, were preceded by six men currently held in the facility, which is nowadays a place for about 1,200 held on remand from local and county courts, awaiting the next stage of their judicial procedure.

The project was organised by Koestler Arts, a charity which works with prisoners and has its HQ in a house next to the Scrubs, and Serious, the producers of (among other things) the EFG London Jazz Festival, as part of which 60 tickets for the event went on sale to the public. About 40 friends of the charity were invited. The remainder of the audience, about another 40, were men currently on remand.

We gave up our phones, keys and other prohibited items before passing through the security entrance beside the prison’s famous twin-towered main gate. Ushered through a yard and into the chapel, we were directed to sit to the right of the aisle. Shortly before the performance began, the men on remand took their places on the other side; later we would be asked to wait while they filed out and were checked back into their wings.

The Ensemble, as the group of six inmates were called, were introduced to us by Fusion, one of the hosts of the jazz festival. He named them as Dave, Vince, Archie, Mark, Roy and Dan. Fusion and another Serious-mandated person, Shelly Davis, had worked with them over the preceding two weeks, spending four two-hour sessions working from scratch on original songs, poems and raps that could be performed either unaccompanied or with the simplest backing track.

These were not professional performers, although one had an outstandingly soulful voice, another was nearly as good, and a third would undoubtedly have a future as a rapper. The music moved between modern R&B, rap and gospel, the words — inspired by works of art from the annual Koestler Awards — inevitably evoking yearnings for lost freedom and identity. One poem had the refrain: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder / I wonder what our life would have been like if our bond was stronger.” The rap went: “A tree without roots won’t stand in this land / You need the roots to become a man.”

It was extraordinarily moving, as was their visible reaction to the sincere ovations they received after each item in their half-hour performance. This, if you were in any doubt, was what music can do, what it can offer, not just as a way of transcending immediate circumstances but as a signpost to real hope.

Only something special could follow that. Rhiannon Giddens, the one-time opera student from North Carolina who embraced old-time music, is engaged on a mission of rediscovering and recombining the folk forms of the African diaspora with relevant collateral idioms; this could hardly have been more appropriate to the occasion, given that most of the Ensemble and a high proportion of the prison’s inmates share their origins in that historical phenomenon. Playing her minstrel banjo — a 19th century design whose own roots are in West Africa — and fiddle, with Turrisi on accordion, cello banjo and a variety of frame drums and tambourines, and with Jason Sypher on double bass, she presented a short version of the concert programme from their current British tour, including the song “I’m On My Way” (from her latest album, there is no Other), which received a Grammy nomination this week.

In between whirling jigs from Ireland and southern Italy, she applied her exquisite precision and full-throated power to “At the Purchaser’s Option”, the song (from Freedom Highway, her 2017 album) provoked by a newspaper advertisement offering a young female slave, surplus to the vendor’s requirements, with a nine-month-old baby that could be included if the buyer so desired. “Ten Thousand Voices”, the declamatory lead-off track from the new album, featured Turrisi’s cello banjo, creating a desert-blues plangency answered by Giddens’s ardent fiddling.

I was praying that she’d do her version of “Wayfaring Stranger”, also from the new album: a traditional song of hope in the midst of travail. As Turrisi’s accordion solo pierced the deliberate plucking of the banjo and Giddens’s voice soared up into the high vaulted wooden ceiling of the chapel, it felt like as timeless and universal a piece of music as can ever have existed.

* Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi are at the Royal Festival Hall tonight (Friday 22 November) and then on tour around the UK. there is no Other is on the Nonesuch label. 

Bill Frisell at Cadogan Hall

BillSolo_Adjusted

“If somebody makes a so-called mistake,” Bill Frisell says near the end of the promotional film for his new album, “that can be the most beautiful thing that happens all night, if everybody’s open to what that sound is and embraces it and makes it sound good. If everyone’s watching out for each other and everyone feels like they can take a risk, it gives the music a chance to keep going and evolving.”

Last night at Cadogan Hall it was his turn to flub an ending, the mistake quickly finessed by his three colleagues — the singer Petra Haden, the cellist Hank Roberts and the bass guitarist Luke Bergman — with grace and smiles. And right there was the humanity of any music in which Frisell has a hand.

His mission to demonstrate and explore the consanguinity of all forms of American vernacular music — from Charles Ives to Thelonious Monk, from Hank Williams to Henry Mancini, from Muddy Waters to the Beach Boys — was accomplished many years ago, but with Harmony, the title of his first album on the Blue Note label, it seems to have reached another peak. The empathy, flexibility and modesty of this quartet make it an ideal vehicle for another exercise in creative juxtaposition.

The concert began quietly, with Haden’s beautifully plain voice enunciating the wandering, wordless, childlike line of Frisell’s “Everywhere”. The first high point came with Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times”, on which Roberts and Bergman joined Haden in the sort of three-part Appalachian harmonies guaranteed to strike instantly at a special place in the emotions. There was a wholehearted ovation for that. “Lush Life”, fiendishly difficult to sing, was another highlight; also included in last year’s solo concert at the same venue and on Epistrophy, his recent live duo album with the bassist Thomas Morgan, Billy Strayhorn’s great ballad is clearly a preoccupation, and its intense chromaticism brought out the Jim Hall influence in Frisell’s work on his double-cutaway semi-acoustic instrument.

There was an interesting recasting of “On the Street Where You Live” (from My Fair Lady) and a lovely harmonised version of the traditional “Red River Valley”, interspersed with little instrumental pieces making sparing use of the guitarist’s loops and effects. The set ended with a segue from Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” into David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, rendered in full and apparently without ironic intent. For an encore, demanded with fervent enthusiasm, they returned to stand at the microphones and deliver “We Shall Overcome”, inviting us to join in; well, at least now they know what English hymn-singing sounds like.

It was a mystery that, for the latest project from this great musician, a hall which was packed for his solo appearance a year ago should be so thinly populated last night. Perhaps the concert was badly advertised. The album is not yet out, which probably didn’t help. But anyone who wasn’t there missed a quietly remarkable night.

* Harmony is out on November 1. Epistrophy was released by ECM earlier this year. The photograph of Bill Frisell is by Monica Frisell.

Bob & Lily revisited

Bob Dylan Lily etc

It took me several weeks to overcome a disinclination to buy the Bootleg Series version of Blood on the Tracks. I’d been invited to a playback session last summer, hosted by Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s manager, and I wasn’t keen on what I heard. Of course the series as a whole represents a priceless example of a great artist permitting access to his own archives, but Blood on the Tracks is a perfect album and I don’t really need it in any other less perfect form. “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”, for example, is so precious to me that I really hated listening to a truly horrible early version with an arrangement that robbed the song of all its lilting heartbreak poetry.

I suppose the real value of the new release is in its implicit suggestion of why Dylan rejected the first (mostly) solo version of the album, recorded in New York. What he didn’t like was its “down” mood. When he re-recorded half the songs in Minneapolis with a band, he dialled the mood up a notch, letting a bit more sunlight in. And he got it right.

Notwithstanding all that, eventually I cracked and bought the single CD version of More Blood, More Tracks. Now I’m glad I did, for one reason: a version of “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” that tells us something about Bob Dylan’s skills as a performer.

It’s a track I’ve always loved because it has so much of Bob in it: a wild story, full of characters and humour and unexplained ambiguities and bizarre incidents, a slapstick take on “Desolation Row” relocated in Tombstone, Arizona. Has he ever written anything more romantic than the line “She was with Big Jim but she was leaning to the Jack of Hearts”? Has he ever brought off another shift of mood as adroitly and blood-freezingly cinematic as “But then the crowd began to stamp their feet and the house lights did dim / And in the darkness of the room there was only Jim and him”?

The version we know from the released album was recorded in Minneapolis in December 1974 with a six-piece band (two guitars, organ, bass guitar and drums) plus Dylan himself on guitar and harmonica. One of its joys is its hurtling momentum: a tempo of 64 bars per minute, a fast shuffle propelled by the slap of wire brushes.

Now Volume 14 of the Bootleg Series gives us Dylan’s solo attempt at the song in New York three and a half month earlier. It’s slower — 56 bars per minute — and lacks the deadpan effervescence of the later version. What it has in recompense is a freedom for the singer to treat the song’s structure — AABA, in eight-bar sections — and metre in the way the standard 12-bar blues form was treated by John Lee Hooker or Jimmy Reed, in other words with absolute flexibility.

In place of the urgency that would be provided by the Minneapolis band, Dylan comes up with another way of providing that momentum: he shortens the eight-bar sections by clipping off a bar or half a bar and entering early with the first line of the next section. He can do this because he is alone with his guitar. And I don’t know many better examples of his command of phrasing, of his ability to manipulate asymmetry, making the bar-lines follow the melody, rather than the customary vice-versa. Here’s the man who honed his art alone on stages in the folk clubs and coffee houses of Greenwich Village, polishing devices that would hold an audience’s attention. Once you starting listening closely, it’s mesmerising.

* The photograph of Bob Dylan is from the booklet that comes with More Blood, More Tracks (CBS/Sony Legacy). It’s omitted from the otherwise comprehensive credits, but I think it’s by Barry Feinstein.

Bob Dylan in his own write

Mondo Scripto 1

I chuckled when I saw these bookshelves, installed on the stairwell of the Halcyon Gallery on Bond Street, accompanying an exhibition called Mondo Scripto: Lyrics and Drawings by Bob Dylan. Here is what appears to be just about every book ever written in English about Dylan, including my own extremely modest and inessential effort. The realisation of how many of these volumes are on my shelves made me pause for a moment to think about life’s priorities.

Anyway, the exhibition’s raison d’être is a new series of 52 handwritten lyrics, each framed with an accompanying pencil drawing. I happen to have a fondness for Dylan’s oil paintings, without feeling the need to make any great claims for them, but these sketches are extremely rudimentary. It’s the juxtapositions that make them interesting to a fan. Sometimes they’re surprisingly literal: a young woman behind bars with “I Shall Be Released”, a tank with “Masters of War”, a man alone high on a ridge with “One Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)”. Elsewhere any hint of shared meaning is, shall we say, elusive: a collapsed building with “Forever Young”, a sketch of a Chicago Cubs pitcher with “Hurricane” (which is, of course, about a boxer), a portrait of Jack Nicholson as the Joker with “All Along the Watchtower”.

A photograph on a wall shows Dylan, pen in hand, writing out one of the lyrics (they’re all inscribed on headed notepaper from something called the Black Buffalo on State Street in Dayton, Ohio, which — like the Abernathy Building, where he made his Theme Time Radio programmes — turns out not to exist). So I guess he did write them all himself, the calligraphy varying in a way that, like the occasional crossing-out, would probably be beyond currently available algorithms.

Personally, I’m moved by the sight of the words to “It’s Alright Ma” written out by their author. Or the third-person version of the “Tangled Up In Blue” lyric. The songs from Blood on the Tracks, in fact, are all treated to some fairly radical revision: apart from the first seven words and the title, this written version of “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” contains nothing from the original recording.

 

Mondo Scripto 2

No doubt somebody will tell me that it’s from one of the outtakes on More Blood, More Tracks, the latest volume in the Bootleg Series, in which I have yet to invest — partly because the terrible early version of “Your Gonna Make Me Lonesome” that I heard during a playback session a few months ago came close to destroying what is probably my favourite of all Dylan’s songs and put me off the idea of buying the £100 deluxe edition altogether. But it was enjoyable to read these verses to myself, with the melody and Dylan’s voice in my head.

The exhibition also features some of his iron sculptures, created by welding together old farmyard tools and bits of tractors (or possibly new ones: it’s hard to tell, since they’re all dipped in a thick paint). I got a lot of fun out of overhearing a member of the gallery’s staff, a smart young man in a suit and tie, trying to explain them to a potential buyer. Not a job I’d want to have.

* Mondo Scripto is at the Halcyon Gallery at 144-146 Bond Street, London W1S 2PF, until December 23. For those who might be interested, 10 of the lyrics/sketches are available as individual prints in editions of 495 at £1,500 unframed and £1,895 framed. Originals apparently start at close to £100K. Black Buffalo Ironworks seems to be the name of his metal sculpture project, but it’s not based in Dayton, Ohio, as far as I can tell. About the books, the gallery will tell me only that they are the property of a collector.

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.

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.