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).