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Posts from the ‘Folk-rock’ Category

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.

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P.F. Sloan 1945-2015

P.F. Sloan 2The songwriter P.F. Sloan died this week, aged 70. More than 40 years ago, the record producer Lou Adler told me a story about him that still makes me smile, even though it had the polish of a tale that had been told many times and perhaps enhanced by the process of repetition.

It was in 1964 that Adler had signed the teenaged Sloan to his publishing company, along with his writing partner, Steve Barri. The duo’s early pop hits included “Secret Agent Man” for Johnny Rivers, “Summer Means Fun” for Bruce (Johnson) and Terry (Melcher), and “A Must to Avoid” for Herman’s Hermits.

But Adler had a new idea. He’d noted Bob Dylan’s growing celebrity and thought that Sloan might have potential in that direction. One day in 1965, he told me, he gave the 19-year-old a corduroy cap, an acoustic guitar and a copy of Dylan’s most recent album, shut him in a room — it might even have been a bungalow at the Beverly Hills hotel — for a weekend, and told him to write some songs. When Sloan emerged, it was with “Eve of Destruction”. After Barri had added a couple of lines (to be precise: “You may leave here for four days in space / But when you return it’s the same old place,” he told the New York Times‘s obituaries writer this week), it was ready for its destiny as a worldwide hit for Barry McGuire.

Sloan quickly came up with other soft-protest folk-rock songs, including “The Sins of a Family”, which became his own single, “Leave Me Be” for the Turtles, and “Take Me For What I’m Worth” for the Searchers. But after he returned from a trip to London with McGuire, during which they both appeared on Top of the Pops, Barri noted a change. “When he came back he was never really the same person,” he told Richard Cromelin of the LA Times. “There was no more joking around. Everything was very serious, and he was angry. After a while he just broke off all relationships with everybody and we lost contact for many, many years.”

Those lost years, which included addiction and mental illness, prompted Jimmy Webb to write “P.F. Sloan” in 1970. Sloan had re-emerged long before Rumer covered Webb’s song a couple of years ago, and in 2006 he re-recorded the biggest hit from his catalogue as part of an album for the Hightone label, produced by Jon Tiven. It’s a wonderful version, making “Eve of Destruction” sound like the serious song the 19-year-old composer had probably intended it to be. Here he is that year, performing the song in a Los Angeles club.

His original demo is on an album called Here’s Where I Belong, a selection of his recordings for Adler’s Dunhill label between 1965 and 1967, compiled by Tim Forster for Ace’s Big Beat label. As well as the better known songs, it reveals gems — previously unknown to me — like “From a Distance” and “I Can’t Help But Wonder, Elizabeth”, which he released under the name Philip Sloan. There’s also an album in Ace’s songwriters series devoted to the songs of Sloan and Barri. It’s called You Baby and it features, among many other goodies, the Mamas and the Papas’ version of the title track. Sloan had played one of the two acoustic guitars on intro to their “California Dreamin'”: another decent claim to immortality.

* The photograph of P.F Sloan is from the cover of Here’s Where I Belong, released in 2008.