Joel and Ethan Coen do a good job of catching a pivotal moment in the history of contemporary music in Inside Llewyn Davis, which opens in the UK next weekend. I’ve seen it a couple of times and was impressed by the faithful portrayal of the Greenwich Village folk scene as it prepared for the transition from Pete Seeger to Bob Dylan (although, as a friend pointed out, nobody tied a scarf with a loop in the way Oscar Isaac, who plays Davis, does until about 10 years ago).
I’m not going to spoil the fun by describing the moment — a quite subtle and very telling one — at which Dylan makes his appearance in a film based on Dave Van Ronk’s entertaining Village memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street (and my recent Guardian piece on that is here). Until then, however, Dylan’s unseen presence is enough to make him the principal supporting actor — even more crucial than Ulysses, the ginger tom inserted by the Coens in order to provide the film with something resembling a narrative.
The film is set in the early weeks of 1961. It would be a year before Dylan’s influence began to make itself felt, initially when Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary began performing and recording his songs. Dylan’s own versions of those songs represented a completely different experience, one that introduced a generation to a notion of authenticity in voice, language and looks, but it took a while until, at the beginning of 1965, he suddenly achieved a kind of pop-star status in Britain. On the eve of his second UK tour, the title track of The Times They Are a-Changin’, first released a year earlier, shot into the top 10. A few weeks later it would be followed by “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, taken from his new album, Bringing It All Back Home.
I remember that little period of Dylanmania very clearly. At the time I was in a rhythm and blues band, playing clubs and pubs and other venues in and around Nottingham. A five-piece, we relied on the standard repertoire: Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf and so on. We borrowed our name — the Junco Partners — from a song recorded by the Texas-born bluesman James Wayne (as, unbeknown to us, did a band in Newcastle upon Tyne, later resident at the celebrated Club A Go-Go).
One of our two guitarists had come to us from the local folk scene. His name was Dave Turner and he also sang and played harmonica; in the folk clubs, his broad sense of humour and gift for mimicry enabled him to perform a wicked parody of early Dylan. So at a moment when demand for solo acoustic Dylan clearly outstripped that for Chicago-style R&B, we let him loose on our audiences. I have a vivid memory of a night at the Dungeon Club in Nottingham when the rest of us — lead guitarist Mick Dale, electric pianist Ian Taylor, bass-guitarist and singer Rae Drewery (later to become the father of Swing Out Sister’s Corinne Drewery) and me — sat in the dressing room and listened rather glumly to the cheers as Dave went through a more or less straight-faced impersonation of the hero of the hour. His “All I Really Want To Do”, with a lascivious spin, went down particularly well. Eventually we returned to the stage and the audience went back to dancing. I seem to remember that happening quite a few times.
We played together for the best part of a year but called it a day that summer, when real life beckoned. It’s fair to say that we left no trace. I’m pretty sure that our last gig was at the Elizabethan Rooms in Nottingham, supporting Tom Jones. “It’s Not Unusual” was still in the charts, and he was still backed by the Squires. When I next saw him it was in Las Vegas about 40 years later and he was in excellent form, but in the meantime he’d nicked our repertoire: it was Howlin’ Wolf pretty much all the way.
The five of us lost touch but I know that Dave returned to the Midlands folk circuit, where his mixture of traditional songs and broad humour is said to have influenced Billy Connolly, Mike Harding, Jasper Carrott, Fred Wedlock and others. He died in 2008, aged 66. Here he is in full comedy-folk guise, performing a song he wrote in the Sixties called “The Ballad of Cosmic Ray”, incorporating bits of “Freight Train” (with a reminder of his Dylan parody) and “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey”, and some fantastic finger-picking. And here’s a complete 40-minute set of his full-frontal ribaldry, recorded at a Coventry folk club in the 1970s (warning: contains mentions of Woodbine cigarettes and bodily functions).
* The photograph of Dave Turner was taken in 1965, during his time with the Junco Partners. It was our only publicity shot but to save embarrassment I’ve cropped the rest of us out of it.