I am aware that every book I have read about Bob Dylan seems to raise more questions than answers. That includes this charming and well presented publication that takes us on a tour of Dylan’s time spent in London over the years. It’s full of amusing and interesting anecdotes and a remarkable level of detail for what amounted to a relatively short time in the city. In fact, it proves the point that London, and the people he met there, had a profound and important influence on Dylan as a songwriter. It’s set me on the quest to find out more about many of the things mentioned. Fortunately, it includes a map and a comprehensive locations list, so that’s a good start!
The book begins in New York 1962 when a young Dylan was spotted by Philip Saville, a producer from the BBC, and offered a part in a TV play Madhouse on Castle Street. Dylan was to play “an anarchic young student who wrote songs”. It should have been a breeze as it was a role he had been playing, more or less, since he first arrived in New York City in 1961 (along with “travelling hobo and itinerant singer”), but Dylan found the acting and reciting his lines really difficult. He ended up being given one line and singing four songs, including Blowin’ in the Wind which hadn’t been released on record yet. Not a bad gig since he received £500 (about £12000 in todays’ prices) plus expenses for it (and got a free trip to England!).
More importantly, Dylan became familiar with the London folk scene especially folk singer/guitarist Martin Carthy who drew his attention to some remarkable English folk songs including Lord Franklin and Scarborough Fair which he used in his own songs Bob Dylan’s Dream and Girl from the North Country. During his short time there he also met legendary author Robert Graves who he had a walk around “Paddington Square” with and tried to talk about The White Goddess, but couldn’t remember much about it!
He also did a few performances around London folk clubs and venues and even met up with some American friends and did some recordings at Dobell’s Record Shop in Charing Cross Road. He wasn’t particularly well known then and wasn’t very well received by some English folk club audiences especially the friends and associates of brilliant, but narrow-minded, Ewan McColl and the Singers Club. He did better at the coffee bar venues like Bungies, Les Cousins and The Troubadour where he tried out some of his new songs that would appear on his ground breaking second album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in June 1963. This album actually refers to Martin Carthy on the sleeve notes. He also jokes about his time in London in the 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan. In the song I Shall Be Free No.10 he says about the guitar riff he is using “it’s nothing. It’s something I learned over in England”.
The following year Dylan was back in London with his own concert at the Royal Festival Hall. This time he was much better known, with two acclaimed albums behind him. Freewheelin’ had gone to No.1 in the album charts. Dylan was astonishingly prolific and influential. Many people were covering his songs and the concert was a triumph. It contains one of his best performances of all time and shows how he had matured as a writer. Astonishing that the entire concert wasn’t available on CD until 2015 and then only in a limited edition!
When he returned to England again in 1965 he was a big star. This time the London concert was at the Royal Albert Hall. The tour was filmed by D.A. Pennebaker in cinema verité style and has become one of the most acclaimed music documentaries of all time Don’t Look Back. It also contains what some consider to be the first “pop” video Subterranean Homesick Blues, filmed on the steps near the Savoy Hotel. This video features beat poet Allen Ginsberg who a week before had been part of an important and revolutionary poetry reading at the Albert Hall. After this concert the managers banned poetry readings at the hall for the next ten years! Interestingly, this concert was filmed by Peter Whitehead (Wholly Communion) who it is also claimed made the first pop video. Some commentators assert that these two events were so influential that they actually kickstarted the English Counterculture (Underground) that became so influential in the late 60s. American writer and critic Greil Marcus goes even further and suggests that the release of the single Like a Rolling Stone actually created the global youth counterculture! Certainly, by 1966, when Dylan toured again, he was considered by many to be the “voice of his generation”, a label he came to resent (as he also did the label “protest singer”).
Dylan didn’t return to London until 1978 twelve years later when he did the hugely successful Street Legal tour and performed several concerts at the Earls Court Exhibition Centre.
I really enjoyed Jackie Lees and K G Miles book. There is a wealth of information in there and it is a great starting point for discovering Dylan and the times he lived in. I will certainly be visiting some of the places, especially Flukes Cradle, a café on Camden High Street. This was where the cover of World Gone Wrong was taken with Dylan wearing an elegant top hat. The painting behind him has got a wonderful story of it’s own! Get the book!