I was commissioned to write this intro to a book entitled Bob Dylan: I Was There which will be published later this year. It's a much extended re-write of a previous post about Dylan.
I existed in a hermetically sealed world when I worked as Melody Maker’s American Editor, based in New York, between 1973 and 1977. I was going to gigs three or four nights a week, writing all hours of the day, mixing only with fellow music writers, musicians and industry types. I didn’t really know anyone outside the music industry apart from the neighbour I’d see collecting her mail or the man at the newsagents where I picked up yesterday’s British newspaper. In 1975 I didn’t think much about the fuel crisis, the Irish Troubles or even the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. World affairs didn’t concern me. I dwelt on where The Who were headed after the loss of momentum in 1974, or what David Bowie would look like the next time I saw him, or who was going to replace Mick Taylor in the Stones.
It came as something of a shock, therefore, when one day in early November the phone rang in my 78th Street apartment and the girl at the IPC office whose task it was to relay telex messages from London informed me that editor Ray Coleman wanted me to cover the ‘Bob Die Lon’ tour.
“Who?” I asked.
“Bob Die Lon.”
“Never heard of him.”
So immersed was I in the world of rock that it never occurred to me in my wildest dreams than an American not much younger than myself could be so unfamiliar with Bob Dylan as to be unable to pronounce his name correctly, as if it rhymed with ‘nylon’. To me this was like being unable to count to ten, or recite the alphabet. Never having heard Dylan’s name pronounced in this way before, I was genuinely mystified as to the identity of the artist whose tour Ray wanted me to cover.
“Can you spell the name for me?” I asked.
“Oh, you mean Dylan,” I responded incredulously, pronouncing it correctly.
“Oh, that’s how you say it,” she replied. “Who is he?”
“Well,” I began, amazed that this young woman had never even heard of Bob Dylan, “he’s a singer and songwriter, probably the most famous popular musician to emerge in America since Elvis Presley. He’s written some of the greatest and most famous songs of the last ten years and influenced just about everyone from The Beatles onwards. His lyrics are legendary…”
“Is he any good?” she interrupted.
Ignorance of Bob Dylan was not a crime in itself in those days though it would certainly have counted against me when that same Ray Coleman had interviewed me for a job at the start of 1970. In the event Ray was telexing me – this was long before the fax, let alone e-mails – to ensure that I covered Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review, then about to begin up in New England, though unbeknownst to him I’d already made plans to head there with my pal Bob Gruen, New York’s most streetwise rock photographer. (My recollections of one of the opening shows – at Springfield, Massachusetts on November 6 – can be found elsewhere in this book, as can my report of a Dylan show with The Band at New York’s Madison Square Garden on January 30, 1974.)
Dylan was a favourite of all of us at Melody Maker. On my first day at the paper, in the first week of May, 1970, I sat at a desk in full sight of where Richard Williams, the assistant editor, had written out some Dylan lyrics and stuck them to the walls. Opposite me was a sign that read: ‘You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows’ and to my right were the words, ‘Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters’. I well remember how when Richard received an advance copy of George Harrison’s triple Concert For Bangla Desh LP in December of the following year the first thing he did was put on side five, very loud. When George announced, “I’d like to bring on a friend of us all, Mister Bob Dylan,” all of us stopped what we were doing and gathered around the office record player. The delirious, earsplitting ovation that preceded ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ was a glorious, unqualified vindication of how we all felt about the direction our lives had taken.
More than the songs of any of his contemporaries, those of Bob Dylan – and the way he conducted his career – reflected the increasing maturity that popular music had discovered in the sixties, that sense of endless possibility in which worldly insight, societal influence and creative expression combined to elevate it way above the ‘Moon in June’ approach of the past. With the musicians who played on Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde and, later, the members of The Band, Dylan had discovered musical foils that framed his work in a perfect synthesis of poetry and rock’n’roll, but it was much more than mere instrumental virtuosity that we recognized, more a journey into deeper realms of art, literacy and culture that gave momentum to our mission to let the rest of the world know about it. Perhaps we were a bit idealistic or even naïve, but I like to think that all of us on the paper in those days felt we were part of something bigger than simply ‘show biz’ or ‘entertainment’, and that Dylan – along with Lennon, Townshend and Bowie – represented the best of the new world to which we were committed.
Unfortunately it was the old world that greeted Bob Dylan when he made an early appearance at Melody Maker’s offices in 1962. In November of that year, by an odd coincidence the same month that ‘Love Me Do’, The Beatles’ first single, inched its way up to number 17 the charts, 21-year-old Bob paid a visit to London, his first trip outside of the US, to appear in a radio play for the BBC. The play, the recording of which has long since been wiped, and the visit itself remain a footnote in Dylan’s career but while in London he visited and sang at various folk clubs, hung out at Dobells, the specialist record shop in Charing Cross Road, smoked plenty of dope and got drunk in Soho’s pubs. He stayed for almost six weeks, initially at the posh Mayfair Hotel in Berkeley Square, where his smoking habits upset the management, subsequently moving to the more accommodating Cumberland near Marble Arch. He befriended Martin Carthy, who encouraged his wayward, untutored genius, and may even have checked out Peter Cook’s Establishment Club on Greek Street, the cradle of the UK’s satire movement that was lurking, ready to pounce on Harold Macmillan’s complacent Tory government.
He also visited Melody Maker’s offices, probably on the recommendation of US jazz critic Nat Hentoff who wrote the sleeve notes for Dylan’s second LP, Freewheelin’, and was an MM stringer. Hentoff was a pal of Max Jones, MM’s revered jazz writer, and it was Jones that Dylan sought out when he arrived at the offices at 161 Fleet Street. The doorman, concluding the scruffy-looking Dylan to be up to no good, denied him entry at first and it wasn’t until Max was summoned that the issue was resolved. Max proceeded to interview the young Dylan, thus securing his first ever press coverage in the UK.
So, in closing, it gives me great pleasure to report that not only is Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan a genius of enormous distinction in his own chosen field but that he never forgets a kindness, as I discovered for myself backstage at a Rolling Stones concert at Madison Square Garden in June of 1975. What I remember most about this concert is not Charlie’s drumming, which as usual was exemplary, nor even the giant inflatable cock that appeared on stage and fomented so much distress in the God-fearing states down south, but being introduced to Bob, my only close encounter with the great man.
My friend Peter Rudge, then tour managing the Stones, had given me a couple of backstage passes and among those lingering in the corridor that led to the dressing rooms was Dylan himself, carrying a large pitcher of red wine from which he was drinking copiously. It was one of those big round flagons with a ring on the neck through which you could insert a finger to raise it to your mouth, perfect for situations when glasses are unavailable. He looked much the same as he did on stage at the Rolling Thunder Review shows later that same year, without the white face make-up of course, his hair a mess of unkempt curls, in jeans and a black leather jacket, someone perhaps slightly dangerous to know. Most doormen, like the one in Fleet Street in 1962, would have thought twice about admitting him to whatever premises they were safeguarding.
Moments after clocking Bob I spotted Peter Rudge.
“Is that Bob Dylan?” I asked, unnecessarily.
“Can you introduce me?”
Peter, whose staff I would join in 1977, gave me a wry look, then grinned. “OK.”
We walked over to where Bob was standing and Peter tapped him on the shoulder, interrupting a conversation he was having with a pretty, dark-haired girl in a scarlet dress.
“Bob,” said Peter, “this is Chris Charlesworth from Melody Maker.”
Bob looked at me and squinted. He did not offer a hand to shake. I was pretty sure he was drunk.
“Melody Maker,” he slurred. “How’s Max Jones?”
“Max is fine,” I replied. “I’ll tell him you asked after him.”
“You do that,” said Dylan. Then he turned away and resumed the conversation he was having before I intruded.
Come to think of it I’d have preferred to talk to the pretty girl in the scarlet dress too.