Budapest to the Black Sea

Budapest to the Black Sea

Monday, 25 August 2008

With Bob Dylan in the Passenger Seat

Firstly apologies for recent lack of product. A combination of holidays and increasing involvement on ENO's forthcoming Cav & Pag have cut down available time.

Bob Dylan’s first album, imaginatively titled Bob Dylan, came out in 1962. I was 13 then and for 9 months of the year was confined in a boarding school on the edge of the North Downs, a school where, in today’s social climate, many of the staff would be serving long sentences for a variety of offences ranging from child abuse, assault, criminal neglect, racism and not teaching anything relevant to modern life.
“Please sir, what’s a National Insurance Number”?
“Quiet Irwin Minor! See me later!”While I was struggling with Caesar’s Gallic Wars and algebra (the former has turned out to be much more useful than the latter in adult life) Robert Zimmerman was pottering along to the Supreme Court Building in New York to change his name to Robert Dylan. I don’t think that Bob’s first album registered much in the UK but I certainly remember his second album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan of 1963. There was a House record player which we were allowed to listen to for a few minutes a day and fierce battles were fought for musical control but in that particular period an aggressive group of Lower Sixth formers usually held sway and we were treated to some surprisingly progressive stuff, Bo Diddley, Alexis Korner etc, this at a time when the Hit Parade was full of trash like Frank Ifield’s I Remember You and Pat Boone’s Speedy Gonzalez. So Dylan’s nasal delivery and acoustic guitar accompanied songs with incomprehensible lyrics about murdered black people were a revelation. The album sleeve was fascinating too, it showed a skinny young Dylan, hunched against the cold, walking along the middle of a street with a strange alien creature hanging on his left arm. This alien being was what was known as a ‘girl’ and it took me a long time to get the hang of them, in fact there are those who would argue that I still haven’t got the hang of them. At the time I nursed a passion for Dusty Springfield who wasn’t a girl but was a goddess, but a goddess who soon came crashing down out of the heavens. I expect all of you reading this can remember where you were and what you were doing when you were told that Dusty was gay, I certainly do, a boy called Harry Flack dropped this emotional hand grenade in my lap one evening during First Prep. I was consoled by the arrival of the Rolling Stones and Dylan’s third album, The Times They Are A-Changin (1964), the cover photo of which makes Dylan appear about 45 and to have had an accident with a sand-blasting machine. By 1965 I was in the Lower Biology Sixth busy dissecting things and Dylan went electric. What a hoo-hah! Remember the bloke at the back of the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, who shouted “Judas” as Dylan started his electric set. Dylan reputedly turned to his backing group a few moments later and said irritably “Play it fucking loud”. What were those bearded, chunky sweatered, shit-for-brains folk fans on about? All closet Morris dancers I would say. His lyrics got better around this time, try singing along to The Lonesome Death of Hattie Caroll as you blast down the autobahn of life, then try Subterranean Homesick Blues. No comparison. But what did all those lyrics mean? There were those who dedicated their lives to analysing them. One such was one of my best friends, who for now I will call Judas, Judas was an absolute terrier with those lyrics, endlessly obsessing about what Bob was trying to tell us. At about the time that Blonde on Blonde came out Judas put our relationship under some strain when he grassed me up when I returned drunk from the Natural History Society annual outing. After I had thanked the Headmaster for giving me 8 of the best (yes we really did have to say “Thank you sir” after a beating) he gravely told me he would be writing to my parents and my future Cambridge tutor to tell them of my wickedness. The tutor thought it was hilarious, my parents less so.

And so to what these days is called a Gap Year and in these enlightened times young people go and work on birth control schemes in Eritrea, then it was a time to mess about, travel a bit, try some drugs, and if at all possible lose one’s virginity. Dylan meanwhile amused himself by having a motorcycle accident and then disappearing from view leaving the Judas’s of this world high and dry. How did my ‘Messing about Year’ go? Not bad, work in a psychiatric hospital, the Orient Express to Istanbul, trapped in the middle of the 1967 Six Day War, nearly killed by a stone throwing mob, arrested, deported, hitched to Sweden, and yes, I did lose my virginity. Phew. Dylan resurfaced with John Wesley Harding at about the time that I went off to Cambridge to drink sherry before dinner with some of the finest minds in Europe. The fact that the words of All Along the Watchtower came from the book of Isaiah were a worry for us all but it didn’t stop Jimi Hendrix making one of the best covers of all time. Unfortunately all I did do at Cambridge was drink sherry and a great deal more and it didn’t take the University authorities long to decide that I wasn’t making full use of the educational facilities that they had provided and I was politely asked to leave. I won’t dwell on the trauma that this caused, suffice it to say things at home were tense for a while.

Then I got lucky, incredibly lucky. Through a patient of my father’s, who was a an Assistant Film Director, I got a job on a movie, not a documentary, not an army training film, a real Hollywood movie with stars like George Peppard and Judy Geeson. Bob went ‘Country’ at this time and produced Nashville Skyline which included the single Lay Lady Lay. If ever a song was responsible for a lot of fucked up relationships this is the one. It’s potent ‘brass bed’ imagery and "..stay with your man awhile” lyrics must have led a lot of young men and women around then into romantic arrangements that they later regretted and while I won’t blame Bob Dylan for my first marriage I reckon he must have got a hefty back-hander from ‘The Brass Bed Manufacturers of America’. I learnt a lot from my first marriage, particularly from my wife’s mother who taught me two valuable things, how to make a Lobster Thermidor and that it does no harm to be silly sometimes. My family were not silly at all, buying a toothbrush was never a spur of the moment thing, it required a careful study of Which Magazine whereas my in-laws were silly on a grand and often catastrophic scale.

On the movie I met an actor called George Baker who offered me a job as an ASM in his touring company based at Bury St Edmunds and that’s how I started in the theatre where it has to be said we spend a fair amount of time being silly. I lost interest in Dylan, Blood on the Tracks was the last album of his that I bought. Over the next decades I may have bought the odd Dylan compilation album to keep myself awake on long drives but these were soon lost in hotel rooms and rental car sound systems and then one day last year when I was bored stiff in Toronto (a natural state of being in Toronto) I came across Modern Times which I had read somewhere was a late return to form by Dylan. I bought it and I like it, I play it in the car and the kids like it too.

Cycling Down the Danube

Cycling Down the Danube
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