Letter from London December 2005

It really is the equivalent of seeing Elvis, the Beatles or the Stones on a stage about 30 feet away.


It really is the equivalent of seeing Elvis, the Beatles or the Stones on a stage about 30 feet away.


I’m going to start this Letter from London with a confession.  Hand on my heart, I’ve not been a big Bob Dylan fan over the years – his albums have by and large not made a huge dent in my musical consciousness. 


You know how it is – the more music you know, the more there is to know. Inevitably anyone, even if they are fanatical about music, will have blind spots.


Admittedly, sometimes they are bigger than others.  That is how Bob Dylan is for me.  Obviously, I’m aware of the shadow he has cast over popular music since the early 1960s. Even by listening to the Beatles, when they stopped singing boy-girl songs around the time of Help and Rubber Soul, you can clearly hear the influence he had.  He is one of the few artists where you’ve known his songs for years but mainly through other musicians – in my case the Byrds, Jimi Hendrix, even the Specials.


He has such an oppressively vast back catalogue, which is one of the reasons I offer for pushing him to one side over the years. It’s like those great classic novels by the Russian masters or Moby Dick or Ulysses.  You would like to pick them up of the shelf and read them but the enormity of the task always pushes them down the running order behind other more manageable books.  They are never going to be an easy read, no matter how rewarding they are with a bit of effort. I also freely admit to other blind spots that need to be worked on when I find time and inclination, The Clash, Smashing Pumpkins and Pavement among others.


Like everyone else, I was swept along with the hype around the Martin Scorsese directed No Direction Home documentary and got a ticket to see Dylan during his sold out five night residency at the Brixton Academy.


A bit of desktop research (especially the fantastic Wikipedia entry) revealed that Dylan remains an awkward customer. The sheer number of songs available makes entry level Dylan difficult. Friends told me that it depends which Bob turns up to the show. Even dedicated Dylanologists don’t recognise some of his most famous tunes until part way through (see excellent and reassuring Mark Ellen/Andy Kershaw interview on link below), because they have been (deliberately and frustratingly) arranged to make them sound different. I’ve heard stories of Dylan gigs which changed people’s lives and then others which revolved around an old man mumbling incoherently into a microphone to some sort of musical accompaniment with no acknowledgement of the crowd at all. Despite touring almost constantly since the 80s (he averages over 100 gigs a year) every single night will have a different set list, randomly cherry picking from the hundreds of songs available.


As the gig approached I got increasingly excited and immersed myself in Dylan albums from his early Greenwich Village days, right up to Desire in the mid-70s. I didn’t go any further – mainly through time constraints and also figuring that later Dylan albums would be mainly for completists only (I may have to review this stance for a couple of later albums). Of course it all clicked together as it dawned on me why Dylan was so feted even after all of these years. An absolute treasure trove of amazing songs that broke the mould and pushed popular music to places it had never been before.  


I also read his autobiography and found myself speeding through it, in awe of a man who obviously looks at things differently. A true artist revealed himself, one who sees the world in such a creative and poetic way. For me the book gave a glimpse of someone who views the world as a song or a collection of songs waiting for him to craft them into shape.


So, the big night arrived and I rushed along Brixton’s main street through the bitter cold.  In my head it was like the sleeve to the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, but it I guess it wasn’t really like that. There was a definite buzz in the air at the Brixton Academy, along with a haze of blue smoke that only added to the atmosphere. The crowd was mixed and mainly male – youngsters paying respect through to obvious long-term fans seeing him for the umpteenth time. I overheard someone earlier talking about pension credits and how they can be drawn anywhere in the EU – not something you’ll hear at every gig at the Academy.  


There was no support. Around 7.30 a blast of classic music, including a suite from the Planets, heralded something was imminent. At 7.45 precisely a troupe of men who looked like they would have been at home on the Grand Ole Ophry took to the stage.  All in matching black suits and wearing cowboy hats. Dylan himself looked in great shape (he must weigh the same as he did in 1962) in a black suit with red trim which made he look for the all world like some sort of Southern dandy.


The stage was complete with lush red velvet curtains (which would later open to reveal stars) and away we went. A rousing rendition of Rumble (Link Wray RIP) and then straight into versions of Maggie’s Farm and Love Minus Zero/No Limit.  So far, so good, then it all started to blur a bit for me. I think even the most generous fans would concede the Bob’s voice wasn’t what it was. (Even then I have read reports of people saying that on this tour his voice is better than it has been for 20 years.)


There was a collection of songs I didn’t know or recognise – partly because they were from later albums, partly because I wasn’t as familiar with all his songs as maybe I should be and partly because they just didn’t sound like the songs I did know! The band was great and the inclusion of a steel guitarist, mandolin and banjo meant that everything had a touch of country music about it. At its best the music on offer was a spellbinding mixture of jazz, C&W, rock and blues. At its worst the new arrangements meant that the songs blended into one another with little to tell them apart. Certainly the vocals gave few clues with Dylan delivering song after song in exactly the same way.


That said, there were highlights; a great Highway 61 Revisited which slowed down in the middle and had a jazz influenced arrangement, a song called John Brown which was stripped down and showed off Dylan’s voice at its best and a catchy Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.


The band left the stage and returned with a barnstorming encore of Like A Rolling Stone and All Along the Watchtower. Seeing the crowd reaction to these songs made me wonder if Dylan wasn’t missing a trick. He could throw in a few more of his big tunes and get the crowd erupting throughout the gig and not just at the end. That said I can see that his personality is such that he will refuse to be a nostalgia act. 


Maybe he is right – after all he has been the business for longer than just about anyone else – how many times would people return year after year to see the same set every time? With that thought in my head, it was 9.40, the house lights came on and it was time for home.  Not sure why Dylan sticks to such a rigid timetable after a lifetime of keeping rock n roll hours, but there it is. 


So, in summary a real mixed bag – some patches of brilliance and others of confused listening out to try work out what was happening – often in the same song.  High points: now not feeling a slight embarrassment when the conversation turned to Bob Dylan and also seeing such an icon at close quarters.  It really is the equivalent of seeing Elvis, the Beatles or the Stones on a stage about 30 feet away.  It’s not every day you will see an artist inspiring such fanaticism that someone in America will update a website with that night’s set-list before most of the fans have even got home from the gig.


Low points: mumbling rendering song recognition difficult (admittedly not helped by the poor sound at the Brixton Academy) and having people taller than me come into half-way through the gig and deciding that the only place to stand in the whole venue was right in front of me.  Same thing happened when I saw Kraftwerk there, when a guy built like one of the robots that they sing about obscured my view for the entire gig.


Looking back on the Dylan gig – how do I feel?    Friends who went and who are die-hard Dylanheads said it was fantastic and a definite improvement on gigs from previous years.  Mark Ellen on BBC Radio 4 manfully defended his unpredictability and admitted he went to Dylan gigs with low expectations.  My honest answer is that I have contradictory views and am probably still trying to get to grips with it all.  Bob obviously doesn’t want to make it easy for his crowd and it shows.  Flashes of brilliance, contrasted with moments you wished you could fast forward through – on reflection probably not a bad summary of Dylan’s whole musical career…











To finish, I offer you one of my favourite musical stories of recent times.  How about Mark E Smith being asked to read the final scores on the BBC during a Saturday afternoon?


All together now…Manchestaa Citiiiyyaaa  Oneaaa – Aston Villaaa Nilllllll