Bob’s Your Uncle

A whole new cast of characters

My big sister Angie gave me Bob Dylan by Anthony Scaduto for Christmas in 1972. This would be the beginning of a long, often obsessive, and sometimes solitary journey into Bob Dylan‘s world. Until then, I had been brought up on a diet of British music consisting of lashings of British pop music as served up by BBC Radio One and Top of the Pops, with The Beatles being definitely top of the pile. I was beginning to branch out.

Scaduto turned my gaze across the Atlantic, away from my little island, towards a whole new cast of characters ranging from Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, through Suze Rotolo, Albert Grossman and DA Pennebaker to Davey Moore, Hattie Carroll and George Jackson. We stopped at the Cafe Wha !, the Newport Folk Festival and even the Isle of Wight.

The book was about history in the making. It was also an elaborate tale with no ending. For Dylan seemed to have vanished, rather like the mysterious uncle in a family who people tell tales about. This was just as well, because I had some serious catching up to do.

I got myself a copy of Uncle Bob’s Greatest Hits album and discovered how little of his music I knew. Immediate favourites were Mr Tambourine Man and Subterranean Homesick Blues, the latter earning a scratch which would make it jump thereafter as I had dropped the needle several times while attempting to transcribe the lyrics.

I would eventually happen upon a Dylan volume in the collection of music scores with lyrics in the reference section of our local library in Harlow, Essex. Naturally, Subterranean Homesick Blues, the one track I needed help with, wasn’t in the collection, which had been conceived for the wandering guitar-playing troubadour folkie. However, I did discover that in Mr Tambourine Man the “one hand waving free” in the final verse was not “to be wetted by the sea”, as I thought, but “silhouetted by the sea.” So much for transcriptions. Nevertheless, I told myself, as I turned the yellowing pages, and read through the words to songs I had never heard with imposing titles such as Masters of War or With God On Our Side, this was his legacy. Since he seemed to have disappeared, maybe I had arrived too late.

Not going to be easy

The fact that I was asking myself all these questions about Bob made me realize that I was moving into a more adult world. I was leaving behind a childhood passion for football – I was seriously soccer – and embarking on a serious quest in the wonderland of music.

It wasn’t going to be easy. The Greatest Hits album had been released in 1967, with the newest song dating from 1966, when I was 10 years old and England beat West Germany 4-2 after extra time to win the World Cup. On my timescale, that was a big gap.

Even though intense listening to Sooner Or Later (One Of Us Must Know) revealed that songs could tell strange stories, that a popular voice could be many things, and that the vocals on the recent chart hit Virginia Plain by Roxy Music were clearly Dylan-influenced, I needed something new. Scaduto had made me want to know more.

Words or music?

I bought a copy of Michael Gray‘s Song & Dance Man : The Art Of Bob Dylan, which was tougher going than the biography.1 In fact, to get my head round it, not only did I need to have a working knowledge of the 1960s pop culture, but also a familiarity with the whole of English Literature. Gray pointed out that Subterranean Homesick Blues was inspired both by Chuck Berry and Robert Browning. Hmm.

Was Dylan more about words or more about music, I wondered? This was more than four decades before he was awarded the Nobel Prize f,or Literature. I hadn’t been able to separate the two. Gray’s scholarly analysis was very literary, but also mixed in references to particular musical styles I had never heard of before. Reading him felt like following someone up a dark alley to find an answer, and finally discovering you were on your own. With no direction home. It seemed I’d just have to find my own answers.

Confused by a new Dylan release

By June 1973, I had become a regular reader of the music papers. I followed the build-up to the release of the movie Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, in which Dylan played a minor role, as well as writing and performing the soundtrack. Yes, it was a western – a genre for my parents‘ generation – but I wasn’t focused on the movie at all. For the first time, I was about to experience the release of a new Bob Dylan song.

Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door got regular radio play and was a hit in the UK. Dylan was just part of the mass of commercial music of the time. Did the song stand out from the rest? Not for a long time. I regret to say that what today is clearly a deep reflection on the passage between about life and death, didn’t sound like an instant classic to my 16 year-old ears.

It was short, brooding, and seemed underperformed, as if he was holding something back. Okay, it was Dylan. But I had been reading about a Dylan who was in the spotlight, ringing the changes. I wasn’t expecting this. I was rebelling against the Catholic church in my personal life, and didn’t want to hear anything about Heaven’s Door – even if the song today is also a Bob-branded bourbon.

It was new material, but Uncle Bob sounded old. I didn’t even buy a copy, preferring the spark of Bob’s Greatest Hits and picking up two of his previous albums when I had the funds. Freewheelin‘ from 1963 came first, with its wildly original language and wide-ranging themes and moods . The songs were full of spirit and sincerity and wheedled their way into my head. Then I leapt to 1965 for Bringing it all back home with its electric and acoustic sides and that great cover, It was an album where every song seemed so skilfully done that electric and acoustic performances alike glistened and gleamed.

Bootlegs and pirate’s treasure

Thus far, not many people I knew were interested in Dylan, so it felt like a personal project of sorts. Dylan wasn’t background music or dance music, and most people preferred to listen to him one song at a time. He wasn’t easy to share but, as I couldn’t stop mentioning him, good things came through schoolfriends at St Mark’s.

One unforgettable occasion was when dear old Chester Kamen, with whom I shared many musical adventures, invited me along to a record shop he knew in London where he had bought some Hendrix bootlegs. He had also seen some stuff by Dylan.

That was the first of numerous nerve-tingling trips to the same address. It felt like crossing a line to get something otherwise unobtainable. Obviously, you couldn’t just walk in and ask for bootlegs. Chester explained that first you looked at the official albums by the artist you were interested in, and then looked meaningfully at the shop-owner and asked what else he had. Wink wink, nudge nudge. He would then look around to see who else was in the shop, before reaching, literally, under the counter, and pulling out his secret stock of rare recordings.

It was like opening a pirate’s treasure chest. On that first day I bought a copy of Uncle Bob’s 1962 Gaslight recordings.

Performance of John Brown from The Gaslight Recordings

As the months passed, I would return for more, becoming enamoured of the 1966 World Tour material, and particularly the electric set from the famous so-called Royal Albert Hall 1966 bootleg, the latter being of the same quality as the official release in 1998.

Lucky strike with a classic single

There was also the time when another classmate, Tim Maher, said he had come across a Dylan single at home in some neglected corner of the family record collection. What was it called ? I Want You. Was he sure ? Sure he was sure. Could I hear it ? Tim brought the record into class the next day. I thanked him and said I would listen to it and give it back. Give it back ? He wouldn’t hear of me giving it back. I could have it. His parents were happy to get rid of it.

At home, I realized the importance of what he had given me. On Side A, I Want You sounded like a different mix to the version I knew from the Greatest Hits album and had the guitar up front.

I compared the two versions just to check my memory wasn’t playing tricks with me – The Cutting Edge archives released in 2015 would later confirm just how many versions there were of how many songs from the same period.

Source : www.discogs.com

On Side B of that same single came the live version of Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues recorded in Liverpool in 1966, with its tortured vocal that made Dylan sound as if he was about to break. Astounded, I played it over and over. I couldn’t believe how much more emotionally charged it was than the Royal Albert Hall version from the same tour, which was the only other version I knew then. When I thanked Tim the next day, he was chuffed I liked it, but he couldn’t have known how happy I was.

A long streak of Dylan luck

That single was the start of a long streak of Dylan luck which would run for the next 12 months or so. Uncle Bob was news again. It started when Christmas 73 came around. The recently published Writings and Drawings of Bob Dylan was the most important thing in my stocking. After marvelling over the contents, including quirky draft versions of famous songs, as well as the line drawings, I wondered about the title. The complete works ? Was this it ? Did Dylan have any more songs left in him ?

Playful Planet Waves

Then, in January 1974, came Planet Waves, Dylan’s first full album of new pieces for a while. He had recorded it with The Band, whose beautiful, raggedy playing I knew from my precious Albert Hall bootleg and songs heard from Great White Wonder. I liked the album cover which I was shown by a teacher at my school who bought it when it came out.

From what I had learned about Dylan’s discography, the artwork was clearly done by the same artist as the cover of Self Portrait, who was Bob himself. You could make out that same eye for features. My teacher said it was great that Dylan was recording again, and making music with The Band. Just like old times. It was cool to be able to talk about all this naturally to somebody who was also a fan. But another thought crossed my mind : did I want to listen to the same records as my teachers ? This was something I would have to accept for the time being.

But there was an up side to Planet Waves. The cajun swing of On a night like this, the single released from the album, sounded fresh. There was a good energy to the music.

The group sound, and especially Robbie Robertson’s guitar on Going Going Gone, was masterful. Dirge had echos of Ballad of a Thin Man, with highly charged lyrics balanced by a simple piano-guitar arrangement. Dylan was in good voice too, I thought, and more playful than when he had been knocking on heaven’s door. The album got some positive reviews, radio airplay and even modestly charted. It also spawned two versions of Forever Young of which Conor McPherson, creator of the magnificent stage musical Girl from the North Country has recently said : It’s almost like a hymn, that song. It could be sung at a wedding or a funeral or a baptism or any of those things.

Before The Flood Tour

More importantly, the release of the album coincided with a 40-date North American Stadium Tour by Dylan and The Band, starting on January 3rd in Chicago and finishing on Valentine’s Day at the LA Forum in Inglewood. Naturally it was a sell-out. The music papers were full of reviews as the tour progressed, generally positive.

Before The Flood, the live album of the tour which came out in June 1974, was made up mainly of recordings from the Inglewood concerts. It was a big moment for me, hearing songs I knew from Dylan’s vast repertoire in new versions, discovering The Band as a band. Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way And I’ll Go Mine, which I’d never heard before, opened all the album in great style.

What did the original version sound like I wondered ? It wasn’t playing on the radio, I didn’t know anyone who had a copy of it, so I sent off for a copy of Blonde On Blonde from the unbeatably priced Virgin Mail Order service. Dylan was back on song.

Love on the tracks

My final year at secondary school began in September 1974. It had been a great summer because I had well and truly fallen in love, having met Sylvie from Toulouse, who was just as interested in music as I was. In spite of the distance between our cities, we had seen similar artists live – Rory Gallagher and The Who were just two examples. She pointed out to me the importance of Neil Young and Leonard Cohen, and I did the same for the young Bruce Springsteen and, naturally, Uncle Bob. Music was a recurring theme in our letters, especially as Sylvie was able to get US import versions of new albums before they officially appeared in the UK.

Blood on the Tracks was released in January 1975. The songs were so good it was unreal. It is now seen as a turning-point recording in Dylan’s career. The writing flowed again, and the 1974 tour had certainly helped the strength and phrasing of his singing compared to Planet Waves. Even on his own scale of achievement, Dylan had moved to another level, managing to create something new. These were songs about love and relationships, about people older than me, but I had somebody my own age to share it with. She also got a copy of the album before I did. My search for Uncle Bob Dylan was no longer the solitary experience it had been at the beginning. I liked that.

Suddenly Bob was everybody’s uncle

So that’s the story. Since that first step with Scaduto’s biography to the release of Blood on the Tracks, in 3 years, I had tuned into an artist who everybody seemed to know by name, but who had disappeared from view. I had seen him metamorphose into a new version of himself.

In autumn 1975, when I started at Keele University, Dylan was a natural reference again. In fact, Bob seemed to be everybody’s uncle, and he’s managed to keep it that way ever since. Lots of people will be wishing him a happy 82nd birthday today.

As for me, the rest of my family and a whole bunch of friends and neighbours, we also hope big sister Angie, whose Christmas gift got this whole thing started, gets well soon!

  1. I didn’t realise that this was the first book to show in such detail that Dylan was a major creative figure to be absolutely taken seriously. The 50th anniversary edition has just been published in 3 volumes. I wonder how many of the Nobel Prize committee read this when they were students. ↩︎

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2 Comments

  1. Jean-Pierre Perez

    Merci Gerry pour avoir retracé la très riche carrière de Uncle Bob tout en établissant de façon plus personnelle, voire intime par moments, des liens avec ton propre cheminement et ta propre vie. En lisant ces lignes j’ai acquis la conviction que j’avais eu la chance de pouvoir échanger avec quelqu’un qui partage les mêmes centres d’interêt et les mêmes passions pour la richesse de la langue de Dylan, si bien servie par sa musique, mais aussi pour la beauté et la richesse de la langue d’un d’un autre poète, Shakespeare, qui mériterait bien qu’on lui discerne le prix Nobel de Littérature à titre posthume…

  2. Gerry Kenny

    Merci Jean Pierre. Je me souviens encore du concert de Montauban le 6 juillet 2004. Nous y étions tous les deux, mais pas ensemble, sous la pluie fine. Et Dylan sur scène qui revient pour un rappel : “I wanna dedicate this next song to that painter guy who comes from round here. Can’t remember his name though.” Il a joué All Along The Watchtower. Il voulait dire Ingres, le grand peintre né à Montauban. Qui jouait aussi du violon, parait-il. Nous avons tous nos jardins secrets qui poussent bien sous une pluie fine.

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