50 Years On, A Reason to Look Back
Guest Blogger: Elizabeth Thomson is the editor of No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan by Robert Shelton.
Fifty years ago today, 29 September 1961, a review appeared in the New York Times which can be said, without exaggeration, to have changed the course of popular music history. “Bob Dylan – A Distinctive Folk Song Stylist” – a four-column headline, with a picture of Dylan in the Huck Finn cap he would make famous, and wearing a tie – probably didn’t please the night’s headline act, a well-known and not untalented bluegrass trio named the Greenbriar Boys. They were accorded four brief paragraphs at the end of Shelton’s story. The gig took place at Gerde’s Folk City, situated just off Washington Square, which was the hub of the New York folk revival. Gerde’s Monday night hoots, short for hootenanny, offered a platform to aspirant young singers and had been launched by the club’s Italian owner, Mike Porco, at Shelton’s suggestion.
Shelton’s review made Dylan’s career, according to the singer’s then girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, with whom he is famously photographed on the cover of Freewheelin, his second album, released in 1963. She recalled how the two of them walked to the newspaper kiosk on Sheridan Square, bought a first edition of the Times and went to a nearby deli to read it over a coffee. Then they went back and bought a dozen more copies. Within a few days, Dylan had a contract with Columbia Records, signed by the legendary John Hammond, who reportedly hadn’t even heard him sing.
A chubby-faced kid, who looks in that photo as though he was scarcely able to grow a beard, the former Robert Zimmerman had dropped out of college to come to New York City in search of his idol, Woody Guthrie, arriving amid the fiercely cold winter of 1961. He’d been captivated by his book, Bound for Glory, lent to him by a fellow student in Minneapolis. But the Guthrie Dylan did indeed meet in New York was but a shadow of the rambling man he’d once been, reduced to a shell by Huntingdon’s Chorea, a wasting disease he’d sadly inherited.
That Guthrie was slowly dying did not diminish Dylan’s enthusiasm and one of the songs he sang that night in Gerde’s was his own “Song to Woody”, which also paid tribute to “Cisco and Sonny and Leadbelly too/And to all the good people that travelled with you”, all of whom influenced Dylan, whose first New York gig is thought to have been at the Gaslight.
He had crossed paths with Shelton on a few occasions – the Village was as much a community, a state of mind, as a place. The New York Times man had heard Dylan when he’d played support to John Lee Hooker in the spring of ’61, and, in the summer, at an all-day hootenanny at Riverside Church, way up on Manhattan’s West Side, where Martin Luther King would later preach. That gig got Dylan his first name-check in the Times – Shelton had promised a proper review, when he had a proper gig. Which was how he came to be seated in Gerde’s that night, probably drinking Porco’s famously watered down whisky.
Shelton, who died in Brighton, England, in December 1995, never claimed to have discovered Dylan (“he discovered himself” he always said) though many less distinguished critics (and make no mistake about it, Shelton is the father of popular music journalism) have made bolder claims. From the outset, he recognised the magnitude of Dylan’s talent, unformed as it still was that night in 1961, and, from close quarters had watched him grow. They became friends, though both men respected the other’s position as artist or critic, and by the mid-Sixties Shelton was at work on a biography.
No Direction Home was a long time coming, because Shelton – almost from the outset – was determined to write a serious study of a man he believed should be spoken of in the same breath as Picasso and Welles, as one of the 20th century’s great cultural figures. His publishers wanted a potboiler, a sex-and-drugs-and-rock ’n’ roll chronicle of excess. Shelton refused – “I won’t sell off the relics of a friend” he inisted, even as he faced bankruptcy in the 1980s – and paid a terrible price, seeing his life’s work cut about by editors who didn’t understand it or the music or the milieu, and forced to accept a lower royalty. The version that was originally published, 25 years ago this month, was, Shelton always said, “abridged over troubled waters”. Still there were many people who appreciated it, understood it, but neither book or author were accorded the recognition they deserved. Over time, No Direction Home has come to be regarded as a classic, but Shelton didn’t live to see that, or to witness the return to form of the singer-songwriter about whose bright future he had written so presciently on 29 September 1961.
Shelton was a friend and mentor to me, encouraging me as I took my first faltering steps into journalism in the early Eighties and entrusting me with his manuscript to read and to comment on. When he died, I determined than one day, when the time was right, a version would be published that was closer to the book Robert Shelton had written. And this year, on 24 May – Dylan’s seventieth birthday – it was indeed published, in the States by Backbeat; in Britain by Omnibus Press; in Australia by Hardie Grant; in Germany by Edel; and in Brazil by Larousse. My “director’s cut” restores much background and foreground, placing Dylan and his circle in their proper context. Dylan’s voice, and the voices of Suze Rotolo and her sister Carla, of Joan Baez, of Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers, of Allen Ginsberg, are more distinct, the characters more present. And so too Robert Shelton, the teller of this extraordinary tale, a witness to history who was with Dylan at all the pivotal moments of his career: not just at Gerde’s, but at Newport, at the Woody Guthrie tribute, at the Isle of Wight… We listen to their conversation, as Shelton joins Dylan on his private plane, leaving Lincoln, Nebraska for Denver, Colorado at the break of midnight during the 1966 tour when Dylan, and the Band as they would soon become, battled to be heard. And we follow Shelton backstage at Earls Court in 1978, during the world tour that was such a triumph for Dylan. During the course of an emotional reunion, Dylan asked Shelton what happened to the Greenbriar Boys.
I hope Robert Shelton would feel proud of his book, which is also a beautiful object lovingly designed. His surviving family certainly is. It’s a great, great book – which I feel quite able to say because, though my name is on the jacket, I didn’t write it. Anyone who hasn’t read it should, because they will discover much about Dylan and his friends that they didn’t know. Because unlike every other biographer, Shelton was there.
Read it and you will be too.
Click here to hear editor Elizabeth Thomson interviewed at the Book Expo America.