Guest Blogger: Liz Thomson, editor of No Direction Home by Robert Shelton
A half-century on from Bob Dylan’s first record, there’s diamonds and only a little rust …
As Bob Dylan once reminded us, “the past is close behind”. This week it seems close indeed, but also another lifetime.
On Saturday, St Patrick’s Day, I went to see Joan Baez play the second of two dates at London’s Royal Festival Hall, three-quarters of the way through a month-long UK tour. She’s 71 now, and while her cropped hair is an elegant silver, the “spun-gold tone” of her voice has given way to a burnished bronze, the lower registers deliciously warm and sonorous but her trademark upper range diminished by age and use. She’s as charismatic as ever, chatting easily with the audience and sharing snapshots from a career that dates back to 1959.
Last year’s news, which was not news to me, that she’d had a relationship with Steve Jobs has served as a reminder of how cool Baez remains, though she’s always described herself as “a square”, largely because she’s never done drugs. (Neither does she drink very much.) Her unwillingness to “turn on, tune in, drop out” was one reason, she suggested the other night, that she found herself cast to the outer circle on Dylan’s madcap tour of Britain in 1965. As Don’t Look Back shows, Dylan pretty much ignored her (he sort of apologised in the Scorsese documentary) and Baez, at least partly in pique, went off with Donovan. She sang “Catch the wind”, the song he wrote around that time. (Dylan, of course, mocked him.)
Dylan wasn’t much mentioned from the stage but then Baez didn’t need to name him. Rather, she just sang “With God on our side”, as topical and resonant as it was back in 1963, as well as “Love is just a four-letter word,” which Dylan wrote while staying with her in Carmel , tossing the lyric into the wastepaper basket, from which Baez rescued it, and, as an encore, “Blowin’ in the wind”. In 1963, and sporadically since, Dylan and Baez sang together, performances that were often as rough-hewn (Dylan was “allergic” to the idea of rehearsing she later said) as they were powerful. I’d have walked a million miles to see them together.
And today, 19 March, it’s fifty years since Dylan released his debut album. As with Baez, who he heard at her unannounced Newport debut in 1959, noting all that spun gold, it was Robert Shelton who wrote the New York Times review, on 29 September 1961, that played a key role in launching Dylan’s career. Indeed, it’s said that John Hammond signed him to Columbia on the strength of it, without having heard him sing a note – though he did meet Dylan within days of the review, at a Carolyn Hester session on which he was playing harmonica.
In any event, Dylan recorded his first album over the course of three sessions in November 1961, his girlfriend Suze Rotolo by his side in the studio, able to lend her lipstick case for bottleneck guitar effects. It included just two original compositions, “Talkin’ New York” and “Song to Woody”, an elegy to his first (and last) idol, Woody Guthrie, whose life and legend had lured the student Robert Zimmerman to New York just a few months earlier. Shelton was sent a test pressing in order that he could write the liner notes, which he did under the pseudonym of Stacey Williams. To prepare, musician and critic met at Shelton’s Waverly Place apartment, midway between Gerdes Folk City and the White Horse Tavern, where Dylan and Shelton often drank with the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. (What great craic it must have been there Paddy’s Day!)
In his biography, No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, Shelton wrote that Dylan was “still not prepared to go far in discussing his early days”, though he allowed that he’d graduated from high school in Hibbing, “way up by the Canadian border” and that, while he’d gone to the University of Minnesota on a scholarship, he left after just six months because “I didn’t agree with school”, though “I read a lot, but not the required readings”.
Shelton asked him if he anticipated stardom: “Dylan looked as modest as a hobo with a nickel in his pocket. ‘I never thought I would shoot lightening through the sky in the entertainment field’.” And how did he write? “Either the song comes fast, or it won’t come at all… Some songs marinade for a long time. I just jot down little phrases and things I overhear’.”
By the time the album was released (in the UK, it slipped out in May or June), Dylan regarded it as a piece of juvenilia that should have remained in the bottom drawer – Shelton describes it as “the last will and testament of one Dylan and the birth of a new Dylan”.
In the months that followed, Dylan wrote like a demon, many of the songs born of the sadness of separation from Suze, who was in Italy studying art, and of his involvement with the civil rights movement. “Blowin’ in the wind”, “Masters of war”, “A hard rain’s a-gonna fall” and “Girl from the north country” would appear on his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, laid down towards the end of 1962 and released in July 1963, by which time Peter, Paul and Mary had taken “Blowin’ in the wind” to the top of the charts.
Then came the Newport Folk Festival: Dylan arrived “an underground conversation piece, and left a national star”, wrote Shelton. There, in a Friday afternoon workshop, Dylan and Baez sang together publicly for the first time, their duet on “With God on our side” preceding Dylan’s scheduled solo debut. The Festival closed with Baez, who brought Dylan on, and the weekend concluded with the world’s most famous singalong, the two singers joined by Pete Seeger, Odetta, Peter, Paul and Mary and the Freedom Singers.
Back in London last weekend and towards the end of the concert, Baez sang “Diamonds and rust”, her poignant 1975 reflection on her affair with the kid she describes as “the original vagabond… the unwashed phenomenon”. The melody line was recast to accommodate her changed voice, and so was at least one of the lines: “Fifty years ago I bought you some cufflinks…”
No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, written by Robert Shelton, edited by Liz Thomson and Patrick Humphries
Today, everything Bob Dylan does guarantees saturation media coverage, and a new edition of No Direction Home is long overdue. This new edition, published to coincide with Dylan’s 70th birthday on May 24, 2011, restores significant parts of Shelton’s original manuscript and also includes key images of Dylan throughout his incredible, enduring career, alongside updated footnotes and bibliography, and a new selective discography, making it a must for all Dylan aficionados.