Extra! Daniel Kramer’s year with Bob Dylan

Written for Pulp magazine last year.

5-coverBob Dylan: A Year and a Day. Photographs by Daniel Kramer

Edited by Nina Wiener / Art Direction by Josh Baker / Design by Jess Sappenfield
Published by Taschen, hardcover in a clamshell box, edition of 1,965 (cute!)

“In retrospect, it’s clear that Bob was in the process of winding up a very large spring. I didn’t know then 
how much of that spring would be let loose in the coming months.” – Daniel Kramer

On July 20th 1965, Bob Dylan, the star of the Greenwich Village Folk Boom, exploded onto the pop charts. America’s first modern singer-songwriter, Dylan, in the six minutes and thirteen seconds that it took for the epochal “Like a Rolling Stone” to be debuted on US radio, virtually created grown-up rock music. But Dylan’s spectacular reinvention of himself and his music had not just happened overnight – it had been brewing for a while. At the beginning of this astonishing, game-changing period – the like of which had previously been the preserve of fine artists such as Matisse and Picasso – photographer Daniel Kramer found himself, through a mixture of talent, persistence and chance, in the position of recording the highs of an extraordinary year in the life of Bob Dylan.

Having first seen Dylan on Steve Allen’s variety show in February, 1964 (“It was the kind of sound I always liked. It reminded me of a voice from the hills… like a voice that had been left out in the rain and rusted…”) Kramer decided that he had to photograph this performer who was brave enough to play songs about social injustice on a mainstream tv show. He called Dylan’s management: “Naturally I was told Mr Dylan was not available. And so it went. I would call, and they would say no.” Eventually, Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, picked up the phone. “By this time he knew why I was calling. I convinced him that I was a reasonable, completely sane, published, professional photographer. I was caught by surprise when his almost immediate answer was, Okay, come up to Woodstock next Thursday. You can have an hour. Just like that… just like that!”

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So Kramer drove two hours north of New York City on a bright August morning and spent the day following the 23-year-old musician as he read newspapers, played chess, and hung out with Sally Grossman (Albert’s wife) and his own wife-to-be, Sara Lownds. In the early Sixties, Woodstock was still a sleepy burg, a place where Dylan could keep the increasing intensity of life in New York at bay. The pictures are winningly relaxed and goofy, Dylan obviously finding Kramer a copacetic presence, and from that simple beginning, Kramer found himself photographing Dylan on thirty occasions over the next 365 days.

Kramer had come to photography early, aged 14, and later fell into a job working as an assistant at the studio of the fashion photographer Allan Arbus. “His wife, Diane Arbus, also did her darkroom work there – it turned out to be more than just a job. From Allan I learned to manage a studio, work with models, and run the business – and from Diane, I learned to open my eyes a bit wider, to think about my pictures in new ways.” His next gig was assisting Philippe Halsman, legendary Life magazine cover photographer. “From Philippe, I learned how to make light do your bidding, instead of the other way around, and how to choose a decent wine – and that photography could be a great adventure and a pathway to the whole world.”

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From Kramer’s fascinating recollections in the accompanying text, we find that he becomes one of Dylan’s travelling companions. In this role, he’s given both space and time to produce meaningful work. It’s a hallmark of Dylan’s relationships with the producers, musicians and photographers who come into his orbit – once they are admitted, they are allowed to bring their vision with them. Only Alfred Wertheimer on his trips around the country with a young Elvis Presley had such access to a popular star, with similar results – to show the nuts and bolts of the music business and lift the veil at the moment that the cultural plates were shifting.

Listen to any of the session tapes of recent release The Cutting Edge (every single note of music Dylan recorded, complete with false starts and unused takes, throughout 1965, the year of Kramer’s book) and you’ll find that Dylan’s moulding of what’s happening is subtle and understated, only occasionally direct and demanding. And if you met his approval, his world was your oyster. Kramer takes full advantage, producing classic black-and-white reportage backstage, onstage, in cars and cafes.

The book, beautifully laid out, is broken into sections (Woodstock / Town Hall / In the Studio / Bob & Joan / Early ’65 / Forest Hills) by lyrics letterpressed onto heavy matt paper, with Kramer’s excellent narrative set in typewriter, an era-specific evocation of the prevailing technology of the time.

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The sheer size of the book lets you feel that you’re at a really well-curated exhibition, one where the scaling and sequencing of the images are perfectly judged. The detail drawn out of the gorgeous grain of the 35mm Kodak Tri-X film that Kramer used is wonderful, and the book is a much more satisfying way to see these photographs than as individual prints in a gallery.

The colour film that Kramer shot of Dylan, the cover session for Bringing It All Back Home, one of the two albums he would release in 1965 (the other, Highway 61 Revisited, also had a cover shot by Kramer) sits happily at the centre of the book, in a section called “Intermission”. Kramer’s studio shoots (including a meeting at Kramer’s New York studio that would provide the cover for Dylan’s first book, Tarantula) give a break between the reportage either side and show that his earlier experiences in the studio with Arbus and Halsman served him well.

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But first, he needed the persuasive techniques of Bob’s manager to make these shoots happen. After Columbia’s art director, John Berg, refuses to commission the (as he saw it) inexperienced Kramer to shoot the cover of Bringing It All Back Home, Grossman intervenes. “Mr Grossman took us [Dylan and Kramer] to the art director’s office, where he proceeded to make a series of predictions of what bad things would happen [to Berg] if I did not get this assignment.”

Having been present at the recording sessions, Kramer knew that he had to deliver something that related to Dylan’s new direction – and a technique he was working on for a fashion shoot with his 4×5 view camera seemed perfect. It enabled him to make “multiple exposures on one sheet of film while moving, blurring, or keeping sharp parts of any single exposure”, a world away from the fly-on-the-wall 35mm reportage that Kramer had been shooting up to this point.

Arranging Dylan in a room set at Grossman’s Woodstock house, with Sally Grossman draped decoratively on a sofa, Kramer adds elements to make his technique work. “We scoured the house and basement to find things to put in the picture so there would be things to ‘move’ when the camera back was revolved. I wanted to say that Bob Dylan was less a folksinger and more a prince of music. So there in the centre of the turning record is Bob Dylan without an instrument, in this beautiful room, seated with a beautiful woman in a red dress… we were lucky to get one exposure with the cat looking into my lens.” Kramer can’t resist telling us that he and John Berg were nominated for a Grammy Award for best album cover photograph…

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Around this time, a new Dylan snaps into view, as the pages turn from images of joking around with old friends to those of Dylan with an early hero, Johnny Cash. Dylan is about to play one of his last acoustic shows and has morphed from the chubby-faced Chaplinesque troubadour to a more angular and focused presence. Over dinner with Cash, he seems to be burning with a particular intensity, fixing Dan Kramer and Cash both with a piercing gaze.

The next stage is about to begin in earnest, and it will lead to the alienation of Dylan’s loyal fanbase. His artistic horizons are widening to take in Pop Art and filmmaking – from Greenwich Village to the Warhol factory was only a matter of a few downtown NY blocks, but in 1965 it was an artistic chasm. On one side, the gruesomely authentic folksters, on the other, the achingly hip (yet blatantly commercial) scenesters. As Dylan moved inexorably across from one to the other, the air was thick with cries of Sell Out! and worse. Kramer finds himself shooting from the inside out.

A show at Forest Hills with electric backing will plunge Dylan into a maelstrom that the world of rock has rarely seen, as a performer’s desire to follow his muse sees him branded a Judas and pelted with objects. Visually, Dylan’s look begins to assume the sharp outlines of an icon – even in a close-field blur, with Albert Grossman far away in the stands of the Forest Hills stadium, Dylan is instantly recognisable, entering the period where he would be drawn by Milton Glaser as a rainbow-headed visualisation of the grooviness and excitement of the middle sixties.

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And that concert signals the end of Kramer’s travels with Bob. The last shots are of Dylan at one remove from his audience, backlit by blinding spotlights as someone invades the stage, chased by cops. A tour of the US and Europe awaits Dylan, his world accelerating until it culminates in a motorcycle accident that will remove him from the public glare for the following years.

Daniel Kramer moves onto a long and successful career straddling editorial, advertising and motion-picture work, and never photographs Dylan again. And Dylan? Well, he’s still “on the road, heading to another joint…”, not stopping long enough to be pinned down. But we, luckily, have this epic production to linger over, reliving that remarkable year when the times were truly changing.

If you’re receiving the email out, please click on the Date Headline of the page for the full 5 Things experience. It will bring you to the site (which allows you to see the Music Player) and all the links will open in another tab or window in your browser.

The book of Five Things is available from Amazon here.

Front Cover

He writes with the insight of someone who has inhabited the world of the professional musician but also with the infectious enthusiasm of someone who is a fan like anyone of us. He also comes at the subject from an entirely personal, slightly sideways perspective, with no agenda and no product to sell. It’s entertaining and inspiring in equal measure.”

“A terrific book, stuffed to the gills with snippets of news items and observations all with a musical theme, pulled together by the watchful eye of Martin Colyer… lovingly compiled, rammed with colour photos and interesting stories. Colyer has a good ear for a tune, an eye for the out-of-ordinary and he can write a bit too.”

Extra! Protest Songs No.2: “The Danger Zone”

Songwriter and singer Percy Mayfield was a scribe for the loveless and lost, but also for the man railing against the possibility of Armageddon. Even in the most plaintive and beautiful lovesick ballad, his apocalyptic bent creeps in. Here’s “Please Send Me Someone to Love”:
“Show the world how to get along
Peace will enter, when hate is gone
But if it’s not asking too much
Please send me someone to love…”

“River’s Invitation” conjoins his missing sweetheart with thoughts of suicide:
“I spoke to the river
And the river spoke back to me
It said man you look so lonely
You look full of misery
And if you can’t find your baby
Come and make your home with me”

Even a visit home was no fun. “Stranger in My Own Hometown”, cut famously by Elvis, finds the singer bemoaning his lot…
“I came home with good intentions
About 5 or 6 years ago
But my hometown won’t accept me
Just don’t feel welcome here no more…”

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His most famous song was for his mentor, Ray Charles – “Hit the Road, Jack” was a monster hit in 1961. But on the B-Side, cut at the same session, was “The Danger Zone”, blessed with one of Ray’s greatest ever performances. Here’s a lovely piece about the song, and its relation to Leonard Cohen’s “Almost Like the Blues”, at thebluemoment.

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Its refrain has been running around my head for the last few months, to the point where I had to record a version of it. So forgive me the gall. Here it is. [removed for remixing]

 

 

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Extra! All best for the holiday season…

rushingxmas

Next week, before the year ends, I’ll attempt to write about Josh Ritter at Shepherds Bush Empire (stunningly good), the American Pie Classic Albums on BBC4 (no Rob Stoner, not enough Paul Griffin), David Lynch’s Twin Peaks scene sountracked by Otis, and Guitarmaggedon (Matt Umanov’s on Bleeker Street closing, guitar sales down).

This week, though, a Christmas card from Jimmy Rushing and family, sent to my dad in the late 50s, and my take on another* Christina Rosetti Christmas song. Apologies for the unmixed state of it, but you know Christmas and deadlines… Thanks for reading over the past year, and best wishes to all.

 

* A couple of years ago I recorded “In the Bleak Midwinter” as an eight-minute soundscape. using the Teisco Baritone guitar that I had recently acquired [you can listen to it here]. The bari is back this year, wrestling with twitchy drummers and a ghostly choir (thanks, Mimosa!).

Extra! 55 Hours in Berlin

Richard Williams has been the Artistic Director of the Berlin Jazzfest for the past three years; 2017 is his last year and I wanted to make up for missing the first two. So, picking up tickets for three performances (the rest were sold out) and buying seats on three trains, I packed my poor knowledge of contemporary jazz and a small bag and headed to Berlin.

berlin-jazzfest

I arrived a couple of days after the festival started, but as the train pulled into the station, Richard texted with tickets to that evening’s programme. So started my time in Berlin, a wholly enjoyable blur of astonishing musicians, attentive, clued-up audiences and great coffee. Some highlights:

ONE TYSHAWN SOREY
My introduction to the festival was the artist-in-residence’s Trio, with Cory Smythe on piano, and Chris Tordini on bass. Sorey prowled around a small city’s worth of percussive devices and instruments (including a drum kit, a parade drum, vibes, keyboards and a large gong) accentuating the music at one moment, driving it the next. It was impressive but I didn’t feel entirely engaged.

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However, the next day featured Tyshawn in a supporting role (although I don’t think it can really be described as such). Playing a conventional kit in a trio with the powerful Angelika Niescier on saxophone (she was the recipient of this year’s Albert Mangelsdorff Prize) he was flatly astonishing. I’ve never seen a drummer make such a thundering, roiling noise with such clarity. Simultaneous rolls with each hand, a pumping bass drum, and slashed cymbals combined in an exhilarating performance where he was always alive in the music but never grandstanding. A mobile phone had gone off in Sorey’s previous appearance and one went off here, too. Richard said that had never happened before. I posited the theory that it was something to do with Tyshawn’s unique energy field…

TWO MÔNICA VASCONCELOS
The World Service producer and presenter, with her longstanding band, played her recent album of songs about living in Brazil under the military government, The Sao Paulo Tapes. Produced by Robert Wyatt and featuring songs written by some of Brazil’s greatest, the projected backdrop of photographs from that period added an unsettling element to her midnight set in a theatre space off the main concert hall.

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Her warm, lovely voice sat on a fantastic bed of bossa rhythms, expertly played. With two basses (double and electric), great guitar from Ife Tolentino and Ingrid Laubrock’s sax to the fore, it was a perfect jewel-like performance.

THREE AMBROSE AKINMUSIRE
During a fantastic suite of music commissioned for the festival, based on the four songs that Mattie Mae Thomas left the world when she was recorded in Parchman Farm in 1939, guitarist Marvin Sewell played an achingly moving blues, intense and soulful. His buzzing slide sounded like the grooves of a 78 come to life, before he switched back to playing the oldest pattern of the blues, setting up a throbbing pulse as Mattie Mae’s voice ghosted into the tune, sampled, cut up and looped. At the same time, vocalist Dean Bowman worked around and off her performance.

As it developed, composer and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire stepped in, his beautifully burnished tone pulling the music from the farm to the city with a moody five-note melody that sounded angular and sophisticated in contrast. The music built and built on the piano and trumpet until Sewell came back in to match Akinmusire’s explorations, sounding almost like Larry Carlton with Steely Dan. The band’s groove stayed strong, never losing sight of Mississippi, even as the guitar and trumpet played like cat-and-mouse over the top. It was astonishing to think that they had played this piece only once before, at their rehearsal together the previous day. “How in the pocket was that!” Richard exclaimed at the concert’s end, his first tentative thoughts of Ambrose using Mattie Mae Thomas as a starting point triumphantly realised.

FOUR RENÉ URTREGER AT 83
To the Maison de France for a showing of Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, Louis Malle’s first film, which famously has a Miles Davis soundtrack. The last surviving musician from the band that recorded it, René Urtreger, gave a solo recital after the screening. His talent was barely dimmed by the passing years. He had become a pop arranger for Claude François and a film composer for Claud Berri before returning to his first love, jazz, in the late 70s.

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In conversation with Richard, René was mischievous and spry: “I become friends with Miles Davis, we share the same room. And now I can tell it, it’s 60 years after – he had an affair with my sister. Okay. My sister has Alzheimer’s, she has forgotten everything (awkward audience laughter). Sorry, that’s life… I ask her about Miles, she says, who?

FIVE NELS CLINE LOVERS
Nels Cline is a master of so many guitar genres it’s dizzying. Quite a few (even the rock ones) were on display here, as he played his album of standards and oddities (like Henry Mancini’s “The Search for Cat” – a short cue from the Breakfast at Tiffany’s score and Sonic Youth’s “Snare Girl”). Conductor and arranger Michael Leonhart guided the brilliant chamber orchestra, partly made up of talented German music students – there was even a harp, always great to see.

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Moving from the noir of New York to the bleached-out tones of sunny California, Nels altered his style in response to the songs. Not one of nature’s front-men, he remained mostly seated behind a workbench covered in pedals and boxes and a lap steel (used to wonderful theramin-like effect on “I Have Dreamed” and “Why was I Born?”). From the naggingly beautiful blues of Jimmy Guiffre’s “Cry, Want” to the dissonance of Annette Peacock’s “So Hard it Hurts/Touching” this was a shape-shifting treat. And the last song, “The Bond”, a simple melodic riff that built into a hypnotic, sweeping soundscape, may just have been the best.

AND FINALLY… DR LONNIE SMITH
If Nels was the heart, Lonnie must be the soul, and it does your own soul good to watch him, a man so in command of his oeuvre (the funky Hammond writ large) that the audience is at one with him from the off. Looking for all the world like Zoltar the Fortune Teller in Tom Hanks’ Big, he lets out a howl of joy as he comes across some amusingly cheesy melody or plays a lick that he really likes. The Leslie speaker behind him was a throbbing, whirling presence of its own, and he worked his way through a barnstorming and crowd-pleasing set, his pedal bass-playing locked tight into Johnathan Blake’s hyper-attuned drumming. The guitar of Jonathan Kreisberg, who covered the bases from Wes Montgomery to James Brown, was the icing on the cake.

What a great place to end my Berlin adventure. I’d heard wailing improvisations, hushed, subtle orchestrations, blistering musical conversations and glorious melodies. The silence of Berlin on the Sunday morning after the Saturday night made it all seem dreamlike – the result of seeing ten concerts in 55 hours, perhaps. Whatever, it was fantastic to be immersed in such a creative space for such an intense period, and to see so many great collaborations work across boundaries of geography, race, language and culture.

Extra: Girl from the North Country

NOT FARGO, FARRAGO
I decided to spend an afternoon traveling in the North Country fair but sadly wished that I’d never taken leave of London Town. (To see what prompted my going, see Five Things Extra: That Dylan Play, where two friends with opposing views write about it).

Honestly, upfront I have to say that there’s more nuance and depth of character in a silent movie than there is in Girl from the North Country. Yes, I speak as a slightly reluctant attendee, but not because I was proprietorially feeling How dare they… or snottily assuming critical feelings about a work in another medium purloining Bob’s songs to its own ends. I’m not even sure that I would have been offended by Ben Elton scripting a play based around these songs, as he had done for Queen. And – also honestly – the music, arranged by Simon Hale, is delivered beautifully, with sensitive guitar, piano, bass, and fiddle accompaniment that manages to mostly stay away from a Mumford hoedown, and deliver true heft behind some good singing.

But, dramatically speaking, well… Nothing here made me feel that the writer, Conor McPherson, had any understanding of these people and their problems in this small midwestern town. The plot seemed laughably dated, cobbled together from offcuts of Steinbeck, O’Connor, and O’Neill. Slow-witted lunk? Check. Old rich man who thinks money can buy him the love of a poor but pretty girl? Check. Con man masquerading as a bible salesman? Check. Boarding-House owner with debts and a mistress? Check. Black convict trying to escape… I could work my way through the cast, but you get the drift.

There’s an almost offensive use of dementia as a dramatic device, with Shirley Henderson having to play the afflicted wife of Nick, the Boarding House owner. From the back of the stalls she looks too young (even if she isn’t in life) and plays her as a sexually incontinent, gratuitously swearing Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Really. Bits of business at the boarding house ( in a variety of clunky American accents) get interspersed with musical moments that are meant to round out character and story, but for every line that fits, there are two that seem tangential or just plain weird. “Sign on the Window” and “Went to See the Gypsy” (with its mention of “that little Minnesota town”) work at the start, but “Señor” (“Señor, señor, do you know where we’re headin’? Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?”) seems to carry a heavier apocalyptic load than these flimsy characters can bear.

And while it was great to hear songs from, say, the Empire Burlesque period, where Dylan’s own versions have weak or unlistenable production, some decisions didn’t come off. Especially in the case of “I Want You”, sung in counterpoint to a reprise of “Like a Rolling Stone”. Slowing the song’s essential skipping beat to a funereal pace and disastrously over-enunciating the lyrics (Musical Theatre Alert!) rendered those beautiful rolling and tumbling lines (“The guilty undertaker sighs/The lonesome organ grinder cries/The silver saxophones say I should refuse you”) dead on arrival. It also contained the unfortunate call and response of…
“How does it feel…” (LaRS)
“So bad…” (IWY)

I thought Bronagh Gallagher the most impressive singer (she also played very tidy drums on a few songs) especially on “Sweetheart Like You”/True Love Tends to Forget”, but I found myself more than once involuntarily leaning forward and putting my head in my hands. I didn’t want to ruin anyone’s enjoyment of the performance so I had to stop myself emitting weary sighs, but by halfway through the second half, I felt my patience being stretched thin, as thin as the dramatic arc of the story.

Thinking about the success of the play (it’s transferring to the West End soon), and the standing ovations at the finale, I wondered if there are people who go to see every musical in the West End, regardless of type. I heard the people behind me say that they must go home and listen to this Dylan guy, and I don’t mention that as a criticism. What I do think is that the bar is set too low if this farrago gets five stars from Michael Billington in The Guardian.

As I walked back to my car, I scanned through my iPhone for some music to clear my head. Brian Ferry irreverently blasting out “Hard Rain” fitted the bill as I pulled out from the Cut and onto Waterloo Bridge. When, a few songs later, Lou Reed’s “Dirty Blvd.” burst out of the speakers, I pulled over and listened, powerfully struck by the fact that he paints – with shocking detail – a fully rounded and realised story in the three and a half minutes it takes to play out. Dreams, inequality, racism, celebrity, poverty, politics, and violence. All vividly brought to life. Three and a half minutes. The last two and a half hours is just wasted time.

Extra: That Dylan Play…

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IT SEEMS THAT I HAVE TO GO TO THE THEATRE…
…which is not my favourite thing to do. But as two friends have opposite opinions on the play that uses Dylan songs throughout, it’s going to be necessary. [Image above shows Hibbing’s High School, Dylan’s Yearbook picture, Dylan onstage with his first band, The Golden Chords, and North Country Girl Echo Star Helstrom].

So here’s Bruce Millar on Conor McPherson’s Girl from the North Country:

“The first inkling that something was not quite right came early on, as it became clear that the young female actor (20s, early 30s at a pinch) in the lead role was actually playing an aging woman with dementia – well, at least 60, and we are talking about the 1930s, when that age did make you old. Her husband was, appropriately, my age and similarly gone to seed. I know, this is acting, you suspend your disbelief – but as Tom said, is it really not possible to find a female actor of 60-odd who can sing a bit? They’re always complaining of a lack of roles, but here one comes along on the West End stage and it’s snaffled by a youngster. Anyway, for me the production immediately smacked of the school play, with a teenage Lady Macbeth…

The play itself, set in Duluth (the possibly spurious BD connection – I couldn’t make out any dramatic justification for it), seemed to throw in every cliche of American southern gothic literature – the nutter in every family, the sinister and manipulative Bible salesman, the subterranean sexual passions, the wastrel would-be writer son, the washed-up pro boxer – in a not very stylish or original manner, and a couple of thousand miles north of its proper territory.

And then, in a manner rather too reminiscent of Abba – The Musical, the cast burst into song every now and then. Some of the singing was good, and there was nothing particularly wrong with the interpretations, but it slowly dawned on me that this was a Crime against Art. Recorded or live, these songs, mostly from the 60s and 70s, are all very precise, but at the same time extraordinarily open-ended; they play on the imagination, suggesting multiple meanings, feelings and depths, in a way that few songwriters have ever achieved so consistently (which is probably why the Nobel committee gave Dylan the literature prize).

Shoe-horned into this derivative drama, each song seemed to have been limited, confined, diminished, flattened and emptied-out; there was no charge, none of the reverberation that I value in the originals. It was strange to hear these great songs transformed into something so small.

Over an interval drink, Tom and I decided to cut our losses and head for Dunkirk instead. I’ve got pretty catholic tastes and am both patient and mean enough to want to get my money’s worth – the last time I walked out of a film or play was 40 years ago (strange how some things stick in the mind). I haven’t seen what the professional reviewers make of Girl from the North Country – I’ll be particularly interested in Ann Treneman’s review in the Times (if she reviews it), given that she is an admirer of Dylan. My prediction is that lazy subs will probably run headlines saying For fans of Dylan only; I would reverse that, but even then advise against going.”

And here’s Mick Gold:

“It’s a funny beast but I recommend it. Twenty songs in search of a play? Stuck in 1934 Duluth with the Eugene O’Neill Blues again? Set in a Depression era rooming house in the city where Bob will be born in seven years time, McPherson’s play floats in a fragmented way on a sea of songs. The good news is the cast and the music are wonderful. Worth the price of a ticket just to see Bronagh Gallagher (of Pulp Fiction fame) play the drums.

When a falsely accused black pugilist enters stage left, you can guess what is coming, but when the inevitable “Hurricane” blows the audience away, it’s done with massive energy. To my ears some outstanding young singers in the cast (Sheila Atim, Arinze Kene). Jim Norton, who did a brilliant job of reading the whole of Ulysses for Naxos discs, plays a seedy old man.

“Jokerman”, “Slow Train”, “Duquesne Whistle”, “Like a Rolling Stone” and many more are all done with great artistry and emotional impact. There was the occasional tear in my eye. If this were a boxing match I’d score it Play 3, Bob 5. But the reason the music is so good is McPherson does have some strange and poignant ideas about not making the songs too obvious. And the rhyming of 1934 Depression-era Main Street USA and 2017 zero-hours UK is convincing.”

Extra! Billy Bragg Comes to Tea…

In the late summer of last year, I received an email out of the blue from Billy Bragg.

“Hi Martin”, Billy wrote, “For the past couple of years I’ve been writing a book that seeks to put skiffle into its proper context in British cultural history. My starting point is your dad’s record collection and it ends with Ken playing at the 100 Club the night after the first punk festival held there in September 1976.” [These pictures show the posters on the back wall of the club].

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He went on to say that Goin’ Home: The Uncompromising Life and Music of Ken Colyer – a collaboration between Mike Pointon, Ray Smith and myself that presented Ken’s story as an oral biography – had been a great help, “not only giving me some insight into the British trad scene, but also helping me to understand the importance of New Orleans to both jazz and skiffle.”

Billy wanted to find some pictures that helped to highlight that this was the moment when guitars came to the fore, and the music shifted, setting the stage for the British Pop and R ’n’ B boom of the early sixties. Some were in the Ken book, but there were others left over, so I looked them out and Billy, who was in the East End for family reasons, came to tea. It was great to meet someone so passionate about the story of that time, as well as being what you hoped he’d be – a genuinely nice fellow. So we talked about the romance and inspiration of American roots music of all stripes, and sorted out the most relevant images.

A few days later Billy sent me a few of the chapters, and I was thrilled by the amount of love and devotion that had gone into the book. It needed someone who was willing to put the time and effort into researching and reading widely, and in finding those who had lived through those times and still had stories to be told. I know how pleased my dad would have been to see a light shone on this period – to see the story so well recounted, placed in the context of Britain’s post-war years and the American and British music that preceded and followed. From America’s prison farms to New Orleans at the turn of the century, and forward to the birth of rock, it’s not only a remarkable musical journey but also a terrific piece of social history.

It’s a bonus that Billy comes at it from the viewpoint of a working musician, and a political one at that. Following in the footsteps of Pete Frame’s excellent The Restless Generation, Billy puts flesh on the bones of the story – he shows the wild effect that Skiffle, through Lonnie Donegan, had on the youth of Britain and America, a DIY genre that gave a whole generation the means to make their own music, while shoving aside the bland and tired-out variety shows of their parents.

Roots, Radicals & Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World is released on June 1st. I really recommend it. There is a lengthy excerpt [on the music player to the right] of Billy in conversation with Bob Harris at a preview of the book, which took place at Cecil Sharp House. Here’s a short extract:

lonnie

“Lonnie Donegan takes centre stage in a photograph from the period, playing guitar and singing into the mic. To his right, Alexis Korner plays mandolin and Ken Colyer strums the guitar slung across his knee. To his left, Bill Colyer sits playing a washboard, while Chris Barber plucks a stand-up bass. This picture embodies a revolutionary moment in British popular music, when the guitar, for so long stuck at the back of the bandstand, an often inaudible part of the rhythm section, comes to the front and takes control. A young Pete Townshend was there to witness this paradigm shift.

The future powerhouse guitar player of the Who was just a schoolboy when he saw Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen at Acton Town Hall, west London. At the time, his father was a professional musician, playing with the Squadronaires big band. Used to the smooth, sophisticated swing played by his father, Townshend was shocked by the primitive nature of the Jazzmen and their crowd. “I was used to the tidy music of my dad’s era. It was messy. He (Colyer) was messy. The band were messy. The audience were messy.” In scenes of seeming chaos that would not have been out of place at a punk gig twenty-five years later, Townshend described how the men were drunk, wore cheap rough duffel coats, some had wet themselves and instead of wearing wrist watches, some had alarm clocks hanging around their necks.

Disorienting though these scenes must have been to the young Townshend, what made a lasting impression on him was the sight of guitarist taking control of the gig by bringing his instrument to the front of the stage. In that moment, he grasped the enormity of what was happening. “This instrument was going to change the world. For me, this was absolutely massive because my father was a saxophone player. I could see the end of my father’s world – I was going to get this guitar and it was going to be bye-bye old timer and that’s exactly what happened.”

Extra! Detroit, Detroit, got a hell of a hockey team…

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I didn’t write about Detroit after we’d been there in the Spring of last year – it seemed too easy to get things wrong, to be a rubbernecking tourist come to see America’s most famous dying city. Yet that’s not how Detroit appeared to us. Yes, it would take the sort of money only hosting an Olympics or a World Cup would provide to rebuild the infrastructure, and way more than a hipster influx to bring back some neighbourhoods from their desolate brink, but there was a real spirit there, in the University, in the Detroit Institute of Art, in Jack White’s Third Man Record Store on the Cass Corridor, at the great letterpress print shop Signal-Return, and in the Shinola factory, successfully bringing jobs and pride back to the Motor City. Reading Drew Philp’s nuanced piece in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago, adapted from his book, about buying a house there (Buying a $500 House in Detroit: bidding on the soul of my city) took me back to the questions of gentrification and industry and community that we talked about as we drove around 8 Mile.

[Above: Downtown from Aloft Detroit at the David Whitney building]

ONE PARTIAL PLAYLIST FROM THE JOE LOUIS ARENA, DETROIT RED WINGS GAME
In a blue-collar, hard rock town, I was hoping for a little more local talent to show up on the soundtrack to our first ever Ice Hockey match. Maybe a little MC5, or some Bob Seger. Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. Ted Nugent, even (well, on second thoughts, not Ted). Something by those sons of Ann Arbor, Michigan, Iggy and the Stooges. Anything made at the legendary Motown studio a few miles up the Boulevard. Not a bit of it. Here’s what I jotted down during the game.
– “Zorba the Greek”, by Mikis Theodorakis (the stadium is near the Greektown area of Detroit)
– Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” (no surprise there)
– Generic Scary Horror Film Music
– A fair bit of EDM. (Actually a horrible amount of EDM)

– Randy Newman’s “You Got a Friend in Me…”
– Something by Aerosmith, I think

– Soft Cell, “Tainted Love”
– Chubby Checker “Let’s Twist Again”
– The headbanging bit from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”
– The strutting bit from Elton’s “Bennie and the Jets”
– And some silent movie/Benny Hill-type musical interludes, usually accompanying a moment of humour. Or a fight on the ice.

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TWO 8 MILE LOW
There was no Eminem heard at the Ice Hockey game, and I guess that it’s stupid to think that they should play some locally-grown music at every game. But it did seem like a lost tourist opportunity that the house that Em grew up in – famous from his first two album covers – is no more. It’s now just an empty lot on Dresden at Eight Mile. We put “Lose Yourself” on the car stereo and stopped to take some pictures…

[Above: Red Wings’ Pennants/Gettin’ down at Dresden]

THREE COME AND GET THESE MEMORIES
The Motown Museum (the studio is in one of eight houses bought by Berry Gordy on West Grand Boulevard) has its feet firmly planted in the glory days of the 60s and early 70s, and is therefore a nostalgic blast. You’re hustled through pretty quickly (as Berry Gordy knows, time is money) and the shop is a strange mishmash of postcards, random CDs and out of date merch, but it’s still a thrill to be in Studio A, to stand under the hole in the ceiling (Motown’s secret echo-chamber) and to see the Gordy’s upstairs apartment in its mid-60s glory, looking for all the world like they’ve just stepped out to take the kids to school.

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FOUR THE BEAT GOES ON
From the obituary of Motown’s Sylvia Moy by Richard Sandomir in The New York Times, about her work with Stevie Wonder: “There was an announcement in a meeting that Stevie’s voice had changed, and they didn’t know exactly how to handle that,” Ms. Moy said in an interview after her induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2006. “They asked for volunteers. None of the guys would volunteer. They were going to have to let him go…” [I said] “Let this be my assignment – I don’t believe it’s over for him. Let me have Stevie.” She said that she asked Mr Wonder to play some of the “ditties” he had been working on, but she heard nothing that sounded like a hit. Then, as she was leaving, he played one final snippet of music for her and sang, “Baby, everything is all right.” There wasn’t much more, she recalled, and she told him that she would take it home and work on the melody and lyrics. With the songwriting help of Henry Cosby, a Motown producer, “Uptight” was completed. In the recording studio, though, there was no transcription of the lyrics into Braille for Mr Wonder to read from. So Ms Moy sang the words to him through his earphones. “I would stay a line ahead of him and we didn’t miss a beat.”

[Above: Moy, Wonder, Jamerson, Van Dyke and White in Studio A / Visiting Studio A / Detroit detritus

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[Above: Diego Rivera’s astonishing Detroit Industry Murals at the DIA. The workers come out well / Shinola, the calmest factory environment I’ve ever been in

FIVE WORDS FAIL
We drove to Detroit from Niagara Falls, where we sadly had no time to see Jefferson Starship (featuring Mickey Thomas) or BJ Thomas, or even to visit the Rock Legends Wax Museum.

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One Thing, Christmas Eve 2016

Towards the end of the year I heard a BBC news bulletin that made even the most terrible events of this wretched year fade into the background. I remembered that my dear friend Mark had sent an acoustic bottleneck guitar version of “Silent Night” around a few years ago for the Christmas season. And then I remembered that in 1966, Simon & Garfunkel had juxtaposed that song with the 7 O’Clock news. So that’s what I did. Donate to the Red Cross efforts here.

Thanks to Mark for the music.

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Extra. One Thing. Tuesday, November 8th.

Joe Henry and Billy Bragg, Shine A Light tour of train songs, Union Chapel last night
Joe Henry: “I can’t tell you how nice it is to be here. It’s very important for you to understand that this project is in no way a ‘nostalgia’ project – that neither one of us would of had one interest in going into a recording studio and making a record that just says “Joe and Bill like trains…” [audience laughter]. The impulse really was to reclaim some of our culture and vocabulary. For me as an American, it’s our national poetry – the folk tradition is not a dead language… you know, we take up these songs that are still relevant for the same reason that theatre companies still stage “King Lear” and “Richard III”, because they’ve got something to say to us about who we are, and where we are, and why.

I’d also like to say that when I came in this evening for our soundcheck, because our dressing room is the rector’s office, I was asked specifically not to blaspheme [audience laughter]. And as a younger man I might have bristled at such a, uh, mandate… but as a grownup, and as a writer, I was very affirmed for it to be acknowledged that words matter. That language is power. And we all know it when we hear it.”

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