In 1965 I was lent a guitar by my brother’s girlfriend and it came complete with a Bob Dylan songbook. With the simplistic outlook of an eight-year-old, I just assumed that the two went together – that the guitar is what you used to play Bob Dylan songs and that playing Bob Dylan songs was what the guitar was for.
Now, forty-five years on, I’m proud to say that not much has changed and although I have since learned to play thousands of songs written by non-Bob Dylans, he remains for me the archetype of all singer/songwriter/guitarists and in this, I know I am far from alone.
In 1971 I recall lying awake deep into the night listening to Radio Luxembourg on headphones as they serialized Tony Scaduto’s “Bob Dylan: a Biography” and I found myself drawn into the myth of the folk singer’s life story. Within a week or two I had gone out and bought a denim jacket, some dark glasses and a harmonica and rack. I was planning on leaving home, jumping a freight train and heading off to the nearest city to hang out in cafés and bars and make my way in the big wide world as an itinerant balladeer. Unfortunately though, the freight trains that ran through our London suburb refused to slow down below 30 mph so I was left with nothing but bruises, some embarrassment and wishful teenage daydreams.
I finally got my first gig when I was fifteen, at the Weston-Super-Mare folk club. I told the man we were going to sing Bob Dylan and he said that’d be just fine. There were a few looks of consternation however as we set up on stage with my younger brother playing electric bass through a converted valve TV set as amplifier. We launched into a spirited version of “Like a Rolling Stone” – I was really proud that I knew every word of all four verses which meant that there was plenty of time for the audience to almost completely evaporate into the bar next door. Happy days!
By 1977 my capacity for memorising Dylan lyrics reached its peak with my studiously learning all ninety-nine lines of “Hurricane.” By this time I was finally travelling round Europe scratching a living as a street musician (still wearing the same denim jacket and dodgy dark glasses). I liked performing “Hurricane” because it took so long to get through, that the crowd had completely changed by the time I reached the end of the song. This meant that I could start it from the beginning again without fear of anyone noticing the narrowness of my repertoire. Then one day in Copenhagen’s pedestrianized Stroget I was about halfway through the song for the sixth time when a woman opened the window above my pitch and shouted out in a strong Danish accent:
“You have been singing the same song for three hours now! Don’t you know any other songs?!”
My cover blown, I shamefully collected up my takings and moved round the corner to start again: “Pistol shots ring out in the baaaarroom night…”