28 September 2005

Verdict

"No Direction Home" coloured in "Chronicles" - the first volume of Dylan's autobiography. It was lovingly crafted television with rare footage and photographs of Dylan's early years in New York, interspersed with commentary from the man himself at sixty four. Several things come across. Firstly, his love of music and the way he soaked up whatever music he encountered. Secondly, his healthy inability to accept that he was anything other than the lad who had hitched from the Mid West with a musical passion - not a leader or an idol. Thirdly, the sense that he was in the right place at the right time - that post war world was looking for heroes that the young could muster around - Elvis, The Beatles and for the avant garde, the true seekers of secrets - a guy who was building upon the transatlantic folk tradition. Fourthly, his tenderness and unassuming character.
Tonight I watched "Dylan in the Madhouse" - a documentary about this rather amazing trip to England that Dylan made at Christmastime, 1962 to play a part in an obscure BBC drama called "The Madhouse on Castle Street". Unluckily, it seems that there are no copies of this film, just a few audiotapes - "The Swan on the River Goes Gliding By" and "Blowing in The Wind" before anybody else had ever really noted that unforgettable song. It seems that "Girl From the North Country" was hugely influened by the old English folksong "Scarborough Fair", long before Simon and Garfunkel picked it up.

23 September 2005

Dylan

Like other British Bob Dylan fans, I am really looking forward to the long-awaited Scorsese two part film about the man - "No Direction Home". It is to be screened on the BBC next Monday and Tuesday concurrent with its first American screening. One of the joyous things about Dylan's book "Chronicles" was its revelation of a very humane, civilised and self-critical narrator - not a superhuman after all and not an artistic snob. I first encountered Dylan's music in the sixties in a council house on Trinity Close in my home village - it was "Freewheelin" - an album that belonged to Michael Keenan's older sister and we listened to it in secret - amazed by what we were discovering. I still think that that is one of the best album covers ever - Dylan and Suze walking down a snowbound New York street in the early morning - happy and free and young.
That lovely notion, "soundtrack to our lives" is one which for me would include several songs by Dylan. It's as if he has always been there - like a faraway brother, an alter ego, somebody who'd known pain and joy like mine, a troubadour who was speaking directly to me - weaving words and music together like an intricate craftsman of the heart.
"Oh but I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now..."
And even though my four Dylan concerts have each left much to be desired - his silence between the songs, the mashing of the familiar, the ugly perfection of his rock and roll bandsmen, the absent spotlight circle where the troubadour is supposed to stand alone with his guitar, even though that's how it's been, he's still the closest thing to a hero I have ever had.
In 1975, in Hibbing, Minnesota, I walked the streets of his youth and stood before his childhood home. Consequently, I have often wondered why there are so few songs that make any reference whatsoever to those formative years. Other artists would have painted pictures of the iron hills and the lakes, first love and the harsh winters and the pettiness of the neighbours and what it was he felt he was leaving behind when he hitch-hiked to New York City for the first time. Dylan - the enigma. Surely, when that man dies he will become a legend and some of his songs will live on to the far horizons of time. "If you're travelling in the north country fair... where the wind sits heavy on the borderline..."
I guess I must have something of the stalker in me because last Easter I spied his house at Malibu - Dylan's castle, an eyrie high above the Pacific, a viewpoint for a songmaker who has taught us to see things differently - "There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke..."

16 September 2005

Childhood

In endless summers, we explored the arable land west of our village. Empty lanes reached out across chocolate coloured earth to the River Hull. In the woods near Heigholme Hall - where the Colonel lived with his mysterious daughter - we built dens and made our own adventure playground, hardly breathing when badgers investigated a clearing swathed in honey coloured sunshine that filtered through a canopy of beech, sycamore and horse chestnut.
At the canal, we requisitioned rowing boats and hurled oarfuls of green algae at each other, laughing in the heart of August, unconscious of time or what the future might hold for us. At school, Joyce guessed that Albert Hall was a great composer and in the annual sack race I waddled to another famous victory.
I am so grateful to have been raised in a secure and happy family, in a village where you literally didn't lock your doors - where I knew everybody and everyone knew me, a place where gipsies passed twice a year with their horses and dogs and ragamuffin children as we peered out from the school gates, safe in our certainties.
My childhood was how a childhood should be - a clean bed to sleep in, food on the table, a mother and father who loved me and looked out for me and encouraged me to grow, a rural environment without modern dangers, three brothers to jostle with, a cat called Oscar, vegetables in the garden and rooks in the trees, black and white television, books about pirates or children who lived in faraway places like Trinidad, Hong Kong, Swaziland. Many of us have blessings to count but we often forget to count them.
Images of Leven,
East Yorkshire.
Above - Leven Canal.
Right - the school and schoolhouse where I was born.

10 September 2005

America

Reflection of a statue at Boulder Dam ->
Out of envy, many Europeans harbour distaste for the United States, what it stands for and how it goes about its business but, if there is such a word, I am happy to declare myself an "Americophile".
When I was a university student, I spent two summers in Ohio, working as a camp counsellor at the Red Raider Camp near Chagrin Falls on the outskirts of Cleveland. They were magical summers when I met so many Americans, drank beer at Skip and Ray's bar, watched the Indians, saw Barry Manilow, fell in love, picked up a hitch-hiker who thought that England and New England were synonymous, danced till I literally dropped, ate my first Big Mac, saw a bear swimming across Rainy Lake in Minesotta, saw Bob Dylan's childhood home, cried farewell to love on a Greyhound bus, scaled the Empire State Building. It was all so wonderful.
It took me a long time to go back. I hesitated because back in the seventies I felt I should have stayed and become an American. It felt so much like home to me. I loved it. So going back was hard. In the last three years we have had three fantastic holidays there - all self-designed on the Internet. First it was Georgia and northern Florida, then the north east - returning after almost thirty years to Ohio, then last Easter we flew to Los Angeles - drove to Vegas - then up to San Francisco via the breathtaking Sequoia National Park.
My wife and children have become enamoured - like me - devoted Americophiles. It's difficult to pinpoint where the positive feelings come from. Partly it's like you're a character in a Hollywood film and partly it's the space - then partly it's the fortunate fact that America's language is my own and it's also about the pioneering spirit - like you're entering a country which is still young and such a vibrant mixture of cultures. In America, I never tire of looking and listening. Sleep sometimes seems wasteful. Strangely, I feel I belong there even though I am immensely proud to be English... So to those who scorn America out of envy and misunderstanding, I say "Take a hike buddy!"
<- On Alcatraz

4 September 2005

Ireland

The picture was taken on September 2nd out towards Galway Bay from the road that winds up onto The Burren from Ballyvaughan, County Clare. I was with my son Ian and minutes before we had dropped off "The Hitchhiker from Hell" with his bloody bandaged hand dripping all over the hire car and pissed as a lord. I would have needed subtitles to fully understand him. He was what you call a drunken bleeder.

My brother Paul and his wife Josephine live up a winding lane with their boys Michael and Kevin. At night when the sky is clear it is filled with a billion white stars with the ghosts of billions more behind them. There's zero light pollution.

Thanks to Paul and Jo for their hospitality. That leg of local lamb smouldering in the oven with rosemary and garlic and local mushrooms and spuds and the orgasmic orange cake from Ennistymon. These are memories to keep you afloat during the winter.... On the TV, we watched the horror of New Orleans unfold and though we were thousands of miles away from this tragedy of nature, arrogance, cruelty and incompetence - our hearts went out to those poor people. This is one world. Never ask for whom the bell tolls - it tolls for thee. Rest in Peace all ye who have drowned or drifted away and may the jazz trumpet once again echo in those sultry empty streets.