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Sunday, May 15th, 2011
Ten years ago, John Harris was within seconds of a meeting Bob Dylan – until Eric Clapton stole him away. Now he talks to those who have been granted an audience with rock’s greatest enigma
Imagine this: since you were 11 years old, you have been convinced Bob Dylan is a genius. You own every album he has ever made, and your shelves are full of books whose titles attest to the great cloak of mystery that surrounds him: Behind the Shades, Wanted Man, Invisible Republic. You can quote his lyrics, and play dozens of his songs on the guitar. There are days when you find yourself revering him more than the Beatles, which is saying something.
And then it happens: someone points you in the direction of a set of stairs and says it’s time for you to meet him, which produces an attack of nerves so strong that you fear you might pass out.
As he winds down after playing in front of 10,000 people, what exactly are you going to say? “Hello Bob, you’re the reason I made a harmonica holder out of one of my mum’s coathangers in 1983 and tortured the neighbours with repeated renditions of Like a Rolling Stone, and I just wanted to say thanks”? No. “Hello Bob, I’ve always had trouble making narrative sense of your 1978 song Changing of the Guards, and wondered whether you could help?” Absolutely not. “Hello Bob, great show”? Please.
Sadly, to kill this shaggy dog story before it runs away with us, when the dressing room door eventually swung open, Dylan wasn’t there: he’d been spirited away by Eric Clapton, someone reckoned. Which makes 11 May 2002 – the day I nearly met Bob Dylan – nothing to tell the grandchildren about, really.
Thanks to favours pulled by a musician friend, I did, though, watch Dylan perform from the wings of the London Arena that night, and studied him as he left the stage. I noted that he was smaller than I imagined (5ft 7in, apparently), and that he walked with a strange gait, shuffling on his toes, almost like a boxer. He passed a foot or so in front of me: I nodded at him, and I think he nodded back. To me that was quite something, but that’s an indication of what hero-worship can do to you.
On 24 May, Dylan will turn 70, an occasion that has already given rise to celebration concerts, cover stories, radio shows and more. Maya Angelou has dutifully praised him as “a great American artist”. To Bruce Springsteen, Dylan is “the father of my country”. There is much more of this stuff to come – a renewed outpouring of the kind of questions that tantalise me, and the millions of people who have been profoundly touched by his music. Most of them boil down to two conundrums: Who is Bob Dylan? And what does he want?
Like most of the high-achieving musicians of his generation, Dylan will never quite escape the shadow of the 1960s, but he is one the few alumni of that decade whose new work still seems vital and interesting. His last album, 2009’s Together Through Life, had its moments, but if you really want to understand how great his recent-ish work has been, you should sample Time Out of Mind (1997), Love and Theft (2001) and Modern Times (2006): albums streaked with wit, existential insight and the rare sound of a rock musician building age and experience into every note they sing.
Dylan’s voice is now shot to pieces compared to how it sounded 40-odd years ago, but I think that’s part of what makes his latterday stuff so good. Mick Jagger shakes his bum and attempts to convince his audience that time has stood still since the mid-70s; Dylan confronts us with not just his own mortality, but ours, too.
As ever, he is surrounded by a cloud of ephemera and apocryphal chatter. No one really knows anything about his politics: he has expressed approving sentiments about Barack Obama, but recently caused howls of dismay when he played in China; yesterday, a very unexpected post appeared on bobdylan.com, in which he acknowledged that a collection of recent setlists had been given in advance to the authorities, claimed he hadn’t been censored (”we played all the songs that we intended to play”), and said nothing at all about whether he should have followed the advice of some outraged commentators and spoken at least a little truth to power while he was there. In 2000 I watched him in talkative mood at Wembley Arena, expressing his pleasure at being in the UK with reference to Britain’s efforts in the second world war. What he said probably had more to do with his Jewish upbringing than anything else, but they didn’t sound like the words of the liberal peacenik of common assumption: “We all know how Britain stood alone. That always meant a lot to the people I grew up with.”
Dylan has starred in ads for the lingerie chain Victoria’s Secret and for the iPod. He is said to have been married at least three times, although only one of those unions has been public. An infinite number of questions buzz around the internet, none of which are ever anwered: having embraced born-again Christianity circa 1978, but then apparently rediscovered his Judaism, where is his spiritual head at? Does he really leave his tour bus parked in motorway service stations and go for spontaneous moonlit rambles across fields? And did he really once consider relocating to Crouch End?
I can well remember the source of my idea of Dylan as a shadowy, unbelievably enigmatic presence: a BBC film titled Getting to Dylan, first screened in 1987, in which a team from the Omnibus programme followed him as he played the part of a faded rock star in a risible film called Hearts of Fire (also starring Rupert Everett). Weeks went by before he consented to be interviewed, but it eventually happened, in an on-set trailer near Toronto – and in 20 minutes, he allowed a rare glimpse of his essential condition. You can see the entire Getting to Dylan interview on YouTube (have a look for “BBC Dylan interview”): it remains an enduring portrait not just of who he was, but who he will probably always be, and what a strange and lonely business being Bob Dylan actually is.
So I place a call to his interviewer, Christopher Sykes, now 65, who has the rare distinction of being one of the only film-makers who has trained a camera on Dylan and asked him questions. (Though he directed the acclaimed Dylan documentary No Direction Home, not even Martin Scorsese managed that.)
“I really liked him,” Sykes tells me. “He was tremendously funny. Charming, I thought. And he is incredibly charismatic. You find yourself wondering: is this something about him, or is this something you bring to someone that famous? But sitting a few feet away from him is pretty scary. He’s got a way of looking at you that’s frightening. When he looks straight at you, you really do feel like he’s got some sort of x-ray vision; that he sees right through you.”
It was partly the memory of that look that threw me when I thought I was about to meet him.
“He looks like a … funny old Gypsy person,” Sykes continues. “You have this sense that he’s been around for an awfully long time. I remember thinking, ‘I bet if you look through medieval paintings, there’ll be a picture of him somewhere.’ It really does feel like he’s been around for ever.”
Sykes is nonplussed by suggestions that Dylan did the interview in a state of narcotic refreshment (”He liked drinking Johnny Walker black label, and I think he smoked dope”), and recalls a recent occasion when he had dinner in Los Angeles with Dylan’s son, Jesse – who was reminded of the interview, and offered a very telling question: “Was he kind to you?”
“Tender and really helpful,” is the verdict of the writer Adrian Deevoy, who was summoned to Philadelphia a few years later to interview Dylan for Q magazine. They ended up talking in the seaside town of Narragansett, Rhode Island – and Deevoy’s memories chime with one regular observation of Dylan’s lifestyle: that whereas some artists glide through a world of luxury, Dylan seems to live and work in a fascinatingly higgledy-piggledy way. “It sounds weird,” he tells me, “but we were all on a double bed in a very small motel room: Dylan, myself, his manager Jeff Rosen, a willowy Scandinavian woman, and a massive dog.”
Mike Scott, the singer and chief creative mind in the Waterboys, became a smitten Dylan fan at much the same age that I did, watching his appearance in the film of George Harrison’s Concert For Bangladesh, and realising that “he was the great poet of the times”. In 1978, Scott and a friend went to see Dylan play at Earls Court, then followed his tour bus back to a hotel where they spied him sitting in the bar. “That was exciting,” he says. “‘Fucking hell! I’m going to meet Bob Dylan!’ We got half way across the bar, and these blurred, giant shapes suddenly appeared in front of us: bouncers, who escorted us off the premises.”
Seven years later, when Dylan was in London recording with the ex-Eurythmic and rock Zelig Dave Stewart, Scott and two of his band got a call, and were summoned to a north London recording studio. “That felt like crossing the other half of the room,” he says: the collected musicians spent two hours jamming, while Dylan spurned singing in favour of playing “burbling, non-stop lead guitar”. Scott recalls being perplexed by his refusal to step up to the microphone, but feeling thrilled when Dylan told him he was a fan of the Waterboys’ big hit The Whole of the Moon.
Some time later the phone rang again, and Scott found himself in a rented house in Holland Park. “We hung out with him for a couple of hours. He played us a record by the McPeak Family, folk musicians from Ulster, and he gave me a cassette of an American Indian poet called John Trudell.” And what was Dylan like? “Puckish. Humorous. In the studio, he’d been very quiet and closed in on himself. But now he was gregarious: exactly what I’d want Bob Dylan to be like. It was great.”
Dylan told them tales about the presence of Vikings in his native Minnesota, introduced Scott to his kids, and shared a herbal moment with him. “I don’t know whether you can say this,” says Scott, “but I’ve smoked a joint that Bob Dylan rolled, and he’s smoked a joint that I rolled.”
Self-evidently, I cannot compete with any of that, but still: during 30-odd years, Dylan has powerfully spoken to me about love, loss, life, death, sadness and contentment, and he still does. When I recently moved house, it rather pains me to admit that a freshly acquired set of his CDs, faithful to the original mono versions, came with me in the car, lest anything should happen to them. Thanks to a moment of carelessness in Mississippi, I am proud to say that I own a speeding ticket issued on Highway 61. The last book I finished was a collection of writing about Dylan by the American author and thinker Greil Marcus; I’m about to start an updated version of the aforementioned biography Behind the Shades, by Clinton Heylin – 902 pages, which seems to me a very satisfactory length indeed.
I have seen Dylan play at least 15 times, and I’ll probably keep doing so until his so-called Never Ending Tour comes to a close. It can be a frustrating business – certainly, I wish he wouldn’t endlessly change the phrasing of just about everything he sings, sometimes in the manner of a wheezing pub crooner. But in between the moments you’re left guessing which song he’s actually playing, there are always enough flashes of greatness to justify the effort, and occasions when just about everything aligns correctly.
In 1995, Dylan leapt on stage at the Brixton Academy without his guitar, sang while waggling his legs in the style of the young Elvis, and delivered a fantastically rambunctious show that had me laughing with pleasure. In 2001, I saw him at Stirling Castle: probably the single best concert I have seen him play, full of restraint and tenderness perfectly suited to a summer twilight. The essential thing, though, is this: whatever happens, you can surely take great delight in looking toward the stage and saying, “Look – it’s Bob Dylan.”
And then there is the excellence of so many of the songs he has written as he tumbles towards old age – such as Ain’t Talkin’, the final song from Modern Times: “Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’/ Through this weary world of woe,” he sings. “Heart burnin’, still yearnin’/ No one on earth would ever know.”
How beautifully put, and how very true.
Friday, May 6th, 2011
The prospects are bleak. But I still believe many of the failures of British politics are down to our creaking voting system
“Once David Cameron moved in the way he did,” a senior Liberal Democrat told the Guardian on Thursday, “the polls moved. It was unstoppable.”
Well, perhaps. Certainly, along with the right-wing press, (lest we forget) the big trade unions and the more Neanderthal aspects of the Labour party, loud backing from the Tory leadership made the anti-AV camp some foe to beat.
But we could also look at the defeat from another angle. The great opening up of the gap between the yes and no campaigns also coincided with the point at which senior Lib Dems decisively got involved, and tried to turn their backing for the change into a badge of difference vis-à-vis their coalition partners. I can well remember Gordon Brown’s deathbed conversion to the alternative vote prompting mutterings that he was the last person you’d want to back any campaign for electoral reform, and the same surely applied to Nick Clegg, to the power of 10.
As is often the case, I can do without the pompous fury of Paddy Ashdown: the Lib Dems should shoulder a lot of the blame for AV’s demise, largely because they were toxic to start with, but partly because they occasionally ended up backing reform in almost as stagey and shrill a way as its opponents, and doubtless turned off thousands in the process. Chris Huhne extending Godwin’s law into the campaign via his “Goebbels” moment springs to mind.
I thought it wasn’t supposed to be like this, at all.
Back in November 2010, the Yes to fairer votes chair Katie Ghose said this:
“The campaign will be completely different from anything that has gone before. We have simply got to organise from the grassroots up.”
A month later, the Guardian reported on a Downing Street press conference in which Clegg “said that the ‘Yes to fairer votes’ campaign should be led by voters not politicians”, and hoped that the case for reform would be “made particularly by people outside politics who want politicians to be made accountable to them.” The vision, as far as I could tell, was of the spirit of the “purple people” demo that followed last year’s election result being rolled out all over the country.
That happened, to a limited extent. But by the campaign’s last stretch, the national stage was crowded with politicians trying to sell voters something they said would be bad news for politicians themselves, which is surely the dictionary definition of a questionable pitch. In Friday’s Guardian, Timothy Garton-Ash bemoaned the yes campaign’s failure to capture the public mood, and wrote this:
“It is amazing how the anger at the dysfunctional, corrupt old politics of Westminster, which exploded in 2009 over the issue of MPs’ expenses, seems to have evaporated.”
Not so, and it’s precisely that lingering fury and scepticism that played some role in doing for the Yes campaign’s chances: if you’re trying to harness momentum for a change to the political system, you’d be well advised to keep politicians’ voices to a minimum.
So there we are: a fairly miserable little compromise, an equally miserable defeat, a very crafty prime minister, and arguably the greatest Lib Dem failure of all. It really is remarkable: I’ve just scanned the district-by-district results, and so far there are precious few parts of the UK where the yes campaign had a prayer (though hats off to Lambeth, Camden, Islington, Haringey, Glasgow Kelvin and Cambridge). Yes: AV is a preferable system to FPTP, and the usual voices were just as dastardly as you’d expect them to be, but that’s really no excuse. And now there comes the redrawing of all those constituencies; to say that the Tories are currently winning is an almost cosmic understatement.
And what of the future for electoral reform? Bleak, undoubtedly, though like plenty of people, my belief that so many of the failures of British politics are down to our creaking voting system remains as strong as ever. Knowing that that might be it for a lifetime, I guess people of like mind should do what should always have been done: clearly set out the goal (the single transferable vote in multimember constituencies, always the only satisfactory option) and stick to it, try to amass the right collection of voices and organisations (Eddie Izzard and Colin Firth were not it, I’d wager), understand that any convincing moves will originate well beyond Westminster, and make the arguments again, and again, and again.
We all know the drill. Why are our politics eternally in thrall to a somewhat strange and very small number of people who want great public services but wince at the requisite taxes? Why no traction for urgent issues like social housing and rights at work? What are we doing privileging Mondeo man and Worcester woman? Why Milton Keynes and Harlow, but not Pontypridd and Rotherham? Why bother voting Labour in Camberley, or Tory in Llanelli? Why the tyranny of a cynically constructed centre ground that ignores just as many people on the right as it does on the left?
The questions linger, and AV was never any kind of truly convincing answer, which leaves us with a simple enough story: a very British refusal to embrace a change, compounded by an equally British failure to convince people otherwise, whereby “progressive” forces made an array of the usual mistakes. All we can do, inevitably, is learn – which probably sounds as washed-out as I currently feel.
Friday, May 6th, 2011
Easy victories over the Lib Dems have distracted Labour from disaster in Scotland and its failure to challenge Tory dominance
I have never really liked the liberal-left trope of Britain’s “progressive majority”, lately talked up by people campaigning for AV. It’s always given off the whiff of complacency and wishful thinking, and sat very awkwardly with the uncertain mess of grievance, prejudice, optimism and pessimism that actually decides the outcome of elections. Moreover, it rather denies the political and economic geography of the UK, and a model which, give or take the aberrant miracles of 1997, remains immovably in place: a post-industrial, public sector-heavy, essentially social-democratic “north” (Scotland, Wales, the north of England and parts of the Midlands), and a very different “south”, still buoyed by its largely positive experience of the 1980s.
Last night proves that underlying model is as relevant as ever, but what’s fascinating is how much its political expression has changed. Time was, Labour completely dominated that first part of the UK’s electoral map, but its grim fate in Scotland shows what happens when it loses any real sense of purpose, and thinks the key to success is a miserable, fear-driven, hopelessly pessimistic kind of politics. Labour’s more complacent elements will doubtless frame the lessons from the SNP’s victory in purely Scottish terms, but they run much wider than that.
Until recently, the Lib Dems were a party who could hover over both parts of Britain’s electoral map, vaguely styling themselves as a party of the centre-left, but keeping things fuzzy enough to pick up votes from the centre-right. No more: the days when they controlled such cities as Liverpool, Newcastle, Sheffield and Hull will increasingly seem like a distant memory, and the resulting existential blow is absolutely huge.
But fair play to David Cameron: that the Tories’ share of the vote has held up in the face of the cuts and serial government wobbles – not least on the NHS – is some achievement. What so riles the Lib Dems – and, just to make this clear, it’s their own fault – is that the plot of the coalition’s story may well turn out to be something like this: Cameron in Flashman mode, craftily convincing his new friends to journey into the unknown, leaving them mortally wounded, and walking away, cackling, with barely a scratch.
Back to Labour. Seeing off the Lib Dems all over the north will enthuse its activists. It will be thrilled to get a majority in the Welsh assembly (though there, as in Scotland, Labour politics is depressingly workmanlike). If the result from good old Gravesham is anything to go by, there will be just about enough flashes of promise in parts of the south to suggest that the rout that happened there last year may be at least partly reversible.
But in the face of a government programme that is drastic and primary-coloured, these results look equivocal and uncertain, only underlining how far Labour has to go. It is in the nature of our presidential understanding of modern politics to pin everything on leaders – and though Ed Miliband has a lot of thinking to do, Labour’s problems run wide and deep. Among shadow ministers, there is far too little imagination or audacity at work, and an apparent belief that the cuts will do the party’s work for it – as a very good piece about Miliband in this week’s New Statesman puts it, an approach that is “too deliberative, slow to strike out in bold and unorthodox new directions”.
At the grassroots, the apparent ease with which Lib Dems can be dispatched is blinding Labour to the most important challenge: somehow posing any serious threat to the Tories. Hearing the parade of happy Labour high-ups on the news this morning, one thought sprang to mind: I heard similar voices after local elections throughout the 1980s, and look what happened there.
And so to what really bothers me about these elections, and may make life for people on my side of politics very problematic indeed. Just as the fate of the public services has echoes of the 1980s, so too do these results. Now, as then, one pictures the UK’s two tribes, bumping heads for years and years while one lords it over the other. Worse still, Labour now faces a profound problem – if it could always count on Scotland to make up the numbers, that assumption looks to be over. A progressive majority? Really: please stop it.
Wednesday, May 4th, 2011
It may be easy to smirk at the SNP’s vision of Scotland reborn as a green dynamo. But Labour and Lib Dems have no answer
Global Energy is the biggest private employer in the Scottish Highlands. Its current workforce is about 1,800, and turnover stands at £230m; among other activities, it maintains offshore oil and gas installations, and is involved in wind, tidal and wave power. One administrative centre is in Inverness, but for a flavour of the scale of its operations, you need to drive for 20 minutes to the banks of the Cromarty Firth in Invergordon, where Global employees crowd on to vast drilling rigs. Just over the water at Nigg, the company is aiming to open a plant that will also look into wind turbines, and create some 1,500 jobs.
Alex Salmond – first minister and leader of the Scottish National party – paid a visit to Nigg last week, bigging up his promise to produce 100% of Scotland’s electricity from renewables by 2020, and talking about nothing less than “the reindustrialisation of Scotland on a huge scale”. It was a characteristic performance; over the last few weeks, as Labour’s woeful campaign has resorted to shrill warnings about the perils of independence, and the Scottish Lib Dems have shrivelled in the spotlight, Salmond alone has shone – and looks set to win a second term, by as many as 62 to seats to Labour’s 51. His secret? A mixture of charisma, chutzpah and a showman’s sense of Scotland’s promise, despite the chill winds of austerity.
Global’s name came up in the flurry of posts put up in response to our initial request for opinions and testimony about this week’s elections, and the path Scotland has taken since devolution. A good deal of the resulting online conversation took the form of a predictable dogfight between two sides: Scots who want out of the union, and quick (”You can pay for your own bloody Olympics, Millennium Dome, Jubilee line”); and rather sour English voices who see Scotland as a dissolute sibling, forever bankrolled from London (”Scotland is living in a La-La land, where money grows on trees and can be spent on endless pet projects, and no one has to grow up”, was one, hardly unique, contribution).
If you hold to the caricature of Scotland as an embodiment of post-industrial woe, Salmond’s vision of a country reborn as a green dynamo might seem unlikely. Even if you don’t, hearing a first minister talk in such ambitious terms when his government’s budget falls by £1.3bn in 2011-12 alone could prompt a disbelieving smirk.
The demise of Salmond’s old idea of a north European “arc of prosperity” including Iceland and Ireland hardly helps either. But with investment in Scottish renewables by Mitsubishi and the Korean firm Doosan, and national successes in the life sciences, computer games and more, his vision of a resurgent Scotland doesn’t come from nowhere – and Inverness is a good place to immerse yourself in it.
The city is 618 miles from Westminster, and feels like it. Granted city status in 2000, this was at one point the fastest growing metropolis in western Europe, and its population of about 60,000 is projected to double in the next 30 years. Even the fact that its Westminster MP is Danny Alexander of the Lib Dems (after boundary changes, the SNP’s Fergus Ewing will almost certainly keep his seat in the Scottish parliament) cannot dampen a sense of large-scale wellbeing; certainly, it feels more at ease with itself than most similar-sized places I know south of the border.
All that said, some subjects prompt uneasy shrugs: problems with drugs and drink; why places such as Merkinch and South Kessock are unemployed enclaves while, apparently, most of the jobs in hotels and restaurants are taken by recent arrivals from eastern Europe. At a local branch of the Highland Food Bank, offering help to those waylaid by the benefits system, I’m told that demand has risen by 30% in a year – and worse is to come once Westminster’s new benefits regime kicks in. All this attests to a more complicated picture than that laid out in the city’s official bumf, and yet it neglects aspects of the local atmosphere – matters of mood and disposition – that may not be reducible to statistics, but seem real enough.
And so, perhaps, it is with the Scottish elections. People here seem to divide 50/50 on the question of independence, but just about everyone I meet is prepared to admit that Salmond has qualities that chime with the local sense of possibility. That points up something often missed: that the carping about Salmond’s bumptiousness – or how his promises of prosperity, opportunity and help for all can possibly square with such hard times – misses the key to the SNP’s appeal, and Scotland’s immediate political future.
Neither are about squabbles over spending plans and fiscal arithmetic. They have precious little to do with whether the end of the union is or isn’t a viable prospect. Rather, if the SNP is granted a second term on Thursday, the explanation will come down to the question that decides so many elections: who are the optimists?
“This is a wonderful, beautiful, peaceful, sunny place to live,” one local SNP voter tells me, before selling me a Salmond-esque vision of a promising economic future. “We’ve got plenty of wind, and tidal power,” he says. “In time, things will happen.” He should know: he’s a successful tour guide, keen to get back to work, with a microcosm of the world waiting for his services.
Wednesday, May 4th, 2011
Anywhere but Westminster: In the runup to the Scottish elections, John Harris visits the thriving Highland city of Inverness and catches the spirit of optimism
Hail! Hail! Rock'n'Roll:
The Ultimate Guide to the Music, the Myths and the Madness
"The Dark Side of the Moon":
The Making of the "Pink Floyd" Masterpiece
So Now Who Do We Vote For?
The Last Party:
Britpop, Blair and the Demise of English Rock
Cool Britannia and the Spectacular Demise of English Rock
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