Archive for September, 2008

Drawn Blank catalogue (UK) – then there were three: encore

September 23, 2008
I followed up Ken Crouch’s tip and sourced a catalogue from Smart gallery, Harrogate.

As its full title, The Drawn Blank Series: Bob Dylan Limited Edition Graphics, indicates, it catalogues the collection of prints which has been on sale at 40-plus UK galleries since Saturday 14 June.

It’s a small subset of the catalogue of original paintings exhibited at London’s Halcyon Gallery (and covered in the much bigger Halcyon catalogue) – only 10% of the original canvases were turned into limited edition prints – but is beautiful, desirable collectable.

The structure of the Limited Edition – prints are available in 6 sizes/bundles – is clearly outlined. It’s published by Washington Green in association with The Times newspaper.

Gerry Smith



In addition to the various editions of the Prestel catalogue published for the Chemnitz exhibition (detailed recently on The Dylan Daily), there are two Halcyon Gallery catalogues – a small freebie pamphlet (A5, c10 pics, 24pp) and the big coffee table hardback (oversize, 300+ pics, 288pp, £39.99).

Many thanks to Ken Crouch in Wells, Somerset for details of a third (highly collectable) UK variant:

“Went to see the Dylan art exibition in Bath today; visitors to the this site should pop along, it’s free. I couldn’t afford £1,000 for a print but £10 for the catalogue is well worth the money… Bob playing in the background and free coffee… Well done to the organisers.

“The catalogue has all 29 prints, even the sets of four prints. Brief history of Dylan in the back. Andrew Motion reviews the prints. 12” x 8”, 72pp. Published by Washington Green Fine Art, on very good quality paper. Front white and back with Dylan’s sig on front and back. £10.”

Sounds worth chasing up – watch this space!


Dylan discography – now almost a constant companion

September 22, 2008

I find I’m referring more and more to Brian Hinton’s fine book, Bob Dylan Album File & Complete Discography (Cassell Illustrated, 464pp, pbk, £14.99, 2006).

A handy compilation, packed with hard information as well as informed opinion, it’s now almost a constant companion.

If you don’t possess a recent Dylan album guide, Hinton’s is well worth seeking out. I keep seeing the UK edition (blue cover), discounted to about £5, in major London retail outlets. Somewhat surprisingly, I’ve also seen the US edition (brown cover) for £5 in London remainder shops.

Bargain of the year!

Gerry Smith



New – Bob Dylan Album File & Complete Discography

Brian Hinton’s new book, Bob Dylan Album File & Complete Discography (Cassell Illustrated, 464pp, pbk, £14.99), is a welcome addition to my library: I’ll be referring to it often.

It’s the most detailed study of the Dylan oeuvre since Clinton Heylin’s Dylan – Behind Closed Doors was published ten years ago. It’s more detailed than the most recent competitor, Varesi’s The Bob Dylan Albums (2002). Oliver Trager’s Keys To The Rain – The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopdia also covers this ground (in less detail) but covers a multitude of other topics, too.

Hinton, biographer of Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell, among others, complements the discographical detail with an occasionally stimulating commentary on every track on every album, so the book is a uniquely systematic appraisal of Dylan recordings. And there’s a handy full-page reproduction of every album cover. So, Bob Dylan Album File & Complete Discography is worth having for its scope, utility and currency.

Reservations? I have a few. Concerning treatment, judgments and accuracy.

Whenever any rock writer starts to describe individual songs – “first we have the hushed drum intro…” – my eyes automatically jump to the next paragraph. This happened here, frequently. Writing about music in this fashion is like dancing about architecture, as the man said.

Once your text starts to judge creative work, you expect readers to demur. A sample couple of demurrals: Saved “sounds wonderful to contemporary ears…”; whaaa? It still sounds awful as ever to these contemporary ears. Hard Rain suffers because “it omits all of the duets with Joan Baez”. Hinton can not be serious? Surely?

In discussing Dylan’s songs, Hinton imports a succession of third party quotes, usefully widening the range of opinions in the book. But he frequently fails to explain who his commentators are – I happen to know of Jeff Tweedy and Derek Barker; many readers won’t. But “Paul Zollo” and “Robert Fisher”? Dunno, got me pal: Hinton’s drinking buddies? How do I know whether their opinions are worth considering?

More troubling are the errors. Spelling and grammatical errors might irritate only pedants, but they sow doubt about the accuracy of factual data. Checking the three small-format pages introducing Desire, I found seven spelling and grammatical errors. Elsewhere, glancing through the text, I stumbled across the World Gone Wrong photo shoot transposed from Camden Town to a neighbouring North London suburb, Crouch End. And Augie “Meters” playing organ on Time Out Of Mind. If these examples are typical, the book is seriously undermined.

And I wish I had a euro for every rock writer who claims that Dylan/The Beatles invented the concept album. Such albums had been around for years before Dylan ever entered a recording studio. Sinatra, anybody?

Bob Dylan Album File & Complete Discography: recommended, with reservations.

Gerry Smith

Just Like Bob Zimmerman’s Blues: “valuable”

September 22, 2008
Thanks to Michael Gray:

“Re your posting re rare early Dylan books: there is a fair amount of detail on both the Ribakoves’ book and the Dave Engel book in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia.

“Since the entries are people-based, as you know, you’ll find the info on these books under the authors’ names.

“I describe Engel’s Just Like Bob Zimmerman’s Blues: Dylan in Minnesota as “one of the four or five most valuable books on Bob Dylan”: a view I stand by.”

Positively Main Street: delightful new edition of an early classic

September 22, 2008
You wait for ten years: nothing at all. Then, suddenly, three turn up at the same time. Dylan books, that is.

Bobby had been around for a decade, a global superstar for a big part of it. But, in London at least, you couldn’t buy a single book on the man or his art.

Then, in 1972, along came the first English paperback editions of Gray’s Song & Dance Man, Scaduto’s biography and Toby Thompson’s Positively Main Street. Three very different Dylan books, each one manna from Heaven for the info-starved Zimfan.

The trio encouraged the coming idea that Dylan was even bigger than had been thought, that he was far more important than his 1960s rockpop contemporaries. That here was a musician you might be listening to, carefully, for the rest of your life.

Toby Thompson, an early Dylan fan, had a simple idea: go up to Hibbing and explore Dylan’s background – the place, the people, the culture.

So he did, reporting his findings in a series of articles for New York’s Hipster Bible, Village Voice, in 1969; the pieces were then stitched together to form the original US edition of Positively Main Street in 1971, reaching the UK a year later.

Thompson ended up interviewing Dylan’s mother, Beatty; his brother, David; his uncle Maurice; his first girlfriend, Echo; plus several teachers from Hibbing High, and various other acquaintances.

The whole while, he’s probing, searching for the essence of Dylan. And emoting, excitedly. This from his very first paragraph:

“I just finished speaking with ‘Girl From The North Country’. Right, the very same chick Bob wrote the song about… ”

First time round, I was thrilled by Positively Main Street, because of its myriad insights into Dylan’s background, and because it’s such an impressive piece of writing – part travelogue, part Beat-soaked memoir, part page-turner. It’s a sheer delight to read. And all the while, you sense that, in addition to finding Dylan’s roots, the youthful author is really finding himself.

Thompson has an engaging style, and if you share his passion for his subject, you know exactly what’s driving him. He was a fine writer at a tender age (appropriate, that!).

Just like the first time, I raced through the new edition of Positively Main Street in a single sitting. Thirty-five years after the first read, I found it utterly absorbing.

The new edition, from the University Of Minnesota Press, has several “bonus tracks”, which enrich the original text:

* a new preface by Thompson

* Thompson’s Hibbing photographs, notably of Echo Helstrom posing among heavy-duty industrial machinery in the mining zone: it’s not hard to see why both writer and subject were smitten!

* a revealing 36 page interview with Toby Thompson carried out in 2005 by Terry Kelly for publication in UK fanzine The Bridge

* a different sub-title: the original edition was Positively Main Street: An Unorthodox View Of Bob Dylan.

The new Positively Main Street is a lovely little book, even better than the original, a cherished addition to the Dylan bookshelf. Thompson and the University of Minnesota Press have enhanced what was already a classic and made it available to a whole new audience. Dylan fans owe them a debt of gratitude.

Positively Main Street: Bob Dylan’s Minnesota by Toby Thompson, University Of Minnesota Press, 2008, 215pp, pbk, ISBN 978-0-8166-5445-1, $15.95/£10 (from amazon).

Gerry Smith

Suze Rotolo’s new book: sympathetic… revealing… unique…

September 22, 2008
Dylan Books’ exclusive review of Suze Rotolo’s new book, A Freewheelin’ Time – by Anne Ritchie, a contemporary of Rotolo, who first saw Dylan perform in 1965:

I got a lot from reading A Freewheelin’ Time by Suze Rotolo. Subtitled A Memoir Of Greenwich Village In The Sixties, the book is not all about Bob, though every mention of Bob/Bobby quickened the pulse. It wasn’t till around p90 (in a 360+-page book) that Dylan really came into it, when Rotolo describes their first flirty meeting at a folk concert in July 1961, though she’d already seen him singing and playing back-up harp at Gerde’s.

The earlier sketching in of the political and social background to the early Dylan songs interested this reader – the contrast of bohemian Village life in the straitjacket of the fifties – as did her description of her own unconventional upbringing in an Italian immigrant family, where, as a “red-diaper baby” she imbibed her parents’ culture along with their leftist politics at a time of anti-communist fervour.

But it’s the affectionate, gentle reminiscences of the young Dylan that make A Freewheelin’ Time worth reading. Early on in the book we are treated to a picture of the aspiring folksinger, still with puppy fat, trying on one item of wrinkled clothing after another to get the right image. His walk is described as “a lurch in slow motion”; he has a “healthy ego”.

At the beginning of their relationship, Rotolo describes him as “funny, engaging, intense, persistent”, but also mentions his “facility for not telling the truth”, his evasiveness about his upbringing, the contradictory stories. We get a dramatic account of her discovery of his real surname when he drops his draft card: by this time they were living together but he’d kept that from her. To annoy him she would sometimes call him by his real initials, RAZ, though he didn’t mind when she called him Boo Radley.

There are several reminders of Chronicles: from Dylan’s soaking up of influences to his surprising talent for woodwork, using the cabinet housing the second-hand TV to make a coffee table and book shelves.

His letters to Suze while she was in Italy…Italy… are revealing. One, written at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, shows a genuine fear of imminent atomic war and a recognisable reaction: if the world was going to end all he wanted was to be with her. Another, in contrast, shows him responding to her news she’d had her hair cut. He liked it as it was. In one of his letters bemoaning her absence, “hating time”, he surely alludes to the Latin poet Catullus’s wonderfully modern-sounding poem Odi et amo when he says “I hate it I love you”.

Memories of their time together that resonate include Bob singing “Why Must I Be A Teenager In Love?”; watching the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald live on TV; hunting with him for an affordable jacket for the cover of the first album.

The story behind the Freewheelin’ cover is an interesting one. After the Don Hunstein (mis-spelt in the book) photo-shoot in their tiny, freezing apartment, they’re persuaded to go out into the cold. The unsuitable-for-the-weather suede jacket put on by Dylan is “an image choice”, while Suze, in two bulky sweaters and a coat tied tightly round the middle felt “like an Italian sausage”.

There are many intimate photos in the book, and other personal mementoes of her time with Bob. Ones that stand out are a newspaper cutting of “Bob Dylan of Gallup, NM” playing with “rural gusto” and the sheet music for Masters Of War and Train a-Travelin’ illustrated (well) by Rotolo.

That the background to Another Side Of Bob Dylan – which “made tough listening” – was the breaking down of their relationship is confirmed in a section aptly named “Ballad”.

Rotolo’s dissection of the painful break-up rings true, but she doesn’t go into tell-tale detail. She alludes earlier in the book to her mother’s and sister’s antagonism towards Bob and now concedes that her sister “had a valid point” in her assessment of him as a “lyin’ cheatin’ manipulatin’ bastard”. A later heartfelt comment “Yeah, he was a lying shit of a guy with women” is about as far as she goes in her criticism, his infidelities only hinted at.

A Freewheelin’ Time, rather than giving much new insight into Dylan the man, confirms what has often been written about him before. But it does give a more sympathetic picture, without a hidden agenda, one that covers the romantic side of him that concurs with his wonderful songs of love.

Rotolo also gives a valuable definition of the art of Dylan’s songs as “translations of moods and sensations… fictions that allude to these experiences”. More specific assertions are the claim that Mr Tambourine Man was written when Dylan was roaming the streets after a quarrel with her; that “Bobby had become Dylan” after the Carnegie Hall concert.

In her narrative she quite often slips into Dylan-speak (just like many of his fans): “we heard the rooster crowing at the break of day”; “He saw right from his side and I saw right from mine” and some section titles – Time Out Of Mind, Not Dark Yet – are borrowed from his album and song titles. I think they add to the memoir, which, as is revealed in the Acknowledgements at the end, she was encouraged to write after she appeared in Martin Scorsese’s film No Direction Home.

For the non-Dylan content, A Freewheelin’ Time is more of a woman’s book, the personal information – meeting Bob’s parents, hating being seen as a “chick” in a “pre-feminist” time, and resenting the phone calls complementing her as a muse and for standing by her man – would probably have little interest for most men.

There are another 70+ pages after the break-up with Dylan and this is where A Freewheelin’ Time fades away. I wasn’t really interested in her circuitous trip to Cuba or her move to Cambridge, Mass, with her new boyfriend and even mention of the odd meeting up with her erstwhile boyfriend failed to brighten up the narrative.

Nevertheless, I was left feeling warm towards Suze Rotolo and grateful that she’d shared the unique experience of her formative years alongside the towering talent of Bob Dylan.

Publication details: A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir Of Greenwich Village In The Sixties, by Suze Rotolo. London: Aurum Press, September 2008, hardback, 371pp, £16.99. ISBN 978 1 84513 392 4.