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Bob Dylan Hits 70

by David Soulsby, author of "Somewhere in the Distance"

 

Bob DylanMy, how time flies! One minute he’s an enigmatic young newcomer, stirring up the music business, the next he’s 70! It’s as if everything Bob Dylan has achieved in nearly 50 years of performing and song writing has happened in the blink of an eye. It does make you realise that life is, indeed, short. You don’t, of course, think like that when you’re young and growing up: old age just seems so remote, so very distant in the future. You might, to paraphrase a Dylan song, try to stay forever young, but time is relentless and unstoppable…

It’s late 1962 and I‘ve just celebrated my 17th birthday, a gangly youth who just loves music. All kinds. I’ll listen to everything going — raw blues, country, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, soul, ballads, do wop. My taste and enthusiasm are boundless. With some school pals, all music-crazy like me, I’m eagerly flicking through the racks of Folk LPs in our local record store, looking for something different, something by a singer who we’ve read about in the music papers. His debut album has been out for a few months but we’ve only just found out. Surprisingly, we haven’t even heard him sing: he must have slipped in under our radar. But instinctively we just know he’s going to be good. And we’re not disappointed.

Bob Dylan’s debut album has couple of self-penned offerings but mainly covers a wide range of classic blues songs that we’ve heard before by other singers, including the originals, but for us there’s a fresh feel to the way the 21-year-old performs them. His voice is utterly distinctive: he’s telling stories in a style that, while beholding to the likes of Woody Guthrie, Huddie Ledbetter, Elmore James, and Josh White, is all his very own. No one is going to mistake his voice for that of another. He has the confidence and brashness to tackle material that belies his years and limited experience of life. And it’s these qualities — gifts really — that appeal to us so strongly. Dylan’s young, we’re even younger, and we’ve got our whole lives ahead of us, strong in our beliefs that we’re going to make the world a better place to live…

Fast forward the time machine to mid-1963: A four-man group from Liverpool is causing quite a stir, having hit the British music charts with a mix of bravado and cheekiness that’s a breath of fresh air. They’ve called themselves The Beatles and their music is both infectious and fun, but we’re not sure how long they’ll be around. We’ve seen so many groups come and go; but the girls like them, for sure, so they’ll probably have a few more hits along the way. Anyway, live for the moment and what will be will be.

Meanwhile, Dylan has his second album on sale and it’s a ‘play as often as possible’ item in my record collection. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is a revelation: its cover, showing Dylan and his girlfriend Suze Rotoro, is so emotive; the couple, huddled together in defiance of the icy blast of a New York winter, are frozen for all time as cool youthfulness personified.

The album’s tracks are dynamic and instantly likeable. They say so much about the times we’re living in. Times when we’re not too sure about the possibility of a nuclear conflict: the Russians have just scared us by claiming that they have a 100-megaton nuclear bomb and the Cold War is showing no signs of thawing. It’s also a time when we’re searching for some kind of equality and fairness in society: a time when we’re looking inside ourselves to see exactly who we are and what we can become…

April 1965: I’m 19 years old and making my way in the big wide world. The future looks reasonably bright. The Beatles are taking the world by storm and Dylan is in England at the start of a much-awaited tour. I’m an editorial assistant on The Guardian national newspaper based in London, generally doing mundane chores but every so often getting the opportunity to meet blues and rock stars. So it’s like a dream come true when I find myself in the thick of a Bob Dylan press conference at The Savoy hotel.

I’m excited, but it’s not quite what I expect. It’s obvious from the start that Dylan has no great love for journalists: he’s weary of the same old questions being asked, questions about his date and place of birth, his views on politics, society, war — all answered and re-answered many times before and there to find if only they’d take the time to look. What he seems to want is simply questions that are relevant to his music. At times he comes across as aloof and dismissive, but in a separate interview away from the crowds, his companion Joan Baez defends him.

I’m totally absorbed by all this. Here I am, a mere youth among seasoned journalists, witnessing the sparring match. Look, listen and learn: not so much what to do, but what not to do! I’m going to make use of the lesson when I eventually move on to be a reporter myself, of that I’m determined.

Zoom forward to 2002: Camera bulbs flash and in one magic moment I’m captured standing behind Dylan’s right shoulder, an image destined to have an impact on my life — although I don’t know this at the time. In fact, it’s an incredible 37 years on that I first become aware of the particular image, snapped by the famous rock ‘n’ roll photographer Dezo Hoffman at the 1965 Savoy press conference.

The April 2002 issue of the Record Collector magazine has Dylan on the cover and an extensive feature inside on an auction at Christie’s, London, of Sixties rock memorabilia, including many rare items connected to the 1965 tour of England, And there, on the opening spread, is the said photograph. I’ve bought the magazine on the strength of the Dylan cover and I’m totally taken by surprise when I turn to the article. There I am, so young and innocent! And there’s Dylan, caught in an iconic pose for all time.

The image results in me going on a radio show to talk about the press conference and all things Dylan. It also becomes a talking point among friends and family and many fellow Dylan fans. There’s also a copy of the photograph displayed on a wall at my last place of work: some sort of fame I suppose!

Anyway, a happy 70th to Bob, and long may he reign.

David Soulsby lives in Romford, Essex,David Soulsby England, and is now retired after 46 years as a journalist. During his career, he worked on local and national newspapers and magazines, and in the Sixties met many of his musical heroes, including Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Sonny Boy Williamson, James Brown and Mel Torme. He’s now freelancing as a writer and proof-reader, working from home. He’s the author of Somewhere In The Distance, a novel about four friends growing up in the Sixties.

 

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