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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Monday, April 30, 2007


Today (April 30) is, unbelievably, the 25th anniversary of Lester Bangs' death (at age 33). No-one will ever pay him a fonder tribute than did Cameron Crowe in his touching film Almost Famous (2000), but here is the short entry centred around him in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

Bangs, Lester, the Black Panthers and Bob
The Desire song ‘Sara’ includes ‘Stayin’ up for days in the Chelsea Hotel / Writin’ “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” for you'. The subject was memorably polemicised by rock critic Lester Bangs (1948-1982) in a funny, wrong-headed froth of a review of Desire: ‘...if he really did spend days on end sitting up in the Chelsea sweating over lines like “your streetcar visions which you place on the grass”, then he is stupider than we ever gave him credit for.’

This was from a piece titled ‘Bob Dylan’s Dalliance With Mafia Chic’, from 1976. Bangs’ phrase ‘Mafia chic’ picks up the coinage of Tom Wolfe from his book Radical Chic And Mau-Mauing The Flak-Catchers, 1970, in which he excoriated New York socialites for their dalliance with Black Power, focussing on the appearance of prominent Black Panthers at a Leonard Bernstein party.

Bangs, likewise, duly excoriates Bob Dylan. An alleged meeting in 1970 between Bob Dylan and Black Panthers Huey Newton and David Hilliard had been mooted by Dylan’s first biographer, ANTHONY SCADUTO, in the New York Times in 1971, and discussed in ‘A Profile Of HOWARD ALK’ by Dylan’s third biographer, CLINTON HEYLIN (with research assistance by George Webber), in All Across The Telegraph: A Bob Dylan Handbook, 1987.

Leslie Conway Bangs, born in Escondido, California, on December 14, 1948, began writing freelance in 1969, starting with Rolling Stone but later for other music magazines, for The Village Voice, and for Playboy and Penthouse, his main influences beat authors (though he often comes close to sounding like HUNTER S. THOMPSON). In 1973 he was banned from Rolling Stone by JANN WENNER for being ‘disrespectful to musicians’. He died of an overdose on April 30, 1982.

[Lester Bangs: ‘Bob Dylan’s Dalliance With Mafia Chic’, Creem no.7, Birmingham Michigan, Apr 1976; republished Thomson & Gutman: The Dylan Companion, 1990. Anthony Scaduto: ‘Won’t You Listen To The Lambs, Bob Dylan?’, New York Times, 28 Nov 1971. (Tom Wolfe’s later essay on the same period, ‘Funky Chic’, is collected in Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, 1976.)]

Friday, April 27, 2007


Today is drummer Jim Keltner's 65th birthday. Here's his entry from The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

Keltner, Jim [1942 - ]
James Keltner was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma on April 27, 1942 and began his drumming career in the 1960s. He became one of the most sought-after of session players, and has worked live and in the studio with an absurdly all-star list of artists, from Barbra Streisand to JOHN LENNON, B.B. King to JONI MITCHELL, ERIC CLAPTON to Martha Reeves, Charlie Watts to Rickie Lee Jones and DAVID CROSBY to the Bee Gees. He can add Manhattan Transfer, ARLO GUTHRIE, Pink Floyd, BRIAN WILSON, Freddie Hubbard, Randy Newman, JOHN LEE HOOKER, Jackson Browne, WILLIE NELSON, the Indigo Girls, ELVIS COSTELLO, Joe Cocker and a good few more. He can also add the Traveling Wilburys and, more important, Bob Dylan.

Perhaps he first played with Dylan in the studio, in March 1971, pulled in by LEON RUSSELL, who produced the session. As Keltner recalls it, ‘We did “Watching the River Flow” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece” on that same day. And then I didn’t see him again until we did “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” in Los Angeles. That was a monumental session for me because it was such a touching song. It was the first time I actually cried when I was playing. When I hear that on the radio now, it’s very special to me…. because it’s a frozen moment in my life that will always be there.’

Two possible demurrals here. First, it wasn’t literally true that Keltner hadn’t seen Dylan again till ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’, because Keltner played behind Eric Clapton at the Concert For Bangla Desh, four months after the ‘Watching the River Flow’ studio session. Far more importantly, the drummer on that March 1971 session is more usually said to have been CHUCK BLACKWELL; Blackwell certainly thinks so.

Either way, Jim Keltner certainly appeared on ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’, and therefore on the album Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973); the next Dylan album he played on was Saved (1980), but this began a run of three 1980s albums on which Dylan used this highly reliable drummer, the others being Shot Of Love (1981) and Empire Burlesque (1985). But by this time Keltner had also toured behind Dylan too, and played on the 1979 ‘Saturday Night Live’ and the 1980 Grammy Awards TV shows. The live concerts began for Keltner with the first gospel tour, from November 1 to December 9, 1979, and continued with the 1980 tours (January 11 to February 9, April 17 to May 21 and November 9 to December 4). He remained for the 1981 tours too (June 10 to July 25, mostly in Europe, and then October 16 to November 21 in North America), though on the latter he found that Dylan was adding a second drummer.

After these tours and the 1980s albums, Keltner’s next Dylan assignment was in the studio in May 1988 to play on the album The Traveling Wilburys Volume 1. Next came the ‘Late Night with David Letterman’ TV show on January 18, 1992, with a bemused Bob Dylan singing ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, backed by a calm, solid Keltner plus a horder of others comically hyped up to the point of rabidity. That October 16, Keltner was the drummer in the houseband at the so-called ‘30th Anniversary Concert Celebration’, playing behind most of that night’s performers - including Dylan. Less than two years later, in Japan, Keltner was Dylan’s drummer alongside the Tokyo New Philharmonic Orchestra at the self-proclaimed ‘Great Music Experience’ at the Todaiji Temple in Nara, as Dylan sang ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, ‘I Shall Be Released’, ‘Ring Them Bells’ and an ensemble reprise of ‘ I Shall Be Released’ three nights running (May 20-22, 1994).

In 1997 Keltner was called down to Miami to play drums on seven of the 11 tracks on Time Out Of Mind (he’s absent on ‘Dirt Road Blues’, ‘Cold Irons Bound’, ‘Make You Feel My Love’ and ‘Highlands’) - and then after another gap of years, he found himself called up again, more surprisingly, to become one of the Never-Ending Tour musicians. Twenty-one years after his previous concert-tour job with Dylan, he came back to replace GEORGE RACILE. He ‘shadowed’ Racile, who was having a problem with an arm, on the Milan concert of April 20, 2002, took over for the first 10 numbers of the following night’s concert in Zurich and then replaced Racile altogether as from Innsbruck on April 23, through to the last nights of that tour leg, in London on May 11 and 12. In Brussels, on April 28, in Cardiff on May 6 and on the last night in London, he got to play ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’ again.

[Jim Keltner quoted from interview by Don Zulaica, seen online Jan 6 2006 on the Drummerworld website at]

Saturday, April 21, 2007


Thursday, April 19, 2007


Last thoughts on Minneapolis... There was too much good stuff to be able to catch all of it. Talks and discussions not mentioned in Parts 1-3 but caught and really enjoyed included these:

Day 2: the session from several contributors about "Dylan, Black Female Singers, Love and Theft", which was not only intrinsically interesting but also fun and so refreshingly relaxed; the contribution of Robert Reginio of the Dept of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst on "Blind Willie, Charley Patton, and Nettie Moore: The Problem of Race in Bob Dylan's Late Albums", which was squeezed under the umbrella of "Endless Highway: Dylan's Routes to Southern Music"; and the entire session on "Planet Waves: Dylan in Global Perspectives", inside which were three very different but equally strong presentations - C.P. Lee's robust look back at, and broad context-setting for, Dylan's reception on tour in the UK in 1966; Mikiko Tachi's nicely diffident but wry and very funny account of Dylan's reception in Japan in the 1960s-70s, and then art critic Thomas Crow's brilliantly delivered, forceful account of how central Andy Warhol had been to Dylan, because he was there, a comparable and therefore rival embodiment of radical cool, in the New York City of the mid-1960s.

Day 3: Christopher Ricks gave a terrific, tremendously likeable talk about Dylan and trains; someone e-mailed me afterwards to say they'd heard that Ricks criticised my own work in the course of the talk and how did I feel about that - and I answered completely truthfully that I felt absolutely fine about it: his criticisms had been honest, delivered with courtesy and grace, and offered entirely legit critical disagreement. He also said that they were only necessary because in writing about Dylan's work, mine was always there, a presence to be contended with. Anyway he was funny, gracious and so lively-minded that it was immensely pleasurable to listen to him. Also well worth hearing was Dave Engel's powerfully delivered talk on "The Political World [of] Bob Dylan's Hibbing", though he was, unfortunately, cut short due to time constraints; and some of "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down: [Contemporary] Songwriters Discuss Dylan's Legacy" (I wasn't able to stay for all of it).

Good Things Regrettably Missed: Days 2 & 3: Alessandro Carrera's widely-praised talk about Dylan's reception in Italy (he's the Italian translator of Lyrics and Chronicles Volume One), which people said was very funny; Dave Marsh's talk "Direction: Home", which I was told had been moving (and in any case I'd like to have heard him speak - and this was the only time I've met him). I'd like to have heard Stephen Scobie talk on "Writing an Imaginary Biography of Bobby Zimmerman", having heard him speak at the start of the conference in Frankfurt in early 2006, and to hear Gordon Ball's talk "A Nobel For Dylan?" - I've read the transcript, and I found it extraordinarily detailed, thoughtful, well-judged and articulate. (Again, he and I had not met before, but his company was one of the great pleasures of the conference and the bus tour to Hibbing.)

I wished too I could have caught the talk with the best title of the whole conference: author, film and music critic Devin McKinney's "Hotter than a Crotch: Bob Dylan at the Borderline of Sleaze", David Pichaske's "Bob Dylan 'And the Language that He Used'"; and Robert Polito's "Bob Dylan's Memory Palace" - this last one of three presentations under the general subject heading "Open the Door, Homer: Bob Dylan the Epic Poet".

Anyway, it was a tremendous event that must have taken a vast amount of work to organise, and was done with much flair. Also pretty special was the extra Minnesota-centred material added to this leg of the touring exhibition Bob Dylan's American Journey 1956-1966. This still runs at the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis, admission free, until April 29. Ten more days: catch it if you can.

Monday, April 16, 2007


Newcastle: marvellous seats, thanks to John Baldwin and his Desolation Row Information Line - right in the middle of the 2nd row, and right in front of Dylan. And it was the best Sarah & I have seen him in several years.

That may not be saying much (thinking back to gigs like Stockholm 2003, last time at Newcastle, and Wappingers Falls 2006), but this time he gave an honorable performance and offered some fine song choices. He played real lead guitar on at least two of the opening four songs, too, which was pleasing, and served as an early signal that he was in the mood to bother... and he did, all through the concert.

He also allowed Denny Freeman several lead guitar solos during the show, and rather touching and understatedly expressive they were too. On the other hand Stu Kimball, to whom Dylan now has his back throughout, seemed to have absolutely no function except to be a visual echo of Freeman at the opposite side of the stage. The effect, given that neither of them moves, is of two big dusty bookends on a shelf.

'House of the Rising Sun' in the hometown of the Animals was a nice touch as well as a surprise, and I was thrilled to hear 'I Don't Believe You' (always a favourite, and while not great vocally, it lolloped along beautifully, in the magnificent spirit of the song).

It was also a great pleasure to hear him sing so much of 'Desolation Row' (instead of only about four verses, as so often in recent years): and while it was the kind of performance which will sound nothing special on CD afterwards, there in the hall, and up close, watching him working through it (and taking us with him), line by line and verse by verse, was a thrill. I was reminded of someone reviewing him, I think in the 1990s, and writing of experiencing not just a concert but the process.

He did six (!) songs from Modern Times, and mostly to my ears they sounded better live than on the album. This didn't help 'Levee's Gonna Break' from sounding dull as ditchwater, and I think it's perverse to offer it in the same set as 'Summer Days', its more intelligent near-identical twin; but 'Deal Go Down' was good, and 'Nettie Moore' truly fine: I'd been worrying that he'd dropped it from the set lately but not only was it back but back very beautifully...

Too much 12-bar thrash, of course: the stuff that's too easy. But overall, heartening and authentic - and so good not to have to go anywhere near the vile Sheffield Arena.

FACTOID PS: In the last 45 years, Dylan has only performed 'House of the Rising Sun' five times before the Newcastle concert last Thursday night.

(There may well be other early 1960s performances but these are the logged ones online at the very useful site: St.Paul MN, 01-Jun-1960; NYC 04-Nov-1961; Sydney, 11-Feb-1986; Saratoga Springs, NY, 13-Jul-1986; NYC, 17-Jul-1986; Paris, 07-Oct-87; and George, WA, 18-Jun-2000.)

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


There's an exceptional rave preview for Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell - so kind about me that I should keep quiet about it, but, er, I can't - here at Steven Hart's literary blog Life On Digital Grub Street. (You can also see it on my other blog.) Mr. Hart seems to think it's already available from It isn't: I'm still working on proof corrections. Publication date is July 2nd.

On this blog, meanwhile, Minneapolis 4th Time Around should follow before 4pm Thursday (not Friday!), UK time: because after that Sarah and I and a good friend called Sue will be setting off for Newcastle Arena to catch Bob Dylan's concert.

Monday, April 09, 2007


Were he still alive, Carl Perkins would be 75 today.

(Photo shows him onstage c.1958; taken by "Jay Harrington's mother", unnamed, on the site

To mark this anniversary, here's the entry on him in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

Perkins, Carl [1932 - 1998]
Carl Perkins was born in Lake County, Tennessee, on April 9, 1932. Hearing ELVIS PRESLEY for the first time at the age of 22 meant recognising the same mad amalgam of styles he was already fooling with himself. ‘When I heard Elvis singing “Blue Moon Of Kentucky”,’ said Perkins, ‘I knew I had a future in music. It was the same sound my band was making.’

The band comprised Carl on electric guitar and vocals, and his brothers Jay (on acoustic guitar) and Clayton (stand-up bass). They’d grown up in a largely black community, in which the division wasn’t black or white but rich or poor. ‘You either worked the dirt or you owned it,’ said Carl, ‘and we worked it.’ Thus he was raised on country music and the blues, and as it happened the man who taught him guitar was black. ‘He wasn’t no great guitarist, but he could play these little blues licks, bending the notes like I hadn’t heard them doing on the Grand Ole Opry.’

Like so many, Perkins was drawn to Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios in Memphis, and Phillips signed him up. In late 1955 he was a support act to Presley on the Western Swing Jamboree Tour, and subsequently one of the so-called Million Dollar Quartet.

Unlike Presley, Perkins was as much lead-guitarist as singer, and composed his own material (though often by the brazen refashioning of older songs). He made only seven singles before being lured away from the Sun ‘family’ to the corporate graveyard of Columbia Records, Nashville, and alcoholism. Yet these few early recordings established Perkins as an influential guitarist - influential on how rock’n’roll guitar-work would be - whose playing was distinctive, creative, often exploratory and always interesting. These sessions yielded three Perkins songs that immediately became rock’n’roll standards: ‘Matchbox’, ‘Honey Don’t!’ and, pre-eminently, ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, the first, and possibly only, rockabilly million-seller, and the perfect expression of a restless generation’s innocent embrace of the new 1950s boom economy, the escape from post-war drear, and the fresh discovery of clothes, music, language and leisure-habits distinct from parental ones. Recorded and released in January 1956, it immediately became Sun Records’ biggest single, outselling all their Elvis records just as Elvis had moved to RCA Victor, where the A&R men were set to wondering if they’d ‘signed the wrong one’. But in March 1956 Carl and brother Jay were badly injured (Jay died two years later) when their driver fell asleep at the wheel en route to New York where they were to perform their smash-hit on Perry Como’s nationwide TV show. Carl lay in hospital while his big-time moment passed.

Myth had Perkins feeling that if it hadn’t been for that accident, he might have become the hot phenomenon of rock in place of Elvis. He never suffered this delusion, which would have meant misunderstanding completely the importance of sex in music. On the contrary, he summed up the situation with self-deprecation and wit: ‘Elvis,’ he said, ‘was the only one of us who didn’t look like Mister Ed.’

If Carl would never have broken out of the world that fed his inspiration, this was as much his strength as his limitation. ‘Put Your Cat Clothes On’ was another call to sartorial Saturday night action, while his unusually tough ‘Dixie Fried’ gave a glimpse of how wild that action could be in the roadhouses Perkins and his band had started out playing. The genial Perkins wordplay was strangely at odds with his voice, which only erratically carried authenticating energy, and was, when not fired up, as lacking in sharpness as in sexiness. Perhaps the essential dullness of his voice is what kept him the perfect rockabilly icon: he never stopped sounding candidly hick.

In 1964 Carl toured Britain as support to CHUCK BERRY, and found himself revered, not least by THE BEATLES, who recorded several of his songs. But with little tangible career left, he joined JOHNNY CASH’s live show. He claimed that he helped Cash off drugs while Cash got him off booze. He stayed with him for over ten years.

That’s how he came to play guitar on the 1969 Dylan-Cash duet of ‘Girl Of The North Country’ on Dylan’s Nashville Skyline - and on the many other Dylan-Cash duets recorded at the same day’s session. Around 14 takes from this session have circulated, including an attractive version of the Jack Clement song ‘Guess Things Happen That Way’, but none has been released. The song ‘Champaign, Illinois’, jointly written by Dylan and Perkins, and which Perkins duly recorded and released, comes from 1970.

Splitting with Cash in 1976, Perkins tried to re-start his own career, using his sons as his rhythm section, but though he held the respect of other musicians for his place in rock history, he had nothing but a handful of ever-tamer oldies to offer. Back in Britain in the late 1970s, he was easily upstaged by BO DIDDLEY, as he was by JERRY LEE LEWIS at 1981’s Wembley Country Festival. His decision to wear powder-blue Elvis-in-Vegas stage clothes, bouffanty hair and a fake tan did not help.

Late in life he composed a no.1 country hit by the Judds, ‘Let Me Tell You About Love’, and ‘Restless’. In 1986 came a TV Special filmed in London, ‘A Rockabilly Session - Carl Perkins and Friends’, the friends including GEORGE and RINGO, the inevitable ERIC CLAPTON and others. After ROY ORBISON’s death, Perkins was mooted as his replacement in THE TRAVELING WILBURYS, but it never happened.

In Jackson, Tennessee, however, on November 10, 1994, he was brought onstage at the end of a Dylan concert, and sang his classic, ‘Matchbox’, backed by Dylan and the Never-Ending Tour band plus his own guitar. (Dylan had also played around with a version of ‘Matchbox’ during his studio session with George Harrison in New York City on May 1, 1970.)

Carl Perkins was the only rockabilly hero to write a song as big-selling and as famous as those of the seminal giants like LITTLE RICHARD or Chuck Berry. That’s why, within the rockabilly genre, he has no equal in stature. But that is another way of saying that when rockabilly grew into rock’n’roll, and later into rock, Perkins stayed behind.

Despite the suicide of his brother Clayton in the 1970s, and his own throat cancer some years later, he continued to perform and record right up till his own death, which was on January 19, 1998 in Jackson, Tennessee. He was 65.

Two days after his death, at one of those shared-bill concerts by Dylan and VAN MORRISON, the two of them sang ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ in tribute at Madison Square Garden, during Morrison’s set. They repeated this tribute three nights later in Boston. At Perkins’ funeral that same day - at which George Harrison played an early Perkins song on guitar - Bob Dylan sent a note, which was read out. ‘He really stood for freedom. That whole sound stood for all the degrees of freedom. It would just jump right off the turntable. We wanted to go where that was happening.’

And it was true that Dylan had wanted to go there very early on. One of the bits of song on the recently-discovered 1956 recording of Dylan and his friends singing was of another Carl Perkins record from that very year: his minor hit ‘Boppin’ The Blues’.

[Carl Perkins: ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ c/w ‘Honey Don’t!’, Memphis Jan 1956, Sun 234, Memphis, 1956; ‘Matchbox’, Memphis, 30 Jan 1957, Sun 261, Memphis, 1957 (an earlier cut, Memphis, 4 Dec 1956, remained unissued until the box-set Carl Perkins: The Sun Years, Charley, London, c.1980); ‘Champaign, Illinois’, nia, 1970; ‘Boppin’ The Blues’, Memphis, 1956, Sun 243, Memphis, 1956. Perkins on the Dylan-Cash duets, Nashville, 18 Feb 1969.]

Sunday, April 08, 2007


Photocredit: the picture now up there in this blogger's My Profile slot is by Dave Engel, author of the splendid Just Like Bob Zimmerman's Blues: Dylan in Minnesota - which The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia calls "one of the four or five most valuable books on Bob Dylan ever published" but which is, sadly and madly, out of print.

Dave was one of the many excellent contributors to the symposium Highway 61 Revisited: Dylan's Road from Minnesota to the World, held at the University of Minnesota (at the Coffman Memorial Union building and the Weisman Art Museum) March 25-27.

Some of the sessions were keynote - that is, they were the only thing on at the time, so everyone could catch them - and some were concurrent. Highlights of the first day included Greil Marcus' fine, straightforward and heartfelt talk about Hibbing High School - I'd never heard him speak before, but it was a great pleasure to do so: he was moving, direct, and immensely thoughtful - and for many of us who had taken the bus trip to Hibbing only the previous day, his talk was radiantly clarifying. (Greil had not been on the bus trip, but had been to the town and school the year before.)

Another highlight of the first day was the impassioned, creatively chaotic talk/performance by Anne Waldman, described on the programme as "poet, performer, co-founder of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, Naropa Institute, Boulder, Colorado, and 'spiritual wife of Allen Ginsberg'", and who had also spent time on the Rolling Thunder Revue and duly appeared in Renaldo and Clara. She remains a fine, resourceful warrior for beat poetry and the counterculture.

And, in contrast, it was much to the organisers' credit that they had also invited Bobby Vee to participate, and much to his credit that he came. I was pleased to meet him, and to have him put his autograph alongside the entry on him in my own working copy of The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia. I told him I'd first seen him live at Liverpool Empire in about 1961, when he was topping a bill that also featured a 16-year-old (and very charismatic) Tony Orlando, and the tremendous Clarence Frogman Henry. To my surprise and pleasure, Bobby Vee said that actually he'd been chatting to Clarence only a couple of weeks earlier. He was also kind enough, at the symposium books signing next day, to buy a copy of the Encyclopedia himself. He's in extraordinarily good shape for his age. He's two years younger than Bob Dylan - and when, at the start of his own appearance, there was a short video compilation run through his career, it was amazing to me just how young he looked when he was first a teen idol. He looked like Bambi...

More in Part 4. Meanwhile, happy Easter.

Saturday, April 07, 2007


A group photograph of those who came on the bus trip to Hibbing the day before the symposium proper began. This was taken by the current owner of Bob's boyhood home, Gregg French...