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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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Sunday, November 29, 2009


First, I should have added to Positively Part 1 that there is another thoughtful and positive take on Christmas In The Heart from Roy Kelly - another long-term Dylan afficionado who doesn't try to kid himself that everything in Bob's garden is rosy - in the imminent issue of that other UK fanzine, The Bridge.

Meanwhile, I've also been alerted to a comparably plausible, readable review of Dylan's recent concerts that makes them sound good too. John Baldwin's Desolation Row e-mail newsletter of a few days ago pointed me to Ken Cowley's reviews of the recent New York shows on his blog here. Mr. Cowley even makes me wish I'd been there.

Lastly, I'm pleased to say that since someone on that Expecting Rain discussion group disparaged the idea of anyone wanting to come to our forthcoming Winterlude Weekends we've now had someone step in and book the vacant place for the weekend of February 12-14.

The discussion-group person wrote that he'd rather eat his own foot. He may as well, since he's already put it in his mouth.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


Yesterday marked the 10th anniversary of the death of perhaps the greatest electric violin player ever to record, Don Sugarcane Harris. He was only 61 but had enjoyed a long career at the soulful end of rock'n'roll and beyond. As far as I know Bob Dylan never played with him but I like to think there was a point where they could have come together on record. If Bob's meeting with Zappa in December 1982 had gone well enough, and Zappa had ended up producing the album that became Infidels, and they might have called in Sugarcane to play a searing electric violin solo in the middle of, say, 'Sweetheart Like You', in a kind of parallel to the way Doug Kershaw's beautifully piercing work is embedded into 'Blue Moon' on Self Portrait. And if Bob had been lucky, Mr. Harris' playing might have reached the heights he achieved for Zappa on 'Directly From My Heart To You' on Weasels Ripped My Flesh.

In earlier incarnations Don Francis Bowman Harris was the Don in Don & Dewey, not only having hit singles but writing songs like 'Justine' (played live by Dylan in 1986). You'll also find him on John Lee Hooker's Folk Blues (1959) and Born In Mississippi (1973), and he was part of the John Mayall Blues Band for a long time. Almost all the online biogs and obits give the date of his death as November 30, 1999, but the reliable authority on these matters, Eric LeBlanc, says that Don's death certificate clearly says that he died at home in LA that November 27.

Friday, November 27, 2009


After the, er, mixed reception to Christmas in the Heart in comments to this blog, plus the unwarranted assumption that I either do or will hate it (whereas in fact it's still November and so I haven't bought or heard the albm yet), it's a great pleasure to be able to reproduce here a review/think piece - which the best kind of review surely should be - which is not only beautifully written, stimulatingly thoughtful and humane but also essentially positive about Christmas in the Heart. This is Peter Doggett's take on it, first published in the latest issue of ISIS fanzine and now, with the author's permission, reproduced online for the first time here:

by Peter Doggett

“What is this shit?”
(The opening line of Greil Marcus’s review of
Self Portrait, 1970)

The rumour sprouted just after the tale that Dylan would be voicing sat-nav, and sounded just as unlikely. Then it became a fact, and a medley of 30-second snippets on Youtube – a collage of phlegm, schmaltz and bathos that promised to deliver a lethal dose of Yuletide cheer. I began to assemble a mental list of hapless friends and relations who deserved some exotic seasonal delight, imagining a Marcus-like chorus of horror arising across the country.

It arrived in time for a lengthy drive along the coast, and we sniggered and guffawed in all the obvious places. We winced in unison as tunes we’d inhaled as babies sank into a choppy sea of catarrh, each wave of mucus so thick that you could imagine lowering a bottle down between the tonsils and emerging with a green, viscous soup of bronchial pus. We giggled at the sonic gulf between the debris of a lifetime’s addiction to tobacco, and the sparkling-white peppiness of the chorale. “You wouldn’t want this guy behind you in church”, my wife quipped, imagining a coat spattered in stale spit and cigarette perfume.

Second time around, though, the laughter began to feel hollow. It was funny, sure, but not funny enough; and there was something else going on. By the end of the record, we were listening in silence. “He loves Christmas, doesn’t he?”, my wife whispered.

“I could feel that in my bones – that particular yuletide time of the year. On the Iron Range it had been positively Dickensian. Just like the picture books: angels on Christmas trees, horse-drawn sleighs pushing through snowy streets, pine trees glistening with lights, wreaths strung over the downtown stores, Salvation Army band playing on the corner, choirs going from house to house caroling, fireplaces blazing, woolly scarves around your neck, church bells ringing. When December rolled around, everything slowed down, everything got silent and retrospective, snowy white, deep snow. I always thought Christmas was like that for everyone, everywhere. I couldn’t imagine it not being like that forever.”

That’s from
Chronicles, a book I believe about as much as I trust the voice of Modern Times and Together Through Life – which is to say, not much at all. Years ago, my friend Mark Paytress wrote a biography of Marc Bolan, and in his initial draft, he made what seemed to me reprehensible claims about Bolan’s superiority over Dylan. Nonsense, I replied, scribbling across his manuscript. The gist of my argument was that whereas Bolan represented artifice – a conscious shifting of personality and style in a desperate bid for commercial acceptance, from the mock-Donovan of 1965 to the glittery teen idol of 1971 – Dylan’s business was authenticity, rooted in the soul and in the unambiguous honesty of America’s folk traditions, black and white. I bullied him into softening his tone in the final draft. But Modern Times, Together Through Life and Chronicles made me think that I owe Paytress an apology. I still don’t rate Bolan as any kind of artist (though he was a magnificent opportunist, and a halfway decent pop star for about 12 months). But I don’t think that Dylan is a proud beacon of authenticity anymore, either. Maybe he never was.

The problem with certainty is that once it starts to ebb away, it’s difficult to stem the tide. If you believe that the auteur of
Modern Times is faking it, the sense of doubt seeps backwards through Dylan’s career, and you start to remember other moments that felt false – much of Infidels, for one; pieces of Street-Legal; Joey and Mozambique; Buckets of Rain . . . dare I go back any further? The first time I heard Highway 61 Revisited, I was 15 years old, and I couldn’t believe that rock lyrics could be so funny, so daring, peopled with characters who’d stepped out of nightmares and cartoons with vicious W.C. Fields quips dripping from their mouths. Before then, the only Dylan album I’d heard was New Morning, which hadn’t prepared me for the antics of the crazy gang: T.S. Eliot, murderous Abraham, sweet Melinda and the rest.

I remember one time, though, 10 or 20 years ago, when I returned to the record expecting pleasure, and heard another
Highway 61, the Dylan of dissenting voices and disbelievers - a conjurer of hollow wordplay and slick images that added up to a line of zeroes. For a day or two thereafter, it was as if I’d received a decades-early preview of Modern Times: was Dylan really a charlatan all along?

The next time I heard him, I didn’t think so, and I don’t to this day. But remember that the first Dylan we heard – the archetype of the man we’ve stalked ever since – introduced himself as an orphan, a teenage rambler, a recidivist hobo with rambling’, gamblin’ spirit in his blood. That wasn’t true, but we wanted to believe it, the same way as we wanted him to be Woody Guthrie and Robert Johnson, Allen Ginsberg and Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Jack London, Scott Fitzgerald and Little Richard, only with a voice without restraint and the eye that could pierce the soul. It’s that Dylan I hear, still, in my head and on my stereo. But I need to be aware that it’s an invention, a marvellous cultural creation, which touches me in a way Marc Bolan never could but comes from the same school of magic known as Art. As distinct from Life.

Chronicles is Art, and artifice; and as the scholars and detectives are discovering, not all the Art is Dylan’s own creation (which is an increasingly familiar display of his artificiality in the 21st century). The book is often a dazzling recreation of a mysterious past, but not necessarily a truthful one, whatever that means. Because Dylan says he stayed in this Village apartment or walked these New Orleans streets, that doesn’t mean he’s dispensing facts. I think of Chronicles as his finest magic trick, a way of showing you something in such detail that you have to believe it’s true, while it’s merely a comforting illusion.

Yet there are elements of
Chronicles too banal to be invented; they serve no purpose other than the truth (whatever that means). They’re ostensibly the least revealing and most obvious moments of the book, as when Dylan talks about the “freezing winter with a snap and sparkle in the air”; or, indeed, the commonplace evocation of the Christmas spirit I quoted earlier. Anyone could have written those lines; or, at least, there is nothing recognisably Dylanesque about them. They are a collage of cliché, but they ring true because many of us carry those same dreamlike memories from our childhoods, that Christmas in the heart. Mine involve my grandparents’ house in Bristol: the lights on the tree are reflecting sparks of fire onto the glistening, slippery wrapping paper at their base, tinsel and paper chains slither along the picture rail, and the morrow will bring presents and television and pudding and cake and unbroken happiness. I know that some of the presents will be disappointing; I’ll be called upon to dry some dishes; and at some point my father will lose his temper and the spirit of Christmas will decay. But that’s the memory I choose to keep alive, and the one I’d love to recreate for my own family this December. Their memories will be different: Playstation and Toy Story, maybe, replacing my Morecambe and Wise. Different dreams, same illusion, carried forward into the December of our lives.

“I couldn’t imagine it not being like that forever”, Dylan wrote, and
Christmas in the Heart is an attempt to make it so. Like the kids entrusted with the duty of keeping Peter Pan and Wendy alive with blind faith, we have to accept Dylan’s “forever” with uncynical cheer. This is not a record by the creator (or charlatan) of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, Blood On The Tracks or "Love And Theft", to name just four miraculous feats of artifice from the Artist who chooses to be known by that assumed, inauthentic name. It’s the work of a man who, for once in his life, is prepared to let down his defences and be real – in the confident assumption that his motives will be scrutinised and interpreted with such sand-stirring energy that his path across the desert will be obscured, just the way he always likes it to be.

After their initial shock, several critics have recognised the sonic resemblance between Dylan’s music, with its white-bread choir and rich, decadent sound, and the immaculately recorded, lush, sickly-saccharin sound of the Ray Conniff Orchestra & Singers, the Mitch Miller Orchestra, Perry Como, Bing Crosby and the other rulers of popular American song in the decade that spawned rock’n’roll. This was the music that Elvis was supposed to have destroyed, but secretly loved; and so did Dylan, not for its musical quality, but for its shocking power to pull the listener back into a vanished, elusive, partly illusory world, a time when time stopped and everything existed in the now. That’s what Christmas represents, in our fantastic dreams, and while it sounds like the King’s College Choir in my head, it sounds like Ray Conniff in Dylan’s. Even the two songs that apparently relate to the world after Elvis – Christmas Blues and Must Be Santa – lack any connection to the milieu of rock, Christmas Blues finally delivering that flawless reproduction of the 1950s that has long been Jack Frost’s dream (and doesn’t that borrowed identity suddenly carry another layer of resonance?), and Must Be Santa delivering a sudden vision of Grandma Zimmerman raising her skirts to Hibbing’s equivalent of Knees Up Mother Brown.

A rare Jew(el) in a predominantly Christian community, whose own commitment to the gospel of Christ remains a private enigma, Bobby Zimmerman was raised to respect the carols that celebrated the authentic or artificial second coming. While the Tin Pan Alley favourites that dominate this album are handled with an appropriate blend of affection and playfulness, there is not a moment on the four carols that hints at disrespect or agnosticism. Like a penitent sinner, he raises his harrowed (and often harrowing) voice to heights he hasn’t attempted in years, every taint of human frailty and mortality exposed to the Creator. This is the sound of devotion, not just to God, in whichever form Dylan chooses to recognise Him, but to experience, and to the bitter certainty of the body crinkling into age and the imminence of death. He sounds old enough to have witnessed The First Noel; frail enough to lend a searing irony to the cacophonous rasp as he croons “how silently” on O Little Town of Bethlehem; sure enough of his wandering faith to cling to the rock of tradition that supports him while melancholy Herald Angels Sing. Some things are too sacred to be sacrificed, it seems.

Dylan is prepared to twist or simply ignore his own melodies of (our) blessed memory; sometimes the words disappear too. When they do, it’s a sign that they don’t mean anything to their creator in that instant. It’s why he can mumble his way through Tangled Up in Blue or Hard Rain on stage, and then give witness to a stray verse or a couplet as if it was “written in my soul”; it signals a connection, however infuriatingly brief. On this album, nothing has lost its meaning; every melody needs to be respected, no matter the cost. It’s what gives the agonising rasp of Do You See What I See its power, his phrasing as exact and perfect as on Desolation Row. He can skip through Here Comes Santa Claus or Christmas Island like the crooner he sometimes dreamed he might become, with a grace and lightness of touch he has rarely applied to his own songs.

Those same qualities – and that same reverence for his material – were apparent on another album that transgressed the lines of rock’n’roll etiquette, and pitched Dylan’s disruptive voice against the smoothest and least aggressive of backgrounds.
Self Portrait outraged everyone, from A.J. Weberman to you, who believed in rock’s role as a statement of generational intent, and in Dylan’s pre-eminent stature in that ill-fated counter-culture. Widely greeted as a gesture of treason and contempt, it has since been explained (away) by Dylan himself as a deliberate effort to avoid responsibility and evade preconceptions, like the hog-nosed snake that plays dead to confuse its predator into buggering off and leaving it alone. (The snake is prone to sabotaging its ploy by immediately turning over again if anyone sets it right-side-up, in the same way that Dylan issued New Morning.)

If I’d heard
Self Portrait in 1970, rather than 1974, I’d probably have shared that sense of bemused betrayal. But for years I concealed a guilty secret: I loved the record. Not every song, to be sure; it struck me that if Dylan had issued one album of slicked-up traditional tunes (Alberta, Days of 49, In Search Of Little Sadie) another of glossy covers (Take A Message To Mary, Blue Moon, Let It Be Me) and a single of Minstrel Boy and Mighty Quinn, then his artistic integrity, at least, might have remained intact. There are too many moments when Dylan sounds unsure of his own intentions. But there are more when he focuses to delicious effect, matching the precision of a Jim Reeves or Willie Nelson on Take A Message To Mary, for example; investing Copper Kettle with a silky intensity that suggests a fireside glow after a trudge through wintry woods; matching Charlie Rich’s soulful purr on Living The Blues; capturing the camaraderie of Nashville’s session elite on Days of 49 and Gotta Travel On. None of it is confrontational, or challenges anything bigger than Dylan’s own reputation, but it’s balm for the troubled soul, music as a cushion not a cudgel, and an accurate self portrait of a boy and man who relished commercial country as much as he did rockabilly or roadhouse rhythm and blues. Self Portrait revealed a love that dared not speak its name, and it found its ideal helpmeet in country producer Bob Johnston, for whom fashioning lush soundscapes that wrapped the body like a warm duvet on a frosty night was second nature.

Nearly forty years on,
Christmas in the Heart is Self Portrait No. 2, as divisive and derided as its predecessor. Now, though, Dylan (or Mr Frost, at least) has finally learned how to make records the way they always sounded in his head. What’s most striking about the sound of this record is its exquisite fidelity of detail, whether that’s the crack of a snare or the legacy of a lifetime’s addiction to rotten wood and smoke. It’s as rich and moist as any figgy pudding, and the Dylan of 1970 could have decorated it with a voice matured in a syrupy concoction of Elvis and Bing. But those days and nuances are long gone. The Dylan voice of 2009 – nakedly exposed across this charmingly slight autobiographical sketch – has soured and then decayed.

So careful and open is the production of this album that the stark contrast between the security of the music and the grating rasp of Dylan’s voice can only have been deliberate. Nowhere is the chasm wider than on that most hackneyed of seasonal ballads, I’ll Be Home for Christmas. Maybe the song once carried the weight of wartime reunion, but it’s long since shed its meaning. Here, though, Dylan’s gruesome vocal suggests not a romantic ending but the grim certainty of a much bleaker conclusion. Weighted with sadness, his performance valiantly attempts to keep his audience’s fantasies alive, “if only in my dreams”, though every death-rattle of his lungs proves him wrong.
Christmas In The Heart is a celebration of those dreams, that doubles as their death-knell. It’s the work of a loving father and grandfather, who knows that his time is beyond his control, but never out of mind. It’s also the most honest record he knows how to make in his declining years. That doesn’t make it a great album, merely an honest one; a second self portrait, as deliberately revealing as the first.

Hearing Frank Sinatra age, and his vocal cords constrict, I always hoped (in vain) that the man who’d already given voice to exuberant youth and contemplative middle age might be capable of one last epic statement: an album that would convey the reality of getting old. Many of us wanted to believe that
Time Out Of Mind was that album. But maybe Dylan is giving us another portrait of old age: a defiant grasping at dreams that he knows he cannot fulfil. In his first public testament of faith, Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie, Dylan wrote mockingly about “the marshmallow noises of the chocolate cake voices/That come knockin’ and tappin’ in Christmas wrappin’”. The chocolate cake voices are here at last, but it’s Dylan’s voice that’s knockin’ and tappin’ at the door, telling us that all things must perish, even in the heart.
© Peter Doggett, 2009.

Peter Doggett’s new book, You Never Give Me Your Money: The Battle for the Soul of the Beatles (Bodley Head, £18.99), will enhance anyone’s Christmas, especially if they enjoy lurid tales of music business intrigue and personal grudges.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


Hoagy Carmichael would have been 110 today if he'd had the longevity of Henry Allingham. Hoagy's relevance to Bob Dylan's work is argued here in the entry on him in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

Carmichael, Hoagy [1899 - 1981]
Hoagy Carmichael was born Hoagland Howard Carmichael on November 22, 1899 and raised in Bloomington Indiana. He grew up to be a singer and actor but primarily a popular songwriter. His very first composition was called ‘Freewheeling’, and he also wrote a song titled ‘Things Have Changed’. More famously he wrote or co-wrote, among many, many others, ‘Stardust’ and ‘Georgia On My Mind’.

Carmichael is one of the many improbable people whose work and persona Dylan admires, possibly just to be perverse. Hoagy’s photo is pinned up on the wall of the shack behind him on the photo by DANIEL KRAMER planned for the US hardback of Dylan’s Tarantula but rejected (it’s reproduced in Kramer’s book Bob Dylan) and in the Empire Burlesque song ‘Tight Connection To My Heart’ Dylan names a Hoagy Carmichael composition. Dylan sings: ‘Well, they’re not showing any lights tonight / And there’s no moon. / There’s just a hot-blooded singer / Singing “Memphis in June”’.

‘Memphis In June’ was composed by Carmichael with lyrics by Johnny Mercer (who also wrote the lyric to ‘Moon River’, which Dylan sang one night on the Never-Ending Tour in tribute to the late STEVIE RAY VAUGHN). Dylan’s ‘hot-blooded singer’ is a neat small joke about Hoagy, whose many assets include a calculatedly lizard-like presence. It was a joke Dylan had retained from an earlier version of the song, then called ‘Someone’s Got A Hold Of My Heart’, which he’d recorded at the sessions for Infidels, the album before Empire Burlesque. Various performances of this have floated around, but the one eventually released officially, on The Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3 in 1991, offered these alternative lines: ‘I hear the hot-blooded singer / On the bandstand croon / “September Song”, “Memphis in June”’. Clearly Dylan was determined to retain Hoagy, whatever other changes he made. (‘September Song’ was written by Maxwell Anderson and composed by Kurt Weill for the 1938 Broadway play Knickerbocker Holiday.)

‘Memphis’ was written for the 1945 George Raft film Johnny Angel, in which Carmichael played a philosophical singing cab driver. (‘After that I was mentioned for every picture in which a world-weary character in bad repair sat around and sang or leaned on a piano’). Subsequent film roles included being the pianist who sings ‘Hong Kong Blues’ in the Bogart-Bacall film To Have And Have Not, one of Dylan’s favourite hunting-grounds for lyrics in the Empire Burlesque period.

The least hot-blooded cover version of ‘Memphis In June’ may be by Matt Monro, from 1962; the best (and ‘on a bandstand croonin’’) may be by Lucy Ann Polk, cut in July 1957 in Hollywood.

Hoagy himself recorded the song in 1947 with Billy May & His Orchestra and again in 1956 with a jazz ensemble that included Art Pepper. Carmichael and Mercer also wrote that great song ‘Lazy Bones’ - in twenty minutes, in 1933 - which was revisited magnificently in the 1960s by soul singer James Ray (who made the original US hits of ‘If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody’ and ‘Itty Bitty Pieces’; in the UK he was unlucky enough to find these savaged in unusually distressing ways, even by the standards of British cover versions of the time, by Freddie & The Dreamers and Brian Poole in the first case and by The Rockin’ Berries and Chris Farlowe in the second).

Carmichael played ranch-hand Jonesey in the 1959-60 season of the TV series Laramie. In 1972 he was given an Honorary Doctorate by Indiana University back in Bloomington (which is where BETSY BOWDEN got her doctorate for a study of Bob Dylan’s performance art that became her book Performed Literature).

Hoagy Carmichael died two days after Christmas, 1981. When a retrospective 4-LP box set of his work, The Classic Hoagy Carmichael, was issued in 1988, with copious notes by John Edward Hasse, Curator of American Music at the Smithsonian Institution, it was released and published jointly by the Smithsonian and the Indiana Historical Society. (American hobbyists are so lucky: there’s always plenty of places to go for funding. Imagine trying to get funds to research, compile and write an accompanying book about Billy Fury from the British Museum and the Birkenhead Historical Society.) The Carmichael box-set notes say this, among much else, and might just remind you of someone else (not Billy Fury):

‘At first listeners may be distracted by the flatness in much of Carmichael’s singing, and turned off especially by his uncertain intonation. The singer himself said, “my native wood-note and often off-key voice is what I call ‘Flatsy through the nose’”. But... one becomes accustomed to these traits and grows to appreciate and admire other qualities of his vocal performances, specifically his phrasing... intimacy, inventiveness and sometimes even sheer audacity. Also, many... evidence spontaneous and extemporaneous qualities, two important ingredients in jazz.’

[Hoagy Carmichael: The Classic Hoagy Carmichael, 4-LP set compiled & annotated by John Edward Hasse; issued as 4 LPs or 3 CDs, BBC BBC 4000 and BBC CD3007, UK, 1988; Johnny Angel, , dir. Edwin L. Marin, written Steve Fisher, RKO, US, 1945. Daniel Kramer: Bob Dylan, New York: Citadel Press edn, 1991, p.127. Betsy Bowden: Performed Literature, Bloomington: Indiana University Pres, 1982.]

Friday, November 20, 2009


Remember this, from a blogging of November 4?:
I'd wanted to see whether this blog was a good forum for auctioning Dylantiques, rarities, collectors' items etc - and asked anyone interested in this item to send in their bid, the idea being that a week later the highest bid received would win it. Well, er, nobody was interested. Nobody bid. So now I know. I shan't be using this blog when I come to sell my 1978 Earls Court Dylan concert tickets or my first-printing copies of Stephen Pickering's Dylan: A Commemoration and Praxis One, then...

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


The rather wonderful Doug Sahm died ten years ago today. It's my prejudice that people who talk up the dreary playing on Together Through Life should do themselves the favour of listening to Doug Sahm & Band. It's so beautifully loose and alive, so full and generous spirited and fun. Anyway, here's Doug's entry in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

Sahm, Doug [1941 - 1999]
Douglas Wayne Sahm was born on November 6, 1941 in a predominantly black section of San Antonio, Texas, where he grew up. He was of German and Irish descent, not, as often reported, of Lebanese. A steel-guitar, mandolin and fiddle prodigy, he sang on radio at age five and by eight he was a regular on the Louisiana Hayride radio show, billed as Little Doug Sahm. Just weeks before HANK WILLIAMS’ death, he brought Doug on stage with him in Austin.

He heard many live blues and country musicians as he grew up and by 13 knew the records of HOWLIN’ WOLF, FATS DOMINO and JIMMY REED. His mother wouldn’t let him accept an offer to join the Grand Ole Opry but he did start making records for local labels - starting with the 78rpm as well as 45rpm release ‘A Real American Joe’ c/w ‘Rollin’, Rollin’’, made when he was 11 but released in 1955 - and fronting local bands while still in high school.

It was the British invasion and the BEATLES that led to producer Huey P. Meaux, with whom Sahm had been pushing to record, to commission Sahm to get a group together, write a song with a Cajun two-step beat (Meaux thought the Beatles’ hits had the same on-the-beat formula), grow his hair long and come back to the studio. Hence the supposedly British-sounding name the Sir Douglas Quintet, and hence ‘She’s About A Mover’, recorded in January 1965 and an immediate massive hit, which Bob Dylan was quick to praise.

In March 1966, arrested in Texas for possession of marijuana, Sahm moved to San Francisco for five years, there recording the album Mendocino and others, to increasingly little effect; but in 1972 Sahm and the group appeared in the movie Cisco Pike with KRIS KRISTOFFERSON (its soundtrack featuring his ‘Michoacán’) and that October JERRY WEXLER bought him out of his record deal, brought him to Atlantic and to New York, rescuing him from the doldrums and producing the album Doug Sahm & Band, one of the most charming albums ever made, Sahm’s lazy but perky voice one ingredient in a fond fusion of loose yet sinewy Tex-Mex country-rock music on which Bob Dylan appeared on a number of tracks in a variety of mostly self-effacing minor rôles. The whole thing sounded as if it were being played in your parlour, yet also sounded the unarguable laid-back prototype for the Austin Sound that was so successful later that decade.

Doug Sahm himself plays guitar, piano and bajo sexto on the album; other players include Dr. John, DAVE BROMBERG, Flaco Jiménez, AUGIE MEYERS and Dave ‘Fathead’ Newman. On the expansive, chunky opening track ‘(Is Anybody Going To) San Antone’ Dylan sings harmony vocals and plays guitar; on ‘It’s Gonna Be Easy’ and ‘Faded Love’ he plays organ and on ‘Poison Love’ guitar; on his own composition ‘Wallflower’ he sings lead vocals and plays guitar, on ‘Blues Stay Away From Me’ he shares vocals and plays guitar, and on ‘Me and Paul’ he plays guitar and harmonica. The outtakes - some released in 1992 on Doug Sahm & Friends, and all released in 2003 on the set The Genuine Texas Groover - were ‘On The Banks of the Old Pontchartrain’, ‘Hey Good Lookin’, ‘Mr. Sandman’ and ‘I’ll Be There’ (all with Dylan on guitar), ‘COLUMBUS STOCKADE BLUES’ and ‘The Blues Walked In’ (Dylan on piano and organ) and ‘Tennessee Blues’, with Dylan on harmonica. The original album was finally re-issued on CD on Hallowe’en 2006.

Nothing much happened for Doug Sahm as a result of the original album release, in December 1972, and Atlantic persevered with his career no more than Mercury before it, though his fanbase in Texas remained ardent. He drifted through the rest of the 1970s, playing guitar on RICK DANKO’s eponymously-titled solo album of 1977 and appearing in the film More American Graffiti in 1979. In 1983, with long-time musical compadre Augie Meyers, he signed to Swedish label Sonet, enjoying one of the biggest hit singles in Scandinavian history with ‘Meet Me In Stockholm’, from their album Midnight Sun, and touring Europe recurrently until in 1985 he moved to Canada, where he formed a new band with Amos Garrett. Three years later he finally returned to Texas, recording for a small Austin label and after various touring configurations with others, he joined the Texas Tornados - intended as a Tex-Mex Travelin’ Wilburys - along with Meyers, Flaco Jiminez and Freddie Fender. They made seven albums plus The Best of Texas Tornados, the last being a live album made in Austin 11 months before his death. However, in tandem with the Texas Tornados (also the name of a Houston volleyball team), Sahm re-formed the Sir Douglas Quintet in 1994 with two sons.

On August 24, 1988, shortly before Sahm quit Canada, Bob Dylan’s Never-Ending Tour, then only 10 weeks old, played Edmonton, Alberta. TRACY CHAPMAN came on for the encore number ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’ and that must have seemed to the audience the end-of-evening surprise. But topping that, Doug Sahm was brought onstage and, backed by Dylan and his band, finally got to sing ‘She’s About A Mover’ to its prominent admirer, 23 years after he’d first heard it. The two men’s final conjunction came another seven years on, when the Never-Ending Tour was back in Texas and on their second and final night in Austin, on November 5, 1995, Doug Sahm graced the stage one more time, playing guitar on ‘Maggie’s Farm’, ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’, ‘Never Gonna Be The Same Again’, ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, ‘Alabama Getaway’, and the final number of the night, ‘Rainy Day Women Nos. 12 & 35’. At the end of ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’, on which Sahm also shared vocals, he said to the audience: ‘Austin, Texas, do we love this dude or what! He’s the greatest! I’m telling you man, I’ve got to say it. And tomorrow’s my birthday and tomorrow this year will be thirty years this man’s been a beautiful friend of mine and I love him. I wish everybody in the world could know him like I do. I love this dude. Thank you, Austin, Texas! Thank you Bob Dylan!’

It was indeed Sahm’s 55th birthday next day. Soon after his 58th, Doug Sahm died of a heart attack while on holiday in Taos, New Mexico, on November 18, 1999.

[Little Doug: ‘Real American Joe’ b/w ‘Rollin, Rollin’’, nia, Sarg 113, US, 1955. The Sir Douglas Quintet: ‘She’s About A Mover’, Texas, 15 Jan 1965, Tribe 8308, US, 1965. Doug Sahm: Doug Sahm & Band, NY, Oct 1972, Atlantic SD-7254, US, 1972, CD re-release Collector’s Choice, US, 2006; Doug Sahm & Friends, Rhino R2 71032, US, 1992; The Genuine Texas Groover, Atlantic/Rhino RHM2 7845, US, 2003. The Texas Tornados: The Best of Texas Tornados, Reprise 45511-2, US, 1994. Career rundown based largely on Joseph Levy’s ‘Doug Sahm and the Sir Douglas Quintet: A Brief History’, online 3 Dec 2005 at]

Sunday, November 15, 2009


Romi Mayes, a spirited singer-songwriter whom Sarah and I enjoyed seeing live at a house concert in York (England) a couple of years ago, is coming back to Europe, this time with fellow-Canadian Danny Michel backing her on guitar and opening all the shows.

The tour dates are:

Nov 27 - Toogenblik - Brussels, Belgium
Nov 28 - Groene Engel - Oss, Netherlands
Nov 29 - PeTiCantus - Hoorn, Netherlands
Nov 30 - NPS RADIO - Mediapark Hilversum, Netherlands (2:00pm)
Nov 30 - Paradiso - Amsterdam, Netherlands
Dec 1 - Patronaat Heerlen - Heerlen, Netherlands
Dec 2 - Crossroads - Bergen Op Zoom, Netherlands
Dec 3 - Paard van Troje - Den Haag, Netherlands
Dec 4- Leibecke Concert Series, Mülheim a.d. Ruhr, Germany
Dec 6 -Cafe De Cactus - Hengelo, Netherlands
Dec 7 - Muziekcentrum Frits Philips - Eindhoven, Netherlands


photographer unknown

Bournemouth, England, during this weekend's storms

Thursday, November 12, 2009


The comments on Christmas in the Heart have been hotting up. See the last couple of days' worth at the foot of the posting Only Six & A Half Weeks Away.

Monday, November 09, 2009


I've not been listening to Christmas In The Heart: haven't even bought it yet. I'm not prepared to play merry festive music in October or November, even when it's Bob Dylan's. But on the radio this morning my favourite DJ, Shaun W. Keaveny, said he thought it was only six weeks till Christmas... and bloody hell, on Friday it will be.

So I suppose Bob will be bob-bob-bobbing along into our house very soon now. I wonder how we'll like it. One old friend who has hated most of Dylan's work in the 21st Century - but was a long-term devotee before that - has confessed to me: "The snippets were horrendous but the thing itself is rather endearing... find myself quite liking it." On the other hand I had passed on to me this morning in the market another response, which was the admittedly illiberal question: "What the hell is he doing singing Christmas carols?", followed by a quietly-expressed truth: "Bob makes it hard to be a fan, doesn't he?"

One of things that is difficult is reading this sort of supercilious guff in reviews of the album:

"Bob Dylan’s new charity covers album Christmas in the Heart seems destined for a Scrooge-like reception from many of the pompous, self-appointed scholars who have clung to the singer’s canon like a ball and chain in recent years... This is probably heresy to admit, but Christmas in the Heart is actually better than Dylan’s most recent albums, the overpraised Modern Times and Together through Life." (from The Times, I believe.)

So (a) because we're scholars, we must be pompous (b) worse, we're self-appointed scholars, which after all is so easy: all we need to do is write books, get them published and know what we're talking about; writing a quick jobbing review is more honourable and valuable to others. Such a thoughful metaphor, too, that ball and chain clinging to a canon. And lastly of course, you can absolutely bet that the same journalist was one of the first in line, three years ago, to do the overpraising of Modern Times.

Bah humbug indeed.

Thursday, November 05, 2009


Just came back from investigating the possibility of doing my debut gig here in France: a performance of a new version of Bob Dylan & the History of Rock'n'Roll at a local venue - a rather fine small cinema, with a good big screen for showing the bits of rare footage.

However, as anyone familiar with French bureaucracy will be unsurprised to learn, it's set up to be impossible - or at least, impossible to make a profit. First, ten percent of the ticket price has to go to the French version of PRS. No matter that 80 percent of the event is me talking and it only uses five or six song performances - no matter that this is in marked contrast to a DJ who plays dozens of records per evening and contributes very little else - the deal is the same. (And if you're a musician performing your own songs, PRS takes that 10 percent and eventually gives you back... half of it! Most of the rest goes towards social security - presumably to help all the musicians who can't afford to do gigs.)

The hire charge itself is pitched so high that you'd have to sell an awful lot of seats before you could hope to break even, and this hire charge only covers the cinema and one technician; it doesn't include any front-of-house staff or publicity or even the supply of the tickets.

Naturally, there are rules about creating your own tickets. First, you have to be a registered tradesperson to be legally entitled to sell tickets for anything at all - which is OK in this case: Sarah and I are both registered as writers with the French authorities (though not allowed to join France's writers' union because we didn't earn enough in royalties from books in the previous tax year) - but then you are only allowed to print individually numbered tickets, each of which must consist of three parts (ticket, stub and "Control", the last of which must in each case be retained for a year).

Nor can we sell beer or wine at the gig to augment our revenues, because only the mayor of the commune has the necessary kind of licence to be able to sell alcohol on the premises, even though the commune only owns the building and the cinema within it can only be hired from a different outfit altogether.

By the time we'd complied with all this, and spent a couple of weeks distributing flyers, writing press releases and so on, it's more or less certain I'd fail to make any money.

At last I see the sense behind the gaffe in George W. Bush's memorable remark that "the trouble with the French is, they have no word for entrepreneur."

Wednesday, November 04, 2009


This is one of the rare, withdrawn single sleeves for the 1981 Dylan single 'Lenny Bruce', issued by CBS Records in London and withdrawn because they had managed to misspell Mr. Bruce's first name. It is in slightly scuff-cornered but otherwise good condition. If anyone would like to buy it, here's how:

Send a comment, in confidence, to this blog, giving an e-mail address and naming the price you're willing to pay. US$, GBP or Euros. Your comment and bid will not be published but will be held by me. In one week's time, the highest bidder will win, unless no bid meets my expectation. In the event of two equal top bids, both bidders will be contacted and given one chance to raise their bid. Post and packaging will be free, unless you want to specify some elaborate and expensive form of packaging and/or delivery.

Clearly this is an experiment: an alternative to eBaying. We'll just have to see how it goes...

Monday, November 02, 2009


I don't know John Gibbens, so this isn't publicising something for a friend; nor is it a recommendation, since I don't know his book either; but it's an interesting title for a talk: