That Wild Mercury Sound

Charles Nicholl

  • The Bootleg Series, Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965-66 by Bob Dylan
    Columbia, £60.00, November 2015

Bob Dylan’s first album, recorded in New York in late 1961, was simply called Bob Dylan. The creation of ‘Bob Dylan’ – the persona, the sound, the look – was as important as the record’s contents. He’d been using the alias since the summer of 1960. His given name was Robert Zimmerman and he had grown up in Hibbing, a small mining town in Minnesota; he was the son of Abe, an electrical goods supplier, and Beatty, and the grandson of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. The name he chose has often been said to be a tribute to Dylan Thomas, but it seems he first thought of it as ‘Dillon’, possibly after the hard-bitten Dodge City lawman Matt Dillon, hero of the TV Western Gunsmoke. He was twenty years old, skinny and scruffy in jeans and a ‘Huck Finn cap’. In an early article in the New York Times, his future biographer Robert Shelton described him as ‘resembling a cross between a choirboy and a beatnik’. In the nine months since he had arrived in New York he had become a seasoned performer on the Greenwich Village folk club and coffee-house circuit, but he was less familiar with the recording studio. He was ‘terrible’, his producer John Hammond recalled: ‘Bobby popped every p, hissed every s, and habitually wandered off mike.’ But in another sense he knew just what he was doing. The album was made in just six hours of studio time – two three-hour sessions – at a cost of around $400. Five of its thirteen songs were cut in single takes.

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