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.

Most of the record consists of folk and blues standards, but whether uptempo or slow there’s an urgency about them: the leap and glide of the harmonica; the shifting moods of the steel-string guitar from aggressive strumming to liquid finger-picking. The voice is thin, hoarse, scratchy, smoky, with a fake Okie accent that he will soon discard and a knack for idiosyncratic phrasing that will endure. ‘Mr Dylan’s voice is anything but pretty,’ Shelton wrote: ‘All the “husk and bark” are left on his notes and a searing intensity pervades his songs.’ Dylan himself has compared his voice to the howl of a coyote.

The album’s best-known track is ‘House of the Risin’ Sun’, a traditional song recorded by Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly among others, here performed in a version he learned from Dave van Ronk (the folk singer lightly fictionalised in the Coen Brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis). It’s a haunting song, and it came back to haunt him in the summer of 1964 when he heard it on his car radio in the moody R&B reworking by the Animals. ‘I nearly jumped out of my seat,’ he later said. By convention this was the Damascene moment that led to his ‘going electric’ the next year. But two other tracks on Bob Dylan are more significant. They are ‘Talkin’ New York’ and ‘Song to Woody’. The first, introduced by a skirl of harmonica, is a laconic account, half-sung and half-spoken, of his arrival in the city; the second is a plangent tribute to the dying Woody Guthrie, whom Dylan idolised, and to the tradition of itinerant, truth-telling folksingers and bluesmen that Guthrie represented:

Here’s to Cisco and Sonny and Lead Belly too,
And all the good people who have travelled with you;
Here’s to the hearts and the hands of the men
That come with the dust and are gone with the wind.

These songs are the first compositions by Dylan on record. The music is derivative – the tune of ‘Song to Woody’ is very close to Guthrie’s ‘1913 Massacre’ – but the words are Dylan’s. They are the first breath of that great storm of songwriting that ripped through the 1960s, the first steps on the road that has led him, 55 years and 37 studio albums later, to the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Like many of his fans, I consider Dylan to have been at his greatest in the 1960s. There have been many later spikes of greatness, most notably the twin peaks of Blood on the Tracks (1975) and Desire (1976), but they are measured against the quintessential Dylan of that first decade. I know this is partly nostalgia: I was a teenager then and he was one of my idols. He followed up his debut with three more acoustic albums – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, The Times They Are a-Changin’ and Another Side of Bob Dylan – containing folk music of rapidly evolving subtlety and bite, plus protest songs like ‘Masters of War’, ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game’ and ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’. I was too young, and too much of a chart-watching pop-picker, to pay much attention to these, though I attended to them greedily in retrospect. Listening back to them now I feel a sense of wonder at their clarity and beauty, and a sense of loss for what was swept away in the tumultous evolution that followed: the first electric period of 1965-66. But though something was lost, it’s this electric period that is seen by many of his admirers as his peak, an era of trail-blazing originality. His fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home, was the first I owned. I bought it in the early summer of 1965, shortly before my 15th birthday. (It was a toss-up between that and The Angry Young Them by the Belfast group Them, featuring a sullen, gingerish lad called Van Morrison on vocals.) I added it to my fledgling collection of LPs. Singles, or 45s, were still the thing then, stacked six-high on the spindles of those trusty Dansettes and Fidelitys, which exuded a faint smell of warm rubber when you opened up the lid to put the next stack on. But increasingly a new album was the proper sign of commitment, though at a cost of 35 shillings they had to be chosen with care. We pooled what we had, and listened together in bedrooms and poky school studies, our tastes a finely calibrated index of our friendships.

Bringing It All Back Home was the new chapter, the album of transition, its tracks a valedictory mix of exquisite acoustic or semi-acoustic (‘Mr Tambourine Man’, ‘Love Minus Zero’, ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’) and spiky new electric (‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, ‘Maggie’s Farm’, ‘Outlaw Blues’). The headline of an article in Record Mirror summed it up : ‘Bob Dylan: the Runaway Prince of Folk’. The Mirror was then the hippest of the three music weeklies (though much shorter lived than Melody Maker and New Musical Express) and had more photographs. ‘Exclusive colour pics’ brought us the new Dylan look. Gone was the Chaplinesque scruff of the Greenwich Village days and the work-shirted protest singer of the Civil Rights rallies. Now he was a figure of unimpeachable mid-1960s cool: the shades, the tab collar, the skinny jeans, the Cuban heels, and that tousled hairstyle which seemed a much hipper version of the boy-bouffants favoured by London Mod combos like the Who and the Small Faces. His style was essentially transatlantic Mod – it came across with the British Invasion that brought the Beatles to Shea Stadium and the Animals to his car radio. This was the way Dylan was offered to us: packaged and photographed, marketed and monetised, a style icon. He was the poetic ‘voice of a generation’, but he was also at this point a pop star, and had to compete with such headline grabbers as P.J. Proby, whose songs were briefly banned from the BBC after the scandal of his trousers splitting onstage, an unfortunate double mishap that occurred first at the Croydon ABC and then a few days later in Luton.

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