by Richard Lewis

To celebrate the start of the Easter holidays I spent a couple of hours on that first Sunday looking at stuff on the Internet. Also my son was at work so it meant I could actually get on undisturbed. Now I know that some of you are much more at home with this stuff than me and use it daily but I only usually manage to get on about once or twice a week. Generally I check to see if I have any e-mails, usually I don’t, and then spend a few minutes on Expecting Rain which provides me with as much Dylan information as I need or want. Normally I just read through the items for the previous few days unless there is a tour on in which case I check out the set lists. On this day though I had more time so I explored some of the links.

Robbie Robertson cropped up a couple of times pictured with his wife and Dylan at Elton John’s post-Oscar party. In this picture Dylan had actually removed his cowboy hat that seemed to be ever-present elsewhere in pictures of his arrival with a leather coat draped across his shoulders or with Ryan Adams and Elton himself. Robbie also gave the keynote speech at this year’s South x South West conference where he recalled his first encounter with Dylan. “He looked like he was from another planet, like he’d stuck his finger in a light socket and his hair blew up.” There was also some coverage of this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony where Brenda Lee was inducted by Jewel. To coincide with this honour she has just published her autobiography “Little Miss Dynamite” in which she writes that one of her biggest thrills was hosting the first Farm Aid concert in 1985 in Champaign. Backstage she sees Dylan:

Bob and I were on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ together in 1963. That was his first appearance. At Farm Aid, I reminded him how he walked off the show. He was going to do ‘John Birch Society Blues,’ and they wanted him to cut a verse or two. They said it was too political. He said,’ Then I won’t do the show.’ He picked up his guitar and harmonica, put his coat on and walked out the door. I stood there with my mouth open.

Another interesting item was about a new play called “A Handful of Rain” about an imaginary meeting between Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas in the Chelsea Hotel. The play is written by Phil Bowen who you may remember was the editor of “Jewels & Binoculars” in which fifty poets celebrate the unique achievement of Bob Dylan. You may also remember that it was published thirty years on from the recording of “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Now this month (on March 19th) it is an unbelievable 40 years since Dylan’s first album “Bob Dylan” made its debut in the record shops of America. It was released here a few months later. I made the link to the official site where as the lead item they had the cover, the liner notes and audio of every song on that first album. When did you last play “Bob Dylan” straight through? I couldn’t remember when I had but this provided me with the incentive to get it out and put it on. It was the CD I listened to as I have not yet been able to set up my record deck but I got out my vinyl album to look at. I can’t remember when I first got it but it was not in 1962. I think I got it at the same time as “Freewheelin’” when it was released over here towards the end of 1963. My copy is of course a mono one as that was all you could get at the time. I can remember going into Les Aldrich in Muswell Hill and asking for a copy of the Bob Die-lan record and being surprised to be offered two.

As I look at the cover of my vinyl copy now I am surprised to see that the photo on the cover is not the same as the one on my CD. I expect this has been noticed before but not by me. It is the same session but not quite the same photo. Now on the CD you actually get the whole of the corduroy cap but less of his hand but what is clearly different are the position of Dylan’s fingers on the fret board of his guitar in the two covers.

Although there are 13 tracks the album only lasts for 36 minutes. Most of the songs are about three minutes long but strangely seem to last much longer. What I notice at first is the power, confidence and enthusiasm that Dylan exudes on his guitar, his harmonica and with his voice. Also even at this early age Dylan is showing us how he can transcend the theme of death that infects so many of the songs to produce a record that is actually life enhancing.

The recent attention caused by the soundtrack of the film “O Brother Where Art Thou” has emphasised the power and beauty of the song “Man of Constant Sorrow”. It has always been one of my favourite traditional songs whether sung as I first heard it by Judy Collins or the recent version by Jackson Browne. Hearing this version on Dylan’s debut album reminds me that this is without doubt the definitive one. The interplay between guitar and harmonica that is so forceful in the instrumental parts fades to just the right level when Dylan sings. I’d forgotten how long he could hold some of those notes and how wonderful it sounds.

I’d also forgotten how good the intro is to “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” and the way Dylan could put those pauses into what he is saying and the lovely guitar playing underneath it. Or the way Dylan gets inside “House of the Rising Sun” so that you really believe he is one of those “poor girls”.

The real treat though is to hear “Song to Woody” and to know that this early song is to lead on to everything else that we will hear from Dylan’s pen over the next few years and beyond. I know it affected me so much that I quoted some of the lyrics in an O Level English essay the next summer.

Why don’t you get out your copy and play it right now?

Going back in time is obviously something that Cameron Crowe enjoys too. Have you seen “Almost Famous”? In his latest film, “Vanilla Sky”, he uses the Live ’66 version of “Fourth Time Around” on the soundtrack. The film stars Tom Cruise and his current partner Penelope Cruz. In the March issue of Uncut there is an interview with Tom Cruise to promote “Vanilla Sky” and one of the pictures that accompanies the article recreates the cover of “Freewheelin’” with Tom Cruise as Dylan and Penelope Cruze as Suzy complete with VW Microbus and snowy New York street! Not sure if that is in the film or not.