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WHAT WUZ IT YEW WANTED?

by Jim Gillan


I’m Sorry, I Haven’t A Clue is a splendidly barmy long-running BBC Radio 4 quiz show that describes itself as ‘the antidote to panel games’. Chaired by Humphrey Lyttleton (who these days, really appreciates everything the lovely and always accommodating Samantha does for him) the teams are invited to do assorted silly things, including singing one song to the tune of another. Which is where Bob comes in.  Given his fondness for change – or maybe it’s just forgetfulness, I’ve always thought that he would make a fine contributor to the programme, at least in that slot.  Life of course imitates art, so you won’t be surprised to hear that back in June, this very nearly happened. Or to be more precise, one of the panel was invited to sing ‘Lay Lady Lay’ to the tune of ‘I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside’.  What fun! 

Fun, of a different kind, was also to be found up at St Andrews University, where Bob went to pick up another of those meaningless awards.  Actually, that’s not entirely accurate, as it’s pretty evident that whilst the unfathomable Bob seemingly doesn’t mind the painfully precious tedium of arcane protocol  – perhaps he likes mummery (says a dictionary: masking; frolic in disguise; buffoonery; hokum etc) – those too serious to fool absolutely revel in it. 

"Many members of my generation can't separate a sense of our own identity from his music and lyrics," said professor of English Neil Corcoran in an awe-struck address. Dylan's fusion of folk, blues, country, rock and poetry, Corcoran said, "moved everything on to a place it never expected to go and left the deepest imprint on human consciousness." "His magnificent songs will last as long as song itself does," he added. 

HA! I’ve said it before, but what the hell, I never claimed to be wholly original, so for me at least, the above supports my assertion that knowledge doesn’t guarantee insight and that status is a poor indicator of anything. I gather that Bob dozed off for a bit, which demonstrates both keen judgement and a proper sense of occasion. 

Freewheelin’ 226 is propped up on the table. WWIYW isn’t in it, on account of the chief Spoke having used my last two pieces in 225.  This (I think) is nothing to do with either a need to pad out Freewheelin’, or a belief that the whole wide world wants as much as is ever available of my scribbling. Instead it’s either a mistake, or a valiant attempt to get the pain over with asap.  Never mind! As I hope I’ve proved in an earlier piece, absence can be a very valuable and welcome contribution. I’ll come back to this in a moment, but for now it’s hats off to Mark Carter, who whilst he deserves awards a-plenty for his drawings, his piece in 226, All The Tired Horses, struck so many chords with me that I was briefly transformed into a symphony. 

And so to Leeds Irish Centre, to see the Magic Band. I wasn’t at all hopeful, as there was no Captain Beefheart to front them, Van Vliet having abandoned penurious music and a largely indifferent industry for lucrative canvas and an adoring art establishment.  But it was fabulous. Excellent musicians all, between them Drumbo, Rockette Morton, Gary Lucas, Denny Walley and Michael Taylor treated us to an evening of technically demanding, musically challenging and utterly compelling music. It mixed free form jazz, rhythm and blues, avant-garde, rock, urban blues and stuff that defies a label. It used seriously weird tunings and deranged chord progressions overlaid on a time signature that was as likely to be in 17/32 as it was 4/4. Ah, but what of the vocals? 

It’s certainly true that Beefheart has a very distinctive voice, his four octave range augmented by a delivery and a vocal mannerism that I though would be impossible for anyone else to get close to, still less replicate.  But John French (Drumbo) managed to sound uncannily like the Captain whilst also being sufficiently different to make comparisons meaningless. Which they usually are for most things.  Now then, if it works for Beefheart’s music, why not for Bob’s?  Granted, Dylan has played with so many over the years that the definitive ‘Bob’s Backing Band’ would be an impossibility, but that’s a mere detail that can be addressed. Unlike his voice, which although it sometimes rallies, doesn’t seem to have much left. Unless he does a Ralph Stanley and allows most of the singing to be done by others, in which case things might get stretched for a few years more.  We’ve maybe already had a hint of that being a possibility, with the instrumental element of songs often taking the bigger part of the performance. 

Then there was the Radio 4 programme on Like A Rolling Stone. This featured some of our very own contributors (and an inevitably Michael Gray) talking (or, for MG, pontificating) about THE SONG THAT CHANGED THE WORLD, THE SONG THAT OPENED OUR EYES TO IT ALL, THE SONG  THAT WAS THE ANTHEM OF A GENERATION etc. Some familiar takes on it, though a pleasant enough way to pass a half-hour. Pour moi, the most telling anecdote was  (wor Paula’s?) recollections of what happened in a Durham pub circa 1984, when the whole bar (except lass herself, the song seemingly being new to her – what had thee bin listenin’ to for previous nineteen years, petal?) immediately stopped their conversations to bellow along to Bob’s revolutionary and challenging refrain as it roared from the juke box. What a moment – but not as meaningful as what happened when it finished, when everyone simply went back to what they had been doing beforehand. What! No storming of the institutions? Not even briefly? 

Well, maybe there are people for which hearing LARS for the first time was a blinding moment of revelation. So speaking only for myself, awareness (inevitably limited - as is still the case) came along very much more gradually and via a wide mix of ways. My tranny radio played the music of the pirate stations. A huge variety of London clubs offered whatever took my fancy, be it folk, blues, jazz, r&b, underground, ska, bluebeat or whatever. Assorted amphetamines, hallucinogens and resins, as well as alcohol, opened doors and sometimes got me flung through them. Best of all, especially after the grim years of a Catholic boy’s grammar school, there were girls. You don’t have to guess as I’ll freely confess to often being tongue-tied, gauche, clumsy and sometimes crass. But always curious and ever-optimistic. Meanwhile, technology had transformed broadcasting – so we got to hear about things to a far greater extent than had earlier generations. Not everyone bothered, but  for those of us who did, the marches, the sit-ins, the demo, the discussions over coffee and ciggies all played a part. Folks, LARS was only one tiny part of the soundtrack to it all. 

Given everything that has gone before, this next will possibly come as no surprise: 

Its another 3am moment. As usual, the house is in darkness, though an impossibly bright full moon puts faint detail into what would otherwise be only shapes. Through the partially open window of the toilet, the elemental noises of the night outside mix with the more prosaic sounds of distant traffic. It's a restful moment, one shattered by the sudden cacophony from the adjacent bathroom. It has happened before, so it’s only a case of  deja loo… 

Stepping in to the hall, I meet Ros, who, on hearing the racket, assumed that something bad had befallen me. Her eyes widen in momentary surprise as I unexpectedly emerge intact before her. My eyes are drawn to one of the straps on her nightdress, which has fallen part way down her arm. She grins as I reach out to slip it on to her shoulder.  I touch my forehead to hers, then caress her sleep-tousled hair. For an instant both of us are oblivious to the strangled groans and desperate scrabblings, a hug always being much more than mere distraction, then together we push the door fully open. 

I tug the pull chord, flooding the room with light.  Even so, it's impossible to make out exactly what is thrashing madly around in the bath, but whatever it is, the effect is impressive, as first a foot, then an arm, now an (inevitably) clean pair of heels whirl before us, their owner engaged in a futile struggle to gain any sort of purchase on the sides of the tub. Suds fly around the room as a head and shoulders momentarily break the surface. A maniacal grin, a despairing grimace, a 'going under for the third time' wave of desperation. H'mm, something’s happening… 

Abruptly, a leg, draped damply in sequined trousers, shoots out, scattering soaps, shampoos and scented candles. The mirror falls from the wall, somehow without shattering. Downstairs, Spike wisely hides under the table.  With no early end to things in sight, I reach in and grab what turns out to be a bit of an ear and haul. Well, I'll be *&%$!! "Uh, ah guess I musta SLIPPED," says Bob.
 


INTERLUDE 

As some of you may already know, and others suspect, this is not the first time that we have found a visitor in the bath in the early hours. Last time it was god who dropped in for a bit of a break from it all, the constant drone of global blather directed her way being extremely wearing. For reasons I won't go in to now, I was half expecting St John the Divine, but clearly, Dylan's presence is a potentially far more interesting development. At least I hope so, as there's no guarantee that he will be any different from his usual gnomic self, especially after he has dried out. Or that I'll make any sense, whether wet or dry. 

I should say at this point that the person in the bath is a Dylan, one of the very many that make use of the name. Philosophically, there's no such thing as the Dylan, by virtue of the fact that he, like all of us, is constantly changing. Sometimes the differences are too small for anyone, even ourselves to notice, but arguably this makes it all the more important to be aware of them. Is a heartbeat too short an interval to focus on? Manifestly, not if the one that's just gone is the last for you. Best treat 'em all as important, because eventually... 

Well enough of these reminders of mortality and back to the rather more important realms of inanity. Speaking of which, I have a feeling that unlike god, Bob hasn't come simply for a rest, despite the fact that the never-ending tour must be physically pretty demanding on him. These days, it's why he's taken to leaning on an electric piano. It's not quite a zimmer frame, but it serves much the same purpose, at least for part of the time. Anyway, let's see what all this is about. Right now, I don't have a clue. 

Actually, I do, though it’s just come to me. This is my last piece for Freewheelin’. I don’t mean in the sense that I will call a halt with this issue (sorry). No, this is the equivalent of the Never Ending Tour, in that it doesn’t have a definite end in sight, or a fathomable purpose. But it does seem appropriate for me to take my leave of Bob when he quits the bath. At least one of us will be all washed up.  Which is another way of describing a clean start. 

To be continued. At least for the time being.

 
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