- Last Thoughts on Bob Dylan... -

When up comes this girl from France…

by Bob Fletcher


It didn’t occur to me that there was a direct connection between my holiday and Bob Dylan. At the beginning of my last article I mentioned spending time with a couple of people whilst in France. I lied. Or rather, I exercised artistic licence. Dewey Fontain doesn’t exist (in the Loire Valley there is a triangle consisting of Angers, Cholet, and Saumur. If you take the Cholet road you will pass through Doue-La-Fontaine). Although I thought the name should have been adopted by a 1950’s American B-movie actor, Diane pointed out that it was only my abject pronunciation that led me to that conclusion). Ducky Braxton (who appeared on a poster and because I didn’t write down the name when I saw it probably isn’t in fact called Ducky Braxton) is, as far as I know, alive and well and appearing at a festival near you. Well, if you live in France he is. 

However, Dewey lives to fight another bad guy. Whilst reading an article I discovered that Masked and Anonymous is officially credited to, amongst others, a phantom screenwriter named Rene Fontaine. (I admit that the link, and therefore the whole premise of the article, is tenuous - according to Dylan is actually Petrov, the other half of the writing duo - however one should never let the truth get in the way of a good story). 

The plot focuses on the attempts of a music promoter and a TV producer to skim the profits from televised benefit concert. The problem they have is that they can’t attract an artist to play. The music promoter endeavours to persuade Jack Fate, a former client, to do it. Enter Bob Dylan. (Damien Love - Uncut June 2004 - suggests that Masked and Anonymous may be the ‘first sci-noir-bordertown-western-art-movie’. I think he has a point). Intriguingly, the plot of Shoot the Piano Player (allegedly one of Dylan’s favourite films) also involves an ambitious attempt to get, in the words of Clinton Heylin, “the anti-hero to resume his once – prominent concert career”. The barmaid with the soft spot for Charles Aznavour (the aforementioned anti-hero) is called Lena (and is indeed French). She is not, however, called Fontaine. But, Lena Fontaine is a character in the 1922 film ‘The Glory of Clementina’. She is also a former college girl who excelled in track and field, basketball, and volleyball until one fateful day in June 1955 when she awoke one morning to find that instead of being 5’11” and 155lbs she was now 6’4” and 240lbs. She soon discovered she was strong enough to lift a small plane (I promise that I’m not making this up). Furthermore, the real Rene Fontaine wrote blues songs in the late 1950’s, including ‘One in a Million’ and ‘Someone Else’. At least according to Expecting Rain he did.

She wears a necktie and a Panama hat… 

Except she’s a he and it’s not a panama. My aim was simple, to dress as the 1975 Rolling Thunder incarnation for a party celebrating my 40th birthday. The waistcoat, shirt (cheesecloth and stripy), silk scarves, and face-paint were relatively easy to find. The hat however……… 

With the benefit of hindsight I am able to acknowledge my misplaced romanticism but at the time a day trip to Angers seemed like a good place to start. Besides, the French adore Dylan; just think back to Paris 1966. Ten minutes after arriving we climbed the many steps that lead to the Cathedral and entered as a magnificent storm broke.  And yes, the thunder really did roll. Sadly, the ‘echo of the wedding bells before the blowin’ rain’ turned out to be a rival church announcing a call to prayer. 

When we found the shop I discovered that my idea of the Desire hat bore no relation to anything in stock. I accept that I wasn’t really able to describe what I wanted (it’s hard enough using the English language) and a convoluted mime only seemed to distress the owner further. I left having tried on several Stetsons (one of which I bought), a fedora, and an Australian bush hat. At no time did I resemble Bob Dylan. 

The same was true in Devon. A friend of ours had kindly offered the use of her house so we were able to spend a week in Teignmouth. Needless to say, Bob Dylan’s hat failed to appear. Any number of straw hats were available, but most only served to underline the unforgivable lack of style favoured by the English holidaymaker. There was a shop selling hats of distinction to the discerning gentleman of a certain age but by now I had perfected my technique (Q: What style of hat is sir looking for? A: How much do you know about Bob Dylan?). Therefore it was a non-starter. I did manage to find seven back issues of Record Collector, which was a bonus of sorts. I also bought a fantastic hand made leather hat because it seemed the right thing to do at the time. But however hard I tried I just could not authentically recreate 1975. 

The 1970’s only served to underline Dylan’s already unquestionable standing. The decade was also responsible for Smash, Vesta curries, and terrifying architecture. My good friend Rob Carter reminded me that the diet we were subjected to was probably worse than most things we eat today. He told me of his first experience with, as he put it, continental food. Rob was born elsewhere and remembers a supermarket arriving. The locals viewed it the same way they would have viewed Jesus cleaning their windows. Prior to the event Rob had only eaten his Mum’s version of spaghetti Bolognese which consisted of spaghetti, mince and onions, and a tinned tomato placed lovingly on top. To add a flourish she would decorate the outside of the dish with tomato ketchup. Rob assures me that he still loves his mum. 

Between 1970 and 1979 Dylan (or more to the point, the record company) released no less than 10 albums. I honestly cannot think of another artist capable of beginning with the criminally underrated Self Portrait (an album which, as I have mentioned before, never fails to leave me smiling) and climaxing with the masterful Slow Train Coming. To add a sense of perspective it is worth considering the career of Paul Simon. Between 1964 and 1970 (when they split) Simon and Garfunkel had made a total of six albums. This may, to some extent, be explained by Simon’s painfully slow writing technique. As Derek Barber points out “Bridge Over Troubled Water is reputed to have taken more than eight hundred hours to complete! By contrast, Dylan spent just ninety days in the studio recording his entire studio catalogue up to and including Desire”. 

Equally as prolific has been Dylan’s use of the hat. Which has, indirectly, made my search more difficult. A majority of invited guests either assumed (correctly) that I would dress as Dylan or have been told (they asked so I told them to which they replied ‘we assumed you would’) and therefore have an opinion on which hat I should try for. Indeed some have said that it doesn’t matter anyway as no one will know who I am. 

Initially Northampton provided no help. Charity shops don’t seem to stock men’s hats anymore and the only surviving purveyor of clothing for the discerning gentleman suggested, bizarrely, that the hat featured on the front of Desire ‘looked Jewish and I may be better shopping in Golders Green’. A telephone call to John Stokes provided the most likely explanation: Dylan had the hat made specially. Unfortunately it also sent John on a strange journey that began with me explaining my plight whilst linking it with Masked and Anonymous, and resulted in John desperately trying to remember whether there is a character named Fontaine in Renaldo and Clara. I spoiled his quiet evening further by asking what had happened to his epic piece on Visions of Johanna.

By the way that’s a cute hat… 

For many years there has been an amateur dramatics society known as the Masque Theatre and as a child I was a member of the audience for several productions. For as long as I can remember the Masque has run a costume hire department. It was with a renewed sense of desperation that I visited. What I should have done was taken a picture of the hat. Although the staff were more helpful than was necessary they weren’t able to identify the appropriate headgear from my description. They were, however, able to convince me that it wasn’t a fedora or a homburg. In fact, they were able to convince me that they had no idea what kind of hat I wanted. So, with an extremely heavy heart, and a belief that somewhere Dylan was enjoying this, I returned with a copy of Desire. 

Coincidence is a much misunderstood and highly overused word. Coincidence has very little to do with meeting a friend whilst out shopping. Coincidence is more suited to believing that your grandfather died during the Second World War only to discover his recently stamped passport under the settee of the new house you’ve just moved into in Norwich. 

Carol grew up in the same village as I did. She recognised me as soon as I entered the shop and, when presented with Bob in that hat, went immediately to the hat store, returning with a Stetson. When she returned the second time she held in her hand the Ark and I swear I heard an angel weep. The truth is less celestial but just as bizarre. Carol agreed to sell me the hat and as I paid the radio played ‘You’re the One That I Want’.

Every little sound just might be thunder… 

Since returning from France I have made an effort to maintain my exploration of unrelated music and literature and, to some extent, I have been successful. But habitual behaviour provides comfort. Safe in the knowledge that I am ready for my transformation (the theme of the party is ‘Tonight Matthew I’m going to be’) I have, for the purpose of research, immersed myself in The Rolling Thunder Review. Until yesterday life was pleasant. Then Larry Sloman came along. In his 1975 article for Rolling Stone, Sloman recounts events at Mike Porco’s birthday party. Following an on/off stage conversation between Phil Ochs and Dylan, the former played, according to Sloman, a “dirge-like Lay Down Your Weary Tune”. Apparently Ochs then “stumbled off the stage into the waiting arms of David Blue who, with Lou Kemp and Neuwirth, was part of an ambush designed to retrieve the cowboy hat from Ochs that Dylan had worn in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid”. Now, I admit to possessing terrier like qualities but only in moderation. A brief look at the pictures available provides no evidence of it being the same hat (Dylan does wear a similar hat but the brim is definitely not big enough). Add to this the comments made by Sam Shepard (Dylan) “sips his coffee and tips his grey gaucho hat forward on his head” and you will understand my growing sense of bewilderment. Mind you, to my knowledge I may well be the first to link Dylan with Golders Green and Argentinean headgear. 

It’s late and I’ve just finished putting up a shelf. Self Portrait eased the usual problems of crumbling plaster and impenetrable bricks. Tomorrow I will move my Dylan collection to its’ new home and gloat.

Gloating has been delayed as the shelf fell down. 

Dad came for lunch today and a frank conversation about his returning cancer was the topic at the table. He is comfortable with the notion of dying but angry that his consultant won’t give a time span. He gets angry with lots of things (particularly around midday) including Dylan, who he accuses of not trying. Back in France I played Diane several tracks from ‘Dark Suit and White Cowboy Hat’ (Charlotte, North Carolina 2002). She offered the same criticism suggesting that he could do much better (personally I think that ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’, ‘Visions of Johanna’, and Don’t Think Twice’ are capable of moving anyone, but the mood has to be right I suppose). 

As ever, there is a link. As a child I was tutored in the ways of the Weavers, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, and, once in a while, Bob Dylan. The circle remains unbroken and I find myself passing on books and CDs to Dad in an attempt to broaden his knowledge. He, in turn, involves himself by reading my articles and offering constructive criticism. Well, that’s the phrase he uses. Recently he attempted to find ‘the hat’ but unfortunately it was the wrong style, colour, and size. I thanked him for his efforts and showed him a picture. He was surprised to see Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (I, of course, wasn’t). Nor was I shocked by the choice of headgear favoured by several of the review. Nor for that fact should anyone be surprised by the country flavour. McGuinn wore western shirts, Ronee Blakely had just finished ‘Nashville’ and Dylan, according to Clinton Heylin, was “trawling through his musical roots and, during the Dylan-Baez sets, would resurrect Merle Travis’s ‘dark as a Dungeon’ Johnny Ace’s ‘Never let Me Go’, or something as unashamedly traditional as ‘The Water is wide’ or ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’.” 

Which, by an extremely circuitous route, brings me to the conclusion: ‘Dylan Country’. Shout! Factory released the title earlier this year and although I am not the biggest fan of ‘somebody you have never heard of singing a Dylan song’ compilations, I must admit that this has more than its’ fair share of moments. Glen Campbell’s version of ‘If Not For You’ ought to be a stinker but he makes it work. Likewise, Waylon Jennings (Don’t Think Twice) and Country Gentlemen (Girl From the North Country). But for me the real gem is Tim O’Brien’s treatment of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ simply because he cares. Now, it has taken me five minutes to type that last passage and there hasn’t been a bolt of lightning so I suspect God is in accordance. I won’t assume the same of everyone reading this. 

I will leave you all, safe in the knowledge that the flowers are ready to be added and the harmonica rack (non-essential but a nice touch) has been adjusted. As has the shelf. And yes, I am indeed gloating. 

Now, are those cowboy boots that he is wearing in the picture…………

Peace and Happiness