by C. P. Lee

Keep Your Eyes Wide

Instead of a musical journey this issue is a physical one – a trip that will take us from Manchester to Birmingham (via an interesting taxi?) and then from the brilliantly named Custard Factory, all the way back to Manchester, but this time via 1968 and the Free Trade Hall again (almost). 

We take a drive round the centre of Manchester in the company of Pam, who always carries her camera with her. Imagine her surprise when she was confronted by a taxi cab which had the name ‘Dylan” emblazoned on its side. Closer inspection revealed it to be just one of many other illustrious names, such as ‘Louis Armstrong’ and ‘Sir John Barbirolli’, but ‘Dylan’ was way big and very noticeable. It turned out to be advertising the newly refurbished Radisson Edwardian Hotel that has taken over the space that was once the Free Trade Hall. As mentioned a little while back there is actually a Bob Dylan suite available for hire there, but at a rate that I suspect even Bob Dylan would blanch at - £1400 a night, including breakfast – but remember, you don’t need an eggs and ham to know which way the wind blows! 

For considerably less than that, free actually, you can gaze upon Pam’s picture of the cab in all its glory, parked up, rather ironically, in the front of the Midland Hotel (the one Dylan has actually stayed in). 

That was then – this is next – a packed train ride on a Friday evening to Birmingham. Did you know that ‘Wetherspoons’, the pub chain, now have a chain of hotels called ‘Wetherlodge’? Imagine your delight upon finding a real ale hostelry of the calibre of Wetherspoons and finding that you can spend the night (or nights) there, partake of their fine fayre, get pleasantly oiled, take to your bed, crash out, wake up, go downstairs, eat a hearty breakfast and start all over again. What joy! Well it does sound idyllic, but it wasn’t the only reason that we went to Birmingham, it also coincided with an exhibition of photos of Dylan – and what a show it was… 

Held at the ‘Snap Galleries’ in the former Birds Custard factory, now rejigged, revamped and gloriously set out as the ‘Custard Factory’ (ah, post-modern irony…), a warren of hip stores, pleasant eateries and magnificent statues, the gig is simply a gas. Even before we’d got to the front door of the gallery we met Mike and Elaine, stalwarts of John Green Day fame, who had two fellow Mancunians in tow. They’d just been to the exhibition and were raving about it. Elaine urged us to read the comments book to spot the usual culprits … 

There are photographs of Dylan aplenty at Snaps – at least until the 13th November when the exhibition sadly draws to a close (or does it?) … At the gallery we met up with Mark Makin, who as a 16 year old school boy had taken the 1966 Free Trade Hall pictures featured in ‘Like The Night Revisited’ which has, coincidentally just been republished in an updated format, outrageous plug I know, but what the heck. 

Pam, Mark and I met the owner, a very pleasant young man called Guy, who is considerably knowledgeable about Dylan. He’d interviewed every one of the photographers featured in the exhibition and had written detailed and interesting observations about each picture, and told us some fascinating stories too. For instance the figure holding the camera behind Dylan on the Highway 61 Revisited cover is not Bobby Neuwirth according to Daniel Kramer, or at least that’s the tale Kramer is putting out, though he won’t reveal who it actually is. The show is titled ‘Keep Your Eyes Wide – Dylan on Camera 1961 to 1975’ and is an exciting cross section not just of Dylan’s career, but also of ways photographers have seen him both as portrait subject and also as performer. 

From the usual suspects such as Kramer and Schatzberg, through to Jean-Marie Perier and Amelie R Rothschild, the choice of pictures and their framing and presentation is first rate. Mark commented that even though some of the images are very well known, to view them in brand new print form in the confines of a gallery instead of a book or a magazine is enervating and refreshing. What you thought of as familiar becomes suddenly endowed with surprising dimensions and nuances. The new (to me) selection was an absolute delight. Pam got hooked on a Rothschild shot from 74 where the photographer and the crowd are captured in the reflection of Dylan’s shades. Design or happenstance? Whatever, a remarkable shot that we really seriously considered waving our Visa card at. Yes, it was that good, but sometimes common sense should prevail and so it remained on the wall. Guy told us that he’d actually sold a fair few, and that he’s hoping that rather than be broken up and returned to the photographers, the exhibition will move on elsewhere around the country. I wish him the best of luck with that and hope it reaches an area near you soon. 

After a brilliant time in Birmingham we jetted back to our Mancunian mansion (National Express Coach Service Sunday Saver Special) and prepared ourselves for a special long-awaited gig. Pam and I searched through our dressing up chests and found our old kaftans and beads, slapped on our acid heads and went to watch the Incredible String Band. Where I’d last seen them play at the Free Trade Hall (in 1968), this time the String Band were playing opposite in a pleasant venue called the Life Café where we’d had the pleasure of watching Lonnie Donegan give one of his last performances. Yes, there were a lot of old hippies there, but what surprised me were the amount of old punks (John The Postman anyone?) and younger souls (Sam the Lawyer anyone?) who’d gathered together to witness what Mike Heron called ‘a self-tribute band’. You might recall that the original String Band line-up was a trio and I was pleasantly surprised (I seem to have spent the evening being pleasantly surprised) that Clive Palmer of the original line-up was back on assorted musical things. Robin Williamson has bowed out owing to solo commitments, but the very able Welsh wizard Lawson Dando and the exceptionally multi-talented Lady Fluff, more than make up for the deficiency. 

It was remarkable to hear ‘Hedgehog Song’, ‘Painting Box’ and a full length 14 minute version of ‘A Very Cellular Song’, plus many, many more, all sounding in tip top shape and, in a couple of cases, even better than I recall from 1968. Did I mention that back then there was a delay because the promoters hadn’t provided the right kind of Turkish rug for the band to sit on?  Fortunately those days are behind them and now they just get on with the show - it was a delightful evening made even more delightful when Pam pointed out a young couple dancing a slow Elizabethan quadrille to the lines – ‘May the long time sunshine be all around you, and the pure light within you guide your way on’ – and indeed, in a month of many reasons not to shine, let’s leave the last words and hopes with the String band.

Incredible String Band
Incredible String Band
(l:r) Lawson Dando, Clive Palmer, Mike Heron, Fluff

Midland Hotel    Dylan - SNAP

The Briar Rose