Journey Through Dark Heat: Part 1

EBP_B465-30_Bob Dylan14

1972-1978

 Forty years
Forty banners united over the field
Where my life lives and grieves
Desperate men, desperate women divided
Spreading their wings ’neath the falling leaves

HOW can I do justice in words to a writer I have admired beyond all others for more than 40 years and to whom my words are like dust?

So I will not try to even pass close to justice. Instead just a simple narrative about my love affair with the greatest and most profound poet of my generation.

I came to Bob Dylan by way of a detour through David Bowie. I discussed some of the details in my recent eulogy to Lou Reed. It was one song by Bowie on his 1971 album Hunky Dory that provided my own Highway 61. The song was unsurprisingly titled: Song for Bob Dylan!

The lyrics are a refrain to my life:

Now, hear this Robert Zimmerman
I wrote a song for you
About a strange young man
Called Dylan
With a voice like sand and glue
His words of truthful vengeance
They could pin us to the floor
Brought a few more people on
And put the fear in a whole lot more.

After playing this one song more than a dozen times in the first week I bought Hunky Dory, there was an inner need to discover more and answer some unanswered questions. Sure, I had heard Mr Tambourine Man, Blowin’ in the Wind and Like a Rolling Stone on the radio when I was younger, but what makes this guy Dylan so important that my hero Bowie writes a whole song to him? And what was I missing?

The answers came quite soon.

It was late 1972 and a lad in our upper sixth form was a Bob Dylan fanatic – he even had hair like him and was forever being reprimanded by teachers for not wearing a tie! So I asked him why… he eagerly lent me Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits on vinyl LP and suggested I should get a copy of Blonde on Blonde to discover the real Dylan.

Then two related events overtook me. First I bought a copy of More Bob Dylan Greatest Hits simply because 21 tracks seemed like good value. Then CBS suddenly released the film soundtrack album Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid and the single Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door made the UK charts!

Now armed with two albums, plus the Heaven’s Door single I was beginning to discover Bob Dylan and it didn’t take long before I was hooked. His voice like sand and glue and words of truthful vengeance had me pinned to the floor, and like those before me I started to dissect his lyrics and find a new meaning to living.

More Greatest Hits was a delight. From Watching the River Flow to Crash on the Levee I was entering into his world of music and poetry. Two songs in particular drew me in… the wonderful Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues and the forgiving Tomorrow is a Long Time.

If today was not an endless highway
If tonight was not a crooked trail
If tomorrow wasn’t such a long time
Then lonesome would mean nothing to you at all

I spent the rest of my sixth form and university years buying up Dylan’s back catalogue of albums on cassette tape and allowing his music and words to become the soundtrack to all I did. Another Side of Bob Dylan and The Times They are a Changin’ led me to discover folk music and in turn Fairport Convention, while the awesome Planet Waves and Desire wrapped me up in stories, vignettes, lyrics and emotion I had never previously known.

On its own Forever Young became the anthem to my life, which I have played to each of my children in turn:

May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young

These years also included the magnificent Blood on the Tracks, but more about that later in this narrative. He had already lit a burner on my stove and brightened my life.

And suddenly it was 1978… an important and pivotal year.

For the first time in my life I was working – as a trainee psychiatric nurse – and earning money. It was the first disposable income I could really call my own. So apart from buying Dylan’s latest LP Street Legal I also got to my first gig.

It was life changing.

I bought the ticket for one night at Earls Court in London after queuing for hours at an over-the-counter box office in Brighton. For weeks afterwards I was sweating with anticipation. At the age of 22 I had been blessed to have seen some amazing live acts; David Bowie (twice), Roxy Music, the Average White Band, Al Stewart and The Stranglers to name just a few. But as Dylan had not gigged in the UK since 1966, I – like thousands of others – had to wait to see my hero live.

Saturday, 17 June 1978 dawned like no other day in my life. I had hardly slept the previous night and was up at the crack of dawn with my ticket clenched firmly in my wallet. My father gave me a lift to our local railway station on his way to work, and I hopped a commuter train to Brighton and then a connecting express to London, Victoria. I arrived in the capital just before mid-day, grabbed a coffee and had hours to wait until the evening performance… but I was not going to miss this life event.

I spent most of the day in and around Oxford Street browsing record shops and at one side street outlet was a breath away from buying my first Bob Dylan bootleg… but that would have to wait. At around 6pm I met a friend from my university days and together we shared a couple of beers and our mutual excitement. The tension was palpable. It was Dylan’s third night at Earls Court so he should be relaxed and well in tune… we hoped.

And our hope was rewarded.

By 7pm we were in the venue and took our seats way back in the auditorium. Suddenly something was happening… the opening number was an instrumental Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall, with sax and keyboards blasting the arrangement and pinning us back, waiting to hear the voice of the man himself. There he was singing an (at the time) unknown number Love Her with a Feeling, complete with female backing vocalists. He was live in front our eyes and invading our senses.

Dylan was awesome. The sound and the view weren’t great from our seats; but when he sang “You’ve been down to the bottom with a bad man babe, now you’re back where you belong,” it didn’t matter… this was amazing, and yes “the sun was always shining”.

Sure I had heard his 1975 live album Hard Rain, but to listen to new interpretations of his songs straight from his mouth and guitar in the same room where I sat was without precedence. I had bargained for salvation and here he was giving me a lethal dose.

Dylan was this tiny figure in a waistcoat singing for me. His voice was strong and his harmonica electric. Here’s your throat back, thanks for the loan.

The highlights were many: Tangled Up in Blue was sung like never before, almost a hymn, and after about 45 minutes Like a Rolling Stone had me on my feet singing back How Does it Feel? I was tangled up by every song and by the time he sang All Along the Watchtower I was enveloped by tears of emotion.
The full setlist that evening was: A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall; Love Her With a Feeling; Baby, Stop Crying; Mr Tambourine Man; Shelter From the Storm; Love Minus Zero/No Limit; Tangled Up in Blue; Ballad of a Thin Man; Maggie’s Farm; I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met); Like a Rolling Stone; I Shall Be Released; Going, Going, Gone; Rainy Day Women #12 & 35; One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later); You’re a Big Girl Now; One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below); Blowin’ in the Wind; I Want You; Señor (Tales of Yankee Power); Masters of War; Just Like a Woman; Simple Twist of Fate; All Along the Watchtower; All I Really Want to Do; It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding); Forever Young; The Times They Are A-Changin’.

We left exhausted and exhilarated… my love affair with Bob had entered a new dimension and I vowed to see him again, and again, and again.

I stumbled to my feet
I rode past destruction in the ditches
With the stitches still mending ’neath a heart-shaped tattoo
Renegade priests and treacherous young witches
Were handing out the flowers that I’d given to you

The palace of mirrors
Where dog soldiers are reflected
The endless road and the wailing of chimes
The empty rooms where her memory is protected
Where the angels’ voices whisper to the souls of previous times

Bob was no longer invisible but he still had secrets to conceal.

To be continued

Poem: Red or White

Herbert Asquith

Watched bullets flail

I will not wear red

Neville Chamberlain

Moved from hail to heil

I will not wear red

Clement Atlee

Tied to a US coat tail

I will not wear red

Harold Wilson

Allowed peace to fail

I will not wear red

Margaret Thatcher

Let a nuclear armada sail

I will not wear red

John Major

Fell for the Kuwait tale

I will not wear red

John Major

Hit Bosnia’s coffin nail

I will not wear red

Tony Blair

Bombs went off the Richter scale

I will not wear red

Tony Blair

He should have gone to jail

I will not wear red

142 million murdered civilians

Can you hear the dead wail?

I will not wear red… I will wear white

I’m closing the book on the pages and the text

Iain BanksMY meeting and dinner with the late and great author Iain Banks is wholly memorable for so many reasons.

And it was totally unexpected.

I had long been an admirer of the Fife born author since I picked up The Wasp Factory at my local branch of WH Smiths in the late 1980s. It was a book I read in one sitting and returned to again and again.

Following that ground-breaking novel I began to consume almost everything Banks wrote. The Bridge and Espedair Street were similarly devoured in one go. Crow Road took a little longer and remains my favourite Iain Banks novel.

Well-thumbed copies of Complicity, Whit and a Song of Stone all sat on my bookshelves by the time I actually met the great man.

And the meeting was a complete and wonderful surprise.

It was early 1997, I was working as Chief Investigative Reporter at the Scottish broadsheet daily The Scotsman. I had been working closely with award-winning TV producer Sara Brown on revealing the dark and murky history of Scotland’s Dounreay experimental nuclear reactors. We had come close to proving that the plant almost suffered a Chernobyl type meltdown in the mid 1960s… but that is a story for another day.

After one particularly long day of research with Sara, she suggested I might like to have dinner with one of her old friends, who shared my passion in investigations and writing. I almost fell through the floor when she told me her old friend was Iain Banks.

And so it was a few evenings later we gathered at a small restaurant at North Queensferry (just over the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh) to share a wonderful meal.

I cannot remember what we ate, but do remember the wine flowed freely as Iain took centre stage. Star-struck, I just sat and held onto almost every word.

He waxed lyrical about the wine, the food and his passion for fast cars and boats. He talked about how his writing had helped fund one boat he kept moored on the west coast of Scotland.

He asked me in detail about my job at The Scotsman and talked about how his own enquiring mind sparked his journey into writing best-selling thrillers and science fiction novels.

As the meal and wine flowed I mentioned Iain’s amazing 1993 murder novel Complicity, which was clearly set at The Scotsman – named The Caledonian for the sake of his book – and which I had already read three times. He smiled and said it was his new Wasp Factory. Sara suddenly chipped in and suggested that the hero of the novel Cameron Colley was actually me! That was hardly likely as I was not even working at The Scotsman when Iain wrote the book. Iain seemed amused and asked for more details about my job. I filled in a few and he laughed out loud.

“Sounds like Cammy to me,” he quipped.

It was only when I watched the movie of the book, starring Jonny Lee Miller, some four years later, that I realised just how close the character of Cameron Colley was to my own at The Scotsman. There was also a sad irony that the trigger for the murders in Complicity stemmed from child sexual abuse.

Anyway, the meal and chatter lasted for more than two hours before we drifted off home.

Iain as the true bon viveur insisted on paying for everything.

I hoped to meet him again sometime soon. But life events meant that I moved away from Edinburgh later that year and the brilliant Sara emigrated to the USA a couple of years later. The link was lost and three respective lives moved on.

I was deeply saddened when Iain succumbed to terminal pancreatic cancer in June this year. The world has lost an amazing author.

As I proof this blog posting I sit with a copy of his 2002 book Dead Air next to me and a few tears in my eyes. I have some re-reading to do tonight.

 

Most of the time my head is on straight

Patti Smith 1975 by Robert Mapplethorpe 1946-1989WELL I guess it had to come…

I had been blogging for 35 days and published 29 posts when hit it me… why am I doing this?

I guess the answer is obvious, it is because I need to. I need to say so much which I have kept bottled up for far too long, and sometimes it becomes like a stream of consciousness explosion.

But as most bloggers – and indeed writers – know, it is feckin’ lonely at times. Like writing into a vacuum which steals words and sucks out the soul.

So last night I had my first crisis of confidence and was slipping back to that desolate spot I found myself in last June. I told my friends via email and Facebook that I would be pulling the plug on my blog and stopping the daily writing. I went to bed feeling exhausted, and aside from dreaming about the ghost girl in our kitchen, I slept like the dead.

I woke this morning at 6.40 to my wife Gill shaking me and telling me, with tears in her eyes: “You are not stopping your blog. Loads of people like it and read it. I read it and if you are writing it for me alone you must continue. Just look at the comments on Facebook.”

I hugged her close and with sleepy eyes started reading a raft of Facebook comments.

That is when I started to cry.

All the comments were from friends, family and work colleagues – past and present – telling me to carry on, as they actually enjoy reading my stuff! They are all amazing. I think the ones which touched me most were from fellow journalists whom I admire as writers and editors themselves.

Then I noticed four private messages on Facebook. Each said the same. One in particular really touched me, from someone I have not seen in two years. Part of it read: “Hi Nic, how very random of me sending u a pm! Just read your status and don’t feel eloquent or brave enough to comment on your post but want you to know that I got so engrossed one day reading one part of your blog my little girl managed to get in far more Peppa time than I would normally allow. I was truly moved by your writing. Don’t give up… I would love to read more if I get the chance!”

Then came emails and text messages.

One arrived just a minute ago as I write this piece. It is from a very dear friend, who I see far too rarely and who has endured life experiences similar to my own. Her text was unexpected, full of love and life affirming. She ended it with the words: “You have brought a lot of happiness into people’s lives and that is what defines you the most, my dear, dear friend.”

Yep, I cried again.

So now have the kick up the pants I needed and continue where I left off. Suddenly friends have made me feel good about myself and made me realise that the vacuum is all in my mind!

Thank you everyone for everything.

But I finish this posting with something else that inspired me in that first hour of the day. Beth Orton shared on Facebook a wonderful eulogy to Lou Reed, written by one of my other heroes, Patti Smith.

The music and words of Lou Reed have been with me since I was 16, but the genius and poetry of Patti came far too late. It was only when she returned to recording and gigging in the mid 1990s – after an eight year hiatus – that I really discovered her.

Patti knows what pain feels like.

In 1989, her best friend Robert Mapplethorpe died of an Aids-related illness. The American photographer shot the iconic image of Smith on the front cover of her seminal album Horses. In late 1994, her husband, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, once a guitarist with pre-punk rockers MC5, died of a heart attack, leaving her with two young children. Less than a month later, her brother Todd died suddenly. Small wonder her return album in 1996 was titled Gone Again.

Her words move like few others I have ever read or heard.

Patti’s eulogy to Lou can be found here: http://www.newyorker.com/talk/2013/11/11/131111ta_talk_smith

Read it if you get a chance.

Meantime I aim to dedicate my next few blog postings to writers I admire.

 

Stay far from the fence with the electricity Sting

mayfairSELDOM have I ever spoken with quite so many so-called music celebs in a single month as I did in November 1997.

At the time I was working for the North East tabloid the Sunday Sun under its mercurial and quite brilliant editor Chris Rushton. I was charged with running a small campaign to help save Newcastle’s Mayfair Ballroom from demolition to make way for a new leisure and shopping complex.

The ballroom was iconic with the North East. It opened in 1961 and had been the launch pad for hundreds of bands including The Animals, Roxy Music, The Police, Lindisfarne, Dire Straits and Prefab Sprout.

I spoke at length with the Mayfair’s promoter Sue Collier who told me: “All the North’s rock bands came through the Mayfair. And Jimmy Nail has been thrown out of here more times than we can think.”

She said she was planning a Ballroom Blitz to highlight the likely demolition of the venue. Already Dave Stewart, Alan Price, Chris Rea, Lindisfarne and Jimmy Nail had agreed to take part. She said she was hoping to get Bryan Ferry, Danny McAloon, Toy Dolls, Venom, Mark Knopfler and Sting to join the fray.

Sue suggested I should try to speak with some of these rock legends to get them ‘on the record’ for our campaign.

The idea of interviewing these guys was for me a complete joy. So I began telephoning each artist on Sue’s amazing list.

Mark Knopfler’s agent was bubbling with excitement and said that the former Dire Straits guitarist would “certainly be keen to get involved”.

“It’s a great rock venue and it only needs one big star to get off the pot and you will have hundreds involved,” he added.

Sunderland born Bryan Ferry was even more enthusiastic. “It’s a great venue and I would view very favourably the chance to take part,” he said.

“You ought to get in touch with Dave Stewart… he’d do it like a shot,” he added.

Danny McAloon, Chris Rea and Jimmy Nail were also buoyed up by the plan and spoke at length about their passion for the Mayfair Ballroom.

So what about rock superstar Sting – former frontman for The Police – surely he would join the campaign?

One phone call answered that question. His PA abruptly told me: “I am sorry but Sting is far too busy at the moment to even contemplate this.”

Saving the Amazon rainforests maybe? I guess that is Sting for you!

Sadly the campaign to save the Mayfair failed and a compulsory purchase order by the developers ensured its fate.

In the autumn of 1999, the ballroom was demolished, to make way for a leisure complex, called The Gate. The closing night was attended by 5,000 people.