While not an obsessive fan (I have a greatest hits CD and a copy of Highway 61 Revisited in my collection but that’s all I’m afraid) Bob Dylan’s presence has loomed large in the history of many of the bands, such as Fairport Convention and The Byrds, that I am pretty obsessive about. Moreover, many of the music biographies I have read make frequent references to Dylan’s sundry visits to London in the early to mid-1960s – both in terms of the impact he had on London’s folk and nascent rock scenes and vice versa.
Given what a pivotal figure Dylan is then, the idea of having a proper contextual overview rather than relying on what I’ve pieced together through a series of fleeting appearances in other people’s biographies was therefore appealing.
‘Bob Dylan in London: Troubadour Tales’ begins with his first visit to London in the Winter of 1962. We start off in the King and Queen pub in Fitzrovia, where Dylan made his first live appearance in London, and take in iconic folk-scene venues such as the Pindar of Wakefield (now the Water Rats) in Kings Cross, home of Ewan MacColl’s Singers’ Club, and the Troubadour in Earls Court.
One might assume that the remaining chapters would take us on similarly meandering detours of the capital for each of Dylan’s subsequent visits. However, ‘Bob Dylan in London’ is as much guide-book as it is biography and the publication is generally arranged geographically rather than strictly chronologically and includes a 16-page colour sections with maps and illustrations.
Two long-time Dylan devotees, Jackie Lees and KG Miles, take us through several decades of Dylan in London, bringing to life the writer/performer’s presence in a series of locations through a mixture of contemporary concert reviews, anecdotes from fellow artists and recollections from audience members, with some of their own personal memories thrown in for good measure. At one point we even get to hear from a homeowner whose Crouch End property was on the market and Dylan’s early 80s visit as a prospective buyer is recalled.
The most fascinating parts of the book, however, are the ones where Dylan was at his creative and commercial peak in the 1960s. Insightful anecdotes from this period abound, including Donovan and Joan Baez in Dylan’s Savoy hotel room helping him write out the cue cards for the iconic trailer for ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, filmed in a nearby alleyway off The Strand called Savoy Steps.
The recollections do not always put Dylan in a favourable light. The treatment of Joan Baez on a 1965 tour leaves a particularly unpleasant taste. However, this short, concise book is highly readable, entertaining and informative. Anyone with an interest in London’s musical heritage and Dylan’s artistic legacy will find much to enjoy here.
Published: March 2021 by McNidder & Grace