Douglas Clark: Manchester Free Trade Hall

      C.P.Lee, like the night: Bob Dylan and the road to Manchester Free Trade Hall, Helter Skelter Publishing, 1998.
      Greil Marcus, Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes, Picador, 1997.

In the autumn of 1963, repeating a year at Glasgow University, I made acquaintance in the Junior Honours Mathematics class with new hard-drinking friends from Ayrshire. One of their flatmates was Duck, who was in Chemistry Honours, and one night after a pub session I found myself back at the flat with him. He then played me Bob Dylan's second and third albums. It was a magical experience. The room was big with bare boards and a couple of canvas chairs. And I heard this incredible voice and these extraordinary songs floating out in the Glasgow evening air. I was committed for life to Dylan.

I remember in 1964/5 how all the talk in my University Hall was of Dylan's fourth album but I was in too neurotic a state to dig deep into it. It wasn't till I had money in 1970 that I methodically began to buy his back catalogue and study the man. But I still remembered the night in Glasgow I had first heard The Byrds' version of `Mr Tambourine Man'. Though the intervening years had been much of a haze broken by `Like A Rolling Stone'.

I listened and watched to all performances by Dylan on TV. He was only eighteen months older than I was and I marvelled at his worldliness. In 1967 in Edinburgh I wrote a poem about him which I later published in my book `Disbanded' (Benjamin Press, 1991). I was a bit jaundiced at the time. Here it is:

Dylan music

God is in the mountains,
God is in the sea;
He must be very busy,
He never speaks to me.

Always digging ditches,
Always felling trees;
Taxing us with problems,
Testing by degrees.

Dylan in his wailing,
Dylan in his moan;
Put his poems to music,
Fiddled out fine tune.

Came from America,
Which we are taught to hate;
Copied his externals,
Pitied him his fate.

Dylan dwelt with God,
Lived with him too long;
But is a poet to his roots,
Speaks another tongue.

Burrow in your molehills, God,
Form the order New;
Poet has it in his heart,
No thanks to you.

I note that the secondlast verse is revised because of Dylan's Christian phase.

I made up a poem made out almost entirely of Dylan quotes and in my poem `Troubador' from the book of the same name (Benjamin Press, 1985) I use Dylan quotes to separate verses.

So since 1963 I have religiously followed Dylan and my new sequence `EXISTENTIAL ANGST', which I will include in this Issue, owes much to Dylan's great 1997 album `Time Out Of Mind'. It sort of fitted in with my then depression from which I have thankfully now escaped.

But the purpose of this article is the forthcoming release by Sony Columbia of Dylan's notorious 1966 Manchester concert where he confronted the folk fanatics, who wanted him to steer clear of electric and stick to acoustic music, directly. C.P.Lee was there and in his book documents the night. He gives a very good understanding of the political background relating to the folk movement and the involvement of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

What Greil Marcus in his book does is to explain the folk influences on Dylan, through Harry Smith's `Anthology of American Folk Music', which have always existed in him but have reappeared on the last three albums. There is much soulsearching on America but what matters is the words and music.

I have always equated Robert Burns and Bob Dylan in their songwriting capacities. But with Dylan it is best to hear him sing his songs himself because he uses his voice as an instrument. Robert Lowell commented on his `Caruso' tones. Nobody sings Dylan like Dylan. His intelligence links the words. Nowadays the voice may be broken by cigarettes but on occasion he can still do it.

He must have spent the last ten years on his Never-ending Tour where he circles the world refining his songs to perfection. But it is good to know that the songwriting genius is not dead as displayed in TOOM.

If Dylan had chosen to be a pure poet he would have been considerable. But instead he wrote songs. The lyrics don't stand up as poems on the page. They have to be sung. But they are steeped in poetry. Dylan's own poetry and the folk poetry he has absorbed all his life.