andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Tag Archives: ballad of bob dylan

Me and Bob Dylan: Or, a case of mistaken identity

I wasn’t absolutely sure until he spoke.

‘Excuse me,’ came that voice like sand and glue, ‘Do you know if they stock fresh turmeric?’

I have to say, the chances of coming across the Greatest Living Songwriter in the fruit and vegetable aisle – or indeed, any other aisle, up to and including the meat counter – of our local branch of Morrison’s, might seem astronomical. Indeed, you might consider all of this a tall tale, and I could hardly blame you.

And yet there he was, as large as life, and looking for fresh turmeric.

‘They did stock it for a while, but I’ve not seen it recently. Not much demand for it in Glenrothes, I suspect,’ I said, trying to act as if encountering international recording artists – not to say long-term heroes – loitering near the parsnips in a Fife supermarket was part of my everyday experience. ‘Do you use it a lot?’

‘Yeah, for sure,’ Dylan said, suddenly looking animated. ‘Do you know the kind of health benefits they say that stuff has?’

By sheer chance, I had been reading recently of the putative merits of the roots of Curcuma longa, but, fearing my show of insouciance was about to crumble, I just shrugged and shook my head. Dylan smiled, like a man happy to find another convert to his latest beliefs.

‘Man, you gotta get some of it,’ he said. ‘It’s argued by many to be the most powerful herb on the planet at fighting and potentially reversing disease. Its many proven benefits,’ he chuntered on, with a use of syntax raising the suspicion of direct quotation from some website or other, ‘include the slowing and prevention of blood clots, reducing symptoms of depression, fighting inflammation, boosting the immune system, promoting skin health, and even reducing or preventing many common forms of cancer. I mean,’ he concluded, moving a little sideways to allow a fellow shopper to get access to the celeriac, ‘I’ve been on it for 6 months, and look at me!’

I looked at him. He looked like a scruffy seventy-something with questionable dress sense and the kind of three day stubble that only looks good on the likes of George Clooney. He also, unquestionably, looked the dead spit of Bob Dylan.

He clearly had much more to get off his chest on the topic of turmeric. ‘Another study suggests..’ he said, but I had heard enough. ‘Look, Bob,’ I said. ‘You are Bob Dylan, aren’t you?’

‘I go by many names…’ he started to say, but I cut across him. ‘I’ve just one question for you, as a long term fan. When are you going to stop doing all these Sinatra covers and get back to the good stuff?’

It was out before I could help myself. I looked at Dylan as he rocked back on his heels, surprised at the vehemence of my tone perhaps. Then his eyes narrowed. ‘Wait a minute. You don’t work for CBS, do you? Those bastards are always trying to get me to dial back on the American Standards. Well, you can tell them from me…’

‘No, no!’ By this time, we had, jostled by other shoppers in search of various types of root vegetables, ended up in a far corner of the store by the less popular end of the deli counter. Overcome with guilt at upsetting my hero, I outlined to him my early devotion to him, bordering on fanaticism in my student years, now tempered into a more mellow appreciation of his absolute mastery of the songwriting craft.

I may have gone on a bit. ‘Okay, enough already,’ he said, a twinkle in his eye. ‘Let’s see how true a fan you are. Favourite Blonde on Blonde song?’

‘Visions of Johanna,’ I countered easily.

‘Hmm, pretty good. Favourite live album?’

‘Well, I started out on Budokan, but I still think Hard Rain is greatly underrated,’ I said.

‘Hmm,’ he said again, stroking his chin and casting an appreciative eye over Morrison’s range of prepared pizzas in the chiller cabinet behind him. ‘You’re right. It is greatly underrated. Okay. You seem like a decent fellow that’s not going to share secret information with the world at large, so, just between us, I’ll tell you why I’m doing all this Sinatra nonsense.’ He glanced left and right, but it was just us and the pizzas. ‘It’s a contractual obligation to my real employer, the Devil.’

‘Say again?’

‘You’ve heard of Robert Johnson, right? Going down to the crossroads to trade his soul for musical ability?’ I nodded. ‘Well, I out Johnsoned Johnson, man. I been to those crossroads twice.’

‘What d’you mean, Bob?’

His eyes took on a faraway look. ‘Well, you know, all those years ago … 1961 was the first time. Came up to New York and realised I couldn’t play guitar half as well as Dave Van Ronk and all these other folksingers at the Gaslight. So I took myself down to those crossroads. All I wanted was the guitar chops: but Old Nick, he threw in some songwriting ability, too. There was just one condition.’

A passing shopper gave us a curious look as she reached for the barbecue chicken with cheese combo 12 inch, before heading off  back towards the soft fruit.

‘One condition?’

‘Yeah. He insisted I worked my way through all the genres. He was very clear about that. It’s why I had to keep changing styles throughout my career: folk, rock, blues, country… by the early Eighties I’d just about run out of genres, so I asked him about gospel. ‘Sure,’ he says, ‘go for it.’ Dangerous strategy on his part, of course. Before I knew it I’d got in a situation with one of my backing singers, who was religiously inclined, and she got me to renounce the Devil and all his works. Safe to say he wasn’t best pleased about it.’

Things were beginning to dawn on me. ‘So that explains your mid-Eighties career slump. You lost the ability to write a decent song.’

Dylan nodded grimly. ‘Yep. Totally blocked. Wasn’t till I went down to New Orleans to record that album with Lanois, Oh Mercy, that I could get back down to those crossroads and rework the deal. Even then, it took a while to get the songwriting back in the package.’

‘You’re telling me,’ I said. ‘Under the Red Sky, Good As I Been to You, World Gone Wrong…

He gave me the kind of look only a Greatest Living Songwriter can give you when you’ve overstepped the mark. ‘Okay, okay,’ he said. ‘Maybe I didn’t have the best lawyer in the world, what with the Devil having the best of them.’

I nodded, guiltily. ‘Sure, Bob. Sorry…’

‘Well, things got back on track, with albums like Time Out of Mind. Then Old Nick, he started hassling me about doing American Standards. I mean, those Rat Pack guys – Frankie, Dino, Sammy and the rest – they were his people, man. So I’ve been stuck with doing them ever since.

‘That’s why I need to keep going on the turmeric, see. I’ve just about fulfilled my contractual obligations on these crooner favourites with him, so if I can keep myself healthy enough for long enough, I can go back to the good stuff before I go down into the flames. Plus I’ve just hired a new lawyer who thinks he’s found a get out clause.’

I could tell my time with the Greatest Living Songwriter was coming to an end: mainly by the way he was edging away from me in the direction of the speciality cheeses. I was racking my brains for something short and pithy that would encapsulate my undying admiration for his life’s work, only enhanced now by knowledge of his very real battles with his inner and outer demons. However, he had his own parting statement ready.

‘Uh, I really like that ballad you did about me, by the way. Very good. All that shifting perspective stuff. I approve.’

‘Eh?’

‘You know. ‘Twenty miles away, in a high-security hospital…’

‘Ah,’ I said. ‘You’re confusing me with my friend, the singer-songwriter Norman Lamont. It’s his song. I’m still waiting to write something that good. By the way, do you have an address for those crossroads?’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nothing to see down here. Not even a crossroads.

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The Undiscovered Self: A Profile of Norman Lamont, Singer-Songwriter

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A shorter, more tightly edited version of this profile appears on Norman’s own site here.

Does the creative spark flare brightest in early adulthood for all of us? Or for some, does the onset of, say, middle age create new impetus, new muses either spiritual or temporal?

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and especially since reading Norman Lamont’s comment on his website that he’s been writing songs for 45 years, but he didn’t start writing good ones till his 40s.

Of course, this is in many ways typical Lamontian self-deprecation – I’m sure his twenty- and thirty-something output contains fine material – but my own appreciation of Norman’s work is inevitably coloured by the fact that I first got to know him in early 2011, when putting together a tribute night to His Bobness called Dylan Uncovered. The format was for each artist to do two covers of the great man, plus something else inspired by his work. In Norman’s case this was, inevitably, ‘the Ballad of Bob Dylan,’ one of his best known songs – and written, by my reckoning, long before his forties. I’ll let Norman himself tell you the story of that one, but, for me, his whole performance was one of the highlights of the evening.

Partly I just wanted to steal him and his bandmates to be my own backing band! Although they’ve since mutated from the Invisible Helpers to The Heaven Sent, Norman’s fellow instrumentalists in both switch between that folk-rock mix of acoustic and electric bandwidths that, in my head, I mostly hear when I have an idea for songs. Norman’s output is eclectic to say the least, ranging from the folk and rock genres through jazz influences to ambient electronica, but at its core is a body of work that follows that golden thread of songwriting craft from Dylan, Leonard Cohen, through others such as Nick Cave (Norman and his band also played at my next curated night, Cry of the Cave People, and made the Grand Lord of Goth’s songs his own too).

Of course, many know Norman for his long held affection for Cohen’s work, and I was delighted to play a small part in his Third Tip of the Hat to Leonard Cohen in November 2015. This was one of a series of tribute nights to the now sadly departed Canadian singer-songwriter, and Norman’s recent post about his loss is not just a fitting tribute, but telling in small details on how much Cohen’s approach has influenced his own style. Cohen’s ‘humble’ performance in front of a sell out crowd, for example, ‘stuck with [him] as the right way to approach an audience.’

In the same post, Norman mentions where he was living at the time of various Cohen album releases, including Rotterdam, London, Manchester, Staffordshire, and latterly, thankfully for us east coast Scots, South Queensferry. He’s been a fixture on the Edinburgh singer-songwriter scene since 1990. I’ve now seen him perform several times, and been lucky enough to share a bill with him on a couple of those occasions. In person and on stage, what shines through, apart from superb musicianship and songcraft, is the charm, self-deprecation and wit. Characteristically, after the Dylan Uncovered night turned out to be a logistical nightmare for which I, as an inexperienced gig promoter, was totally unprepared, he took the trouble to write and thank me for asking him to play. It was much more than most of the rest of the bill did!

A typical Lamont song – if such a thing even exists – will often use storytelling skills to drive the lyric on, whether of the shaggy dog variety as in ‘Ballad of Bob Dylan’ or a tauter form, as in  ‘The Last Man to Touch You,’ where the telling detail of the sexual rival’s journey to meet the narrator’s lover ‘he checks his watch, he mouths a song’ unwraps the fierce emotions underneath. One of my favourites from his last album is ‘Not About to Fly,’ recounting an Ayrshire childhood, from the sound of it, well spent. How many other songs begin with a line like, ‘When I was a spy I stuffed some wires in a jam jar/ left it buried by the river bank where it’s transmitting still…’? Musically, the opening mandolin motif leads into some superb violin playing before the rhythm section of (acoustic) guitar and bass underpin the whole; but the song’s flexible enough that the band could perform it equally well with Norman toting his Stratocaster.

My perennial question for Norman when I meet him these days – apart from, ‘when’s the next album coming out?’ is ‘why in hell aren’t you far better known than you are?’ It’s a dumb question to ask any artist, but dumb questions can still be valid ones. Perhaps he doesn’t push himself forward as brazenly as it takes. Maybe it is that age thing – after all, if anyone’s going to grab attention in today’s overcrowded Youtube/Soundcloud/Bandcamp melee it’s probably not going to be a fifty-plus singer-songwriter who relies on strong melody and intelligent lyrics, and doesn’t generally pause in the middle to rap over a Limp Bizkit sample.

Well, if this blog persuades one more initiate into the cult of Norman Lamont, it’ll have been worthwhile. Let the world go to hell in a handcart – standing at the top of 2017, it certainly looks headed that way – if we’ve got Mr Lamont to help it explain it all, the journey there will seem that much less bumpy. And the good news for all of us is, the well’s showing no sign of going dry. ‘I’ve got so many to finish and so many unrecorded,’ he tells me.

Amen, amen, amen to that.

Footnote: when putting this profile together, I asked Norman a couple of questions – basically just to get a couple of quotes from the man himself in somewhere. Typically, his responses were so well written and witty they’re far too good to fillet, so they’re printed in full below.

When you’re recording an album, do you have a sound (whether it’s Dylan’s wild, thin, mercury sound or otherwise) in mind for the songs?

– On a song by song basis, yes I can pretty much hear it all in my head, a full arrangement. That’s about 60% of the songs. Not for an album, which is why my albums are such a patchwork of inconsistent styles. I just hear and create songs then try to shoehorn them into a collection.  That’s my pattern and I actively try to disrupt it now in a few ways:

  • taking a half-finished song or idea to the band and seeing how it ends up
  • starting a song on the computer from a drum track or a few chords, then trying to match some random lyrics from my notebook to it
  • in the case of the band album, using the same people and roughly the same intrumentation for every track.

I have to say none of these have been as successful, I don’t think, as the songs that are fully ‘heard’ in my head like I Started A Fire and The Last Man To Touch You. Often when I make them up I’m driving so they have to be quite catchy songs for me to remember them till I get home. By that time I’ve pretty much arranged them in my head. But I’m trying to persevere with the ‘disruptive’ methods. An example of that would be Song of Wandering Aengus from the last album where I had the backing track I’d made for a cover version of someone else’s song, but replaced the melody with a new one and Yeats’ lyrics.

Do you release groups of songs as albums as they come chronologically, as it were, or are there a lot of songs that you hold back till they find a right fit?

I have the recordings in half-finished states for years, dipping in and out until suddenly one night I’ll get a glimpse of what this or that one needs to make it good. I don’t really think about albums other than ‘have I got enough for one?’  I think those days may be in the past and I’ll just put them out as I finish them. I’ve got so many to finish and so many unrecorded.

Name something you enjoy about the recording process, and something you don’t enjoy so much.

I love arranging, throwing instrument after instrument on then taking them off again leaving maybe only a bar or two of this and and a trace of that. I hate the software. At first I thought it was Cubase that was playing jokes at my expense but now I realise it’s any software I use. They conspire among themselves to trip me up. They tune into my level of eagerness to get started and plan their malfunctions in proportion to my sense of urgency.  An alternative explanation is incompetence, but I don’t buy that.

You can also read my interview with Norman which formed part of my ‘songwriters on songwriting’ series right here.

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