andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Tag Archives: mark knopfler

Free (Blind) Willie (McTell) ! Or, an introduction to Dylanology

So, you’re a fan of the wee man from Minnesota, and  you’re thinking of getting the December issue of Uncut for the free CD of Dylan tracks from his bootleg series. Is it worth it?

Well, for starters, you’d better get your skates on, because Uncut’s peculiar publication schedule means, although we’re only half way through November, the issue featuring the Bobster is already being replaced on the newsagent shelves by the January 2019 one! Of course, my colleague, friend and joint investor in Uncut manicpopthrills (we buy issues turn about and pass them on – canny Scottish tip for you all!) would grumble that another issue with Dylan on the front will be along in a minute, but let’s ignore him for now and focus on the December CD.

Actually, whether it’s worth it or not is really down to how much of a Dylan completist you are. If, like me, you’re something of a lapsed believer, there are some things of interest here: a reminder that, however dreary some of his deity-bothering material was in the 80s, he at least had the sense to hire the best of touring bands (a rocking version of Slow Train); nice too, to hear again the way he ramped up gentle folkie ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ on the Rolling Thunder tour; and an outtake from one of my favourite albums, Oh Mercy, ‘Born in Time,’ which is kind of in the category of ‘good but I can see why he left it off.’

I really wonder though about all these old guys bringing out multiple outtakes, retakes, forgotten reggae versions and so on. Dylan’s a serial offender here: I noted with amazement that his Bootleg series, a rolling record of ‘official,’ cleaned up releases to counter the tsunami of bootleg versions that he’s been subject to over the decades has reached number 14. This included Volume 12, The Cutting Edge, which, in its limited-edition 18-disc Collector’s Edition incarnation, contains ‘…every note recorded during the 1965–1966 sessions, every alternate take and alternate lyric.’ Take a week off work to listen.

Dylan isn’t alone, of course. The Beatles (or at least those with the relevant rights) and the Stones have been raiding their archives for years. Others like Pink Floyd aren’t far behind. It’s a lucrative venture, and you can see what’s in it for the record companies.

But, really, do you need 16 different takes of ‘Like A Rolling Stone,’ when you’ve got the one Dylan and Bob Johnson plumped for? Some artists, of course, are no longer with us, and there’s much to be plundered from Prince’s Vault that would be worth a listen, given how prolific the other little guy from Minnesota was. And then again…

Then again there’s the story of that nearly-lost Dylan classic, ‘Blind Willie McTell…’

1983, and Dylan’s emerging from his aformentioned born-again phase, engaging Jamaican rhythm section Sly and Robbie, ex-Stone Mick Taylor on guitar, and one Mark Knopfler, resting between Dire Straits albums, as producer of what will become Infidels. It’s an okay album, certainly better than the dirge-like gospel that went before, not to mention the dross that follows it up until Lanois drags Dylan off to New Orleans and makes Oh Mercy with him. However, what’s on Infidels isn’t nearly as interesting as what’s not on it.

At some point during the recording sessions, Dylan sits down at the piano, with Knopfler picking up an acoustic guitar. Perhaps with those two humungous talents together alone in the room it’s not surprising that magic happens, but boy, does it happen in bucketloads. His Bobness is later to claim that it was a demo version so the rest of the band could learn it, but Dylan only knows why that didn’t happen. There’s another take out there in the ether with Taylor on slide, but it’s the Dylan/Knopfler version that starts to circulate in bootleg form amongst the faithful.

This seems to put Dylan in such a huff that he refuses to release it, or indeed even play it live, for years, and is quoted as saying in a Rolling Stone interview: “I started playing it live because I heard the Band doing it. Most likely it was a demo, probably showing the musicians how it should go. It was never developed fully, I never got around to completing it. There wouldn’t have been any other reason for leaving it off the record. It’s like taking a painting by Monet or Picasso – goin’ to his house and lookin’ at a half-finished painting and grabbing it and selling it to people who are ‘Picasso fans.'”

So, an unfinished masterpiece, then, Bob? Certainly a lot of people see ‘Blind Willie McTell’ as one of the little fella’s best. In a style that’s now called Americana, the vivid imagery  of chain gangs, slavery ships, and bootlegged (ironically enough) whiskey paints a lyrical picture of a lost South that Dylan builds, verse by verse, his trademark croak betraying a rising passion as the song progresses. His own idiosyncratic piano and Knopfler’s subtle guitar accompaniment somehow work as the perfect sonic backdrop to the words.

A note here for Dylanologists – there’s been a debate amongst aficionados ever since the song emerged as to why the Bobster chose Blind Willie McTell for the refrain of ‘Ain’t nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell…’ when the real life McTell was actually quite a cheery sort of song and dance man who played ragtime as much as blues. Blind Willie Johnson, on the other hand, really, really could sing the blues. The answer, I think, is no more complicated than, as any songwriter knows, there’s a lot more words rhyme with ‘McTell’ than ‘Johnson.’

Why is this song so good? You might not agree, of course, but one reason I think this version’s so revered amongst fans is because it’s not overproduced, or overthought. I was talking to my friend and fellow songwriter Martin McGroarty about this the other night: when a song is newly forged, fresh from the furnace, those first few performances when you’ve just written it hold something special that you never get back. There’s a freshness to it, an emotion in the voice, that can come across no matter how primitive the recording method.

By a coincidence, I was out seeing a Dylan tribute band on Friday night. Yeah, I know: I don’t make a habit of it. ‘Bob’ himself seemed a bit off his game: maybe it was him starting the first song of the show with the wrong harmonica that threw him, the way it can. Could have done without all the chat from the bass player, who seemed to feel it necessary to share with us at one point that he wasn’t much of a Dylan fan himself. The guitarist was great, though: and if ‘Bob’ got the lyrics of ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ a bit, well, tangled up, he clearly was an aficionado, and his song choices, including ‘Blind Willie McTell,’ were totally sound. Shame my home town, by the size of the audience, isn’t stuffed with fellow Dylan fans.

On the other hand, maybe that’s no bad thing…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adverts down here. Nowt to do with me matey

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First Bands and Badly-Judged Bandanas: Reflections on Lost in Music

I read Giles Smith’s Lost in Music recently: got it second hand in Leith Walk’s excellent music and bookshop, Elvis Shakespeare. A  journalist of some repute as well as, apparently, ghost writer for Tom Jones and Rod Stewart, Smith is the same age as me, so part of the appeal of his book was the bit about growing up and having your formative experiences in pop music filtered through that particular time period. Like me, he had older siblings,  whose record collections allowed access to a slightly more sophisticated set of tastes than, say, T Rex.

I also enjoyed his often extremely funny tales of first bands and the travails of wanting to be a pop star, only to find you and your best mates have neither the connections nor, necessarily, the talent to make it. Of course, part of the charm of the book is it’s related with typical British self-deprecation: Smith did, briefly, nearly make it with a band called Cleaners from Venus, being signed to RCA’s German division. (If you think that name’s dodgy, try those of Smith’s previous bands: Pony, and Orphans of Babylon).

Unfortunately for Smith, what should have been a triumphant promotional tour of Germany was slightly marred by the lead singer and leading light’s philosophical aversion to touring, leading to a tour with no lead singer. For an excellent  – and, looking back now, poignant – review of the book, go to John Peel’s piece in the Independent.

Anyways. It got me thinking about my own early forays into the world of music, all those years ago. I came late to guitar playing, after discouraging parent-inspired forays into violin and piano. At about sixteen, I first started painfully acquiring the muscle memory to play basic chords on my brother’s nylon-string guitar: this led to a birthday present of a Kiso-Suzuki J200 copy. I embarked on mastering this, fired by the conviction that I could be the Next Big Thing in Rock. Specifically, I saw myself becoming the New Dylan – this was the early Eighties, bear in mind, when the Old Dylan was finding Jesus and tearing up his back catalogue.

At about the age of nineteen, I responded to an advert in a music shop in Edinburgh, and the Rob Long Band was formed. The band, at least in that incarnation, consisted of just me and the eponymous Rob,who was, I think, the same age, possessed of a red Stratocaster, (before Tony Blair made such an instrument terminally uncool) and of immeasurably greater guitar-playing experience and ability than me. Rehearsing solidly in Rob’s student flat above the Southsider, we quickly assembled a set of what might now be described as ‘classic rock.’ I sang, played harmonica and rhythm guitar; Rob did all the clever guitar bits.

We did ‘Shakin’ All Over,’ because Rob could do the riff. I can’t remember if we did ‘Message in a Bottle,’ live, but he could do the riff for that, too. He really was a pretty good guitar player, looking back. There was one original song in the set, a jointly-penned effort with a twelve-bar blues structure. The lyrics were something about Maggie Thatcher and nuclear war, which back then was about as original as using a twelve-bar blues structure for the music.

Our first – and in many ways best – gig was in the University Union in Chambers Street. All our friends came along to cheer: the folk in the flat below Rob’s, who had had to endure the solid rehearsals, came along to boo. I dedicated ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ to them: not a Judas moment, exactly, but it did shut them up for the full five minutes it took for all four verses plus verse-long harmonica solo. I also encountered my first example of the live-performance brain freeze known as Temporary Fretboard Amnesia, making a complete bourach of my one guitar solo (Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here.’)

In retrospect, we must have been pretty awful. Rob could have been Eric Bloody Clapton for all it mattered: my guitar playing was basic to say the least, and I had home-schooled myself in the Dylan/Mark Knopfler nasal whine, to the extent that it was pretty much croak-perfect. But our friends were kind, and most of them weren’t in bands so maybe didn’t know any better, so the long march to musical stardom wasn’t stopped in its tracks then and there.

For our second, and, in many ways, worst gig, Rob enlisted a bass player pal, one Andy Robb. I think we had one rehearsal with him before unleashing ourselves on the unsuspecting punters in Sneaky Pete’s in the Cowgate. However, one rehearsal was quite obviously going to be enough for Andy, who was one of that breed of musician you meet from time to time in bands: the self-proclaimed virtuoso. Andy played double bass in the Uni orchestra, didn’t you know, so he was basically doing us (or, at least Rob) a Massive Favour by slumming it in the Rob Long Band.

Encouraged by the band’s two-gig longevity, I splashed out on some performance gear. This took the form of a bandana (I know, but I repeat, this was the early Eighties) which was white, but with a Japanese – style rising sun in the middle. With this and (if I remember right) a grandad shirt with vertical stripes, I was good to go stage-gear wise, I felt.

Needless to say the gig didn’t live up to the lead singer’s outfit. Most of the punters moved away to the other bar as soon as we got started; Andy chose to tell me half way through that I wasn’t playing in time with him (it couldn’t have been, of course, that he wasn’t playing in time with me). There were no encores.

After we finished, a girl I vaguely knew came up to me.

‘What’s that on your head?’

‘It’s a bandana. It’s got the Rising Sun on it.’

‘Oh, right. I thought it was a bandage and you’d cut yourself.’

That summed it up, really. There was no third gig. I stayed friendly with Rob, but I suppose we both realised we needed something more than a virtuoso bass player to get us to the next level.

After that, my musical career kind of went on the back burner. I rehearsed with another band at Uni, but the other guitarist was too spaced out for us ever to get a gig organised. After I started work there was a disastrous solo gig in the Lundin Links Hotel when the receptionist, as part of the deal that got me the gig in the first place, got to play her own set first, which basically consisted of my set list, for reasons which I have never quite managed to work out.

There were the rehearsals with a couple of blokes in Dundee who mainly wanted to play Whitesnake covers. There were the couple of rehearsals with a friend of a friend, also in Dundee, which came to an end when he brought in another self-proclaimed virtuoso, a guitarist, who calmly announced that neither I nor Barry, the friend of a friend, were good enough guitarists to make it as a duo (Barry, when I last heard, is still playing and still gigging. I do hope the self-proclaimed virtuoso isn’t in the band).

Then, other than solo home noodling, nothing for years. I threw my creative energies into writing fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, with mixed success. It wasn’t until 2008, when I formed Tribute to Venus Carmichael with Kelly as a musical interlude in the Free Fringe spoken word gigs I did that year, that the fire was lit under my musical muse again. Another key collaboration was at the Book Festival Unbound gig in 2010, when I did a spoken word and music number with Kelly, Charlotte Halton on sax, and one Mark Allan, my future Isaac Brutal band leader, on the other guitar.

What would the nineteen year old me make of how things have turned out? He’d probably be pretty disappointed my main source of income isn’t as the new Dylan, if not exactly surprised. (He’d be secretly impressed, I reckon, I married a beautiful woman and have stayed married to her.) Would he settle for being in two bands with fantastic people, with songwriting duties in both? An album from each as well as a self-produced solo album coming out in the next few months, not to mention the novel?

No idea. The nineteen year old me was terribly ambitious about his creative endeavours.

Would he want me to write a song titled Fuck Off Andy Robb?

Yes. Yes, I think he would.

Image result for mark knopfler

Incidentally, if any of you have war stories of disastrous band relationships or gigs, feel free to contribute – I might write a song based on them!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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