Bob Dylan in London: Troubadour Tales – book review
Bob Dylan in London: Troubadour Tales
By Jackie Lees & KG Miles
McNidder & Grace
Released 4 February 2021
A homage to an artist and a place, and ultimately to the intertwined kinship between the two.
In Bob Dylan in London, Lees and Miles intimate that the musician and the city are inextricably linked. Dylan couldn’t really have been Dylan without London, and the London as we know it wouldn’t be the same without all those venues where he played. Part oral history and part visual mapping project, it’s hard to imagine there isn’t something in here to delight any Dylan fan. The book takes readers across more than five decades to sites where Dylan performed, stayed, attended parties, recorded films, visited John Lennon and George Harrison, and allegedly dined. The stories are all true with the caveat, of course, that recalled narratives are subject to the whims of memory.
The authors clearly revere their subjects—Dylan and London. Throughout the book, their tone exudes a warmth that’s only possible only when you love what you’re writing about. In depicting both the artist and the London establishments he frequented, Lees and Miles offer readers an opportunity to follow in Dylan’s footsteps or, as I imagined it while reading, being just a few short steps behind the elusive troubadour. For all the biographical and semi-biographical texts written about Dylan, those are quite simply impossible footsteps to fill.
Of course, the travel is all imaginary, but that doesn’t mean it’s not inviting. London isn’t exactly like it was in the 1960s when Dylan played at the Royal Albert Hall, or in even in the 1990s when he roamed around Camden Town. Some of the sites are still standing (The Savoy, for one) while others have been demolished (like Earls Court Exhibition Centre). As I perused Dylan’s mapped routes through London, laid out temporally for the reader, I thought about the uncanny compression of time that the book is effecting. Years exist between his performances at each site, yet Bob Dylan in London gives the reader a chance to stop by them all in a single day, allowing all the years between to fold into one another. It’s something that Dylan’s songs and albums can do, too. Time Out of Mind, indeed.
If you’re interested in the histories of each location beyond connections to Dylan, Lees and Miles give you a little bit of that background for each place. You might be interested to learn, for example, that the May Fair served as an escape from the horrors of wartime in the mid-twentieth century, or that the Savoy’s famed French chef created the legendary “Peach Melba served in a swan carved out of ice.” I like imagining Dylan knowing these origin stories, too, and thinking about Peach Melba while ordering room service at the Savoy.
Julia Wytrazek’s illustrations are just fabulous. I’d love to see them as small poster prints—especially the Royal Albert Hall performance and the film “still” for Subterranean Homesick Blues. Speaking of Subterranean Homesick Blues, like Lees and Miles point out, there are a lot of Dylan fans who don’t realize that famous video was filmed in London. Reader, I was one of them! It feels like a New York film in a lower Manhattan alleyway, yet, as the authors point out, it’s such a London scene:
“On 8 May 1965, Bob Dylan stood on the corner of Savoy Steps where the Queen’s Chapel meets Savoy Hill, to be filmed by D.A. Pennebaker. On that day the School Block was covered in scaffolding, and builders’ materials were piled on the pavement . . . . The background of scaffolding and high walls, filmed in black and white with the camera held low to the ground, gave the film a gritty appearance. Many people assume it was shot in New York. In fact, the location could hardly be further from ‘gritty,’ given that the Savoy Hotel, frequented by the wealthy and famous, is just a stone’s throw away.”
Strangely enough, those cue cards that Dylan flipped in the video became a centrepiece, decades later, of the 2018 Mondo Scripto exhibit featuring the musician’s sketches and lyrics at the Halcyon Gallery in Mayfair. Dylan circles back to London again. At times, London also becomes a character in Lees’ and Miles’ book with its own anthropomorphic qualities. In the mid-1970s, for example, Dylan did a number of tours but left London feeling forgotten, but still “London waited.”
The book ends by suggesting that “London will always have the honour of being the city which forged the greatest of modern songwriters,” but I can’t help thinking about how the text ultimately illumines a curious kind of placelessness for Dylan, too. That fans have continually mistaken London for New York in the Subterranean Homesick Blues film is peculiar, especially among those of us who are well acquainted with both cities. And visually, Dylan is always somehow just out of place, adding to his enigmatic and eccentric persona. Indeed, the writers remark on his entrance into a “fractious London folk scene . . . in his cowboy boots.”
Bob Dylan in London: Troubadour Tales offers a new perspective through which to see a musician and a city I love. It’s a quick and a fun read, and it’s a steal at just £12. I’ll definitely be taking it with me the next time I visit London.
You can buy the book from McNidder & Grace.
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