Reviewed by Soul City Wandering author Frank Molloy.
This fascinating book serves as an insight on both London’s impact on Bob Dylan’s career, and Bob Dylan’s impact on London’s musical legacy. Co-authors and Dylan aficionados Jackie Lees and K. G. Miles plot a 50-year musical pilgrimage which follows a roughly chronological route mirroring Dylan’s connections with the city. Soul City Wanderer follows like a rolling stone…
Dylan first arrived in London in December 1962, in the midst of a bitterly cold winter, apparently matched by a bitterly fractious folk scene. It was hardly the warmest of introductions for our freewheelin’ friend. But if the hard-rainin’ wind-blowin’ nature of the city drenched him to the bone, it also had a profound effect on him, and after two months he flew back to the USA energised and a changin’.
Our ‘tour’ starts appropriately at the venue of Dylan’s first public performance in London, the King and Queen pub in Fitzrovia on December 21st, 1962. Here we swig on the intoxicating legend that the line in Don McLean’s seminal folk classic American Pie: ‘When the jester sang for the king and queen…’ was inspired by Dylan’s appearance at the pub.
There is a perception in London music history that the relatively quiet residential area of Fitzrovia was the perfect cradle for the reflective and contemplative musings of folk music to blossom. In actual fact, as shown in the book, most venues for the genre could be found on the other side of Oxford Street in brash and brazen Soho.
However, we come across another area of the great metropolis that deserves special mention in the annals of folk. The west London neighbourhood around Earls Court. With the trendy King’s Road just a stone’s throw away, this part of the world would become synonymous with the future musical flowerings of pop, punk and psychedelia. But Dylan found a spiritual seed here long beforehand, “wandering these streets, suitcase in one hand, guitar in the other.”
Of course, situated here was the natural gravitational pull of perhaps the most famous of London folk clubs, The Troubadour, located on the Old Brompton Road. Dylan performed here several times during his first trip to London. Around the corner was the more mainstream 16,000-seater Earls Court arena. In 1978, Dylan appeared here in triumphant sell-out tour, 12 years after he had last performed in London. Just around another corner, London offered a temporary hang-out for our rolling stone, albeit with the rather more prosaic-sounding name of No.9 Tregunter Road.
No.9 belonged to the aristocratic McEwen family. Rory McEwen, son of a wealthy Scottish politician, was chief in residence. He was no mean folk musician himself. In fact, he and his brother Alex had blazed their own troubadour trail across America in the 1950’s. With his influential connections, No.9 became a Swinging Sixties salon of art, music and intellect, with regular visitors such as the Beatles, the Everly Brothers, Larry Adler, Caroline Hester, George Melly, Jonathan Miller, Ravi Shankar and Barbara Streisand to name just a few.
Made especially welcome by Rory, Dylan briefly lodged at this address during his first stay in London. And it was near here that the authors suggest one of the more profound moments in rock history occurred. Apparently, in the early hours of a winter’s morning, the young American troubadour took a stroll with that titan of English literature, Robert Graves. Redcliffe Gardens is given as the most likely location for this legendary event taking place. One can only speculate at the stimulating nature of this great meeting of minds, perhaps easily cast as a catalyst for Dylan’s inner poetic muse.
(As a student of musical psychogeography I note that four years later this unassuming part of London would also inspire the opening lyrics of the Beatles’ A Day in the Life: it was in Redcliffe Gardens that the “lucky man who made the grade” lost his life.
Rory McEwen later forged a career as a fine botanic artist, but there was also a tragic end to his life. In 1982, suffering from a brain tumour, he threw himself in front of a train at nearby South Kensington tube station).
Elsewhere in the book, the hotels which provided more conventional accommodation for Dylan’s early visits, such as The Cumberland, The May Fair and The Savoy, are not just given passing mentions, but decent potted histories. The Cumberland, in particular, has a wider rock ‘n’ roll legacy, being the last official London residence for both Buddy Holly and Jimi Hendrix. Indeed, the book brings us right up to date with the information that it has now been rebranded as the Hard Rock Hotel.
The illustrated map also makes for interesting psychogeographic study, as it suggests that the main axis of Dylan’s London finds a counterpoint in the district surrounding the Savoy Hotel. In chapter four we discover how this area provides the yang to Earl’s Court’s yin.
In particular, an alley by the side of the hotel provided the location for what was effectively the first ever music video. At the Savoy Steps, Dylan was famously filmed flipping cue cards to accompany his Subterranean Homesick Blues. Here we encounter a delightful detail: the white pieces of card that Dylan used were actually the stiff backings for freshly cleaned shirts from the Savoy laundry. Like the zebra crossing on Abbey Road, the Savoy Steps have become an iconic location on the London rock ‘n’ roll trail. Certainly, the MTV generation owe this little back alley a small debt of gratitude.
Bob Dylan is arguably the world’s greatest modern singer-songwriter. While this book celebrates his genius, it is not afraid to remove the jester’s mask, noting instances of prima-donna-like antics. Ultimately, this book highlights a reciprocal influence: Dylan on London and London on Dylan. The city has the double honour of providing not only a showcase for his talents, but also creative inspiration on his works.
I recommend this book not only to Dylan enthusiasts, but to any music history buffs, and indeed, lovers of London in general.
Bob Dylan in London – Troubadour Tales by Jackie Lees & K. G. Miles. Original paperback published by McNidder & Grace. Available at Amazon and other book sellers.
Copyright: Frank Molloy 2021.