Bob Dylan’s Liverpool - The singer’s strong links with the north west

PUBLISHED: 00:00 24 August 2020 | UPDATED: 09:29 24 August 2020

Bob Dylan in 1987 film Hearts of Fire

Bob Dylan in 1987 film Hearts of Fire

not Archant

Music biographer Spencer Leigh considers the Nobel Prize winning singer-songwriter’s links to the region.

Bob Dylan played one of the most controversial concerts of all-time, in Manchester in 1966 
when the audience jeered and someone shouted, ‘Judas!’. The American singer had been there the previous year and everybody had loved him so what had brought about this change?

Whenever I write a biography, whether it be the Beatles, Elvis or Frank Sinatra, I start with questions I want to answer. I had scores of questions with Bob Dylan and I particularly wanted to know why someone would deliberately alienate his audience. Dylan rarely answers questions directly so his past interviews muddy the waters. Only in June, he told the New York Times that he was as bewildered by his songs as anybody else. I don’t believe that but it does mean that his lyrics can be analysed by university students. Dylan is a major subject for debate at the Institute of Popular Music which is part of the University of Liverpool.

Now in his 80th year, Bob Dylan was born in Duluth on May 24th 1941. He attended the University of Minnesota but like John Lennon at art college, he was too impatient to study. With an acoustic guitar and a harmonica, he performed in folk clubs and coffee houses in Greenwich Village and, following a rave review in the New York Times, he secured a contract with Columbia Records.

In the winter of 1962, he came to London to appear in a BBC-TV drama but he also performed in folk clubs and several early songs are based around traditional material. There is even a private tape of him singing The Leaving Of Liverpool.

Dylan made his reputation with two remarkable albums, mostly of his own material, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963) and The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964) and starting with Peter, Paul and Mary’s Blowin’ In The Wind, other performers covered his songs. Many listeners preferred cover versions and Manchester group the Hollies had success with The Hollies Sing Dylan album in 1969.

Bob Dylan undertook his first UK tour in May 1965 and, without difficulty, I bought tickets to see him at the Odeon in Liverpool as the cinema occasionally promoted stage shows. The staging was minimal: a table with harmonicas and water, a stool and two microphones, and that was enough. For two hours, he sang one great song after another. Around the corner in Lime Street, the revellers were all over St George’s Plateau as Liverpool had won the Cup.

A few months later, Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival to a very mixed reaction. The diehard folkies wanted none of it but Dylan didn’t write protest songs anymore and wanted to rock out. No one was sure of the reception he would receive in the UK in 1966.

He was again at the Odeon. The first half of acoustic material was well received but the political diatribes had been replaced with long surreal songs like Visions of Johanna. Was 4th Time Around intended as a tribute to Liverpool’s rulebreakers, the Beatles, as it seemed to share its melody with Norwegian Wood.

For the second half Dylan was backed by the musicians who came to be known as The Band. They had huge speakers and they were loud, certainly by the constraints of the day. The folkies began jeering, some stomping out and shouting comments at the stage.

Some went over the road to a traditional folk club run by Pete McGovern, who wrote In My Liverpool Home. Dylan was abrasive telling someone that if he needed a Saviour, there was a picture of Jesus backstage. It was unlike anything I had seen before and I’m glad to report that my younger, 21-year-old self was on his feet applauding.

As I reached Lime Street, I met merrymakers who were celebrating Everton winning the Cup. Had Bob Dylan appreciated this extraordinary coincidence or did he think these were just normal days in Liverpool?

Spencer Leigh's new book about Dylan, Outlaw BluesSpencer Leigh's new book about Dylan, Outlaw Blues

A few nights later, Dylan was at the Free Trade Hall. There are two candidates – Keith Butler and John Caldwell – who have claimed to have shouted ‘Judas’, but I was glad to talk to Geoff Speed, the folk music presenter at Radio Merseyside. He told me he had slept through the second half of the concert. Surely that was far more critical than anyone shouting ‘Judas!’. As the Free Trade Hall had been built on the site of the Peterloo Massacre, Dylan’s concert wasn’t the most notorious event at that location.

Despite this antagonism, Dylan has maintained a fondness for the North West, perhaps because he liked the music from the area. In 1978 he told a London audience: ‘I’m thinking of moving up to Liverpool.’

He was in Liverpool early for his show at the Echo Arena in 2009 and he bought a ticket (yes, really!) for the conducted tour of John Lennon’s childhood home, Mendips. His visit may have prompted his 2012 song, ‘Roll On John’. The Beatles were mentioned in his recent US No.l Murder Most Foul, a song which also pays tribute to Ferry Cross the Mersey.

Bob Dylan and the Beatles were prime movers in the 60s. I think they influenced each other and the world is all the better for it.

Spencer’s new book ‘Bob Dylan Outlaw Blues’ is out now, published by McNidder and Grace.

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