By Geoffrey Morrow
On this day so long ago, I was a skinny seventeen-year-old schoolboy with a sketchbook under my arm and a singular determination. Instead of taking the train from my small seaside town of Whitehead in County Antrim to go to grammar school in Larne, I travelled 17 miles in the opposite direction to the city of Belfast. I was setting out on a determined and audacious quest to draw Bob Dylan from life that afternoon before he played his second concert in Ireland, the day after his first the night before in Dublin. What could possibly go wrong?
I had been accepted to begin a new life as a student at art college in Belfast the following September, so my credentials as a ‘real’ artist would carry the day and I would be given full access to Dylan to make my portrait of him and impress them all with my talent. As I approached the last stop in Belfast, I began to wonder how I was going to pull this off, but I was still confident as I headed off on foot into the city from York Street station.
There were only three or four major hotels in the centre of the city back then and he was bound to be in one of them. As I approached the first one on Royal Avenue, I was brought up short by the sight of a tall guy in a startlingly green corduroy suit standing just inside the hotel entrance combing his longish fair hair in the reflection of the plate glass. He was obviously an American.
I went into the lobby and said, “Hello, are you with Bob Dylan?” “Sure am, what can I do for you?” I’d hit pay dirt without the anticipated long and arduous search for my hero and I could hardly believe my luck. I explained my mission and held up the sketchbook like a letter of introduction and asked if he could help me find a way to fulfill my very important artistic challenge.
He stopped combing and looked at me in a friendly and smiling way, comb in hand. He turned his regard towards a long haired, white-bearded tramp who had stopped right outside and was peering in at us through the window and said, “Man that cat looks just like Walt Whitman, whadda you know, I thought he’d died a while back. I’m just waiting here for a cab to take me round to the concert hall, an’ I’m wearin’ my green suit to charm all the Irish girls”.
I didn’t quite know what to say, but, because I knew the songs of Bob Dylan, I also knew the poems of Allen Ginsberg, and because of reading Ginsberg I had also read Walt Whitman, so I tried to say something funny about his suit colour and Leaves of Grass and he laughed and put his comb away.
“Come on with me and I’ll take you over there but don’t tell anyone I brought you in and be sure to be very polite. Just ask if you could draw Mister Dylan an’ see what happens”.
A black taxi pulled up to the curb and we both got in. He shook my hand and said his name and got mine, but it would be quite a while before I could tune in to what he was saying as I was beginning to settle into a slight state of shock. Here I was, actually in a moving cab with one of Dylan’s band members and just about to be delivered into the presence of someone I had regarded as a deity ever since I first heard his second album three years earlier. What the hell was I going to say? My hands were starting to shake slightly, and I was beginning to feel a little nauseous, but there was no turning back.
The taxi barrelled around the ornate wedding cake-like edifice of the city hall and after a few quick turns left and right we stopped in an alley behind the opulent ABC Ritz cinema and were walking up a sloped ramp to the stage door of the venue. He seemed to know where he was going, and I remembered that I too had been there just the year before to see the Rolling Stones.
“Now remember. I didn’t bring you in here. Through these doors and you’re on your own man. Good luck”. And with the flick of his well combed hair, Mickey Jones and his moss green suit completely disappeared into the darkness on the other side of the door.
I stepped forward with some trepidation and found myself walking directly onto the stage and into a confusing scene of electrical cables snaking all over the floor, amps being rolled around, and instruments being set up on stands and boxes with drums being disgorged in what seemed to be a completely chaotic mess of activity amid shouted instructions in American accents.
Someone immediately challenged me with “What are you doing up here?” I mumbled something along the lines of “Ah nothing I’m just doing some drawing” and I turned around to see somewhere to get off the stage and disappear to before I was kicked out. I stepped back to my right and took some stairs going down at that side of the stage behind the curtains and quickly found myself in a dark and narrow tunnel running directly underneath the full length of the stage above.
There was another short set of steps going back up from there to the stage right side of an orchestra pit, behind a decorative wrought iron railing that curved around from one side in front of the stage to the other. I sat down on the bottom step as my heart was pounding like I’d never known it to before. I thought that I’d just stay here and try to avoid being confronted again until I got my bearings.
After a few minutes my eyes were beginning to get accustomed to the low levels of light and I felt it was safe to very gingerly poke my head up, just enough to see where I was and if any one of the various people busy bustling about resembled any of the last visual iterations of Bob Dylan that Irish and British fans had a slightly dated version of.
Where was the pale-faced young fellow with the cuff links on the swirling cover of Bringing it All back Home or the Triumph motorcycle tee-shirted guy squatting on the steps of the Highway 61 Revisited album?
He was nowhere to be seen as I scanned the goings on to my left from there beside the stage. After a few minutes, a large dark shape at the centre of the orchestra pit began to slowly move, upwards. Rising like a dark and ominous tank, the multi-keyboarded Wurlitzer organ (that would’ve been played during film intermissions and for special occasions in the 30’s and 40’s) came to life with a seat-rattling roar.
The organ’s soaring sound from beneath the stage began again tentatively but soon rose to a deafening hurricane of symphonic arpeggios and declarative scales that filled the vast dark and empty theatre like a murmuration of phantom bats taking musical flight. It was manned centrally by a slickly dark haired and long side-burned man some in Northern Ireland would have referred to, not very sympathetically, as a Teddy Boy. I know now it was a young and beardless Garth Hudson. He seemed to be in some sort of heavenly trance as he worked the foot pedals and tugged at the colourfully lit-up curves of multiple organ stops like the demented driver of some other-worldly space train. He seemed to be ecstatically happy. I put my fingers in my ears and crouched low, completely mesmerized.
ABC Ritz Cinema Compton Melotone Organ (1936)
A group of people had begun to gather just above me as they set up a film camera on a tripod and connected various cables and other pieces of equipment. I was in complete darkness just below them and felt that I was safe enough down there and couldn’t be seen. The camera was just inside the railing around the orchestra pit and seemed to my young eyes like a serious piece of kit and meant that the concert that night would be filmed. Somehow this struck me as being very important and that these people really meant business.
All very fascinating and awesome, but where in this throng of activity was the subject of my endeavour, the would-be sitter for my audacious artistic quest? HE was nowhere to be seen or heard from and there was much to be seen and heard, some of which shocked my youthful mind and ears.
There was much banter about something coloured that you take! “I took a couple of those blue ones, man they were great, did ya try any of them?” There was quite a bit of this kind of banter going back and forth. I had only a slight inkling of what it all meant. Don’t forget, I was a beardless boy of seventeen and could’ve probably passed as a year even younger than that who had hardly ever even had a sip of beer at this stage in my life.
I knew that rumours of drug taking were rife in the world of music and art, but that was all ahead of me; but not too far ahead. By my second month of art college five months forward from this moment, I would step into that world with my first LSD trip and enter a new life of the chemically enhanced mind. But for now, I was untouched by this unfolding future world being spoken of approvingly just above me by the boys in the band. I was hanging on their every word.
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