by Roger Gibbons
I went to school with Sir Kazuo Ishiguro. Well I vaguely remember a Japanese boy who was in his first year at Woking Boys grammar school when I was in my last year. I had been a lackadaisical scholar and left with only three O Levels but Kazuo went on to University, fame and fortune. As far as I know we are the only pupils of that school to be published. Kazuo has been quite successful (KBE, OBE and Nobel Prize) while I remain unknown (of course, we are both overshadowed by Woking girl, the great Delia Smith) but Kazuo and I both love Bob Dylan.
Kazuo has expressed his admiration for Bob in interviews. I am thankful he has not written about Bob for two reasons – I tried to read ‘Never let me go’ and I gave up. The boredom was too great and it is one of very few books I have abandoned. (Most writing about Bob is pretentious; hello, Clinton Heylin and Michael Gray). Yet sadly, I still feel obliged to buy all books on Bob. But writers still feel compelled to be obtuse and grandiose.
Let us therefore be thankful Kazuo has not offered a dull pretentious work about Bob. I am not capable of complex writing skills so this is my memoir of an interview with Eric Clapton and it is very straightforward.
In 1986 I rang Ian Woodward of the fanzine, ‘The Wicked Messenger’. I thought it was obvious that Eric Clapton should be interviewed about Bob Dylan. But the fanzine and its contributors were not that organised, so I took it upon myself. I had seen Eric in concert five times (if I include Blind Faith). Once I turned up at Guilford Civic Hall without a ticket but hoping to get in for the encore. On arriving in the car park, I was surrounded by four policemen which I thought was overkill security. Nevertheless, they let me through and indeed I got into the back of the theatre, with probably thirty other hopefuls. The reason for the security became clear when Eric came back onstage with Mark Knopfler, Elton John, Phil Collins and his band. They did one song, ‘Further On Up The Road’ but with so many solos that it lasted twenty minutes.
I also saw Eric with Carl Perkins at the Civic. Very annoyingly Eric played at Woking Leisure centre for many New Year’s Eve gigs. I lived about two minutes away and my wife and I walked around a couple of times. You could hear the music very well from outside and once Andy Fairweather-Low said Happy New Year to us. He was not wide-eyed or legless. To get in to the gig you needed to be in Alcoholics Anonymous.
I did not research the interview too much and I had no set questions, just topics. If you watched television in those days you could see questions being asked and the same old set replies coming out, often word for word. A few years later I went to see The Sue Lawley Show being recorded at the BBC . She had a blackboard with a list of questions on and ignored any interesting reply. Famously Sarah Ferguson did not announce her pregnancy until two days later. Roald Dahl was lovely, fascinating and could have done a much longer interview.
At the time of the interview Eric and I both had failing marriages but Eric’s life included two children with other women and a busy lovelife. He was clearly, though, not a happy person. Thankfully we both went on to long and successful new partnerships. I visited Eric Clapton’s house on many occasions, often to find he was out or busy. I went to Elton John’s house in Windsor but he was in America and never came back so my career as an interviewer came to an end. I also moved to Gloucestershire so I have not seen Eric since although my grandson goes to school just down the road from his house. Sadly my wife’s father has an ashes grave headstone in Ripley church. When we visit to clean the stone we always see the best kept grave – Conor Clapton.
Me and Bob
I was first aware of Bob Dylan when I heard “Times They Are A-Changing” on the radio, not particularly liking the scratchy folk sound but loving the sentiment of the lyrics. At this time, I was young and penniless and I could not afford those expensive LPs so I purchased a couple of EPs. “One too many mornings” was a particular favourite, but friends of mine were into blues music, the Beatles, Stones and Bo Diddley so I listened to all sorts. By now (1965) I had a part-time job so could afford albums and concerts. Chuck Berry, then B.B.King were my first concerts, both memorable. Chuck did “My ding-a-ling” much ruder than the chart version. B.B. did “Lucille” including breaking a string and mending it while still playing (I did not realise he did that in every show). My first albums were the Beatles, Chuck Berry and the Hollies. Highway 61 was so different that after playing it once I ignored it for a few months but tried it again and have loved it ever since.
My main interest was football and as I lived in Woking, Surrey I could get on the train and get to any London venue quite easily. My trips to football were combined with record shop scouring so I found bootlegs and old blues and folk albums in strange places like New Cross and Seven Sisters. Those were the days before Google. The BBC did their “Bob Dylan in Concert” show in 1965 and that was a breathtaking change for youngsters like me, growing up with musical candyfloss.
The first time I saw Bob was at the Isle of Wight in 1969. My mate let me down at the last minute so I went alone, staying in a bed and breakfast in Portsmouth on Saturday night then coming back on the ferry after midnight; what a wonderful experience. The show, though, was not what the crowd expected – it was subdued rather than rocking. The festival DJ played the Stones Honky Tonk Women on numerous occasions and that aggressive rock was missing from Bob. Nevertheless, there were some standouts: Wild Mountain Thyme, Mighty Quinn and Minstrel Boy. They were all new and exciting but overall I felt slightly disappointed. Mind you the support acts were abysmal – Blodwyn Pig anybody?
The next visit was at Blackbushe in 1978 and Bob was really on top of his game. I had tried to get tickets for the Earls Court shows but even spending all day queuing in London was fruitless. At this time Bob was massively successful – nobody else could fill six shows at Earls Court and follow that with a massive show like Blackbushe (well alright, maybe the Stones or Springsteen later).
I drove past Blackbushe recently. What a site for concerts it could have been, instead of a car auction area and a market (for a long time, but not anymore.) The show was fantastic; even my first wife enjoyed the day. Afterwards we got in a taxi and the driver wondered why there were so many people about.
I have seen Bob about forty times since then. The 1984 shows at Newcastle and Wembley were incredible. I had stayed overnight in Newcastle and caught a train to go directly to Wembley thinking I could leave my suitcase in storage at Waterloo station. They do not do that at weekends so I rolled up at Wembley with a big suitcase and they waved me in. I could have had a gun, a bomb or a pile of drugs in that suitcase. Instead it was useful to sit on. At the end of the Wembley show Bob was on stage with Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Carlos Santana and Chrissie Hynde. Nobody else can match Bob’s appeal.
One thing that is disappointing is that even being an octogenarian will not diminish Bob’s appeal. I am sure many fans would love to see him in a more intimate setting. I have been up close at Shepherds Bush Empire and once I was in the sixth row at Wembley Arena but generally those big venues are pretty soulless. Brixton empire was an exception but I would not go to any concerts in London now – it is too much like hard work, especially when I live in Gloucestershire.
Mavis Staples has just booked a show at Stroud Subscription Rooms. 450 seats – perfect. Come on Bob, you can do it. Let me walk into Stroud along the canal. Take in a meal and drinks and watch the great man. The perfect entertainment.
In 1981 I broke my leg and missed the gospel shows but I have seen Bob during most tours. The variety in the shows is staggering, so unlike others who regurgitate the same formula over and over, note for note. The most disappointing non-Bob show I ever saw was Ray Charles who did a carbon-copy of his ‘60s routine. Even a great performer can be dull!
For me the shows with Tom Petty and Roger McGuinn were as good as it gets. I love it when Bob does a rarity, like Bottle of Bread at Shepherds Bush, or Congratulations at Birmingham. He is so unique.
I thought I was a solid, sensible fan of Bob but in 1986 I got a job as an extra in the dire film “Hearts of Fire” filming at the Colston Hall in Bristol. I was supposed to be backstage as an extra but ended up in the main hall. We were all given lyric sheets for “Had A Dream About You, Baby”. What a waste of paper! It was fascinating to see the filming.
Bob seemed in a good mood, happily signing autographs, some left-handed and some right-handed. On Saturday morning I got in again but beforehand I had a little walk outside. I chatted for a while with a guy who collected autographs and found he had already got Bob’s but was trying to get Richard Marquand’s. Anyway, I strolled past a trailer with its door open and there sat Bob. I was so awestruck that I could not speak, but rushed off to buy a pen and calm down. I have met a lot of celebrities but none of them made me so inspired. I realised then that Bob meant an awful lot to me; something inexplicable but wonderful.
Other fans are just as enthusiastic, like the chap at Wembley Arena who rushed past me to get to Bob and bearhugged him, like the chap in Cardiff on his 149th show, like the Scottish family who stayed in Wales for a week to see Bob in Cardiff and like the two couples singing ‘Sara’ in the NEC carpark at midnight. Anyway, I went back to the trailer and asked Bob to sign the back of my lyric-sheet and daringly asked if he would be singing. Bob said that he was not singing that day, that was not the deal. I grovelled away and still feel guilty about ignoring the other occupant – Ian Dury who had said ‘wotcher, mate’ to me. They were listening to classic ‘50s country music.
Inside the Colston Hall there was a little bit of filming, mainly Ron Wood flicking a cigarette into his mouth but a jam developed onstage. I think the band was really great but the tune went on for twenty minutes, Nevertheless, Bob got a standing ovation without singing. I bumped into Ronnie Wood outside and got his autograph for a friend. He signed himself as ‘Ronnie Wood – the Rolling Stones’.
I have to mention some shows, in particular Wembley Arena 1987. John Peel gave it a dreadful review but it was a brilliant show. Roger McGuinn was brilliant, particularly Chestnut Mare, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were tremendous. When Bob performed with just Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench I thought that was perfection. Driving back from Wembley was quite strange as the great storm had started. I thought my car’s steering was a problem until I got out and was blown sideways.
I loved John Peel but to be fair John’s opinions were very odd at times. I thought John’s playing of Liverpool football chants and songs was phoney but I saw him at a Norwich/Liverpool game with the longest Liverpool scarf ever. Another show was Hammersmith 1991 when my 16-year-old son became hooked on Bob. He is still an avid fan. I also took him to an Arsenal game at Highbury. He has no interest in football whatsoever. A year later I took a gorgeous lady to Hammersmith and we are still together, even though she does not like Bob’s voice. Who can understand such things! She complains even now because the audience stood up for the whole concert and she saw nothing, being only just over five feet tall.
Some oddities I have seen are Bob singing Congratulations at the NEC Birmingham, one show at Hammersmith where the audience only heard one line, the rest being mouthed but soundless, another show at Hammersmith with an untouched piano, another show where Bob started Knockin’ on Heavens’ Door acoustically but the band gradually joined in -wonderful – and Bottle of Bread at Shepherds Bush, and Rumble/London’s Calling and Blue Monday. I have never been let down by Bob but always surprised. At one Hammersmith show, I saw Renee Shapiro who named herself Sara Dylan (Wikipedia calls her a Dylan groupie). She was murdered in 1992 but her remains were not found until twenty years later. Her killer, Joseph Naso, as never charged with her murder but is now 87 years old and in prison for other crimes.
The article continues….
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