Moonlighting, Liz Thomson negotiates an intensive schedule of author interviews and appearances It's been quite a time, what with interviews at odd hours of the day and night, first in Australia, then in Brazil, then in Britain, plus a launch party at LBF – and then 10 days in New York. The trip included a signing at BEA and, while I was there, the carefully orchestrated release of a fragment of previously unheard 1966 tape on Today , which caused a tsunami of reaction and requests around the world. Like all authors these days, I've now got a website, up and running just in time for my departure to the city that never sleeps (I certainly didn't, well not much) and now I'm back and angst -ridden about the fact that I've not yet blogged, nor added photos – nor updated it.
So, here I am, doing what all authors do, catching up on the road, trying to type on a swaying Pendolino en route to Liverpool, my second home, where I'm due to spend two hours on Spencer Leigh's Radio Merseyide show, when I will be joined by singer Judy Collins, coincidentally in town for a concert.
Judy, whom I've been privileged to know, on and off, for 25 years, is a part of the story, part of the book I've been promoting. Which is not, strictly speaking, my book but a book written and published in 1986 by my late friend and mentor Robert Shelton, the distinguished New York Times critic whose reviews for the paper in the 1960s helped launch many a career, including Judy's - as well as those of Joan Baez, Janis Ian, Joni Mitchell and, most famously, Bob Dylan, the subject of the book that was his life's work. No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan was published originally in 1986, and it had been, Robert felt, “abridged over troubled waters”. Last month, to coincide with Dylan's seventieth birthday, there appeared a “director's cut”, lovingly created by Colin Webb at Palazzo, to which I have restored 20,000 words from the original manuscript.
When I first met Robert Shelton, in the summer of '79, I was a new-minted music graduate, but my obsession with Dylan and what I had come to know as “the New York folk revival” was already a decade old, heightened by the magic of finally seeing him live in 1978 – Earls Court and Blackbushe, gigs that live on in my mind's ear. At that point, Robert was awaiting a response from his publisher to the manuscript he'd submitted some months earlier. In that far-off time, I of course knew nothing about publishing.
The vast manuscript had apparently been met with silence: the book was too late, too long, too difficult, too serious... Essentially, not scurrilous enough. The more his publisher wanted dirt, the harder Robert dug in: “I will not sell off the relics of a friend”, he wrote, in one of many furious letters. At one point, his editor suggested, “Of course, you'd get more if you said Dylan was homosexual” (for which there is no evidence). “And more too, I suppose, if I were to say he was a mass-murderer!” Robert shot back. He had wanted, from the outset, to write a considered study of a man he rightly considered to be one of the 20th century's most significant cultural figures, in a class with Chaplin, Welles and Picasso. Ultimately, he got his way, sort of, but the price was high, personally and professionally, and, after a change of publishers, it was the patient and tenacious Nick Sayers who finally saw the book into print. (Robert, is has to be said, was not an easy man, but he was most difficult on points of principle. I arbitrated many a battle, read the manuscript and undertook the photo research, for which my coup was to uncover the then untapped archive of John Byrne Cooke, one-time manager of Janis Joplin and son of Alistair, who'd been part of the 1960s folk scene.)
Acclaimed as it was by many people, it wasn't the book Robert had set out to write, and I think he died, in 1995, a disappointed man. I'm not sure when I had the idea for a director's cut, but the time wasn't right then. As Dylan's three-score-years-and-10 loomed, however, I saw an opportunity.
The new edition, published here by Omnibus Press (and by BackBeat in the US, Hardie Grant in Australia, Edel in Germany and Larousse in Brazil) is derived from that 1978 manuscript, and much of the restored text fleshes out the Greenwich Village years, when Dylan and Shelton met regularly and hung out together, often on dates with their girlfriends – Suze Rotolo and Joan Baez in Dylan's case. But we also learn more from Dylan's parents, whom no other journalist ever interviewed, and about Minneapolis and Woodstock, and much besides.
In some cases large sections have been restored, elsewhere just a few sentences, even a few words. My aim was not just a bigger picture – more background, more foreground – but also more close-ups, and a greater sense of how each of the players actually sounded. This is particularly notable in Chapter 10, which finds the two Bobs chatting on a midnight flight from Lincoln, Nebraska to Denver, Colorado on the embattled 1966 tour – in which, as that aforementioned Today tape demonstrated, the two men chatted with the frankness of old friends. In short, the book takes you up close and personal with Dylan and his circle – you feel you are there with him and his friends in 1960s New York, an era when (as Dylan wrote) “there was music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air”.
Greenwich Village has changed a bit since then of course, though the hotel where Dylan stayed and wrote many a song is still there – no longer “that crummy hotel over Washington Square” as Baez sang in “Diamonds and Rust”, her poignant recollection of her affair with Dylan, but rather a wonderful family-run boutique hotel where, with friends new and old from London and New York, and Robert's family from San Francisco, we marked the book's republication on Dylan's seventieth birthday.
And what a day it was – having begun at 7.45am (my favourite time of day in the world!) at the Chelsea studios of PBS' Democracy Now! where, along with legendary broadcaster Bob Fass, I took part in a Dylan special. It's a unique programme, broadcast simultaneously on TV and radio, and it rolls out across the Union, from Manhattan to Hawaii – and I was on air, with a brief break, for four hours! Fantastic archive footage was shown, plus clips from interviews with Baez and Pete Seeger.
I raced 10 blocks up from the studio to BookExpoAmerica for a 1.30pm signing, at which I was sure five people would show, and I'd know all of them. In fact, my publicist, the wonderful Wes Seeley, counted 70 – and I knew only one person in line, Janet Fritsch of the American Collective. Elsewhere on the show floor, I recorded two more interviews before grabbing a cab and heading back downtown to the Washington Square Hotel, with just enough time to write my speech before the party (celebrated snappers Ed Grazda, Elliott Landy and Mick Rock were among the guests), at which Mint Juleps, a Dylan favourite, were served. I signed another 30 books – these all paid for! – and, the festivities too quickly over, sat down to a celebratory dinner with my two American families, the Pauls who own the Hotel, and Robert's sister and her son and daughter and their friends from San Francisco.
The day ended at 1.45am the following morning in the Wall Street studios of WBAI. Later, I donned my BookBrunch badge and headed back to BEA to attend to the day job. What a long strange trip it's all been but, as the first review, from Australia put it, “mission accomplished”.
Photo: Frank Beacham