Elizabeth Thomson – Two Bobs and Me

Following Jonathan Aird’s review of ‘Bob Dylan: No Direction Home’, published to mark Bob Dylan’s 80th Birthday on May 24th, we have a special guest article from the book’s revising editor, Elizabeth Thomson, also the author of ‘Joan Baez: The Last Leaf’, released last year to much critical acclaim. Elizabeth writes exclusively for Americana UK about her friend and mentor, Robert Shelton, author of ‘No Direction Home’ and the critic who wrote the New York Times review credited with launching Dylan’s career.

Blame it on a simple twist of fate. Several actually, over a ten-year period that began with the gift of a guitar – blonde, beautiful, genuinely Spanish. I learned a few chords – but what to play? It was 1969, the halcyon summer between primary and secondary school. There were some good songs in the charts – ‘Honky-Tonk Women’, ‘Bad Moon Rising, ‘Marrakesh Express’ – but nothing that worked for a newbie guitarist. I rifled through my sister’s LP collection and came upon ‘Joan Baez, Vol 2’. The name meant nothing but the back cover showed a young woman sitting in dappled shade playing a Spanish guitar. I placed it on the old gramophone I’d inherited when my parents bought a modern stereo.

In those few minutes, a lifetime’s journey had begun. For I did indeed learn to play guitar, and sing, from listening to Joan Baez, whose records I began to collect. They introduced me formally to songs located somewhere in my mind’s ear by singer-songwriters whose albums I also began to seek out, first from the library and then, with money from Saturday jobs, at record shops, including Dobell’s. From 3000 miles away the American Sixties came alive, Baez’s career a Venn Diagram through which to explore music, politics and the psychodrama of 20th-century America. And all this as my classmates were screaming for David and Donny!

In no time at all, the Venn Diagram intersected with Bob Dylan, whose voice I didn’t immediately “get”. Nor, at that age, could I begin to understand some of the songs. ‘Chimes of Freedom’ and ‘Desolation Row’ were too opaque, though I was fascinated by the allusions of the former and the parade of grotesques in the latter. In 1972, Anthony Scaduto’s Dylan biography was published, and I learned about this magic-sounding place called Greenwich Village, where there was “music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air”. I was hooked.

By the time I decamped to Liverpool in 1976, there to take a perfectly conventional music degree, ‘Desire’ had brought Dylan to the attention of my contemporaries. Then came Rolling Thunder, which I followed as obsessively as was possible in that pre-wired age. And then in 1978 the announcement of Dylan’s first British dates since 1969! The angst over tickets as I was supposedly revising! The media frenzy! Earls Court on Saturday 17 June was an event like no other. A month later came Blackbushe, another astonishing, pitch-perfect performance that David and I agreed was worth the heatstroke and the lavatorial deprivation. When I returned to Liverpool for my last year I blew an entire week’s grant money on the Japanese pressing of ‘Live At Budokan’ at oh-so-cool Probe Records.

Bob Shelton & Elizabeth Thomson Sept. 1980. Thomson collection.

Had I not been blown away by that summer of ‘78 I’d have not spotted a small ad in Melody Maker for Dylan Revisited ’79, a conference taking place in Manchester. It was there, in the Portland Hotel’s bar in the closing hour of the final day, that I met Robert Shelton, who I’d assumed still lived in New York. He’d declined an invitation to participate but was there reporting, a wary figure on the sidelines – he’d come to London to escape the Dylanistas, hiding behind an ex-directory phone number and a mail forwarding service, which meant he probably lost out on a good deal of freelance work. He observed the proceedings from behind his shades, a figure of cultivated mystery who – consciously and unconsciously – had acquired the traits of the man whose career he’d already spent some fifteen years chronicling. Boswell to Dylan’s Johnson. We chatted over a drink, he fascinated to encounter a lone woman, a music grad to boot, at such a gathering. He suggested we continue the conversation in London.

We were a few conversations in before I felt able to ask him about the book he was famously writing. “It’s with my New York publisher”, he said, blowing smoke rings into the air. I knew nothing then about publishing and he clearly didn’t want to discuss it further. Eventually, he revealed he was still awaiting a response to the manuscript he’d despatched in the wake of that triumphant world tour, its final pages chronicling his catch-up meetings with Dylan backstage at Earls Court and over dinner at San Lorenzo, the Knightsbridge restaurant that was then a favourite hangout of rockers and royals. He didn’t even know if the package had arrived. I persuaded him to call his editor.

It turned out she didn’t like it, hadn’t liked what she’d previously seen. The author-editor relationship had long soured and when, finally, “an egregiously poorly edited manuscript” was returned it was at an impasse. Doubleday neither liked nor understood what had become his life’s work. In the wake of the outcry over Albert Goldman’s muckraking biography of Elvis Presley, “longer than my edited, mauled manuscript”, Shelton charged in a letter that Doubleday “encouraged me to invade the privacy of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash and many other characters in my book”, imposing “constant, unrelenting pressure for me to sell down the river many of my friends… for commercial gain”.

Of course, the book wasn’t just long. It was long overdue. The idea for a biography seems to have been hatched over a New Year’s Eve dinner at Manhattan’s Le Clique, and three months later, March 1966, Shelton was on the road with Dylan as he embarked on his controversial world tour. The long interview, conducted aboard Dylan’s private jet en route from Lincoln, Nebraska to Denver, Colorado, the Hawks asleep as they talked, is the centrepiece of the book. Their chat continued in the hotel, Dylan playing him the song we’d come to know as ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’, and the next day as they took an excursion to Central City, and then back at the hotel, as Dylan prepared for that evening’s concert. From the outset, Shelton’s intention was a serious study, not a potboiler, though neither party could have imagined it would take twenty years to come to fruition.

Sometime in 1980, Shelton asked if I would read his manuscript and comment on it. I felt honoured but, at 22, daunted. Nevertheless, I got stuck in, feeling more confident as I progressed. When I returned to the annotated carbon as I prepared to restore the text for the 2011 “author’s cut” I was pleased and relieved to feel that much of what I’d said (about the structure, with too many flashbacks, and about the portrayal of the women in Dylan’s story) still held. My one original contribution – a story entirely unknown in the Dylan world at the time – was that ‘Every grain of Sand’ had been written for Nana Mouskouri, Dylan mailing it to her home in Geneva.

Robert Shelton. Courtesy of Elizabeth Thomson collection.

By 1983, Shelton parted from Doubleday and the contract passed to New English Library in London, Still, the financial and legal arm-twisting continued, and the new editors found themselves routinely on the receiving end of Shelton’s blistering late-night prose. With the resale of US rights to Morrow, Shelton felt that, at last, the manuscript had a simpatico publisher, a feeling confirmed by a telegram from his New York editor: “I AM OVERWHELMED BY THE MAGNIFICENT JOB YOU HAVE DONE ON YOUR BOOK. CONGRATULATIONS AND GRATITUDE”. A few days later, a detailed commentary on the manuscript concluded that the past twenty years had been “wholly justified”.

Shelton replied that he could “accept a great many of the suggestions and ideas and queries”, though a hapless copy editor seeking confirmation that “Dylan’s plane was really eight miles high” during that celebrated in-flight interview drew a volley of unfriendly fire. Arguments over length were exacerbated when Shelton was forced to accede to publishers’ demands that the book be brought up to date: with no question of a second volume, vast cuts had now to be found in earlier sections of the book. A compromise was reached, whereby Shelton accepted less money in exchange for more words. Until his dying day, he regarded his book as having been “abridged over troubled waters”.

Finally, in September 1986, ‘No Direction Home’ was published and Shelton took to the road for tours of Britain and the US, a prospect that amused Dylan when the two met in London during the filming of ‘Hearts of Fire’. International editions followed: European readers, notably in Italy and France, where it made the front page of Le Monde, were especially appreciative of Shelton’s work. In the years immediately following its publication and with Dylan’s star having waned, some critics and rival biographers saw fit to denigrate both book and author – despite the fact that, without that New York Times review, Dylan’s career may not have taken off. Suze Rotolo, in her evocative memoir ‘A Freewheelin’ Time’, recalled how she and Dylan bought an early copy of the newspaper from a kiosk on Sheridan Square, repaired to a late-night deli to read it and then returned to buy more copies. “The review was glorious, a true coup. Robert Shelton had been around the clubs and bars for ages, seeing every new and old performer, but he’d never written a review quite like the one he wrote for Bobby…” Rotolo wrote that the review “placed Bob Dylan on the fast track to fame and fortune”.

Newport 1964: Robert Shelton (centre) introduces Dylan to the fiddler Clayton McMichen. © Jon Alper.

And Shelton was there, a witness to all the crucial moments in Dylan’s career. At Newport ‘63 and at the celebrated Philharmonic Hall concert on Halloween 1964. At Newport ‘65 when Dylan went electric. On the pivotal 1966 tour with the Hawks. At the Woody Guthrie memorial in 1968, the Isle of Wight in 1969. Along the way, the two men spent many hours together, often just hanging out in the Village, sometimes with their girlfriends – Rotolo and Baez in Dylan’s case. They chatted for hours in New York in 1971, during Dylan’s long public withdrawal, and talked long into the night during his 1978 tour. Shelton was given unique access to many of those closest to Dylan, including parents, Abe and Beatty, to whom no other journalist ever spoke in-depth – when news broke of Dylan’s motorcycle spill, it was Shelton they rang. He spoke to childhood friends from Hibbing, including Echo Helstrom, the ‘Girl from the North Country’, and fellow students and friends from Minneapolis. He talked to fellow musicians, including Baez, Mary Travers, Peter Yarrow, Jack Elliott and Pete Seeger, Johnny Cash, Dave van Ronk, Richard Fariña and Phil Ochs. To his manager, Albert Grossman; to his first producer John Hammond; and to would-be Dylan producer Phil Spector, interviewed during the ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ sessions. So many of those witnesses are no longer with us, yet their testimony lives on, thanks to the assiduous work of Robert Shelton.

From the outset, Shelton was determined to establish Dylan as a major figure of 20th-century culture whose work was considered alongside that of Picasso, Chaplin, Welles and Brando. How sad that he didn’t live to see the revival of interest in the 1960s or the return to form of the poet-singer-songwriter who defined the era. How proud he’d have been at the 2016 awarding of the Nobel Prize – and vindicated.

It’s still extraordinary in many ways that I came to know Robert Shelton, can count him as a friend. His death in December 1995 was sudden. His health had been in decline, the stress and penury of the last decade or so exerting its toll. I wish I’d asked him more, interviewed him about his life on the Times and his years in the Village and the people he knocked around with before they made their mark on the world. There are so many questions I wish I’d asked but I didn’t want him to feel I was prying. As the years passed it all just became part of who he was, not something I thought about – and besides, there’d be time in the future. But as so often, there wasn’t.

If it hadn’t been for my weird, all-consuming obsessions I’d never have met him. And, in turn, knowing him, and my involvement in ‘Bob Dylan: No Direction Home’ ­– which included helping sort Robert’s voluminous files, photo research and, crucially, trying to keep the peace between him and his editors as first publication finally hove into view – led to the deepening of those obsessions. If I hadn’t met him I’d have probably continued down my path toward a postgrad in American music and a teaching position. As things turned out, I worked first in publishing, then as a journalist and author. There have been quasi-academic anthologies, including ‘The Dylan Companion’, each edited with my good friend David Gutman, and, in 2020, a biography of Joan Baez, without whom. And there’s The Village Trip, the festival I founded to celebrate the history and heritage of Greenwich Village which I hope will return this September.

Janis Ian, the Grammy-garlanded writer of ‘Society’s Child’ and ‘At Seventeen’, whose talent Shelton was quick to spot, told me he was, without doubt, “the father of rock journalism”. She continued: “Bob Shelton exemplified all the best in music writing – stylistically, ethically, morally. He foresaw trends through the sheer exuberance of listening and went out on a limb for so many of us.” In a radio show we did together, Judy Collins, another great singer-songwriter whose career began in the Village, said Shelton was “such a support, and that was very very important to Dylan – to everyone who was making music. If you make music in a closet and no one hears about it you are the Van Gogh of your age”.

Shelton had hoped one day to revisit the book, to bring it up to date and publish it (as he’d always wanted) in two volumes, the first concluding in July 1966. He liked to say that “a portrait can never be finished; it can only ever be abandoned”, words variously attributed to Cezanne, Flaubert and Giacometti. He felt he’d been forced to abandon his portrait – and that his publishers had abandoned him. The 2011 edition of ‘No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan’ was essentially the urtext edition, 225,000 words of pointillist detail – plundered by every biographer and journalist since – that can still be found for those wanting the very last word on Dylan’s formative years.

This new illustrated edition, ‘Bob Dylan: No Direction Home’, is more approachable. It will, I hope, reach a new generation of readers internationally who, with Robert Shelton as their guide, can chase Bob Dylan’s remarkable story down the foggy ruins of time. An essential eyewitness account, the only one.

‘Bob Dylan: No Direction Home’ by Robert Shelton, illustrated and with a foreword and afterword by Elizabeth Thomson, is published by Palazzo Editions.

About Rick Bayles 354 Articles
Now living the life of a political émigré in rural France and dreaming of the day I'll be able to sing those Cajun lyrics with an authentic accent!
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Excellent read