Sunday, 1 December 2019

Bob Dylan, John Tams, Magic Michael & the Commissionaire

Whenever Bob Dylan’s 1966 UK Tour is discussed, talk inevitably turns to the infamous “Judas” incident from the Free Trade Hall, Manchester. But there were 13 other British dates on that tour (plus one in Ireland) and on May 16, one day before the “Judas” show, I saw Dylan play in Sheffield, just 40 miles away across the Pennines.
Our story begins some weeks earlier when I was dispatched to the Gaumont cinema, located in Barker's Pool, smack-bang in the city centre, to secure tickets for a group of college friends (tickets went on sale March 21, fact fans). This was not nearly as straightforward as it sounds. Ticket buying in the pre-internet age was a painstaking, labour intensive affair. Telephone booking was some years away (in fact, many British households were still without telephones in 1966) and purchasing concert tickets involved turning up at the box office in person to conduct a cash-only transaction with the grim-faced matron behind the glass.

Until it became a multiplex in the late 60s the Gaumont cinema juggled the big movies of the day with regular live music events.  Together with Sheffield City Hall, conveniently situated just yards away across Barker's Pool, it was arguably the most important concert venue in town.  Both had hosted shows by the Beatles in recent months and Dylan played at the City Hall a year earlier in 1965. A pair of box offices were situated at either side of the Gaumont entrance and buying tickets involved a curious double queuing method out on the street alongside (but separate from) moviegoers who were waiting to see Alfie or The Good, The Bad & The Ugly or whatever the latest flick was.
The Commissionaire
The task of policing the twin queues was entrusted to a commissionaire, of the type still seen outside swanky hotels and restaurants in London but hardly anywhere else these days.  I’m guessing this chap was a retired war veteran and he certainly had a military bearing with his peaked cap, white gloves and burgundy greatcoat which almost brushed the ground as he walked.  The ensemble was completed by twin rows of brass buttons and, to borrow a line from the great Ivor Cutler, gold epaulettes like bath brushes.
The commissionaire strutted up and down outside the Gaumont with a self-important air intoning the same line over and over: “Queue this side for the film, queue that side for, er, Bob Die-Lon tickets” he indicated with a wave of his immaculately gloved hand.  He was clearly having trouble getting to grips with the name and those of us wishing to see “Bob Die-Lon” sniggered at his mispronunciation. Eventually he gave up and changed his mantra to “This side for the film and that side for the, er, folk singer” which only made us giggle even more.  Hard to believe now, but in 1966 it was likely many people had never heard the name spoken out loud and the commissionaire was simply pronouncing it phonetically. Not long after, I worked for a London music publisher where some of the older staff would pronounce Joan Baez’s name as Joan “Baize”, as per the snooker table covering.  Incidentally, the Dylan tickets cost 12 shillings each. For younger readers, that translates to 60p.  Outrageous, I know.
John Tams
Finally, the big day arrived and I took my seat in the Gaumont alongside John Tams, then just a school friend but later to become properly famous in the world of folk music and theatre as a member of The Albion Band and part of the cast of the TV series Sharpe, for which he also wrote and performed some of the music.

Old beyond his years, Tams cut a kind of benevolent Flashman figure and carried himself with a casual self-confidence the rest of us were lacking.  He dressed in the latest boho chic, sported an impressive Brian Jones-style haircut and most galling of all, he had a desperately attractive girlfriend.  Even then Tams was a passable guitarist with a great singing voice and while we were still struggling with the basic chords to Dylan and the Beatles, he had many of the trickier Bert Jansch and Tom Paxton tunes down and knew loads of traditional material besides.  At 17 he was already the complete package and his opinion of the Dylan concert would be sought many times in the coming weeks.
Along with the Albion Band, Tams also recorded with Home Service and Muckram Wakes and later released a trio of critically acclaimed solo albums.  He has received a string of radio, TV and theatre awards and performed for the Queen and members of the Royal Family. He was a musical director and actor at the National Theatre from 1976 to 1985 and his work on the 2007 stage musical War Horse has been described as the most successful show ever staged by the National, receiving six Olivier Awards nominations. 
*John Tams pictured in 2016

Magic Michael
Shortly before the Gaumont lights dimmed I heard a commotion at the entrance to our block of seats and my heart sank.  The usher was directing a noisy, animated figure toward us. But instead of walking up the aisle like everyone else, he was clambering over the empty seats, laughing and waving.  Michael Cousins had arrived. Michael (or Mick as he was known then) was a childhood friend and we lived in the same block of flats on the Gleadless Valley council estate in the Sheffield suburbs.  Loud, hyperactive and, even at that early age, quite possibly unhinged, he couldn’t have been more different to my cool college pals. When he found out I was planning to attend the Dylan concert he had unceremoniously invited himself along and demanded I buy a ticket for him, too.  

*Magic Michael sans pants (right) onstage with "Jesus" at Glastonbury in
1971. Just a normal day, then
I have a wealth of childhood stories relating to Michael, one of the most memorable being the time we were almost beaten up by a 20 stone steel factory worker.  The man was hobbling along our Gleadless Valley street on crutches and, as we walked past him, deep in conversation, Michael inexplicably adopted an exaggerated Chimpanzee-like gait which the fellow took to be a cruel mocking of his disability (just a broken leg, as I recall).  “Come ‘ere, you cheeky bastards! I’ll fookin’ kill ya! I know where you live!” he yelled and began limping after us at surprising speed for a man using a walking aid. Because of the crutches, however, he was handicapped in every sense of the word and we escaped unharmed. But it was no thanks to Michael, who found the entire episode hilarious.

*1980 Magic Michael single "Millionaire" with Rat Scabies &
Captain Sensible (back)
Like John Tams, Michael would also make a name for himself in the entertainment industry, but in a very different field.  Within a year of moving to London he re-invented himself as Magic Michael and became a fixture of the festival scene where his acid-fueled stream of consciousness songs and impromptu performance art found a receptive audience.  Described by Nick Kent in the NME as "Ladbroke Grove's answer to Wild Man Fischer” he was once booed off stage at a Hawkwind concert. "This is believed to be the first and only time such an event has occurred" wrote Kent.  

In the early 70s I would often run into him in the Portobello Road area but, as time went by, these meetings became increasingly heavy going (for me, at least). Michael's substance intake eventually severed his already slender grasp on reality and normal conversation became almost impossible. Finally it got to the point where, if I saw him coming, I would cross the road in order to avoid the inevitable ear-bashing. Sad but true.
In 1971 Michael appeared, naked from the waist down (yes, really) at the second Glastonbury festival, (then a free event) together with William Jellett, the infamous (and ubiquitous) hippie dancer, known to everyone (including himself) as “Jesus”.  Those of a strong disposition can view this performance on YouTube in the documentary film “Glastonbury Fayre” directed by Nicolas Roeg.  He also turned up on the Greasy Truckers Party double album recorded live at the Roundhouse in 1972, alongside Hawkwind, Man and Brinsley Schwarz, where his improvised piece “Music Belongs to the People” runs for almost 10 minutes. Michael later worked with Brian Eno and Nirvana's Patrick Campbell-Lyons, as well as auditioning (unsuccessfully) for the role of vocalist with Can.  During 1976 he recorded with Nick Lowe, contributing the song "Little by Little" for the Stiff label compilation A Bunch of Stiffs.  In 1980 he released the single "Millionaire", recorded with Damned members Rat Scabies and Captain Sensible.  The last time I saw him was September 18, 1976, backstage at the Queen free concert in Hyde Park. It was the tail-end of a long, hot summer and Michael was working as a scaffolder, helping to erect the stage. At the time of writing that was the last we heard of him.  
So, with thoughtful, dependable John Tams sitting to my left and Magic Michael fidgeting noisily on the right, I assumed the evening couldn’t get more surreal.  I was wrong.
*1980 Magic Michael single "Millionaire" with Rat Scabies &
Captain Sensible (front)
Bob Dylan
“This never happens with my electric guitar” muttered Bob as he struggled to tune up before “Mr. Tambourine Man”.  Seven songs into the acoustic half of the show and it was the first time Dylan had spoken. It was also the first song of the set to receive anything resembling audience recognition, with a smattering of applause greeting the opening line.  Delivered, for the most part, as per the record, “Mr Tambourine Man” went off-piste toward the end when Bob abandoned the script and began to suck and blow the harmonica like a man possessed. It was as if he'd suddenly realised he had 20 notes at his disposal and was determined to use them all.

*Bob Dylan onstage in 1966
I don’t remember if there was any kind of introduction, but 30 minutes earlier the heavy velvet cinema curtains had creaked open and Dylan appeared in the spotlight.  Pipe cleaner thin and looking like the coolest man on Earth with that iconic haircut, he teetered across the stage on Cuban heels and dressed in the familiar hound's-tooth check suit and polka dot shirt combination.  People have based entire careers on Bob Dylan’s 1966 look and I’m not just talking about John Cooper Clarke. Marc Bolan was clearly influenced by Bob’s wild curls and even Hendrix was inspired to grow his own ‘fro out to impressive proportions after seeing Dylan during this tour.  We were witnessing one of the truly defining looks of rock and roll.
The first half of the concert featured a folkie-appeasing acoustic set which was far more edgy than the previous year’s solo shows had been.  Whatever chemicals Bob was using gave his performance a new intensity and his harmonica playing was quite bizarre. Onstage he had a stool and a pint glass of water in which lived four or five assorted harps.  He would select one, shake the water out of it and painstakingly install it in his Heath Robinson-style neck harness. This curious ritual would then be repeated for almost every song. But instead of playing the harmonica fills as we knew them from the records, he simply went up and down the instrument randomly, blowing and sucking furiously on every available note.  It was surreal to witness but it sounded just fine.
Opening with a near-perfect “She Belongs To Me”, the first surprise was Bob’s powerful vocals and exaggerated enunciation, which at times made him sound almost like a Dylan impersonator, albeit a very good one.  Our parents tried to tell us he couldn’t sing, but that was never even close to the truth. He didn’t sound like anybody else, it’s true, but in 1966 his voice was as good as anyone in rock and better than most. As we noted on The Bootleg Series Vol. 4 version, during this period Bob changed the “She Belongs To Me” line “She wears an Egyptian ring” to “Egyptian RED ring”.  A tiny modification, perhaps, but a typically inscrutable one. 
Officially Blonde On Blonde was released on the same day as the Sheffield concert, May 16, but in reality the album didn’t show up in the stores until weeks later.  Consequently, the four Blonde On Blonde tracks in the set were performed to audiences who were hearing them for the first time.  Add the equally unfamiliar “Tell Me Momma” to the list and that’s five brand new songs Bob brought to the party.

The first new song of the night was “Fourth Time Around”, evidently a parody of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood”, delivered in waltz time.  Sitting here in 2019 with a lifetime of rock gigs under our collective belt, it’s strange to reflect that, in 1966, many people had never been to more than a handful of shows and had yet to develop the concert-goer’s protocol we take for granted today.  Consequently, lines like “Your words aren’t clear, you’d better spit out your gum” were greeted with loud guffaws from the embryonic Bobcats.  It was the kind of response you might hear at a Randy Newman concert today, but it seemed decidedly out of place at a Dylan show.  Another unfamiliar song, the sublime “Visions Of Johanna”, followed and once again there was nervous audience sniggering at lines like “Hear the one with the mustache say, ‘Jeez’ I can’t find my knees”. 
Things got back on track with the familar “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and the word-a-thon that is “Desolation Row”, before the third new tune of the night made an appearance.  “Just Like A Woman” is not your typical Bob song. It has a middle eight for a start, a rare thing indeed in the Dylan canon. Less organic than much of his catalogue, it seems more a product of the songwriter’s craft than simply a vehicle on which to hang the stream of consciousness wordplay he was writing at the time. 
The aforementioned “Mr. Tambourine Man” ended the first half in fine style and Bob left the stage to the first generous ovation of the evening.  We didn’t know it, but we had just witnessed the calm before the storm.

As the curtains re-opened for the second half the stage lights remained dimmed.  In the gloom we saw the red stand-by lights of the guitar amplifiers as several shadowy figures shuffled on and plugged in.  The Hawks! A spotlight found Dylan and I had just a second to register that his acoustic guitar had been replaced by a black Fender Telecaster before all hell broke loose and a glorious cacophony filled the theatre.  It was louder than anything I’d experienced before, and the sound was massively distorted. But it was also unbelievably exciting.
“Tell Me Momma”, the fourth unfamiliar number in the set (and the only new one not from Blonde On Blonde) arrived like a hammer blow.  This strange, fire breathing monster of a song deserves some explanation.  Dylan has never released a studio version and it has only ever been performed in concert 15 times, all of them on the 1966 tour.  It was first played on February 5 at White Plains, New York and made its exit on May 27 at the Royal Albert Hall, London, never to return (to date). 
“I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)” started life two years earlier as a mid-tempo acoustic song on Another Side Of Bob Dylan but live it was transformed into a disjointed heavy rock stomper.  Bob’s spoken intro “It used to be like that, but now it goes like this” disclaimer was repeated most nights throughout the ’66 tour.
On the face of it “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” seemed like an unusual choice to perform live, but again it has a story to tell.  Firstly, it was the only song in the entire set not written by Dylan. This Eric von Schmidt adaptation of a 30s song first appeared on Bob’s 1962 self-titled acoustic debut album and two years later The Animals covered it (as “Baby Let Me Take You Home”) for their first single.  The Newcastle band followed it up with their monster hit “The House Of The Rising Sun” another non-original song from Dylan’s first LP. It’s thought that Bob was so enamoured with the Animals’ rocked-up versions of those songs it inspired his change to electric music, which in turn gave rise to the entire folk-rock movement.  So, we have a lot to thank Eric Burdon and his boys for, it seems.

*In 2006 drummer Mickey Jones released his 1966 home movies of
the tour as a DVD
The lead into “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” featured a long stream of consciousness preamble from Bob about a painter who lives down in Mexico.  Bob wasn’t making much sense here and if I didn’t know better I might suggest he’d been at the jazz Woodbines during the interval. Again, he gave a variation of this rambling narrative several times during the tour.  This was for many years the only song from the tour to receive an official release, with a version recorded in Liverpool on May 14 (two days before Sheffield) appearing as the B-side of the single “I Want You” in June 1966.
Until now the audience had listened in quiet reverence to the electric set, possibly because they’d been pinned to the wall by the volume, but to paraphrase a line Bob himself would sing many years later: things were about to get interesting right about now.  At the close of “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat”, the final new song of the set, the natives began to get decidedly restless. Heckling, booing, shouting and general unrest broke out in earnest, while a few Dylan supporters yelled at the dissenters to keep quiet. “That’s crap” wailed someone, while another told Bob “Just play”.  Dylan dealt with this in familiar fashion. He mumbled incoherently into the microphone until the rabble quietened down, mainly because they were trying to work out what he was saying. He ended this otherwise unintelligible speech with “When I was just a baby” then, as the band kicked into “One Too Many Mornings”, he repeated “Remember, I was a baby once” only louder this time. 
Anyone familiar with the Dylan documentary No Direction Home (and the earlier, unreleased, film Eat The Document) will have seen the disgruntled fans interviewed in the foyer of a north of England venue (possibly Sheffield).  “I’ve heard pop groups produce better rubbish than that!” opined one red-faced farm boy with vowels flatter than a dead hedgehog.  “It were a bloody disgrace. He wants shooting! He’s a traitor!” he continued with perhaps a touch of hyperbole.
We’d read about the booing, of course.  Sheffield was the seventh date on the UK itinerary and news of unrest from the fans had already started to filter through.  Let’s be honest though, it was basically just a copycat protest. After all, what were they expecting? Blonde On Blonde may have been a few weeks away, but Dylan had already released a couple of full-fat electric albums in the shape of Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited.  If that weren’t enough, the trio of loud and nasty singles “Like A Rolling Stone”, “Positively 4th Street” and “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window” had been all over the radio and the pop charts for almost a year, so the blueprint for Bob’s new direction was right there for all to see.
They’d no doubt read that the folkies were protesting in America and felt compelled to follow suit.  But who in Britain, other than perhaps stuffy old Ewan MacColl and his traditionalist ilk, really cared about that stuff?  Did we boo? Of course we fucking didn’t. The short-haired squares could complain all they liked, this was Bob Dylan at his absolute creative peak, and (with apologies to Bruce) we had just seen the real future of rock and roll.
“One Too Many Mornings” was then a two-year-old song from The Times They Are A-Changin’ album, but Dylan was evolving at such a rate that those two years might well have been a decade.  That was then and this was now, and the rollicking 1966 version was unrecognisable from the gentle acoustic ballad of 1964.  More yelling and dissent followed as Dylan took his seat at the piano for “Ballad Of A Thin Man”. Someone in the band said, “Can you hear ‘em?” before Bob enquired, with heavy sarcasm, “No boos?”  Seemingly spurred on by events, Dylan delivered an incandescent performance as good as any of the other six (count ‘em) official live versions that have appeared over the years (not counting those on the multi disc 1966 box set, of course). 

*The Dylan band on stage in 1966
Mickey Jones’ pistol shot snare kicked off “Like A Rolling Stone” and we were into the home stretch.  Only a year after the best rock single of all time (© all music magazines, forever) put the cat among the folk purists’ pigeons, Bob was already experimenting with the phrasing and scansion, stretching a line here, shortening another there and generally messing with the structure of the song.  Robbie Robertson was also on top form, his snaking guitar lines inventive and ground-breaking throughout the show, but nowhere more so than on this closing song.
Then, suddenly, it was all over and, as the stunned crowd began to shuffle out into Barker's Pool wondering what the hell they had just witnessed, the spell was broken by a single incongruous verse of “God Save The Queen”, then obligatory in all British theatres and cinemas, played over the theatre Tannoy system.
Walking through the city afterwards we were on a real high.  We had shaken off Magic Michael along the way and on the platform of Sheffield Midland station someone (John Tams, probably) produced a harmonica.  There we sat singing Dylan songs, wishing the night would never end.
A day later in Manchester, Dylan would be denounced as “Judas” and soon the entire world would sit up and take notice.  But that was yet to happen and for just a few hours more he belonged to us.
It’s been said that the Sheffield show was one of the best of 1966, both in terms of Bob’s performance and the recording quality.  This was borne out on the monumental 36 CD box set The 1966 Live Recordings, featuring every known recording from the tour.

*Concert programme for the 1966 tour
Set List
She Belongs To Me
Fourth Time Around
Visions Of Johanna
It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue
Desolation Row
Just Like A Woman
Mr. Tambourine Man Interval
Tell Me, Momma
I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)
Baby, Let Me Follow You Down
Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues
Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
One Too Many Mornings
Ballad Of A Thin Man
Like A Rolling Stone

*The Gaumont cinema pictured in 1971

Footnote: The Sheffield Gaumont cinema. It’s gone now, of course, demolished and replaced by a nightclub and department store. The theatre first opened as the Regent on 26th December 1927, seating 2,300. It was re-named the Gaumont on 27th July 1946. Throughout the 50s and 60s the stage was used for one night concerts by artists such as Bob Dylan, Cliff Richard, Eddie Cochran, Bobby Darin, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Tom Jones and the Count Basie Orchestra. The last artist to appear there was Victor Borge in 1968.  It became a multiplex in July 1969, which spelled the end of its days as a rock venue and the Gaumont finally closed as a cinema in November 1985, showing Perfect, Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan and A View to a Kill.

*1965 postcard showing the Sheffield City Hall (left) and the Gaumont Cinema (right) Dylan played both these venues within a year

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