In the first of a two-part article called It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Reading), to celebrate Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday, which is on May 24, Say It With Garage Flowers speaks to writer K G Miles, co-author of the new book, Bob Dylan In London: Troubadour Tales, a brilliantly researched and easily accessible guide to the history of Dylan in London and his impact on the city’s music scene.
“We wanted it to be the antithesis of the normal Dylan book, which can be very turgid and very long,” he tells us. “I have no interest in relating the lyrics of Dylan to King Lear.”
Great, as we’d have no interest in reading about it, whereas his book is right up our Positively 4th Street…
There’s a line in Bob Dylan’s 1964 song, My Back Pages, that says: “Ah, but I was so much older then I’m younger than that now.”
It’s been interpreted as being about his growing disillusionment with the ‘60s folk protest movement that he was a part of, and his desire to move in a new musical direction, which he did, by ‘going electric’ a year after it was written. Dylan was in his early twenties when he wrote it – now, he really is so much older, as he turns 80 on May 24 this year.
The title, My Back Pages, also seems very fitting, as, in the run-up to Dylan’s milestone birthday, there’s been a glut of books published on him, as well as revised and updated versions of existing biographies. When it comes to rock’s back pages, no one – apart from The Beatles – has had so many tomes written about them.
Dylan continues to fascinate authors, academics and music fans alike – even more so in the wake of last year’s extraordinary 17-minute ‘comeback’ single, Murder Most Foul, released during lockdown, and its accompanying late-period masterpiece, Rough and Rowdy Ways – his 39th studio album.
‘Dylan continues to fascinate authors, academics and music fans. When it comes to rock’s back pages, no one – apart from The Beatles – has had so many tomes written about them’
One of the best recent books to join Dylan’s back pages is Bob Dylan In London: Troubadour Tales by Jackie Lees and K G Miles, which was published by McNidder & Grace in February of this year. For once, it’s a new Dylan publication that has a different story to tell – it’s a brilliantly researched and easily accessible guide to the history of Dylan in London and his impact on the city’s music scene.
As soon as you’ve read it, you’ll want to embark on a rock pilgrimage to explore the numerous London locations that are listed in the book, from The Troubadour Club in Old Brompton Road, where Dylan played in 1962, to the Royal Festival Hall, the Royal Albert Hall, and the Savoy Steps, where the iconic promo film for Subterranean Homesick Blues was shot, and the north London streets of Camden and Crouch End, where Dylan hung out in the ‘90s.
Rather handily, as Bob Dylan In London: Troudadour Tales is a paperback that’s only just over 100 pages long, it’s easy to carry when you’re on the move. In 1962, Dylan wrote the song Let Me Die In My Footsteps – thanks to the book’s compact size, it means you won’t die from sheer exhaustion if you’re following in his.
In an exclusive interview, Say It With Garage Flowers spoke to one of the authors, K G Miles – aka Keith – who tells us: “There are thousands of books on Bob Dylan – it’s remarkable that we’ve found a gap in that huge market.”
How did you come up with the idea for the book?
K G Miles: Jackie and I are both first-time authors – we’re just fans. We met at university in 1979 – on the cusp of Dylan’s ‘Christian’ era. We didn’t realise that we were both Dylan fans – it wasn’t until he won the Nobel Prize in Literature [in 2016] that we both came out of our closets, if you like, and decided to do a pilgrimage.
We knew there were stories about him playing London, but we didn’t know the whole truth. The project began as a pilgrimage to places like the Savoy Steps, where the world’s first music video was filmed – Subterranean Homesick Blues – and to the Troubadour Club, in Earls Court. We went into the Troubadour – Dylan played there in 1962, on his first trip to the UK, as did Jimi Hendrix and Paul Simon.
It’s a fantastic place and a wonderful piece of musical history, but there was nothing on the walls, so you wouldn’t know that. There were pictures of Arctic explorer, Ernest Shackleton – we thought that was wrong. We asked the owners if they would let us put a picture of Dylan up, but, to their credit, they gave us a whole room to kit out! Until lockdown, we were getting tourists visiting from all over – it’s a great venue for people to meet.
We also looked at putting a blue plaque on the Savoy Steps and other things we could do.
We found out a lot of stuff along our journey and we had all these tales gathered together, so I said to Jackie, “Why don’t we put them out as a book, as people would be interested in them?”
It’s a love letter to Dylan and London – a real project of passion from two Londoners. There are thousands of books on Bob Dylan – it’s remarkable that we’ve found a gap in that huge market.
When I look back at the classic Dylan biographies by people like Robert Shelton and others, he has a tiny cursory paragraph about Dylan’s first ‘62/’63 trip to London. He writes that Dylan played at The Prospect of Whitby pub. I know that pub – there wasn’t a folk club there. I think he’s mistaken it for the Pindar of Wakefield. There’s a famous picture of Dylan playing the London Singers’ Club Christmas show, in which you can see the wallpaper behind him. If you compare that picture with one of the folk singer, Anne Briggs, which was taken at the Pindar of Wakefield, the wallpaper matches. Dylan’s first gig outside of America was at The King and Queen pub in London [Foley Street, Fitzrovia] – his first tentative steps out of the New York scene and onto the world’s stage. There’s a tiny picture there, but I’d love to have more.
That time was a critical one in Dylan’s career, but it’s been passed over. When Dylan came over for the Royal Festival Hall gig in 1964, it was so important, and in ’65 and ’66 you’ve got Don’t Look Back and that tour – rock ‘n’ roll Dylan. It’s still only a matter of weeks in Dylan’s history, but they’re disproportionately important to his development and musical history.
‘Dylan’s first gig outside of America was at The King and Queen pub in London – his first tentative steps out of the New York scene and onto the world’s stage’
In the book, you reference biographer Clinton Heylin’s point that Dylan’s month in London in the winter of ’62 was almost as influential as the previous two years he spent in New York. I think your book is brilliantly researched – you’ve crammed so much into the 100 or so pages. How did you go about doing your homework?
KGM: When the Bob Dylan Archive was launched, in Tulsa, I was lucky enough to go there and talk at a conference about Dylan’s time with [poet and novelist] Robert Graves – it’s a footnote in Dylan’s history, but it’s very important. Dylan puts a tiny quote about meeting Graves in London in his book, Chronicles: Volume One, but he gets it wrong – it’s the most beautiful autobiography, but it’s not to be trusted in any way. He talks about walking with Graves, after a party, in Paddington Square – if you look it up, there wasn’t a Paddington Square at that time, but there is now.
We’re doing musical archaeology – we’re putting two and two and two and two together. You can work out where the party, the house and the square were. We wanted to put right a lot of things that were incorrect. I loved doing the delving. Jackie and I are huge fans of London. In the book we also wanted to cover the buildings and the locations – the tourism side – so it could be a guide for people. We also always intended it to be fun. I would love to go to the back of the Savoy and see queues of Dylan fans with their cue cards, videoing and photographing each other. If I can persuade any number of tourists to go to the Savoy Steps, rather than Oxford Street, I would’ve done a wonderful job for London.
‘We wanted it to be the antithesis of the normal Dylan book, which can be very turgid and very long. I have no interest in relating the lyrics of Dylan to King Lear’
And you’ve included some social history too, haven’t you?
KGM: Exactly. We’re delighted that Dylan fans have enjoyed the book, but we’re also delighted that music fans have too, and people who have a passing interest, love London and love the stories. We wanted it to be very accessible and easy to read – the antithesis of the normal Dylan book, which can be very turgid and very long. I have no interest in relating the lyrics of Dylan to King Lear. Just go and enjoy the music – it’s wonderful.
You talked earlier about your passion for Dylan. You first saw him at the Isle of Wight Festival, in 1969, didn’t you?
KGM: Yes, but I was too young to appreciate it at the time – I was seven or eight. I was old enough to take it all in, but I wasn’t interested in the music.
‘Dylan’s first trip to London, in ’62/’63, was a critical time in his career, but it’s been passed over’
So when did you start getting into him?
KGM: I was that kid who, as a teenager, had posters of Dylan on the wall. I was too young for the ‘60s – I missed all that time – but, for a lot of my generation, the key album was the double one, More Bob Dylan Greatest Hits – it was such an important introduction to Dylan’s work and it had all different types of his music on it. It was a record that led you to explore other albums of his, but, also, it had tracks like Tomorrow Is A Long Time and songs from The Basement Tapes – songs we hadn’t heard. I’ve seen a picture of Marc Bolan with that album in his hand.
Have you seen Dylan play lots of times?
KGM: I haven’t seen him loads. In 1978, I queued overnight on the streets of Hammersmith to get tickets for his Earls Court gigs – that was a key moment for lots of people in this country. He hadn’t been over here on the mainland, if you like, for 12 years – we had a bit of Dylanmania at the time.
‘I’d like to write Dylan in Europe too, as I think there are so many wonderful tales that came out of his travels there’
Are you planning to write any more books on Dylan?
KGM: I’ve been asked by the publisher to do some further guides, like Dylan in New York and Dylan in Japan. I’d like to do Dylan in Europe too, as I think there are so many wonderful tales that came out of his travels there. I’m going to be keeping myself busy. There are still many stories to tell.
You could have a whole series of Dylan travel guides and call it Lonely Planet Waves...
KGM: That’s good – I might nick it!
Finally, Dylan turns 80 this month. Any thoughts on him hitting that milestone?
KGM: I think that 80 is a fabulous milestone for any human being, but for one that has lived life at such a breathtaking creative speed, and did so throughout the delicious excesses of rock ‘n’ roll in the ’60s and ’70s, it’s a joy and a miracle.
Bob Dylan In London: Troubadour Tales by Jackie Lees and K G Miles, which is published by McNidder & Grace, is out now. For more information, visit https://mcnidderandgrace.com/.
You can follow KG Miles on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/barberville
Look out for the second part of It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Reading), in which we speak to author and broadcaster, Spencer Leigh, about his new book, Bob Dylan: Outlaw Blues (McNidder & Grace). We’ll be posting the article soon, ahead of Dylan’s 80th birthday on May 24.