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Dylan asks for help with his back pages
BOB DYLAN, the voice of the psychedelic decade, is living up to the hippie
adage that if you can remember the 1960s you weren't there. He is recruiting
witnesses to his drug-misted past to jog his memory for his
Fans who have spent four decades trying to decode surreal lyrics to songs
such as Like a Rolling Stone and Desolation Row have also been asked to lend
a hand. Dylan admitted last week that he has forgotten what many of his
songs actually mean.
Any witnesses to his 1966 visit to Britain, which he recalls only dimly,
would be particularly welcome.
Only last week Dylan was reported to be denying all plans to write an
autobiography. However, the publisher Simon & Schuster confirmed shortly
afterwards that it was on the brink of signing a multi-million-pound deal
for a memoir from the most influential pop-poet of the 20th century.
Dylan, 60, said he had already written 150 pages of the first volume in a
series to be called Chronicle. "Or it may be 200 pages, I cannot recall
exactly," he admitted in a rare interview last week. "My retrievable memory
goes blank on incidents and things that have happened."
Such a handicap is not going to stop him: "I am collecting anecdotes from
people who were around me at the time, and people who were not, asking them
what happened. Take some of the stuff that people think is true and I'll
build a story around that."
Simon & Schuster is to pay researchers to track down the witnesses Dylan
still needs to talk to before the first volume can be published next year.
The list includes fellow survivors of the 1960s, such as the singers Joan
Baez and Paul Simon, but also fierce critics such as Keith Butler.
Butler, who now lives in Canada, was a student at Keele University in 1966
when he travelled to see Dylan at Manchester Free Trade Hall. When Dylan
swapped his acoustic guitar for an electric Stratocaster half-way through
the concert, an incensed Butler shouted out "Judas", to which a deeply-stung
Dylan riposted: "I don't believe you . . . you are a liar." Now Dylan wants
to understand why he was slow-handclapped and booed.
The singer has been watching film taken when he was a thin, mysterious
figure in dark glasses immortalised in semi-staged documentaries such as DA
Pennebaker's Don't Look Back and its unreleased sequel, Eat the Document,
which followed Dylan's tour around Britain with John Lennon in 1966.
"And you know what was happening? Drugs, a lot of them," said Pennebaker
At the time Dylan was shaking up the banal world of pop with songs such as
Queen Jane Approximately and Obviously Five Believers, which spawned an
industry of interpreters.
Last week, however, while promoting Love and Theft, his latest album, he
admitted he could no longer remember the words to many of his best-known
songs. Even more seriously for Dylan academics, who teach his words
alongside Keats and TS Eliot in American universities, he is not sure he can
even explain them. "I've become a different person since I'd written them
and, frankly, they mystify me too," he said.
Dylan's psychedelic period ended abruptly in 1966, when he crashed a
motorbike near Woodstock, north of New York, and suffered concussion. He
retreated into domesticity with his wife and children and simplified his
He has promised his publishers that no subject will be taboo, including his
Jewish background in Minnesota and his more recent conversion to
Christianity. The book will also cover his painful divorce from his first
wife, Sara - which inspired the 1975 album Blood on the Tracks - and his
1986 marriage to one of his backing singers,
He said: "It's not private to me. I've never tried to hide anything. I don't
have any skeletons that I don't want anybody to see. At least, not that I
His professed openness surprised John Ridgeway, who runs a Dylan fan club in
Bristol. "Dylan has always been notoriously protective of his private life,
especially after he caught some biographer going through his rubbish bins,"
Noel Redding, the bass player with the late Jimi Hendrix, who has written an
autobiography called Are You Experienced?, said the secret to remembering
the decade was to have kept a diary. "I wrote it every night. I still do,"
he said. "We drank a few beers and we smoked a few reefers in the 1960s, but
there was not really the heavy drugs around that people imagine.
"Dylan was one of Hendrix's heroes and we covered his All Along the
Watchtower. When Dylan played in Ireland in the 1980s he sat me and my
girlfriend on a couple of chairs 10ft away from the stage and sang it to me.
That is a nice memory."
The radio presenter John Peel said: "I've never met Dylan, so I can't fill
in any of his blanks. They say that if you can remember the Sixties you
weren't there, but those years didn't do me any major damage."
Additional reporting: Maurice Chittenden