Girl from the North Country – Written and directed by Conor McPherson. Music and lyrics by Bob Dylan.
Artists who diversify have sometimes been viewed with suspicion. An actor makes music? Bruce Willis crooning Under the Boardwalk springs to mind (don’t bother). A rock star makes a movie? Mick Jagger played a mercenary in Freejack (really, don’t bother). David Bowie’s last work, Lazarus, was a sprawling, experimental piece of theatre which used his songs in a dynamic, thrilling way. But would the play have worked without the music? I don’t think so, and I saw it workshopped in New York and then tightened up in London. In fact, after seeing Girl from the North Country, I wished that Conor McPherson was the Irish playwright that Bowie had engaged, rather than Enda Walsh, the one he did. Because while Lazarus could not stand easily on its feet as a play, Girl from the North Country certainly can. There were a couple of ill-judged parts, more of which later, but on the whole this was a dazzling night at the theatre.
It’s 1934 in Duluth, our man’s birthplace. The Great Depression has taken hold and casts a chill over proceedings like the local cold. The parallels between Dust Bowl America and our own recession, turned into cutting, cruel austerity, are marked. The narrator (Ron Cook), a doctor, introduces us to the scene, and provides grounding throughout. We are in a guesthouse, leaking money and about to be put into foreclosure, run by Nick (Ciarán Hinds), a gruff man with a complex life: a wife with dementia (Shirley Henderson); an adopted African American daughter (Sheila Atim) who is seemingly pregnant at 19 by someone long gone and also being pursued by a predatory, creepy old man (Jim Norton); and a layabout son (Sam Reid) with his head in a whisky bottle most of the time. He has a mistress (Kirsty Malpass, stepping in from the ensemble, superbly), who asks for little, and can’t stick around much longer in this desperate economic climate. We meet a variety of dishonest lodgers, tempers fraying, trying to eke out a living in impossible times.
The dialogue races by, each strand woven together masterfully. I was gripped by the intensity of the storytelling. And then, there’s the music. I thought, how on earth could this work? Will dropping a bunch of Dylan songs into an autonomous play distract? Will Americana arrangements suit? Will the choices make sense given that they can’t further the story? After all, he didn’t write these for the play. And then the first song, Sign on the Window, drifts in and wow, just wow, it all coalesces better than I could have dreamed. A hipster-looking (1930s beards/attire is twenty-first century hipster chic) house band (double bass, piano, fiddle) accompanies the actors, who take turns on percussive instruments. Twenty songs are used to soundtrack lives of anger and passion, sadness and regret, worry and loss. I was sometimes taken out of the moment, if briefly, to reflect: this song is part of me, part of the fabric of who I am. But then a second later I was locked back in to 1934 Minnesota. It’s a tightrope walk and McPherson, previously known for his supernatural works, has aced it. There are no easy choices here: you try and pick 20 Dylan songs out of them all to accompany a plot organically and soundtrack this highly strung chaos.
The performances are remarkable, particularly Henderson as Elizabeth, Nick’s wife. She gives an untethered lightness to the role that is sure to win her buckets of awards; I predict the Olivier for Best Actress. Physically slight, and 51 but looking two decades younger, she is a mismatch for a big man of 64 like Hinds. They don’t convince as a couple in that sense but there is genuine chemistry between them as he tries to cope with her disinhibited behaviour towards the guests. There are no weak links in the company, with Sheila Atim in particular owning the stage during both dramatic and musical moments as a woman who everyone wants to control. Her version of Tight Connection To My Heart took my breath away; nearly unrecognisable, it is all the better for it. As the stories interlink, and there is much to weave in, we come to a couple of troublesome moments.
A young African American man arrives (played flawlessly by ensemble player Karl Queensborough) and reveals himself to be a boxer just out of prison, so he says. This is a pretty clumsy way to shoehorn Hurricane in later on; it didn’t fit, at all. In fact, after a tight first half, it came off the rails, briefly, shortly into the second. It almost felt like McPherson had lost his own threads and, while he tried to find them, shovelled in a couple of songs that didn’t fit. He pulled it all back together but then took the only major misstep in the play, a storyline of parents and their adult disabled son.
Portraying disability is not easy, and unless it’s central (like in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time) it’ll come across as throwaway or played for effect. The actors in this plotline were fine enough, with the mother in particular (Bronagh Gallagher) compelling. But a confusing blackmail scenario with a menacing Bible salesman (Michael Shaeffer) led to exposure of their ‘secret’: the son had sexually assaulted a woman and the family had to flee. Their section ends with the father, at the end of his tether, letting his son drown. Then, appearing as a ghost in white clothing, the son (Jack Shalloo) returns to render a gospel-tinged rendition of Duquesne Whistle. None of it worked and such a portrayal of disability was inappropriate and veered to the offensive given that the ghost was miraculously cured of his learning difficulties. This inherent condescension was compounded by a regressive decision to cast this character as dangerous in the first place. I tried my best to forget it, because it should not sully the rest of the play.
I’d decided not to spoil any musical surprises by finding out the ‘setlist’. My dad bought a programme and scanned carefully to see which were to be featured. I turned away, much as I had done for Lazarus: I wanted to gasp with surprise when Jokerman appeared (it was the first Bob song I loved; Infidels came out on my seventh birthday). Or grin and feel an inner thrill at the storming, foot-tapping, tambourine-bashing version of Slow Train, making it sound better than it ever has. I’m not going to drone on about voices, and how these singers give new life to the material. But they do. I don’t need to tell you anything about Bob’s voice, its tenderness in these later years mixing with a road-worn timbre (she said politely). Watching excellent actors embody these songs sets light to them, shooting jolts of electricity through their hearts. And quite frankly, it is no bad thing to have an audience become agog at these lyrics because they can actually hear the deathless words perfectly. It all reinforced my great love for this material; you won’t believe how delightful it is to hear Like a Rolling Stone with a snippet of Make You Feel My Love in the middle. A pleasure to hear tracks from each decade too; it would have been easy to make it all 1960s stuff, given its relative proximity to the 1930s – acoustic renditions would have fitted seamlessly. Instead, there are just three songs from that decade, a welcome, gutsy, non-obvious choice.
McPherson has set himself a challenge and pulled it off. He manages to evoke Thornton Wilder’s classic Our Town as well as the work of Eugene O’Neill. He also makes you want to drag Street-Legal and Infidels out of storage. The songs run between 1963-2012, and each one is judiciously chosen. What Simon Hale, the orchestrator/arranger, has done with them will melt you in your seat; simple but ravishing, these often moving interpretations of music you know inside out will make you hear them anew.
Girl from the North Country, described by McPherson as a ‘conversation between the songs and the story’, is full of life. It is about trying to find hope through suffering and making the best of it. Dylan’s ‘team’ approached McPherson to write and direct this play, no doubt having heard tell of his acclaimed works The Weir (which ran at the home of new theatre, the Royal Court) and Shining City. And of course we know that hands-off Bob is never quite hands-off; even though he played no part in the writing or arrangements of the dialogue or songs, he did send Jeff Rosen to attend rehearsals. The last time the canon was offered it was a flop, a Broadway show in 2006 that closed after three weeks. But this time, gold has been struck. I hope Bob gets to see it and I feel sure he’ll be very proud of this inspired play bearing his name.
Girl from the North Country ran at the Old Vic from July-October 2017.
I can't think of how to describe last night's concert. Talking about Bob is overdone - the 250+ books written on him prove that and what more can I add that would be new? I just looked at the setlist and I could have sworn he played If Not For You and I told my concert companion as much when he asked but I see now it wasn't played. That's Dylan for you, content to confuse his audience. Purposely creating arrangements and methods of song performance that preclude singing along, the staple of any gig. Aside from a crowd pleasing encore the show was serene and even confusing occasionally. He keeps us guessing.
That look that each devoted Dylanologist gives to each other when a song starts is familiar to me. A slightly bemused look while you try and recognise it. You can't usually do it from the music, unless the intro is blindingly obvious as in the case of Like A Rolling Stone. You can't do it from the voice because his phrasing is so off centre that the throaty Dylan gargle has now become almost unintelligible. So you listen hard, to catch the odd phrase. It's a game I've been playing for years and, after over a dozen Dylan gigs, my parents are considerably better at it than I am.
The gig started, as the previous 3 nights have, with his Link Wray tribute, a snippet of Rumble. Strangely enough, the last time I heard that was when Bowie started with it at Riverside. His excellent band have created the best kind of accompaniment - both loose and tight, they breathe new life into many of the songs. Aside from a spirited band introduction before the encore Dylan didn't say one word to the audience, as is his way. The years have taken the guitar ability from him I hear so these days he's perched behind an electric piano, clad in cowboy hat and sharp suit.
The curious thing about him is how he draws you in, despite seemingly appearing so aloof as to not care if the audience is even present. But that's the paradox, he must care or why would he have played 150 gigs a year most years since 1988? He takes the applause and must feel the sheer reverance from those who've come to pay their respects. Not to an oldie act like The Stones who people feel they need to see live before someone dies but to a vital, creative and fascinating artist, still. The recent Scorsese documentary seems to have reinvigorated the too-cool London audience and they've realised this man is to be admired and followed. As I said yesterday, you can't explain Dylan to people. As a wise man said, 'You're either on the train, or you're not'.
I found myself smiling so much last night, glad I was there, glad he was there. I'm sure he'll be in my town again soon. As he said in Chronicles, that's the deal he's made. My highlight was Shelter from The Storm, simply because I'd never heard it played before. Positively 4th St was a joy too. A passionate cover of Fats Domino's Blue Monday started the encore as again, we all looked quizzically around. The Dylan collective whispering 'What's this?' to each other. Seeing him live is always filled with surprises. I will keep going for as long as he is and I will meet him half way, always.
She Belongs To Me
Cry A While
Shelter From The Storm
Down Along The Cove
Positively 4th Street
High Water (For Charley Patton)
Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)
Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again
A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall
Honest With Me
The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll
Blue Monday (orig by Fats Domino)
Like A Rolling Stone
All Along The Watchtower
photo by Mark Makin
A young Manchester lad, aged 15, went to see a concert 40 years ago today. He had asked a friend to get tickets for Bob Dylan at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. The friend had not managed to get anything in the main, seated, floor, nor the balconies. Instead he had somehow gotten hold of platform seats.
These consisted of 2 rows of chairs behind the band. Or, in this case, The Band. With excitement and trepidation he and his friend Casper went to see Dylan perform. He had played the year before in 1965, drawing rapturous applause and plaudits. He simply strode on stage, all curly hair and leather jacket, acoustic guitar and harmonica, and played his own kind of folk music.
On that trip, following a meeting with the Beatles, he had become fascinated with electric guitar and had bought one in London. Upon returning to the US he employed Ronnie Hawkins band, The Hawks, and had renamed them The Band. In 1966 he returned to Europe with this band and the reaction was one of disgust. He was booed repeatedly, every night. The first half acoustic set went down just as in '65 but when 5 musicians appeared with him the appreciation turned to anger. The effect on Band drummer Levon Helm was marked. He decided he couldn't handle the abuse any more and with Bob's permission left the tour completely, to be replaced by Mickey Jones. Though everyone had become demoralised by the audience disapproval, the fans of folk appalled at Dylan's traitorous betrayal into the world of electric music, they soldiered on. On that day, May 17 1966, they played in Manchester. The young 15 year old took his place seated behind Dylan, to stage right of Jones's drum kit. As with all the other gigs the first half went very well.
Then, the interval. Again, murmurs spread of the electric second half. The Band were very loud indeed and Dylan's new songs pierced the auditorium. Some sat in shock, some cheered, some booed. One foolhardy young man on the main floor waited until a quiet moment arrived to shout possibly the most famed heckle in rock history - "JUDAS!!!" Instantly, Dylan approached the mic stand - "I don't believe you", he drawled, with some anger, "You're a LIAR!" Then he turned to The Band and said something only heard clearly on the recent Scorsese documentary... "Play it fucking loud". The band tore into Like A Rolling Stone.
Dylan was clearly angry at his audience’s lack of tolerance. But the gig was electric. Later on the gig was wrongly released as 'Live at the Royal Albert Hall', a venue in London. But Londoners cannot claim this piece of rock history for themselves. Manchester has always been the cooler city - from the Judas concert to the Sex Pistols first gig a decade later: attended by everyone from The Buzzcocks and Morrissey to Warsaw (later Joy Division) and Howard Devoto. We always see the truth first. Over the years many people have claimed to be the Judas shouter. Who knows who he really is... the gig and his call found their place in rock history and I'm proud to say it all took place in my home city.
Forty years ago today the 15-year-old Salford lad behind the drummer shifted uncomfortably in his seat, unwilling to make eye contact with anyone on stage. He wasn't sure if Dylan was going to storm off, he wouldn't move a muscle for fear of what might happen. It was a moment that he remembers 40 years to the day later. I know because I spoke to him this morning – my dad. And he remembers every detail. And if you look closely at the photo above you can see him, arms folded, just peeking out from the amp on the right, with the glasses on. His friend, to this day, Casper sits next to him with suit and tie on. Both of them look terrified. But it was a day neither of them will ever forget.
In 1966 my dad attended the famed 'Judas' concert. He was 15 years old and saw the truth in front of him as Bob Dylan snarled 'Play it fucking loud' to his Band; years later this iconic footage was discovered and shown in Scorsese's definitive Dylan documentary No Direction Home. Now the definitive movie about Dylan has been made. As an 11 year old, I watched and re-watched that Rolling Stone video until it was worn out. It was responsible for my first visual sightings of artists I have since become devoted to - Beatles, Stones, Doors, Zeppelin, Bowie, Joni, Hendrix, Prince, Neil Young, U2 and more. Without fail, I have grown to love almost every artist featured in that tape.
Half way through it came the moment my musical life changed forever. In the middle of a section about increasing commercialism in music, the new power of record companies and the bloated self-indulgence of supergroups like the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac comes a cheeky piece of Hopper narration - "In the mid 70s, Dylan went his own way as usual". The screen flickered into a live clip I later found out was from 76's sprawling Renaldo and Clara (partially filmed during the '75 Rolling Thunder Revue tour). His face filled the screen, his sloping Jewish nose, the white paint (clearly a reference to shallow Kiss-style rock) covering his face, his sparkling green eyes, a wide brimmed hat and the voice -
Early one mornin' the sun was shinin',
I was layin' in bed
Wond'rin' if she'd changed at all
If her hair was still red.
Her folks they said our lives together
Sure was gonna be rough
They never did like Mama's homemade dress
Papa's bankbook wasn't big enough.
And I was standin' on the side of the road
Rain fallin' on my shoes
Heading out for the East Coast
Lord knows I've paid some dues gettin' through,
Tangled up in blue.
She was married when we first met
Soon to be divorced
I helped her out of a jam, I guess,
But I used a little too much force.
We drove that car as far as we could
Abandoned it out West
Split up on a dark sad night
Both agreeing it was best.
She turned around to look at me
As I was walkin' away
I heard her say over my shoulder,
"We'll meet again someday on the avenue,"
Tangled up in blue.
Two verses only, that's all it took to mesmerise that 11 year old. I couldn't hope to understand all he was but I hoped to learn, to try and delve further. Now 20 years later I see that not understanding completely, not being able to pin down exactly what or who he is is central to everything. That's the tack taken by I'm Not There, the new Todd Haynes film. By accepting that you cannot understand Dylan, you gain a great paradoxical understanding of the whole. Dylan once said that he has always been 'in the process of becoming'. Haynes takes that and creates a fantastical, but sometimes accurate, approach and weaves a tale unlike I've ever seen in a film.
I saw I'm Not There at Xmas, with my dad and his best friend, a rabid Santana fan. Without realising, we were booked into a subtitled screening. It was distracting yet helpful in many ways, especially when it came to the lyrics. Seeing them written on the screen enhanced their power even more. I saw the film again yesterday, sans subtitles this time. The power of the film had increased yet again and I expect that to continue upon subsequent viewings. The film is 'inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan' and sure enough, not one of the actors present plays a character called Bob Dylan. The characters are composites of aspects of Dylan, his personality, his persona, his songs, his heroes and the strain felt by the expectations placed on him hovers over all proceedings.
Marcus Carl Franklin, a young black boy, plays Woody Guthrie. He represents the faker - the Dylan who told interviewers he ran away to join the circus when in fact he was having his bar mitzvah. In the film, Woody visits the real Woody Guthrie in hospital, something young Dylan did too. He's seen as a cute runaway, shilling the rubes with charm when he can get away with it. Christian Bale plays Jack Rollins, the Greenwich Village folk troubadour version of Dylan from 62-65 and then the Jesus loving Bob of the late 70s. Heath Ledger plays Robbie Clark, an actor who played Jack Rollins in a biopic but was taken over by the attention it brought - this character comes close to being 'family' Dylan, with his wife, the Sara (Dylan's ex-wife and the inspiration for Blood on the Tracks) of the piece, played by a delicate but resolute Charlotte Gainsbourg. He struggles with the balance of fame and family as his marriage crumbles and is portrayed as callous and self-absorbed.
Richard Gere, looking a touch too much like The Dude, plays Billy the Kid, as Dylan did in 70s western Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid. Ben Whishaw, a superb young English actor, appears talking to screen, facing possibly the draft board, and spouts the innocent, idealistic rhetoric of the 20 year old Bob in the name of Arthur Rimbaud.
Finally, in the flashiest portrayal, comes Cate Blanchett's twitchy, amphetamine-fueled Jude Quinn. The most recognisable of all the pieces of Zimmerman - corkscrew hair, shades, striped drainpipes, ever-present cigarette; in essence the Don't Look Back Dylan. The Newport Festival Dylan. The Judas concert Dylan. The Dylan under the most pressure, about to crack. Through the film, you realise that the weight on his shoulders would have been more than most could bear. While Dylan was not, by any means, the first musician to speak of social issues in songs, he was certainly the first pop star to do it. In a world of crooners and holding hands, his songs seared through the consciousness of young people on the cusp of a civil rights revolution and, as you might expect, that terrified the authority figures of the time. All the young men being drafted and the women watching them leave, who had been going to their deaths as part of the previously unarguable fate that befell generations before them, listened to this so-called protest singer with reverence. Dylan terrified the establishment, who had realised that a pop singer would and could have more influence on their children than any teacher, policeman, politician or parent.
As such, they set out to expose Dylan as a middle class mid-west faker who never believed in what he was saying - his abandonment of folk and embrace of electric instruments merely proved their point about the insincerity they were certain they saw in him. These detractors are created as a composite character - he's a journalist (Mr Jones, a manifestation of both the snooty English journalists in Don't Look Back and the eponymously named character in Ballad of a Thin Man) in the Quinn scenes and a sheriff in the Billy chapter (Pat Garrett, his famed nemesis) each time played by the same actor, the impeccable Bruce Greenwood.
Everyone wants something from these Dylan composites, more than they are owed. Those who dislike and fear him disrespect him. The fans expect too much; from the downcast folkies roaring their horror at electric Dylan (with a comic portrayal of the apocryphal Peter Yarrow story of chopping the power cables at Newport with an axe) to the wide-eyed teenagers seeing their Vietnam-scarred future as they glance desperately at him, hoping he'll show their path out. It's too much for one human being to cope with and the film splits him into the six distinct characters to recognise this. There is no Bob Dylan - he is a construct, a persona with many different aspects. In order to understand what is in front of you must accept that you can't understand him. You can absorb more from him if you deconstruct less. You must accept that, like the title, he isn't there.
It's one of the most audacious and ambitious films I've seen in a very long time. It was never going to be a Ray or Walk The Line. A piece like this allows each actor space to create their own version and vision of someone indefinable. In particular, Blanchett's Quinn is extraordinary. I expect her to be standing triumphantly on the Oscar podium soon because anything else would be a travesty. I am convinced that no other actor, male or female, could have inhabited this version of the man with such passion and knowledge. The music propels the film, as it should. The originals sit alongside covers by Tom Verlaine, My Morning Jacket's Jim James, Yo La Tengo, Stephen Malkmus, Calexico, Eddie Vedder and Antony and the Johnsons. Malkmus's wild mercury renditions of Ballad of a Thin Man and Maggie's Farm are worthy of particular praise.
I'm Not There is an overwhelming piece of work from first minute to last. For the first time you get a sense of the strength required to be Bob Dylan. A popular singer has never been more important, has never changed things so much and has never been required to be so saintly by the baying media hordes in order to be believed. It's impossible for one man to give as much as he is exhorted to give but no-one else was standing there on his level in the glare of the changing decade who had the ability, intelligence or vision to deliver. The establishment sensed cultural and political revolution and made Dylan their poster boy for it. And in a sense he was that figurehead since he fulfilled what both the journalists and his admirers wanted. They tried to tear him down but he is the one still left standing. He comes across as stubborn, dismissive, sometimes mean and sexist but above all he is unarguably a visionary, a great American icon but an imperfect person - with this film you feel Haynes has an understanding of Dylan I didn't think any filmmaker was capable of.
Having been on the road consistently now for over 20 years he’s always coming to a town near you. Rather than handfuls of arena shows in major cities alone, he'll play a baseball diamond in Kansas, a club in Helsinki and, now, a needless Roundhouse gig. Needless in the sense that he had played the O2 the night before and I don’t doubt that the 20,000 souls exited having failed to recognise half of what they’d heard. He'll come to you but when you meet him half way that’s your gift. He’ll do songs you know, but they will bear little resemblance to the recording. He has written these songs once and now he has written them again.
You hear endless treatises on The Voice. I've never understood why it repels people. Maybe you must get past it to arrive at the prize - the songs, their words. Or maybe it's something to revel in, as I do. There's almost a perverse desire to see the voice turn people away, so the jewels are left for those who can open their minds and control their expectations. While the madness of who he is and what he means rages around him, he just gets on with the job of being Bob.
The atmosphere outside the Roundhouse was electric. The crowd stretched for hundreds of yards as the desperately ticketless looked toward the heavens for a miracle. Once inside, the expectant atmosphere was palpable as he made his understated entrance. At first it was hard to digest that it was, well, really him. A slim figure in black, with a white hat atop his head, still endless curls framing that Mount Rushmore worthy face, finished off with a Vincent Price moustache. It took the slightest raised eyebrow and glint of the eye to send the crowd into frenzy. Unlike most acts of a certain age,(stand up Mick and Keith), more than half of his set was drawn from his last three albums. His superlative band, honed to a fine point from many years of touring, led the way as Dylan howled at the microphone, leaning over his keyboard. That indescribable voice told tales of the last 45 years, songs that defy age and change lives. The paradox is that in live performance you witness that which would elicit poor reviews of anyone else – he lets the band carry the weight, his voice is a cross between a cat and a wasp that makes Tom Waits sound like Caruso and his keyboard skills are average. And yet, none of these things take anything away from the show. How he makes these clear flaws simply not matter, is part of the Dylan sleight of hand.
It’s hard to write about him, it’s all been said before. You can only be thankful that you’re around in his time. You can only try to explain what he means to you. My father witnessed this same man saying ‘Play it fucking loud!’ in response to the, no doubt now embarrassed, Judas shouter in May ‘66 at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. As this great American songbook played before my eyes, all I could do was simply call my parents and hold the phone aloft, trembling with emotion, bringing them to him and completing the circle.
Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
Don't Think Twice, It's All Right
Tangled Up In Blue
Rollin' And Tumblin'
Tryin' To Get To Heaven
Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum
High Water (For Charley Patton)
I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)
Highway 61 Revisited
Like A Rolling Stone
All Along The Watchtower
Spirit On The Water