Tangled Up In Glue
Dylan is clearly and obviously a genius. The holy trinity of ‘Bringing It All Back Home’, ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ and ‘Blonde On Blonde’ proves it. In fact, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ stands testament to its author’s claim to greatness all on its own. I didn’t always think this, and I also didn’t always refer to him by his second name only - (like that Harry Enfield character). He’s no great shakes as a vocalist, but he made it important for singers to sound like they actually meant what they were singing about. Before Dylan, the main consideration was the prettiness of the voice. His guitar playing is no better than adequate; but to my mind, as a lyricist, he has no equal.
‘Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands.’
In future centuries he will surely be revered in the way people currently canonize Shakespeare or Robert Burns. His phrases will have become part of the grain of the language, of that I’m absolutely convinced. I was 22 when I first properly listened to Bob Dylan, and then, it was under some duress. In the years prior to this, my musical world started with the Ramones, orbited around the Clash, and finally came to land at the feet of Paul Weller. It remains there to an extent, but has significantly broadened its horizons with age.
About six months B.D. (Before Dylan.) in the August of 1985, I began studying to become an architect at Glasgow School of Art. My career path to that point had been tortuous and punctuated by false starts. Numerous half hearted attempts at finding a lasting job or anything remotely resembling a career had lead inevitably to Kilmarnock’s Job Centre. It was a truly horrible, windowless, soulless place buried within the town’s small, claustrophobic shopping mall. In late 1982, Margaret Thatcher’s national policies, and her general disdain for Scotland had made places like Kilmarnock the very epitome of Jerry Dammers’ ‘Ghost Town’. The tumbleweed blew through these towns and straight through the front doors of ironically named Job centres, whilst the signature tune to unemployment figures topping 3 million topped the charts.
To combat - or fiddle - the figures, the Government expanded James Callaghan’s 1978 Youth Opportunities Programme, aimed at getting 16-18 year olds into job training schemes for a six month period. Thereafter, employers were supposed to offer full employment providing that the ‘schemers’ had demonstrated the right attitude to work. The potential for abuse of the system from the employers’ perspective was obvious.
Following a frankly ridiculous run of short lived jobs (Ice Cream factory worker, tennis club groundsman and…oh yes, undertaker’s assistant) I was faced with trying to find something a bit more long term. However, presented with signing on or selecting a scheme I opted for the latter. Of only two available opportunities, I applied for one as a junior in a small local architect’s office. A fraught relationship with numbers ruled out the only other opportunity to work in the accounts department of the Local Authority’s Rent Office.
I was accepted for the position. I became Jimmy from Quadrophenia. I went to work in a new grey suit from Burton purchased on store credit and with a pessimistic feeling that it wouldn’t last. Although as it turned out the job did in fact last longer than the suit. For £23.50 a week, I made tea, filed letters and drawings, ran daft errands and delivered mail.
A few unfortunate and regrettable incidents aside, I think I did reasonably well as a junior and gradually more responsibility was given and opportunities to rise above my bottom feeder status and actually draw something came my way. After twelve months of being a ‘biscuit’ –an older colleague’s term for the office juniors was Half Man, Half Biscuit, stolen from the Liverpool indie group and apportioned due to their general inability to follow the most straightforward of instructions – I was taken on as a full time employee and encouraged to train to be a technician at Ayr College. The Ordinary National Certificate appeared to be geared towards turning labourers into site agents and most of the technical construction lectures were delivered by wee, baldy, humourless men in grey overcoats one small step up from secondary school technical teachers. Reluctantly, I sat the national examination and only just passed. My employer’s expectation was that I would return after the summer for a further three years to sit a Higher National Certificate in Building. The thought of this haunted me like an impending prison sentence. I could see no other way out of the situation than to give up the job, which by this time I was actually enjoying.
A chance meeting in a pub with a former Ayr College classmate in June 1985 offered another possibility. He had been in a similarly disenfranchised situation and had uncovered the option of studying architecture part-time in Glasgow. He told me about the entrance qualification being less stringent than the full-time course, and he enthused about how interesting it all was.
Basically, I needed to have a sponsor or in other words, a practice willing to allow me to work only four days out of five. Flexible working hours were not the norm in those days. I also needed to be in possession of a decent enough portfolio of technical and artistic drawings which, upon cross-examination by a hardened selection committee, would be undeniably my own work. It all sounded more appealing to me than three more years at Her Majesty’s pleasure in Ayr. So I set to work on a few pencil scribbles. There was a reasonable pencil drawing of Paul Simenon smashing his bass in the iconic Pennie Smith photograph from the front cover of ‘London Calling’. There was a charcoal effort at a self portrait which was less convincing. There was a passable sketch of the School Of Art building itself and there were numerous technical drawings from the office. My interview was with the then Head of School, Professor Andy McMillan and two of his colleagues. I liked Andy immediately. He was warm, funny, down to earth and very self-deprecating. Following his letter of acceptance a couple of weeks later, I was delighted and apprehensive in equal measure to think of myself as a University student.
The first few weeks at the School of Art were unlike anything I’d imagined they would be. The GSA itself is an amazing building. I don’t think I’ve ever lost that awestruck feeling that I had the first time I strolled along the hen run or walked into the Library at the western end, or sat in the wooden pews of the lecture theatre. Many famous alumni have talked about the building’s influence on their developing mindsets and of how it helped shape the people they’ve become. I feel similarly about it.
My year intake was comprised of a few office-based geeks like me, a considerable number more ‘rabbit in the headlights’ kids who were away from the comforts of home for the first time, and a cosmopolitan mix of foreign students from Malaysia, Scandinavia and the USA. Completing the set was a small number of mature student veterans, having to re-sit the year and happy to let everyone else know what an ordeal they were all in for. In general, like bonded with like. Pacifist, upper-middle class ‘gang’ formations emerged. The part-timers, the rabbits, the foreigners and the veterans, all occupying a corner of the large open plan studio of the second floor concrete structure which straddled Renfrew Street and faced the peerless west elevation of Mackintosh’s masterpiece. The rabbits in particular had that nervous air of people not quite sure they were supposed to be having this much fun and almost expecting their parents to come home early and throw everybody out for making a mess.
The initial projects were concerned with examining the nature of material in a way that encouraged us to break away from the bonds of our conventional thinking. A concrete block which had to be carved. A sheet of paper that could only be torn. A metre of string that couldn’t be cut. These things all had to be turned into a piece of personal art which then had to be explained to everyone in the class. There didn’t seem to be a definitive answer to any of these problems. The tutors’ interest appeared to be more focused on how the student analysed the brief, expored the options and then approached the project. From the stuffiness of the College classrooms at Ayr to the uncertainty of these Art School exercises was a big leap for me and one which I was initially daunted by. But I dug in and although I was failing more than I was passing, it was beginning to sink in and make some kind of conceptual and artistic sense. It’s taken a while to get to it (digression is the modus operandi of this medium after all) but the Dylan significance was related to one of these early projects.
We had been asked to design a heraldic device to signify a hypothetical exhibition of the work of two significant historical cultural figures. The choice was to be made by the student and the selection could be made from a list comprising such luminaries as Walt Disney, Henry Moore, Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Jackson, Neil Armstrong, Picasso and Muhammad Ali. As a glorified technician, I hadn’t a fucking clue how to even begin to approach this task. There were other names on the list that I hadn’t even heard of but I certainly didn’t want to make an absolute tit of myself by producing a model of Mickey Mouse wearing one spangled, sequined glove. I eventually selected Rene Magritte and Andrea Palladio; respectively a surrealist Belgian painter and a 16th Century classical architect.
My ‘device’ developed as a surreal interpretation of a classical column. It had shoes for a base and an apple sitting on top of a sculpted concrete block column head. The column was made from an old battleship grey PVC drainpipe I’d found on a building site near the house. The column head was too heavy for it, of course, so it needed timber strut supports nailed on to a bigger timber base. The sculpting of the column head also left a lot to be desired, and after I’d painted shaky lines on paper and glued them down the length of the drainpipe to represent the flutings, it looked like I’d lifted the whole combination straight out of a skip. Despite this, and high as a kite on Bostik and Uhu, I was immensely proud of it.
Unfortunately, I hadn’t given pragmatism much consideration. When assembled the whole thing was over six feet tall. Even ‘unassembled’, the drainpipe was in one piece so transporting it from the house in Kilmarnock to Renfrew Street in Glasgow was going to be a major issue that disappointingly, I’d given no prior thought to. I had no car; only a student bus pass. Through a brief involvement in the Kilmarnock Labour Party, I knew some people who worked in Glasgow. I decided I would ask a comrade for a lift. He worked for Glasgow City Council and he happily agreed. His name was Alan. He was a Union representative and he looked like a younger Derek Robinson, the British Leyland guy whom the press had dubbed ‘Red Robbo’. He had the thinning hair on top but a compensatory Zapata moustache concealing his top lip. The night before the project hand-in, Alan called me at home and said that a lift was still on but that he started at 8.00am which would mean a pick up an hour earlier.
The next morning, I got up early in buoyant, confident mood. This dissipated somewhat when comrade Alan turned up in a tiny two-door car with three others already in it. He hadn’t told me he was part of a car sharing pool although in fairness, he could have told me the whole deal was off when he saw the size of my massive column. But, to the great amusement of his passengers, he squeezed me - and it - into the back of the car. The sunroof was opened fully and the column extended through it by about three feet. We set off and provided it didn’t rain, I felt that my sculpture would be okay. This contentment evaporated like the mist on the inside of the front windscreen as Alan calmly revealed his main bombshell halfway along the A77. Ten minutes later, it started to rain.
Alan didn’t work for GCC in the centre of Glasgow. He operated a Direct Works squad out of a department based in Dalmarnock in the east. I’d have to get out there and get into the centre of Glasgow acapella and just as rush hour was beginning, carrying my big phallic heraldic pole, on a number 27 bus. Dalmarnock was not the bohemian capital of Europe. I don’t think it will have changed much over this last thirty years. Dante would have placed it somewhere between the fifth and sixth circles, and Orpheus would have moved through it a bit sharpish. My presence on its streets, standing beside a six foot drainpipe with brown brogues taped to its base solicited a number of interesting observations from some of its less inhibited citizens:
‘Huv ye brought yer ain bus stoap, ya fuckin’ prick…?’
‘Whit’s up wi you? No goat ony real mates…?’
One went with the classic Robert De Niro influenced…
‘You fuckin’ lookin’ at me, ya cunt…?’ Although, to be fair, this question appeared to be directed to my emaciated motionless colleague.
The less imaginative just went with;
‘Ya fanny….!’ Or the more classically Glaswegian ‘Ya fudd….!’
One pensioner strolled towards me, looked at me up and down as if I had my jacket on back to front, and whispered ‘fuckin’ bawbag’ as she passed.
Those not inclined to vocalise looked around presumably believing that they were a peripheral part of ‘You’ve Been Framed’.
By the time the bus turned up, I’d eaten the apple. If I hadn’t already been wearing my own, I’d probably have put the shoes on as well. But then I’d simply have been a fudd with a drainpipe. Nevertheless, I got it to the University on time and after waiting around three hours for my turn, it received a difficult ‘crit’, which concentrated on my failings to understand the brief. It was felt to be too obvious and not subliminal enough. There weren’t enough of my own appreciation for the subjects’ work coming through in the end result. In truth, it was shite and I got off lightly. A film of the trip there would’ve been far more representative of the surrealist genre than the device itself.
Dylan fits into this story as ‘Blood On The Tracks’ was playing in Alan’s car cassette player during that first trip. As we set off, the four of them were having a debate about it and they were all obviously fans although apparently of different phases of his career. The comrades were all perhaps 15 years older than me in what I would’ve previously considered the target Bob Dylan demographic. Embarrassingly, on my first day as a car pool passenger, I wore that uniform of the militant disenfranchised – the black donkey jacket; so called, I suspect because when it absorbed the incessant west of Scotland rain, it felt like you were carrying a fucking donkey on your back. When I got into the car no-one said anything about it but you could detect the same ‘Aw for fuck’s sake’ look of resignation in everyone’s eyes. Five donkey jackets squeezed into a Maestro. We looked like a Clydeside Kraftwerk fronted by Yosser Hughes.
One (I can’t recall all of their names…) was a fan of the early Dylan. The acoustic folk anti-hero and ‘arch protestor against the shortcomings of the human condition’. At least, I think that’s how he described him. Another was for the electric Dylan, scourge of the late Pete Seeger and mentor of the rock and roll band with attitude. Alan was a ‘Blood On The Tracks’ man. He’d been through two messy divorces and felt strongly that that album, and particularly ‘Idiot Wind’, spoke to him about his life trajectory more directly than any other as a consequence. The final guy was a floater. A fan but not of a specific album or creative period. I’m sure his name was Bill.
Bill considered himself to be the fountainhead of all wisdom on, well, generally everything. He claimed to have taught Midge Ure how to play piano. He also purported to have won $40,000 on a Las Vegas slot machine only to lose it all plus 10% the very next night. He knew the outcome of the Miners’ Strike before it had even started. (actually he was correct about this one, and the reasons why it was bound to fail). If you’d been to the moon, Bill had been there twice, and frankly, it was no great shakes. Bill’s purpose in life was to burst everyone else’s bubble. He smoked incessantly. He always smelled of strong aftershave with an underlying combination of tobacco and alcohol. However they all, and Bill in particular, eventually warmed to me. Alan offered me a lift anytime I wanted it and after that first traumatic trip, I got used to the bus in from Dalmarnock. Although any meaningful contributions were few and far between, I enjoyed listening to them converse, debate and bicker back and forwards in the car on the way to their work. Whilst not exactly the Algonquin Circle, their discourse was witty and playfully dismissive of each other’s views. I learnt a lot about older musical tastes - particularly Bob Dylan and his acolytes - from these journeys. Whether the views expressed were rooted in fact or just pub-based supposition was immaterial to me. They opened up the world of this mesmerizing, stupefying, frustrating, exhilarating 20th Century icon and for that, I’ll always be grateful.