Monday, 3 October 2011

Slow Train Coming: Bob Dylan on the Northern Line

I hear my train a-comin'
Partially inspired by Simon Patterson’s artwork The Great Bear (1992) - in which he retitled the tube stations on the iconic map of the London Underground with a collection of cultural figures - I’ve spent many uncomfortable hours delayed on the tube devising more appropriate names for the various stops across the capital.  This kind of psychogeography is not only useful for keeping commuter sanity in check, but also fascinating in how easily familiar landmarks reveal distinct personalities.

I’m particularly intrigued by how the Northern Line, running from south to north London, seems to act as a rather neat narrative mirror to the career of folk icon Bob Dylan.  I would assume this to be an act of accidental symmetry rather than an elaborate subversion by some Dylan obsessed rail planner - however, if you'll indulge me, it bears closer scrutiny:

The Early Years, 1959-1963 (Morden to Kennington)

The Tube lines,
we are a-changin' (1964)
With little indication of the long and winding career ahead of him, Robert Allen Zimmerman was born to a suburban middle class family in Duluth, Minnesota.  Similarly, our journey begins in the suburban middle class suburbs of Wimbledon - two relatively unassuming locations whose primary identification is with sporting events.

Zimmerman moved to Minneapolis in September 1959 and enrolled at the University of Minnesota, where his early focus on rock and roll gave way to an interest in American folk music. In January 1961, he travelled to New York City – moving eastwards from the rural to the urban.  Travelling from Wimbledon to Clapham, we do much the same.

Soon, we find ourselves in the diverse international communities of Stockwell, Kennington and Elephant & Castle, reflecting not only on Dylan's appropriation of Black music and the roots of rythmn and blues, but also the adoption of the working class protest song.  This formative cultural mix is clearly reflected in Bob Dylan (1962), which drew heavily on familiar folk, blues and gospel material and featured only two original compositions. This came to fruition with the release of his second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963), in which he first began to make his name as both performer and songwriter.

Going Electric, 1964-1979 (Waterloo to Tottenham Court Road)

In London rush hour traffic, 
the roads are just not an option (1965)
As we reach the bustling crowds of Waterloo, we join Dylan at his first peak of popularity.  Standing on the concourse of this busy national terminal, lost amongst a crush of humanity, we can probably share Dylans bewilderment as he found himself standing alone on a pedestal of unexpected and unwelcome adulation.

Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964) reflected a lighter mood, hinting at a rejection of the role being forced upon him and suggested the shift to rock and roll soon to dominate Dylan's music.  Like us, he was looking longingly at the bright lights and carefree delights waiting across the river and was increasingly eager to cross over.

In the latter half of 1964 and 1965, Dylan's appearance and musical style changed rapidly as he made his move from leading contemporary songwriter of the folk scene to folk-rock pop-music star. Scruffy jeans and work shirts were replaced by a Carnaby Street wardrobe as he prepared for his night on the town. 

This transformation would culminate with the infamous 1966 Free Trade Hall concert in England, touring in support of Highway 61 Revisited (1965).  The evening would climax with a member of the audience, angered by Dylan's electric backing, shouting: "Judas!"   
Dylans response to this was a terse "I don't believe you, you're a liar!" before promptly turning to his band with the demand to "play it fucking loud!"

With the cries of the folk purists ringing in our ears, we follow Dylan to the Embankment, the gateway of the West End.  Initially, the excitement of this new musical freedom was responsible for a whole slew of eclectic delights, including Blonde on Blonde (1966), Blood on the Tracks (1975) and Desire (1976).

Likewise, the West End is indeed an initially impressive glittering palace of hedonistic delights.   However, by the time we reach Tottenham Court Road, it becomes all too apparent how precariously the area clings to the vibrancy of the past.  Here, grand historic facades give shelter to cheap gift shops, tourist traps and faceless chain stores, the very embodiment of Self Portrait (1970) and Street Legal (1978), lurking in the otherwise vintage years of Dylans back catalogue.

Anyone who has spent a moment too long in London’s West End will recognise his weary reflection on the decade: "I was on the road for almost five years. It wore me down. I was on drugs, a lot of things…just to keep going, you know?"

Slow Train Coming (1979)
The Lost Years, 1979-1989 (Goodge Street to Euston) 

Eventually, hedonism, a motorbike accident & born-again Christianity took it's toll and we find ourselves down in the groove of an unmemorable 1980’s identity crisis. This unloved era is clearly shared in architectural empathy by the ugly transitory transit stations of Goodge Street, Warren Street and Euston.  It is here you will find the critically reviled follies of Empire Burlesque (1985) and Knocked Out Loaded (1986). 

Rediscovery & Reflection, 1990-Present (Camden Town to North London)
Moving swiftly onwards, if there is one stop on the line most truly representative of snatching Dylan-esque pop-cultural reinvention from the jaws of defeat, it is our next destination: Camden Town. From hippies, to mods, to punks, to goths and all manner of subsequent post-millennial suburban kids with guitars, Camden is endlessly rediscovered by new generations.  Dylan likewise entered the 1990’s reinvigorated by the rediscovery of his canon by a new generation of listeners. The next few years saw him returning the favour by returning to his roots with two minor but successful albums covering old folk and blues numbers: Good as I Been to You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993).

Finally, North London sees Dylan returning home in a number of ways. Pausing to reconcile with his Jewish identity in Finchley, he nears High Barnet and Mill Hill with a period of suburban reflection on his long journey.  It is here we leave the 21st Century Dylan to focus on the reissues of his back catalogue, his roots radio show and other legacy recordings.

In the course of this journey, Bob Dylan has become one of the most important and profoundly influential figures in the popular music and culture of five decades.  I have, once again, just barely made it to another meeting on time.

In conclusion, I am concerned that I am wasting too much of my life on trains.


  1. Where does his Christmas album fit in?

  2. 2009's 'Christmas in the Heart' is clearly a late career North London heritage recording. I'm not sure exactly which stop though...