Happy Birthday Bob!
The Bristol Arm.
[I’m reposting this from a couple of years back as it’s Bob Dylan’s birthday today – keep on keeping on. Peace x]
Martin Kettle, formally of Stoneyclough but now resident of Penn Beacon, was stood on a table in the Eight Kings. He was taping the fourth corner of a large poster of Bob Dylan’s face to the wall at the end of the bar.
“No, no, Sam,” he was saying. “It’s ‘uff’, not ‘ow’. Stoneyclough.” He stretched a little higher and I could see that there was still a price sticker on the sole of his left Chelsea boot. With a huff and a scuttle he got off the table and the three of us looked up at Bob.
Dylan is buttoned up, angular. Angelic, monochrome. Highway 61 Revisited. Words form from the very last tendrils of his hair: Penn Beacon’s 1st Bob Dylan Appreciation Evening. In smaller print (and quite artfully placed on Bob’s shoulders), are penned the date, the details, etc. A speech bubble reckoned Dylan to be saying, ‘FREE! MUSIC AND QUIZ! Hosted by Martin Kettle.’
“Great poster,” I said.
“Free entry,” said Sam. “How much to leave?”
But I thought right away that I might go. I suddenly recalled a dream I’d had recently – Mik Tubb, bass player with Eastwell folk rockers Bad Apple, had appeared from behind a hut on Branscombe beach. He had a grubby plaster cast on his left arm that stretched from his knuckles to his elbow, and he showed me a list he had written on it of punts that he fancied. One horse that remained with me when I woke was called Dylan’s Head (which was a 10/1 at Exeter).
Martin didn’t look so good. His skin was waxy and he had lost a lot of hair. The scraps that remained floated on the air. He smelled of 1971 and he had an inch of sellotape on one lapel.
We’d met the year before over at the Broken Biscuit Company in Branscombe, where we packed broken biscuits into polythene bags and priced them with stickers that read, Broken Biscuit Co., Branscombe. He was, these days, something to do with the council on the mainland.
It was, he indicated the poster with a flutter of fingers, “A montage. A montage made from tiny, tiny versions of the very same image.” This only added to my intrigue in the poster, although, from this distance, even squinting, I could only take his word for the claim. The whole process had been very complicated and time consuming, he said. I had no reason to doubt it. He sketched again into the air a further vague shape in the direction of the poster and began to tell us all about it. It did sound very complicated. He still kept, I noticed, the nails of his right hand very long, though I couldn’t recall him ever being a player.
By and by it became clear that Martin was finalising the acts to perform. So far he had Annie Saints’ Gymslip Party and Bad Apple.
“Any slots left?”
“There might be. But,” and he said this very slowly, “there will be some very high profile guests, friends of mine, the Bristol Arm of the Dylan Fan Club, travelling down for the event.” He then told us how he had come to be acquainted with the Bristol Arm through the fan club’s extensive bootleg tape exchange and pen pal network. It sounded serious.
We looked at the poster up on the wall a bit more.
“Versions of the same image?” said Sam.
“The very same,” he said. “Tiny, tiny versions. A montage.”
“I see,” said Sam.
“A mosaic?” I said.
We knew the songs, of course. But, couldn’t play any of them. I don’t remember exactly why, but we set about knocking up From A Buick 6, Queen Jane Approximately & Tombstone Blues. I pulled in Sean, who played drums and had sometime off because The George was being renovated. Sean pulled in his brother, Bill. Bill played keys. We got our chops down and soon crafted some loose limbed versions of the numbers. It all sounded pretty scratch and honkytonk. Often, when a song is dissected it becomes apparent that there are sometimes other songs ‘hidden’ inside them. Selections of the same chords crop up in different orders in different tunes. It makes a lot of sense. So, by the time of the gig, we had melded a version of Highway 61 Revisited onto the end of Tombstone Blues, forming some sort of cod coda.
Martin, the Bristol Arm and deemed local glitterati assembled on the afternoon of the show in the backroom of the Eight Kings. Libations and pork scratchings were offered & consumed and everyone present prepared, spiritually, for the main event that evening (which was to be held a few hundred yards down the road in the village hall.) Martin marshalled the matinée from a table in the corner on which he had a turntable and a box of vinyl. From this spot he played the records and hosted the quiz. Melinda Sweet, always quick on the draw, fell foul of the Bristol Arm, and by dint, Martin, too, for proposing that “Best Of…” was Dylan’s best album. Funny.
It was a fun night. Busy. The backroom of the hall was a great venue. I have few memories of the details – as is often the way with these things. Adrenaline, alcohol, nerves, elation, disappointments…all make for a heady cocktail that takes its toll. I do remember an awful lot of nasally voices. The Bristol Arm sat at a pasting table just off to the side of the tiny stage. They looked quite distant and cold in their serious Wayfarers. The rest of the room was a blur of warm strobe flashes of flesh and teeth and denim and glass. The air shook. The table, being clothed in white linen and laid with water jugs, napkins and notepads and pens among the beer glasses, only heightened their reserved and unapproachable nature. Certainly they were the only ones sat at a table.
Being no backstage area, the bands emerged straight out the crowd, guitars aloft, and stepped up on to the low stage. As I passed the Bristol Arm sat at the stage side, I glanced down to make sure that I didn’t trip on any stray leads or stand on anyone’s toes. A new Chelsea boot shone beneath the tablecloth.
It was over in an instant. The coda didn’t work quite as seamlessly as we’d hoped for and Martin clutched my arm, thunderous, at the bar that had been set up in the kitchen. He was waving a sheet of paper about and saying that Highway 61 Revisited wasn’t ours to play as it wasn’t on the designated set list.
“Bad Apple are now going to have to leave it from their set.” I smelled his breath, felt his hair on my ear. “Are you going to tell them? Are you? It’s not on, Nick. Not on.”
I dropped into the Eight Kings the next morning. Martin was stood on top of a table, taking a whole lifetime to remove the poster from the wall.
“Great night,” I said.
He looked down over his shoulder.
He pulled at the corner of the poster. But he pulled a little too hard and, I don’t know, perhaps a fingernail caught the paper or something, but an inch ripped away from the rest of the poster.
He climbed down.
“The Bristol Arm enjoy themselves?”
“Mostly,” he said.
A corner of the poster curled down the wall until only Bob’s neck and right shoulder were visible. The rest of him, the back of him, was, of course, just blank paper.
Martin gestured toward the bar where he had his glass.
“Something for you.”
He handed me a brown envelope. ‘Attention’ written across the front in a neat, formal hand.
“Thanks,” I said. “Drink?”
He looked at the clock above the door.
“Just a quick one. Got to be in Exeter to catch the twelve-fifty.”
“Back to Stoneyclough?”
He went to the toilet.
I ordered two pints of Grinner and opened the envelope. There was a handwritten sheet inside that read –
‘Performance = Ok.
Delivery = Adequate.
The Bob Dylan Fan Club (Bristol Arm).’
I sat at the bar and watched Dylan slowly peel from the wall and fall to the floor with a little whiny whisper. I picked him up, had a good look at him, and scrolled him. When Martin returned I handed him the poster. He took it and I felt his nails briefly on my hand.
“He fell,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said.
We drank our pints in silence. Hester was outside. She was talking with the dray man. She wore a pretty red scarf. It started to rain. She glanced at the sky and said something that made the dray man laugh. The scarf lifted on the breeze and she brushed it away from her mouth. I suppose Martin was thinking about his train north or his hair or the Bristol Arm. But, really we were both, I’m sure, just thinking about how Dylan was never actually a montage, or even a mosaic made from tiny, tiny versions of himself. He was merely an enlarged reproduction of a copy of an image of Robert Zimmerman.
The door opened and she came in. The air smelled of roses and rain.