Mike Scott, the singer and chief creative mind in the Waterboys, became a smitten Dylan fan at much the same age that I did, watching his appearance in the film of George Harrison’s Concert For Bangladesh, and realising that “he was the great poet of the times”. In 1978, Scott and a friend went to see Dylan play at Earls Court, then followed his tour bus back to a hotel where they spied him sitting in the bar. “That was exciting,” he says. “‘Fucking hell! I’m going to meet Bob Dylan!’ We got half way across the bar, and these blurred, giant shapes suddenly appeared in front of us: bouncers, who escorted us off the premises.”
Seven years later, when Dylan was in London recording with the ex-Eurythmic and rock Zelig Dave Stewart, Scott and two of his band got a call, and were summoned to a north London recording studio. “That felt like crossing the other half of the room,” he says: the collected musicians spent two hours jamming, while Dylan spurned singing in favour of playing “burbling, non-stop lead guitar”. Scott recalls being perplexed by his refusal to step up to the microphone, but feeling thrilled when Dylan told him he was a fan of the Waterboys’ big hit The Whole of the Moon.
Some time later the phone rang again, and Scott found himself in a rented house in Holland Park. “We hung out with him for a couple of hours. He played us a record by the McPeak Family, folk musicians from Ulster, and he gave me a cassette of an American Indian poet called John Trudell.” And what was Dylan like? “Puckish. Humorous. In the studio, he’d been very quiet and closed in on himself. But now he was gregarious: exactly what I’d want Bob Dylan to be like. It was great.”
Dylan told them tales about the presence of Vikings in his native Minnesota, introduced Scott to his kids, and shared a herbal moment with him. “I don’t know whether you can say this,” says Scott, “but I’ve smoked a joint that Bob Dylan rolled, and he’s smoked a joint that I rolled.”
(click here to continue reading The day I (nearly) met Bob Dylan | John Harris | Music | The Guardian.)
So I place a call to his interviewer, Christopher Sykes, now 65, who has the rare distinction of being one of the only film-makers who has trained a camera on Dylan and asked him questions. (Though he directed the acclaimed Dylan documentary No Direction Home, not even Martin Scorsese managed that.)
“I really liked him,” Sykes tells me. “He was tremendously funny. Charming, I thought. And he is incredibly charismatic. You find yourself wondering: is this something about him, or is this something you bring to someone that famous? But sitting a few feet away from him is pretty scary. He’s got a way of looking at you that’s frightening. When he looks straight at you, you really do feel like he’s got some sort of x-ray vision; that he sees right through you.”
It was partly the memory of that look that threw me when I thought I was about to meet him.
“He looks like a … funny old Gypsy person,” Sykes continues. “You have this sense that he’s been around for an awfully long time. I remember thinking, ‘I bet if you look through medieval paintings, there’ll be a picture of him somewhere.’ It really does feel like he’s been around for ever.”
Sykes is nonplussed by suggestions that Dylan did the interview in a state of narcotic refreshment (“He liked drinking Johnny Walker black label, and I think he smoked dope”), and recalls a recent occasion when he had dinner in Los Angeles with Dylan’s son, Jesse – who was reminded of the interview, and offered a very telling question: “Was he kind to you?”
“Tender and really helpful,” is the verdict of the writer Adrian Deevoy, who was summoned to Philadelphia a few years later to interview Dylan for Q magazine. They ended up talking in the seaside town of Narragansett, Rhode Island – and Deevoy’s memories chime with one regular observation of Dylan’s lifestyle: that whereas some artists glide through a world of luxury, Dylan seems to live and work in a fascinatingly higgledy-piggledy way. “It sounds weird,” he tells me, “but we were all on a double bed in a very small motel room: Dylan, myself, his manager Jeff Rosen, a willowy Scandinavian woman, and a massive dog.”