The Bridge magazine interviews Derek Barker Interview conducted by Terry Kelly (2008)
Derek Barker was interviewed by The Bridge in November 2008. The interview was published in The Bridge issue 32 (Winter 2008).
Derek Barker has edited the UK Bob Dylan magazine, ISIS, since its launch in September 1985. Apart from producing the high-quality fan magazine for the last 25 years, he has also had a number of books published, the latest being The Songs He Didn’t Write: Bob Dylan Under the Influence (Chrome Dreams, 2008), and has also been involved in numerous Dylan-related film projects.
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Q: Derek, first things first. Could you say where and when you were born and tell us something about your family background and education?
I was born in a village near Chester, England, in 1954. My family originates from Stoke-on-Trent and before I arrived my parents both worked in the Potteries. By the time I came along my father had changed professions and was an area manager in the brewing trade. I had a bog-standard education and due to my father’s job I attended various schools. We moved house frequently. I would come home from school and they’d be gone! It was OK though, because they would always wrap my lunch in a road map.
After leaving school I worked in electronics and this, combined with my love of music, got me into working with one or two local bands. I found I could fix people’s amps, put speaker cabinets together, build a few lighting boxes and the like. So, I had a “proper job,” five days a week, and knocked around the fringes of the music scene at nights and at weekends. I then started working as a rock music DJ and that lasted for a couple of years. I went down to London and ended up working for Island Records, as a tea-boy. Well, I suppose I did other things, but that seemed to be my main task. I got to work with the late, great Guy Stevens, though.
For those who don’t know him, Guy gave bands like Procol Harum and Mott the Hoople their names. Mott was my favourite band in the seventies, so the fact that Guy signed them to Island was a big deal for me. He was extremely influential in the British beat and R&B booms of the 1960s. The Rolling Stones and The Who owe him massive debts. They and many others used Guy’s incredible knowledge of American R&B and soul as a source for their own music. As well as working for Island, Guy also ran the UK division of Sue Records for Chris Blackwell. Later, in 1979, he would produce The Clash’s acclaimed masterpiece, “London Calling”. Guy was great, but mad as a hatter. He did a couple of prison terms for drugs’ offences and never made it to 40. He overdosed on the prescription drugs he was using for his alcohol dependency.
Q: How and when did Bob Dylan first enter your life?
I’m really not sure. He sort of snuck up on me when I wasn’t looking! See, I was more into British bands, simply because I could see them live. During the first half of the seventies I would go to gigs several times a week; every week. I couldn’t see Dylan play live so he wasn’t high on my radar. There was no YouTube, no Internet downloads, no DVDs. I was just sitting around waiting for all those things to be invented. But now, sometimes I wish they hadn’t been.
Q: First Dylan concert? First Dylan record you bought? Which song or album proved the turning point to a lifelong obsession?
As I said, I wasn’t a big Dylan fan in the sixties or early seventies. Don’t get me wrong – I liked Dylan a lot, but he wasn’t top of the pile for me simply because I’d never had the chance to see him live and I was, and still am, very much into live music.
I got into to buying record albums in about 1969 – I would have been 15. Before that I had a reel-to-reel and I would record stuff off the radio. I think the first Dylan record I bought was the double “Greatest Hits” album. That would have been around 1971. Over the next couple of years I picked up a few more albums. Strangely, I remember buying the ‘George Jackson’ single the week it was released [November 1971]. That will tell you where my head was at that time. I also bought the “Concert for Bangladesh” triple box-set before it was officially released in 1972, but that’s another story.
Dylan was creeping up on me now and my love for his music was gathering pace. I read about all the fuss that was being generated by his 1974 “comeback” tour with The Band, so I bought the double album from the tour. That was followed by “Blood on the Tracks” and “Desire”. I absolutely loved both of those albums; couldn’t stop playing them. Like many people my age in the UK, my first Dylan concert was in 1978. By this time I’d seen just about everybody there was to see. The Beatles and Jimi were just about the only people that I missed who I would have given anything to see, so when it was announced that Bob Dylan was coming to Britain I had to go. A friend got a couple of tickets for Earls Court. I really don’t know how he got them, but they were in the front row. Well, that was it: as soon as Dylan walked out on stage I was mesmerized. I’ve written about this in the past and I said then that I’m not sure exactly what charisma is but Dylan had it in truck-loads. That concert was the turning point for me; that was when the obsession began.
Q: I presume you were a subscriber to the late-lamented Dylan magazine The Telegraph, edited by the late and even more lamented John Bauldie? Did you contribute to The Telegraph or to other Dylan magazines? And what was the spur to creating ISIS in 1985?
Yeah, I was a subscriber to The Telegraph from about issue six or seven. First thing I did was to place an ad saying something like “Dylan fan living in Coventry wishes to meet likeminded people”. And it got a response! I’m still in touch with the two people who contacted me and one is a very close friend whom I see regularly. Not sure that I ever contributed to The Telegraph. I’ve contributed odd pieces to other Dylan mags over the years and I was a member of the Freewheelin’ group of writers for a couple of years. From memory – what’s left of it these days – I think you had to contribute to at least every other issue of Freewheelin’ magazine, or you were kicked out, so I guess I must have written quite a bit for them.
The spur to start ISIS came when I was battling with insanity. No, seriously, I don’t really remember. The Telegraph did a great job but by 1985 it had changed from a fanzine to much more of an academic journal. Also, John had reduced the frequency of the magazine and I felt that it just couldn’t carry news anymore. If there was news of a tour, Bob had been and gone before the next Telegraph arrived. That is the reason ISIS carried the tag “Dylan News” on its cover. ISIS came out six times a year and then we introduced the interim newsletter, which meant we had 12 mailings, whereas The Telegraph only did just three or four.
Q: Did you have any initial anxieties about launching ISIS, in the sense of creating a ‘rival’ publication to The Telegraph? Or did you see the magazine as ‘complementary’, as serving a different Dylan audience?
I never did see ISIS as a ‘rival’ publication to The Telegraph. It was exactly as you say, a ‘complementary’ magazine. Not necessarily serving a different Dylan audience, but maybe a different need within the same audience.
Q: I seem to recall John Bauldie penning a few barbed comments about ISIS in the magazine’s early days. What kind of relationship did you have with John and The Telegraph, both early and late?
I can’t remember what was said now; really, I can’t. I know I was in the right though! [laughs]. It was a minor spat, nothing more. Problem was, we both stupidly aired our views in print. I’m sure we both regretted that later. That was childish and should never have happened. Once it was in print with thousands of people reading it, it became a big thing in other people’s minds. It never was in my mind though. And I don’t think it was in John’s. It got blown out of all proportion by other people. Some phoney dialogue between me and John even made it onto the back cover of a bootleg CD! [“12/- A Pound” – Prague, Czech Rep., 1995]
[John and I] both went to see Dylan in concert in Prague . John caught up with me in a hotel bar. I thought he was reaching for a knife, but actually he was fumbling in his bag for a T-shirt. He presented me with a shirt that said: “Wanted Man on Tour”. I’ve still got it somewhere. And I’ve worn it in public! Of course, I changed the wording to read “ISIS on Tour” [laughs]. So, that was the end of it. At least it was for me and John, but here you are mentioning it after all these years. Maybe people thought it was some sort of longstanding feud. It wasn’t though; it was just a flash in the pan. Like I said, the big mistake was that we made it public. We put it in print. Anyway, thank you for giving me the opportunity to set the records straight. Next question.
Q: I believe Isis has subscribers in more than 30 countries. While subscription lists fluctuate, how many people now take the magazine, both as subscribers and through individual bookshop sales?
I haven’t a clue. Tracy handles that side of things. I’d have to get her to add it all up. We are usually around a couple of thousand I think. Like most ‘zines, we used to sell more, especially through the shops. I can remember the Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street [London] regularly taking 400 copies of each issue. Can you imagine that? One shop taking 400 ’zines! At one time we were their biggest-selling UK ’zine. There was an article in the London Evening Standard about how Fanzine sales were good whilst sales of the regular monthly music mags, like Q, were way down. The buyer from Virgin supplied the sales figures and ISIS was way out in front. People like Prince came and went. They would sell a lot more than ISIS for a few issues but then they’d drop off.
When Dylan played the Hammersmith Odeon in 1990 or ‘91, Virgin did a massive window display of ISIS and I spent the day in the store talking to Dylan fans. It seems incredible now. A whole window on Oxford Street dedicated to a fan mag! That’ll never happen again. You could peddle mags around the stores in the early days. They’d buy them off you there and then, but as Bob says, “things have changed”. For years, Virgin would stock all the ISIS back issues because people from around Britain and overseas would visit London and buy 10 or 20 copies at a time. These days, most of the big stores don’t want to know; it’s all about ISBNs, barcodes, prices on the cover and “off shelf” dates. Ordering is all computerized. If something doesn’t sell 4.23 units per 10 centimetres of shelf space they’re not allowed to stock it. But in the 1980s and early ‘90s, Virgin had really good in-store buyers. Michael, the guy who managed Helter Skelter, he was the book and magazine buyer at Virgin. Luckily, just about the time things started to get bad at Virgin, Sean Body poached Michael to help run the new Helter Skelter book shop. So, instead of buying ISIS for Virgin, Michael was now buying it for Helter Skelter. From memory they would take a couple of hundred of every issue and stock all the back issues, but of course, they’re gone now!
Q: John Bauldie occasionally admitted to a feeling of exhaustion or jadedness in his Telegraph editorials. Do similar feelings ever overtake the editor of Isis after 23 years of publication?
No, not really. Strangely, I seemed to have a lot of trouble putting this last issue of ISIS together, but I think that might have had something to do with me just finishing my book [The Songs He Didn’t Write]. I’d been working on it for so long it was a weird feeling when I actually finished. I thought I’d be elated when it was delivered to the publisher, but actually I felt a little flat. It had occupied me for so long that I felt lost when it was done and I found it difficult to get back to normality and ISIS.
Q: More than 20 years on, ISIS has very high production values and has branched out into books and involvement with DVDs. Did you always intend to have a larger operation and what are the exact commercial or creative links between ISIS and Chrome Dreams?
It wasn’t really planned, things just developed that way. We seem to have become the one-stop place for Dylan. We started selling books on behalf of My Back Pages and then got into other things and over the past couple of years we have been selling official Sony / Columbia releases like … I didn’t think there would be much of a demand for that sort of thing. I just assumed people bought these sorts of releases from their friendly local record store, but we’ve done really well with the official product. Mind you, these days people probably can’t find a friendly local record store and anyway, we’ve been at it so long that people trust us. There’s a great deal of customer loyalty. A hell of a lot of ISIS subscribers bought “Tell Tale Signs” from us and you’d be surprised at the amount of people who said they’d rather give their money to us than to the multiples or to Amazon. That was really nice. Makes it all seem worthwhile somehow. Anyway, we were cheaper than Amazon! [laughs] These sorts of sales help to maintain ISIS.
As for Chrome Dreams, well, that’s another story. It all started in 2003 when I got an email from one of their researchers asking for an email address … Chrome Dreams had just acquired the rights to the original Martin Bronstein 1966 interview tape and had decided to release a title called “The Classic Interviews 1965–1966”. The researcher was looking for someone to write the liner notes [and he was asking me for someone’s email address] … I fired an email back saying no problem [but I could do the job for them!] … The researcher showed my email to the powers that be and they gave me the job there and then. They loved what I wrote so when they got the rights to release the “Weberman Tapes” they came straight to me. I started writing CD booklet notes [on other artists] for them on a regular basis and then they asked me to write the notes and compile the music for a “Bob Dylan Jukebox”. The title was so successful it spawned an entire series of releases … they kept giving me all the Jukebox jobs and I guess it just became my series…
I’m freelance, so I’ll work for anyone with a cheque book [within reason], but Chrome Dreams are so good and they give me so much work that it must seem like I’m tied to them, which isn’t the case. It’s just that whenever I finish a job they’ve got another one waiting for me, so I don’t get too much time to do anything for anyone else … Anyway, over the years I’ve become very close friends with the MD, so when they asked if they could publish my second “ISIS Anthology”, I decided to move from my then publisher, Helter Skelter, over to Chrome Dreams.
Q: Derek, your latest book is called “The Songs He Didn’t Write: Bob Dylan Under the Influence”. Documenting, in loving detail, the songs by other writers Dylan has either recorded or performed live during his long career, the 512-page illustrated book has taken three years to write. Am I right in thinking this literary labour of love is the closest to your heart? And could you say something about the genesis of the book, what research was involved, and so on? Was the book’s uniqueness – simply, no one has published such a Dylan book before – one of the main attractions of the project?
Well, I don’t think there’s much point in going over old ground so the book’s uniqueness was a good starting point. However, the book had strange beginnings. Like I say, Chrome Dreams published the second ISIS Anthology and that was very successful so they actually commissioned me to write another Dylan book for them. It was their idea. I won’t go into the details of the book, but I worked on it off and on for about six months. I got well into the project but then it just dried up. I could have carried on and finished the job but I wouldn’t have been happy with the end results. There just wasn’t a book in it, or if there was, I wasn’t the man to write it. In researching that book, however, I came up with the idea for “The Songs He Didn’t Write”. It had not really been done before and I just knew it was the perfect book for me. It was Dylan, and he’s obviously my main thing, but it was also blues which is my other big thing and Appalachian music, which is yet another love of mine. I had really enjoyed writing the Jukebox notes for Chrome Dreams and this was a similar thing, shortish pieces about artists and the music. But in this instance they would all be linked to Dylan by the fact that he had covered the songs. And I realized that these songs were very important to Bob Dylan.
So, I bit the bullet and rang the publisher. It was a bit like: “Hi Rob, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is, you know that book you gave me an advance for? Well, I’ve decided I can’t write it! Oh, and by the way, I’ve already spent the advance [laughs]. The good news is I’ve come up with a better idea. Thankfully, he agreed that it was indeed a much better idea and told me to get writing. You’re right, this book is the closest to my heart because it’s entirely my book. I wrote great chunks of the two previous ISIS Anthologies simply because I write so much for ISIS Magazine, but at the end of the day I was the editor of those books and this one is all mine.
Also, this was a massive project, almost a quarter-of-a-million words … [I] was very lucky because Chrome Dreams let us [Tracy and me] select all the pictures and design the entire book. I mean, as an author you just don’t get that sort of freedom … but we have a superb working relationship with them. Some companies are very dictatorial. They have publishing editors who have to justify their jobs and seem to do so by making authors’ lives a misery. My publishing editor was Rob Johnstone, the top man at Chrome Dreams, so he doesn’t have to justify his job to anyone and he gave me a free rein…
Q: Would you agree that Dylan often brings more tender, loving care to songs by other writers, than his own back catalogue?
Oh yeah, I say that in the introduction to the book. That was certainly the case in the early part of the NET. It seemed that he felt he could do whatever he wanted with his own songs; after all, they were his to do with as he pleased, but when it came to other people’s songs – Ry Cooder’s ‘Across the Borderline’ is one example, where he took great care. This certainly applied to traditional numbers like ‘The Lakes of Pontchartrain’, ‘Golden Vanity’, ‘Wagoner’s Lad’ and ‘Barbara Allen’, to mention but a few.
Q: The introduction to your new book suggests that the solo albums “Good As I Been To You” (1992) and “World Gone Wrong” (1993) helped kick-start Dylan’s muse after a long creative trough. Do you believe that’s true and do you see the work Dylan has produced over the last 20 years … as centrally concerned with reflecting or reinventing his love of the folk, blues and country traditions?
I really believe that on almost every occasion when Dylan has lost his muse he’s returned to his lexicon of old songs for inspiration. The first occasion was the “Basement Tapes”. In 1965 / ‘66 Dylan was at the top of his game, but after his world tour, when it all crashed and burned, he needed to regroup. He did that in the basement of Big Pink. Revisiting all those old songs enabled him to write the likes of ‘Million Dollar Bash’ and ‘Please, Mrs. Henry’. ‘Crash On The Levee’ is right out of the Memphis Minnie school of Mississippi flood songs. Dylan’s still writing variants on that theme today: ‘High Water (For Charley Patton)’ and ‘The Levee’s Gonna Break’. I guess his next temporary loss of muse came in the mid-eighties and again he turned to other people’s songs. This time however, it’s debatable whether he was looking for inspiration or just desperate for material! At any rate the choices were poor and “Knocked Out Loaded” and “Down In The Groove” were a definite nadir in Dylan’s recorded output. The recovery was slow; it began with his rehearsals with the Dead in San Rafael. Now, many Dylan fans knock his time with the Dead and I can understand why. The tour and the resulting album were a disaster. But his time in rehearsals, talking and working with Jerry Garcia, was crucial to Bob’s rehabilitation. Garcia’s knowledge of traditional music ran very deep and his influence on Dylan should not be underestimated. Dylan says in “Chronicles” that the Dead might have dropped something in his drink. I don’t know about that, but Dylan was digging himself out of a rut and this continued with a proliferation of cover songs, many traditional, when the Never Ending Tour began. In turn, these songs spawned “Good As I Been To You” and “World Gone Wrong” and these two albums were all part of the healing process. As I say in the book, in retrospect one wonders if Dylan could even have made Time Out Of Mind and the albums that followed without first revisiting songs like ‘Delia’, ‘Broke Down Engine’ and ‘Stack-a-Lee’. These blues and traditional influences permeate every fibre of his last three albums…
Q: …What would you hope serious Dylan fans will get from your new book?
I’d hope they get a lot. A lot went into it, that’s for sure. I have to say that the feedback so far has surpassed anything that I could have hoped for. It really has been 100% positive. Not just positive, but massively positive! I hope it will be of interest not just to Dylan fans but music enthusiasts in general. It’s been described a cornucopia of fascinating facts … It is more than just a Dylan book, it’s a music book and all the appendices make it more than an encyclopaedia. I come at the whole concept of the book from a different angle…
Q: What do you feel about the so-called Never Ending Tour? How often do you see Dylan in concert these days and where? (More frankly, should Dylan simply pack it in?).
I see Dylan in concert whenever he comes to Britain. If he’s playing multiple shows I probably won’t go to them all. I would prefer it if he would come from behind that keyboard. I think it’s time for a change…
Q: What did you make of such recent movie projects as Masked & Anonymous and I’m Not There?
There is no doubting that Dylan is a frustrated movie maker. That’s for sure. “Masked & Anonymous” was very good and the soundtrack was exceptional. “I’m Not There” is not a Dylan film of course, but it was interesting. A brave effort, which for the most part worked very well.
Q: Do you feel that Chronicles was an honest book of memoirs?
“Honest” probably isn’t the correct word; if you are asking, “Is everything in the book fact”, then no, most certainly not and I more or less say that in the introduction to my book when I talk about the Dead rehearsals on Front Street in San Rafael. Dylan writes that he saw this old jazz singer – a honey-dripper in a mohair suit and shiny necktie – he says that when he heard the guy sing he had an epiphany. It’s just my opinion, but I don’t think that ever happened. I don’t have conclusive proof. I mean, my findings wouldn’t stand up in a court of law, but the bar that I’m very reliably told he was in, Pier 15 on the San Rafael Canal, never had live music. It didn’t have a music licence and there was not even a jukebox. I discovered this in my research for the book. And what about the apartment that he says he was staying in when he first arrived in New York? According to Chronicles he could remember every item in the apartment! No one has that sort of recall; it’s superhuman. I was told, and this is only anecdotal, that Dylan’s people commissioned researchers to help with some of the major facts in Chronicles. So, if he needed help with that sort of thing, how could he remember every item on every shelf in that apartment? It was forty-five years ago!
Q: A shameless Dylan fan’s question: name your favourite Dylan album and song.
I guess there are the usual suspects: “Highway 61 Revisited”, “Blonde On Blonde” and “Blood On The Tracks”. Production aside, I love the songs on “Street Legal”. It’s one of my favourite collections of Dylan songs. I like “Desire” and I play “Good As I Been To You” and “World Gone Wrong” a hell of a lot. There are so many different periods and so many songs it’s impossible to pick just one. ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ is just about the perfect song though.
Q: A supplementary shameless Dylan fan’s question: how extensive is your personal Dylan collection, in terms of albums, bootlegs and so on?
Well, I’m a big music collector, full stop. Music is and always has been my life. I have thousands of albums. I still have all my original vinyl collection and still play it. As far as Dylan is concerned I’m not a completest collector. I’m not even sure such people still exist. But I’ve got a big collection and have been buying boots since they first emerged in Britain, right at the beginning of the seventies. I told you that I bought my first Dylan album in about 1971, so I was getting into music big time just as rock bootlegs arrived on the scene and I’ve been collecting them ever since. It was far more fun when you had to buy them out of cardboard boxes from under the counter at some back street shop though! It’s all too easy just to download things from the internet these days. That’s not proper collecting. There’s no adventure in that! I remember my first fix of illicit vinyl with a great deal of affection. It was a magical moment. I remember finding “In 1966 There Was” and “While The Establishment Burns” in those under the counter cardboard boxes. And then I found “Seems Like a Freeze Out” on red translucent vinyl. I had no idea such things existed.
Q: Some Dylan fans, including yours truly, were underwhelmed by Dylan’s last studio album, Modern Times, while rating very highly Love And Theft and Time Out Of Mind. Briefly, how do you rate Dylan’s recent work?
There’s some great stuff on “Modern Times”. Again I’ll quote the usual suspects: ‘Workingman’s Blues #2’, ‘Nettie More’ and ‘Ain’t Talkin’’. I know that three tracks don’t make an album, but there is other stuff on there that I like: ‘Thunder on the Mountain’, ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin’’ and ‘The Levee’s Gonna Break’ spring to mind. I find it hard to listen to some tracks on the albums you mention: ‘’Till I Fell In Love With You’, ‘Make You Feel My Love’, ‘When The Deal Goes Down’ and ‘Beyond The Horizon’. Actually, I don’t think there is anything on “Love And Theft” that doesn’t grab me. That really is a pretty consistent album. As you can probably gather from the tracks that I’ve mentioned, it’s the saccharine-type songs that I don’t much care for. A little too much cowboy band for me. I like some pedal steel guitar but you can have too much of it. The best use of pedal steel in Dylan’s band is the one that he uses to rest his lyrics on. I’ve never seen one used like that before!
Q: Finally, do you have other book projects in the pipeline and how do you see ISIS developing in the years ahead?
After finishing this book all I want to do is to lie down in a darkened room. In fact, my publisher advised me to do just that. Then they fixed up a couple of dozen radio and magazine interviews for me to do, so it seems like the fun has only just started! As for ISIS, the only thing I know how to do is to keep on keeping on!
Q: Derek, many thanks for agreeing to be grilled by The Bridge.
It’s been a pleasure Terry, thank you so much for asking me.