The news is so full of unbelievable and depressing stories lately, it’s a relief when something comes up that warms the heart. Bob Dylan receiving the Nobel prize for literature is one of the more encouraging bit of news to hit the headlines, the other night I watched BBC4 broadcast the Martin Scorsese documentary of Dylan, this weekend the radio (which I spend far more attention to than TV) was full of Dylan celebrations.
Believe it or not I actually did meet him, once, in a North London cafe. This is a true story.
If memory serves correctly it was 1985, or possibly ’86. I was working freelance in Façade Studios, a cooperative of illustrators and graphic designers who shared space in the converted aisle of disused Park Church on Crouch Hill, Crouch End, N8. I’ve mentioned Façade a couple of times before, but to summarize – Park Church was a 19th Century structure, long disused as a church, though the Nave was still used by the gospel church of Cherubim and Seraphim. The aisles had been blocked off and rented out as shared space for illustrators, on the west side of the church cartoonist John Minnion worked, on our slightly more rowdy east side facing the street, were graphic designers Andy Royston and Chris Millett, and a fluctuating number of illustrators including Jane Ray, Willie Ryan, Simone Lopez and myself. Next to the church itself was the church hall, originally the animation studio of our landlords Bob Bura and John Hardwick (of Trumpton/Camberwick Green fame).
Soon after we set up our studio Bura and Hardwick retired, sold the hall to pop supremos the Eurythmics (Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox), who turned it into their recording studio, and sold the church to the Nigerian Gospel movement Cherubim and Seraphim, who became our new landlords.
It didn’t take long for things to get very busy at the recording studios next door. Sound engineers used the spare art studios on the West side. Dave Stewart was often seen around, Annie Lennox less so, I think I only caught sight of her once in the 3 years I was at Façade. Our studio door was more prominent on the street than the music studio, so it always attracted attention – not all of it welcome. Happy memories are of responding to a knock on our door to find Paula Yates (RIP) from The Tube with a film crew pointing a camera into my face – they thought we were the music studio next door. The postman sometimes shoved materials meant for the Eurythmics through our door too, including once Annie Lennox’s precious childhood photos from her mum. One of the temporary illustrators in our group thought it was somehow okey to open the package and look through the photos, which were quickly recovered and re-directed next door with apologies.
So, its summer, the word was out that Bob Dylan was in town recording with Dave and Annie. Nothing to do with us of course, but people kept knocking on our door – fans who’d heard a rumour. One particular die-hard Dylan fan kept knocking on our door every day, claiming she was his long lost relative and needed to see him urgently. “He’s not here, we’re an illustration collective, nothing to do with music” we insisted, but she wouldn’t take no for an answer – even when one of us let her in to look around our studios. “see – no music here” we said. “You’re lieing, where are you hiding him?” she insisted, I wasn’t there at the time but I heard it was a struggle to get her to leave.
It was starting to get a little scary, we just wanted to be left in peace to work.
Over the road from our studios was a small hole-in-the-wall cafe, run by retired celebrity strong-woman, Joan Rhodes. Joan was a former wrestler, music hall artiste and actress who in the 1950’s and ’60’s became a household name for bending iron bars and ripping up telephone directories on stage – here’s a clip of her in action, and another here on German TV in 1975. She was a close friend of Quentin Crisp, and appeared with minor roles in films like Burke & Hare, The Pink Panther Strikes Again, and Elephant Man, also the TV series Dick Turpin.
By 1985 Joan had long since retired, but all of this glittering career was displayed on the walls of her tiny cafe on Crouch Hill, photos and memorabilia of the golden age of stage and British film, it was a unique place. Naturally Joan’s Cafe was a magnet for us creative types, our closest hang-out at lunchtime. The basic food may have left something to be desired, but Joan was a unique character.
When Joan died in 2010, the Telegraph ran a fascinating obituary here.
So, it was a quiet, sunny day, no-one else was in my studio, so I nipped over to Joan’s for my regular cuppa and sandwich. There were just two other people in the cafe hunched over the corner table, one I instantly recognised as our neighbour, musician Dave Stewart. The other was a man wearing a heavy parka with the hood pulled low over his head…. it was the middle of summer, t-shirt weather, so this alone drew attention. I sat on the next table (there were only about four tables in the cafe), and chatted nervously to Joan. Dave said something to Joan too (I don’t recall what), but all talk was directed towards Joan, not to me of course…
Such was the scenario of my encounter with Bob Dylan. What do you do in that situation? – “Hey Bob, hows it going? I loooove your music” – no, I wasn’t going to say that. I wasn’t going to say anything! Let him eat his lunch in peace, he doesn’t want to be disturbed, he’s incognito, can’t you see he’s trying not to be spotted? Just mind your own business John, eat your sandwich, pay your bill and leave, that’s the dignified thing to do, of course, he doesn’t want to talk to local riffraff.
Hey, I don’t even like Bob Dylan’s music.
The sandwich is on the table, I examine every detail of the thing on my plate, and begin to eat in silence.
“Arn’t you hot in that coat?” I blurt.
Dave glances at me out of the corner of his eye then at the hooded guy, but says nothing. “Yeah, but you know” comes a slow drawl from under the hood. Know? know what? That he has to hide in the corner of cafe’s under a cowl to avoid mad fans? Am I a mad fan? No! I don’t know anything about him. Why am I saying anything? Shut up John!
“It’s quite warm today isn’t it” I say to the room at large.
Joan grins and agrees. Bob shifts in his chair. Dave is impassive. I can’t remember exactly what was said next, but I think Joan explained to Dave and Bob I was their studio neighbour – an illustrator working next door. Bob or Dave (not sure which) asked me what kind of illustration – all kinds, children’s books, editorial, say I…. “That’s good”, says Bob.
I mention our old landlords were Trumpton animators Burra & Hardwick, who sold the old hall to Dave’s studio. Dave nods – we have a mutual connection. Are you here for a while? I ask Bob. “No”. I mentioned that we were being pestered by people looking for him. “Just ignore them”, says Bob.
We left the cafe at the same time, I held the door open for him, wished them good luck with the sessions and he shook my hand. And that was that.
I’m glad I wasn’t a particular fan at the time (though later grew to love his work), had I been more aware I’d probably have asked even more stupid questions than I had already, but brains turn to mush in these circumstances, I had no idea….
That evening I met a friend of my house-mates who was a total Dylan fanatic, and said “here, shake the hand that shook the hand of Bob”. By that time I’d repeated my story to several people, it felt like some kind of spiritual experience rather than the rather mundane encounter of reality.
Next time pop-pickers I’ll have to tell you about the time I unknowingly met Kylie Minogue, blissfully unaware who she was… but that’s another story.
I wish I’d got to know Joan a bit better though.