The man in the long brown coat

Cole Moreton on the life and legacy of John Bauldie, Dylanologist extraordinary
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The Independent Culture
"I miss him," says Larry Eden. "Bob played "Long Black Veil" the night before last, and I went to phone John. Of course, he wouldn't have been there ..." Eden breaks off, takes another drag on his roll-up, thinking again of his old friend, a wry Lancastrian called John Bauldie, who would have been with him in the front row when Bob Dylan played in London and Birmingham next month. For Bauldie studied the works of America's greatest singer-songwriter with a passion and scholarship unequalled in Britain. With his death last year at 47 the field of Dylanology lost one of its most dedicated exponents.

The obituarists had difficulty gaining readers' attention. But there was a reason for that. When Bauldie was killed in a helicopter crash, there was someone else on board whose death completely overshadowed his own, indeed dominated the headlines for days. He was Matthew Harding, the millionaire director of Chelsea Football Club, and a friend of Bauldie's. They were on their way back to London after watching Bolton beat Chelsea. Bauldie would have been pleased with the result; he loved to draw horrified gasps from Dylanologists by admitting that his first and foremost love was for the Wanderers.

Some of those who listened to "Mr Tambourine Man" at his cremation had never met Bauldie. But he had meant a great deal to them, as organiser of the Wanted Man telephone hotline, which told them what songs Bob was playing on tour and how to get front-row tickets; and as the founder, editor and guiding spirit of The Telegraph- not a fanzine, but a quarterly journal about Bob Dylan that attracted 20,000 subscribers. Mark Ellen, who recruited Bauldie to work as a sub-editor on the fledgling Qmagazine in 1987, says The Telegraph "completely transformed the world-wide notion of Dylan scholarship".

The Telegraph may have been put together in the front room of Bauldie's home in Romford, Essex, but it had high production values: it was beautifully bound and reproduced, with rare photographs and essays by heavyweight contributors. The best of the first five years was compiled in a book called All Across The Telegraph. Allen Ginsberg submitted a poem, "Blue Gossip"; the literary critic Christopher Ricks used the example of Dylan to compare American English with that spoken in Britain; the foreword was by another Dylan freak, the former England cricket captain, Bob Willis. In later issues, there were pieces by Eric Clapton and the biographers Paul Williams, Robert Shelton and Greil Marcus, whose new book on Dylan, Invisible Republic, was published last week. Bauldie himself contributed diaries and long, thoughtful works of textual analysis. There were also set lists and interviews with an eclectic list of people who had come into contact with Dylan, from members of the road crew on the Rolling Thunder tour to DA Pennebaker, maker of Don't Look Back, the classic black- and-white documentary film of Dylan's 1965 British tour.

"John set out, with the controlled, evangelical fervour that characterised all his interests, to amass perspective, anecdote and ephemera, in an attempt to paint the most complete picture possible of the man that he believed should be recognised as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century," said Mark Ellen in an obituary. Ellen first came across Bauldie at one of Dylan's press conferences, when the "trim figure in a camel-hair coat" pointed out to the singer that eight lines on his latest album seemed to have been lifted from Humphrey Bogart movies. This erudite approach was to serve Bauldie well; Dylan's office astonished him by asking him to write the booklet that accompanied The Bootleg Series, the collection of 30 years' worth of rare Dylan recordings released in 1991. It was written with Bauldie's usual care and perception, and it earned him a Grammy nomination.

The Telegraph showed that you didn't have to be mad or root through Dylan's dustbins or believe that he was a prophet of the apocalypse in order to take a serious interest in his work. Bauldie was prepared to say that the singer was touring too much, or had made some terrible records - an attitude that upset a lot of Bobcats, as seriously fixated Dylan followers are known - and to come down hard on cant and humbug when they invaded his letters pages. For Bill Prince, the production editor of Q, Bauldie's strong sense of irony made him "absolutely the only useful person to edit a journal dedicated to Dylan, who must attract some of the most idiotic fans in the world. They are obsessive - on one level because Dylan is so secretive and hard to know, and people are fascinated by that; but also because he allows them to imagine that they're somehow more rarefied in their appreciation of music, because he has been written about by Oxford dons. Although John was very grateful for their theses - which they invariably sent in marked `for publication without edit' - he found those people tedious, as anyone else would."

Small wonder, then, that for a decade the editor avoided the round of Dylan conventions, preferring to remain anonymous. "You can't believe how loony these people are," says Larry Eden. "There's a line in a song, `Got your letter yesterday about the time before the door handle broke.' An American guy phones me up for three hours at a time, to discuss whether that's a letter that's arrived containing information about a broken doorknob, or is that a letter that arrived simultaneously around the time the doorknob broke? I'm not speaking to him at the moment, `cos he's driving me mad." Bauldie was different, Eden says, with reverence. "If you didn't know, you'd expect that The Telegraphwas run by some guy in an anorak, sitting in a bedsit. But it wasn't like that. He had a proper job."

Indeed he did, as a lecturer in English literature before he went into journalism. John Bauldie was born in Bolton on 23 August 1949, and re- born at the age of 15, when a schoolmate played him The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and "freed my Northern soul" as he put it. He started The Telegraphin 1981, "because he felt that if he didn't, nobody else would", according to friends. Since his death, it has ceased publication; a convention may be held in Bauldie's honour later this year.

Bauldie was a private man who never yearned to meet his subject. They did come face to face, accidentally, after a gig in Connecticut in 1986, when Dylan's tour bus was slowed to walking pace by traffic. Bauldie happened to be passing when the door opened and the singer stepped out. "The Telegraph?" Dylan drawled, after Bauldie had introduced himself. "Yeah, I've seen that. It's pretty interesting."

Bauldie was "a bon viveur, in a quiet way", with a taste for good food and drink and a love of conversation, according to friends. Just before his death he started work at House & Garden magazine and moved to a new home in Richmond with his long-time partner, Penny. "His relationship to Dylan was symptomatic of his relationship with the world, in terms of seeing the absurdity in everything," said John Aizelwood, who used to sit opposite Bauldie at the Q office. "He was a very loyal, passionate character, who was never unfaithful to them but who knew when Dylan or Bolton were rubbish."

! Bob Dylan: The Fleadh, Finsbury Park (0181 740 6288), 7 June; NEC Birmingham (0121 780 4133), 8 June. `Invisible Republic - Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes', by Greil Marcus, is published by Picador at pounds 16.99.