jeudi, décembre 02, 2004

Hey! Jingle jangle man

He was Dylan's guitarist and inspired a classic. Gavin Martin meets that tambourine player

02 December 2004

Years before he inspired "Mr Tambourine Man", the guitarist Bruce Langhorne attempted to build "a magic swirlin' ship" of his own. "When I was 12 I built a rocket. I filled it with magnesium and tried to launch it: it blew up."

When Langhorne greets me outside his home in Venice, California, I feel the three half digits on his left hand that were salvaged after the explosion. These fingers were responsible for the remarkable guitar style that illuminated the acoustic side of Bob Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home album. Langhorne's light but flowing touch also shone on countless recordings by Fred Neil, Gordon Lightfoot, Tom Rush, Hugh Masekela, Buffy Sainte Marie and others.

But back in Harlem in 1950, when his mother arrived to witness the devastation, a career in music seemed a long way off. The would-be rocketeer was temporarily blinded and blood was rolling down his face.

"My mother was horrified but, being a smart-ass kid, I said 'at least I won't have to play classical violin anymore'," Langhorne recalls. It was only thanks to sophisticated plastic surgery, pioneered in wake of the Korean War, that Langhorne's stubs and finger joints were saved.

But the accident was just part of what made Langhorne different. As a black man in the largely white world of the folk revival he was a singular figure and his musical background - classical, gospel, blues and latin - defied classification.

Although he turned 66 last May, he still possesses intelligence, humour, poise and playfulness. Parked outside the home he shares with his actress wife Janet and several dogs is a van he has customised for sleeping on a cross-country trip to attend the opening of the Experience music museum's Bob Dylan exhibition.

The museum features the battered Martin acoustic he played on "Mr Tambourine Man"; he will give a talk at the Dylan opening. But his life is certainly not centred around the Dylan industry; this week, with the release of his soundtrack for his pal Peter Fonda's 1971 cult western The Hired Hand, his multi-instrumental talents can be heard again in all their glory.

"The music for The Hired Hand is really simple; it distils the time and place it represents. I've written all sorts of music but that's the music I prefer, folk music - the basic aesthetics of the music of man."

"The injury forced me not to be a virtuoso so I did a lot more thinking about what I loved in music and how it worked."

It wasn't until 1985, in an interview included on the Biograph retrospective, that Dylan finally named Langhorne as the inspiration for "Mr Tambourine Man".

"I played a tambourine but it was massive, Turkish and had jingles on it. Bob may have seen me play it in Greenwich Village. I used to play pied piper, just walk the streets and have people following me and dancing, like Hare Krishna before Hare Krishna. I'd take it with me whenever I went on the road, it always got people dancing."

By the time Langhorne first saw Dylan at New York's Gerdes Folk City Hootenanny in early 1961, he was the musical partner of the club's MC Brother John Sellars - and a regular accompanist to Cisco Houston, The Clancy Brothers and Peter, Paul and Mary. "My first impression of Bob was - what a terrible voice. I didn't really start to appreciate him until after I started working with him. I started to realise this guy is a really good poet and the fact that he had such will, such a sense of direction."

On Bringing It All Back Home, the songs sound as if they are being heard and played for the first time. Langhorne chuckles. "Well... that's because that's just what it was - a bunch of studio guys hanging around ready to latch onto Bobby's telepathic thread. He'd start singing and everybody would jump in, it was just amazing."

'The Hired Hand' soundtrack album is out now on Blast First Petite

© 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd