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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Thursday, November 30, 2006


The comments on the last posting are varied and interesting, but some of the pro-Kooper contributors assume I must have attacked Kooper in the entry on him in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, in ways that justify his protesting that I've "defiled" his name, and that the entry is a "rant", and so on. They also seem to assume that this entry rubbishes his account of events. It might be helpful if I reproduce the entry itself. Can anyone but Kooper honestly say it denigrates his talents or his contribution? Or that I haven't bothered with factual detail, or that it can't have taken much work to write it?:

Kooper, Al [ 1944 - ]
The ubiquitous Al Kooper was born Alan Peter Kuperschmidt in Brooklyn, New York on February 5, 1944; his family moved to Queens, NY when he was four. At age 14 he was a guitarist with pop group the Royal Teens soon after they’d had a Top 10 hit with ‘Short Shorts’ in 1958. A session guitarist by the age of 19, he dropped out of college to train as a studio engineer and then teamed up with songwriters Irwin Levine and Bob Brass, with whom in 1964 he wrote the Gary Lewis & the Playboys hit ‘This Diamond Ring’ and Gene Pitney’s minor hit ‘I Must Be Seeing Things’, which became the title track of a Pitney album (and EP) and in French, as ‘Mes yeux sont fous’, a single by Johnny Hallyday.

After a brief first Manhattan stay on W.77th Street, Kooper moved into Greenwich Village and involved himself in a wide range of musical activity. At the 1965 NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL he performed with RICHARD & MIMI FARINA (plus BRUCE LANGHORNE) and the same year joined the group the Blues Project with DANNY KALB, Steve Katz, Tommy Flanders, Andy Kulberg and Ray Blumenfeld. Kooper, invited to join the group after playing first as a session-man for them, stayed with the group for its first three albums (two of which were live) and for a performance at the Monterey Pop Festival of 1967, but then quit, moved to the West Coast and formed Blood, Sweat & Tears, largely in order to create a rock band with a horn section. After one interesting album, The Child Is Father to the Man, Kooper left and the group became highly successful plying jazz-rock of the nastiest possible kind.

Kooper then recorded his solo album I Stand Alone and the album Supersession with MIKE BLOOMFIELD and Stephen Stills (both 1968), followed by live work with Bloomfield and the albums The Live Adventures of Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield and the solo You Never Know Who Your Friends Are (both 1969). In the early 1970s he made several more extravagantly-funded solo albums, among them the gate-fold sleeve LP Naked Songs (1972) in which what was naked was Kooper’s lack of having anything to say and lack of a voice to say it with. Nonetheless, sheer chutzpah gets him through songs like SAM COOKE’s ‘Touch the Hem of His Garment’ where any comparison of Kooper’s voice to Cooke’s would be ludicrous. In 1976 came Act Like Nothing’s Wrong, co-produced (like Child Is Father to the Man) by THE BAND’s producer John Simon, on which Kooper revives ‘This Diamond Ring’ with a mix of ironic superiority and obvious fondness.

In 1977 he published the first edition of his book Backstage Passes and the following year produced RICKY NELSON’s still-unreleased album Back To Vienna. He was a veteran producer by this point, having enjoyed a late-1960s stint as a Columbia Records A&R man, during which he had signed the long-uncommercial British cult band the Zombies, who promptly delivered the significant album Odyssey & Oracle and a major hit single, ‘Time of the Season’. In 1972, as his time with Columbia ended and he set up, courtesy of MCA, his own Sounds of the South studio in Atlanta, Georgia, he discovered the great Florida band Lynyrd Skynyrd (they were playing local bars) and duly produced their first three albums - including, on their début album, their great anthemic ‘Free Bird’. He sang back-up vocals and played on this album too (bass and mellotron), and, as on piano on the Tom Rush album Take A Little Walk With Me, he is billed here as Roosevelt Gook. Yes, the ubiquitous Al Kooper, not Bob Dylan, was Roosevelt Gook.

Lynyrd Skynyrd was a long way from the sound of the Zombies, and another demonstration of Kooper’s eclectic musical tastes and openness. He went on to produce albums by NILS LOFGREN, the Tubes, Joe Ely and B.B. King. He also wrote the music for the 1969 Jim McBride documentary film My Girlfriend’s Wedding, the 1970 Hal Ashby film The Landlord, various TV series and, after a long gap, the Peter Riegert short By Courier (2000) and the same director’s movie King of the Corner (2004).

As a session musician Al Kooper has played on records by a vast swathe of big-name artists, including Cream, JIMI HENDRIX (on ‘Long Hot Summer Nights’) the Who (‘Rael’), the ROLLING STONES (‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’) and GEORGE HARRISON’s Somewhere In England album. But his most significant contribution, by quite some way, has been to the work of Bob Dylan. Al Kooper is the hero who on June 16, 1965 in New York City inveigled his way into playing the organ part on ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, and was lucky enough to have Bob Dylan say ‘turn it up!’ and thus to help make history. He has told the story of how this happened many times, never more weirdly than as a hologram on the CD-ROM Highway 61 Interactive and never more endearingly than as a cool and genial interviewee in the film No Direction Home, released 40 years after the making of that record. He also provides a detailed memoir of the sessions for Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde inside the booklet issued with its audio partner, No Direction Home: The Soundtrack Album - The Bootleg Series Vol. 7 (2005).

Al Kooper helped to make history at Newport 1965 too, not because he played with the Fariñas but because he played ‘Maggie’s Farm’, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and ‘It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry’ with Bob Dylan on that tumultuous, historic electric début - since when his involvement with Dylan’s work has been plentiful. He attended and played organ on the later Highway 61 Revisited sessions (July 30 and August 2, 1965 in New York) and then saw action at the first electric concerts Dylan gave - at Forest Hills, New York that August 28 and the Hollywood Bowl on September 3rd. After that, Dylan’s band became the Hawks and Kooper returned to New York.

That November 30, he was back in the studios for the first of the sessions that yielded Blonde On Blonde, and was there again on January 25-26 and 27-28, 1966. When Dylan finished the album in Nashville, in mid-February (between tour dates) and March (between tour dates again), only Al Kooper and ROBBIE ROBERTSON were still with Dylan from the New York sessions (apart from producer BOB JOHNSTON, who was Nashville-based in any case), and Kooper is interesting on the cultural gulf between this long-haired East Coast triumvirate and the country musicians and downtown Nashville. The last session took place in the early hours of March 10th.

Next time Kooper came to a Dylan session, it was in back in New York and in the very different musical universe of the Self Portrait recordings. He and DAVE BROMBERG and others laid down basic tracks for ‘Little Sadie’, ‘In Search of Little Sadie’, ‘Belle Isle’, ‘Copper Kettle’, ‘It Hurts Me Too’, ‘The Boxer’ and ‘Woogie Boogie’ on March 3, 1970, though all but ‘It Hurts Me Too’ were overdubbed later without Kooper (and indeed without Dylan). The following days Kooper played again, contributing, altogether, organ, piano and guitar, though again there was much subsequent overdubbing on most tracks. He was also there at the June sessions (on organ) which yielded some of the tracks on the Dylan album and, more importantly, most of New Morning. Indeed Kooper claims to have produced New Morning, though Bob Johnston disagrees. (Al was also present on June 30, again in New York, playing guitar and organ when Dylan attempted at least 15 takes of ‘Blowin’ In the Wind’ with a small group of musicians: takes which have never circulated.)

A long gap in the Kooper-Dylan professional relationship followed. Al next turned up with Bob in 1981, when he replaced WILLIE SMITH as the keyboards player on the third leg of that year’s semi-gospel, semi-secular tour, starting on October 16 in Milwaukee and ending on November 21 in Lakeland, Florida: a total of 27 concerts. At one of them - at East Rutherford, New Jersey, that October 27, he had the unusual experience of hearing Bob Dylan introduce his parents, Mr. & Mrs. Kooper Senior (Sam and Natalie), to the audience from the stage of the Meadowlands Arena. The private recording of this surreal moment later circulated among Al’s friends on a custom-made LP. According to the description provided by someone selling a copy of this album on eBay decades later, for several years in the late 1970s and early 80s ‘Kooper put out an annual Christmas album filled with novelty and strange music and dialogue for his friends only…. the third, features a track with Bob Dylan in concert introducing Al’s parents…from the stage. Here’s what the notes say: “In 1981, I toured for three months with BD and my parents came to see us play in New Jersey. I mentioned to Bob that my folks were there before we went onstage, and this is what happened. Thanks Bob.” Bob introduces them, goofs around telling the audience they are the parents of a friend, but he’s not gonna tell the audience who. Then after a bit, he says “OK, I’ll tell you”. And introduces Al. No music, but a rare bit of Bob humour…. With a great cover and Al’s funny liner notes. Very very rare.’ This LP did indeed exist: it was titled The Third Annual Kapusta Kristmas Album, billed as by Al Kooper & Friends, privately distributed on Partners In Crime NL-109 that December. (The eBay store of the seller, ‘Nethollywood’, has since been closed and the result of the item auction is no longer known.)

A little over four years later, Kooper was back in the New York studios for a couple of the sessions for the Empire Burlesque album, playing rhythm guitar on a rejected (but circulated) cut of ‘Something’s Burning, Baby’ (February 21, 1985) and two days later again played rhythm guitar on a number of attempts at ‘When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky’, one of which became the album track. Kooper is credited with playing on this, but so much was overdubbed later that it’s not certain his most minor contribution survives.

Quirkier and more interesting are his participations the following year. On April 28, 1986, in Topanga Park, California, along with other musicians and back-up singers, Al Kooper played keyboards on never-circulated attempts at ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, ‘Without Love’ and a song logged as ‘The Beautiful Life’; the following day they re-attempted ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ and ‘Unchain My Heart’ (also uncirculated); and the day after that they laid down further never-heard versions of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, ‘Unchain My Heart’ and ‘Lonely Avenue’. On May 1 they tried ‘Without Love’ and ‘Unchain My Heart’ again, and on May 2 yet another ‘Unchain My Heart’ - but they also managed, across these two sessions, to overdub the backing to ‘Brownsville Girl’ that we hear on Knocked Out Loaded - a backing they dubbed onto the Dylan vocal he had in turn dubbed onto the original 1984 backing track just one day earlier (at the April 30 session). Again, Kooper played keyboards.

Later that month he was among those overdubbing onto a May 5 take of the KRIS KRISTOFFERSON song ‘They Killed Him’, a take of JUNIOR PARKER’s ‘You Wanna Ramble’ from the same day and a take of the old gospel favourite ‘Precious Memories’, and to record from scratch Dylan’s own song ‘Maybe Someday’. All these were duly released on the Knocked Out Loaded album that June - the same month that Kooper surfaced playing organ on ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ onstage with Dylan at a Cosa Mesa, California concert by Dylan and TOM PETTY & THE HEARTBREAKERS. A month later (on July 21, 1986) the audience at Dylan’s East Rutherford New Jersey concert had the bonus of Kooper on organ for the last five numbers of the night: ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, ‘In The Garden’, ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, ‘Union Sundown’ and ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’; on August 3, at Inglewood, California, Kooper repeated the process, this time squeezed onstage with DAVE STEWART and Annie Lennox, and this time with ‘Uranium Rock’ instead of ‘Union Sundown’. Two nights later Stewart and Lennox were out of the way and Kooper played on the last 11 of the set’s 26 songs: ‘Rainy Day Women Nos. 12 & 35’, ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’, ‘Seeing The Real You At Last’, ‘Across The Borderline’, ‘I And I’, ‘Good Rockin’ Mama’ (with Dylan also joined on this one song by JOHN LEE HOOKER), and then the same five final songs as at the previous concert.

Another hiatus followed, but Al was back in the studios in Hollywood to lay down overdubs on various tracks for Under the Red Sky in 1990. He overdubbed organ on ‘Handy Dandy’ (originally recorded on January 6) and keyboards on ‘Unbelievable’ and ‘Under The Red Sky’ (both originally cut in LA in February or March), on May 3 and 4.

The two men had an odd semi-conjunction at the so-called 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration in New York on October 16, 1992 - because Kooper came on and played organ on ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and ‘Leopard-Skin Pill Box Hat’ . . . not behind Dylan but behind JOHN COUGAR MELLENCAMP. But they were bound to come together again under more normal concert circumstances, and in 1996 they did. On Dylan’s first revisit to the city of Liverpool in 30 years - the city that he astonished when, with the Hawks in May 1966, he played electric rock infinitely more complex and radical than the city had ever heard from its beat groups when it had supposedly been the centre of the music universe just two or three years earlier - Dylan now came back in the middle of his Never-Ending Tour’s latest European leg (which had begun on June 15, 1996 at a festival in Denmark), and played two nights in Liverpool, June 26 and 27: and his band was augmented by Al Kooper on keyboards throughout the first concert and on all but two numbers of the second (Al disappeared for ‘To Ramona’ and ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’). Two nights later, at the Prince’s Trust concert in London’s Hyde Park, Al was there again (alongside RON WOOD too, this time) for the short nine-song Dylan set.

So far, apart from the No Direction Home contributions mentioned above, that’s been the last instance of a partnership that began with so triumphant a bang over 40 years ago.

In July 2005, Kooper released his first solo album in almost 25 years, the well-received Black Coffee. He had been playing, meanwhile, with the awkwardly-named ReKooperation, from whom there was an eponymously-titled album in 1994, and with a bunch of Boston academics (Kooper has honorary degrees and taught at Berklee College of Music in the late 1990s) just as uncomfortably named the Funky Faculty. A second, much-expanded edition of his book, now entitled Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards and dealing with the first 54 years of Al’s life, was published in 1998. By 2002, unfortunately, it had been remaindered.

Al Kooper lives in Boston these days, and though he’s lost most of his eyesight he’s lost none of his acumen, and if anything has gained in self-deprecating grace down the years. Usually. 2001 saw the release a retrospective 2-CD box set, Rare & Well Done, going all the way back to previously-unreleased material from 1964 and his first solo single from 1965, the deeply obscure ‘New York’s My Home.’ It further includes an outtake of ‘Went To See The Gypsy’ from a New Morning overdubbing session on June 30, 1970. Dylan is absent from the track, which Kooper describes in the accompanying notes as ‘a conception I had for Dylan to sing over’. This may or may not be a Dylan claim too far.

[Al Kooper: Naked Songs, Columbia KC 31723, US, 1972, CD-reissued Sony SRCS 6201, Japan, nia; Act Like Nothing’s Wrong, Liberty US (United Artists UAG 30020, UK, 1976), CD-reissued One Way CD S21-18565, US, nia; Rare and Well Done, Columbia/Legacy AC2K 62153 US, 2001; Black Coffee, Favored Nations FN25202, US, 2005. Al Kooper & Ben Edmonds, Backstage Passes: Rock’n’Roll Life in the Sixties, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1977; Al Kooper, Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards, New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1998. Al Kooper with Dylan, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers: ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, Costa Mesa CA, 17 Jun 1986. The Blues Project: Live at the Café au Go-Go, NY, 1965, US, 1966; Projections, NY, 1966, Elektra US, 1966; Live at Town Hall, NY, May 1967, Elektra US, 1968. Blood Sweat and Tears: Child Is Father to the Man, Columbia CS 9619, US, 1968. The Royal Teens: ‘Short Shorts’, US, 1958. Gary Lewis & the Playboys: ‘This Diamond Ring’, US, 1964. Gene Pitney: ‘I Must Be Seeing Things’, US (& on EP Stateside SE1030, UK), 1964. Johnny Hallyday: ‘Mes yeux sont fous’, France, 1965. Tom Rush: Take A Little Walk With Me, Elektra EKL-308 & EKS-7308, 1966. Lynyrd Skynyrd: Lynyrd Skynyrd (pronounced ́́lĕh-́nérd ́skin-́nérd), Doraville GA, 1972, MCA MCL 1798, US, 1973.]

Saturday, November 25, 2006


I've avoided retorting to Al Kooper for a long time, but on November 10th he published an absurdly agitated article in the Boston Herald newspaper. I wrote a shorter and calmer response as a letter to the paper. Yesterday they printed less than half of it (without saying it had been cut). So with apologies to those who find disputation tedious, here is the full letter I'd sent. They cut everything after the Suze Rotolo sentence. I didn't mind the pruning out of the review quotes, but I think it's contemptible that they didn't have the balls to print the last paragraph:

After lambasting my book The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia on his website, Al Kooper attacked it again in your paper last week ('Gray's Atrocity', Nov. 10). Instead of calming down, his agitation seems to be on the increase. He calls my book "poorly researched garbage" that has "defiled" his name and claims my entry on him is a "rant" This is rich from a man whose article is nothing but a rant.

First, Kooper's touchiness is extreme: a reasonable person would find my entry on him fond and respectful. The book says 14 nice things about him while offering 4 mild criticisms. Second, Dylan discographer Glen Dundas notes in the
LA City Beat that Kooper is "gravely mistaken in his claims of inaccuracies in Michael Gray's Bob Dylan Encyclopedia", and that Kooper's own recall of his sessions with Bob Dylan has been proven unreliable.

Third, other musicians featured in the book have thanked me for the accuracy of my accounts, including 1960s
Blonde On Blonde keyboardist Bill Aikins, 1970s Rolling Thunder Revue bassist Rob Stoner and 1990s Never-Ending Tour drummer Winston Watson. And while Kooper claims that Suze Rotolo called me a succession of unrepeatable names, her letter to my publisher was nothing but polite and helpful.The book has also been given favorable reviews by those less excitable than Mr Kooper, not least in the Library Journal ("amazingly well researched"), Publishers Weekly, London Evening Standard, Electric Review, The Guardian ("the scale of research is colossal"), Village Voice ("staggeringly erudite, meticulously sourced") and the Times Literary Supplement. Fanzine the Dylan Daily calls it "the most important Bob Dylan book, bar none".

It is true, as Kooper gloats, that the first printing had a very small number of errors. He cites three, none of them about himself, pulled from a work of over 850 entries totalling 750,000 words and vast numbers of facts: the work of one man. All known errors will, anyway, be corrected as the book is reprinted.

Finally, let me clarify Kooper's bizarre allusion to the e-mail exchange between him and me. Yes, he e-mailed and I replied, answering his accusations, saying that his had been the most unpleasant I'd ever received and asking if I could publish it on my blog. He ducked this challenge, telling me it was private - so I kept it to myself. Then in your paper he brags about his "vicious e-mail" having been the nastiest I'd ever received. So since he has made this public, let me make public what made his e-mail so unpleasant: he wrote that he hoped I'd die, and soon. If he really is proud of writing that, I'm embarrassed for him.

Thursday, November 23, 2006


Went to my computer this morning and learnt of the death on Tuesday of Robert Lockwood Junior. He died in hospital of respiratory failure after suffering a stroke on November 3rd in Cleveland, where he had been based for many decades. He was 91.

His death severs almost the last direct link with the pre-war Mississippi blues world. His father disappeared when he was young, and his mother took up with Robert Johnson, who was only four years older than Junior; Johnson taught him guitar and they played together live many times. Lockwood first recorded when Bob Dylan was two months old.

My wife Sarah and I were lucky enough to see him perform at the end of August this year, when, an hour or two after my talk at the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame, we happened to go into a bar called the Fat Fish blue, where there was a septuagenarian group playing, including several sax players. There was no cover charge, the place was busy, a couple of drunk white women were dancing with embarrassing enthusiasm, looked down upon with merited disdain by the leader of the group - and then they announced "Once again, ladies and gentlemen, the great Robert Lockwood Junior!" . . . and this immaculately dressed, sharp-suited old gent with excellent co-respondent shoes and a more modest smile walked slowly across the front of the band, up a couple of steps to a stool, sat on it, was handed his electric guitar, plugged in, and gave a strong performance, including some forceful and dexterous guitarwork: a far better set than such an old man could have been expected to deliver.

We got talking to the bandleader afterwards, and when I told him I was writing Blind Willie McTell's biography he insisted on introducing me to Mr. Lockwood, saying that he would be able to tell me stuff about him from way back when. Privately I doubted this, since McTell had no Mississippi connections, but I was very happy to meet Robert Lockwood Junior - and he was lovely: a warm handshake, an easy manner and a much-appreciated straightforwardness. "I never met the man," he told me a propos of McTell. He invited me to come back to his house to talk more, though time didn't permit. It was a privilege to have met him.

The photos I took of him performing were not very good, but here's one anyway:

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


I just learnt of the death last night of the great Robert Altman, the favourite film director of a great many of us - whose films were magnificent even when they were critical and commercial failures. (The set of his Popeye remains unforgettable, for a start, while Brewster McCloud , McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Pret a Porter were undeservedly dismissed.) Among the best of his work is his masterpiece Nashville, The Player, Gosford Park, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean and the very underrated A Wedding. To which most people would add MASH.

He was terrific, among much else, at using singers. Cher was never anything remotely like as good in her life as in Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. Ronee Blakley shone so much brighter in Nashville than she could manage in Bob Dylan's Renaldo & Clara.

Bob Dylan should have done himself the favour of getting a part in a Robert Altman film. Any part. Any film.


Today is the 74th birthday of one of the authors of the first book on Bob Dylan (songbooks aside): Barbara Ribakove, as was. The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia entry on the authors and their book goes like this:

Sy Ribakove and Barbara Joan Mayer, now Barbara Ribakove Gordon, were born in New York on February 28, 1928 and November 21, 1932 respectively. They wrote the first book on Bob Dylan, the ‘quickie’ Folk Rock: The Bob Dylan Story, in 1966.

It may seem odd now that 1966 was the first year to see such a thing in print, but this was an era in which neither publishers nor the mainstream media were much concerned with ‘pop music’. In 1964 Douglas R. Gilbert’s photographs of a fresh-faced young Dylan, looking, in retrospect, rather neat and short-haired, were rejected by the heavyweight New York magazine Look, which had commissioned them, on the grounds that Dylan was ‘too scruffy for a family magazine’.

Barbara recalls: ‘Sy and I were given…four weeks in which to write the Bob Dylan book. We had never heard of him, but immediately bought all his records and played them night and day while researching and writing the book. Sy’s musicianship was very important to this work; he holds two degrees from Juilliard. We made the deadline.’ Sy adds: ‘We were forbidden to contact Bob Dylan or quote his lyrics… [and] couldn’t have done the book without the generous material in…the daybook provided us by Izzy Young.’

The book was published by Dell as a small-size 124-page paperback with 16 pages of photographs; it mixed biography with a rudimentary discography and a semi-musicological description of the transitional albums from folk to rock. A Japanese translation continued to sell in Japan for some years.

The Ribakoves, who enjoyed a 23-year marriage and collaboration on writing magazine articles, and in 1974 wrote one other ‘quickie’ book (Sy’s own term), The Nifty Fifties: The Happy Years, went their separate ways in the late 1970s.
Sy, now aged 78 and long retired, has played and taught piano professionally, been President of the Rockland Music Teachers Guild and President of the Hospice of Rockland in New City, NY.

Barbara was Senior Editor of the now-defunct Health Magazine and won an award for journalistic writing on hypertension in 1985. In 1981 she went to Ethiopia with the first American mission to Jewish villages, defying the Ethiopian government’s order not to make contacts with villagers; in 1982 she co-founded the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry and in 1991, during a temporary armistice between warring factions, sheh took part in Operation Solomon, airlifting over 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

[Sy & Barbara Ribakove: Folk Rock: The Bob Dylan Story, New York: Dell, 1966; The Nifty Fifties: The Happy Years, New York: Award Books, 1974. Quotes, e-mails to this writer from Barbara Ribakove Gordon and from Sy Ribakove, 1 Feb 2006.]

Monday, November 20, 2006


...was publication day of the first edition of my first book: the original UK hardback of Song & Dance Man: The Art of Bob Dylan, published by Hart-Davis, MacGibbon in London, price £2.50. That's more than a third of a century ago. Time is a jet plane.

Friday, November 17, 2006


Listening tonight to Bob's XM Satellite Radio Show about Dogs - no.16 in the series - I was very pleased to hear a reference to a fox terrier. No more prompting is required to post another picture of the splendid Digby. He's curled up on the rug in my study as I type this, unimpressed by Freddy Bell & the Bellboys' version of 'Hound Dog'.


The Times Literary Supplement carried film-maker Mark Kidel's review of The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia in the issue out last Friday: a pleasant, fresh and personal take on the book - but they stripped it somewhat. This is the version he submitted (used with permission):

In his impressive and appealingly off-centre Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, Michael Gray grants himself, with characteristic tongue-in-cheek, a brief entry, along with many other Dylanologists: he describes himself as the author of “the first full-length critical study of Dylan’s work, the pioneering if rather Leavisite Song & Dance Man: The Art of Bob Dylan (1972)”. He is, of course, much more than that, as he has established himself with several editions of this major book, revised over more than three decades, as the most erudite and yet sensitive of the writers who have tried to make sense of one of the musical and poetic geniuses of our time.

The practice of Dylanology, part-cult, part-gossip mongering, has been refined by some into an academic pursuit. Michael Gray is much more than just a fan, although you have to be a little obsessive to devote a lifetime to the study of one man’s music and lyrics. The Encyclopedia shows signs of obsession, but not in a pathological way, as Gray knows when not to be serious. He also has as a sense of balance and proportion. Parts of Song & Dance Man were a little heavy-going at times, but Gray’s attempt at something more reader-friendly is, apart from those moments when he has – quite justifiably - lifted whole passages from his earlier work, very entertaining.

Encyclopedias are non-linear, and Gray relishes the irrational and idiosyncratic possibilities afforded by the challenge of providing an overall view of such an elusive target as Dylan, without the measure and consideration that a committee of Dylanologists might have brought to the task. This is an eccentric book, perhaps more so than its subject, and it is Michael Gray’s unfettered subjectivity that makes it so engaging. The book thrives on unexpected connections and little-known facts. A browse through the hundreds of entries takes one from Charles Aznavour to John Updike, from the 12-string virtuoso Mark Spoelstra (a friend of Dylan’s in the 60’s) to Andrew Motion, not forgetting entries on “grandma and Walpoles’cat”, “co-option of real music by advertising” and “book endorsements,unfortunate”.

The choice and juxtaposition of photographs is the work of an auteur: Delta bluesman Robert Johnson next to Kafka, both of them displaying a dark gaze that speaks loud and clear of their exceptional sensitivity and an outsider-quality which Dylan must have recognised. “Desolation Row” from “Highway 61 Revisited “(1965), an ur-Dylanesque song, is also deeply Kafkaesque, Gray argues, in the illuminating entry on Franz Kafka, as it suggests that all a powerless individual can do “ is hold to some integrity of personal perspective”. The stills also pair up Roy Orbison and Odetta, Richard Thompson and Tolkien, and the relatively obscure R & B singer Johnny Ace with country star Roy Acuff. These are alphabetically derived connections, but they also reveal, in an appealingly non-literal way, something of the vast and culturally promiscuous range of resources that Dylan has always drawn on and that Gray so skilfully reveals.

A major element in Dylan’s art involves connecting vastly disparate material: from blues, gospel, folk song and country to classic film dialogue, the Bible, nursery rhymes and the Western literary canon. Gray had made these sources clear in Song & Dance Man, but the Encyclopedia’s relative lack of structure provides the possibility for the mind to roam freely, and for the complexity of Bob Dylan’s life and work to be revealed in many different dimensions simultaneously.

The mercurial aspect of Dylan’s art is particularly well-served by the quick-fire possibilities of the CD-R included with the book, loaded with the full text of the Encyclopedia in PDF form, and in which it is possible to move from one cross-referenced entry to another via a click of the mouse: in a few minutes the dizzy reader can travel from Joan Baez (“awful though she is I many ways”, as Gray writes) to John Updike, who reviewed an early concert where she sang with Dylan, and then to the”semi-revivalist” Greenbriar Boys, and their mandolin-player Ralph Rinzler , who started listening to field recordings at the age of 7, and, with another click, to obscure bluesman Richard “Rabbit” Brown (1880-1937) via the celebrated Harry Smith Anthology of early blues and country recordings, and further on to playwright and actor Sam Shepard, followed by Patti Smith, and yes, of course, Rimbaud. All of them with entries that provide pieces of the Bob Dylan mosaic, but also a kind of subterranean portrait of our cultural times, fragmented and disparate, miraculously drawn together in the poetic imagination of an unlikely Jewish lad from Hibbing Minnesota.

At times, Gray’s eccentricity no longer seems to serve his subject, as when he compares the Weavers’ Lee Hays’s looks to those of “the British Home Secretary Charles Clarke”, but most of the detail fills in the background revealingly: only Dylan anoraks are likely to know that Bill Lee who played on “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” and “Bringing it All Back Home” is father to filmmaker Spike Lee, and has worked as musical advisor on several of his son’s films. There are also simply bizarre references, which allow the fancy to float free, such as the recording of “Life’s Railway to Heaven” - an antecedent, Gray suggests of Dylan’s Christian “Slow Train Coming” - by a black blues evangelist with the extraordinary name of Hermes Zimmerman: as if Robert Zimmerman, who recast himself as ‘Bob Dylan’, in homage to the Welsh poet, might have been the hermetic re-incarnation of an obscure black religious singer who only ever recorded one song.

Gray’s passionate subjectivity mirrors his subject’s wholly idiosyncratic journey through life as well as the complexities and contradictions that make Dylan who he is: anger at Dylan’s selling out to corporate forces - McDonalds, Starbucks and Victoria’s Secrets - playing for President Clinton and Pope John Paul II, and his deep frustration at Dylan’s sloppy approach to sound, in the studio and on stage, as well as generous and well-supported enthusiasm for the much-criticised album “Under the Red Sky” [and] the impact that Little Richard had on a whole generation, not least on Zimmy himself.

Gray’s Encyclopedia is mostly very well-written, as much at ease with inspiring literary and musical criticism as it is with wry humour. Gray’s approach is characterised by a mixture of undiluted opinion and genuine fairness, as in his treatment of fellow Dylan-scholar Christopher Ricks, whom he chastises for puns and other clever wordplay: “the most damaging upshot of Ricks’s self-indulgence is that it gets in the way of the incomparable light his gifts can and sometimes still do shine on the work of the incomparable Bob Dylan”: as in a piece on “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” which amounts , in Gray’s opinion, to the “finest piece of critical writing on Dylan”. There is unfashionable respect too for fellow-Leavisite Wilfrid Mellers, doyen of ‘serious’ popular music writing, whose work “ was received without enthusiasm by many of us who still, as the 1980s dawned, preferred to insist upon the blazingly unerring individuality of Dylan’s art, rather than conceded that he stood in a tradition occupied by old people with fiddles and banjos”.

This is not a train-spotter’s guide to Dylan: no discographies, no lists. It is not, as Gray admits in his amusing (and long) entry on “omissions”, the product of decades of painstaking work. That said, it rarely feels as if thrown together to capitalize on Dylan’s renewed popularity. There is an endearingly spontaneous feel about the book, unusual for something so rich and weighty. And this freewheeling quality is in tune with the essence of one-take-and-no-overdubs Dylan, never an artist to be cramped by perfectionism, and yet capable of art that comes at times, not least on his latest release “Modern Times”, close to perfection indeed.
Mark Kidel

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Rupert Murdoch version of television is, of course, worse in reality than anything on my fanciful list of awful TV programmes (Saturday, November 11 entry). There's one on tonight - this really is true - called 99 MOST BIZARRE SELF-INFLICTED INJURIES.

I suppose at no.1 there might be a Mr. G.W. Bush and a Mr. A. Blair showing Iraq to the camera, but it's not likely.

Monday, November 13, 2006


This is a piece I wrote for the Weekend Telegraph Travel Section, based on a trip done in October 2000. They published it in March 2001, under the title "Chelsea Hotel: Still Scuzzy After All These Years". Journalists never get to choose the titles of their newspaper pieces. You can submit the article with the best, wittiest headline in the world and the subs will change it for the sake of it. In the case of pieces on Bob Dylan, that's why they're always titled something naff like "The Times They're Still A-Changin'", or "Not Like A Rolling Stone". It's so embarrassing to be thought responsible. Anyway, this is the Chelsea Hotel piece. (It has not been updated, and since it was written prices have risen and DeeDee Ramone has died - in Hollywood in June 2002. Stanley Bard is still going, and the hotel now has a website, e-mail, WiFi in the lobby and even Skype; but you still can't make a reservation using e-mail...):

If you go down to the Chelsea Hotel, you’re sure of a big surprise. Unless you’ve been before, in which case the surprise is only that recent “refurbishment” (nice hotel word, that) has left this elderly Manhattan institution so unchanged.
How unreconstructedly scuzzy the place still is, and how humane. There is no concession to the tourist industry, or to the assumptions of all those taking degrees in hotel management.
The first thing you’ll encounter is the hopelessness of the Chelsea’s booking arrangements. Fax them in advance and they won’t reply. Phone to tell them, in puzzlement, that you faxed them and got no reply and they’ll say, as if this explains it, that they didn’t know quite what they should say, so they didn’t. Phone and try to book a room six weeks in advance and they’ll offer the endearing non-sequitur that they don’t have a computer so they can’t cope with bookings more than a month ahead.
The computer bit is said with the pride of people consciously fighting a noble rearguard action. And that’s what the Chelsea is all about.
It even manages to remain in an unfashionable location - quite a feat, for almost all Manhattan is fashionable now. The whole city is cleaner, safer, more polite and just a little bit less distinctive than it used to be, and all those once-impossible areas rather pleased with themselves. The dangerous junkie wasteland of the East Village is ridiculously bijou, its every sinister, stinking corner now an art gallery, coffee-shop, bookstore or vegetarian body-piercing salon. In the (West) Village, once the HQ of folkies and their civil rights activist compadres, of jazz musicians, writers and loft-living pioneers, whole blocks are now restaurants, the pavement cafés serve designer beer and there is rocket in every sandwich. The Village Voice has become a freebie, with barely any space for articles among its hundreds of pages of ads. And even in the former nomansland just north of the Chelsea and and across a bit, the galleries are getting a grip.
The Chelsea Hotel keeps its head down, and its little patch of West 23rd Street, near the corner of 7th Avenue, remains undistinguished, dirty and bleak. The shops are no smarter or better organised than at Elephant and Castle. The hotel’s thin, cheap awning, flapping above the warm breeze sidewalk, says look, here we are, we’ve seen better days, we promise.
And it’s true. Built in the 1880s, a hotel since 1905, and belonging to the Bard family since 1940, this red brick and ironwork monstrosity, this inefficient, grandiose, crustacean shell embraces 400 rooms in which an almost impossibly perfect castlist of bohemians of every generation have lived, loved, altered their minds and died. When, briefly, before Broadway, 23rd Street was theatreland, Lily Langtry was always popping in. Sarah Bernhardt installed herself with her own bedding and the coffin she claimed to sleep in. Mark Twain, O. Henry, Cartier-Bresson, Hart Crane, Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Theodore Dreiser and Nelson Algren all stayed or lived here. Thomas Wolfe wrote “Look Homeward Angel” in Room 831. Composer Virgil Thomson had a five-room apartment, now sold off intact; fellow composer George Kleinsinger had a tropical apartment on the upper floors, with monkeys and a waterfall. His ashes were scattered on the roof.
Then there was Brendan Behan, Nabokov, radical/porn publisher Maurice Girondias, Tennessee Williams, Edith Piaf and eventually Dylan Thomas, whose plaque at the entrance notes that he “lived and labored here… and from here sailed out to die” (at the White Horse Tavern, Greenwich Village).
Arthur Miller wrote two plays at the Chelsea; Athur C. Clarke wrote “2001” here, William Burroughs “Naked Lunch”, Bob Dylan ‘Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands’. Other 1960s guests and residents included Allen Ginsberg and arts polymath Harry Smith, Robert Crumb, Joni Mitchell (who was prompted to write ‘Chelsea Morning’ here), Leonard Cohen (whose less sunny ‘Chelsea Hotel No.2’ recalls Janis Joplin giving him head in Room 104), Jimi Hendrix, Claes Oldenburg and Warhol “superstars” Viva and Ultra Violet.
Patti Smith lived here with Robert Mapplethorpe in the 1970s. Milos Forman lived here while producing “Hair”. Sid Vicious killed Nancy Spungen here. Quentin Crisp lived here for over 35 years. DeeDee Ramone lives here still.
The walls ooze this history, and as everyone says, “the walls are thick.” Walk the dilapidated corridors and you’ll hear an opera-singer practising scales, or a trombonist barking, or a dog. In the lifts you meet these dogs, or people carrying up hot food from the outside world. The lifts are small and charged with an atmosphere of elaborate politeness, as those brought temporarily together for short, vertical journeys avoid prying. Once inside your room, you can’t hear much. You can be private and, if you’re a resident, feel that you belong: that big New York may knock you about, and funds may be short, but here is your haven. Your art or other travail is your own business but your artist-persona will be accorded respect.
As a guest you can feel a privileged temporary member of this iconoclastic club. Not everyone wants to, of course. You won’t be long in NYC before someone, learning that you’re staying at the Chelsea, will give you a perplexed and hesitant look, and decide right before your eyes not to cultivate you further. Then again, if you’re a Chelsea sort of person, this won’t matter. After all, you know how much it’s costing you. The Chelsea Hotel is no longer especially cheap. Perhaps it never was.
I entered after a gap of eleven years, and the lobby seemed only superficially tidied-up. Large canvases still shout from the walls and lolloping art installations, bizarre papier-mâché dolls and agonised metal skeletons, still jostle from the ceiling. The chairs remain ill-sorted and exhausted, the whole place too scuffed and crumbling to respond to even prodigious efforts of vacuuming and polish.
The desk at the far end looks like a 1940s film noir hotel set. The pigeon-holes behind the two elderly, shirtsleeved receptionists are filled with cumbersome, yellowing pieces of paper. A fire-extinguisher hangs at eye-level. The dark wood counter is covered with old telephones and newspapers. Standing on tiptoes to lean over it, and speaking in delicate tones, a succession of unshaven men tell the manager that they have not yet received their cheque, but that it is certainly on its way. Some are told they can leave it till next week to discuss it; others are told, “well, if you like we could move you to a cheaper room - number soandso is pleasant…”
I had never forgotten the unfailing courtesy of these exchanges, and that they still go on is the certain proof that the Chelsea is unchanged in spirit.
Stanley Bard is the remarkable man who has kept it this way. He’s in his sixties and ascribes his beanpole slimness to playing tennis in New Jersey, where he lives, and from where he commutes to become, daily, the abbot of this hushed retreat. It must puzzle many of the hotel’s residents that he is not one himself.
I ask how he handles the junkies and the suicides, the rock’n’roll casualties, the Sids and Nancys. He’s urbane, long used to coping with celebrity excess. He says quietly, remembering: “Really it was only bad when the Grateful Dead came in.”
He is anxious that when his son takes over, as he did from his father, things might change too much.
“If profit becomes the main motive,” he tells me, “if it goes commercial and becomes just a big hotel, it will lose a lot. It will lose the people who live here - who have no legal protection but who are protected, really, by my feelings for them. Creative people.”
You could regard paying for your room at the Chelsea as making an honourable contribution. Otherwise you might feel a bit done. The rooms may have been revamped and the stairwell restored but the corridors remain so astonishingly fleapit that on arrival you’re likely to regret that you’ve come. This is where Goth meets Gormenghast.
For less money, you could stay at one of the new breed of “budget” hotel where everything is clean and shiny. At the Habitat on E.57th, for example, en suite rooms start at $125 a night.
At the Chelsea, an ordinary double is likely to be $185, and could be $275. (There’s a sense, when you’re first at the desk, that they make up the price when they see the whites of your eyes.) But you could choose to pay $350 a night, for instance, for the small suite that is Room 822, the like of which you will not find at a Habitat: here, preposterous battered cream and gold Louis XVI meets leopard-skin dining-chairs and an 1950s coffee-table, and repulsive nylon curtains separate bedroom from sitting-room. It feels as if Dylan Thomas and Sarah Bernhardt had a fistfight right here on the floor. It’s very, very Chelsea Hotel. But are you?

© Michael Gray

Saturday, November 11, 2006


Just to say they're on again tonight, on the UK's More4 television channel, at 9.10pm GMT.

Other programmes I like (and there aren't many), include...

JUDGE JUDY: look out for the way she waves her tiny hands!
WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?: family-tree-research case histories (2nd series far less compelling than the 1st)
UNIVERSITY CHALLENGE: at the beginning of which when it says 'Asking the questions...' my brain still adds, with gleeful obduracy, 'Bamber Gascoigne' (though Paxman is fine by me)
LEAD BALLOON: a rare comedy series made in Britain that doesn't make you wince with embarrassment at its awful implausibility and clumpiness. Jack Dee is excellent in this, and it suits him.

Among the many programmes I don't like (and there are many):

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


The night before last, one of the digital channels here in the UK - More4 - showed an astonishing, moving documentary about a group based in Northampton Massachusetts (a town that yields strikingly mixed audiences for the group's sell-out shows, making it look an exceptionally healthy, vibrant place to live). The group is Young@Heart. Their website is generously informative and user-friendly but it doesn't communicate anything of what an artistic sensation the group is, live, or how touching its component members' indomitability, or how admirable is its long-term leader, Bob Cilman, the guy who dreamt it up in the first place.

These very elderly people perform songs by Lou Reed, Talking Heads, Sonic Youth, Coldplay, Bob Dylan etc., and make you hear the words anew (to say the least). One of the more obvious, less transformative performances on the TV documentary was of 'Forever Young', performed live for prison inmates. It was a more emotional, more felt rendition than Bob Dylan ever manages. Half these prisoners were openly weeping by halfway through. I wish you could see it on YouTube right now.

The website's "Our Story" page begins like this:

When the Young@ Heart began in 1982 the members all lived in an elderly housing project in Northampton, MA called the Walter Salvo House. The first group included elders who lived through both World Wars. One of our members had fought in the Battle of the Somme as a 16 year old and another, Anna Main, lost her husband in the First World War. Anna was a stand-up comic who at 88 told jokes that only she could get away with. She sang with us until she was 100. We celebrated her 100th birthday with a parade downtown. We actually had to reschedule the parade for a year later when her family informed us that we had the date wrong and she was only 99. This initial group also included Diamond Lillian Aubrey who came on our first two European tours and wowed the audiences with her deadpan version of Manfred Mann’s “Doo Wah Diddy”. In later years she appeared “on stage” via video, performing the Stone’s “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”.

By 1983 our original group was ready to create our first stage production. We enlisted the support of Roy Faudree from No Theater to stage “Stompin’ at the Salvo”. No Theater was doing the most intriguing theater work in town and I was stunned when Roy agreed to stage the first show. That first production was memorable for the sensation and buzz it created in town. The show sold out four times...

For UK-based people, the whole programme will be repeated on More4 this Saturday, 11 November, at 9.10pm, and then repeated on Channel 4 on Wednesday 22 November at 9pm. In the interim, there's a very interesting description of the whole thing by the documentary's director here.

Bob Dylan, of course, at 65, isn't nearly old enough to join the group.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


It isn't everyone who inspects this blog's Links List with gimlet eye, so this post is just to say that new and recently-added links are:

newspaper travel editor Michael Kerr's sane and funny blog KERRAWAY

the Hibbing Public Library blog (listed in my Links as HIBBINGBLOG)

and Steven Hart's Life On Digital Grub Street blog, listed as 5* BOOKS BLOG.

Monday, November 06, 2006


October 3, 2000, NYC: You don't have to go far in this city to find a mad person. There's one on every bus. And at least two defiantly obese people. Yet sit outside any cafe, pretending you're not breathing in traffic fumes, and the parade of people, especially in the chic-dilapidation districts, is so variegated it's salutary. It isn't only a plethora of race and face but of gait too. How many different styles of human propulsion there are! And how weird the co-existence of all this multiplicity alongside the homogenised omnipresent troughshops. Dunkin Donut Man (and Woman) is alive and ill on every block.

Twilight is settling slowly onto the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal Streets. People still rollerblade by, as in days of yore. A policeman on horseback rides down Bleecker in the opposite direction from the traffic, but halts at the lights. He wears a skyblue crash helmet. The horse is elegant, its coat an immaculate chestnut brown; it is scarcely less sinuous and thin than a racehorse. A filthy white sanitation truck stretches its neck forward around the corner, like a sick pterodactyl. Too many Dunkin Donuts perhaps.

A school bus drives past, with a notice on its side, which I do not understand the point of at all. I imagine it must be part of the terrifying upsurge of Health & Safety Fascism. It reads THIS BUS HAS BEEN CHECKED FOR SLEEPING CHILDREN.

Thursday, November 02, 2006


The New York Observer, a nasty little newspaper, is bound to be right in its review of the Twyla Tharp / Bob Dylan musical, which, under the heading "Don't Think Twice, Twyla - It's Not Remotely All Right", begins like this:

The other night, I was in Elaine’s in search of a little solace when an old friend came by and said in wounded disbelief that he’d just been to the worst show he’d ever seen in his life.

“That’s funny,” I replied regretfully, “so have I.”

We’d both just seen Twyla Tharp’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ at the Brooks Atkinson Theater on Broadway. Though it gives me no pleasure to say so, I’ve a slight qualification to make. It’s the worst show I’ve seen that was conceived by a respected artist... If an unknown artist had stumbled so badly creating a new musical, I wouldn’t in fairness review it at all. But there’s an arrogance at work here, a cynicism that gives offense. Ms. Tharp is more than a respected artist: Some hail her as an innovatory genius of modern American dance. She conceived, directed and choreographed The Times They Are A-Changin’—and so she must take the knocks for her mind-boggling fiasco.

Let me say positively at least that I enjoyed Movin’ Out, Ms. Tharp’s dance musical set to the songs of Billy Joel, though its narrative and stage pictures of the Vietnam era were too familiar. That hit show was a cut way above the usual jukebox dross. But I regret to say that her opportunistic new show bewilderingly sinks to the lowest Broadway level, while killing the Bob Dylan songbook along the way.

And so on. Some of us could have predicted this. The Broadway musical is fundamentally against the work of Bob Dylan. And vice versa. You may as well try to put Dick Cheney together with Son House.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


... was ten years ago today. John was the founder and excellent editor of the best Dylan fanzine ever, The Telegraph. He died, along with four other people, on the evening of October 22, 1996, aged 47, when the helicopter chartered by the Chelsea football club Vice-Chairman crashed.

I wasn't one of those who'd known him from the start, and at some point at the end of the 1980s we quarrelled, but in between, for the great bulk of that difficult decade (the 1980s), John and I knew each other well, got on well, worked together and met up on a number of special occasions. (We suffered together the humiliation of seeing on TV Bob Dylan's appearance at Live Aid; we stood together to enjoy the outdoor Paris concert of 1984; we co-edited All Across The Telegraph: A Bob Dylan Handbook; we sat people-watching together on a Greenwich Village sidewalk. He even took me to a Bolton Wanderers home match.) And our falling-out, though it disappointed me, didn't prompt any reduction of my respect for his work, which was, at its best, an exemplary mix of thoughtful criticism and wit, and involved an attractively insistent holding out for high standards from all of us, including Bob.

I travelled to John's funeral with Nigel Hinton and his wife Rolande. On the way we were held up by cows that had wandered up somebody's garden path. The somebody seemed rather annoyed. I felt he should have been honoured; the cows were far more aesthetically pleasing than his bungalow and garden.

I'm told there'll be a special commemorative section about John in the next issue of The Bridge, due out at the end of November.