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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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Friday, November 17, 2006


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


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