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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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Sunday, December 03, 2006


This whole discussion, in my view, has become absurdly laboured, swollen and heated, so I propose to answer the various points that have been made by other people, and then by Al Kooper, and after that this forum is closed to him. He has plenty of other outlets for keeping up this malevolent vendetta but enough is enough on my blog. I’ve already let him publish over 1,700 words here, which seems more than fairness requires - especially when so many of these words have been in his shouting capital letters and many others just abuse.

Actually, it’s been noticeable that, with a couple of exceptions, those who’ve pitched in on Kooper’s side have chosen a highly belligerent tone of voice and gone for bludgeoning simplistic point-scoring, while generally speaking those on the other side have chosen politeness and a willingness to discuss. Which says something in itself.

OK. Suze Rotolo. Al Kooper will be pleased to hear that I did feel it as a blow that she should be so dismissive. I understand from her letter to my publisher that the factual errors she wanted corrected were the name of her son, and that the car I’d said had been given her by Charles Flato was actually given her by the executor of his estate. The latter might not seem such an important error to many people except Ms Rotolo. Of course identifying the wrong young man as her son was an undeniable mistake on my part. I regret this error and I apologise for it. The book’s text will amended on both counts as soon as possible.

But it was two other points she said were her main grounds for complaint: that I had described family friend Flato as having been “a member of the American Communist Party who acted as a Soviet agent while working for the US government (though he was never prosecuted)”, and second that I had mentioned a forged letter. Re the first, she confirms that “The citing of Charles Flato as a member of the American Communist Party is correct”, doesn’t actually deny that Flato was a Soviet agent, but says it is “to perpetuate a conjecture” that I print this bit. I have no axe to grind here. Again the text will be adjusted so that it merely notes he was “sometimes alleged” to have been a Soviet agent. As for the disputed letter, I mentioned it because it had been given some recent attention in the Dylan world; I also stated explicity that Ms Rotolo had said it was a fake. That I mentioned it at all was a matter of judgment, not fact, and since it’s my book and not hers, she’ll have to be content to disagree with mine.

Yes, it was a blow to me that someone I’ve always regarded highly was so dismissive - so haughty - about the whole entry and by extension my entire endeavour, and on such small grounds. She lumps me in with “sellers of forged letters [who] ignore me”, which is patently unjust. She insinuates that my calling her letter to my publisher “helpful” was like those people who “consider a polite refusal ‘an interview’”. That too is a distortion. Her letter had been helpful: it offered the suggested corrections that can be incorporated into future reprints of the book as detailed above.

Finally, could any fair-minded reader of the Rotolo entry feel I had been at all disrespectful or less than fair in my assessment of her or her contribution, or in my concern to emphasise her place in the development of Dylan’s work? Kooper has complained (by e-mail) that I “second guess” how Dylan “allegedly felt about Suzie Rotolo” and pepper my tome with “Enquirer style crap”, but that’s completely untrue. The only conjecture I make about Dylan’s attitude is this: “In the years after their demise as an item, Rotolo retained Dylan’s respect by her determined silence and her absolute refusal to give interviews.” Well I’m not going to apologise for that. As for the rest, those parts of the entry that concern Suze’s feelings about Bob and Bob’s about her are all direct quotes from their published writings. My suppositions are about her impact on his work, and they are entirely positive. They evaluate her contribution carefully and it ought to be obvious to anyone that it took much conscientious work to delineate all this. So I’m sorry she’s so dissatisfied but obviously it can’t be helped.

Then there’s the strand of commentary that says “Yes, how dare the people who were actually there think they know better than a ‘researcher’”, and “I’d take Al Kooper’s word over Mr Gray on Dylan any day”; anyone would think from this, and from Kooper’s rantings, that my entry had arrogantly contradicted Kooper’s account of events. It did no such thing. Nor did it set out to rubbish him. The opposite is true. People like Yellow Rat Bastard (such a sweet moniker) saying “you don’t really give a rat’s ass about the truth and facts” only make it plain that it’s they who are guilty of that.

The more general issue here, about history and truth, is far more complex than these brutalist contributors will allow. Tellingly, it’s the unaggressive contributors who are willing to admit the complexities.

We might boil it down to this: in matters of who did what, who played what instrument on what track on what day, then obviously the people in the room at the time may remember everything in perfect, accurate detail - though there are obvious problems with all such notions. With the best will in the world, people’s memories are dodgy things. Anyone looking into the testimonies of surviving relatives for their own family history knows that. As writer Nigel Hinton says - and this is quoted on the entry on Dylan’s Chronicles Volume One - ‘memory and invention are impossible to untangle.’

At the very least, you might concede that most rock musicians are not the anal-retentive type, find such recall neither possible nor desirable, and readily admit to having only the vaguest idea about sessions from last month, let alone 40 years ago. They would mostly find the idea laughable that their personal recollection alone should be relied upon by historians. In different situations and with different sorts of people, the same problems with ‘truth’ apply. No-one would rely on only Stalin’s, Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s own version of what happened when they met at Yalta - and you wouldn’t do so even if you thought each person was trying their best to be scrupulously accurate; nor would you automatically give extra weight to Churchill’s version because he was a historian as well as a war leader, statesman and politician.

Kooper keeps quoting Tom Waits on history: “The problem with history is, the folks who were there ain’t talking. And the ones who weren’t there, you can’t shut them up.” This is inaccurate from every angle, and it’s risible that Kooper finds it profound. The “folks who were there” almost always do talk; they weren’t usually conscious that they were making history at the time, so they weren’t necessarily paying attention to the detail; and the ones who weren’t there are entitled to speak too. Otherwise, what right would Tom Waits have to comment? He hasn’t made history: he’s just made records. As contributor Ben wrote, “If anyone thinks history is pure fact then they are ill-informed. Just go to any undergraduate lecture on the ‘Social Construction of Knowledge’.”

When it comes to a different sort of truth, about a work of art, you definitely don’t just take the artist’s word for it. Their public comments are naturally of interest, and at best might express clearly what they were aware of doing with the conscious part of the mind while planning and/or creating it, but it’s the work itself that must speak. This is why, all along, at the very start of every edition of Song & Dance Man I have always quoted D.H. Lawrence’s dictum “Never trust the artist, trust the tale.”

This all connects with those contributors who, like Kooper, can’t bear the fact that my book is called an encyclopedia, because they think an encyclopedia should only contain “facts”.

Kooper boasted in his Boston Herald piece about his own entry on Dylan in Encyclopædia Britannica, and in his e-mail to me specified this: “I was hired and assigned the Bob Dylan entry in the Encyclopedia Brittanica [sic]. I did all my research through Dylan's office, and presented a factual rundown of his career to date.” He doesn’t realise how limited and dodgy he’s admitting his research must have been if he only took Bob Dylan’s office’s word for everything - and just as important, he doesn’t even seem to recognise that he had to edit, choose what to leave out, prune - i.e. make judgments - all the way through the process of writing an entry. Everyone does. The lofty pretend-neutral tone of a traditional encyclopedia may attempt the illusion of objectivity, but the process of editing, weighing up what’s worth including and what isn’t, is still the process that has gone on for every entry. If Kooper had been stupid enough to try to write “a factual rundown” of Dylan’s career to date without editorial intervention, he’d still be writing things down and no encyclopedia would ever print the end result. So it’s particularly daft for Kooper to get so bizarrely apoplectic about the title of my book.

So. Kooper’s other arguments. First, the abject dishonesty of claiming he hadn’t wished me dead, because he’d only been quoting Bob Dylan. That really is pathetic. He was hurling the quote at me, and he knows it. He even added to the quotation “You are just another Master of Whore”. That’s surely as naff a pun as was ever made, but there’s no doubting it was all being hurled at me. As contributor Jake wrote: “I think there’s a difference between writing a Bob Dylan Encyclopedia and being a ‘Master of War’.” And as someone else e-mailed me to say:

“His disclaimer about quoting ‘Masters of War’ at you - that those weren’t his words - complete with its absurd implicit suggestion that you’ve never heard the song, or at least couldn’t recognise a quotation from it - demonstrates a very limited moral awareness. It is as if someone was to cry ‘Crucify him’ at a lynching and then exonerate himself by claiming to be alluding to the Bible.”

Then there’s the Bill Aikins question. “When Gray said he had the support of Bill Aikin” - it’s Aikins, Al - “I lost my temper again. NOONE BY THAT NAME PLAYED KEYBOARDS ON B&B!” It’s laughable that Kooper thinks it’s reasonable to lose his temper if someone he’s forgotten about gets a credit!

Again, I have no axe to grind here. I didn’t know Aikins, and I had never contacted him or vice versa until I was writing the book. But I was specific about the session Aikins played on (Feb 14, 1966) and in the entry on him I quote his recollection of the session. In view of all this foaming at the mouth by Kooper, I phoned Aikins this afternoon to ask exactly what keyboards he played that day. I was lucky to get hold of him on a Sunday, since he’s Worship Leader in a church group these days, but he was at home and he said, very straightforwardly, that he can’t be sure if it was piano or Hammond B-3 organ - but he certainly knows he was there: and actually, he also said: “Al Kooper? I don’t remember him.”

But he suggested I check with Charlie McCoy, saying that Charlie probably has a better memory; that they knew each other well in those days, he’d been in Charlie McCoy & the Escorts (as my book noted in the entry on Wayne Moss), that “Charlie was the contractor for all those dates” and that it was Charlie McCoy who brought him in on the session.

So I e-mailed McCoy and asked him. I exchanged several e-mails with him when researching the book, and he was always (at the risk of irritating Suze Rotolo) helpful. He has been helpful again, and very promptly. His answer, in full: “Bill was there but I don’t remember whether piano or organ.”

So, Al, to make the point your way: BILL WAS THERE.

This was obviously going to be the case even if Charlie McCoy hadn’t replied so quickly, or hadn’t replied at all. It would be absurd to think that Bill Aikins - a longtime musical colleague of McCoy’s and a musician on many sessions - would invent his brief involvement in Blonde On Blonde. Or that would credit him as one of the album’s musicians if he wasn’t.

Anyone else might give me credit for having remembered to include a minor figure like Aikins. But what we have here instead is Kooper shouting the odds about a session when he’s completely in the wrong. A musician was there, he’s forgotten him, and therefore he has to be denied. He cannot admit that he’s simply no recollection of one person who was in a room with him 40 years ago. But I’m damned if I’m going to elbow Bill Aikins out of the picture on Kooper’s ill-tempered say-so. It’s shameful that Kooper should want to deny another musician his due just because it’s a far more modest one than his own.

What we also have here is the perfect demonstration of why it would be crazy to just accept Kooper’s word for it on all these occasions.

(On another matter - the question of how many Nashville trips there had been - Kooper writes that “I spoke with one of your competitors, Sean Wilentz… he promptly called Charlie McCoy… and Charlie corroborated my claim by stating he remembered it as one group of sessions as well.” But Kooper, typically, twists this too: what Kooper says is that his version is true and anyone who says different is “you clowns” telling “lies” - but Charlie McCoy doesn’t “corroborate” Kooper’s “claim”: he is more circumspect, and rather more modest, just saying he “remembered it as one group of sessions as well”. And that’s if we can rely on Kooper to have conveyed what Wilentz says McCoy said. It’s just as clumsy for Kooper to call Sean Wilentz “one of [my] competitors.” He would resist that label as I do. We don’t “compete”; he does his work - and he’s a highly qualified academic, which I’m certainly not and have never claimed to be - and I do mine. Mine has included writing an entirely approving entry on him in my Encyclopedia, for which he supplied much information and e-mailed to say “very nice of you to include me”. So don’t insinuate that I’m in another battle, here, Mr. K. And I haven’t had to rely on asking Charlie McCoy my questions through an intermediary.)

And incidentally: Kooper says I could have checked into Bill Aikins via “The Nashville Musicians Union” if I’d done “valid research”. Actually I found Bill Aikins through the union in the first place.

Being so unreliable and mean-minded about other musicians, Kooper naturally has to slag off anyone who has done discographical research - and in particular “the riddled discography of [your] pal Dundas”. Glen Dundas and I are not personal friends, though we are indeed friendly acquaintances. I know him well enough to say with confidence that in his Dylan studies he has been unfailingly generous-spirited and ego-free. He has doubtless made a number of errors in his work - who hasn’t, especially in such difficult territory? - but he has never made errors through vindictiveness, or wished anyone in the Dylan world ill, nor tried to deny that he might ever make a mistake. And though he was brave enough to stick his head above the parapet and say in print - in a defence of me that I had not asked for - that Kooper’s testimony about sessions was unreliable, he was only saying what every Dylanologist knows.

It wasn’t me, but Derek Barker, editor of Isis, who coined the phrase “Planet Kooper”. In a painstaking, careful piece of detective-work about the recording of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, first published in issue no.120, May 2005 and then in Bob Dylan Anthology Volume 2: 20 Years of Isis (p.97), Barker writes:

“The booklet that accompanies The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 gives ‘official’ testament to the recording… However, like much of the official material it is clearly erroneous and appears to have been based on anecdotal evidence from Planet Kooper, which is supported by a misleading quote given by Dylan to Rolling Stone magazine in 1988, both of which state that the released version… was the final take on day one (June 15 [1965]). These two concurring but woefully inaccurate recollections could be seen as being corroborated by the reproduction of a Tape Identification Data sheet for the June 15 session on the back inside cover of the Bootleg Series booklet. While the June 15 sheet correctly represents the fragmentary outtake that is included on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3, it could also be seen as supporting the statements by Kooper and Dylan that there was only ever one complete take of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’. Had the tape sheet for the following day (June 16) been reproduced, it would have shown that there were a further fifteen takes - five of which were complete - of the song and that far from being captured in a single complete take, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ was in fact one of the most laboured recordings of Dylan’s career up to that point.”

In the endnotes (p.102), Barker details more of Kooper’s unreliability as a witness. Barker points Kooper to a photo (from the sessions) that had only come to light on the Bootleg Series Volume 4: Dylan Live 1966 CD set: “In the first email exchange with Al Kooper he stated: ‘Sure looks like me playin’ an old Fender Jazzmaster’. However, when it was explained to him that the photograph was from June 15, a session at which he has always maintained he did not play guitar, Al suggested, ‘It must be my twin brother Kenny Rankin’. It seems that Rankin and Kooper were often mistaken for each other at that time. The problem is, Rankin was not at any of the Highway 61 sessions!”

Consistency isn’t Kooper’s strong point in argument either. He boasts that he relied on Bob Dylan’s office for his own research, setting much store by using the official source - but when I use that source to show him that Bill Aikins played on Blonde On Blonde he rubbishes it: he wants me to “lift [my] frigging research above the incorrect liner notes”. Which, of course, I also did. Similarly he’s always howling for “the facts”, except when he loses interest in them. Then I’m wrong to have listed them: “Are there REALLY people besides yourself that care how many times the songs above were attempted…?”

Meanwhile the obvious irony is that he plays out his extended tantrums about “the facts” not only while so often wrong about them himself, but, while being, as an anonymous contributor noted, “extremely opinionated and emotional about this stuff.”

He also repeatedly misunderstands what I write, so accusing me of crimes I’ve not committed, as any ordinary reader would understand at once. He berates me about those liner notes as if I offer them to prove the full roster of Blonde On Blonde players - but clearly I did’t: I offered them to show official recognition that Bill Aikins was among them. Kooper, though, rants that “nowhere in the liner notes does it mention that Paul Griffin played piano on ‘One Of Us Must Know’, probably one of the greatest bits of piano playing I’ve ever heard in my life. Nor does it mention that Bobby Gregg played drums on that track along with Rick Danko on bass.” To give the impression that I don’t know that, or that I haven’t given any account of these people, is to lie. Bobby Gregg and Paul Griffin receive adjacent entries in the book, as it happens; Gregg’s role is willingly acknowledged - why wouldn’t it be?; Rick Danko’s long entry specifies that he played bass on that track and adds: “though Danko’s name is missing from the credits”; and the 1000-word entry on Paul Griffin doesn’t just highlight that “bit of piano playing” but gives space to journalist Jonathan Singer’s eloquent, attentive attempt to describe for the reader just what is so great about it.

(To repeat Singer’s words: “‘Griffin gives the song its tragic depth - and height. He picks his way sensitively through the verses; but at other times, he prowls beneath the words with judgement and an ominous gospel lick that he stokes until he has climbed to the verse’s peak. At the chorus, Griffin unleashes a symphony; hammering his way up and down the keyboard, half Gershwin, half gospel, all heart. The follow-up, a killer left hand figure that links the chorus to the verse, releases none of the song’s tension. Then, on the last chorus, not content to repeat the same brilliant part, Griffin’s playing…so completely embodies the lyric, that he enters into some other dimension. For several seconds, on one of Dylan’s best songs, Griffin makes Dylan seem almost earthbound.’”)

Kooper quotes me as writing of him that he “moved to the west coast and formed Blood, Sweat and Tears…” and declares indignantly “I did NOT move to California to form BS&T.” But Al, I don’t say that. Similarly, he quotes this passage about Newport ’65: “He attended and played organ on the later Highway 61 Revisited sessions (July 30 and August 2, 1965 in New York)”, and goes into a juvenile rave about “I hate to tell you this, Mikey, but Highway 61 was already recorded when we played The Newport Fest. And you can wave all your ‘research papers’ in my face, but I knew all those songs because i had ALREADY RECORDED THEM!!” A calmer person might have seen that it wasn’t being suggested that there’d been no earlier sessions - no pre-Newport sessions - but simply that the last days of recording (“the later Highway 61 Revisited sessions”) were on July 30 and August 2. No-one but Kooper disputes this, or denies that the festival took place before those dates. (And of course a less egocentric person might have said, unless they were Dylan himself, that they knew the songs “because we had already recorded them”. Al prefers “because I had already recorded them”. No credit is ever quite enough for him, is it?)

He makes these clumsy misreadings over and over again, berating me about things I’ve clearly never said. As here: “BTW, I never played on Short Shorts by The Royal Teens and EVERYONE knows that.” Actually, not many people on the planet have heard of the Royal Teens, and even fewer know whether Al Kooper played on it or not - but I don’t say he did. On the contrary, I write quite plainly: “he was a guitarist with pop group the Royal Teens shortly after they’d had a top 10 hit with ‘Short Shorts’ in 1958.” [My emphasis added.] Likewise Kooper writes: “I had NOTHING to do with the recording of This Diamond Ring by Gary Lewis; I Must Be Seeing Things by Gene Pitney; or the… Johnny Hallyday recording. I was co-composer of those songs ONLY.” Which is exactly what the entry states.

And so on. Enough is enough. Kooper gets fulsome credit for his work in a 2,675-word entry in my book (plus endnotes) and feels “defiled” because he can’t bear to have me criticise a couple of self-indulgent solo albums he made in the mid-1970s. Well I’m sorry. But not very sorry. I am not going to be bullied, and I am not going to have my work of many years trashed by someone so utterly unreasonable and unreasoning, and someone who in the matter of reliability over “the truth” is standing in a very fragile glass house wildly throwing stones.

I think his response has been extraordinarily puffed up and more than a little deranged. I’m sorry I made the mistake of not replicating the spelling error on the Zombies’ album title, and that I misnamed his group ReKooperation instead of The ReKooperators. I’m sorry too for one real error of judgment in my entry. I wrote: “he’s lost none of his acumen, and if anything has gained in self-deprecating grace down the years.” I was certainly wrong there.

Finally, a heartfelt thank you again to those who have been supportive in all this, both on the blog and off it.