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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, May 31, 2007


BBC Radio 4 is running a series called Take Two at 1.30pm (British Summertime) on Tuesday afternoons (though each programme is pre-recorded). It looks at the careers and relationships of prominent musicians who have worked together, and next week concentrates on Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. The talking heads were the great Martin Carthy and, er, me. He said a lot of sane, unassuming stuff, nicely uncontaminated by any over-familiarity with the concerns of us Dylan fanatics, and was warm and cordial both on- and off-mike. I tried to fight the programme's central presumption that Joan was in any way crucial to Bob's career. The producer tells me they've retained some of this.

There's a tiny amount of detail about the show here on the BBC's unfailingly dreadful website, and I'm told it can be heard any time in the week following its broadcast via their so-called "Listen Again" facility - the one that didn't work for Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour shows.

The photograph, source unknown, is from their June 6, 1982 Peace Sunday appearance in Pasadena, California, where they performed 'With God On Our Side', 'Blowin' In The Wind' and, in between these two, the Jimmy Buffett song 'A Pirate Looks At Forty'.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007


Readers of The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia may have noticed that Paul McCartney has never been my favourite Beatle (he should care...) but this week's Big Issue contains an interesting and straightforward new interview with him, in which while he maintains his long dignified silence in response to the tabloid horror-stories involving his divorce, he does say a curious thing about Bob and the Beatles:

"You know, there were only four people in The Beatles, and I was one of them. That means that only three other people in the universe experienced that, which is pretty amazing. Even Bob Dylan can't say that..."

Well yes. But then Bob Dylan never split up.

Naturally Paul also plugs the new album he is bringing out on June 4th, and which apparently looks back unapologetically at his past, though through a set of new songs. The album has the absolutely brilliant title Memory Almost Full.

Meanwhile today marks the 30th anniversary of the death in New York City at the age of 52 of Paul Desmond, the alto-saxophonist in Dave Brubeck's band, including on his hits 'Take Five' and 'Blue Rondo a la Turke'. Desmond's superb, warm and insouciant playing is surely what rescues those records from the clumping brutalism of his bandleader's piano-work.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007


First, a large and appreciative thank you to everyone who came to my Bath International Music Festival event at the Little Theatre, and to those involved in organising and running it (except the jobsworth sound technician, who was just that sort of person). Everyone else worked hard to help it go well, and I think it did.

Second, an update on dates still to come over the next few months. They are:

Sat Jun 9, 8pm Jersey Arts Centre
Phillips Street, St. Helier, Jersey JE2 4SW
£9 (students £5)
Box Office: 01534-700444

Sat Jul 7, 7.30pm Bristol Arnolfini
Arnolfini Arts Centre, 16 Narrow Quay, Bristol BS1 4QA
£6 (concessions £4.50)
Box Office: 0117 917 2300

And lastly, What I Did On Holiday: Sarah and I spent Bob Dylan's 66th birthday in Bath, with fabulously full-summer weather (which disappeared so mysteriously, in the normal British manner, the next day), not least meeting up with our daughter Magdalena for an afternoon of swimming in the terrific New Royal Bath Thermal Spa, mostly up in the open-air rooftop pool. We ended the day heading for the depths of rural Somerset, staying overnight with relatives of Sarah's before heading for Dorset and East Devon and several days by the seaside, mostly in inclement weather.

We drove home to North Yorkshire yesterday, listening, among other things, to the Dylan Live at the Gaslight CD, bought not in the version obtainable only from the evil empire of Starbucks but the funkier alternative version issued by Belgian magazine Humo with two of their October 2005 editions. Tremendous early Dylan, back when he really bothered to play the acoustic guitar - lots of picking, not just yer basic strum - and on most songs an exquisitely-judged voice that never stumbled or resorted to crowd-pleasing cheapness. A prime example: 'Barbara Allen'. Much as I love the early legs of the Never Ending Tour from 1988, I wouldn't like to play a 'Barbara Allen' from then straight after this 1962 Gaslight version, from the days when a Dylan of unfailing dignity and artistic grace was trying to sound so much older than 66 and was actually 21.

Monday, May 21, 2007


I'm setting off for the first of my spring-summer gigs - at Bath Little Theatre, this Wednesday (May 23) 8pm - followed by a few days' holiday... so this is my last blog till May 29. Apologies for the hiatus.

Sunday, May 20, 2007


I can recommend Mark Polizzotti's short book Highway 61 Revisited, published last year in that neat little series published by Continuum in New York, 331/3. You might think everyone had written plenty about this album already, and indeed when it comes to some of Polizzotti's micro-discussion about the recording of 'Like A Rolling Stone' the feeling of deja vu ennui is unavoidable... but the enviable achievement of this book as a whole is to say fresh things, and with a nicely clipped, energetic turn of phrase, over and over.

For example: while I think he's over-harsh on Bringing It All Back Home and especially on Tom Wilson (an animus never explained), the quote that follows is surely fundamentally offering a truth I've never quite heard said before, even after more than 40 years of talk and writing:

"But for all its febrile rattling, Bringing It All Back Home still manages to sound essentially like electrified folk. Dylan is known to prefer recording 'live' - that is, with all musicians playing simultaneously rather than overdubbing after the fact. Despite this, the instruments retain the feel of being layered onto what are essentially solo pieces. The early, acoustic-only take of 'Subterranean Homesick Blues,' for instance, sounds surprisingly like the finished cut, the difference lying less in the absence of Al Gorgoni's electric than in Dylan's not yet having perfected his rapid-fire vocal delivery... [whereas] the musicians on Highway 61 are not so much accompanists as an integral part of the proceedings."

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Roy Kelly, an old Bobcompadre, has sent me the URL for another blog posting about the Minneapolis Dylan Symposium: Aldon Lynn Nielsen's HeatStrings. This is very generously photo-illustrated. The bit that made me smile was this:

"You'll notice that both Steve Scobie (glasses and red shirt) and I are seen wearing black leather jackets. This is because we are both academics."

Roy Kelly also alerted me to a splendid website called Victorian London. This is built around a phenomenal "dictionary", with boundless info on every conceivable sub-subject... but I also like the idea of the Dickens Search Engine, and trying it out on the word "varnish", for no particular reason, yielded extremely quick results.

I'd have said that this was nothing to do with Bob Dylan, except that now we know that so much of other people's work has been smuggled not only into his songs but also into the prose of Chronicles Volume One - including bits of Mark Twain, Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson and Proust - perhaps a Dickens Search Engine may come in handy even for Bobcat business.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007


Tomorrow (17 May) is the 15th anniversary of the death of Lawrence Welk, whose orchestra was for decades synonymous with turgid music of the sort that only Middle America could love and that rock'n'roll was in a hurry to try to abolish. He had 42 charting LPs.

Louis Armstrong said this about his sound: "He's too far in for me."

Monday, May 14, 2007


... I saw Bob Dylan in concert for the first time. And of course that tour's version of The Hawks. Liverpool Odeon, May 14, 1966. Bob was ten days off turning 25. I was 19.

In the US, Blonde On Blonde was officially released two days later, but in practice it wasn't generally available till that June. So Highway 61 Revisited was still his latest album.


If you live in London, or can get there this Tuesday, see previous post for details of a live music gig I can't recommend strongly enough...

Sunday, May 13, 2007


Last night Sarah and I went to the tiny Band Room Farndale, to hear an acoustic-guitarist singer-songwriter from the Faroe Islands called Teitur Lassen, though for some reason his pro name is just Teitur Pronounced "tie-tor". As with Willy Mason at the same venue in March, I went knowing nothing and having heard nothing of the performer. And as with Willy Mason we were well rewarded for taking this small risk. Teitur was so fine that at the end of his utterly beguiling, authentic set, we bought two CDs.

The CDs are less distinctive than seeing him live and solo, because his guitar-playing is brilliant (a technique so good that it rarely calls attention to itself, yet when it does it's to move, thrill or enchant, never to be flash or me-me-me) and gives the perfect accompaniment to the songs. On the CDs, surrounded by strings and pianos, he sounds more like other people: I'm not sure who. Damien Rice maybe. This rather lush garnish of accompaniment also puts the songs in danger of sounding sentimental or soft; live and solo they soar above all that, fresh, open, quirky and special. He is so splendidly himself. I think he's practically a genius. I'd go and see him 1o nights running if I could.

When you've a moment I recommend your going to and playing, say, 'Louis Louis'. There's a video of it there too. But if you possibly can, catch him live. As soon as possible.

For instance tonight at Newcastle's Morden Poetry Tower, City Walls, behind Stowell Street, NE1; 8pm, £8.00.

Or on Tuesday, 15th, at Bush Hall, 310 Uxbridge Rd, London W127LJ; 7.30pm Cost : £10 (includes support act Sylvie Lewis).

Saturday, May 12, 2007


This is a bit of a Paul Morley profile of our old friend Lord Bono, as lifted from the pages of a 2005 Observer Music Monthly and re-published in the Pseuds Corner column of the satirical fortnightly Private Eye, with an added illustration by Kevin Lamb. I wanted this cutting in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, but Private Eye wanted too much money for permission to reprint it...

Friday, May 11, 2007


. . . from bad to worse.

Here was a mildly amusing report from the New York Post:

May 3, 2007 -- KINDERGARTEN kids in ritzy L.A. suburb Calabasas have been coming home to their parents and talking about the "weird man" who keeps coming to their class to sing "scary" songs on his guitar. The "weird" one turns out to be Bob Dylan, whose grandson (Jakob Dylan's son) attends the school. He's been singing to the kindergarten class just for fun, but the kiddies have no idea they're being serenaded by a musical legend - to them, he's just Weird Guitar Guy.

And this is what The Times (or The London Times, as Americans insist on calling it) managed to do to the story the day after:

Parents at a flashy LA kindergarten were alarmed when their youngsters started telling of the “weird man” who keeps coming to their class singing “scary” songs, reports the New York Post. The children, it transpires, did not appreciate Jakob Dylan’s grandfather, a chap by the name of Bob, popping in and serenading them.

So The Times can't get a grip on the fact that Bob is the father, not grandfather, of Jakob and that Jakob is not a small boy attending kindergarten, even though the paper they take the story from explains it very clearly.

This shows a standard of précis-work that would have earned an 8-year-old a very poor score in an English test when I was at school. On top of which, of course, you might think that a section of The Times that concerns itself with celebrity gossip just might have heard of Jakob Dylan, and a multi-platinum-selling band of his called The Wallflowers (whose debut album came out 15 years ago). And this was once a great newspaper...

Meanwhile here's another nice Dylan-related story, read a long time ago but re-encountered the other day (on Maza's Weblog):

In the coffee room of [a US] bookstore, three teenage boys with spiky hair and skateboards were reading Interview magazine and discussing the current music scene. The conversation turned to Robert Zimmerman, a.k.a. Bob Dylan. Said one: “I don’t get why he changed his name from Zimmerman. All the coolest guys I know are named Zimmerman.” His friend: “Yeah, when I grow up I’m gonna change my name to Zimmerman.”

Your sons and your daughters [and grandchildren] are beyond your command / Your old road is rapidly agin'...

Saturday, May 05, 2007


My new book HAND ME MY TRAVELIN' SHOES: In Search of Blind Willie McTell (UK hardback first edition, Bloomsbury, £20) will be launched on publication day, July 2nd, with a talk at the eccentric hour of 11am at what is possibly the world's smallest literary festival. Details:

Mon July 2, 11am, 1st Annual Kirkbymoorside Literary Festival
Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes: A Talk by Michael Gray
Summit Books, 2 Market Place, Kirkbymoorside, N. Yorkshire YO62 6BB, UK
Box Office: 01751 430033
[nb. free admission but places must be reserved by phone]

Meanwhile today - May 5th - is very possibly McTell's 104th birthday, and also the day in 1983 on which Bob Dylan recorded, yep, 'Blind Willie McTell', at the sessions for Infidels.

Friday, May 04, 2007


Yes, it's the 20th anniversary of Paul Butterfield's death. Here's his entry in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

Butterfield, Paul [1942 - 1987]
Paul Butterfield was born in Chicago on December 17, 1942 and grew up in the city. He was exposed to jazz and taught classical flute as a child. He learnt guitar and harmonica, dropped out of college to visit blues clubs and by 1961 he and Elvin Bishop were good enough players that they could sit in with HOWLIN WOLF, Little Walter, MUDDY WATERS, Junior Wells and others in clubs where they were commonly the only white faces. In 1963 he formed the Butterfield Blues Band, with Bishop, the splendidly-named Little Smokey Smothers, JEROME ARNOLD and SAM LAY. In 1964 out went Smothers, the word ‘Paul’ was added to the band’s name and in came Mark Naftalin and MIKE BLOOMFIELD: a line-up that stayed steady until illness forced drummer Sam Lay’s 1966 replacement by Billy Davenport. Butterfield led this extraordinary unit till 1972, when he disbanded it.

He was a remote individual but an adequate yet expressive vocalist and a superb harmonica-player, and his achievement was to create and lead the band that ‘slit the membrane between the two cultures’, with a first album (The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, on Elektra) that was racially-mixed, hard-driving, unapologetic blues that showed white enthusiasts how to play it instead of archiving it, and thus brought urban Chicago blues into the white mainstream. The band’s appearance under its own name at the 1965 NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL was a revelation to those who heard it, taking this music to a whole new level of energy. It was as vividly remembered by the likes of MARIA MULDAUR as the Dylan controversy at the same festival.

For Dylan’s appearance, Butterfield lent him his rhythm section and Mike Bloomfield but did not play himself. The only time he came together with Dylan on stage was at THE BAND’s Farewell Concert at the Winterland in San Francisco on November 25, 1976, when he and others provided backing vocals on Dylan’s performance of ‘I Shall Be Released’.

Towards the end, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band nudged closer to rock, and the group he formed afterwards, Paul Butterfield’s Better Days, reined in this trend but was never outstanding. In 1976 Butterfield made the solo album Put It In Your Ear (on which LEVON HELM and GARTH HUDSON both played), and five years later North South, but neither sold well. He moved to Los Angeles, did some session work and made one last album, The Legendary Paul Butterfield Rides Again in 1986 - a decent album that includes a fine rendition of the Bob Dylan-HELENA SPRINGS song ‘The Wandering Kind’, on which he proved he could still play the harmonica searingly well.

Butterfield was by now a heroin addict and in poor health after years of heavy drinking and of suffering from peritonitis. He died of drug-related heart failure in Hollywood on May 4, 1987. He was 44.

[Paul Butterfield Blues Band: The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Elektra 7294, NY, 1965. Paul Butterfield: Put It in Your Ear, Bearsville BR 6960, US, 1976; The Legendary Paul Butterfield Rides Again, Amherst, US, 1986 (CD-AMH 93305, 1990). The ‘membrane’ quote from Charles Sawyer, ‘Blues With A Feeling: A Biography of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’, 1994, online Jul 2 2005 at]

Tuesday, May 01, 2007


A third date has been added to my very leisurely spring-summer tour of the UK, at Bristol's Arnofini. Details of the three are now...

Wed May 23, 8pm Bath International Music Festival
The Little Theatre, St. Michael’s Place, Bath BA1 1SF
£9 (concessions £8)
Festival Box Office: 01225-463362

Sat Jun 9, 8pm Jersey Arts Centre
Phillips Street, St. Helier, Jersey JE2 4SW
£9 (students £5)
Box Office: 01534-700444

Sat Jul 7, 7.30pm Bristol Arnolfini
Arnolfini Arts Centre, 16 Narrow Quay, Bristol BS1 4QA
£6 (concessions £4.50);
Box Office: 0117 917 2300

The flyer for these gigs says this:
BOB DYLAN & THE POETRY OF THE BLUES An Evening With Writer Michael Gray
This is more a one-man show than a talk. The author of The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia and Song & Dance Man III: The Art Of Bob Dylan - definitive studies of Dylan’s 45-year body of work and more - uses a surprising selection of great records and rare footage to show how hugely Dylan has been inspired by the blues and how much of its poetry has been smuggled inside his own writing.

Andrew Motion named Song & Dance Man III as one of the best three books of 2000. It had 5-star reviews in Q and Uncut. Greil Marcus admired ‘Gray’s reach, tone and acuity’ and called its research ‘amazing’. Christopher Ricks called it ‘wonderfully comic and serious and sharp’ and ‘monumentally illuminating’.The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, 2006, was Book of the Week in The Guardian. The Dylan Daily website declared it 'the most important Bob Dylan book, bar none.'

Michael Gray’s events are always lively, spontaneous and acute, using loud music and rare footage in a hugely entertaining, fresh account of Dylan's achievement.

What the British and Irish press says about his performances:
"Michael Gray is a witty, effusive, self-deprecating speaker. A wonderful eye-opener of an evening."
"Clever, funny and fresh."
"A stimulating insight into rock music's premier singer-songwriter."
"Michael Gray is a masterful speaker."