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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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Monday, October 15, 2007


Don’t you start to feel that there’s altogether too much Dylan in the mainstream media right now?

The BBC has become obsessed with him. Not for the first time, last night was a "Dylan Day", with three programmes about him on TV channel BBC 4, and much trumpeting about the Beeb bringing us the new Theme Time Radio Hour series, plus page upon page of the current Radio Times devoted to Bob, including the front cover. All this following hard on Bob Harris' compilation of the so-called "dream concert" of some of "Bob's greatest hits" (not my idea of the Dylan Dream Concert).

This BBC bombardment is all accompanied by mild but irksome examples of the kind of truth-stretching that they've been so shamed by lately (Blue Peter, the Queen Not Storming Out, and so on). On BBC 1 or 2 last night they trailed their "Dylan Day" by claiming that it consisted of "three new programmes" - but the third one wasn't new at all: it was just a repeat of the 2005 Arena In The Madhouse, a very disappointing documentary about Madhouse On Castle Street (the filmed play by Evan Jones that the BBC itself lost for 40 years after its first broadcast).

It was also economical with the truth to claim, as they do, that the main programme shown last night was Arena: The Other Side Of The Mirror, as if it was an Arena programme. It was nothing of the sort: it was Murray Lerner's film, and would exist with or without a BBC arts documentary series.

Meanwhile as well as the Lerner film there's the Todd Haynes movie I'm Not There, the Dylan 3-CD box-set, the new radio series, the current tour, the German art exhibition . . .

I wasn't able to see the Murray Lerner film last night, and hope to do so tonight instead, but I'm pretty confident that it will be the most compelling of all these Products, since Bob was so transcendent a genius in those days. Sarah and I were driving along through the sunny countryside on Saturday listening to the official Live at the Gaslight CD (bought from Belgian magazine Humo, not from Starbucks) - and apart from one ill-advised high-squawked line toward the end of ‘Cocaine’ (which wasn’t half as horrible as Jack White’s contribution to ‘One More Cup of Coffee’ onstage with Bob recently) - apart from this it was all so, so perfect: vastly more authentic as art, trusting as communication, and honest in its expressiveness, than, well, Modern Times. Not to mention his guitar-work, which was exquisite.

As for the new box set, I keep thinking: why do I need to buy this one, when I’ve got everything on it already?

I think I preferred things when Sony didn't market Dylan's albums and BBC television didn't like having him on. It strikes me as absurd that the record company should have created such huge waves over Modern Times when they barely knew where he was or what he was doing at all throughout the late 1980s to 1990s, and gave no visible support to either the early days of the Never-Ending Tour or to an album as fine as World Gone Wrong.

And there's surely something unsavoury and morally suspect about having the BBC push Dylan so hard at us these days, without any acknowledgment that they've spent most of his career neglecting and ignoring him. It isn't only that they lost Madhouse on Castle Street: this was the public-service broadcaster that threw away his last-ever solo concerts, which they filmed in 1965 and then decided they didn't have storage space to keep. It was the BBC, too, that then rejected as "not good enough" Dylan's numinous appearance on the 1969 Johnny Cash TV show. After that, they just ignored him altogether for most of his creative working life.

Bobwise, well, a happy medium would make the BBC a happier medium.


Blogger Unknown said...

I saw Dylan Sept 28 in Columbia MD and would like to know who the band personnel were (are). I had to leave early because my date was bored (she's an Elvis Costello fan).

2:22 am  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

It's not this blog's purpose to give out answers to factual questions you could easily look up yourself. But if you want your hand held (and clearly you do or you'd have stayed to listen to Dylan in Columbia), then here goes: go to the Links column on the left, find BobLinks, click on it, find the answer.

8:46 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmm, grumpy Michael re over-Bob exposure then snooty Michael re someone just asking a question.

The last now will later be first so re the last point = be nice to posters.

The first point I find tricky as you know I mainly agee with you but I think we may just be grumpy old men who resent people getting glorious, rare Bob easily these days when back in the days of toil and blood it tooks months of work to get a barely audible tape of anything.....

All the best, Homer, paying attention like a rattlesnake does...

9:23 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I understand the temptation to take the BBC's negligence personally in relation to Madhouse On Castle Street etc, but the horrific fact is that they wiped everything - from comedy to current affairs, from music of all kinds to original drama.

The Newport film had so much to tell us about Dylan's performance approach in those vital years (I mean, whole songs, for God's sake!) that I find it dizzingly exasperating that we've had to wait over 40 years to see that material.

6:46 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with your view about over egging on the BBC. I have just bought Sond and Dance Man III for the second time, the first copy I left with a chum in France.
A note or two. Nursery rhymes; i spotted one possible one in Ballad of a Thin Man the Midget; "Now you see this one-eyed midget
Shouting the word "NOW"
And you say, "For what reason?"
And he says, "How?"
And you say, "What does this mean?"
And he screams back, "You're a cow
Give me some milk
Or else go home"
Which suggests How Now Brown Cow"

Another comment, on the song Highlands, Mr Dylan is asked to draw a picture of the flirting waitress, he makes a hash of it, uninterested, pissed off by the request; and yet the song itself is surely the most detailed and outstanding picture he could ever have made of that waitress. Ultimately he has risen to her challenge. In the song he sings, "I make a few lines" As usual we are uncertain if these are lines of verse (maybe he kept the Napkin and based the whole song around those lines) or lines of a sketch (he paints). In any case the waitress comes out of the song as badly as she thought she had when seeing the lines on the napkin, a brilliant put down - like the Positively 4th Street "stand inside my shoes".

Another thought Brownsville girl. "Oh if there's an original thought out there, I could use it right now". I love this, because it blows the mind away with paradox. If there is an original thought out there then it would no longer be original if Mr Dylan used it. And yet, Dylan takes thoughts from everyone, lines from all sources, and he makes them original.

12:36 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Dear Last Anonymous
First of all, thank you for buying one of my books twice. If only everyone did that...

Second, I think the points you make about the waitress in 'Highlands' and the "original thought out there" are both excellent. Neither had ever occurred to me but both are so spot-on that I certainly wish I had!

4:09 pm  

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