My Photo

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

Subscribe to
Posts [Atom]

Follow 1michaelgray1 on Twitter

Saturday, August 30, 2008


First, I thank everyone who has responded to my posting Tell Tale Signs Part 3 - the dialogue has been very interesting (and as regards the price of the 3-CD set, widely paralleled on other Dylan-centred sites and blogs, as you'd expect). I'm hoping to pitch in with some further responses myself in a day or two - and meanwhile a very beautifully-written new comment has just been added by "Mick", largely defending Dylan for taking money from advertising underwear and Cadillacs. I don't agree with it but it's a warm and almost compelling argument . . .

My posting has been sluggish again lately, I know: partly because it's full-on summer weather here in South-West France now, and the sun and the swimming pool are far more alluring than the computer. And then there's been a whole slew of family birthdays in the last two weeks, including my own on the 25th (which was also, as it neatly happens, the 35th anniversary of the publication of the Japanese hardback of Song & Dance Man). And thirdly because we made a quick trip over to Edinburgh last weekend to attend the awards ceremony for the James Tait Black Prizes for Biography and for Fiction. My most recent book, Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell (London: Bloomsbury, 2007) was one of the five shortlisted biographies - apparently out of about 90 that were considered by the judges. Unhappily for me, I didn't win (Rosemary Hill's God's Architect, about Pugin, did) but it was a good evening. Travel Hell in both directions, though, getting back here 12 hours late and very out of pocket. Cheap flights often aren't.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


I have to say I agree with much of the flurry of comment I've been sent in e-mails over the past couple of weeks, about the rip-off nature of the multi-packaging of Tell Tale Signs, and the 3-CD set in particular. As of a few days ago Sony in the UK couldn't say what prices they were going to be charging, but it does look as if, effectively, as in the States, we're going to be charged £55, or $110, for one CD (plus an almost insultingly redundant booklet of photos of singles covers). Here's what others have had to say, starting with my old friend Homer:

"$129.99 is an interesting price for a Dylan item consisting mainly of digital music given his recent remarks that such things are worthless and it was right they were available for free because that is their actual value.

I never thought I'd say this about Dylan product (that hated word now seems fitting) but the third disc and the itunes and Starbucks to be and the late additional itunes and the second 7" vinyl and whatever else they have lined up - the CD-single with bonus DVD track etc etc - are all official Dylan product I am going to ask a friend to copy for me. Unless I fall in the face of temptation; which would fit my track record on such matters and presumably is what they are counting on.

Wouldn't it be lovely instead to be buying something like the J.K. Rowling deluxe package just announced where again one spends a fortune on an item surrounded by all kind of gimmicky add-ons - but where the money goes to charity so you can indulge your own obsession and yet give to a worth cause at the same time."

He continues:

"I have been shown two things that have been sent to [Sony], two of many I suspect:

(1) I'm so psyched about the Bob Dylan Telltale Signs compilation I can't even tell you. Thank you Bob, thank you Sony. But that's not why I'm writing to you. I'm writing cause I can't believe you're charging $18.99 for the first two disks, which is great but if I want the third one too I have to pay $129.99. That's such an incredible rip off. I can't believe you're doing this. I don't mind paying for music, I'm not like my friends who only listen to stuff if they can download it for free. But I'm telling you right here, I'm not going to buy that third disk. I'm going to find somewhere I can download it from, and you can go ahead and send the cops.

(2) You have got to be kidding me. The new Bob Dylan Bootleg Series will--if I buy the two disc version at $18.99--cost me 70 cents per song, and the three disc version at $129.99 will cost me $3.25 per song!? But wait! I also get a book (that probably costs $15 to produce) filled with colorful pictures of picture sleeves! Whoopee! Is it really any wonder that people illegally download product and are killing the record companies? What do you say to the fans when you pull this kind of garbage? Do you really think that people are that stupid? You should be ashamed."

Homer sums up: "The really pernicious thing is that they are forcing the very people who've spent heavily over the years into buying the hugely inflated price one. They could have released it in a way where everyone was happy. A 10 dollar for one CD, 20 dollar for two and 30 dollar for three and the ridiculous "deluxe set" at whatever they wanted and then you could decide without losing out on the music."

On the other hand, Sarah tells me she thinks that in my case it's a matter of a very small pot calling the kettle black, since there was a limited-edition hardback of Song & Dance Man III for £75, thus making the stiff binding about £45 - and at one point a limited collectors-edition version of The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia was contemplated, the publisher dreaming of the very high price we could achieve for it. Myself, though, I don't think it's a parallel, because with these books you could get the same text in the cheap paperback as in the limited-edition - you weren't forced to buy the latter to get the full contents.

It disappoints me, to say the least, that Dylan is becoming so blatantly Dylan Inc. We've now had, too, this slimy marketing-speak announcement from Hohner, boasting about yet another way that Bob Dylan, an artist, is being sold and rewarded as a brand name:

"Hohner and Bob Dylan Announce Collaboration
What happens when you join a 151-year-old musical instrument manufacturer with one of the world's most legendary musicians who happens to be the single most influential harmonica player in the annals of popular music? You make history, of course!The Hohner company and Bob Dylan are proud to announce the Bob Dylan Collection of hand-signed harmonicas, celebrating the accomplishments and legacy of both Bob Dylan and Hohner. Hohner has manufactured and distributed musical instruments since 1857, making it one of the world's oldest musical instrument makers.

Bob Dylan - venerated American singer-songwriter, author, poet and disc jockey - has been a major figure in popular music for five decades. During his career, Bob Dylan has won awards for his songwriting, performing, and recording, earning him eleven Grammys (including a Lifetime Achievement Award), Kennedy Center Honors and an Academy Award. He has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 2008, Bob Dylan was awarded a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation for his 'profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.'

'Hohner is extremely proud to celebrate the artistry of Bob Dylan, one of America's musical treasures,' said Clayman Edwards, President of Hohner, Inc. 'Throughout his iconic career, Bob Dylan has maintained a special relationship with the Hohner company and has showcased our harmonicas in his music. At this time, Hohner is honoring that association by offering our collection of limited edition, hand-signed Marine Band harmonicas to the public. This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Bob Dylan fans and we hope that those who are able to own these items will treasure them as a reflection of his musical genius.' The first item in the collection consists of a complete set of seven Marine Band harmonicas in the natural keys of C, G, D, F, A, B, and E, which have been played and hand-signed by Bob Dylan.

The harmonicas are displayed in an inlaid ebony box, handcrafted exclusively for Bob Dylan with his distinctive 'Eye' logo on the lid and a renowned, framed picture of Bob Dylan on the inside cover. A letter from the President of Hohner, Inc., is included, confirming authenticity. Limited to twenty-five sets worldwide. The second item in the collection is a single Marine Band harmonica in the key of C, hand-signed by Bob Dylan. This single harmonica is displayed in an inlaid ebony box, also handcrafted for Bob Dylan with a signed card from the President of Hohner, Inc., confirming authenticity. Limited to one hundred harmonicas worldwide. These limited edition pieces will be available for sale in the United States exclusively through Sam Ash Music, an 84-year-old music retailing legend that has been selling Hohner harmonicas since it opened its doors in 1924.

A special 'viewing preview' will take place at Sam Ash Music in Hollywood, California, from September 24 through October 8, 2008. A New York viewing will follow at Sam Ash Music's Manhattan location from October 15 through October 29, 2008. The actual sale of these limited edition pieces will take place online at at midnight, October 29, 2008. 'In addition to our release of these limited edition pieces, Hohner's collaboration with Bob Dylan naturally led to the development of a next-generation harmonica,' stated Scott Emmerman, Director of Marketing and Sales for Hohner, Inc. 'This new harmonica has an enhanced sonic versatility and produces both uncharacteristically warm tones while also achieving a brilliance or 'brightness' that allows musicians to more freely express themselves. It was not easy to achieve the standard that Bob Dylan represents. Among other things, we gold-plated the reed plate in order to achieve the specific sonic requirements.' Appropriately named the Bob Dylan Signature Series Harmonica, this new product is available individually in the key of C, as well as in a set of seven natural keys of A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. The harmonica features custom cover-plates bearing Bob Dylan's signature, a carrying case embossed with Bob Dylan's 'Eye' logo, and an outer gift box featuring an exclusive picture of Bob Dylan in the inside cover. The set of seven Bob Dylan Signature Series harmonicas comes in a special carrying case and is perfect for today's professional musicians who desire a complete set of harmonicas that are ready to perform to the highest standards. These products will be available at authorized Hohner dealers nationwide. Additional information may be found at:"

As another e-mail correspondent comments - "This sucks! It is getting to the stage where you wonder who will sponsor his funeral - and how many churches you'll have to attend to 'get the whole experience': You don't need a weatherman to know which way Bob blows...."

And then there's the way you're treated if you go to see Dylan live these days. This comment was passed on to me:

"I wasn't going to see Bob this tour but a show opened up in Santa Monica so I sprang for the pre-sale on and ended up with four GA tickets for $69.50 each plus the dreaded ticketmaster "convenience fee." Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the general availability sale on ticketmaster is going to have something called a "hot band" option available, for the which you fork over $150 per ticket and get a wrist band entitling you to early access into the venue so that you can snag a better seat. Why wasn't this option available to the presale, which theoretically consisted of primarily Bob's biggest fans? Considering that I have to drive up to Santa Monica from Orange County during the height of rush hour traffic in Los Angeles to stand in line for several hours, it might well have been worth it to me to shell out the extra bucks for the option to give myself more time to get to the show. It's a slap in the face, as far as I'm concerned."

Perhaps saddest of all though is the contrast with other senior artists of gravitas who are still functioning as artists. While Leonard Cohen, who is older than Dylan, can go out there live and give thrillingly in-his-prime concerts, most of the time Bob just grinds out the lowest-common-denominator least he can get away with. A very long-term Dylan enthusiast friend of mine went to see Cohen at the London Millennium Dome recently. Venue comparatively civilised (with restaurants instead of just plastic lager’n’burger stalls); Len very elegant and appreciative of his audience, on stage for two and a half hours, sang everything with relish and particularity, never a fluffed line, every word clear on unfamiliar songs, and each musician terrific. What a contrast to Dylan Inc.

A month or so ago I watched that film footage of Dylan performing 'Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues' at one of his Spanish concerts. It's one of my favourite Dylan songs. Here it was wholly without virtue: no attempt to sing well (as people kept reporting he’d been doing) - or even to include the beginnings or ends of the majority of lines - and dull, dull, dull. Watching the men’s singles final at Wimbledon was immeasurably more uplifting, as well as exciting. There I was, via TV, in the presence of art. Not so, watching Bob.

I've hesitated long and hard before posting all this. It's depressing stuff and will earn me little but abuse in response, but it's how I feel and obviously how a great many longterm Dylan aficionados feel strongly and sincerely. As one wrote to express it - an honourable man who has been unswerving in his respect for Dylan's art, and Dylan's panache, down the decades:

"I haven't felt anything approaching art has been achieved at a show since the brief hiatus of '03. And now I won't go. The Bob we knew no longer exists."

To put it less finally though, where is the Bob Dylan who used to play those Hohner harmonicas?

Monday, August 04, 2008


Of course I haven't yet heard most of this material, so the comments that follow are necessarily somewhat on the general side - starting with a very general thought prompted by the fact that most tracks on Tell Tale Signs are from Oh Mercy, Time Out Of Mind and Modern Times...

This seems to me a strikingly canny gathering together. I've often heard Dylan's most recent three studio albums referred to as a "trilogy" - which has always seemed utterly wrong: maybe a journalistic convenience but hopelessly clumsy as a way of looking at the work. BUT, take "Love and Theft" out of the picture - as Tell Tale Signs does: no outtakes from "LaT" are included - and put Oh Mercy alongside Time Out Of Mind and Modern Times, and you do have a trilogy of sorts. It isn't just that two of these are hallmark Daniel Lanois productions, either; it's that all three offer, in key respects, the same Bob Dylan: that is, the maintream-acceptable, toned-down, risk-free, respectable version of post-1980s Bob Dylan. A wholly valid Bob Dylan, of course, but not necessarily the one who makes the most interesting or challenging albums or writes the best songs.

So it makes genuine artistic sense to cluster some outtakes from these three together (plus 'Tell Ol' Bill', 'Huck's Tune' and ''Cross The Green Mountain', which to my ears come from that same Bob Dylan), and I look forward to hearing them all. Even the ones I have and think I have already will benefit from the clarity of official release, while the ones of most interest from this trilogy are surely 'Marchin' to the City' - news to us as a title at all - and the ones where the already-released versions come from different albums altogether: i.e. Time Out Of Mind versions of 'Mississippi' (which emerged so exquisitely on "Love and Theft") and Oh Mercy versions of 'God Knows' (which emerged so hectoringly on Under The Red Sky) and 'Born In Time' (Under The Red Sky again).

Then again, the tracks I most look forward to hearing are the others: namely those from the sessions Dylan was doing in the early 1990s following Good As I Been To You. I have written at length about the David Bromberg sessions of 1992, recorded in Chicago - see The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia - and still suspect that this is The Great Lost Dylan Album. Those few tracks already leaked include the shimmeringly beautiful 'Polly Vaughan' and 'Kaatskill Serenade', and now on Tell Tale Signs we are to get a version of Jimmie Rodgers' 'Miss The Mississippi And You' (this has already circulated, though it may not be the same take) and of the traditional 'Duncan and Brady'. Finally, and maybe most alluring of all, we're to get two outtakes from the excellent World Gone Wrong album: a Dylan version of Robert Johnson's '32-20 Blues' - known to exist but never heard - and a version of Paul Brady's 'Mary and the Soldier' - a title never mentioned, let alone heard, as having been recorded by Dylan.

As for the live tracks on offer, well, at one extreme there's the fudged but lovely 'Ring Them Bells' from the Supper Club; at the other, there's the awful sound of Dylan's voice on 'Cocaine Blues' from Vienna VA from 1997 - an embarrassingly bad revisit, every night, to a song he had performed with such incomparably greater personal dignity and artistic surefootedness in the very early 1960s.

Finally, there's the puzzle of what 'Can't Escape From You' will be like - a studio track recorded in Dublin in December 2005. Intended for a film but never used, it is said to feature pipes. I hope so. I like it when Dylan augments his sound now and again. Talking of which, I've been driving round listening to Self Portrait in the car these last two days, after buying it on CD at a stall at the Marciac Jazz Festival on Saturday night. 'Copper Kettle', 'Let It Be Me', 'I Forgot More', 'Blue Moon', 'The Boxer' and 'Wigwam' are all sounding tremendous. Now that's another Bob Dylan altogether.

Sunday, August 03, 2008


I'd hoped to comment by now on the contents of, and on the price of, the forthcoming Bootleg Series Volume 8, titled Tell Tale Signs . . . (The full title, in fact, is TELL TALE SIGNS: THE BOOTLEG SERIES VOL. 8 RARE AND UNRELEASED 1989 – 2006, due to be released on October 7) . . . but things have grown complicated - lots of visitors at the house this week, on top of somewhat unclear information about the contents of the different versions of this Dylan er, Product.

First, what is clear is that there will be a 2-CD version at $18.99, as follows:

Disc One
1. Mississippi 6:04 (Unreleased, Time Out of Mind)
2. Most of the Time 3:46 (Alternate version, Oh Mercy)
3. Dignity 2:09 (Piano demo, Oh Mercy)
4. Someday Baby 5:56 (Alternate version, Modern Times)
5. Red River Shore 7:36 (Unreleased, Time Out of Mind)
6. Tell Ol' Bill 5:31 (Alternate version, North Country soundtrack)
7. Born in Time 4:10 (Unreleased, Oh Mercy)
8. Can't Wait 5:45 (Alternate version, Time Out of Mind)
9. Everything is Broken 3:27 (Alternate version, Oh Mercy)
10. Dreamin' of You 6:23 (Unreleased, Time Out Of Mind)
11. Huck's Tune 4:09 (From Lucky You soundtrack)
12. Marchin' to the City 6:36 (Unreleased, Time Out of Mind)
13. High Water (For Charley Patton) 6:40 (Live, August 23, 2003,Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada)

Disc Two
1. Mississippi 6:24 (Unreleased version #2, Time Out of Mind)
2. 32-20 Blues 4:22 (Unreleased, World Gone Wrong)
3. Series of Dreams 6:27 (Unreleased, Oh Mercy)
4. God Knows 3:12 (Unreleased, Oh Mercy)
5. Can't Escape from You 5:22 (Unreleased, December 2005)
6. Dignity 5:25 (Unreleased, Oh Mercy)
7. Ring Them Bells 4:59 (Live at The Supper Club, November 17, 1993, NYC
8. Cocaine Blues 5:30 (Live, August 24, 1997, Vienna, VA)
9. Ain't Talkin' 6:13 (Alternate version, Modern Times)
10. The Girl on the Greenbriar Shore 2:51 (Live, June 30, 1992,Dunkerque, France)
11. Lonesome Day Blues 7:37 (Live, February 1, 2002, Sunrise, FL)
12. Miss the Mississippi 3:20 (Unreleased, 1992)
13. The Lonesome River 3:04 (With Ralph Stanley, from the album Clinch Mountain Country)
14. 'Cross the Green Mountain 8:15 (From Gods and Generals Soundtrack)

This version will come with a 60-page booklet of photos (officially dubbed "stunning" and "rare") and notes by Larry 'Ratso' Sloman ("in-depth").

Second, it seems reasonably clear that there will also be a 1-CD version, comprising Disc 1 of the above (plus a 16-page booklet), released at the same time except in North America, where it will be issued in November.

Third, there will be a 3-CD version, with a price of around $129.99 (!), which will comprise the above two Discs and booklet plus a still more lavish "photo book" (150 pages) showing Dylan singles from around the world (Jesus, does anyone need or even want this?) plus - but only if you buy this 3-CD version from - a 7" vinyl single. The tracklist for this 3rd CD will be:

1. Duncan & Brady 3:47 (Unreleased, 1992)
2. Cold Irons Bound 5:57 (Live at Bonnaroo, 2004)
3. Mississippi 6:24 (Unreleased version #3, Time Out of Mind)
4. Most of the Time 5:10 (Alternate version #2, Oh Mercy)
5. Ring Them Bells 3:18 (Alternate version, Oh Mercy)
6. Things Have Changed 5:32 (Live, June 15, 2000, Portland, OR)
7. Red River Shore 7:08 (Unreleased version #2, Time Out of Mind)
8. Born in Time 4:19 (Unreleased version #2, Oh Mercy)
9. Tryin' to Get to Heaven 5:10 (Live, October 5, 2000, London, England)
10. Marchin' to the City 3:39 (Unreleased version #2, Time Out of Mind)
11. Can't Wait 7:24 (Alternate version #2, Time Out of Mind)
12. Mary and the Soldier 4:23 (Unreleased, World Gone Wrong).

The 7" vinyl single will merely be the same takes of 'Dreamin' Of You' and the Supper Club 'Ring Them Bells' as issued on Discs 1 and 2 respectively.

There will also be a limited-edition 4-LP heavy vinyl version of the 2-CD set, with gatefold sleeve, at $99.99.

And if you are among the first 5000 people to pre-order any version from you'll get a "free" Theme Time Radio Hour poster.

It's still not clear to me whether you still have to pay $129.99 if you buy the 3-CD set without the vinyl single, ie not from but I think the answer is, er, yes.

Meanwhile there's supposed to be a free download of 'Dreamin' Of You' available from, but naturally this is unnecessarily difficult to achieve and you can get it far more easily from here. And very interesting it is too: the song proves to be a chrysalis that later turned into the lovely butterfly that is 'Standing In The Doorway' - so it doesn't matter that what we have here is a tuneless croak swathed in Daniel Lanois' unappealing goo of workaday metallic noise... because it's fascinating, and a privilege, to hear the process of work in the making.

As for the rest of the contents: tomorrow is another day. And as for the question of the way these packages are being retailed so very expensively, well, again, tomorrow is another day.