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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, 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?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's telling it like it deplorably is and has been for some time in all departments concerned, both artistic and commercial, Mr. Gray . . . Keep on the case if you can be so bothered.

4:26 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


No question that the Bootleg Series is a rip-off. It also looks like a typical, tacky Sony botched job. Several tracks that genuine Dylan fans have already paid for once (the Stanley Brothers and the film soundtracks). Random live tracks as filler. Multiple versions of several songs. Dylan has said that the Lanois versions of Mississippi didn't work, so now we're getting 3 (is it?) of them.

I don't agree with the way you slag off the current live Dylan. Invoking Leonard Cohen is laughable. Cohen admits he wouldn't be touring if he didn't need the money. Apart from the occasional opera house, he is playing ghastly venues and charging prohibitively high ticket prices. If Dylan played the O2 we'd all be moaning. The lowest price for Cohen there was around 50 quid and for seats that you were advised not to take up if you have a fear of heights. You would then have to face two or three hours of conservative, non-dynamic chug while people nattered all around you. I like Cohen a lot but he is several floors below Dylan in the tower of song (I don't have to tell you that). He's a soi-disant poet who writes terrible books. Dylan is a genuine poet who, it turns out, writes great books. Watch the dvd of Dylan in Vienna this year. It shows a fully engaged Dylan singing about the state of his country (just like he always did) without the self-aggrandizing bluster of Springsteen, the vanity of Neil Young, or the queasy conservatism of Cohen (listen to The Future or, for a real laugh, that one about The Day They Wounded New York. Remember the Greg Tate article about Love and Theft?)

Thanks for providing the space for my little rant.

Bets wishes, Stephen

11:18 am  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

You're welcome.

11:41 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Michael,

though it IS absolutely fine and necessary to bring a little realism into the All-Hail-To-Bob!-mood the world seems to be in since a few years not matter what he actually does, I'd also say that you're a little unfair, Michael. Yes, the policy of greed that is so visibly behind the Bootleg Series vol. 8 is disgusting, and, yes, the fall tour of 2003 was the last completely satisfying tour. But at least the european leg of this year's tour was, to my ears, much better than anything since 2003. And, thanks to modern technology and (sony-)blanks, we will all get the expensive 3rd CD for very little money ... and will compile our own Bootleg Series vol 8 omitting all the soundtracks and live-recordings no one needs.
An Hohner ..., well, I think (but that's just my guess), Bob simply doesn't care. You might say that alone is bad enough, but on the other hand, did he ever?

best wishes, Rainer

1:06 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Definitely recognise a lot of the sentimenst expressed. Sony made a real pig's ear of last year's 3 CD collection 'Dylan' (by the way does anyone know if the much vaunted fan tracklisting votes ever really happened?), and they seem to be stuffing up this release too. Anybody who's gone through the pain of officially downloading 'Dreamin' of You' will probably be feeling just a little dispirited already.

As for Dylan's recent commercial activities, culminating (?) in that Caddilac advert, well, I just put it down to a mixture of his eccentricity and legendary thirst for cash. I particuarly bemoan the Starbucks connection - yeucch.

I've been sort of working on the assumption that, closer to release time in the UK, it will become clear that there is a less 'special' edition of the 3 CD set available, at a reasonable price. If not, it raises the question: what sort of liner notes are we going to get? Will the 'bonus' third CD go unannotated? Or will it have its own liner notes? Unlikely, surely. All in all, another fine mess Sony has got itself into, alienating the core fanbase months before the release date....

1:59 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Everyone agrees that the three CD item is a total rip-off. In the booklet, the only picture sleeve that is interesting is I Want You, and they couldn't even find a copy without heavy ring wear (was that intentional? I could've given them my copy for the third CD!)

However, I think it is very important to issue Cross the Green Mountain on a Dylan-only album. This masterpiece has been incredibly overlooked.

I talk to many very serious fans (the kind with at least 1,000++ shows in their CD collection) who will no longer attend Dylan's concerts unless he shakes things up. When you realize that this piano thing, which we were very excited about in 2002, has almost completely suppressed his unique sound for 6 years, it is depressing

2:21 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with the second comment here that if Dylan should be branded Dylan Inc, then Cohen should be Leonard Co. His current tour is extortionately priced, and his band seem to grow tackier every time he takes to the stage - either the man is cloth-eared, or he thinks that corny synthesizers and extended bazouki solos are what Joe Public wants. While I agree that his voice is incomparably more honed and expressive than Dylan's (in concert) these days, I don't think you can set him up as a paragon of virtue in comparison to Dylan without special pleading. But I agree that it's a sorry state of affairs - I can just about stomach the harmonica range, however tacky it may seem, but the marketing strategy for the Bootleg Series is contemptible. But then, how could anybody who cared about Dylan's music not?

2:55 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said, Mr. Gray.

I suspect that the increasingly lengthening breaks between legs of the NET; TTRH; Chronicles Volume 2; the various "commercial affiliations," "Drawn Blank" and these "limited, deluxe" editions of his music all add up to a man wanting to make sure his retirement is well funded. Which is cool. He's 67 years old. He deserves a comfortable retirement. Me, I'll enjoy the things he does that I enjoy - like TTRH. And ignore the things I don't enjoy - like obscenely inflated prices for harmonicas and CDs.

3:48 pm  
Blogger Unknown said...

Very well written Michael. I fear we are one step away from Dylan's copper domed Malibu residence being converted into a Bob-themed Graceland, complete with Starbucks, souvenir shops and a mangled Triumph motorcycle behind red rope.

The question is always this: "Does any of this diminish his work?" I guess listening to Highwater (for Charley Patton) this morning, I really didn't consider his commercial ventures, nor the recent issue of his overpricing. And yet, while it doesn't detract from his work, it certainly doesn't add to it either.

Compare this to Tom Waits, who has always clenched the reins of his work tightly, forbidding it to be used in any commercial venture or any form of advertising. He even sued a German company who, after he had denied them use of his work, went and recorded a soundalike version of his song. This, to me at least, adds even more poetic depth to an already substantial body of work. When Waits writes, for example,

"I made a wish on sliver of moonlight
A sly grin and a bowl full of stars
Like a kid who captures a firefly
And leaves it only to die in the jar,"

because we know it is art primarily for art's sake, it makes it ring even more sweetly in the ear.

It's a shame that, with these new releases from Dylan, we can't experience the same.

Best wishes,


4:10 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Record companies have been ripping off their artists since day one. Now they're all crying that downloading is killing their business when, in fact, they have been killing it themselves for years. Personally, I stopped buying CDs in protest of their exorbitant prices—then $15.99—now $19.95. The Tell Tale Signs third disc—$100. WHAT A RIP-OFF. This is nothing short of mafia-style extortion. F**K you, Sony!

P.S.: I did choke and buy the 3-disc set, and that is the ONLY CD I'm going to buy this year.

6:12 pm  
Blogger raggedclown said...

I agree with hating Dylan's transmutation into a brand label and Sony's ripoff tactics, but I thought the recent European tour was a terrific return to form by Bob. The comparisons with Leonard Cohen's tour are way off beam -- only a lucky few managed to get tickets for Lenny's concerts (and paid a small fortune for them). Plus he hadn't toured for 15 years. You just cannot compare that with a working band that tours all year long every year, like Bob's. People (including me) moan about Bob's setlists, but he still shakes them up more than Lenny, who has done basically the same show every night of the tour. Cohen's current tour is more like Dylan's 1978 tour -- a retrospective of his entire catalogue with fully orchestrated arrangements and a big band ensemble. That's not what the NET has ever been about, for good or ill.

11:13 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you very much, Michael - I totally agree with you, and have written Sony and Colombia regarding this. If anyone's got proper e-mail addresses to those concerned, I think we should contact them directly and tell them our honest opinion about this shame. Kristian

11:17 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just in case you do get the abuse you expect for this item may I say well done.
It beggars belief that anyone with their eyes or ears open could disagree with your spot on criticsm.

11:57 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well call me a sucker (SUCKER!) but I ordered the pricey package. I like stuff like this. I'm a casually serious fan with access to what floats around, but I like the official packages, with their cool photos and occasionally inspired text (although for this one I believe it's Greil Marcus who wrote the notes so I don't expect much, since he's obtuse and doesn't even appreciate Dylan's current band or Modern Times, both of which sound pretty fine to my ears). Anyway I'm looking forward to hearing the various versions, fondling the packaging, etc.

I enjoy Dylan shows for the music, the general vibe, etc. I don't go to them thinking they will have any relationship to my favored years. I live in the moment and accept what's in front of me, and it really makes what ever it happens to be a lot more interesting.

5:18 am  
Blogger Unknown said...

If people can't accept the Laughing Len comparison, check the recent terrific Tom Waits gig in Edinburgh. A whole other level of engagement. These comments on the marketing of new album are of course impossible to refute. Perhaps, Michael, you could try to start a strike? Woudn't Jeff Rosen and Dylan's people be abashed if the fans, en masse, said 'no thankyou, you scamsters, we're not playing'? Then again, I suspect there are few among the Dylan diehards who would understand the concept of a picket line, metaphorical or otherwise. Lots of levels of ironic resonance there, for the followers of the man who wrote North Country Blues.

8:35 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am prepared to forgive Mr Dylan his roadshow. I wont forgive Sony lightly.
What do you all want from the guy; blood. He wants to tour about and do his thing, let him do it, maybe it doesn't sound or look like the 1960's, gee, sorry folks, people get older: in their 20's and 30's people are at their peek, afterwards they are not. I have listened to Dylan's last three records recently, they are not bad; even Modern times is quite good.Go on judge him. Even in my most lucid moment I was way behind his worst instant. You are way hard on him, and no doubt you are the same people who he spends his life turning from.

As for the new bootleg release, I agree with what has been written in this blog.

1:16 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Mr. Gray, have the new edition of this extraordinary encyclopedia of yours. The entry: Planet Waves, disappearing sleevenotes: The sleevenotes reappear in the booklet of the 2004 remaster of the album Now to your blog entry: The BS8 special extended expensive edition is special idiotism of the columbia greats i think. I hope that this thing will moulding in the shelves or the price wander under maybe 80USD.

6:06 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Unlike you, I did not feel disgusted by Bob's product placement for Victoria's Secrets and Cadillac cars. I thought Victoria's Secrets were hilarious. He has never concealed his vivid erotic desires. Anita Ekberg, Sophia Loren, country will grow. Bob on screen in a Venetian palazzo blending with Brazilian super model in skimpy underwear was absurdly non PC but at least he is being honest about the nature of his desires.

“i know there’s some people terrified of the bomb. but there are other people terrified t be seen carrying a modern screen magazine”

Perhaps Michael, or someone whose archives are in a better state than mine, could confirm something that I’ve seen in print more than once…. that in a 1966 interview – when asked if he would ever allow his music to be used to advertise anything – Dylan replied: “Yeah, I think that I’d like to advertise women’s underwear.”

As for Cadillacs, I'm sure Bob would say Cadillacs are central to rock'n'roll and American mythology. From Elvis to Bruce. He would also have a political argument that buying Cadillacs is patriotic, supporting American jobs for American workers.

On a recent Theme Time Radio Hour, he responded to an (undoubtedly fake) email asking him if he felt upset about Sheryl Crowe's music being used for a shampoo advert (I think) and he said (surprise surprise) no. And he talked about Sonny Boy Williamson's blues being used to advertise Biscuits on the immortal radio show King Biscuit Time, he said "I'm sure Sonny Boy Williamson didn't say my blues are too sacred to be used to advertise biscuits. Anything that lets you hear Sheryl Crowe's music on TV is a good thing."

Of course, as all you blues fans know - KING BISCUIT TIME has been broadcast by KFFA out of Helena, Arkansas, since November 1941 (before Pearl Harbour!) and is still going strong today. You can listen to it on:

KFFA was one of the few southern stations that would play music by African-Americans, and it inspired a host of important musicians including B.B. King, Robert Nighthawk, James Cotton and Ike Turner. The show's 12:15 time slot was chosen to match the lunch break of African-American workers in the Delta.

Dylan has always operated from the heart of the beast of American capitalism. He drew brickbats from the CP aligned folk establishment for selling out to commercial rock’n’roll, when young fans like you and me cheered him on. Well now I’m being asked to shell out $100 for the third disc of Bootleg Vol. 8… and I do feel ripped off. The really disgusting thing is that I'll probably buy it. (That's me being honest about the nature of my desires.) But I guess I ain't defending him any more.

best wishes

1:12 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent post Mick, but tsk tsk on your interview question re "underwear". Watch your DVDs of classic Dylan mid 60s interviews again.

Yours naggingly, Homer

12:00 pm  
Blogger mick said...

Thanks Homer, but if you know the time and place you could give us lesser mortals a hand. Are you implying it's 3 Dec 1965 at KQED?

11:19 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

well now...

Dear Stephen
I wouldn't suggest for an instant that Leonard Cohen is an artist of Dylan's stature - no-one is - you have only to read my entry on Cohen in THE BOB DYLAN ENCYCLOPEDIA to see that I suggest no parallels of that kind. As you say, "he is several floors below Dylan in the tower of song (I don't have to tell you that)." No, you don't have to tell me that.

BUT it isn't "laughable" to suggest that Cohen is a conscientious artist who has done interesting and at times resonant work - not at all, as far as I can see, someone to sneer at - and to say, as I do, that it's striking in concert that he conducts himself with a good deal more dignity, and treats his audiences with less apparent contempt, than Bob Dylan - and that he bothers to be in command of his artistry when he steps into the arena. As for Cohen's admitting that he wouldn't be touring if he didn't need the money, this has nothing to do with it. It didn't affect his conscientiousness onstage. Wasn't the same motive behind Dylan's World Tour of 1978? Same applied to that too.

Dear other people
Clearly there's a lot of agreement that Dylan's current touring is dismal, as well as that his being in cahoots with Starbucks and Cadillac is tacky. As Lee says: "The question is always this: 'Does any of this diminish his work?' I guess listening to Highwater (for Charley Patton) this morning, I really didn't consider his commercial ventures, nor the recent issue of his overpricing. And yet, while it doesn't detract from his work, it certainly doesn't add to it either." And while I wouldn't want to go along with the Tom Waits the Great Artist argument, I do find it more admirable that Waits turns down these things than that Bob Dylan doesn't.

Meanwhile nothing could sound more specious than the poor-old-soul-needs-the-money-to-make-his-retirement-comfortable argument: do you really think Dylan would thank you for making this case for him? He's not a poor old soul, and he doesn't need the Cadillac dollar to stave off visiting the soup kitchen. His art alone quite rightly guarantees his income.

I'll return to this fray tomorrow. Gotta go out now. Meanwhile see also the comments attached to the BITS AND ER BOBS post.

5:26 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am indeed, (non-lesser mortal) Mick. December 3, 1965 press conference in San Francisco:

Q: "If you were going to sell out to a commercial interest, which one would you choose?"
Pause,impish smile. Dylan: "Ladies garments."

yours, Homer

9:47 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Back to the points people have made. First, a small point re the Bootleg Series 8: it isn't Greil Marcus but Larry Sloman who has written the notes.

Ragged Clown: I don't agree at all that you can't compare the recent Leonard Cohen tour to the current version of the NET simply because the latter trudges round year in year out. You go to a concert, you pay a price, you get a seat or a space to jostle in, the venue provides decent or demeaning facilities, you get the artist and musicians... and you're entitled to register in your own mind whether you're getting value for money from the place and whether you're getting a conscientious performance from the artist - ideally, of course, something adventurous, but at a less demanding level at least something that involves a genuine attempt to communicate and explore the work. How many concerts a year that artist chooses to give is up to him. But more shouldn't mean worse, and certainly I don't buy the special pleading that the NET can't be judged alongside anything of less longevity.

Not to mention that even if you DO compare the current leg of the NET with nothing but its own past, well I remember the Dylan of 1988 at Radio City Music Hall, and at the Beacon in 1989, as well as treasuring recordings like Jones Beach '88 - and it isn't nostalgia or any kind of a suspect harking back to the past to say that THEN Bob Dylan was fully alive in the moment, giving out with an overflow of energy, fired up by a terrific band - there were guitar solos, and, more crucial, Dylan was actually singing. Not one of these things is any longer true. Someone's posting claims that, presumably unlike me, "I live in the moment and accept what's in front of me, and it really makes what ever it happens to be a lot more interesting." Not interesting enough. There are many many authentic Dylan fans who have been thrilled by a thousand different aspects of his art and his charisma over the years yet who simply find the current Dylan something they never thought would be possible: they find him boring.

Mick - ah, such a beguiling stance, so nicely argued, so warm and human and charming and wrong. He's always been upfront about his erotic desires? That somehow makes taking the Victoria's Secret dollars less tacky? Couldn't he have written a genuinely erotic song instead? That would have been upfront AND risky. Instead we get Make You Feel My Lurve.

Then you quote this: “i know there’s some people terrified of the bomb. but there are other people terrified t be seen carrying a modern screen magazine” . . . but he said that NOT to defend artists advertising glamorous products but TO DEFEND POPULAR CULTURE - it was part of his heroic struggle (not a lone struggle, there were others in there too) to drag us, his audience, into the modern world. At that time you were supposed to be on the side of Serious Issues and High Culture or else on the side of comic books and Pop Music and so on. Dylan, like Roy Lichtenstein, was trying to say that you could be "on the side of" both - he was trying to get us to recognise that it was legit to care about great art and cool boots... about Melville and The Bomb and Hollywood movies. He was mocking our still being in thrall to old rigidities. He was plugging popular culture's right to be there in the mix - he was not plugging Product.

As for Dylan's offering the example of Sonny Boy Williamson and King Biscuit Time . . . ahh c'mon now. In those days it was the norm for radio and local TV programmes to be sponsored by a particular business outfit. When Roy Orbison was starting out in Wink, Texas, he and his group managed to get themselves a local TV series sponsored by a furniture company. That's nothing like the situation with Sheryl Crowe letting her work be used nationally to sell shampoo long after she became a star - and nothing like Dylan selling Cadillacs either. Sonny Boy Williamson never thought of himself as an artist (he was wrong, but that's not the point here) and even if sponsored radio shows had been other than the normal thing, he was NEVER in a financial position to spurn the chance to get a hearing. The comparison to Dylan's 21st century position is absurd - and leaves a slightly sour aftertaste, granted that on Modern Times he chooses not to credit the estates of the old bluesmen from whom he's taken Someday Baby and Rollin' and Tumblin' but chooses to claim all the royalties himself instead.

And finally, if we're going to select quotes from Dylan to support the pro- or anti-advertising position, then surely the telling quote is from the interviews he gave for Biograph. We're not harping back to the 60s here - we're agreeing with the rather cleaner position Bob Dylan was still taking in the mid-1980s, while greed was happening all around him (it was the Thatcher-Reagan era of nastiness):

‘Rock’n’roll, I don’t know, rhythm and blues or whatever, I think it’s gone. In its pure form. There are some guys true to it but it’s so hard… everything is against it. I’d like to see Charlie Sexton become a big star, but the whole machine would have to break down right now before that could happen… stock-broker rock, it’s now a highly visible enterprise, big establishment thing. You know things go better with Coke because Aretha Franklin told you so and Maxwell House Coffee must be OK because RAY CHARLES is singing about it. Everybody’s singing about ketchup or headache medicine or something. In the beginning it wasn’t anything like that, had nothing to do with pantyhose and perfume and barbecue sauce . . . you were eligible to get busted for playing it. It’s like Lyndon Johnson saying “we shall overcome” to a nation wide audience, ridiculous . . .'

You said it, Bob - and you said it so well.

2:45 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Michael, dear everybody -

More and more these days, yes, everything seems to be just a matter of making money. Are we sorry dunces who appreciate the artist and his work the chosen scapegoats who, with our blood money, will save the record industry? I agree that Dylan's acceptance of this commercial frenzy built on and around his name is despicable. He doesn't need the money, even if he may crave that All-American Way to Fame. I try not to think about this, I don't want to lose respect for what he's objectively done and means.
As to the current touring... You are right, Michael: Dylan shows can now be boring. Who would have ever thought that would be the case? I try to live in the present (we have no other choice, do we?), and rate the current performances on their own, and the sad truth is they're not very good. Not very bad either. But little or no spark of life left in them, alas. But this has being going on for a little while. But there are still little moments of magic every now and then, so I'll just keep going to the concerts.

8:36 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Someone on the Steve Hoffman Message Boards suggested that perhaps Sony's master plan was to:

1. Raise the cost of the 3 CD set to unreasonable heights.
2. Sell the 2 CD set for cheap. ~ $15
3. Months later, lower the price of the three CD set to ~ $50.
4. They get $65 out of us instead of $50 and we feel like we got a "deal."

My response was this:

That may well be their plan -- and if it is, how could anyone question (morally or ethically) fans who say "The hell with 'em" and download the entire thing for nothing? I can't go that route -- maybe I'm too old, but I need to OWN the music I love, and I'm proud to do it -- but they've really pushed me too far with this one.

It's a slap in the face to fans who have supported Bob with their loyalty (and dollars) for 10, 20, 30, 40+ years. I bought all his albums (up until 1989) on vinyl. I bought them all again, and all the subsequent ones, on CD. I bought all the SACD remasters. I've purchased Biograph three times, Bootleg Series 1-3 twice. I bought Time Out Of Mind on CD and vinyl. I bought the deluxe Love & Theft (2 bonus tracks!) and the vinyl. I bought Modern Times THRICE over (CD, deluxe CD, vinyl). I bought the Japan-only live CD to get a small handful of songs new to CD. I've traveled far and wide to buy new releases at independent stores so I could collect promo EPs. I've paid extra through to get special trinkets, like the Carnegie Hall CD, the Radio Time CD, the Newport DVD -- and I'm pretty sure I got some kind of replica pop-up book a couple of years ago, but I couldn't swear to it, because I haven't looked at it since the day I got it.

Through all these purchases, I never complained once, never muttered under my breath, and never regretted my decisions. I was content to be both fan AND consumer, and I was fortunate to be able to afford to feed my habit. Heck, I even bought the "deluxe" Dylan set last year, which was COMPLETELY useless and which I haven't even opened. I may have gotten one of the above-mentioned trinkets as a bonus. Still, I did it willingly. I felt like I had an understanding with Sony: treat Bob's music with respect, make it available to me, and I'll pay a reasonable price for it.

Right now, that relationship is on shaky ground. I no longer feel like I'm Sony's partner in happy consumerism; this feels more like a back-alley mugging. Sony used to say to me, "Hey, here's something we think you'll like"; today they're saying to me, "Hey, sucker, where's your breaking point? How bad do you need that Dylan fix?" They've gone from pharmacist to pusher in one stroke of a bean-counter's keyboard.

The knee-jerk rebuttal to this is, "You're not being FORCED to buy it. You don't HAVE to have this!" This may be the thing that bothers me the most. Bob Dylan is a MUSICIAN; his primary function in the marketplace is to produce music that people pay money for. His music shouldn't be an "extra" or a "bonus" available only to those with an abundance of disposable income; his music should be the FUNDAMENTAL reason we are buying his products. Nobody -- NOBODY -- who buys the deluxe Tell Tale Signs is doing it for the picture book, or the vinyl single, or the poster; these people want the third CD, and for this "extra" Sony wants another $110. When I bought Bootleg Series 7 from Sony, I got the Carnegie Hall CD as a bonus -- a very cool "extra" that maybe cost $5.00 more than I would have paid From $5 to $110 for a bonus disc -- something has gone very wrong here.

Maybe this whole deluxe pricing scheme is a marketing experiment for Sony: "What's the very LIMIT of what we can get away with here?" If it is, our decisions as consumers become more important than ever. If we all run out and pay $130 for a 3-CD set, then they will do this again, and it will only get worse. If we hold off and refuse to give in, then Sony will know that they can't get away with it, and they will think twice before doing it again. But have they thought about what they might be losing in the meantime? I don't trust Sony anymore; we may patch things up, but it will never be the same for us. And Bob's not innocent in this either -- let's not kid ourselves, folks, he could have stopped this with a single muttered demand.

I started writing this as a simple rant, but now I'm trying to convince MYSELF not to cave in. The line has to be drawn SOMEWHERE, but fandom makes one weak. It's trite "wisdom" to point out that "fan" comes from "fanatic," implying that my devotion to Bob Dylan goes beyond rational thought. It's true, though, and with only a week left before release day, I'm stunned and bewildered that I'm still contemplating NOT owning a CD of Bob's music that will be legally available to me. To quote the guy who's trying to screw me out of $110, "Seven more days, all I gotta do is survive."
Sean Murdock

6:17 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Michael,

I don't know if comments are closed on this, but I just wandered over to your blog and saw that you had added responses to some of the comments, including mine.

Maybe I'd wandered over in search of further comment on Tell Tale Signs. I do find the collection sadly disappointing. Three versions of Mississippi and, surprise surprise, not one of them a patch on the L&T version. A ghastly ska-rockabilly Dignity that somehow, for me, tarnishes the magnificent original version. And so on ...

But, to go back to the issues raised in your post 'Tell Tale Signs Pt 3' and the subsequent comments: you responded that "As for Cohen's admitting that he wouldn't be touring if he didn't need the money, this has nothing to do with it. It didn't affect his conscientiousness onstage." I think you made the money something to do with it by contrasting Cohen's tour with 'Dylan Inc' and including the anecdote about Dylan's ticket prices in Santa Monica. In that context, I thought it worth pointing out that Cohen's motivation for touring was financial rather than artistic.

Then, of course, there is the separate question of what they are both producing on stage. I don't see that Dylan lacks dignity on stage or shows contempt for his audience,as you suggest in your response. And the lowest common denominator would surely be a greatest hits set and audience singalongs. Dylan is currently playing mostly songs from his recent albums and reworkings (sometimes radical e.g. Tangled, Love Minus Zero, It's Alright Ma) of older material. Come to think of it, much of the recent material is reworked too. Dylan's vocal approach in live versions of Workingman's Blues, for example, is utterly different from the studio original.

Yes, Cohen was in surprisingly good voice on this tour. But, as others have pointed out, he is playing largely the same set as in 1993. I certainly wouldn't sneer at Cohen. As I said, I like a lot of his music a great deal. I own all the records and some of the books. I even saw him live once, back in 1988, and it was, well, more Chris Rea than Nick Cave.

There is something dreadfully earnest about Cohen, so maybe some sneering and laughing might be in order. In concert, does he still recite the first verse of the song he is about to sing? The song 'On That Day' ("that day they wounded New York") really is a laughable response to the events of 9/11.

The reason I mentioned the Greg Tate article is that it reminds us (if we needed reminding) that Dylan's work can still have a strange, prophetic resonance. I don't hear that on 'The Future'.

My initial comments were not solely provoked by your post. At the time, I was getting increasingly irritated by the comments on Dylan forums and elsewhere suggesting that Dylan was being overshadowed by Cohen, Young, Waits, and Springsteen. I clicked on You Tube to find out what all the fuss was about: I found Neil Young performing a version of A Day In The Life that sounded like Spinal Tap's Jazz Odyssey. As for his 'Impeach The President' stuff, I'll take It's Alright Ma any day.

That said, I do share some of your misgivings about the current live Dylan. The band is certainly dull - 'mediocre' might be a bit harsh. For me, though, the low point was the JJ/Winston line up; I don't feel quite as aurally assaulted by this lot.

I've wondered at times this year whether Dylan isn't a little bored by it; I hear it in that dum-dee-dum-dee-dum vocal line that he imposes on a lot of tunes at the moment (he does it on the Sweet Melinda verse in the Tom Thumb's Blues that you mentioned). But, in contrast, on the Vienna recording, I hear an artist with a strong statement to make about the state of America and the world (war, poverty, floods, political corruption). Watching that video, I see a heroic, dignified figure. Now, if only they would get him a decent microphone.

Thanks, again, for the space.

Best wishes, Stephen

6:56 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Dear Stephen
Thank you for your considered and courteous new contribution to this discussion. I can't comment on the Neil Young or the Greg Tate article or the Vienna recording you refer to or the Cohen 9/11 song, and as you know I've never been suggesting that Cohen - let alone Springsteen or Tom Waits or anyone else - is a greater artist than Dylan . . . though a very thoughtful long-term fan told me recently that actually, these days, he finds that even a major Dylan song from a major album, say 'Visions of Johanna', says nothing in particular to him now while Cohen's 'Alexandra Leaving' strikes him as being about something, and speaks to him and is direct and moving. And while I don't concur at all with the sweep of that argument (being always distrustful of the what's-it-about? approach to art), I can recognise how he might feel the way he does.

As for Dylan on stage now, what can I say? He may change the arrangements of a few songs, but that's so much cheaper a move, more calculated a strategy, than offering change through living in the spontaneity of the moment, as used to happen a long time ago. And it's surely not particularly different from a greatest hits package when he sings a lot of material from the album that saw him top the album charts for the first time in 30 years, topped and tailed by the Rainy Day Women and LARS and Watchtower. There was a time when you could more or less rely on him not to sing anything from his most recent album. This was sometimes frustrating but also made us smile and admire.

And don't you find the rigid alternation of fast and slow numbers a sign of how uninterested he is? And when did you last detect from him any real onstage desire to communicate? All these revisits to Rainy Day Women and Leopard-Skin and Watching The River Flow, which have all sounded the same as each other for years now, are just done because they're the easiest things to do.

I didn't want to end on this negative note. But when I listen to current Dylan thrashing through Honest With Me, the only song on Love and Theft I could do without, or choosing Everything Is Broken as the Oh Mercy song to perform live hundreds of times, I know I am not being offered even one percent of what Bob Dylan is. And I know that when I hear Bootleg Series 8, I agree with you that most of it is comparatively mediocre. I'm rambling now, and going over old ground, but Love and Theft is so good! - howbeit that neither Dylan live nor almost any of Tell-Tale Signs is?
PS. I bought Self Portrait on CD a couple of months ago. It sounds terrific!

9:58 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'Intelligence Data', Greg Tate's review of 'Love and Theft', is here:

It's also collected in 'Studio A: The Bob Dylan Reader' (ed. Benjamin Hedin).


10:31 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What has become of that poor jewish boy who used to play guitar and harmonica in some coffee houses? A billionaire who just don't give a damn about his fans - or his music.

9:42 pm  

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