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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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Tuesday, September 14, 2010


It was dispiriting to read in The Observer last Sunday, in a generally negative review of Sean Wilentz’s Bob Dylan In America by Geoff Dyer - here - that in “the chapter on Blind Willie McTell…Wilentz has found out everything you could want to know about the singer on whom Dylan based his greatest song of the past 30 years.”

Now Wilentz’s book credits me quite properly (also citing Sam Charters’ The Country Blues, Paul Oliver’s Blues Fell This Morning, and John Lomax’s The Last Cavalier) and makes quite clear that he’s relying on the work of other writers and has done no research of his own on McTell. But there’s Geoff Dyer effectively denying the existence of my years of research and my resultant book Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes - despite its James Tait Black shortlisting just two years ago and its terrific reviews - because he hasn’t troubled to read any of Wilentz’s notes or acknowledgments.

This might be too bad for me but an understandable carelessness on a reviewer’s part - except that when Geoff Dyer is the writer, he doesn’t find even small mistakes forgiveable at all.

When Peter Schjeldahl, art critic of the New Yorker, made an error in reviewing Dyer’s novel Jeff in Venice (nice title), Dyer published a whole screed of abusive protest on Saatchi Online Magazine. Schjeldahl mistook 2005 for 2003. This is part of Dyer’s diatribe:

“I thought I’d take the opportunity to respond to the remarkable ‘reading’ of the Venice part by Peter Schjeldahl ‘or (to quote Philip Larkin on Hugh MacDiarmid) however the cunt spells his name.’ … as I point out in the notes at the end of the book – ‘2003 was the scorcher.’ 2005 was actually quite mild; it even rained a bit. Now, obviously, what’s at stake at this point is not Schjeldahl’s opinion of the book but something far more elementary: his fitness to proceed, his mental health. If he can’t get a simple thing like that right how can we have confidence in anything else he says? Or to put it more simply, just how stupid can a fellow be?”



Blogger Geoff said...

That bit of the review originally read:
"Wilentz has found out everything you could want to know about the singer on whom Dylan based his greatest song of the last thirty years (needless to say, Michael Gray, the one-man Dylan encyclopaedia, found out even more."

The bracket was cut by the Observer - quite reasonably - for reasons of space. Happy now?

4:46 pm  
Anonymous John Carvill said...

Yes, I noticed that implicit slighting of your Blind Willie McTell book.

That Dyer review was viscous, you could really feel him ramping up his attack.

I haven't read all of the Wilentz book yet but I like what I've read so far.

6:26 pm  
Blogger Frank said...

Oh, I say! This is becoming Scratchi Online rather than Saatchi Online.

Dyer has, of course, been careless in his comments, and should have acknowledged that Wilentz relied on well researched books like your own for his chapter on McTell.

Nevertheless, I think that Dyer's review of the Wilentz book is essentially sound. Wilentz clearly does not have the critical apparatus to write sensibly about music and, as I hinted at in a previous post (under ‘Twenty Years Ago Today’), he is thuddingly clumsy when writing about Dylan’s lyrics. As Dyer suggests, Wilentz is best when dealing with facts. Even if they are the facts that you have unearthed for him!

7:56 pm  
Anonymous Kieran said...

nodicCrikey! Dangerous business, having your book reviewed. Dyer seems like a petty asshole. Didn't inspire me much to go looking for his book.

He has a comment section on the bottom of his review, Michael. You should go in there and call the guy a c**t, or whatever it was Larkin would call him!

11:26 am  
Anonymous John Carvill said...

Hello to Frank. Have you read all of Wilentz's book? I ask that genuinely, not trying to start an argument.

You say "Wilentz clearly does not have the critical apparatus to write sensibly about music", but I would point to his sleeve notes for the 'Live 1964' Bootleg Series release.

1:55 pm  
Blogger Pete said...

It would have been nice if Dyer had written "Wilentz compiled ..." rather than "has found out" which implies original research. It would have been nice if Doubleday had trimmed the first clause from Kooper's quote. And it would have been nice if Wilentz had written a book from scratch instead of stitching together articles. But the McTell chapter is the best so far (I'm up to p. 239), Kooper's is just a blurb, and BDiA is in fact quite worth reading, even if he does call Lord Buckley British (p. 97). My favorite line is this (p. 90), describing what was very much my view ca 1964-5: "The Bob Dylan we now heard and saw seemed basically the same as the Bob Dylan we knew, only better."

7:30 pm  
Blogger Frank said...

Hi, John, yes I have read the whole book. I have also read the liner notes to the 1964 concert, but not recently, and I have been unable to find them right now to re-read, so I can't comment on them.

Some writers are much better than others at conveying the sound, the delivery, the timing, the texture of a Dylan song / performance - I think Paul Williams does it well, for example (though I note someone in recent post on this blog saying the opposite).

For me, Wilentz simply does not begin to capture the distinctive qualities of Dylan musically. He is, at best, descriptive in a very literal way.

I did enjoy the book, though (just not the musical and lyric critiques)!


10:04 pm  
Blogger joe butler said...


without making a case for Geoff Dyer I think your being a trifle oversensitive, Dyer actually says "Wilentz has found out everything you could want to know about the singer on whom Dylan based his greatest song of the past 30 years. " Now without naming you he doesn't say that Willentz has done all the original research, and it could be implied that Wilentz found out everything by reading your book

10:10 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On the subject of the Wiltenz book and bickering in particular, interesting to see that Al Kooper is still persisting in his Michael bashing. His anti-Bob Dylan Encyclopedia comments are up on amazon's product description page for all to see. Ironic though that Wilentz' "hardcore, intelligent research," in Kooper's words, turns out to be based on research previously done by none other than the same "phony 'encylopedia' compiler" Kooper so enjoys lambasting.

10:17 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Frank, the previous comment was specifically about the last of Paul Williams's "performing Artist" books which was written when he was already suffering quite extensively from his progressive illness. (see ) It is - inevitably and distressingly - markedly different from his earlier books in the series.


9:17 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A fellow on you-tube has posted a bunch of songs from 10/11/09.
Very, Very strong audio, as good a performance as Dylan could give.
Actual chills )( no I wasn'r drinking) during several songs.
All the TTL performances flay alive the album versions.
Dream of You (straight out of Billy)
Pat Ford
PS do not fail to check out Working man Blues which towers over the record.

1:57 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although Dylan is known for exceeding his album versions live (not often recently) there are certain songs which to my ear always pale next to the album versions. McTell in either studio version, comes to mind.
I have always seen High Water as a high water mark for Dylan. One of his greatest songs, in the perfect timeless folk tradition of the "new dark ages." It never seems to come off in concert.
Album version now bobbing in the street like a balloon made out of lead.
Dylan on guitar with impossibly hard core lower register breakdowns.
Amazing. The old boy was on fire this night.
Pat Ford

2:20 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here is the one Michaels been looking for. Again the album version is just destroyed forever.
Exquisite serpentine harp work.
What explains this energy?

2:34 am  
Blogger Frank said...

Homer, Thank you for correcting me. I agree that the third Performing Artist book (to which I was a subscriber) was less good than the earlier two, and no doubt for the sad reasons you allude to.

And I also note that I wrongly ascribed to you a dislike of ‘under a red sky’. My apologies. I have tried and tried with that album - I listened again yesterday – and still find most of it depressingly poor. I thought Anonymous and his Australian friends were spot-on to call it ‘further down in the groove’!

5:37 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And I can quite understand, why, Frank - but I took to it very quickly and as I say wrote extensively on why, it is too big to upload here, unfortunately.

I will agree though that I do in fact enthuse over only about half the album at most so I was cheating a bit. Also I wrote in the face of widespread abuse and scorn, which always brings out the Dylan-defender in me.

10:25 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I meant to add to my reply to Frank that Pat Ford's comments fill me with hope as I agree with every word he says re studio v live; both in general and in these specific songs.

Dare I test this hope against reality after so many "false dawns"?


10:32 am  
Anonymous Tim Footman said...

Now, be fair. Dyer says that “Wilentz has found out everything you could want to know about the singer...” He just doesn’t mention that the places he found everything out were in other books. He’s not wrong, as Schjuntdahl was, he just omits a significant bit of rightness.

8:54 pm  
Anonymous Mat Snow said...

I had a drink with Geoff back in 1987. We were both after jumping the same girl's bones that night. She was pretty impressed by Geoff's knowledge of and passion for modern jazz. Less impressed, though, by his bicycle clips. I got to take the girl home. Geoff would never have been able to perch her on the handlebars.

Just thought I'd share.

8:55 pm  
Anonymous Pete Silverton said...

broad shoulders, broad shoulders - if i had a penny for everyone who's ever 'borrowed' from me, i guess i'd owe a penny to everyone i've ever 'borrowed' from - the question is: does it belong to the tradition? if it does, then it's fair: to give is to get etc etc

9:32 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Yes but Pete, I didn't complain that Sean Wilentz used my research: I'm happy that it gets disseminated. My objection was to a reviewer carelessly sending his readers in the wrong direction and misleading them on a matter that he decided to highlight. And it's nothing to do with "the tradition" (whatever that means).

9:35 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you Pat for refreshing my memory re this Berkeley show. Almost sure that's the Soomlos recording being used as the audio on that utube footage. Going to plug in and relisten to the whole show tomorrow if I get a chance. My recollection is it is one of a number of fine shows from that leg, the best recorded of which is Walkin' Dude's second night in Boston. That's one I regularly return to. Had one listen to WMB's from Berkeley and while I wouldn't agree with your view that it towers (or is even superior) to the album take, it does possess much merit in line with the live versions that song has (in the main) received since Sexton's return. This Dream of You is a gem and a far more succesful effort than it's debut earlier that year. If it can get that treatment more often, I'd love to see it played live more.



11:50 pm  
Anonymous Elmer Gantry said...


Have been reading and enjoying sean wilentz's book, but was taken aback to find him refer (on p. 205) to 'Neighbourhood Bully' as the 'best rock song' on Infidels...

He also refers to it as 'rip-roaring rock and roll'...

To my mind, 'Neighbourhood Bully' is perhaps the ugliest song - both musically and politically - ever recorded by a great artist...

10:28 am  

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