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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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Saturday, September 11, 2010


Among other September 11th anniversaries, today it is twenty years since the release of Dylan's Under The Red Sky album. Twenty years! (I think of it as one of his recent records...)

The first paragraph of the entry on this album in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia still sums up my take on it pretty well:

"The first Dylan album after Oh Mercy shows Dylan characteristically retreating from that album’s mainstream production values and safe terrain, and refusing to offer a follow-up. Nevertheless his penchant for recently-modish producers has him turn this time to DON & DAVID WAS of Was Not Was, who offer a rougher and less unified sound. It’s a pity Dylan pads out the album with some sub-standard rockism (‘Wiggle Wiggle’ and ‘Unbelievable’) and the ill-fitting, foggy pop of ‘Born In Time’, because the core of the album is an adventure into the poetic possibilities of nursery rhyme that is alert, fresh and imaginative, and an achievement that has gone largely unrecognised."


Anonymous Carl Finlay said...

your writing on "under the red sky" inspired me to do a lot of research on the nursery rhyme form. its one of my favourite chapters in song and dance man. despite that the album itself just doesn't do it for me, ive tried to like and just cant. so many of the songs are substandard and bob's singing is so uninspired. it does have a good cover though.
oh on another note, i dont know if you saw but your mate Al Kooper has had another swipe at you recently. there is a quote from him used as a blurb on Sean Wilentz's new book "Bob Dylan in America", where he says something to the effect of "phony encyclopedia compilers" he really has it in for you doesnt he? he seems to be clearly in need of a life.

6:53 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Hi Carl
Thanks for your remarks about that chapter of Song & Dance Man III. Actually several people have told me over the years that my writing about the album was more compelling than the album itself. Unhappily, of course, it's a minority view; most purchasers of Under The Red Sky around the world have never even heard of my book, let alone read it, let alone . . .

As for Smilin' Al, yes, I did see that. Indeed the first I heard of Sean Wilentz's book was when he sent me the McTell chapter and asked me to make suggestions and/or spot any errors etc. etc., which I readily did - and by the way very much admired the way he'd written it - and then the second thing was seeing a publisher's blurb for the book with three quotes about it: one from Martin Scorcese, one from some other famous person, and the third that one from Mr. Kooper. I did feel, momentarily, that Mr. Wilentz had shown a touch of ingratitude there, but then publishers don't always let authors control all the marketing of their work.

Dear Al: such a sweetie.

9:44 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You surely don't mean that, "unhappily", Michael. No matter the worth of your writing, it is far more important that people listen to the album and hopefully find that compelling. Many more readers of your book would of course be a happy event.

"under the red sky" (original title was in lower case for the album, capitals for the title track) came out just after I had started Homer, the slut and was the first album I ever wrote a review about. Well, article as it turned out, By the time it came out in updated form in "Troubadour" I could include relevant quotes from your own excellent chapter. I wanted to include a lot more but there's always a balance to be kept between showing admiration and stealing.

(I pause to allow your own Bob thoughts at this moment)

So, no negativity towards your marvellous chapter is meant by the opening comment here - it's just that art comes first, critics a way behind. Though, as I recently wrote, not to be dismissed altogether as Dylan tried to do with his recent comments on Shakespeare plays and Shakespeare criticism.

All the best, glad Lerwick went well,

11:18 am  
Blogger Pope Leo said...

Al Kooper’s antipathy is strange – your lengthy entry on him in the encyclopedia seems fair and very positive. Perhaps he (wrongly) sees the encyclopedist as laying the dead hand of arid compilation upon the creative process. Who knows?

Certainly Wilentz’s book itself is very fair to you, citing you a number of times in the chapter on McTell. I find it a curious book, interesting in its structure, on some of the connections it makes, and in what it has to say about some of the supposed influences on Dylan. But I do find it curiously uncritical. If the word ‘hagiography’ is inappropriate, there is nevertheless something of the fanzine approach to much of the writing. And some of the flat-footed paraphrasing of Dylan’s work is truly dreadful. Did none of Wilentz’s Eng. Lit. colleagues ever tell him that if something is worth quoting it probably doesn’t need paraphrasing?

I have to say that I agree with Homer on ‘under the red sky’. It is the album I play least. Which, of course means I play Down in the Groove more frequently. Honest! (The later album has a wonderful version of Shenandoah that is worth all of UTRS put together)…

5:55 pm  
Anonymous Carl Finlay said...

apparently bob has a new book out november next year. but it aint what i was hoping for christmas. i took this from a thread in Expecting Rain. maybe it may never materialise

7:04 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like Under the Red Sky, but it's a hit and miss album. There are many songs that I feel are poor Dylan imitations or worse. However, I love the title track, Handy Dandy and Cat's in the Well. It's too bad the only time (that I know of) he played Handy Dandy live in concert that the performance was so uninspired. He's treated Cat's in the Well much better in live versions.

7:21 pm  
Anonymous Steven said...

Dear Mr. Gray
I am reading BOB DYLAN IN AMERICA and enjoying it, but I was really put off by that Al Kooper quote on the cover. I don't know what has him so riled, but publishers are so awful with their quotes from the famous and the consecrated. And why all the judgment and snarkyness among Bob commentators and appreciators? I've also been reading the Heylin song by song book (the first one) and he is so over-the-top holier than thou about his Awesome Knowledge and the inadequacy of every other thought. You yourself can suffer the same disease (of conceit?) although I have enjoyed your writing tremendously. Hey, I'm just coming off a four Dylan concert jag here in the Pacific Northwest of America, and all I know is that what I observed and heard from Bob and the band is MY truth. I want to read other viewpoints, but I'm sick of all the put-downs. Bob does that best, after all.

7:49 am  
Anonymous John Carvill said...

To my shame, I 'bought' some of the early, hyper-negative reviews of UTRS, and it was years before I gave it a proper listen. (I remember a particularly despairing write-up in 'VOX' magazine.) Your book (Song & Dance Man) was the main catalyst for my belated discovery of the album, along with the album's title track being included on Greatest Hits III, plus that great live version of 'Born in Time' that was on one of the singles (Love Sick?) from TOOM.

If it feels slightly unfair that you helped out with the Wilentz book only to find yourself traduced on its cover, take heart from the fact that Clinton Heylin, in the 2nd volume of his woeful 'study' of Dylan's songbook, also has a go at your encyclopedia: Heylin's book is so bad, being attacked by him can only be seen as a compliment.

9:49 am  
Blogger oh mercy said...

Very Nice article MG-
I know I had that on TAPE at some point but I can't locate it now. I'd like to take another listen after many years thanks to your post.

Stephen- Thanks for your comments on Heylin.
I am trying to start filling in my Dylan "library"
(well- filling in means I have to get almost all the books! lol- I've mostly read from libraries) and have been purchasing on ebay asmy budget will allow. (--- very slowly!) So your comments and others on Heylin convince me to keep it on the far back burner.
wish I had done that with the Paul Williams book Performing artist... 1990 and beyond)
his unending and oh so clever use of Dylan lines is so distracting that the meat of his work is lost. but I will continue to plow through it-
...s l o w l y....

Thanks for your always enjoyable and informative postings. I always like reading the comments as well.

PS- Sorry- can't join the conversation on your book yet Mr.Gray- I have been dying to read your books but they are still way up beyond my price-range on ebay- which tells me how highly regarded they are. They are on my watch list though and when someone is crazy enough to start the bidding in my price range-lowwww) they will be mine!

Wish I could just go to Amazon and buy them- and many others new- sigh-

6:02 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"under the red sky" is an underrated gem in the Dylan catalogue. Like many others, I thought it was awful on first release. However, repeated plays some time later made me realise and understand its true brilliance. It takes some perseverance but really is worth the reward.

Martin Cowan

8:33 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, Homer likes "under the red sky" - indeed he loves the bits of it that are the "nursery rhyme" core and it is far from the one he plays least (that's TTL by a long distance, the only one remotely close to it being Modern Times).

8:56 pm  
Anonymous Bev said...

I'd agree, the stuff in SADM3 about 'Under the Red Sky' is one of the best bits of the book; I never would have known all the nursery rhyme & riddle references in the songs, but once you do know it genuinely adds new depth to hearing the songs again. Still not a great album though: three good songs and some average filler... and 'Wiggle Wiggle'.

10:19 pm  
Blogger Unknown said...

The one off "10,000 Men" from 2001 in Rhode Island is tremendous!

1:23 am  
Blogger wardo said...

I still don't like UTRS. I've tried, and I have failed.

2:57 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

well, between my friends in Australia we refer to UTRS as "further down in the groove".

4:48 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Dear Most Recent Anonymous
That's funny: in our house we've always referred to Down In The Groove as Flared Trousers.

6:39 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love "Under The Red Sky," but hate the way it was recorded. In other words I love the songs. Dylan's contributions are fine enough, but as with "Empire Burlesque" the overdubs and production hurt the record tremendously.
If the whole thing sounded like "Ninety Miles an Hour Down A Dead End Street," it would he wonderful.
Pat Ford

3:01 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember how excited I was about Under the Red Sky in the days leading up to its release. Then it started getting the negative reviews. Kudos to John Bauldie, though, on the Telegraph's Wanted Man Hotline, for declaring it Dylan's best work since Shot of Love. I always assumed it was the subject matter that turned people off. Nursery rhymes just aren't rock and roll enough.

9:13 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pat... ah, wise words indeed.

Producers such as Was Brothers, Lanois,Baker,etc tend to get in the way...most of Dylan's greatest works have been made without a "name " producer ( or so called star players ).

Ninety Miles...wonderful.


1:28 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I read an articl somewhere in which Don Was expressed his amazement that people do not see a relationship between 'under the red sky' and Modern Times..........any thoughts?

11:42 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...


12:16 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very droll Michael. Perhaps it was for a campaign involving your word of reply: "Drugs: Just Say no"

Actually, I can see a relationship but it is a simple comparative one between an album that, however flawed, tried something bold, innovative and creative and one that did nothing of the sort.

Pity Don Was is scrabbling around for reflected "glory" from somethng that is duller by far than what he produced himself.

One of the great things about "utrs" was that it was not "Oh Mercy 2"; as I said at the time from first to last listen Modern TImes was always ""L&T"" 2 or "Love & Theft Lite" as I called it.


10:41 am  

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