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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, December 08, 2011


Harold Lepidus, who runs the site Bob Dylan Examiner, has just put up an interview he conducted with me earlier this week. It's here and also here, including his very complimentary intro:

What do you get for the Bob Dylan fan who has everything? Chances are he or she already owns the usual suspects - Christmas In The Heart, The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, Brandeis 1963, The Witmark Demos, The Original Mono Recordings. It's time to think outside the box set.

My first suggestion for this holiday season is an audio CD by renowned Bob Dylan expert Michael Gray. Earlier this year he released Bob Dylan Encyclopedia Greatest Hits, a compact disc featuring eleven "chapter" readings from his mammoth book, Bob Dylan Encyclopedia.

If you are not familiar with Gray's work, you should know he wrote Song & Dance Man, the first serious, long form study of Dylan's music back in the early 1970s. That seminal work, which has since been updated twice, is the bedrock of all current Dylan criticism. When I read the second edition of Song & Dance Man in 1981, it opened a door into Dylan's musical and literary roots that I could not have imagined existed. Gray's writing was so insightful and powerful that it took me a while to figure out my own separate opinions of Dylan's oeuvre.  It reinvigorated my own Dylan fanaticism, landed me in used record stores all over Boston, and made me an outcast among my co-workers who couldn't understand my fascination with this supposed has-been.

Gray still loves to discuss and dissect Dylan's work. He even sounded envious that I saw Dylan and the Band in 1974, though he witnessed the legendary 1966 Liverpool show with the Hawks that produced the much sought after live b-side, "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues."

Here is Gray discussing his new CD, writing liner notes for the recent live Brandeis CD, and talking about Dylan for a living.

How was your recent speaking tour?

I couldn’t call it a tour  -  it was a short trip to deliver a talk at a Dylan Birthday Celebration Conference at the University of Cardiff in South Wales, and also to take part in a panel discussion about connexions between Bob Dylan and the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (who had been a hero to the Beats). In the end, because of the illness of one of the other scheduled speakers, I gave two talks rather than one. And after Cardiff, those of us on the platform for the panel discussion staged a similar event at the lovely Taliesin Arts Centre in Swansea (also in South Wales).

How did you come up with the idea of putting out your own spoken word CD?

Well, I’ve been noticing the increased popularity of audio-books for a long time now  -  people get tired of trashy radio stations when they’re driving around, and the new technology  -  things like the iPod  -  make it so much easier to listen to things doing other stuff. And while most people feel they’re too busy to have much time for reading, an audio-book means someone else can be reading to you while you’re doing other stuff. But of course the book The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia is 750,000 words  -  far too big to be an audio-book (or, for that matter, to be translated into other languages) -  so the only option was an audio-book of selected entries. So it’s about an hour’s worth, a reasonable single-CD’s length, in a really attractive digipak. Well I think so, anyway. Of course, you don’t have to buy it as a CD, you can download either the whole thing or just individual tracks.

My favorite aspect of the CD is when you place Dylan's activities in the context of its time (Records found in the rear of department stores behind vacuum cleaners, only going to one local concert per tour, etc.). How important was that in your writing?

Placing Dylan’s past in the context of the time has always been important to me. Dylan’s work is music, but it’s also history. And the work you’re referring to in those examples is from the 1960s, and the world was different then in so many, many ways. In my case I’m old enough that I can describe how things were, and how they were perceived, in the 1960s from personal experience  -  and part of the pleasure of being able to draw on that experience in writing about it almost half a century later is to be able to smile, ruefully and fondly, at my own generation’s innocence, folly, enthusiasm and hope. Naturally if you just drone on about the 60s, people who are young now will turn off  -  but if they’re interested in Bob Dylan’s work, and as you know, many are, then they’re interested in the context. All kinds of things they might assume are as natural as the air we breathe in fact had to be invented, and so for today’s youthful music fans, the odd shaft of light received from the quaint, vanished world of the recent past can be compelling. Mostly people can relate easily to the music of the 1950s onwards, but they’re hearing it from within a very different reality. And few things have changed as radically as how we access music now.

The CD reminds me of a great lost bootleg, with all periods of Dylan's career covered in a random order,  from long, rhapsodic meditations of great works like Blood On The Tracks and "Love & Theft" to imagining Dylan frying an egg on stage. How did you choose what to include, and in what order? Did the thought of a Dylan bootleg even cross your mind when deciding what would make the final cut?

Never thought about Dylan bootlegs at all, at the time. I just wanted a broad sample of kinds of entry  -  in terms of period, of length of text (and therefore length of track), of subject and of mood. I found that process of choosing very challenging, but fun. I decided early on, for instance, not to try to include any of the entries on specific literary or musical figures who had been big influences on Dylan  -  not because they’re less interesting than other kinds of entry: on the contrary  -  but because unless it was going to become a 5 or 6-CD box set, it would be really out of balance to have, say, 15 minutes on Robert Johnson or 10 minutes on Hank Williams or, you know, 42 minutes on William Blake when so many other equally important influences would have to be missed out. And this made it so clear that one of the main criteria for choosing entries had to be, how long does it take to read this entry aloud? Which led to deliberately looking for a couple of really short ones and balancing that out with a couple of long ones. It wasn’t hard to remember the one about frying an egg on stage, when I was thinking about short ones, and for lengthy ones it seemed only right to choose entries that concentrated on major Dylan works. The entry in the book on Blonde On Blonde is too brief, but we tried Blood On The Tracks and that came in at just over 10 minutes, which seemed appropriate  -  and then I especially honed in on “Love and Theft” because I’ve always felt, right from the moment I first heard it, that it’s one of his major albums, and it has the extra virtue of being from the 21st Century, and I didn’t want the audio-book to just be harking back to the earliest decades. It was also the album that doesn’t feature in my previous large Dylan book, Song & Dance Man III, because that book was completed before “Love and Theft” existed. And the entry on Duluth, the place, begged to be included in the audio-book because it took us all the way back, way back further than the 1960s, to Bob Dylan’s birth.

After decades of music analysis and criticism, what was it like to record your own CD?

I can’t say it felt strange to be recording an audio-book  -  after all, it’s entirely spoken word, and I’ve been giving talks at arts festivals and colleges and so on for around ten years now: and that is the tremendous contrast to writing the books. When I’m writing, my working life is spent alone at the word-processor. To get out and have a live audience, and meet some of my readers, and to be standing on a stage speaking in public instead of sitting at home writing in private: that’s the great contrast. And actually one of the tracks on Bob Dylan Encyclopedia Greatest Hits is about the song ‘Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat’  -  about how it’s so uniquely Dylan yet also coachbuilt on the chassis of an old Lightnin' Hopkins song  -  and that’s an entry I’ve often read out to audiences at my talks. So I’ve known how that works when it’s read aloud: and of course for people who buy the CD version of the audiobook at the end of one of my talks, that track works as a souvenir of the event.

I can imagine Dylan fans enjoying your CD on a long drive (preferably to a Dylan concert), or as a surprise track when listening to their iPod on shuffle. Did you have any preconceived notions of how Dylan fans would listen to the CD, and what has been the feedback so far?

My only preconception was that people would probably use a shuffle feature, much like the way that people use the book  -  by dipping in and out of it, opening it at random, that kind of thing. Feedback has been good  -  but, you know, it hasn’t soared up the charts or anything!

What was it like to write the liner notes to the second version of Dylan's Brandeis CD? How did it come about?

It was a pleasant surprise to be asked, though it is, I have to say, a very minor album. The notes I wrote necessarily had to big it up  -  but yes, a good surprise to be approached. I was e-mailed by someone at Special Projects at Sony-Legacy, and they asked me, and I said I’d be happy to do it, and they FedEx’d me the material (though of course I had it anyway!) and then when I’d written the piece, I sent it to them and they ran it past Jeff Rosen and he said it was “great” and there you have it. I have to say I don’t like the design they’ve used for the notes on the CD, but the vinyl version looks really terrific  -  the whole sleeve, back and front, has been made to look exactly as if it’s an LP from 1963... except that, very kindly, they let me put my website address under my name: which of course is a jarring note in terms of period, but a kindness to me.

How can people order the CD, or any of your books?

They can get Bob Dylan Encyclopedia Greatest Hits as a download from the record company, or from all the usual suspects, iTunes included, and they can buy the CD directly from my website: and if they do that, they have the option to either receive it still shrinkwrapped or else unshrinkwrapped but signed. My books, well, Song & Dance Man III is finally out of print, after eleven years, but the 2008 Bob Dylan Encyclopedia paperback and my biography of Blind Willie McTell, Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes, can be bought from any good bookshop or from Amazon, and if people want a signed and/or inscribed copy, they can get them from my website. Meanwhile, thanks Harold  -  pleasure to talk.


Anonymous Rambling Gambling Gordon said...

Can you put your hand on your heart and say you won't write another book on Dylan – even if it's not Song and Dance Man IV?

8:04 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Would you prefer the answer to be yes or no?...

11:20 pm  
Anonymous Rambling Gambling Gordon said...

That was a deft side-step of a reply...

Yes, I hope you do write another book.

12:25 am  
Blogger Pope Leo said...

I'd like it to be "...erm..."

1:14 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"When I read the second edition of Song & Dance Man in 1981, it opened a door into Dylan's musical and literary roots that I could not have imagined existed. Gray's writing was so insightful and powerful that it took me a while to figure out my own separate opinions of Dylan's oeuvre."

This is my experience exactly. It has taken me a decade, or however long it is exactly since Song and Dance Man III was released, to realise that I do not agree with Michael Gray on some points (the influence of The Lord of the Rings on Lay Down Your Weary Tune, say). He also put me off sampling any work by A.S. Byatt for the longest time. I read her book Elementals recently, and have started reading her mythopoeic novel Ragnarok, and have to admit that she is a good enough writer after all, even if she is way off regarding Dylan. But the majority, certainly, of the observations in both SADM and TBDE are right on the mark and I think the former book especially will be looked back on as a classic and the most influential early critical work on Dylan, long after many other Dylan books have become alms for oblivion.

Just want to say that I would like another Dylan book from you, Michael, and would definitely buy a copy. Audiobooks are not my thing, so I'll pass on the CD, but you can count on my support for new Dylan book.

3:44 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just as an addendum to the last message, just been watching a lecture with Ricks, where he says: "Michael Gray, who knows more about Bob Dylan than anyone has ever known, or ever will know".

Compliments can't come higher than that.

4:25 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Thank you to those who have commented here - and especially to the Anonymous who took the trouble to write in so interesting as well as so highly complimentary a way about my work.

But re Ricks: are you sure he wasn't being sarcastic...?

5:12 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have gone back to the Ricks video mentioned in my above post and can see nothing sarcastic at all in his tone or words. Perhaps, Michael, you have some personal reason for thinking so? Ricks makes the statement as a prelude to pointing out his disagreement with you on a specific point. He simply seems to be saying that you know an enormous amount about Dylan, but even you, in this instance, are underestimating Dylan's genius at inhabiting a character within a song. The lecture mentioned is on you tube - the link, if you'll permit me to include it, is

and the reference itself occurs at about 23.12. I wonder if it sounds sarcastic to anyone else. It certainly doesn't to me.

11:08 am  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

No, no particular reason. It's simply that it's the kind of remark that could be meant either way, and normally speaking when Ricks mentions my name in a lecture it's in order to describe or quote something I've said and then argue the opposite. I don't complain about this - it's a completely reasonable way to proceed, and in the lecture he gave at the Dylan Symposium at the University of Minnesota in 2007 he explained (since he knew I was in the audience) that he finds he has to encounter my work in order to give Dylan's some scrutiny because it is hardly possible to avoid my writing on the subject.

I'm gratified that Ricks acknowledges my work, whatever he then chooses to do with it.

And thank you for the URL to the talk of his you wrote in about in the first place.

3:48 pm  

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