It’s a hard life, book publishing. You put your heart and soul into a book, working with the author to make it as good as it can possibly be, and then you send it out into the world, and……………………..sometimes, silence. Other times, not silence, but comments and mentions and reviews that just seem, somehow, wrong. As if all the author’s work and all of the publisher’s collaborative efforts just don’t mean very much. But then occasionally – just occasionally – a review comes along, a review that shines a perfect light on the book in question. And everything, at least for a while, is golden. This is one of those reviews.
‘Pop 1960-62: not all hopeless’
Mike Marqusee delves with delight into Michael Gray’s inspired Bob Dylan Encyclopedia
Saturday August 19, 2006
The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia
by Michael Gray
832pp, Continuum, £25
Dylan’s work merits encyclopedic treatment not only because of its intrinsic richness and cultural import, but also because of its multi-sided, history-fraught nature. He crosses many boundaries. His sources are bewilderingly multiple. His evolution is complex, marked by political, aesthetic and philosophical debates, entangled with big business, pop culture and personal pettiness. Because there are so many avenues into and through Dylan’s work, an encyclopedia is an apt tool for exploring it. That’s especially true when the encyclopedia in question is so much more than merely a compendium of Dylan-related facts.
Michael Gray’s book embodies a lifetime of critical engagement with Dylan’s art. It’s probably the most comprehensive work on the subject, and also one of the most entertaining.
The scale of research is colossal. Facts have been assiduously double checked, sources scrupulously detailed. Nothing is taken on trust, a necessity in a field of studies beset with rumour and hypothesis. Gray has made excellent use of the efforts of Dylan fans who have, over the years, unearthed all kinds of data, much of it previously available only in fanzines and websites. There’s also original material, discovered by the author, modestly buried away in entries such as the one on Bob Yellin, a member of the folk-singing Greenbriar Boys: he turned kibbutznik and met Dylan during the latter’s mysterious 1971 visit to Israel. (Dylan, Yellin recalls, “was interested in planes: what aircraft Israel had, that kind of thing.”)
Gray has also had to master a ludicrously wide array of extraneous topics. TS Eliot, Memphis Minnie, Sam Peckinpah, Bertolt Brecht, John Donne, Lord Buckley, Kenneth Patchen, Joni Mitchell: Gray is familiar with each and shows a balanced appreciation of their connection with Dylan.
It’s not only that Gray has read everything remotely related to the subject; he has also listened to everything, and with great care. He makes evaluations – phrase by phrase, song by song, album by album – because he understands that doing so is a necessary part of engaging with the artist. He editorialises freely and intelligently.
Entries cover Dylan’s friends and family, session musicians and touring companions, artists who influenced Dylan or interacted with him, critics (declaration of interest: there’s an entry on me), fanzines and websites. Other themes range from “Poetry, American, pre-20th century” (acutely placing Whitman in Dylan’s aesthetic family tree) and “film dialogue in Dylan’s lyrics” (where we find a possible source for Dylan’s aphorism “To live outside the law you must be honest”) through “guitars, Bob Dylan’s electric”, “country music, Dylan’s early interest in” and the assumption-busting “Pop 1960-62: not all hopeless” and “Interviews and the myth of their rarity”.
As Gray notes, “Bob Dylan’s reach is too wide, too deep and too long for any book about him to cover it all.” His encyclopedia is not systematic; it can’t be. If it had tried or pretended to be, it would have been misleading and artificial, and a good deal less revealing than the book Gray has produced.
So there’s no entry dedicated to “Masters of War” or “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, but extensive treatments of “Spanish Harlem Incident”, “Jokerman”, “Angelina” and “Blind Willie McTell” (Gray at his best, illuminating line after line of this masterpiece, which was recorded in 1983 but inexplicably unreleased until 1991).
Gray is alert to the fluidity of ideas and associations in Dylan’s art and microscopically attentive to his choice and delivery of words. He has a keen sense of when Dylan’s faculties are clicking and when he’s just going through the motions. He rightly feels aggrieved when Dylan seems to disrespect his own art. There are harsh words for the mid-80s albums (Empire Burlesque is a “shameful spectacle”) and for Dylan’s unevenness in performance. In the entry on “recording quality and cynicism”, he notes Dylan’s lazy indifference to the presentation of much of his later work, observing insightfully that Dylan’s “cynical outer shell … in the corrosive form of some kind of self-contempt, some denigration of his own artistry, has seeped inside. It damages the very integrity it was meant to protect.”
For all this breadth, the book’s central subject is not dissolved in postmodern intertextuality. The living, breathing, struggling Bob Dylan is always there, an individual with a unique voice, responsible for his achievements and failings. In “Co-option of real music by advertising, the” Gray is scathing about Dylan’s deals with Coopers & Lybrand, McDonald’s and Starbucks, and in “Book endorsements, unfortunate” he lays into Dylan’s increasing willingness to play the entertainment industry game, as just another celebrity on the circuit of mutual promotion.
As the author notes in the straight-faced entry on “Gray, Michael”, his Song & Dance Man, published in 1972, was the first full-length critical study of Dylan’s work; its third, massively expanded edition, published in 1999, featured a long, revelatory essay on Dylan’s use of pre-war blues. That knowledge and passion also enriches the encyclopedia (see “Johnson, Robert”, or “Estes, Sleepy John”).
There are glimpses of Gray: a comment on provincial British record shops in the early 1960s (“if a record was in the top 10 they’d sold out of it and if it wasn’t, they’d never heard of it”) or the memory of an encounter with Jimi Hendrix at York University in 1967: “standing calmly in the group dressing-room, looking immaculate and relaxed, Hendrix talked warmly about his ‘total admiration’ for Bob Dylan – and then went on stage to include in his set an amp-assaulting, torridly original version of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ …”
Dylan fans will protest about omissions and dispute opinions; the inevitability of these reactions is part of the fun of the book. So for what it’s worth, I wondered at the absence of Jim Forman (the civil rights agitator addressed by Dylan on the sleeve notes of The Times They Are A’-Changin’: “Jim, Jim, where is our party?”) and Davey Moore (a boxer killed in the ring, the subject of one of Dylan’s protest songs). Curiously, the entry on Dave Van Ronk makes no mention of his leftist politics, and the entry on No Direction Home misses Scorsese’s only personal appearance in the film, when he does the voiceover for Dylan’s rant at the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee award dinner in December 1963 (where he said he identified with Lee Harvey Oswald). There’s no Martin Carthy, a regrettable omission, and no Donovan, on reflection a good point well made.
Occasionally the writing is over-concentrated. Because Gray is so attuned to the echoes of older works in Dylan’s songs, he sometimes over-stresses the concordances and under-states the differences. Unlike Gray, I’m not sold on Under the Red Sky (however, in making a case for it as a major Dylan album, he takes us on an intriguing journey through the history and structure of nursery rhyme that illuminates Dylan as a whole). I’m also dissatisfied with his declaration that “The quest for salvation might well be the central theme of [Dylan’s] entire output”. As an evocation of the troubled, restless, seeking spirit that has driven Dylan, it’s just too one-dimensional.
But there are wonderful entries – on, among many, Bert Cartwright (Dylan scholar, civil rights activist, Baptist minister); Dylan’s home town; and Flo and Lynn Castner, who among many other contributions to society introduced Dylan to the music of Woody Guthrie. And as far as I’m concerned, anyone who can write of George Harrison that he was a “crucial Beatle … for fans of musicianship and people who recognised a decent human being when they encountered one”, while describing U2 as an “Inexplicably successful Irish rock group formed in 1980, fronted by one of the world’s most self-important and vain celebrities”, has heart and head in the right place.
The CD-rom accompanying the book is a genuine bonus. It includes the entire text, is searchable and enables readers to click from entry to entry, charting their own paths through this densely populated territory.
The encyclopedia succeeds admirably in demonstrating, in Gray’s words, that “to burrow into Dylan’s art at length and in detail is not to shut the door on the wider world in pursuit of a narrow obsession but rather to open up that wider world, to be sent down a thousand boulevards …”
· Mike Marqusee’s Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan and the 1960s is published by Seven Stories Press