Eminence Gray

Even at this late date, there are still entirely too many people who don’t recognize that a book with a title like The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia is not just appropriate, but necessary. Fortunately, author Michael Gray addresses them on the very first page:

Bob Dylan’s reach is too wide, too deep and too long for any book about him to cover it all. His career spans 45 years of American history, and that history has intersected with his prolific songwriting, recording, touring, acting, filmmaking, TV appearances and interviews. He has published a novel and a book of drawings, composed for film soundtracks and written a best-selling first volume of memoirs. He has found a place in the world of literature and academic study as well as in popular music. He is important to the history of the times, having given voice to a generation at a time of huge social change and political struggle; his songs are enmeshed in the story of the U.S. civil rights movement as well as the Folk Revival movement. His busy life has embraced everything from bohemian excess to being Born Again.

His work has revolutionized song, reaching into every area of popular music from folk to blues to rock to gospel. He has met and worked with untold hundreds of musicians, politicians, celebrities, singers, poets, writers, painters, film-makers, actors and activists. He has released several dozen albums, written many hundreds of songs, in many cases adapting them from older folk and blues material, and recorded songs by many ther composers. He has been the subject of an enormous number of books, academic conference papers, showbiz stories, essays and concert reviews. He has attracted more fanzine enthusiasm, and inspired more websites, than almost anyone in the world.

To which I would add that Dylan is one of only three artists crucial to understanding 20th century American music. Like Aaron Copland, Dylan took a musical form that was frozen
in time and caught looking backward to “superior” European models — folk music in Dylan’s case, orchestral music in Copland’s — mastered it, and then turned it into something new with a uniquely American sonic palette. Like Duke Ellington, Dylan took a musical form widely dismissed or patronized as novelty or dance music — rock and roll in Dylan’s case, jazz in Ellington’s — and stretched its expressive boundaries to encompass every nuance of human life, emotion and activity, from articulate rage at a political crime to sorrow over the dissolution of a marriage.

In short, Dylan made rock music into an arena for art, and his work into a crossroads where Sonny Boy Williamson sits with Allen Ginsberg, Little Richard plays alongside medieval balladeers and William Blake shares lines with Bukka White. And doing so, Dylan presented a challenge to every other artist of his generation, a challenge that only the most ambitious and adventurous came close to matching. The Beatles used The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan as the lodestar for their growth as songwriters; Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye used his example to burst the confines of the Motown hit factory and insist on making their albums into conceptual works, not just two hit singles and a ton of filler. And, alone of that generation, Dylan has survived and continued to grow as a vital artist, rather than a mere antique or nostalgia merchant.

What’s more, Dylan did this at a unique moment in which American popular music was undergoing a generational shift. The old-line record companies, baffled by the youth music of rock and roll but eager to exploit its profit-making capabilities, were open to an unpolished, rough-at-the-edges voice like Dylan’s. By using their marketing clout to bring Dylan to the mass audience, the record companies (quite by accident!) transformed him from a strikingly gifted performer into the musical equivalent of the comet that wiped out the dinosaurs. That all these scattered forces should have come together around a musician with genius-level talent and ambition was a breathtaking stroke of good fortune — for Bob Dylan, and for us.

So yes, by all means, give us The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia; better still, give it to us from the hand of Michael Gray, whose massive work Song and Dance Man established him as the most insightful and informative critic of Dylan’s immense body of work. Instead of indulging in the free-associative babblings of Greil Marcus or the high-toned fanzine gushing of Paul Williams, Michael Gray burrows deep into Dylan’s verses, teasing out influences and references that range from Robert Browning to Gregory Peck movies. What’s more, he avoids the pitfall of concentrating solely on Dylan’s writing; unlike a Christopher Ricks, Gray is alert to the deep veins of blues, folk balladry, country crooning and jangly rock that strengthen Dylan’s visions of sin. Dylan is well versed in a dizzying range of poetic styles, but he is also a musician playing songs, a fact overlooked by too many critics.

Some of the material in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia is already familiar from Song and Dance Man: e.g., the thumbnail descriptions of each album, the condensed versions of his arguments on crucial songs such as “Jokerman” and “Blind Willie McTell.” I also admire his take on Greil Marcus, which gives him his due as an early champion of Dylan’s work while noting that he “sometimes comes close to self-parody, and sometimes may not actually be saying anything.” Witness his takedown of a vintage Marcus assessment of “All Along the Watchtower” as covered by Jimi Hendrix:

“Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along the Watchtower’ takes place outside of time; Jimi Hendrix’s accepts time, and then unravels it.” It’s a great technique, used sparingly, and his writing seems to pluck these verdicts from the air — verdicts with all the cryptic power of a guru up a pole, so that the hapless reader feels he can argue with neither the supreme self-confidence of the delivery nor with the content, since this is as ungraspable as it is forcefully done.

Far better and shrewder to observe, as Gray does in his own entry on Hendrix, the irony of Mr. Electric Gypsy taking “All Along the Watchtower,” the key cut from the defiantly non-psychedelic 1967 album John Wesley Harding, and transforming it into one of the defining songs of the psychedelic era — a transformation so powerful, in fact, that Dylan continues to echo the Hendrix version whenever he performs the song in concert.

Gray’s entries on everything and everyone from Kenny Aaronson to the Zimmerman family (but nothing about William Zanzinger, the villain of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” — what’s up with that, Michael?) remind me of the old line about essays and women’s skirts: both should be long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to encourage further discussion. The items on blues musicians, rival musicians and crucial songs are packed with enough references and pointers to lead to hours of useful (and enjoyable) exploration.

All of this is highly flavored, sometimes even combative in its judgments. There are also some delightfull idiosyncratic entries, such as the one for “musicians’ enthusiasm for latest Dylan album, perennial,” which I leave to the curious to dig up for themselves.

If Song and Dance Man marked Michael Gray as the finest critic and analyst of Dylan’s music, then The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia establishes him as the field’s answer to Samuel Johnson. Like Johnson, Gray has produced a landmark work, comprehensive and rich in useful facts, that also tells us nearly as much about its author as its subject. And Gray proves himself to be just as good company, for the Dylan expert and the novice alike.

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8 thoughts on “Eminence Gray

  1. Joseph Zitt says:

    Good stuff! (and congrats on the RSS feed).

    But there’s at least one more musician essential to understanding 20th Century American music: John Cage. When concert music had gotten mired in repetitions of past works and endless glass bead games of manipulations that made no difference to any actual listener, Cage made the break by inviting us to hear “non-musical” sounds within music, to break out of the conventional harmony-based structures into a new sense of time, and to consider rhythm as a key compositional element. And those are just a few of the things he kicked off.

    Suffice it to say that the current musical world, in which music (especially in recordings) is no longer strapped down to what can be done in real time with a small array of objects that might appear on an orchestral stage, would be unimaginable without Cage and the work of those whom he influenced.

  2. Michael Gray says:

    Dear Steven
    It was very gratifying to read this posting. Thank you for writing it.

    Best wishes~
    Michael Gray

  3. […] Gray’s most recent book, The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, came out last summer I happily sang its praises, and scarcely a week has gone by that hasn’t seen me dipping into it again for information, […]

  4. […] pre-war blues musicians. And mark your calendars for the April 15 paperback release of Gray’s The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia. Posted by stevenhart Filed in Sunday […]

  5. […] Gray’s Bob Dylan Encyclopedia is now out in paperback, with updates. Everything I said about the hardcover edition still […]

  6. Alicia's Keys says:

    Sorry to put a damper on all this, but….

    Sorry Steven, but have you actually read Gray’s chapter of ‘Song And Dance Man’ on ‘Time Out Of Mind’? There he asserts that there are only four ‘good’ tracks on it – the rest are ‘no good’… does that mean ‘worthless’? Is ‘Love Sick’ worthless? Is ‘Cold Irons Bound’ worthless? And so on…

    Michael Gray’s problem is that he doesn’t actually LIKE Bob Dylan any more – witness his brain-dead two paragraph dismissal of MODERN TIMES in the ‘Encyclopaedia’- He’s the kind of critic who divides stuff into ‘good’ and ‘bad – what he ‘likes’ and ‘doesn’t like’ – he doesn’t always feel the need to tell us why. Really the guy is up his own ass with his own sense of self-importance…. he doesn’t seem to like the fact that Dylan has reinvented himself in the 21st century and would much prefer if he was like he was ‘in the old days’.

    In the bloated/expanded version of SADM Gray also pontificated about the supposed long-term effects of meth-amphetamine on Dylan in order to ‘explain’ the things he doesn’t like about Dylan… this is not only quite insulting but really arrant rubbish…. Bob doesn’t seem in too bad shape for a guy of his age to me…

    OK, there are lots of ‘useful facts’ here and yes, Gray has done some useful research into the blues. But he seems to have lost any ability to connect with the heart and soul of Dylan’s music… like AJ Webberman before him he seems to think he ‘owns’ Dylan and that it’s his right to tell Dylan how he’s gone wrong …

    Sorry Michael but MODERN TIMES is a masterpeice (as the vast majority of Dylan fans and watchers would agree ). But I guess now that your views have been published in the so-called Encyclopaedia there’s little chance you’ll go back and LISTEN to it to see if you were wrong…

    I’m as pale as a ghost
    Holding a blossom on a stem
    You ever seen a ghost? No
    But you have heard of them …

    There’s no one here, the gardener is gone !!!

  7. rrj says:

    Just reading. thanks.

  8. […] readers of this blog know that I consider Michael Gray the best writer on Bob Dylan walking the planet. I also greatly enjoyed his recent biography of blues master Blind Willie McTell, so needless to […]

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