We each have our Bob Dylan story, our history of burrowing our way through the great artist’s vast oeuvre. For years, decades even, there was a stark distinction to be drawn between true believers, the ‘Bobcats’ and ‘Dylanologists’, and what you might call ‘lay Dylan fans’ – those who are familiar with much of the canon, and love the parts of it they know best with a passion, but remain in blissful, indeed almost deliberate ignorance of Dylan’s ever-accumulating back catalogue of illicit bootleg recordings.
Are the laymen missing out? Definitely. But Dylan’s official catalogue offers so many variegated riches that they could be forgiven for not feeling the need to navigate their way through the gnarly, often confusing, sometimes cliquish world of Dylan bootleg tape traders.
Which was one reason among many why CBS/Sony’s crossing of the streams, with the release in March 1991 of the official Bootleg Series Vols I to III, had such an explosive, game-changing impact: here was a stargate into a sort of parallel Bob Dylan catalogue, a way for the general fan to safely yet massively expand their understanding and enjoyment of an iceberg’s worth of Dylan’s art where heretofore they had only seen the tip.
Similarly, while there has long been much to gain by reading about Dylan, and enough books are published annually to almost constitute a cottage industry of Dylan biography and exegesis, millions of fans are happy with limiting themselves to a collection of Dylan books numbering somewhere in the range of zero-to-one. A quick rip through one of the popular biographies suffices, then they can get back to just enjoying the music. Fair enough.
Others, such as myself, find themselves amassing, over the years, as many Dylan books as Dylan albums, and yet still feel far from sated. For those of us of that bent, news of a new book on Dylan by Michael Gray, comes close to the excitement generated by the announcement of a new Dylan album, or the unearthing of a long-lost 1960s concert tape, perhaps.
Why? Let’s eschew any bush beating and cut to the chase: Michael Gray is, and has been, for decades now, far and away the single greatest critic to ever focus on Bob Dylan. I appreciate the subjectiveness of that statement, and since I’m not talking to a mate down at the pub, but addressing a wider audience, I will do my best to outline what I believe makes this so before getting into the details of this particular book.
The Pioneer of Dylan Studies
Gray is the pioneer of Dylan studies. Commissioning a piece from Gray for his notorious counterculture magazine Oz in 1966, editor Richard Neville suggested he should “Do an F.R. Leavis on Bob Dylan’s songs.” It was a brief that would have baffled most, but for Gray, it was “right up my street”. Thereby Gray became the first in what would later become a field overcrowded to the point of absurdity.
Of course, being first doesn’t always equate to best, but in this case, it did. In realising that works such as Highway 61 Revisited (1965) and Blonde on Blonde (1966) warranted – and, indeed, withstood – deep and prolonged analysis, Gray was prescient. Having the critical faculties and the wherewithal to pull all of it together on paper was another matter. That he was able to do so gives Gray an unassailable claim to having inaugurated the now-widespread practice of treating Dylan’s songwriting to the same sort of critical analysis once reserved for more obviously ‘deserving’ endeavours such as Art or, in particular, Literature.
Back then, the idea that a “pop” or “folk” singer such as Dylan was capable of producing work that could sustain the same sort of critical scrutiny as, say, T.S. Eliot or James Joyce, simply didn’t occur to the mainstream. Broadsheet newspapers (never mind academics, or what Gray refers to as “the literary clerisy”) didn’t take popular music seriously at all, and inasmuch as Dylan was ever looked at in literary terms, the angle of view was – until Gray came along – always very much down the nose.
Although many others have since joined Gray in writing about Dylan in a more “serious” manner, some of those writers are basically nit-pickers, bandwagon jumpers, and trainspotters, men (for it is, almost exclusively, men) who know the price of every Dylan song and the value of none. Indeed, quite a few seem to harbour very little affection or respect for Dylan or his music, but hey, it’s a living.
Others are capable of insight and cogent analysis, some carving out whole new paths through particular aspects of Dylan’s several decades of creativity. But no single writer has rivalled Gray’s scope, his finesse, his niceness of judgment. You will often see other Dylan critics hailed as “the world’s leading Dylan expert” or “the only Dylan writer worth reading”, but not by anyone with any real nous.
Such matters are hard to quantify, and, again, I recognize that making judgements about whose writing on a given artist is most valid or valuable is an activity bounded by the constraints of subjectivity. Then again, it’s hard to be objective, since just as Dylan’s art has been to my life – enhancing, enriching, affirmational – so has Gray’s work on Dylan been to my experience of Dylan’s art. So bearing in mind that any attempt to explain such matters will inevitably fall short, I would say that when I claim Gray to be the greatest Dylan critic, I mean his writing on Dylan is of the most lasting value.
This is due mainly to Gray’s painstaking scholarly rigour and acute critical insight. His writing on Dylan does what all such writing ought to do yet so often doesn’t: it enhances your enjoyment and understanding of its subject, adding layers and context which deepen your experience. Gray offers analysis, even-handedness, and breadth of vision befitting his subject. Crucially, though, his writing exists not not merely to showcase his sagacity, critical insight, and personal opinions; it also triggers thoughts and reflections in the reader’s mind that can take them close to (and, in extreme cases, over the edge into) forming their own critical perspective.
There is also the fact that Gray’s writing, his prose, is lithe, pellucid, and elegant. It’s cultural criticism as literature – not just informative and illuminating but enjoyable for its own sake as well as for what it has to say about its subject or what thoughts it provokes. Gray has achieved a unique blend of fan passion and clear-eyed, objective critical judgement. Over the years, I haven’t agreed with almost every stance he takes, but the crucial point is, even when I disagree I find it worth stopping to reconsider, not least because of the huge weight of views that I do agree with, or the countless times Gray has pointed something out that, once flagged, seems forever obvious even if I would probably never have noticed it myself.
For instance, Gray has taught us never to dismiss a Dylan song or album, no matter how far from critical favour it might be, a classic example being the critically scorned Under the Red Sky (1990). In the course of reminding us that the album, while patchy, contains some very good songs, Gray also presented a fascinating exploration of the songs’ nursery rhyme roots. Conversely, he has not been afraid to cry foul when the critical consensus, fickle as ever, loses itself in raptures over the fabric, cut, and hem of the emperor’s new clothes: the bloated, turgid, Dylan-by-numbers of Modern Times (2006) is a case in point.