Bob Dylan Mural, Minneapolis
Dylan mural in Minneapolis by Eduardo Kobra | Photo: Sharon Mollerus (cropped) via Wikipedia, CC BY 2.0

Bob Dylan Would Dig Michael Gray’s ‘Outtakes’

Michael Gray is the Bob Dylan of Dylan studies, a man whose Dylan criticism has done more to augment and illuminate Dylan’s art than all of his rivals combined.

Outtakes On Bob Dylan: Selected Writings 1967-2021
Michael Gray
September 2021

Song & Dance Man

There is yet another quality to Gray’s work that I’d be remiss not to mention, although it is difficult to express concisely. Over the years, I have come to think of this quality as follows: when I read Gray’s work, I recognise Dylan in the writing. Undoubtedly that sounds like it should be obvious, but in most other writers’ works, even when I’m enjoying or benefiting from what they have to say, the ‘Bob Dylan’ they describe, although somewhat recognisable, seems slightly offset, or out of phase, from the actual Dylan whose songs have so enhanced my life. They sometimes seem to be writing about a sort of ‘Bizarro World’ Dylan, or maybe the Bob Dylan that might exist in an alternate but similar reality, where Coke is orange flavoured, the sky is green, and The New Yorker cartoons are funny.

Gray’s Song & Dance Man: The Art of Bob Dylan was first published in 1972; a second edition came out in 1981; the third – and, Gray insists, final – version arrived, much expanded, in December 1999 in the UK (early 2000 in the US). Many regard it as the single greatest book written about Dylan’s art; persuasive counter-arguments are thin on the ground. Gray’s other, quite different major Dylan book is the 800-page Bob Dylan Encyclopedia (2006). The hardback edition comes with a CD-ROM containing a searchable, hyperlinked version of the text in PDF format; browsing and following its links can be a highly addictive process. 

So, what’s different about Outtakes on Bob Dylan? Well, as Gray says in the preface, this book “isn’t of the depth or loftiness” of his two main Dylan works. Instead, it’s a collection of “articles originally published in disparate places”, which would otherwise be difficult or even impossible for interested readers to find today. As such, it represents a smorgasbord of fine writing about Dylan, spanning several decades, arranged chronologically, culminating in a long, thoughtful essay on Dylan’s 2020 album Rough and Rowdy Ways

It’s difficult to know what to focus on for the purposes of this review. All I can do, really, is mention an arbitrary selection of highlights, with the proviso that I could easily have chosen an entirely different set.  

Blood on the Tracks

It’s easy to see in retrospect, how crucial Dylan’s 1975 album Blood on the Tracks was to allowing the quintessential ’60s artist to prove that he wasn’t destined to be forever defined by the decade in which he first found success. Gray must be credited with having the foresight to recognise this at the time. His review of the album for the April 1976 issue of Let It Rock magazine, collected here, displays what Gray modestly calls “a rare example” of his “hearing immediately an album’s significance, which I rarely do and in that case few critics did until later.” In just a handful of pages, written almost half a century ago, Gray captures as much of this masterpiece’s nuance, verve, emotional depth, intellectual heft, and sheer virtuosity, as anyone has done since.

Gray recognises Blood on the Tracks as, among other things, an album that “transforms our perception of Dylan – no longer the major artist of the sixties whose decline from the end of that decade froze seminal work like Blonde on Blonde into a historic religious object,” proving that Dylan’s “creative prowess” was “not, after all, bounded by the one decade he so much affected, but capable of being directed at us effectively for perhaps the next thirty years.” 

The Neverending Tour

Gray has often been cast as curmudgeonly for refusing to revel in every routine post-Millennial Never Ending Tour show; for pointing out that “almost every live song performance for the last fifteen years has been somewhere between indifferent and dreadful, yet has been received by his crowds as if every one was a thrilling rock n roll excalibur.” But a critic’s job is not to unwaveringly enthuse: discerning gradations within an artist’s work – even, and in fact particularly, an artist of genius such as Dylan – is part of the job description. 

I’ll mention here, in passing, that it was Gray who first pointed out, in writing, that contrary to the Q magazine article from which it was hatched, the phrase Never Ending Tour was coined not by Dylan himself but by the journalist interviewing him.

His review here of a show from Stockholm in 2002, originally published in the Daily Telegraph, is a good example of a gruesome concert experience making for an amusing read. It also demonstrates Gray’s knack for writing around a topic, pulling in all sorts of extraneous yet oddly resonant period details. For instance, Gray is as almost as unimpressed by the city of Stockholm as by the Stockholm gig: “a good deal of the Swedish capital makes [Gray’s native, much maligned] Birkenhead look bursting with character and architectural merit.” His outlook may occasionally veer toward the dyspeptic, but the resultant writing is generally all the more enjoyable for that: 

Everybody smokes. Vacuous pop music is inescapable. Everybody’s mobile phone rings. You can’t go one minute without hearing these febrile summonses. Often in the form of pert phrases from the vacuous pop songs. Branches of McDonald’s are omnipresent.

Printing Stories in the Press

The lacklustre nature of the Stockholm show pains Gray in part because Dylan was on such a roll at the time, being “pelted with Grammys and Oscars and Lifetime Achievement Awards.” Would it not be reasonable to expect him to at least give some of himself to his live performances? Fully aware of Dylan’s history of being “pilloried” in the media as “Mr Sixties Man while the sixties, man, were being blamed for every ill in the western world”, Gray really doesn’t want to find himself having to “write bad things about him for a newspaper”. Nevertheless, he must admit that the show Dylan put on that dreary Scandinavian night was “painfully poor”, Dylan appearing to be “not so much going through the motions as conveyed along them like a trouser-press on an assembly line.” Ouch. Listen to the tape, though, and you’ll hear what he means.

That 2002 Stockholm review led to Gray himself being pilloried a fair bit for having the temerity to actually critique a Dylan performance. But Gray also appends a note here about a discussion with the late writer John Baldwin in which he agrees with John that other shows on the same tour were actually very good, the best of them being “incomparably better than Stockholm.” Both his disappointment with the concert he happened to attend, and his acknowledgment that the entire tour wasn’t a dud, are functions of a rare critical honesty with regard to Dylan, these days. 

Happily, Gray attended many much more edifying live shows over the years. His celebratory, almost ecstatic account of seeing Dylan in London and Paris on the 1978 tour captures so exquisitely what it means to be a Dylan fan on a good day, that it’ll have you scouring the internet for downloads of those fabled ’70s shows. Explaining – to himself, as much as to others – why he felt compelled to queue for hours to buy tickets to multiple shows on the same Bob Dylan tour, Gray says: “It has to do with Dylan’s rarity as someone whose creativity signally affects your life,” a man who “had the genuine artist’s faith that he could reach people better if he wrote and sang and performed from the first base of this own heart and mind.”

There is also “the sheer charisma of the man, his genius for chameleon-like image building”, as well as his ability to do something even greater: to transcend renewal or reinvention and in fact conjure, right in front of your eyes, something that’s really new. And so, at Earl’s Court, London, in the Summer of 1978:

This was no re-creation: it was new. This was the phenomenon of a 37-year-old bringing a whole new music back home, more lithe than you’ll ever be, pouring more than two hours of remorseless energy and surprise out into a crowd of at least two complete generations… All superlatives fade to faint praise in the face of these first four performances… that alert body-presence, that sexual elegance, that raiding grace we thought we’d seen the last of in the sixties.

Always willing to look askance at reductive, life-sapping media narratives, Gray celebrates also the age range of the crowds:

Earls Court tube station at midnight on Saturday was full of breathless amazed teenagers – so don’t believe it when you read jibes about the crowds being only old hippies. Since these gentlemen of the press could find, to their chagrin, nothing to fault in the concerts themselves, they had to snipe at Dylan’s audience instead. That’s their problem. It certainly isn’t Dylan’s. He has been an embattled artist throughout his career. Now the circle has turned again. Only six weeks after the headlines were crowing about ‘Renaldo and Clara’ flopping, Dylan has scythed his way ferociously back through that massive undergrowth of scepticism and hostility, of being labeled a burnt-out sixties myth and an irrelevancy.

Again, it’s a bonus of this collection, and Gray’s work in general, that he includes nicely judged asides about the realities that impinge, and are in turn impinged upon, by one’s fascination with Dylan’s decades-long artistic journey. Rushing to catch a flight from London to Paris, to follow up the Earls Court shows with one of the gigs at Le Pavillon de Paris – “let’s not be parochial, after all” – Gray notes in passing his regret at missing a tennis match:

I’d had to miss watching all but the start of the Borg-Connors final on TV, and resented it. Wimbledon is as good a surrealist microcosm of capitalism-in-action as the rock business, but takes up much less of one’s annual time.

Here too are a pungent, gimlet-eyed portrait of the infamous Isle of Wight Festival in 1969, and ‘When the Never-Ending Tour Was New’, a contemporaneous review of Dylan’s 1988 run of shows at New York’s iconic Radio City Music Hall. Gray revels in the fact that the show he caught was alert, committed, fresh, and a “tour de force”. However, he warns, “the bad news is that this in itself puts an accident black-spot up ahead on Dylan’s road. The speed with which he gets bored works against him when he is still on the road.” Again, sadly, this warning proved prescient.

Noting also Dylan’s “burning 1988 performances” – not only of his own material but of traditional songs such as Man of Constant Sorrow and Barbara Allen – Gray suggests that “Dylan’s avid alignment with such material, for the first time in more than two decades, holds out tantalizing possibilities as to where he might land next time he jumps.” Howzat?! Next time he jumped, where Dylan landed was recording two acoustic albums of folk, blues, and traditional covers in the early 1990s, with Good as I Been To You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993).