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
Route
September 2021

Nervously Awaiting the Next Dylan Album 

The pieces in this collection vary widely in scope, the shorter ones often leave the reader wanting more. ‘Waiting for Time Out of Mind’, from Dylan fanzine ISIS in 1997, captures both the excitement and trepidation surrounding any imminent Dylan album, each of them invariably hyped in advance as his best since Blood on the Tracks, or Blonde on Blonde, or sliced bread, but which then “turn out to be Down in the Groove”. As ever, there is humor running like rock veins through Gray’s caution and scepticism, as when he explores why session musicians who get the chance to play on a Dylan album always tend to over-praise it:

It’s natural that they should be so deluded. First, they’re working in the presence of genius, so they’re bound to be dazzled, even if his genius isn’t present; second, they’ve been hearing the playbacks on monumentally expensive speakers and very high-quality drugs; and thirdly, they have in mind the best tracks and the best mixes, which Dylan then deletes before the rest of us are offered the album. Normally. But this time… well, you just can’t help but get your hopes up.

We know what happened next, of course: Time Out of Mind, pretty much overnight, reversed Dylan’s critical and commercial decline and ushered in the Dylan we know today: venerated; unimpeachable; the subject of endless paens from media outlets who, pre-1997, had him down as a hopeless old has-been. Meanwhile, quite a few of the conosgnetti, Gray included, experienced mixed feelings about the album, not least the atmospheric but obtrusively murky Daniel Lanois production. 

Gray devoted a long section at the very end of Song and Dance Man III to detailing his complex, evolving relationship with Time Out of Mind; even so, if I could have chosen one topic to have had more on in Outtakes, it would have been that album. Time Out of Mind deserves its own book: approaching its 25th anniversary in 2022, it’s ripe for reappraisal as well as being the strongly rumoured subject of the next installment in the Bootleg Series (after this year’s Springtime in New York). 

A number of unreleased tracks and alternate takes were included on the The Bootleg Series Volume 8: Tell Tale Signs (2008), but much is still unknown about what has been withheld. Dylanologists salivate over the confirmed existence of as-yet unheard early takes of classic songs such as Not Dark Yet. There are tantalising rumours about alternate mixes of the album itself, mixes that promise to wipe away those dense layers of controversial Daniel Lanois production like so much soot from the ceiling of Grand Central Station, allowing the album to breathe freely and glisten in the light. 

Gray offers us a tracklist here, boiling down the three discs of Tell Tale Signs to just one ‘personal best of’ CD, and I would have liked to hear more about his choices. That said, it’s hard to argue with any of the selections, and it’s a painful reminder that, for reasons about which we can only speculate, Dylan’s ‘office’ continues to assign the writing of liner notes to (and, it is said, takes advice on Bootleg Series releases from) markedly inferior critics. A welcome exception to this unfortunate phenomenon was the 2011 release of Bob Dylan in Concert, Brandeis University 1963, for which Gray was invited to provide the liner notes reprinted here; if only they would make such a wise choice more often. 

Reappraisals Reconsidered

A particularly suitable assignment would have been the notes for The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait (2013), since Gray had long been a defender of the better parts of that much-misunderstood album. Instead, incredibly, they gave the job to Greil Marcus, whose review of the original Self Portrait (1970) for Rolling Stone began, infamously, with the words “What is this shit?”

Gray correctly calls Marcus out on his subsequent attempts – once he had firmly hitched his star to Dylan’s wagon in the wake of his post-‘Time Out of Mind’ critical deification – to roll back on his hatchet job. Marcus now claims that, oh no, he had never regarded Self Portrait as shit, and was shocked – shocked! – to discover that some people might think he thought the album was shit, just because he said it was shit:

And then along with ‘Another Self Portrait’ came Greil Marcus’s brochure notes, weasel-wording that he’d only opened his Rolling Stone review of the album with that notorious ‘What is this shit?’ to reflect what everyone had been saying. No, Greil: it was what you were saying, and you probably wrote it before almost anyone else had managed to obtain a copy.

Murder Most Foul

Gray is careful to highlight the political side of Dylan’s songwriting and public stance, something that was fairly undeniable in the ’60s but has since been obscured by decades of disingenuous, revisionist water muddying. Gray points out that, during the 1988 shows at Radio City, Dylan was drawing from “a catalogue of songs that again and again addressed the nation on the issues of the moment, a timely three weeks before it goes to the polls. Dylan has never told people who to vote for, but he chose songs that potentially addressed, among other things, Reaganomics… and the murderous vapidity of super-patriotism.”

Unsurprisingly, Gray devotes a fair chunk of his “Rough and Rowdy Ways” essay to “Murder Most Foul”, that elastic, baroque, out-of-the-blue curveball of a Dylan epic that heralded his sprightly, plague-year album. Aside from anything else, Gray is cheered to see Dylan releasing an overtly political song, which, as Gray puts it, engendered “a warm gratitude” by returning Dylan “to the subject matter of so many of his sharp, compelling early songs”, such as ‘Only a Pawn in their Game’ or ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’:

Alongside Dylan’s clever, collaged use of quotation in layering this lengthiest of his songs, what makes it so likeably absorbing is more than its intertextuality or its cleverness. It’s this too: how good, in 2020, to hear Bob Dylan releasing so political a song.

Due to the recency of the album, many readers will turn to the Rough and Rowdy Ways chapter first. That’s understandable, but in my view, it’s also a mistake, particularly for those who are less familiar with Gray’s work. It’s an essay that works best in context; specifically, by considering the album as a return to form for an artist whose millennial releases have been, in quality terms, in pretty much direct opposition to their critical acclaim.

The media have been wildly over-compensating, since Time Out of Mind, for the blanket disdain with which they treated Dylan during the ’80s and ’90s, meaning every album is now “hailed as a masterpiece” and accompanied by “Dylan’s own bullshit in the interviews he gives ahead of each new release.” Whereas, in common with many long-term Dylan fans, Gray has spent recent years having his “thoughts and feelings about Bob Dylan’s work burdened by a debilitating exasperation”:

My own problem, I know. But faced with a decades-long bombardment, in print and online, of unsparing adoration for everything Dylan is and does, I have recognised in myself a damaging response both to the cult-like uncritical outpouring about him and to how, in a number of ways, Dylan has turned out to be. I’ve resented the way his great corporate promo machine thrusts him at us now, exactly as if he were a Nespresso machine or a new iPhone; it’s on a par with selling his material and personal appearance to any corporation that pays enough, whether it’s as tacky as Victoria’s Secret – so shopping-mall – or as bad for the planet as a testosteronic Cadillac SUV just as we hit the tipping point of climate change.

And this is where I reach something of a tipping point of my own. Frankly, “Murder Most Foul”, so much studied and eulogised already, with who knows how much more hyperbole to come, doesn’t work for me, as a song. It’s certainly interesting, but it lacks almost everything I love about Dylan, his singing most of all. And although the rational mind recoils at the following statement, I’d be dishonest if I didn’t make it: a lot of the lyrics are clunky and even downright embarrassing.

Gray acknowledges that the song does contain “some terrible lines of lyric”, notably “we’ll mock you and shock you”, and suffers from occasional “limp, am-dram delivery”. But he also claims that even “clumsy and dull-witted” lines such as “I’m just a patsy like Patsy Cline” cannot spoil its “mesmerising power”. I wonder.

Inter alia, Gray laments Dylan’s latter day habit of “ponderous literary name-dropping”. In reference to claims made by Harvard classisist Richard Thomas, author of Why Dylan Matters (2017), that “the belligerent narrative voice in ‘False Prophet’ is largely channelling Augustus, vowing revenge after Julius Caesar’s murder”, Gray says, quite reasonably: “That really doesn’t improve the song.”

And, again regarding Richard Thomas, who explains Dylan’s references to Sherman, Zhukov, etc. by noting that “The homeric Iliad and Odyssey, and Virgil’s Aeneid… provide examples of the invocation of the Muses as a prelude to memorialising the fighters of old”, he points out that, while interesting, “that provenance doesn’t improve Dylan’s lines”. 

So how then to justify any claim that all the highfalutin’ references and postmodern narrative evanescence of ‘Murder Most Foul’ add up to more than the sum of their parts? “The song is a brave and bravura achievement,” Gray writes. Bravura, yes. But is it a song? Gray seems able to accept it as something else, a recitation, even a “beat poem”, and that’s fine. For me, it will never be more than a curio, and I was delighted when we got the album and found ‘Murder Most Foul’ safely confined to its own CD. Sorry. I realise not many will agree. 

Gray also notes humorously in passing that, in relation to Sherman, Zhukov, et al, “having said he could tell those stories all day, Dylan doesn’t tell us any.”

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