Michael Gray. Outtakes On Bob Dylan: Selected Writings 1967-2021. Route Books (Pontefract, England), 2021, 352 pp. Hardback. ISBN 978-1901927-86-3. GBP 20.
Christopher Rollason, Independent scholar, Luxembourg
Michael Gray’s place in the history of Bob Dylan Studies is secure. Back in 1972, when the Dylan canon extended no further than New Morning, the first edition of Gray’s trailblazing book Song and Dance Man: The Art of Bob Dylan appeared as a pioneering manifestation of the literary-critical analysis of Dylan’s lyrics. That book is now almost half a century old. It was followed by a second edition (The Art of Bob Dylan: Song and Dance Man) in 1981, and then in 1999 by a massively expanded third edition (Song and Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan) running to over nine hundred pages. Another mammoth tome, The Bob Dylan Encyclopaedia, appeared in 2006, with a second edition in 2008. This new volume is Michael Gray’s first Dylan-themed book since then.
Dylan scholars will shelve Outtakes on Bob Dylan: Selected Writings 1967-2021 next to Greil Marcus’s similar volume from a decade back, Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010. Gray’s book consists of reprints of previously uncollected writings including both general pieces and a whole range of text types (album review, concert review, sleevenotes, book preface, newspaper article, music press article, fanzine piece, blurb, blog post, travel piece, and even a conference keynote address). Gray adds some previously unpublished material, stretching across the fifty-four-year period of the title. Some pieces were published in mainstream press organs including Britain’s Times, Guardian, and Independent; others appeared in a range of popular publications or subculture rags. Gray states that wherever possible he has preferred to retain the original versions of his pieces.
Two texts stand out as being much longer than the others. A forty-eight-page study, originally published in a Canadian academic journal, centers on the traditional song “Belle Isle” as covered by Dylan in 1970 on Self Portrait; and the book is brought up to date with the closing piece, a sixty-page analysis of 2020’s Rough and Rowdy Ways—a study which, apart from putting that album under the microscope, also contains significant observations on more general aspects of Bob Dylan today.
The book opens with an out-of-sequence essay from 1997 titled “Bob Dylan, 1966 & Me”: after that everything is in chronological order, starting in 1967. The texts are footnoted where relevant; there is a bibliography but no index. Fellow critics are given their due for their input into Dylan studies, and there is thus mention of the valuable ideas and work of Stephen Scobie (171, 247), Andrew Muir (245, 289n, 307) and Richard Thomas (317-320 passim), as also of recent material appearing in publications such as the Dylan Review (302n, 317n, 319, 320n) and The Bridge (317). On the matter of quoting Dylan’s songs, Gray, fully aware of “the difficulty of arriving at reliable lyrics to scrutinise” (260), expresses his preference—a position which I share—for taking as the default text for lyric analysis what Dylan sings on the original studio recording. In this context, he more than correctly recalls the unreliability of the various editions of Lyrics (“the official books of lyrics have never been trustworthy” (259)) as well as of what appears on the “so often inaccurate” official website (309); he notes further the disappointingly unsatisfactory character of the Christopher Ricks variorum edition. At the same time, preference for the definitive studio versions does not stop Gray from paying close attention to textual variants where relevant—indeed he does that with panache in a study from 2016 of the different versions of “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” in the wake of the Cutting Edge (Bootleg Series Vol. 12) box set. Significantly, Gray acknowledges the existence of the Tulsa archive; he has not used it for this book, but he assures us that he looks forward to “being able to research [Dylan’s music] further” in that “immensely rich archive” (12).
Albums given the full-length review treatment include Blood on the Tracks, Christmas in the Heart (received by Gray with surprising enthusiasm), and the tenth volume of the Bootleg Series, Another Self Portrait. There is a jacket blurb to Tarantula from 1971, as well as the sleevenotes for the 2010 heritage release Bob Dylan in Concert – Brandeis University 1963. Unfortunately, Gray’s informative 1989 notes for the various artists compilation of cover versions The Songs of Bob Dylan are not included. There are two contributions to collective volumes: a piece from the multi-author volume from 1980 Conclusions on the Wall, and the foreword to Professing Dylan, a limited-edition academic collection from 2016 (in which, notably, Gray states that “Dylan Studies has become a significant academic industry” ). Also featured are a keynote address from an academic conference (Odense, Denmark, 2018), two travel pieces (“In Bob Dylan’s Minnesota Footsteps” and “Ghost Trains in the American South”), and a before-the-event article from 2013 on the Dylan-and-the-Nobel issue. And there is much more, the total number of pieces in the book running to forty-one.
The older texts communicate a boundless enthusiasm for the earlier Dylan on the part of the earlier Michael Gray. In “Bob Dylan, 1966 & Me” Gray tells the tale of how he discovered Dylan and the burgeoning of his interest in his work, paying special attention inter alia to his time as a student at the University of York. This article eulogizes Dylan as “this superlative genius, this pinnacle of 20th-century art-in-action” (18). In a later text that combines three Melody Maker pieces on Dylan’s 1978 London and Paris gigs, he is called “our greatest living artist” (79); and in a 2011 piece published in Japan, “Dylan at 70,” Gray hails him as “the single most important artist in the history of popular music” (233), adding that with Bob Dylan, “popular song . . . could handle all subjects and the whole range of human emotion” (236). In earlier times Gray also saw in Dylan an impeccable live artist, as attested by his laudatory 1978 London/Paris piece and a review from The Independent of a 1988 New York concert.
Throughout the book, Gray singles out one album for particular praise: Blood on The Tracks. The first Song and Dance Man had come out during a hiatus in Dylan’s career: after its appearance came Planet Waves, but Blood on the Tracks relaunched Dylan as a living artist rather than a 60s has-been. Here, Gray reproduces his review as published in April 1975 in the UK magazine Let It Rock. Introducing the text, he retrospectively sees his response as prescient (indeed, the album’s special merit was not immediately discerned by all): “This, the original review, was a rare example of my hearing immediately an album’s significance, which I rarely do and which in this case few critics did till later.” The eulogistic review starts by calling Blood on the Tracks “the most strikingly intelligent album of the seventies” (70) and concludes that “this album is the work of a man who has never been of sharper intelligence . . . His sensibility is 100% intact” (73). Nor has Gray’s enthusiasm for Blood on the Tracks faded over time: in later pieces in the volume Gray calls it “probably the most intelligent, emotionally real, resourceful album ever recorded” (1978’s “Dylan in London and Paris”, 77), a work of “pure honed excellence” (1980’s Conclusions on the Wall, 91), “a mature masterpiece” (2011’s “Dylan at 70”, 237) , and “that great Dylan album” (2021’s Rough and Rowdy Ways piece, 291).
Of the albums between Blood on the Tracks and the present day, Gray praises Oh Mercy from 1989 and “Love and Theft” from 2001. The 2004 travel piece “Ghost Trains in the American South” calls Oh Mercy a “fine album,” recalling its genesis in Louisiana (201); and in a 2002 piece on “Dylan in Stockholm” (of which more below) “Love and Theft” is described as “wonderful” and “a work of . . . excellence” (191, 193). However, the triad of Modern Times, Together Through Life, and Tempest receives short shrift, and any comments on their individual songs are derogatory. The three “Sinatra ” albums are not so much as mentioned. In the Rough and Rowdy Ways article, Gray inveighs against the orthodoxy by which every new album is “hailed as a masterpiece” (289).
In an incidental remark in the Rough and Rowdy Ways piece, Gray proffers the controversial view that “almost every live song performance for the last fifteen years has been somewhere between indifferent and dreadful” (Gray’s italics 287). This concert-skeptical attitude as expressed in 2021 is not new. It was evident in the discussion of Dylan in concert in Song and Dance Man III, and this collection includes an already mentioned piece in which Gray berates Dylan’s performance at a Stockholm gig in 2002 as betraying “an exhaustion of his resources” and as being “painfully poor” (“Dylan in Stockholm” 192, 194). Introducing this review, Gray recalls that at the time “it elicited much hostility from fans,” but sticks to his guns and declares that it “still seems to me to represent fairly the dispiriting experience of many a [twenty-first century] Dylan concert” (184). Not one to mince his words, Gray is not afraid to confront head-on the received notion of a Dylan-in-concert constantly renewing and reinventing himself. Indeed, the Rough and Rowdy Ways piece finds him questioning the orthodoxy of reinvention through lyric changes, opining that “few of his in-performance word changes are better judged than on the original recordings” (288).
The book also contains Gray’s take on two more apples of discord, namely the plagiarism/intertextuality issue and the Nobel Prize. The former debate is well enough known via the proven influences on Dylan’s twenty-first-century work of such diverse writers as Ovid, Henry Timrod, and Junichi Saga. In this book, Gray does not get involved directly in that polemic, though the side he is on may be deduced from the circumstance that nowhere does he use the word “plagiarism.” He does, though, in the Rough and Rowdy Ways essay, make a number of comments. Gray draws attention to Scott Warmuth’s ongoing work in this area, pointing out how that commentator “scrutinises Dylan’s intertextuality very closely indeed” (308n) and acknowledging but also regretting “what for some of us is the bad news that Dylan has chopped up bits of dozens of other writers and re-used them, verbatim or almost so, for many years” (308). Gray’s position on the matter may be summarized as something like: this isn’t plagiarism, it’s intertextuality—but I wish there was less of it.
Regarding that other controversial later-Dylan issue, the Nobel Prize for Literature of 2016, the piece polemically entitled “Don’t Give Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature” saw the light of day as Michael Gray’s contribution to a forum held in Potsdam, Germany in 2013 on the subject of Dylan and the Nobel. Presenting the piece, Gray states: “Mine was, I believe, the lone talk arguing against”—a shade surprisingly, one might think, coming from Gray as Dylan studies pioneer. In hindsight, Gray may have been playing the devil’s advocate. Indeed, even in presenting his lecture, he backtracks to admit that “the moment I heard he’d won it (in October 2016) I was thrilled” (251). I will not here go into detail on the various arguments deployed by Gray, firstly because the issue is settled and secondly because I examined the matter at length in an article (published in the academic journal The Grove) soon after the award. I will therefore just cite one argument advanced by Gray: “[Dylan] is essentially a songwriter, musician, recording artist, and performer. Does he fit the candidature profile? Is he really to be defined as a literary figure? No. He’s essentially a cross-disciplinary artist” (254). This argument correctly presupposes that songwriting is by its nature a multimedia activity and not just a matter of words. However, much the same can be said about the art of the theatre—indeed, drama is arguably more of a “cross-disciplinary,” multimedia activity than songwriting—and the Nobel has nonetheless been awarded over time to numerous playwrights, from Eugene O’Neill to Wole Soyinka, Harold Pinter, Dario Fo, and many more.
The first of Gray’s two long articles, the piece entitled “Grubbing for a Moderate Jewel: Belle Isle,” was published in 1989 in the bilingually named academic journal Canadian Folklore canadien, produced under the auspices of the Folklore Studies Association of Canada. It centers on “Belle Isle,” the traditional song released in 1970 on Self Portrait which, as Gray recalls, at the time he thought was a Dylan composition (analyzing it as such in the first Song and Dance Man). Gray was misled by the misattribution to Dylan perpetrated in the album’s packaging: “Belle Isle” turned out in fact to be a traditional ballad from the Canadian province of Newfoundland. The error remedied, in this 1989 text Gray places the song in the tradition of “returned lover” ballads, and examines analogues from both Canadian and Irish sources (the latter being significant because of Irish emigration to the British colony and future Canadian province). “Belle Isle,” Gray concludes, “may be as much an Irish ballad as a New World one” (141). He further raises the question of whether Dylan learned the song from a Canadian or an Irish source—in the latter case, perhaps from Liam Clancy, or else from Northern Ireland’s McPeake family, associated with the Celtic classic “Wild Mountain Thyme” as covered by Dylan on various occasions (141n). Gray’s analysis of “Belle Isle” contains a wealth of fascinating information: Dylan scholars may consider it a model for future in-depth studies of Dylan’s traditional music visitations.
The second of the long articles, entitled simply “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” is also the last and the most heavily annotated item in the book. It constitutes Michael Gray’s most up-to-date considered statement on Dylan, touching on, among other things, such familiar topics as intertextuality and “Dylan live.”
There is no doubt that Gray welcomes Rough and Rowdy Ways as a return to form after what he sees as a run of disappointing albums, hailing it as “a real Dylan album, his convivial best since ‘Love and Theft’,” a “companionable and restorative pleasure” (345), and avowing that with this work, “my long exasperation recedes” (290). His text is divided into three: a brief account of the state of things in the Dylan world forming a backdrop to the album; a near twenty-page close analysis of one track, namely “Murder Most Foul”; and a detailed consideration of the rest of the album. The special treatment accorded to “Murder Most Foul” makes sense on a number of counts: it was the first track to be released—online at the height of the pandemic; it is the longest song Dylan has ever recorded; it occupies a separate disc of the album’s CD version; and it takes up a separate side of its vinyl avatar, thus paralleling “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” on the original release of Blonde on Blonde. Gray states that it is “the final track on the album, but the first track we heard, and it remains somehow a separate creature from the rest” (290). He recalls his own excitement at its totally unexpected appearance on the scene: “It was exhilarating that Dylan could so dramatically surprise us after all these years” (289-290).
Gray’s analysis of the song is both explicatory and evaluative. It is not roses all the way: he affirms that Dylan’s writing exerts “mesmerising power,” but this “despite including some terrible lines of lyric” (290) (on the less felicitous side, Gray even compares Dylan to the notorious Scottish versifier William McGonagall!). Gray pays attention to each of the two parts Dylan’s song falls into, the account of the Kennedy assassination and the “Wolfman Jack” playlist. “Murder Most Foul” is one of Dylan’s most intertextual songs ever, accumulating seemingly endless titles of and quotations from songs, as well as references to books, plays, and films. Gray says he has located at least eighty such allusions, whether in quotation marks or “submerged” inside the lyric (303). There are no doubt more (others of course have played this game), and there will probably never be a final tally for Dylan’s intertext in this song. Regarding the assassination, Gray argues that “Dylan is urging on us an acceptance that Kennedy’s slaughter was a political conspiracy and not . . . the apolitical act of an unstable loner.” He declares that he feels “a warm gratitude that [this song] returns him to the subject matter of so many of his sharp, compelling early songs: songs like ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game’ and ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’” (303). On the (mostly) song intertext, he argues that it represents “the psyche and soul of the nation” (most references, albeit not all, are American) and captures how “music, song is infinitely flexible, and resilient not least through grim days” (307). Gray also notes, at the very end of the song, two highly Dylanesque surprises: the line “Play ‘Love Me or Leave Me’ by the great Bud Powell” is a case of Dylan the trickster at work, for Bud Powell “never did record” that number, as Gray shows with a link to the pianist’s official discography (304); and the song ends with the instruction “Play ‘Murder Most Foul’,” coming round full circle and thus, as Gray notes, constituting itself as, in postmodern terminology, a “self-reflexive” text (306).
Gray notes that across the whole album Dylan’s consistent use of the “scissors-and-paste” technique (308), and at one point takes him to task for being too obvious. Where in the past Dylan has been criticized for not naming obscure sources like Henry Timrod, in “I Contain Multitudes,” as Gray points out, Dylan declaims “Got a tell-tale heart, like Mr. Poe / Got skeletons in the walls of people you know,” thus making an allusion to Edgar Allan Poe, a famous writer if ever there was one and to two of his most celebrated stories, “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado” (311). Dylan is of course—dare I say it—“very well read, it’s well known,” but Gray finds this citation “unnecessarily belaboured,” if not didactic (315). He appears to wish today’s Dylan would wear his erudition a little lighter, rather than parading himself as an “intellectual polymath” (286). Despite his reservations, Gray notes the different songs’ sources assiduously, and in particular reads “My Own Version of You” as less an intertextual than a metatextual statement, symbolizing the cut-and-paste method as a Frankenstein-inspired act of “gathering bits and pieces to make a new whole” (312).
Concerning Rough and Rowdy Ways as a whole, Gray concludes by praising it as a work focused “[not] on death, but on old age,” if not a “portrait of the artist as old man,” marked by the passage of time and rooted in interconnectedness (“built from layer upon layer upon layer of reference, allusion and interconnection” (345)), and sums up declaring: “It isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s a work of depth, resonance, invention and generosity” (346).
In the “Dylan in Stockholm” piece from 2002, Gray declares: “When you enter the Dylan world, you sign up for life” (193). Some of course do leave (notably the fans who fled during the Christian period), but this book is more than sufficient evidence that leavers are denying themselves access to a cultural experience of extraordinary richness and diversity. One element which particularly characterizes the “Dylan world” is the surprise factor. Dylan’s own continual metamorphoses set the scene, and to end this review I would like to cite an epiphanic experience recounted by Gray. He relates how in Richmond, Virginia in 1966 he bought a new Dylan single, “I Want You.” He discovered to his amazement that on the B-side was a previously unreleased live track, the version of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” which he had heard that year at Dylan’s May 14 concert in Liverpool: “That was me, somewhere on the fade-out handclaps” (19). Such surprises are part and parcel of the Dylan experience, and Michael Gray’s book, amply complementing his previous efforts, is a multidimensional and eminently readable exploration of what it means to be a follower of Bob Dylan.