We each have our story of Bob Dylan, our story of digging our way through the vast work of the great artist. For years, if not decades, there was a clear distinction to be made between True Believers, “Bobcats” and “Dylanologists,” and what you might call “Lay Dylan fans” – those who know a great deal. part of the canon and love the parts of it that they know best with passion, but remain in blissful, if not almost deliberate, ignorance of Dylan’s catalog of illicit recordings, which keeps piling up.
Are laymen absent? Absoutely. But Dylan’s official catalog offers so much diverse wealth that one could forgive them for not feeling the need to navigate their way through the gnarled, often confusing and at times cliché world of Dylan’s contraband gang traders.
This is one of the reasons among many why the crossover of CBS / Sony on the streams, with the release in March 1991 of the official Bootleg Series Flights I to III, had such an explosive and overwhelming impact: There was a Stargate in a sort of Bob Dylan side catalog, a way for the general public to safely but massively expand their understanding and enjoyment of the value of ‘an iceberg of Dylan’s art where until now they had only seen the tip.
Likewise, while there has long been much to be gained from reading about Dylan, and enough books are published each year to form almost a cottage industry of Dylan’s biography and exegesis, millions of fans are happy to be limited to a collection of Dylan books numbered somewhere in the zero to one range. A quick read of one of the popular biographies is enough, then they can start enjoying the music again. Fair enough.
Others, like me, find themselves accumulating, over the years, as many Dylan books as Dylan albums, and yet still feel far from satisfied. For those of us of this inclination, the 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 discovery of a cassette tape of long-lost 1960s gig, perhaps.
Why? Let’s dodge the brush and get straight to the point: Michael Gray is, and has been for decades, by far the biggest critic to have focused on Bob Dylan. I appreciate the subjective nature of this statement, and since I am not talking to a buddy in the pub, but speaking to a wider audience, I will do my best to describe what I think does this before d ‘go into the details of this particular book.
The pioneer of Dylan’s studies
Gray is the pioneer of Dylan Studies. Commissioned an article from Gray for his famous counter-culture magazine ounce in 1966, editor-in-chief Richard Neville suggested that he “do a FR Leavis on the songs of Bob Dylan”. It was a file that would have confused the most, but for Gray, it was “right on my street”. Gray thus became the first in what would later become an overcrowded area to the point of absurdity.
Of course, being the first doesn’t always equate to the best, but in this case it is. By realizing that works such as Highway 61 revisited (1965) and blonde on blonde (1966) justified – and, indeed, withstood – a careful and prolonged analysis, Gray was prescient. Having the critical faculties and the means to put everything together on paper was another matter. The fact that he was able to do so gives Gray an unassailable claim to have ushered in the now widespread practice of treating Dylan’s songwriting with the same kind of critical analysis once reserved for more obviously “deserving” endeavors. such as art or, in particular, literature.
Back then, the idea that a “pop” or “folk” singer like Dylan was capable of producing work that could undergo the same kind of critical scrutiny that, say, TS Eliot or James Joyce, didn’t just hadn’t come to the general public. . Broadsheet newspapers (not to mention academics, or what Gray calls “the literary clergy”) did not take popular music seriously at all, and as Dylan was never considered in literary terms, the angle of view was – until Gray came long – still very low in the nose.
Although many others have since joined Gray in writing about Dylan in a more “serious” way, some of these writers are essentially nit-pickers, walking jumpers and train-watchers, men (for they are, almost exclusively, men) who know the price of every Dylan song and the value of none. Indeed, many seem to have very little affection or respect for Dylan or his music, but hey, that’s a life.
Others are capable of insight and compelling analysis, some breaking new ground through particular aspects of Dylan’s decades of creativity. But no writer has rivaled Gray’s reach, his finesse, his kindness of judgment. You will often see other Dylan reviews hailed as “the world’s greatest Dylan expert” or “the only Dylan writer worth reading,” but not by someone with a real sense of us.
Such questions are difficult to quantify and, again, I recognize that making judgments about the most valuable or valuable writings about a given artist is an activity limited by the constraints of subjectivity. Then again, it’s hard to be objective, because just as Dylan’s art has been in my life – rewarding, enriching, affirming – Gray’s work on Dylan has been in my experience of Dylan’s art. So, keeping in mind that any attempt to explain such matters will inevitably fail, I would say that when I claim Gray is Dylan’s greatest critic, I mean his writings on Dylan are of the most value. sustainable.
This is primarily due to Gray’s meticulous scientific rigor and keen critical insight. His writings on Dylan do what all of these writings should do but don’t do so often: they enhance your enjoyment and understanding of his subject matter, adding layers and context that deepens your experience. Gray offers an analysis, impartiality and breadth of view worthy of his subject. Most importantly, his writing doesn’t exist just to showcase his sagacity, critical insight, and personal opinions; it also triggers thoughts and reflections in the reader’s mind that may cause them to come closer (and, in extreme cases, beyond) forming their own critical perspective.
There is also the fact that Gray’s writing, his prose, is flexible, transparent and elegant. It is cultural criticism as literature – not only informative and illuminating, but pleasurable for itself as well as for what it has to say about its topic or the thoughts it evokes. Gray achieved a unique blend of fan passion and objective, lucid critical judgment. Over the years, I haven’t agreed with almost all of his positions, but the crux is that even when I don’t agree, I find it worth stopping for. reconsider, not least because of the enormous weight of viewpoints that I agree with, or the countless times Gray has pointed out something that, when pointed out, seems forever obvious even though I probably wouldn’t have it never noticed it myself.
For example, Gray taught us to never reject a Dylan song or album, no matter how much critical it might be, a classic example being the despised criticism. Under the red sky (1990). While reminding us that the album, while sketchy, contains some very good songs, Gray also featured a fascinating exploration of the songs’ nursery rhyme roots. Conversely, he was not afraid to cry scandal when the critical consensus, always so fickle, raves in front of the fabric, the cut and the hem of the emperor’s new clothes: the Dylan-by -numbers swollen, turgid Modern times (2006) is an example.