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The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia
Michael Gray

Barb Jungr
posted
24 October 2006

Bob Dylan fans fall mainly into a couple of distinct categories; there are those who love the records and play them now and again and buy the odd concert ticket, and then those who buy every single thing about, pertaining to or in any way connected with, the man himself. The latter group devour Bob-type info as though it were manna from Dylan heaven, and now they have an encyclopedia to sit alongside Dylan's own wonderfully written recently published (partial and very selective) personal memoir, Chronicles.

The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia represents Michael Gray's years and years of dedicated pursuit of Dylan-based knowledge, much of which was gathered for his previously published and highly respected Song and Dance Man - The Art of Bob Dylan. That critical study (now in several editions) was a lifelong labour of love and has made Gray a leading authority on Dylan's work and the blues.

Gray's earlier explorations provided a critique on the lyrics and themes of Dylan's expansive and, without doubt, incredibly significant contribution to contemporary culture; the encyclopedia focuses on the far reaching tentacles of 'Dylanology'. As Gray points out in his preface, Dylan's 'reach is too wide, too deep and too long for any book about him to cover it all'. The methodology then, is to provide entries on people (from collaborators to those who inspired and were inspired by the great man), key moments in Dylan's career, and on albums and song titles; this whole to convey and collate the aforementioned breadth of Dylan's import.

Gray states that he wishes the book to be read almost at random, making me think back to the encyclopedias that my parents bought from a door to door salesman, their red spines lining the bookshelf, and of the joys that were to be gained from pulling any one of them out and reading voraciously on any subject - this 'A to Z of Dylan' certainly succeeds on that level.

Opening any old place I discover that Tony Garnier played 1,700 gigs with Dylan, that Bob Geldof was enraged when, at Live Aid, Dylan asked whether some funds aimed at Africa's starving couldn't be diverted to the suffering American Farmers, that Jerry Garcia died in a drug rehab clinic, aged 53, and that Dylan had once thought of performing George and Ira Gershwin's 'Swannee' before rejecting it for 'Soon'.

The book is fascinating because it gives Gray free rein to expand his own critique (previously tightly confined to Dylan's work), to everything else. So in one entry he criticises Bob Geldof for lending his 'aggressively articulate support not merely to campaigning for 'fathers' rights' in general but to Fathers For Justice, a particularly nasty activist movement he has called 'heroic''. The end of the entry finishing with, 'What everyone can agree on, including the man himself, is that whereas it's often been said of Bob Dylan, in Bob Geldof we have someone who really can't sing'.

There's a great deal of joy to be gained from Gray's opinions, which leak from entries almost despite themselves, so that Dylan's one time manager Albert Grossman was 'a pudgy man with derisive eyes' and Nick Hornby is a 'successful lad-lit novelist whose million-selling books are about boyish-obsessiveness, focused on collecting records, following football, whatever, interspersed with comic scenes about their heroes' failures to 'get girls'/'understand women''. The more informed and extended entries on bluesmen and Dylan's musicians will no doubt appeal to those of us who keep in our heads extended album credits, and other fairly specialised information of little import to non aficionados.

On the songs Gray, like many other Dylan-obsessed (usually male) writers, obsession being here by no means a criticism, often prioritises the lyric over the music. Whether this is because music, like painting, is often reduced rather than expanded by verbal discourse, because writers of popular culture are rarely musicologists and therefore feel inhibited discussing music on musical terms or because there is an often unspoken implication that Dylan's musicality is somehow less interesting than his sung texts, nonetheless the result is that we are asked often to view the genius output of the man as written and sung words, rather than as songs: the song being that cocktail of words, melody, instrumental arrangement, and also production 'sound' that at best is greater than the sum of its parts. This particular myopia, which often foregrounds words, histories, facts and sung texts over the sonic qualities of musical work extends to other entries. So although Son House's wonderfully detailed entry describes the life, songs, lyrics and recordings of this colossus of the blues it does not mention his extraordinary voice! To Gray's credit, however, his entry on Dylan's electric expansion does work to explain the effect of rock amplification on both music and Dylan's vocals. I'd just have liked much more of that kind of musical analysis.

Despite my own partisan reservations, the level of research is thorough, deep and meticulous, and Gray acknowledges his sources freely and fully. With extensive entries on other critics, biographers and Dylanites (Ricks, Heylin) through to 'the 1965 electric concerts' and No Direction Home, Scorsese's recent majestic collage of clips and interviews, comments and fantastic live footage, there's much to get the teeth into. Gray is an expansive and intelligent writer, and let loose from delivering facts he delivers superb lines - so Dylan is singing 'Mr Tambourine Man' at a 1965 concert 'as if he's running along that beach with his arms windmilling' and Jerry Lee Lewis 'embodies pitched obduracy, brooding, malevolent ignorance, violent unreliability and borderline madness', whilst pointing out the 'vivid contrast between the meanness of the man and the grandeur of the artist'. There are opinions and agendas, too - he's not that keen on Robbie Robertson or Daniel Lanois, very keen on Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins - and that's engaging and stimulating, because ultimately there's a vast amount to engage, disagree with, become infuriated and provoked by. The book drives the reader to that most important place - back to the record shelf, to listen again to Johnny Cash or Joni Mitchell, or to plough through Dylan's 'born again' gospel songs or earlier missed gems; and richly rewards for that. This is an essential publication for anyone with a special interest in all things Dylan.

© Barb Jungr 2006


Barb Jungr's latest album is Walking in the Sun. Her collection of Bob Dylan songs, Every Grain of Sand was released in 2002.

 
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