Outtakes On Bob Dylan

Author: Michael Gray

Outtakes On Bob Dylan

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Selected Writings 1967-2021 by Michael Gray

Popmatters Book of the Year

Michael Gray wrote his first article on Bob Dylan for the counterculture magazine OZ in 1967 when its editor asked him to  ‘Do an F.R. Leavis on Bob Dylan’s songs.’ He’s been writing about those songs ever since. Alongside his groundbreaking Song & Dance Man trilogy and the massive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, Gray has been bringing his acuity to Dylan’s career for newspapers, magazines and journals from the 1960s to the present day.

Here we have eye-witness accounts of concerts: from a mercurial 1966 show in Liverpool through to bulletins from glorious, and not so glorious, shows on the Never-Ending Tour. Dylan’s blues roots are explored in train rides through Mississippi. On a trip to Hibbing, Gray gets to play the same piano in the same school hall where Dylan hammered out Little Richard numbers in the 1950s. Throughout, Gray turns his critical attention to Dylan’s work as it appears, from his immediate perceptive take on 1975’s Blood On The Tracks up to a new, extended essay on 2020’s Rough And Rowdy Ways.

Ever since the pioneering Song & Dance Man in 1972, Michael Gray has been the go-to critic for Dylan fans in search of serious analysis of this most elusive artist’s work. In Outtakes On Bob Dylan, we get Gray the man as well as a unique measure of Dylan’s long career as it unfolds, not in retrospect but in real time.

‘Gray’s passionate subjectivity mirrors his subject’s wholly idiosyncratic journey through life, as well as the complexities and contradictions that make Dylan who he is.’ Times Literary Supplement

‘Gray has read everything remotely related to the subject; he has also listened to everything, and with great care… alert to the fluidity of ideas and associations in Dylan’s art and microscopically attentive to his choice and delivery of words.’ The Guardian

‘I have always admired Gray’s reach, tone, and acuity.’ Greil Marcus

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POPMATTERS, Book of the Year

Gray’s prose is lithe, pellucid, and elegant. It’s cultural criticism as literature – not just informative and illuminating but enjoyable for its own sake as well as for what it has to say about its subject or what thoughts it provokes. With Outtakes on Bob Dylan, Gray has achieved a unique blend of fan passion and clear-eyed, objective critical judgement.

Dylan Review

A multidimensional and eminently readable exploration of what it means to be a follower of Bob Dylan.

Times Literary Supplement

Gray’s passionate subjectivity mirrors his subject’s wholly idiosyncratic journey through life, as well as the complexities and contradictions that make Dylan who he is.

The Guardian

Gray has read everything remotely related to the subject; he has also listened to everything, and with great care… alert to the fluidity of ideas and associations in Dylan’s art and microscopically attentive to his choice and delivery of words.

Waiting For Time Out Of Mind

A short piece from Michael Gray's Outtakes On Bob Dylan: Selected Writings 1967-2021.

Published as part of my first column in ISIS, June 1997, this now seems a useful reminder of how things were, or seemed, at the time. We knew Time Out Of Mind had been recorded in January ’97 but it remained unreleased until the last day of September. (The bit below about musicians’ studio enthusiasms was used again as an entry in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, but the omitted other half of the ISIS column comprised no longer useful reviews of three compilation albums.)

It would have been great to begin this new column with a paean to something wonderful. Time Out Of Mind, ideally. I can’t remember when a new Bob Dylan album was so strongly yearned for, or had such high hopes riding on it.

This is something to do with how long Dylan has been doing the same songs over and over again ad infinitum, and mostly the very old and obvious ones, so that the passion to hear a whole album of new Dylan songs is almost desperate. And there’s the sheer fact of how long it’s been since such an album: a longer gap than from The Times They Are A-Changin’ through to Nashville Skyline.

The yearning for Time Out Of Mind is also to do with the rumoured length of the songs, and the choice of a producer about whom one may not feel unreserved enthusiasm but whose strengths include making Bob bother properly. That Dylan has gone back to him, after years of only giving people one restive try before switching to another modish industry favourite, is surely A Good Sign. And then there’s that rumoured total running time of 76 minutes (76 minutes! Under The Red Sky was 35). And then there are those enticing Jim Dickinson-generated stories that came out of the studio…

Of course no-one should ever believe session musicians. They always come out saying it’s Bob’s best since Blonde On Blonde and then it turns out to be Down In The Groove. It’s natural that they should be so deluded. First, they’re working in the presence of a 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.

And then again, Dylan’s illness has made a lot of us stop moaning about what he’s been doing and not doing lately, and glow with warmth in the realisation of how ardently positive we feel about him underneath. You don’t miss your water till it turns a funny colour. Not long before news of his illness broke, I had a number of conversations with people who’d been feeling for some months, for the first time ever, that they weren’t all that bothered whether they heard, or even received cassettes of, all the concerts on the last leg of the tour, and who were more or less bemoaning having to go to the imminent shows.

How his going into hospital changed all that! Now we’ve all sorely missed hearing ‘All Along The Watchtower’ just those few precious extra times. And we’ve been fantasising about (in some cases planning to be) attending Bob’s first post-illness concerts.

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Michael Gray

Michael Gray is a critic & public speaker. He pioneered the serious study of Dylan’s work with Song & Dance Man: The Art of Bob Dylan, 1972, the first such critical book. Born in 1946, he grew up on Merseyside and studied History & English Literature at York University, where he interviewed British historian A.J.P. Taylor and chatted with visiting American guitarist Jimi Hendrix. His books include the massively updated Song & Dance Man III (1999), The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia (2006), and Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes: In Search Of Blind Willie McTell (2007). He is married to the food-writer Sarah Beattie and has lived in southwest France since 2008. His website is www.michaelgray.net

Book: Outtakes On Bob Dylan: Selected Writings 1967-2021

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