Ever since his seminal Song & Dance Man was published in 1972, Gray’s meticulous and exhaustive excavation of Bob’s work has been a fundamental source of information and inspiration for me. Yes, I have read Heylin and Ricks, Greil Marcus and Paul Williams, Robert Shelton and Howard Sounes, Andrew Muir and Stephen Scobie. I have shelves full of The Telegraph, The Bridge and Isis. But it is to Song & Dance Man and The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia that I return constantly to check a fact or a reference and then find myself, an hour or so later, reading a third or fourth entry and forgetting the nature of my original enquiry.
This is primarily because of the fascination of the subject matter of course; but also because Michael Gray writes very well. As I discovered last night, he speaks very well too.
I was first to arrive in the unprepossessing surroundings of the Bedworth Arts Centre, and embarrassed to be briefly mistaken for the man himself as I stood alone at the bar. By the scheduled start time, we were forty or so only, but if Michael was disappointed, he didn’t show it. With Derek Barker, the founder and editor of Isis, in attendance, he was probably content to settle for quality rather than quantity.
With a 15 minute break for conversation and sales of his Bob Dylan Encyclopedia Greatest Hits CD, Michael spoke for two hours on Bob Dylan and the Poetry of the Blues. (He did this without a note, and it occurred to me as I drove home that David Cameron had won the Tory leadership merely on the basis that he was capable of delivering a speech without recourse to either lectern or script. Ah well.)
Michael’s faultless performance is clearly the result of professional preparation and erudition, as well as a continuing passion for his subject. It is probably true that there was little which was unfamiliar to readers of chapters such as “Even post-structuralists oughta have the pre-war blues”, but his address and well-chosen musical and VT illustrations reminded us of Bob’s borrowings from, allusions to, and reinventions of, those pre-war blues. As Michael said (and I’m not clear if he was quoting or parsing), Leadbelly, Blind Lemon Jefferson et al “were not so much figures of the past, but continually present” in Dylan’s life.
So an interesting evening, an informative evening, an enjoyable evening. But what I loved most were those moments when Michael was suddenly revealed as a fan rather than an academic commentator: when a smile would break out as he noted in one context that “only Bob could write that”; or, when I watched his relish and animation as the audio played the outtake of Blind Willie McTell from the Infidels sessions.
(In which context, I appreciated his point about that song. It couldn’t be “Nobody can sing the blues like, for example, Robert Johnston”: fewer potential rhymes, you see. And I remembered an interview in which Bob was asked to explain the concept, in Man in the Long Black Coat on Oh Mercy, that “people don’t live or die/people just float”. Bob said he was just looking for a rhyme for “coat”.)
I also loved Michael's generosity of spirit, his patient willingness to engage with his audience individually as well as collectively, and his story of being accused of having a “dissociated sensibility” when, at the University of York, he argued the artificiality of the distinction between so-called high and popular culture.
It’s a badge I think he wears with pride. And, as a lover of both Keats and Dylan, so do I.
Today's listening: a passing reference to Planet Waves last night has sent me back to this excellent but oft-ignored album from 1974. Always did prefer Ceremonies of the Horsemen, the original title.