The silver lining? Saluting Bob when his birthday came. And now, a couple of weeks later, I can recollect my emotions in tranquillity.
I commend both to you. But the celebrations really began with the arrival – by courier! – of Michael Gray’s Outtakes on Bob Dylan (#13 since you ask).
Anyone with even a passing interest in the extraordinary genius of Bob Dylan will be aware of the commentary, critiques and criticism provided by Michael Gray. We have all taken from our shelves our copy of The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia to confirm a fact or check a reference and found ourselves, hours later, moving seamlessly from one entry to another.
Outtakes on Bob Dylan is different from the encyclopedia and from Song & Dance Man. It is more personal, more subjective. And because the selected pieces were written in real time, more alive and immediate, less retrospective.
The book begins in 1966 and subsequently covers if not every year, certainly every period of Bob. Part of my enjoyment is the realisation that Michael and I attended many of the same shows, though not always coming to similar judgements. One show on which we agreed was Bob’s dreadful performance on the first night in Birmingham (UK) with Tom Petty in 1987. It is the only Bob show I have ever left early, out of embarrassment, and the story goes that, as Bob started a new song, one Heartbreaker asked Petty what it was. “Dunno, but it’s in D” said Petty. Michael is right that the next two nights were a transformation. But that’s Bob being Bob and there are countless examples in Outtakes, because Michael is always honest. He is, primarily, a fan but his academic rigour is never relaxed. He will never, as I do, look to justify or praise when there is no reason.
Many of the selected pieces are familiar, but even I cannot keep up with every item of Dylanology in every periodical. So many are new to me, including of course the recently written essay on Rough & Rowdy Ways.
This is a fine piece of work, worthy of the exhortation given to Michael by an editor many years ago that he “should do an FR Leavis on Dylan”. Spoiler alert: Rough & Rowdy Ways “isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s a work of depth, warm resonance, invention and generosity.”
One final recommendation: the penultimate essay is a moving tribute to Bob Dylan 8-for-43 Willis. I met Bob Willis, a long-standing friend of Michael, twice only. The first time was at a Bob concert (one of the Birmingham shows in ’87)when we stood at adjacent urinals before the show and talked cricket; the second was at Lord’s when we talked about the number of bootlegs we each possessed.
That Michael who watches tennis in the summer was a friend of an English cricket legend is a measure of the man. And this obituary a measure of his writing.
Today from the everysmith vaults: The three shows in Birmingham from 1987. Jeez, that first night was awful.