In 1981, while traveling in England, I came across a book called Song and Dance Man. I was intrigued by the premise and the pictures, and soon bought and devoured the book. The observations and opinions about Bob Dylan that I found inside opened not only my mind about Dylan’s work, but about “art” in general. The fact that most of my Dylan collection was inaccessible at the time made me long for my vinyl, so I could rediscover his music armed with an updated, educated view. When I returned home, I found a new appreciation for LPs such as Street Legal and Self Portrait, as well as a greater understanding of where his greatest works came from.
The book was written by British music journalist Michael Gray. Over the years, he wrote (or co-authored) the books Mother ! Is The Story Of Frank Zappa, The Elvis Atlas: A Journey Through Elvis Presley’s America, and All Across The Telegraph: A Bob Dylan Handbook. His 2008 book, Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes: In Search Of Blind Willie McTell, was awarded the Certificate of Merit from the 2010 ARSC (Association for Recorded Sound Collection) Awards for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research.
Gray currently lives with his wife, food writer Sarah Beattie, at their home in the southwest of France, where together they host “Bob Dylan Weekends”. He recently called me from home to discuss the “Weekends”, his early days as a music fan and journalist, and all things “Bob”.
Today, there are countless numbers of fans who take Bob Dylan very seriously, and are studying his every move. This was not always the case.
In the mid-1960s, the mainstream press did not cover rock acts that came to their towns, or treat them with any respect or credibility. Sure, there was occasional praise for the Beatles, but otherwise daily newspapers would not lower themselves to acknowledge the passing fad of pimply adolescent “pop” music.
Things started to change with the advent of the underground rock press, with such upstart magazines as Crawdaddy (“the first magazine to take rock and roll seriously” they claimed) and Rolling Stone. Musicians like John Lennon, Pete Townshend, Bob Dylan, and others were seen as “Artists”, with thoughts and art worth serious examination – just as one would study any “serious” novelist or composer.
In the early 1970s, Michael Gray was a teacher, freelance music journalist, and Bob Dylan fan. In late 1972 in the U.K., and the following year in the “States”, Gray published Song and Dance Man, a scholarly study of the work of Bob Dylan, the first book of its kind. As he told me, “I created quite a niche for myself”.
With the acclaim of Song and Dance Man, Gray was able to quit his day job, and devote himself to writing full-time. He has updated the book twice, in 1981 and 1999 (The latest edition has just gone out of print). It is an essential book for any serious music fan. He also wrote and compiled The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia (2006).
As a child, Gray rummaged through his parents record collection. “Shellac 78 r.p.m. records”, Gray recalled. “I found some weird things I really liked . . . Spike Jones and His City Slickers, “Chloe”. . . Jo Stafford, “Buttons and Bows”. . . Tennessee Ernie Ford, “16 Tons”. . .That was when I was young . . . 6, 7, 8.”
The first rock music that resonated with Gray was Tommy Steele singing “Hound Dog” on the British television show 6.5 Special, when Gray was about ten years old. “I was blown away, although I would not have used that expression at the time. I liked him for a couple of years until he started recording the music rock and roll was supposed to abolish.
“I asked my grandmother to buy (the Steele single), but there wasn’t one. There was one by Elvis Presley on 78. So Elvis became my idol and remained so, despite making very disappointing movies, until I got to university in 1964. Then I met someone who told me about an artist who was on a very different level. . . I was very shocked by the very notion of that.
“This turned out to be Bob Dylan, of course.”
To be continued . . . .
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