Interview – Michael Gray on writing, talking, and meeting Bob Dylan, Part One
Back in the 1960s, the world was a different place. Before the Internet, music fans were left to solve the mysteries found inside far-out rock albums on their own. To get information out about this music, there were basically two resources: underground radio, and the burgeoning rock press.
Gray started out as a freelance writer. “I didn’t give up my day job until I got an American deal for the publication of the first Song and Dance Man. I was teaching languages. My first piece was in Melody Maker. Broadstreet newspapers didn’t lower themselves to write about pop music – You could only write for Melody Maker. The Guardian or The New York Times, they didn’t write about Bob Dylan. In 1968, Greil Marcus was writing about the underground. ‘Grown-ups’ were not.”
When Song and Dance Man was published, it was the first book devoted to the serious study of one artist. “It was the first time that a mainstream book like this was published on both sides of the Atlantic,” Gray told me, almost with a sense of wonder. “It was not a leaflet. It discussed Dylan in the same breath as William Blake and T.S. Eliot, outside of the hippie underground. I didn’t even know it was going to be the first book. I work slowly, and had no idea if anyone else was doing the same thing. It was surprising that it had not been done before.
“The feedback was very mixed, but there were a lot of people who were struck by it. It was overshadowed at the time, because (Anthony) Scaduto’s (Dylan biography) came out first. More people wanted to read about Dylan’s life than a lit- crit study of his work.”
While the book was influential, and groundbreaking in many aspects, it was not a huge seller. “At the time, Dylan was unfashionable. He was already passe.
“1973 was really the last year of the 1960s. Music was not yet swamped by the gigantism of the record industry.”
Song and Dance Man was updated twice, in the early 1980s, and the late 1990s. “The third edition was definitely the best. The great pleasure was that I was able to write at enormous length (the book is almost 1,000 pages). They let me have footnotes on the same page, which I think was crucial. That was great for me, it enabled me to do a running commentary. The other thing the length enabled me to do was make to occasional joke. Humor is a virtue.”
Even though the book ends with the release of 1997’s Time Out Of Mind, Gray has no plans to update the book a forth time around. “I still enjoy writing essays and writing by blog, but there are a million people writing about Dylan, and there are other books I’d like to write. Song and Dance Man III was 530,000 words, the Bob Dylan Encyclopedia was 750,000. If I haven’t said all I’ve got to say already, I never will.”
For Gray, the Encyclopedia was an enjoyable endeavor, but involved an enormous amount of time on interviews and research. “The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia was very hard work. The Internet was up and running by then so that sped things up. I enjoyed writing about people this time, instead of songs. It was nice to have an email dialogue with everyone from Bruce Langhorne to Rob Stoner to Freddy Koella. Winston Watson was also very helpful and cooperative.
“I like the book. It was satisfying for myself to learn about people that I already knew about. I don’t know how I did it so fast! I was tired a year after I wrote it.”
In part three, Gray recalls the time he met the song and dance man himself, and talks out his “Bob Dylan Weekends”.
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