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VINE VOICEon 4 September 2002
What, no review yet of this superb book?
If you're a fan of Bob Dylan, then there are no half measures, you can't just be a 'fan', you're also obsessed, besotted, infuriated, intrigued and alarmed by every move the man makes. Well this book is by a man besotted with Dylan, but not blindly so, and a man who has an incredible range of reference, cultural and literary and musical and plenty more, to bring to bear in his analysis of Bob's work. It's not a biography, not concerned with what Mr D has for breakfast, but a passionate and critical study of the man's huge body of work. Incorporating the text of the earlier editions, this huge updated third edition adds many substantial chapters to cover Dylan's output since the previous edition was published in 1982. (I hope this date is right because I'm doing this from memory and don't have the book to hand at this precise moment). The early chapters are devoted to Bob and the folk tradition, Bob and rock and roll, Bob and the literary tradition and so on. The new chapters include a major evaluation of the Blues and its relation to Dylan's work (as inspiration, as influence, as lyrical and musical wellspring), a fascinating exploration of Every Grain of Sand, a hilarious survey of books about Bob, a portrait of the growing relationship between the author and the album Time Out Of Mind (unfortunately Love and Theft is not covered in the book, though I'm mightily curious about Michael Gray's feelings about it) plus in depth analysis of Blind Willie McTell and the two solo acoustic 'covers' albums. And that ain't the whole of it. This book is intelligent, dense, bitchy, insightful, vigorous and rigorous, and completely and utterly compelling. As Gray says in his introduction, the book is a labyrinth, but it's a pleasure to get lost in it. As for the precisely annotated discographical information, for a devoted music obsessive such as myself it's enough to make your wallet ache and your bank manager despair with the prospect of all those brand new musical avenues it impels you to explore. (If Mr Gray is looking for a home for his music collection I'll willingly offer it a climate controlled home.)
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on 16 January 2000
This is a TERRIFIC book! I am fortunate to own a hardback copy but I intend to buy a softback version for reasons that shall become obvious. But first, the author whilst obviously a passionate admirer of his subject, is not so overawed that he is incapable of objective, critical analysis. One can only guess at the amount of time he must have spent painstakingly researching and writing this tome. This is not only a masterly academic effort, but his style is engagingly witty throughout, making this book FUN to read as well. You may not always agree with his views, but they are always interesting and provocative. History will prove this to be an essential read for all Dylan followers. The author deserves to make his fortune from this and if you take my advice, you could find you own what may prove to be a worthwhile investment. Buy the softback version to read from cover to cover, make index notes in, flick through, allow your children to read, do with what you will, but make an investment in the hardback. For hard as it may be to contemplate, even this icon will one day make his home in the sky. I am going to lay down my cherished, limited edition, signed, hardback copy, for the future. I strongly recommend that you buy either version of this book, but if you can afford to, better than that, buy both so that you may do the same!
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on 30 January 2000
This is a wonderful book. It is erudite, provocative, intelligent, civilized, funny, lively and beautifully written. It is a joy to spend time slowly moving through through this scholarly, but never dull, book, occasionally rushing to the hi-fi to check out Gray's always illuminating thoughts and judgements on Dylan's work. It is THE definitive critical work on Dylan and is essential reading for anyone interested in the great singer/songwriter although the breadth of its scope also makes it essential reading for anyone interested in 20th Century popular art or in great art in general. It is, simply, a masterpiece. Book of the Year - no contest.
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on 3 December 2000
The best book on Dylan ever - not just my opinion but also that of the poet laureate. This book is thoughtful, funny, provoking, well-researched and simply the standard by which all popular music criticism should be judged. You'll not only find out about Dylan's work but also about the wide range of his influences, sources and history. Not to be missed by anyone with an interest in popular culture...
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on 16 August 2003
This is a vast and extremely detailed survey of Dylan's long career, concentrating chiefly on the lyrics, in a lit crit manner. The in-depth studies of blues lyrics and nursey rhymes/fairy tales are very well done, and opened a whole new world for me. Gray obviously has a bible almost as well-thumbed as Dylan's own, but there's surprisingly little about the folk tradition.
Gray writes well, but many of his studies drag on just a little too long, especially the chapters devoted to individual songs like Jokerman and Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar, as well as the long section on Brownsville Girl. Even Dylan's best songs don't need Gray's line-by-line analysis.
The earlier part of the book is best because Gray approaches Dylan's output up to the mid 70s as a single body of work. After the 'born again' period he tackles each album chronologically and it becomes a more predictable plod. I just kept thinking: 'you've made your point - move on!' and I was skimming a lot by then.
One thing lacking is virtually any mention of the other people involved in making Bob Dylan's music. Hardly any musician gets a name check and the only producer given credit is Daniel Lanois. Even co-writers like Jacques Levy and Sam Shephard are brushed aside.
Gray is no Dylan insider and gives no real biographical detail. He gives quotes from interviews and books about Dylan but Gray doesn't seem to have done any face-to-face research. He's listened to a lot of bootlegs and read a lot of books. At the end of this book I didn't feel I knew much more about Dylan the man. Of course, it's a critical work not a biography, but for a book 900 pages long this is pretty one-dimensional stuff, close-to-the-text analysis all the way.
I enjoyed a great deal of Song & Dance Man and I'll keep it around to look up information on a wide range of subjects. I recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about Dylan's influences, but I found it strangely non-illuminating when it came to Dylan himself.
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on 1 November 2010
the book is a serious academic work and attempts to elevate dylan's lyrics within the canon of english literature ...the term song and dance man is a dylan quote when he was pressurised by the media into categorising himself. I saw Michael gray give an impressive presentation on Dylan at the tower theatre Winchester a few years ago.
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on 5 October 2002
First I should declare an interest: Mike Gray and I were friends at University and I have long known of his admiration of Bob Dylan. This is clearly a labour of love by someone who has dedicated his whole life to understanding Dylan and his art.
On the plus side: Michael writes extremely well. He is amusing and pungent, intelligent and interesting. His knowledge and range is vast, his research thorough. He roams widely (particularly in his famous notes) into art, lterature, History, theology and many other disciplines. He is rigorous in his research. He is critical of what many others have written about Dylan, but can also criticise himself! Although a labour of love, he is not uncritical of Dylan at times. It is a goldmine of information for Dylan enthusiasts.
However....As other reviewers have pointed out, this book does require extensive prior knowledge of Dylan and his work. A lot is "taken as read". The structure of the chapters is sometimes confusing, and references to your favourite song will be scattered around the book- only rarely does Michael analyse all aspects of a particular song in one go.
Although obviously never intended as a biography, one misses aspects of Dylan's work which a more biographical approach would have encouraged- who influenced Dylan as a child? What did he read? Why did Dylan, born Jewish, become a Christian? Did his parents influence him at all? Whilst Michael is outstandingly good on the influences of pre-war Blues and early pop on Dylan's lyrics, we learn little of any influences by later generations of singers. There is also little on Dylan's music- the book centres around the words, and even here (as another reviewer pointed out), there is often little attempt to explain some of Dylan's more obscure writing. Overall this is a very interesting and detailed book, but one which is aimed at hardcore Dylanists rather than those who just have a general interest in him
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on 13 March 2000
Gray on Dylan is just wonderful. I bought this book early in December as a Christmas present for my partner, a veteran Dylan fan, and had to force myself to wrap it up before it ended up looking well and truly well read. Yes, I'm afraid it was the hefty 900 plus page paperback and not the limited hardback edition. Start dipping and you will be hooked - astonishing info on favourite songs, songs you can't quite remember, and certainly in my case, songs I have never heard of. Out have come the albums, a few getting the first airing for years if not decades, to be listened to again and again. But as well as Dylan, Gray has opened up to me another world of music and musicians of this century, making me want to find out more about them, and most of all, listen to their music.
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on 25 August 2005
I was very much impressed by the 2nd edition of this book even though I felt Mr Gray was a little bombastic in some of his views. But I find this edition disappointing. Certainly no one can accuse Mr Gray of half measures. I also do not wish to argue with some obviously intensively researched analysis. It's just the sheer diffuseness that galls.
Mr Gray suggests early on that the reader could take this book as if it was a kind of literary city-state with a network of roads leading off a central highway. The little roads could be examined on their own or the main highway could be followed. All very well. But the little roads have a tendency of expanding exponentially as well as multiplying so that the main highway is in constant danger of being hopelessly obscured.
Some examples:
Mr Gray takes up God knows how many tedious pages tracing just about every film script reference in Empire Burlesque and this is after admitting that it is one of Dylan's poorest efforts.
The vast central chapter concerning the blues influence on Dylan is practically a book in itself and yet, on closer inspection, it seems to amount to little more than a determined attempt to list every blues singer who ever lived along with their biographies.
The footnotes seem to form yet another "road network". Some of them take up entire pages. But, like the blues chapter, they consist largely of lists - this time of recording details. (Couldn't Mr Gray have put all this stuff into an appendix at the end? Are such details necessary at all in the age of the Internet?)
However, there is a certain poignancy in this book if the reader contrasts this edition with the 2nd one - which is easy to do since the 2nd is incorporated more or less completely into this one (it takes up the first quarter). The overall tone of the earlier work was full of a vigorous (if sometimes over the top) appraisal of Dylan - which was relatively easy to make when the 2nd edition appeared about quarter of a century ago. Dylan was, as they say, "riding high" back then.
But after the disastrous Eighties it was clear that Gray had to tone down his praise a little. For example - one extravagant claim that Dylan was the greatest rock star in the world ever had to be given a footnote that says, in effect, Oh well - this is the way it looked at the time! This is a sad reflection on how unforeseen events can conspire to make all comments - whether positive or negative - seem ridiculous in the long run. Especially when the comments are as intemperate as some of Mr Gray's. It is also intriguing to note that Dylan himself has expressed approval of some of the singers dismissed by Gray as weary spineless fraudsters - Sinatra and even Bing Crosby. Dylan's recent book Chronicles shows that he was far less of an elitist than Gray and that he didn't rigidly conform to the view that "real" music started with rock and roll.
On the plus side there is a vast wealth of information and observation that may prove worthy on future visits to this city-state. But so much surely should have been cut out.
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on 19 May 2004
This is a real joy...a fantastic collection of writings on Bob, o.k. only for dedicated fans maybe, but the article on Dylan and the Blues is terriffic reading, dare you miss this !...this book is packed with great info. Gray's insights are spot-on, i.e the wasted ' Unplugged ' t.v. show for one. This book is BIG and teriffic value for money, you may break your wrist holding it up as it is as heavy as Bob's wallet. No Dylan fan should be without this monumental work.
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