There was this young American singer-songwriter…

Interview with Michael Gray, author: The Bob Dylan Encyclopdedia

I emailed Michael Gray, author of Song and Dance Man III and the eagerly awaited Bob Dylan Encyclopedia (out July 13th here, June 15th US) some questions on the book and this is what he answered.

Hi Mary. Here goes…

*Describe in five words how it feels to have this book coming out?

Exciting, an achievement, a relief!

*What was your favourite/most interesting part to write?

I think I have three favourite kinds of entry. First, entries on musicians who have played with Dylan at some point, for which instead of just repeating known facts I contacted them directly – so I've been able to offer the results of fresh research, re-looking at, for example, Sandy Konikoff, one of Dylan's 1966 drummers, and reporting how some such musicians feel now about their Dylan experiences. Second, it was novel for me to be writing about someone like Sara Dylan (Bob's first wife), because all my past interest in Dylan has been about his work, not his life; and although the biographer Howard Sounes had looked into Sara's background in some detail, it was enjoyable to be checking it afresh by looking at old census pages and old newspaper reports. And thirdly, entries on great founding figures like Chuck Berry were fun, because an encyclopedia entry, like an obituary, gives you the opportunity for a substantial critical appraisal of someone's significance – which isn't usually possible in an ordinary arts feature, which tends to have to be about today's modish person, not yesterday's artist.

*I know you first saw Bob playing in the sixties, but what inspired you to write about him?

I was studying English Literature as an undergra- duate, and learning how to give that kind of crit- ical scrutiny to the Romantic Poets and the Lost Generation and George Eliot's "Middlemarch", and at the same time there was this young American singer-songwriter who sounded different on every new record and yet whose work was consistent in seeming to be multi-layered and complex – and so it seemed to me that his songs were capable of bearing the weight of the same kind of critical scrutiny as these writers of the past. The added challenge was that Dylan's work consisted of songs, not novels or poems.

*What is your personal favourite Dylan album? Song?

I don't have one favourite: I have lots. Today's answer won't be the same as yesterday's or tomorrow's. But hey, OK, today, let's see: "John Wesley Harding" and 'I'm Not There (1956)'.

*What does Bob Dylan mean to you now?

Pass. Or to put it another way, I have mixed feelings, naturally, about Dylan as person and as artist. Who wouldn't?

*Dylan mentions in an interview in The Essential Interviews (and Chronicles etc.) that he's of Russian background. Seeing that he is only second generation American, in your research have you found if Dylan has any real interest in this background? (just curious)

I think he's always gone through patches of greater and lesser interest in his own background – again, like most people. When you're young you tend to want to be considered a different species from your parents,and to find your grandparents' stories about Uncle So-and-so boring and irrelevant, but later you get interested. Dylan, for instance, obviously started out paying not much attention to his Jewishness, and changing his name and so on, but then when he became a father he seems to have become drawn back to his own roots. Similarly, or perhaps in reverse, he seems interested in Minnesota on "Planet Waves" but not in "No Direction Home". But there's a strict limit to how much you can speculate about Dylan the person's interest,as opposed to Dylan the artist.

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