Wednesday , February 28 2024
Song & Dance Man V1

Book & Music Reviews: ‘Song & Dance Man: The Art of Bob Dylan,’ plus the Richard Thompson Band and Fats Domino

British writer Michael Gray’s gargantuan Song & Dance Man: The Art of Bob Dylan, which has just been reissued in America, first appeared in the UK in 1972 and in the U.S. and Japan the following year. Gray updated it in the early 1980s and again in 2000, but the book was subsequently out of print for more than a dozen years. It’s not for casual fans, but if you’re a Dylan fanatic, you’re probably going to want the new edition, which divides what had been a fat single book into three more manageably sized volumes.

The first, on “Language & Tradition,” opens with cogent summaries of Dylan’s work in the 1960s and ’70s and, says Gray, examines it “in terms of how the writing and performance operate in relation to folk music, blues, rock, and mainstream literature.” The second, subtitled “Yonder Comes Sin,” focuses on the singer’s move in the late ’70s “to born-again Christianity and beyond” while the third, subtitled “World Gone Right,” looks at his 1990s albums. Unfortunately, this reissue does not add commentary about Dylan’s considerable achievements in the current century; perhaps if these books sell well, we’ll see a fourth volume at some point.

Unlike Mark Lewisohn’s equally lengthy Beatles tome, Tune In—which limns not only the lives of the Fab Four but also the people, places, and milieu that gave birth to them—Gray’s opus focuses almost entirely on his subject’s recorded output. As he says in an introduction, “This is not a biography of Bob Dylan but a critical study of his work. It doesn’t look at what he eats for breakfast but at what he writes in his songs.” It is also, notes the author, “more about Dylan’s words than his music, though it tries to take a proper account of both.”

Gray’s knowledge of his subject is encyclopedic, and he digs up all sorts of interesting connections. Dylan’s “What looks large from a distance close up ain’t never that big” (from Empire Burlesque’s “Tight Connection to My Heart”) turns out to echo a line from a 1934 Gary Cooper movie called Now and Forever, for example. Other phrases in that album, says Gray, appear to have been lifted from the films Shane, a 1953 western, and The Sandpiper, a 1965 drama.

Granted, you must be a Dylan obsessive to make your way through all three of these volumes, which together total nearly a thousand pages, especially since Gray’s prose often reads like a doctoral thesis. (On many pages, footnotes consume almost as much space as the main text.) Moreover, you need to be prepared for a bit of quirkiness from the author, who pays minimal attention to some Dylan compositions while holding a magnifying glass to others. The song “Every Grain of Sand” gets an entire 24-page chapter in Volume Two, for example, while the widely panned Under the Red Sky album is the focus of a 64-page chapter in Volume Three.

Gray is nothing if not opinionated, and you might find yourself applauding some of his comments while disagreeing vehemently with others. His take on certain recordings parallels conventional wisdom and some of his observations strike this writer as just right. But he comes down rather hard on the largely excellent Desire, for example, and claims “huge flaws” mar the justifiably popular Time Out of Mind; he also calls the MTV Unplugged album “the dreariest, most contemptible, phony, tawdry piece of product ever issued by a great artist.” That sounds like a major overstatement, and you might also take issue with his claim that Street Legal—a fine and underrated album, to be sure—is “of astonishing complexity and confidence, delivered in Dylan’s most authoritative voice.”

Of course, many Dylan fans love to wade into and debate the details, and there’s plenty of opportunity for that here, along with all sorts of fascinating trivia. Let the fun begin.

Also Noteworthy

The Richard Thompson Band, Historic Classic Concert—Live in Nottingham 1986. This fiery and well-recorded two-CD concert album features one of Richard Thompson’s best bands and draws on material from all periods of his distinguished career up to 1986. It includes five numbers from three of his classic records with ex-wife Linda Thompson, for example, as well as a song from Fairport Convention, which he co-founded. The main sources for the two-hour program, though, are several of his fine solo LPs from the early and mid-1980s, Hand of Kindness, Daring Adventures, and especially Across a Crowded Room, which is represented by six of its nine numbers.

Historic Classic Concert isn’t Thompson’s first live LP from this period—or even, for that matter, his first such album recorded at the Rock City club in Nottingham, England, in November 1986: Another concert CD from that place and time appeared in 2020. However, the 21-track new release repeats only seven numbers from the earlier one, and it comes loaded with the incendiary guitar work, stellar material, and passionate vocals that have marked Thompson’s entire career.

Fats Domino, The Best Of/Live. Fats Domino, an influential legend of early rock and roll, deserves better than this release. Though a few major pop hits, such as “I’m Walkin’” and “Be My Guest,” are missing, the set does embrace many of his best-known numbers, including “Ain’t That a Shame,” “Blueberry Hill,” “My Blue Heaven,” “Walking to New Orleans,” and “Blue Monday.” But Domino’s vocals are not always his best here, nor are they always well mixed.

Moreover, there’s little sense that you’re listening to a concert: there are no spoken intros, and any audience response has been edited out. Also, this two-disc set—which has a total playing time of 72 minutes and could have easily fit onto one CD—contains no discographic information aside from a mice-type mention that the material was recorded in 1987 in the U.S. (Most likely, it was patched together from shows in multiple venues.)

You’d be better off with an album such as Live at Montreux (1974) or Live from Austin, TX (2006, and the source of the video clip below).

About Jeff Burger

Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains half a century's worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.

Check Also

Bob Dylan-Complete Budokan

Music Reviews: Bob Dylan’s ‘The Complete Budokan 1978,’ plus Dori Freeman, Mike Zito & Albert Castiglia, Kristen Grainger & True North, and Peter Rosendal

The Complete Budokan 1978 coilects two Bob Dylan concerts. Plus, new CDs from Dori Freeman, Mike Zito & Albert Castiglia, Kristen Grainger & True North, and Peter Rosendal.