As any consistent reader of this column over the years of Rolling Stone‘s publication hopefully is aware, Bob Dylan is, in my estimation, one of the major literary and musical artists of our time and I find his work endlessly fascinating.
Thus I have been reading recently, with delight and exasperation, a book called Song and Dance Man by a British writer named Michael Gray. E.P. Dutton published it a while back in hardbound copies and then managed to hide its existence almost completely from its potential audience.
Dylan, in Michael Gray’s view, is a poet and a major literary voice. He ranks him in the sequence of literary evolution which includes Blake, Browning. D.H. Lawrence and T.S. Eliot, and he goes to some length in his book to justify his claim.
Unfortunately, to deal with the book’s faults first, he is appallingly naive, did not really do his homework on Dylan’s own personal history, and he has a shamefully inaccurate view of many details of American popular music history. For instance, he confuses the blues singer Big Joe Williams with the vocalist, Joe Williams, who now appears in supper clubs and jazz clubs but who sang with the Count Basie band for many years. The only similarity between them, aside from the name, is their color and the fact that both of them sing blues, though the ex-Count Basie vocalist is also very well known for his work as a ballad singer. He also seems to think that Jimmie Rodgers was involved with such bluesmen as Howlin’ Wolf. I know he can’t mean the Jimmie Rodgers of ”Honeycomb” and ”Kisses Sweeter than Wine.” Do you suppose he meant The Singing Brakeman, the Jimmie Rodgers who predates World War II and who made all those early and excellent discs of the Depression years for RCA Victor and who died in 1933?
But these are minor points. It is stimulating to find someone with a solid working knowledge of the history of English literature finding similarities between the classic names in that continuum and Dylan. Gray does this in the most important and interesting chapter of his book, even if he gets carried away by all the Dylan theories and ends up, in the latter half of his book, endlessly attempting to explain every nuance of the Dylan lyrics, album by album.
When he quotes from Blake’s ”Island in the Moon” a passage that begins”. . . in a great hurry, Inflammable Gass the Wind-finder entere’d . . . Etruscan Column & Inflammable Gass fix’d their eyes on each other . . .” you are instantly reminded of Dylan’s liner notes on Highway 61 Revisited which begin ”Savage Rose & Openly are bravely blowing kisses . . .”
It is also something of a surprise to find Robert Browning writing ”Look, two and two go the priests, then the monks with cowls and sandals/ And the penitents dressed in white shirts, a-holding the yellow candles/One, he carries a flag up straight, and another a cross with handles/ And the Duke’s guard brings up the rear, for the better prevention of scandals.”
I would not make a case for even such similarities indicating anything deeper than good fun, but it is obvious, from the literary portions of Gray’s book, that Dylan is truly part of the English literary tradition and that his influences were not confined to Fats Domino, Leadbelly, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Woody Guthrie and the blues men, but included the major poets in our language.
In any case, if you dig Dylan’s lyrics as much as his singing of them, this book, which your friendly library may have or which is actually still obtainable from E.P. Dutton, can give you a lot of kicks. It is also stimulating and provocative and, one hopes, will kick off other attempts toward a literary evaluation of Dylan’s poetry.
I was reading it, browsing through it is a better term, when I got the new Dylan concert album which I find to be one of the most satisfying and rewarding albums I have ever had the good fortune to possess. As we all know by now, the concert tour was recorded at various locations and the album assembled from tapes. The Band performs magnificently throughout: their work here may be the best they have ever done. It certainly ranks with their best. And Dylan’s performance, both in his acoustic set and with the Band, is exciting and brilliant in every way. The more I hear it, the more I find in it (a characteristic of Dylan’s work and also of the Band’s). He is in fine voice, arrogant, joyous, commanding, funny and, above all, projecting with amazing power and control. He is triumphant in these performances, just as he was triumphant in the concerts.
I’m sorry for those people who did not enjoy his concerts and for those who decided without hearing them that they would not enjoy them. I am sorry for those who, for whatever reason, cannot enjoy this album. I find it a beautiful work of art. As an example of just how deeply successful it is, take ”Rainy Day Women” and ”Blowin” in the Wind.” If ever there were Dylan cliches, these two songs are the perfect examples. Yet he takes each of them, old warhorses of a thousand and a thousand again performances, and gives them a new spirit and a vitality (as well as a refreshing and surprising rhythm switch-around) and they end up being on a par with his very best work.
I have listened to this album in a variety of ways: concentrating on Rick’s bass, concentrating on Garth’s organ, concentrating on Robbie’s guitar, Levon’s drums, or on Richard’s piano or just on Dylan. Every time I do this. I hear more and more and more. I have to say once again that these men are amazing musicians. That they could do this on the concert stage is remarkable. And that Dylan can blend with them without losing himself and make the total into something unique and very, very special is a tribute to his art.
Bob Dylan and the Band have made something so broad and so strong that it can support a legion of imitators. I know I will be playing this album as long as I have ears to hear.
This story is from the August 29th, 1974 issue of Rolling Stone.