Most helpful positive review
on December 6, 2001
As an avid fan of rock scholarship (oxymoronical as some still consider the term), I've read many a bio and interpretive book through the years, and I have to say that this one, hands down, is the absolute most amazing one I've ever come across. Only Dylan - with his 40+ albums, 4-decade career, half a thousand songs, countless gigs, and sheer depth of material - could be subject to such a gargantuan examination as this, and Gray milks it for all it's worth. At over 900 pages, this book examines every aspect of Dylan's recorded work. The level of scholarship is almost insane. The footnotes alone are massive (some taking up the majority of a page); one chapter alone contains over 220 of them. This is not a book that attempts to "explain" the songs (Gray knows better than that.) What it does, instead, is give detailed background information on them: shedding light, at long last, on their genesis - showing us what songs, poems, books, movies or what have you may have influenced them. One gets a sense in reading this of Dylan's own vast knowledge of music. We learn here how deeply and thorougly he has mined such treasure troves of art as pre-war blues, folk songs, the Bible (though Gray borders on overkill on this particular subject), poetry of all sorts, and, surprisingly, nursery rhyme, fairy tales, and Hollywood movie dialogue. Some might claim that knowing such things takes the fun or novelty out of simply listening to a song, or of self-interpretation, but surely, it gives an extra layer or two of depth to Dylan's work, allowing you to appreciate them that much more. Some passages are surely revelatory. While some of the chapters are admittedly not as interesting as others, many are enlightening and downright ground-breaking. The chapter on his use of pre-war blues lyrics poetry is a cornucopia of exhaustive reasearch (the footnotes alone in this chapter could almost comprise a book.) Undoubtedly revelatory to many are the chapters on Dylan's use of nursery rhyme and movie dialogue in his lyrics (the use of the latter shines an entirely new light on the Empire Burlesque album.) Another element of the book worth noting is that it doesn't skimp over his too-often-unnecessarily-derided 80's and 90's work (a period where it actually became cool to despise Dylan.) Gray offers excellent analyses of such 80's masterpieces as Blind Willie McTell, Caribbean Wind (three versions!), Foot of Pride, Jokerman, Brownsville Girl, and the entire Oh Mercy album. All of these songs (and more) are thoroughly examined, and lend needed credence to truly excellent Dylan compositions that often do not get the credit they deserve. His 90's albums - Under The Red Sky, Good As I Been To You, World Gone Wrong, and Time Out of Mind - all have thorough chapters dedicated to them as well. The latter chapter I particularly enjoyed. I should also take time out to ackwnoledge not only Gray's parlaying of information, but his sheer excellence of writing. His prose is very, very good and he can be devastatingly funny at times, as well as scholastically serious. He also manages to avoid the two main traps of writing a book like this: hero worship, and promoting your own work through the medium you are trying to interpret. He's not overly idoltary towards Dylan: certainly he gives him much praise (all deserved, of course), but he also issues forth monumental drubbings at times - perhaps even too much at times. For example, Gray is extremely, extremely critical of such things as the Empire Burlesque and Unplugged albums, which is bound to upset some fans. But surely such critical honesty of opinion is preferable to the "Dylan is God and never makes a mistake; bow down and worship his incomparable art" vibe that is prevalent in so many other books of this type. Also, as I said, he manages to avoid the horrible pitfall of pushing his own works through the guise of interpreting Dylan; he wisely barely mentions himself here. Now, all this is not to say that the book is perfect. There are certain drawbacks; personally, I think Gray rides the Bible-influence hobby horse a bit too much, and I disagree with some of his opinions (only natural, and he doesn't overburden us with them), and certain parts of the book do seem a bit long-winded. Also, if you are looking for an in-depth study of what Dylan's lyrics "mean", or for a study of his live performances, then this is not specifically the book for you. However, any, and I mean ANY Dylanophile will want it regardless, as it casts such a deep, illuminating light on so many aspects of his career. There are a lot of books on Bob Dylan available, but this is one of the few truly indispensable ones. Comes absolutely reccommended.