Tom Waits once said that Bob Dylan was a planet to be explored. He was thinking musically rather than, well, physically but he certainly had a point. Dylan’s lyrics, songwriting skill and the breath of inspiration he draws from are pretty much unrivalled in the history of popular music. Whether you like his voice or not.
Michael Gray’s one man show Bob Dylan and the Poetry of the Blues which arrives in the Riverbank on April 9 explores just one aspect of this planet; that being the influence of the blues in the work of the great bard. Gray is not just a Dylan fan, he is the author of two Dylan reference works, Song and Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan and the Bob Dylan Encyclopedia. Having also written the brilliant biography of the great Georgian blues man Blind Willie McTell, Gray is more than qualified to talk about his subject. In short, he knows his stuff. The show is not a simple lecture though, it is Rock ‘n’ Roll we’re talking about after all.
“It’s me up on the stage, pacing about, not using notes. Playing loud records and showing rare footage and also telling a story about how this young middle class Jewish American from way up North became so absorbed by the blues, the music of black working class Southern culture and how much he has smuggled into his own work the poetry of the blues.”
Limiting yourself to such a strict approach to an extraordinary subject could prove troublesome but in reality Dylan is so consumed by blues music that in fact it’s more of a challenge fitting everything in.
“There’s far too much to say. Some nights you say some stuff and some nights you say other stuff. It is partly dictated by the mood of the crowd, the atmosphere of the room or how you’re feeling yourself that day.”
From his eponymous debut in 1962 through pretty much every album since, Dylan has repeated blues lyrics, appropriated blues structures and covered numerous blues songs. Some of his finest lyrics are actually reworkings of old blues phrases by the likes of Robert Johnson, Leadbelly and Muddy Waters. Dylan’s love of the blues, however, goes deeper than a passing interest in just a dozen or so of the more famous names today.
“I found by going through the pages of a huge anthology of pre-war blues lyrics by an American academic called Michael Taft I found that Bob Dylan was a real closet blues freak that he knew all these really obscure old blues records.”
Of course Dylan is not only a musician but a musical scholar himself.
His Theme Time Radio Hour show which ran until April 2009 drew on a huge well of songs from country to jazz, pop and even hip-hop (he memorably rapped LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” on one of his first shows) and it is not too surprising that he is aware of these songs. Though that he can remember the words to so many of them perhaps is.
Gray himself, who grew up on Merseyside but now lives in the South-West of France is no blind fan and is not afraid to be critical of the singer’s work particularly his last two studio albums. “Modern Times” is “very over-rated’ while “Together Through Life” he simply dismisses with a sharp intake of breath and a “yuck.”
Most recently Dylan was seen performing with the Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons in a celebration of acoustic music at this year’s Grammy Awards. Gray chuckles at the singer’s choice of song, “Maggie’s Farm”.
“I thought it was a funny choice. It was supposed to be a tribute to acoustic music and the song he chose was the very song with which he first went electric in the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.”
It was Dylan who introduced Gray to Blind Willie McTell with his song of the same name recorded in 1983 but not issued until the 1991. His book Hand Me Down My Travellin’ Shoes is a masterful re-telling of the slide guitarist’s life and times and the search for the story of a man who died in 1959 leaving virtually no written record behind.
“That is why the book is not just his story but the story of getting his story because it’s so telling how little information there was.
Only two official documents exist his marriage certificate and his death certificate and,” he laughs “both of those are full of false information”.
McTell may have been a consummate musician but he died an alcoholic obscurity his music pretty much forgotten by all but a handful of blues fans. Gray’s book goes somewhat to restoring the legacy of this great blues man whose music while selling little in his own life reverberated through the years eventually influencing countless musicians from the Allman Brothers (who had a hit with McTell’s “Statesboro Blues”),to Ralph McTell, The White Stripes and a young Jewish kid who one day would be inspired to write one of his finest songs about McTell’s gifts as the finest blues singer who ever lived.
And he would know.
Bob Dylan and the Poetry of the Blues will be in the Riverbank Theatre on Saturday April 9 at 8pm. Tickets E15 from 045 448327.