Eat the Document

What about Bob? Nearly everything, in this Dylanologist's cross-reference orgy and bar-bet settler

Not that Gray is deaf to musical felicities: He remarks on Dylan's ability to sing trite lyrics while suggesting "a level of emotion at work below the words, way out beyond the scope of the lyrics." That's precisely it—but most of the time Gray spares not a glance for that way-out. When he does, he goes past an exegesis of philosophy into a parsing of lines for oddities of intonation, derangements of breath and emphasis. This is musical as much as lyrical analysis, refreshing and immediate, forcing the critic to feel his way through inchoate sensation with no compass but intuition and precise expression, and it happens far too seldom.

Of course, encyclopedias are meant to be used, not necessarily read in the cover-to-cover sense. How useful is Encyclopedia? Pretty useful: It collects roughly 30 million facts and consolidates them for the convenient reference of both the casual and the all-consumed. If you want to know what Bible verse "Farewell, Angelina" echoes, who played percussion on what unreleased session, or when "Romance in Durango" was first done live, this is your book.

Bob Dylan, in Madhouse on Castle Street, c. 1962
photo: Courtesy of BBC
Bob Dylan, in Madhouse on Castle Street, c. 1962


The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia
By Michael Gray
Continuum, 832 pp., $40

But you emerge with no coherent sense of Dylan's shape or identity, other than that he is to be regarded as a poet, not a pop star. I'm more convinced by Robert Christgau's conception of Dylan as "the Magnificent Phonus Balonus," calculating wit and coiner of epigrams to pepper the flow of what has been, at its greatest, exhilarating music. Christgau warned that "placing Dylan's work in a page context" is "always a mistake." So be aware that Gray's Encyclopedia places the artist's work pretty exclusively in a page context, and that your relish in the project will depend directly on whether you believe Robert Browning deserves a longer entry than Bob Johnston. Or how much truth you find in John Lennon's comment: "You don't have to hear what Bob Dylan's saying, you just have to hear the way he says it."

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