“Over 30 years of research, study, and obsessive fandom” the blurb says went into this boggling behemoth—and at least one of those years must have gone for proofreading alone. Michael Gray has already erected a tower to Dylan’s poetics: Song and Dance Man, first published in 1972 at pithy proportion, today topping 900 pages and chiseled with a Roman III to denote not just a third edition but monumentality. Gray’s Dylan Encyclopedia is that tower’s twin, but also its ghost, containing many reconstituted pages and passages.
This is no mere catalog of facts, but a work of oceanic immersion. It has wit, opinion, style, and asks to be read, not just consulted. In addition to major essays on tough nuts like Masked and Anonymous, “Blind Willie McTell,” and Renaldo and Clara are entries titled “frying an egg onstage, the prospect of”; “Molly Ringwald”; and “kelp.” Gray details every artist Dylan has ever interpreted or collaborated with, along with all of his critics and chroniclers, loggers and bloggers, trash collectors and microbe hunters from Anthony Scaduto to Olof Bjorner, Bryan Styble to John Updike, A.J. Weberman to Michael Gray (!).
All the encyclopedic form’s unique pleasures and punishments are here. Engrossed in the CV of drummer Mickey Jones, you turn the page to find Norah Jones listed; curious, you put Mickey on hold to see what Norah has to do with Dylan. (Not much.) While Gray has a salutary irreverence about Dylan’s doldrums, some of his oblations are just indecent: e.g., Desire-era Dylan looks “uncannily like Jesus Christ—but more beautiful.” Frequently the author releases himself into simple ecstasies of cross-referencing: “blues, external signals of Dylan’s interest in” is a leaden rehearsal of every blues trope in Dylanland, tracing arcane sources back to their arcane sources and beyond.
Inevitably his book’s thickness and eccentricity recalls obsessive compendia like Pauline Kael’s 5001 Nights at the Movies and David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film—and sustains the likeness. Even if he lacks Kael’s zest or Thomson’s terrified sense of life, Gray can write as well as alphabetize. He appraises and scolds with terrific confidence, is confident even in his mistakes. He’s not short on revisionist views, downgrading Robbie Robertson and promoting David Crosby, arguing the hidden achievement of Howard Alk against the obvious one of D.A. Pennebaker. He identifies “Belle Isle” as the secret gem of Self Portrait, and gives both Ringo Starr and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid their due.
Gray’s analytic talent is for snatching a thing’s elusive essence and making it seem an obvious crux; then pinning and quartering it with remorseless language while cackling darkly at its workings or shaking a rueful head at its failings. But he may be a curmudgeon by nature, not just inclination: The more his writing gushes, the less it flows. The song “Dignity” “scorches along musically, declaring its allegiance to the timeless appeal of the blues, while sounding, above all things, fresh.” Well, “fresh” is among the moldiest of plaudits, and Gray knows that. He tags “Jokerman” as top-drawer Dylan, then lards it with lyrical analysis that’s chalkboard dull, failing to touch the song’s sensual momentum, its climax in an erotics of righteous rage: “Starry-eyed and laughing with deft, acute touches only Bob Dylan could alchemise, in the writing and performance, ‘Jokerman’ is essentially a song like no other.” Times like that, the language dies and the book becomes a doorstop.
“Dylan,” Gray assures us, “was no mere pop artist and his greatness had nothing to do with whether DJs loved his records or whether his singles ran up the charts.” Such anti-pop snobbery exposes the limitation in Gray’s whole conception of Dylan—one which, to be fair, he shares with most Dylanologists. Namely, a decisively literary, fundamentally unmusical bias—always privileging lyrics over sound, the airier philosophic realms over the darker precincts of bodily response. The 1965 “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” is a great record whose precise, lurid images emerge in quicksilver strikes from the fanatic swirl of a madly exciting performance: The sound makes it fly. But Gray merely asserts that “the language of the song is at least as interesting as its music,” then devotes an entire entry to one while ignoring the other.
Aside from several Greil Marcus passages and Paul Williams’s Performing Artist, there is little extent study of how Dylan has achieved his effects musically—though this is the fundament of his art, insofar as the lyrics wouldn’t insinuate if the music did not first seduce or attack the listener’s apprehensions. The literary approach presumes that Dylan’s words are just as impressive on the smooth page as when barbed and burned by his voice. Quite often, they’re not.
Most of Gray’s lyrical dissertations are staggeringly erudite, meticulously sourced, coherently schematized—and insensible of just how such intertextuality might make Dylan’s lyrics seem richer than they inherently are or his music more alive in the ear. His worst music, starting with the Christian albums, is as stocked with Biblical and mythic quote as his best; and indeed, Gray devotes a disciple’s ardor to constructing synoptic gospels from some of the ugliest, most love-starved devotional music ever recorded.
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.
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.”