John Neil Munro

For almost 60 years Bob Dylan has been writing memorable, mysterious – and occasionally just plain daft – lyrics. His words have inspired romance and revolution, and he’s rightly considered to be one of the greatest writers of modern times.... and he has a Nobel award to prove it.

But what writers and books have influenced this one-time student drop-out who gave up on literature studies at the University of Minnesota after just one semester?

Critic, writer, and broadcaster Michael Gray is the man with the answers. Gray has written a couple of the definitive books about Dylan and next month he visits Scotland to talk about Dylan’s literary links.

Gray first saw the star play live in his home town of Liverpool in 1966. He’s since seen him in concert “many dozen times” and has amassed thousands of Dylan’s recordings.

Gray’s research has seen him travel to many of the towns and cities from Dylan’s own past – like Greenwich Village in New York, Duluth, where the star was born and Hibbing where he mostly grew up. While at high school in the town, Dylan showed an interest in literature and he had an inspirational English teacher, Boniface J Rolfzen, who gave the young Robert Zimmerman a decent, broad introduction to classic English and American literature.

Gray has also spoken at conferences around the world on Dylan. The week I managed to track him down he was busy preparing for a visit to a Dylan conference at the University of South Denmark.

He lives in France with his wife Sarah who thankfully shares his enthusiasm for Dylan. “She doesn’t bother reading the Dylan fanzines or stuff like that though. She relies on me to find and prune down the best of the unreleased bootleg material.”

Gray first came across Dylan’s music in 1964 when, as a callow teenager into early American rock and rollers like Elvis, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry, he enrolled at the University of York.

“Very early on I met this girl with long blonde hair called Linda who, like me, was reading English Literature. She was very bright and shocked me by saying there was this singer on a whole other level from Elvis Presley, who didn’t just sing “uh-huh-uh” and who wrote his own songs and his name was Bob Dylan. All I knew of him was that he’d written songs like Masters of War which bearded young men were always lounging around in the common-room singing self-righteously, which was enough to put anybody off. Linda lent me her Another Side Of Bob Dylan album and I persevered with it. I wasn’t used to that kind of voice at all. I had never been to a folk club, nor wanted to go to one.

“After a while, the penny dropped, and I realised that this flinty, challenging voice of his was actually the most subtle and intelligent instrument, capable of communicating a vast range of intelligent observation and feeling. By that album he was saying far more, and radically, about personal relationships than about big topics like war. I was hooked."

Gray took his first steps on a career in writing as a student journalist when he interviewed Jimi Hendrix and the historian AJP Taylor. For a few years in the 1970s Gray worked as head of press at United Artists Records in London, going on to manage Gerry Rafferty, Rab Noakes and Flag of Convenience, which featured John Maher and Steve Diggle of The Buzzcocks.

He has written acclaimed books on artists as diverse as Frank Zappa and Blind Willie McTell, but it’s for his research into Dylan that he is best known. Song and Dance Man (1972) was the first full-length critical study of Dylan’s work and has been issued in three editions – the last of which ran to over 900 pages. His award-winning Bob Dylan Encyclopaedia, published in 2006, was another mighty work which established Gray as the doyen of Dylan scholars.

Thankfully though, Gray is no hagiographer and is not blind to Dylan’s faults. He doesn’t hold back from calling out his second-rate songs and “rag-bag collections”.

“I used to think his late-1980s work was the least worthy of him but then, about five years ago, he started making what turned out to be five albums’ worth of old songs associated with Frank Sinatra and all those crooners who were the bane of my childhood, and which rock’n’roll was born to vanquish. I wasn’t impressed. He seems to have snapped out of that now and we’re waiting for a new album.”

Gray lives in hope that any new recording will measure up to what he considers to be Dylan’s three golden periods.

“His work in the 1960s was so pioneering, and he changed so rapidly, knocking down the walls of songwriting from the early acoustic solo stuff through to the poetry of the mid-60s songs and the radical rock of Like a Rolling Stone and then the Blonde On Blonde album and beyond.

“Then in the mid-1970s he came out with the great Blood On The Tracks album and in the 1980s he released fabulous songs like Blind Willie McTell, Brownsville Girl and Angelina.

Gray’s November visit to Scotland sees him talk on Dylan’s link to literature and the poetry of the blues. He describes the evenings as gigs rather than lectures and says audiences can expect a “thoroughly fresh account of Dylan’s background, his fascination with English and American literature from Robert Browning to the Beat Poets and how skilfully he has woven the very under-regarded poetry of the pre-war blues into some of his own best work.

“But I deliver this without standing at a lectern or using notes or cue-cards – I just pace around on stage talking, with great enthusiasm and what I hope is a lot of good, sharp humour. I also play some rare footage of Dylan in action and surprising audio tracks – loudly!”

There will also no doubt be some mention of the great man’s links to Scotland. He’s been a regular visitor to our concert halls since the mid-1960s and was also awarded an honorary degree in music by St Andrews University in 2004. Dylan has a home and estate in Nethy Bridge, though it’s thought he has rarely, if ever, stayed there.

Early on in his career, Dylan recorded a couple of traditional Scots tunes – Wild Mountain Thyme and Pretty Peggy-O (also known as The Bonnie Lass of Fyvie). Gray says; “I think it’s pretty clear that Scotland means an immensely rich source of balladry, both in itself and as it fed through into American folksong. And of course, his major 1990s song Highlands takes a bit of Rabbie Burns’ verse and transforms it into something else – geographically inaccurate but tremendous all the same.”

Gray reckons that there have been “many, many hundreds” of books (including a couple by the late Herald columnist Ian Bell) written about Dylan in many languages.

Many of the books focus on the star’s private life but it’s an approach that never appealed to Gray. “I never wanted to write his biography. I never wondered much about his private life, or even his early career moves. I simply want to write about the work, that’s what mattered to me and what was so extraordinary. I was young when he was young. I was studying literature when he was and here was this American songwriter coming out with all these complex songs, the likes of which no one had come up with before, and it just needed writing about.”

Intriguingly, the enigmatic Dylan has made it known that he likes Gray’s endeavours.

Shortly after Song and Dance Man was released in 1972, word filtered through from Dylan’s New York office that the star was flattered by Gray’s approach and appreciated how the book treated him as a serious creative artist, rather than a mere pop star or folkie.

Almost six years later, a positive review by Gray of one of Dylan’s early gigs at his June 1978 residency at London’s Earls Court led to an invitation to meet the star backstage.

On the night, Gray and his then nine-year-old son Gabriel took their turn alongside stars like Jack Nicholson and Bianca Jagger to meet Dylan.

“Bob was very energised by how well the concerts had been going. I remember he said, ‘The old songs really stand up well, don’t they?’ which surprised me. I had no idea he might ever have had any doubts about his own, by then, classic songs. He’d told his press officer to tell me that he liked my piece about the shows that had just come out in Melody Maker – so that was his way of avoiding acknowledging that he’d liked my big book Song and Dance Man.”

Bob Dylan, literature and the poetry of the blues, is at Oran Mor, Glasgow on Sunday, November 4 at 5pm and at Eden Court, Inverness on Monday, November 5 at 7.30pm