1964: the year the first Ford Mustang was made, the death penalty was abolished in the UK, and Michael Gray, now successful music writer, public speaker and expert in rock’n’roll (or so says his business card) enrolled at The University of York. In the subsequent fifty years, Michael has become a highly regarded author after his extensive writings on music, and in particular, the work of Bob Dylan. I caught up with him on his return to the University to discuss the life of this ex-campus hack, his memories of the University, and his lauded opinions on one of the most definitive musical icons of the last half century.
“The Sixties Universities” is an often bandied-about term to describe the new wave of institutions founded in the decade to present an alternative route through higher education. “There was the strong consciousness that it was an experiment,” recalls Gray. “To put it into context, there was Oxbridge, and then there were the “provincial” universities. If you’d dropped Latin or Greek you had no chance of going to the former, so the new universities were dangled above you as something better.”
“The Dylan voice was this superbly nuanced instrument capable of a level of direct and subtle communication that no one else had even thought of, and certainly not achieved”
Michael talks about “coming out of the repressive regime of a rigid posh school in Merseyside into this extremely libertarian regime” and the “disapproval of the authorities”, owing to his lingering on after graduating to stay with his younger girlfriend. One event which puts any effort of Professor Green’s to shame is his memories of Jimi Hendrix’s concert in the now-named Hendrix Hall. “He’d been booked by the student representative council [YUSU’s ancestral equivalent] before he’d had a hit for something like £75. By the time he came, “Hey Joe” had been a top 10 single. Most acts in that situation would blow the date out, but he didn’t. The van broke down on the way, but he still came. He was a delight – the gig he played was wonderful.”
But the differences in youth culture and his university experience clearly extend further than the decline in quality of the Freshers Ball headliners. My envy of his experiences is poorly hidden: “You’re by no means the first person to feel nostalgic for something they never experienced. It was a great time. In that era it was impossible to like music of forty years earlier. I can remember thinking weird things like – “I wonder what blokes will wear when they reach thirty, instead of jeans” – because at that point nobody except plumbers worse jeans after thirty”. This divide could be seen to characterise the rebellious spirit of the time. Michael believes this could be why the music of the Sixties still makes sense to people of all kinds of ages. “I remember first seeing Dylan in ’66, and this beautiful young woman turned to me and said how much she envied me having been in that position. I pointed out to her that if she had she’d now be a middle aged woman, so not such a great swap.”
When Michael was at York, university was not seen as the career generating machine it is now. “Only people you disapproved of had a career in mind. It was the sixties, you had your mind on other things! It would be fine when you condescended to direct that great movie, or write that great novel, and if it all took a bit longer than you thought and you had to get a job, you’d condescend to take a job as an executive with Ford motor company in the mean time. Nouse was by no means trying to be a classy paper, and nobody saw it as a career path.”
So how would Gray define his eventual career path? “I guess I’d call myself a critic, but it’s not a very popular word with the public. I think what I pioneered with Dylan was finding a way to write about it, to find a way to write about it in a literary way, and see that it included many of the same reference points as T.S. Eliot or William Blake.” He describes this literary perception of Dylan’s music as characteristic of his more general academic interpretation. “In my experience, music departments are still profoundly uninterested in the work of Bob Dylan. When I do talks in the States and over here, it’s almost always with English departments. Initially I was using the same approach as I had done with my long finals essay on Middlemarch”.
Before focusing on Dylan, Gray spent the punk period as head of Press for United Artists, and being involved in a movement “professionally, rather than personally. In some ways, it was quite threatening. I was about 31, and being told “all you hippies should be lined up against the wall and shot”, that we should all apologise, then roll over and die just because we were thirty. It was a bizarre time, handling press for The Buzzcocks, The Stranglers, but at the same time for Shirley Bassey!”
Gray first encountered Dylan’s output in the downstairs bar of Heslington Hall, through the “interminable droning versions of “Masters of War” from moody young men” thinking it was “dreadful”. Thankfully, Linda, one of his contemporaries, lent Gray a copy of Another Side of Bob Dylan, telling him there was someone on another level to Elvis Presley. “I was shocked at the very notion!” adds Gray. “Though I was keen on Linda, so I persevered, and eventually this penny dropped. The Dylan voice was this superbly nuanced instrument capable of a level of direct and subtle communication that no one else had even thought of, and certainly not achieved”.
So began Gray’s love of Dylan, the artist he credits with “leading me out into other, wider worlds”. With such a wealth of both officially released and unofficially bootlegged output, getting into Dylan requires a level of dedication. “He spreads his net so widely into Western history and culture. I think in the end he doesn’t often use more than about three chords. Although as my music production graduate stepson says – “Yes, but they’re the best three!” I don’t actually consider myself obsessed, I don’t have every bootleg of every concert he’s ever performed and so on. When I was a student, he was having pop hit singles, so it was possible to be buying his records and be interested in him on the same level as you might be interested in The Who, or Hendrix, or even Cliff Richard. It was clear at the time that he was not like the rest, but you could just say – “Oh, I like that record”.
Finding a way into Dylan’s back catalogue is no mean feat, for an artist for whom every proceeding album is so varied from the last. “Most people found a niche and stuck in it,” says Gray. “He found a niche and then jumped out of it to find another one. I think he just wants to cover every kind of American music, and he’s gone through different levels of interest in different genres, poets, writers and authors. Different kinds of songs and lyrics arise from what’s appropriate to that kind of stuff”.
One such influence in Dylan’s ’60s output was contemporary politics. After performing at the Washington March, where Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, Dylan took over the new-left mantle left occupied by the tradition of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Gray, however, remains wary of the lasting importance of this influence. “He immediately resented [this reputation] and pushed it aside. He didn’t want to be the Billy Bragg of his day,” he adds. Describing his consciously political period as being as much to appease his then politically motivated girlfriend and her family, he questions if Dylan was ever “angrily political”. “I think he was very suspicious of causes rather than realities. I don’t think he liked terms like “black Americans”, he preferred individuals. He recognised the civil rights struggle as completely legitimate, but also saw that it wasn’t his business to speak when there were plenty of other people who were more committed. His instinct was to be rebellious, rather than just become a Stalinist with one song to sing.”
Dylan’s position as icon in this period is portrayed in the 1965 shouts of “Judas!” when playing electric guitar live. For Gray, the “connection between new left politics and the music made it so central to the whole state of society. It was possible to conceive of someone who’d been in that folk left world picking up an electric guitar as a symbol of sell out to commercial record mainstream pop commerce, to Lyndon Johnson’s world. Now it doesn’t matter how creative you are. Music isn’t a function of world changing potential, whereas it was, or seemed to be. Dylan just bust down the walls of song. There was a great sense of going forward onto unknown terrain”. Quoting the majestic lyrics of “Mr Tambourine Man”, released in the same year the Beatles were singing “I wanna hold your hand,” Gray discusses the gulf between Dylan and everyone else eloquently. “Dylan always had an eye on the voices of America, what Marcus called “the invisible republic” – the old, weird America, where most singer songwriters were just concerned to display their own extraordinary individual sensitivity, Dylan was incorporating the King James Bible and old blues styles.”
Gray writes about this use of the blues at length in his book, Song and Dance III, and how he was “becoming the hippest person on the planet and smuggling blues lyric poetry in”. He talks about the influence of Samuel Charters’ Country Blues, and how it “inspired lots of young white urban aficionados to do down to the Deep South and find these old black blues singers who’d released records in the ’20s and ’30s, before the Depression decimated the record industry. It was quite a brave thing to do!” 2003 saw Gray make a pilgrimage of his own to the Deep South for his book Hand Me My Travelling Shoes, to track the mythology around the figure of Blind Willie McTell, referenced in the Dylan track of the same name.
“So how does Dylan’s icon exist today?” I ask. “What he embodies now,” answers Gray, “is a conserving force, a witness to what went down. He can’t keep pioneering because other people come up and find you boring. Now he’s in the funny position of finding himself this grand old man of American letters. He may yet get the Nobel Prize for literature…”
Photo credits in order of appearance: Paul Townsend, Patrick Giblin, Sally Ann Field, Glenbowmuseum and Sweis78.