I'm delighted to say that last month the University of York conferred the higher doctorate of D.Litt. (Doctor of Letters) on me for the "substantial and original contribution to learning" achieved by Song & Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan. The ceremony, which included the conferral of a good many MAs, MScs and Ph.Ds on people very much younger than me, was on Friday January 23.
For anybody interested, I've put a few more photos on my website.
Meanwhile I'm also pleased to say that I have been asked to write the Introduction to a forthcoming book about how and why Dylan is being taught in academia; Professing Dylan is to be published in the US in May and there'll be a launch event at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro AR. The book's contributors include Gordon Ball, James Cody, Nina Goss and Louis Renza.


I don't normally write end-of-year summaries but this time - it's December 31st 2014 as I write - I decided I'd list the books I've read this year, with brief comments. I log them as I go, so I know the list is accurate, though it's nothing special:

CARRY ME DOWN, M.J. Hyland, 2006 a compelling, darkening account of a mentally sick boy
THE SHADOW LINE, Joseph Conrad, 1917 one of his seafaring novels; it's short but, like the sea, it deepens as you head through it
SAVE ME THE WALTZ, Zelda Fitzgerald, 1932 I thought the first half was awful, but found the second half taut and affecting; its descriptions of a dancer's milieu of hard practicing were intense, almost harrowing, and fully convincing
TENDER IS THE NIGHT [revised version], F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1948 read for the first time since the 1960s, and read this time to compare to the Zelda novel; it seemed pallid after hers
A SHORT HISTORY OF TRACTORS IN UKRAINIAN, Marina Lewycka, 2005 highly enjoyable, warm and shrewdly done
THE PLEASURES OF MEN, Kate Williams, 2012 incompetent, clumsy, shabby
GREAT HOUSE, Nicole Krauss, 2010 a terrific writer, but it has a disappointing non-ending
NARROW DOG TO CARCASSONNE, Terry Darlington, 2005 it starts out being irritating, by straining for chumminess, but it converted me and I soon found it funny, quirky and clever
NORTHANGER ABBEY, Jane Austen, 1803?, a sparky, funny start, but it fizzles out
FINISHING TOUCHES, Augustus John, 1964 the last dregs of memoir; cheery pompous windbaggery from an age long over by the time it was published; it claims a rebel's no-nonsense briskness but reeks of the sententious establishment that Mandy Rice-Davies had punctured at the Stephen Ward trial the previous year
ONE STEP TOO FAR, Tina Seskis, 2013 unputdownable phony crap
COLD EYE OF HEAVEN, Christine Dwyer Hickey, 2011 an absolutely wonderful novel: find it and read it
SENSE & SENSIBILITY, Jane Austen, 1811 a pleasure to re-rea but unsatisfying afterwards
PROPERTY, Valerie Martin, 2003 dodgy Deep South gothic, with plot and a surprise angle but oddly blank writing
THE ROAD HOME, Rose Tremain, 2007 substantial, styleless, humane
A DELICATE TRUTH, John le Carré, 2013 a curate’s egg but highly page-turnable
A DEBATABLE LAND, Candia McWilliam, 1994 poetic soup; pointless in the end
PLAINSONG, Kent Haruf, 1999 a touching, modest novel of American small-town elegaic simplicity
ANNA KARENINA, Leo Tolstoy, 1877 another re-read; absorbing as story, as history and as novelcraft, but much of the last 25% is weighed down by his dodgy philosophising
THEY CAME TO BAGHDAD, Agatha Christie, 1951 one long, silly special-plead
THE CHILD IN TIME, Ian McEwan, 1987 beautifully, skilfully written; absorbing
A MAN FROM THE NORTH, Arnold Bennett, 1898 admirable novel from much-underrated author; desolate ending
THE DRIVER’S SEAT, Muriel Spark, 1970 apparently her own favourite novel; I found it the daftest fiction possible, as if written by an alien
THE BIG KILL, Mickey Spillane, 1951 crass, moralistic, riddled with coyness pretending to be bluntness, and a predictable villain’s identity; but it evokes a highly atmospheric noir city and is an uncanny period piece
THE HOTEL, Elizabeth Bowen, 1927 thrilled to have found her: a great writer
THE RIDDLE OF THE SANDS, Erskine Childers, 1903 compellingly written if detail-clogged; highly distinctive; with a curiously bathetic climax
RESENTMENT, Gary Indiana, 1997 unique (though at first it reminded me of Last Exit to Brooklyn), beautifully written, huge, sustained, vivid, sordid, humane: a really extraordinary novel
THE PRIVATE PATIENT, P.D. James, 2008 badly written, tiresome, dull, inept.


This is the tracklist for Bob Dylan's album Shadows In The Night  (a title that surely falls kerplunk  straight into parody):

1. I’m a Fool to Want You
2. The Night We Called It a Day
3. Stay With Me
4. Autumn Leaves
5. Why Try to Change Me Now
6. Some Enchanted Evening
7. Full Moon and Empty Arms
8. Where Are You?
9. What’ll I Do
10. That Lucky Old Sun.

February 3, 2015, has been announced as the release date. The statement from Bob on bobdylan.com is as enticing as it could be. Aside from the unfortunate "me and my band" which for two good reasons should be "my band and I", he still has a way with words:

“It was a real privilege to make this album. I've wanted to do something like this for a long time but was never brave enough to approach 30-piece complicated arrangements and refine them down for a 5-piece band. That's the key to all these performances. We knew these songs extremely well. It was all done live. Maybe one or two takes. No overdubbing. No vocal booths. No headphones. No separate tracking, and, for the most part, mixed as it was recorded. I don't see myself as covering these songs in any way. They've been covered enough. Buried, as a matter a fact. What me and my band are basically doing is uncovering them. Lifting them out of the grave and bringing them into the light of day.”

I'm delighted to learn of the inclusion of 'Some Enchanted Evening' and 'That Lucky Old Sun' and hopeful that the rest will be less dull than 'Full Moon and Empty Arms'.

In the case of 'I'm A Fool To Want You' he's treading not merely in Sinatra's footsteps but in Billie Holiday's too. The film 'The Night We Called It A Day' sounds more interesting than the 1941 song: the story is that "Frank Sinatra (Dennis Hopper) and his entourage become virtual prisoners in their hotel after he insults an Australian reporter during a 1974 tour." As Dylan has shown in recent concert encores, 'Stay With Me' is a fine song, and strikingly reminiscent of some of his own Christian material. 'Autumn Leaves' started out in French as 'Les Feuilles Mortes' ("the dead leaves" - this less "poetic" lyric by the poet by Jacques Prévert) and has been covered by everyone from Edith Piaf (bilingually) to Eric Clapton, though never more solemnly than by Yves Montand.

'Why Try to Change Me Now' is yer typical Sinatra-does-sophisticated-weariness-with-a-touch-of-whimsy, but includes a line I look forward to hearing Bob sing: "Why can't I be more conventional?" The Sinatra version of 'Where Are You' shows his voice at its non-swinging peak, though he can't escape the song's essential dreariness; and 'What’ll I Do' (what a lot of questions without question-marks, according to bobdylan.com), an Irving Berlin song from 1924, is a rather more delicate and tender thing, at least on the earlier of Mr. Frank's two recordings (1947). There's a Rosemary Clooney version that has already saved Bob the trouble of stripping away and replacing that 30-piece orchestra - it has just a guitar - and this is replicated on the Julie London version.

Regardless, I've been wanting to hear Bob sing 'Some Enchanted Evening' since about 1970 - and indeed that's the year I wish he'd recorded it. (It was once rumoured that he had.) That's the Bob Dylan voice I'd like to have heard him sing it with. As for 'That Lucky Old Sun', well, it's a gem that many people have polished, including Bob. According to bobdylan.com he has performed it 27 times, though never more recently than the short version done in California in 2000. He first performed it at Farm Aid in 1985. I always love it, but I'm specially keen on the version from Madison Wisconsin from November 5, 1991 (a great concert altogether, and one that included a song I've often gone on about, 'You Don't Know Me'). There are other, striking versions galore: not least those by Big Mama Thornton and several by Jerry Lee Lewis, this included. The most delightfully wacky version - though wacky isn't always what's wanted - is surely that by the venerable lunatic Lee Perry, who has re-named it and claimed composer credit.

There are many Dylan eras I prefer to the present one - many voices, many bands, many styles - but, as he sang on his last great  album, "We'll just have to see how it goes".


A sobering fifty years after Sam Cooke's untimely death, I mark this anniversary - December 11 - by re-publishing the entry on Sam in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

Cooke, Sam [1931 - 1964]
Sam Cook was born 22 January 1931 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, but grew up in Chicago, one of eight children of a Baptist preacher; they formed the Singing Children when he was nine. Later he moved over to the Highway QCs and then replaced R.K. Harris as lead tenor of the Soul Stirrers. With this innovative and contemporary gospel group he began recording in 1951 (though his singing at this point is often overrated: his version of Thomas Dorsey’s great song ‘Peace In The Valley’, pallid and unmemorable, cannot compare with those by ELVIS PRESLEY and LITTLE RICHARD).
            He ‘went secular’ in 1957, becoming Sam Cooke and starting a long and splendid run of hits, almost all his own compositions, many of which have been covered time and again by artists of the stature of VAN MORRISON. He was a consummate vocalist and a bright, lithe, sexy young man, whose TV appearances helped make black sexuality visible to young white America. He may have learnt his trade in gospel but church-going modesty was not his style.
Sam Cooke was very popular but never popular enough. Most of his work is of undimmed excellence: great records by a terrific songwriter and a masterful soul singer of panache, integrity and expressive generosity. In 1960-63 he was in his prime, not least in live performance (try One Night Stand: Sam Cooke Live At The Harlem Square Club, 1963).
            By the end of 1963, Cooke had notched up eighteen Top Thirty hits since 1957; but pop success was not enough. Earlier that year he had heard Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ and is reported to have felt shaken that it had been ‘a white boy’ who had written so potent a song  -  a song that eloquently, if implicitly, addressed the urgent issues of political struggle that so deeply involved his own race. He began performing the Dylan song himself (a version is captured on the album Live At The Copacobana, 1964), but his more profound response was to write the moving, thoughtful and dignified ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ (originally called ‘My Brother’) which he recorded on January 30, 1964.
            Despite the quality of the song and Cooke’s recording of it, it was slipped out as an album track (on Ain’t That Good News) and its release as a single was long delayed. On December 11, 1964, Cooke died after being shot in unclear circumstances in an LA motel. He was 33 years old. Two weeks later, and with one verse edited out, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ was released… as the B-side of ‘Shake’.
Dylan mentions the song in Chronicles Volume One; the context is complex but this is what he writes: ‘Sometimes you know things have to change, are going to change, but you can only feel it  -  like in that song of Sam Cooke’s, “Change Is Gonna Come”…’ And in an interview in 2001, he reveals an awareness of Cooke’s early gospel group the Highway QCs, recalling that when he was ‘12 years old, listening to the radio… at midnight the gospel stuff would start, and so I got… to be acquainted with the Swan Silvertones and the Dixie Hummingbirds and, you know, Highway QCs…’
Dylan cut a version of Cooke’s ‘Cupid’ with GEORGE HARRISON in a New York City studio in May 1970 (which would have been effective had Dylan remembered more than a handful of the words) and attempted Cooke’s hit ‘Chain Gang’ at March and April 1987 studio sessions for the Down In The Groove album. (These remain uncirculated.)
‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ was revisited by THE BAND on their Moondog Matinee album of oldies in the 1970s, and on Dylan’s 1978 world tour, on which various of his back-up singers were given solo spots (with Dylan and the band playing behind them), CAROLYN DENNIS sang ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ in Hitler’s old Zeppelinfeld stadium at Nuremberg that July 1 and again at Blackbushe Aerodrome in England two weeks later.
Matching song to venue with his usual quiet shrewdness, Dylan finally performed a respectful version of ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ himself live at the home of early-60s R&B and black aspiration, the Apollo Theater in Harlem, NYC, on March 28, 2004, forty years after the creation of the song for which his own work had been a catalyst.
            In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine asked 172 prominent music-industry figures, including artists such as JONI MITCHELL, to vote for the all-time 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Sam Cooke’s ‘Change Is Gonna Come’ came in at no.12  -  two places higher than ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’.
            Dylan, however, was at no.1 with ‘Like A Rolling Stone’.

[The Soul Stirrers: ‘Peace In The Valley’, nia, CD-reissued on Sam Cooke: My Gospel Roots, Xtra 26471, UK, 2005. Sam Cooke: One Night Stand: Sam Cooke Live At The Harlem Square Club, 1963, NYC, 12-13 Jan 1963, RCA PL85181, Rome, 1985; ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, NYC, 7-8 Jul 1964, Live At The Copacobana, Victor LPM /LSP-2970, NYC, 1964; ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, 30 Jan 1964, RCA 8486, NYC, 1964. Bob Dylan: ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, NYC, 28 Mar 2004, broadcast on NBC TV’s program ‘Apollo at 70: A Hot Night In Harlem’, NY, 19 Jun 2004; Chronicles Volume One, 2004, p.61; interview for WTTW-TV, Chicago, 27 Oct 2001. The Band: ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, Bearsville NY, Mar-Jun 1973, Moondog Matinee, Capitol SW-11214, 1973. Bob Dylan, Rolling Stone poll seen online 7 Aug 2005 at www.rollingstone.com/rs500moretext.]


Here's the entry in my book The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia  on the late Ian McLagan (updated this morning):

McLagan, Ian [1945 - 2014]
Ian ‘Mac’ McLagan was born on May 12, 1945 in Hounslow, Middlesex, England (that is, neither in London nor the countryside out beyond it), grew playing piano, acquiring a Hammond organ and, in an early band, the Muleskinners, backing Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and other scary figures on their quick, cheap tours of Britain in the early 1960s.
       In 1965 he joined the Small Faces, which turned into the Faces in 1969. The Faces broke up when Ron Wood joined the Rolling Stones; McLagan joined them as a sideman later. In 1984 he was the keyboards player on Bob Dylan’s European tour (Dylan’s first since the semi-gospel tour of 1981), playing from May 28 in Verona, Italy through to Slane, Ireland on July 8: a total of 27 concerts. Thirteen years later, though the detail is murky, he says he was on a session for Time Out Of Mind - including on the song ‘Love Sick’ - but that the versions he played on were not used.
       Near the end of the 1990s, McLagan published a well-received memoir, All the Rage,  and though the original hardback edition is out of print, the paperback is advertised online with this nicely judged short blurb: ‘The book covers pre-Small Faces days with the Muleskinners, the great days with the Small Faces and the Faces. After that Mac plays with a number of bands including the Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt and the ever-cheerful Bob Dylan. He talks about both sides of the Moon (Keith, that is), the losses of Ronnie [Lane] and Steve [Marriott], his fight with drugs and drinks and what Rod Stewart is really like. Furthermore, he gets royalties on this so buy it now.’
       The great British music critic Charles Shaar Murray elaborates on this in the review he gave the book in Mojo in January 1999:
       ‘All The Rage  contains an unfeasibly large helping of unforgettable vignettes of the rich and famous at work and play…. Here’s Keith Richards, back in his druggy period [?], shooting himself up in the arse straight through his jeans, and then walking around with syringe still protruding from his butt. Or Bob Dylan replying to a large man introducing himself as “Hello, Bob, I’m Peter Grant. I manage Led Zeppelin”, with a terse “I don’t come to you with my problems.”’
       Long married to Kim, the former Mrs. Keith Moon (a man much loved by McLagan even though Moon once paid someone to break his fingers - Pete Townshend paid the same man the same amount again not to), until her accidental death in 2006, Ian McLagan lived in Austin, Texas from 1994 until his death from a stroke on December 3, 2014.

[Ian McLagan, All the Rage: A Rock’n’Roll Odyssey, London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1998; republished as All the Rage: My High Life with the Small Faces, the Faces and the Rolling Stones, London: Pan, 2000. Time Out Of Mind session claim in interview by Kent H. Benjamin, 5 Dec, 1997 for Pop Culture Press no.44. US, 1998.]


As we know, Bob Dylan still pulls in young converts in wave after generational wave. Here's one recent testimony to that (sent to me on Twitter, December 1, 2014):


This song comes from the same studio album as their great breakthrough number, 'Hold On'. It's the similarly yet oppositely titled 'Hang Loose', but this is a live version and reminds me of how exciting this band is:


On this, the 115th anniversary of Hoagy Carmichael's birth, here's his entry in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

Carmichael, Hoagy [1899 - 1981]
Hoagy Carmichael was born Hoagland Howard Carmichael on November 22, 1899 and raised in Bloomington Indiana. He grew up to be a singer and actor but primarily a popular songwriter. His very first composition was called ‘Freewheeling’, and he also wrote a song titled ‘Things Have Changed’. More famously he wrote or co-wrote, among many, many others, ‘Stardust’ and ‘Georgia On My Mind’.
            Carmichael is one of the many improbable people whose work and persona Dylan admires, possibly just to be perverse. Hoagy’s photo is pinned up on the wall of the shack behind him on the photo by DANIEL KRAMER planned for the US hardback of Dylan’s Tarantula but rejected (it’s reproduced in Kramer’s book Bob Dylan) and in the Empire Burlesque song ‘Tight Connection To My Heart’ Dylan names a Hoagy Carmichael composition. Dylan sings: ‘Well, they’re not showing any lights tonight / And there’s no moon. / There’s just a hot-blooded singer / Singing “Memphis in June”’.
             ‘Memphis In June’ was composed by Carmichael with lyrics by Johnny Mercer (who also wrote the lyric to ‘Moon River’, which Dylan sang one night on the Never-Ending Tour in tribute to the late STEVIE RAY VAUGHN). Dylan’s ‘hot-blooded singer’ is a neat small joke about Hoagy, whose many assets include a calculatedly lizard-like presence. It was a joke Dylan had retained from an earlier version of the song, then called ‘Someone’s Got A Hold Of My Heart’, which he’d recorded at the sessions for Infidels, the album before Empire Burlesque. At least two performances of this have floated around, but the one eventually released officially, on The Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3 in 1991, offered these alternative lines: ‘I hear the hot-blooded singer / On the bandstand croon / “September Song”, “Memphis in June”’. Clearly Dylan was determined to retain Hoagy, whatever other changes he made. (‘September Song’ was written by Maxwell Anderson and composed by Kurt Weill for the 1938 Broadway play Knickerbocker Holiday.)
            ‘Memphis’ was written for the 1945 George Raft film Johnny Angel, in which Carmichael played a philosophical singing cab driver. (‘After that I was mentioned for every picture in which a world-weary character in bad repair sat around and sang or leaned on a piano’). Subsequent film roles included being the pianist who sings ‘Hong Kong Blues’ in the Bogart-Bacall film To Have And Have Not, one of Dylan’s favourite hunting-grounds for lyrics in the Empire Burlesque period.
            The least hot-blooded cover version of ‘Memphis In June’ may be by Matt Monro, from 1962; the best (and ‘on a bandstand croonin’’) may be by Lucy Ann Polk, cut in July 1957 in Hollywood. Hoagy himself recorded the song in 1947 with Billy May & His Orchestra and again in 1956 with a jazz ensemble that included Art Pepper. Carmichael and Mercer also wrote that great song ‘Lazy Bones’  -  in twenty minutes, in 1933  -  which was revisited magnificently in the 1960s by soul singer James Ray (who made the original US hits of ‘If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody’ and ‘Itty Bitty Pieces’; in the UK he was unlucky enough to find these savaged in unusually distressing ways, even by the standards of British cover versions of the time, by Freddie & The Dreamers and Brian Poole in the first case and by The Rockin’ Berries and Chris Farlowe in the second).
            Carmichael played ranch-hand Jonesey in the 1959-60 season of the TV series Laramie. In 1972 he was given an Honorary Doctorate by Indiana University back in Bloomington (which is where BETSY BOWDEN got her doctorate for a study of Bob Dylan’s performance art that became her book Performed Literature).
            Hoagy Carmichael died two days after Christmas, 1981. When a retrospective 4-LP box set of his work, The Classic Hoagy Carmichael, was issued in 1988, with copious notes by John Edward Hasse, Curator of American Music at the Smithsonian Institution, it was released and published jointly by the Smithsonian and the Indiana Historical Society. (American hobbyists are so lucky: there’s always plenty of places to go for funding. Imagine trying to get funds to research, compile and write an accompanying book about Billy Fury from the British Museum and the Birkenhead Historical Society.) The Carmichael box-set notes say this, among much else, and might just remind you of someone else (not Billy Fury):
            ‘At first listeners may be distracted by the flatness in much of Carmichael’s singing, and turned off especially by his uncertain intonation. The singer himself said, “my native wood-note and often off-key voice is what I call ‘Flatsy through the nose’”. But... one becomes accustomed to these traits and grows to appreciate and admire other qualities of his vocal performances, specifically his phrasing... intimacy, inventiveness and sometimes even sheer audacity. Also, many... evidence spontaneous and extemporaneous qualities, two important ingredients in jazz.’

So here's 'Memphis In June' by Hoagy:

And by Lucy Ann Polk:

[Hoagy Carmichael: The Classic Hoagy Carmichael, 4-LP set compiled & annotated by John Edward Hasse; issued as 4 LPs or 3 CDs, BBC BBC 4000 and BBC CD3007, UK, 1988; Johnny Angel, , dir. Edwin L. Marin, written Steve Fisher, RKO, US, 1945. Daniel Kramer: Bob Dylan, New York: Citadel Press edn, 1991, p.127. Betsy Bowden: Performed Literature, Bloomington: Indiana University Pres, 1982.]


I thought this was too soft - too sentimental - but found there was something compelling about it (helped, perhaps, by the romance of the evocative title) from this bluegrass band from the town of Bob Dylan's birth, Duluth MN. And the sound quality, for a live performance, is formidably good:


from www.elvispresleyfansofnashville.com

In a recent book-review-based article about Elvis in London Review of Books (accessible here if you’re a subscriber), Ian Penman was in full and fascinating flow - especially in advancing the argument that rather than Elvis having offered, as generally claimed, “black carnality sieved through white restraint” maybe it was more like the opposite: a fusing of “black politeness and white carnality”. He argues that Elvis was essentially placid and biddable - and quotes this from Pamela Clarke Keogh, in her 2004 book Elvis: The Man. The Life. The Legend : “Beneath his extraordinary politeness he has the docility of a house servant”. Penman adds that “it’s hard not to hear in Keogh’s ‘house servant’ the echo of a far less neutral phrase: ‘house nigger’.”

They get there by building far too much on Elvis’ famous politeness - his saying “yes ma’am” and “no sir” to reporters. It wasn’t “extraordinary politeness” and it wasn't particularly black. Every white southerner still talks like that: I was a guest in a home in Georgia only six years ago and its teenage boys, truculent enough in general, called their father “sir” and their mother “ma’am” at the end of every dinner-table sentence. As for Elvis, well yes: he almost never defied the Colonel, and he agreed to record all kinds of crap; yet early on in his career, when he might have been expected to defer to all those record-biz professionals, it was Elvis who took charge at those first recording sessions for RCA, for instance demanding, as Peter Guralnick reports, 31 takes of ‘Hound Dog’ before he was satisfied. He knew exactly what he wanted, from himself and from Scotty Moore, and he insisted on achieving it.

But Penman makes many another point, and with great eloquence, and it’s only in the concluding flourish of his piece, when he envisages Presley’s last days, that he gets careless and makes a mistake that’s often made, describing Elvis as lost, malfunctioning and stranded in “the huge echoing mansion”. A letter in the next issue of London Review of Books corrects this misdescription of Graceland briefly, but I should like to offer rather more detail, from a feature I wrote for the Sunday Telegraph  in 2001.

Everyone thinks they know about Graceland. How tacky it is, how redneck vulgar and gross. As a true Elvis fan  - who therefore finds it hard to recommend anything he recorded after 1961  -  I too came to scoff. I expected it to emanate a lethal mix of Colonel Parker’s Las Vegas Elvis and the stultifying buddy-buddyism of his “Memphis Mafia”,  and that my fellow visitors would be obese women in Babar trousers tottering on white high heels under nosecones of sticky hair.

Driving out from downtown along bleak Elvis Presley Boulevard, the first thing you see is Heartbreak Hotel: “A new place to dwell… heart-shaped swimming-pool… affordable rates”. Then the car-parks and an airport terminal’s worth of “facilities”: a vast reception area with Elvis soundtrack, Elvis video screens and long queues for tickets. You file past the Post Office and Burger & Soda Bar to the shuttle buses. Many punters are well-dressed, articulate, young and even black: no odder a crowd than for Alan Bennett (and its average age lower too).

The 42-seater buses arrive incessantly. Headsets guide you on your journey. You can repeat bits and pause at will (though few senior pilgrims manage more than clamping them to their ears). Snippets of hits chime in resourcefully. Setting the unabashed tone, a Deep Heat Rub voice intones: “Just across the street, beyond the stone wall”  -  it’s brick  -  “is Graceland Mansion. The shuttle will take you through the famous gates and up to the house.” Here El breaks into “Welcome to my world  -  won’t you come on in?”, retreating before the narrator’s “You’re about to hear the story of Elvis’ life and phenomenal career. He’ll tell you some of the story himself.” As comically ghoulish as you could wish.

Through the gates and up the hill, you de-bus, thrilled to stare up at those antebellum pillars. The house is so small! It’s a delight. Far from being enormous, enormously vulgar and 1970s, it proves modest and demure  -  and so strongly redolent of the 1950s that the Elvis whose presence you feel inside is not the bloated figure in the rhinestone jumpsuit but the lithe 22-year-old who first moved in.

It was built by a doctor in 1939 and, excepting those pillars, is altogether restrained: smaller than any Edwardian vicarage and seriously less grandiose than anything Tom Jones or Michael Heseltine would live in.

The entrance hall is ten foot wide, and a few steps in is the five-foot-wide plain staircase. You are not allowed upstairs, “because Elvis never invited visitors up there himself.” It’s a sensible rule  -  best not to think how people might behave in that death-scene bathroom.

Turn right and you stand in the roped-off entrance to the sitting-room: a modest room with muted pale cream carpet. There’s a 15-foot-long sofa, but it’s neither florid nor overstuffed. Blue closed curtains guard the windows. Cream armchairs sit opposite, flanking a large fireplace with mirrored panels above. The middle of the room is uncluttered space. There’s a long coffee-table, a table-lamp, a tall glass-fronted cabinet. OK, the open double-doorway through to the music room is framed by lurid stained-glass panels depicting peacocks, but the music room itself is small, almost diffident, accommodating an elderly TV set, small sofa, side table and a Story & Clark baby grand as baby as could be.

Off the hall in the other direction is the dining-room, 22 feet by 16. “Around this table,” proclaims the headset, “Elvis shared many evenings of warmth, laughter and storytelling. Everyone at Graceland liked the same downhome southern cooking they grew up with.” Impossible not to contemplate Elvis’ notorious obesity  -  and that of so many Americans. Yet the room holds no frisson of underclass gross-out. We are at the humble end of Dynasty culture here: gold and purple chairs  -  but only eight  -  around an oval metal-edged table sitting on streaked black marble, the mirrored table top matching the walls. A chandelier holds eighteen electric candles.

Down the hallway is Vernon and Gladys’ bedroom: purple clothed headboard and coverlet, bad landscape paintings, old chests of drawers, pink and mauve tiled bathroom, small sad stains on the pale carpet. How little time most visitors spend peering into each room! “Beautiful bedroom.” “Beautiful chandeliers”. “Beautiful.”

It’s not, but it isn’t as bad as millions of American interiors. 1970s unpleasantness hovers, of course: it was the last decade available to him. But the recurrent surprise is how much the Presleys kept faith with 1950s suburbia: their aspiration when Elvis first made it and could rescue them all from their public-housing tenement downtown (itself a climb up from the shotgun shack in Tupelo, Mississippi where Elvis was born in 1935) and the temporary home on Audubon Drive. It’s an unassuming dream and I’m moved by his lifetime loyalty to it.

The kitchen (cue El singing “Get into that kitchen make some noise with the pots ’n’ pans”) is a long slender room with muted wood cabinets and undesigner toaster, coffeepot and eggtimer. It has 1950s simple solidity, and little touches like a small cheery wall-clock, its green face showing limes and lemons. No dentist’s wife would find it good enough if she moved into Graceland today.

Down a narrow staircase with walls and ceiling mirrored we reach the basement TV room, “professionally decorated in 1974 in bright yellow and navy blue”. Again, ’70s ghastliness is undercut by ’50s naivété. The huge white porcelain monkey with black toenails squatting on the coffee table is magicked away by Elvis’ disarmingly inexpensive record-player on a shelf alongside about thirty LPs (the front one by gospel group the Stamps) and lovely old racks of singles not in their sleeves. Three television screens sit side by side, apparently because Elvis read that President Johnson watched all three network news programmes at once.

The basement also holds the den, where 350 yards of multi-coloured fabric entirely cover the walls and ceiling, reminding me of Central Park’s Nirvana Indian restaurant and hippie-tent sumptuousness. Dark blue carpet, red leather chairs, smoky blue snooker table, ostrich feathers, Toulouse-Lautrec poster, Tiffany lighting  -  its deliberate bombardment confesses that Elvis was touched by the 1960s too. “Wow!”, people exclaim here, “Oh Jesus!…”, “This is wild!” and “Boy, this is a cosy place!”

There’s a bad patch after this: back to ground level via green shagpile-covered stairs with shagpile walls and ceiling. These were once the back steps accessing the yard; but Presley added a family room. In 1974 it got the Indonesian jungle treatment. That monkey belongs here. Dark fur-covered Far Eastern sofas. An ugly teddy on an enormous round chair. Floor and ceiling in, er, green shagpile. Exaggeratedly highbacked chairs carved to look like you’re on drugs when you see them. Ruched curtains. A bare brick wall with dribbling waterfall under red spotlights. This room holds all the later Elvis’ dark paranoid misery. This is what he sank to, fat and isolated in a vortex of self-loathing boredom. Unable to face the world but obliged to record, this room became a makeshift studio. Here in this hell-hole in 1976 he made his last LP.

It’s a relief to get outside, via an annexe converted from the 4-car garage for a special display: a 1960 stereo console; a gold sofa once in the music room; the slightly famous white fake-fur round bed; a model of the Tupelo shack (in the headset, too briefly, Vernon sings “Jimmie Rodgers was born in Dixie”: an eerie authentic hillbilly prefiguring of very early Elvis). Here too is the 1950s desk and furniture from Elvis’ office, touching as well as risible, with its bible, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet and a consoling Roosevelt quotation about how “it is not the critic that counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled…” The TV shows home-movie footage of Elvis diving incompetently into the pool, and Priscilla doing it perfectly.

Across the homely little yard, past Lisa-Marie’s swings, the garden-shed office where Vernon dealt with fan-mail is another time-warp, with ancient filing-cabinets, a small fridge covered in brown leather like the sofa, and the oldest photocopier I ever saw. This room should be in a proper museum.

Another TV runs Elvis’ post-Army press-conference. He says proudly: “No, sir, I have NO plans for leaving Memphis.”

The back of the house is white and well-proportioned, standing peacably in its several acres of pasture with well-judged trees and horses. The swimming pool is small and pretty; it isn’t shaped like a guitar or a heart and doesn’t shout money or ego. You move on to the chic Italianate meditation garden with its circle of graves where the family now lies oblivious to the constant earthly turmoil.

A shuttle bus returns you to where you began. You head into the black hangar of the car museum. A screen plays the car bits from all his worst films. The cars are excellent, and so is the detailed printed information.

Here is his 1962 Lincoln Continental with gold alligator-hide roof; a black 1975 Dino Ferrari he bought second-hand; the red 1960 MG 1600 used in Blue Hawaii; the batmobile that was his 1971 black Stutz Blackhawk. How nice, if true, that Sinatra had ordered it and Elvis charmed them into reassigning it. Then also a 1973 for which he paid $20,000 up front, leaving, bizarrely, $10,000 owing in instalments. Best of all is the legendary 1955 pink Cadillac Fleetwood, a wondrous colour and gigantic.

You exit, of course, through one of the giftshops. Get your Elvis lunch-box here. Don’t forget your boarding-pass for the Lisa Marie®, Elvis’ aeroplane. It was being readied for another concert date on August 16, 1977, when he died. What sort of plane is it? No executive Lear Jet, nothing state of the art: an ex-Delta Airlines Convair 880 passenger plane. It won’t surprise you that it was manufactured in 1958.

© Michael Gray


It's Friday, October 24 - which means it's official publication day for Sarah Beattie's new, seventh book, Meat-Free Any Day: Food For All Reasons, published by Select, UK (978-1908256508).

For anyone open-minded about, and truly interested in, food and its great pleasures, this is a compelling collection of imaginative, innovative writing and photography.

It's also a sampler of the food our guests have eaten at the Bob Dylan Discussion Weekends here in Southwest France - food which those guests have written afterwards to rave about like this:


"the food sublime"
"Wonderful food"
"delicious meals"
"Sarah's cooking was brilliant"
"Sarah's fantastic food"
"Lovely food"
"absolutely outstanding"
"The food was divine"

Obviously I'm not disinterested, but I'm sincere in saying - and I say this as a omnivore - that this is an exceptional book from a superb cook, and you should buy it.


September 20, 2014: Today it's 30 years - 30 years! - since the sweet-natured, self-deprecating singer-songwriter Steve Goodman died.

Here's the entry on him in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

Goodman, Steve [1948 - 1984]
Steve Goodman was born on Chicago’s North Side on July 25, 1948, the son of a used car salesman, about whom Steve eventually wrote the song ‘My Old Man’. He started learning guitar and writing songs as a young teenager and while at Lake Forest College and the University of Illinois he began to perform in a local club, soon dropping out of college (in 1969) to make music his career. In this he was never financially successful, though he survived early on by writing and singing advertising jingles. He returned to Chicago after a short stint trying his luck in Greenwich Village and in 1971 was recorded performing live on a local album, Gathering at the Earl of Old Town. A support spot to KRIS KRISTOFFERSON that April led to a record deal with Buddah and a first album, Steve Goodman, in 1971. Typically, as soon as Goodman had Kristofferson’s attention, he insisted he go and hear another performer who deserved to be discovered too  -  his friend JOHN PRINE, whose song ‘Donald and Lydia’ Goodman would cover on his own début album.
            That album also offers Goodman’s signature song, ‘City of New Orleans’, which was a hit not for Goodman but for ARLO GUTHRIE  -  and then again, the year of Goodman’s death, a hit for WILLIE NELSON. Also on Steve Goodman’s first album is the good-naturedly parody of a country song ‘You Never Even Call Me By My Name’ (which Prine had co-written but wouldn’t take credit for); this too would become a hit, a couple of years later and for David Allen Coe.
            All this tells the Goodman story: he wrote songs others had hits with, and he was, as writer and performer too, much admired by big-name fellow performers. He was a fine guitarist (he plays on all Prine’s early albums, just as Prine plays on his) and it’s said that when, in solo performances, he broke a guitar string, which was often, he would keep singing while getting a new string out of his pocket, fitting and tuning it, and would then resume his playing unphased  -  yet he never broke through as a performer himself.      In September 1972, with Arif Mardin as producer, Goodman went into Atlantic’s studios in New York to make his second album, Somebody Else’s Troubles, and a single, ‘Election Year Rag’, and for that single, and for the album’s title track, Bob Dylan was a participant. It’s said that Goodman was frustrated at Dylan’s turning up hours and hours late, and perhaps this is why he doesn’t appear on the rest of the material, but he plays piano and sings harmony vocals on these two tracks (both penned by Goodman), along with DAVID BROMBERG on dobro and mandolin, and Prine, among others. The album also included the song that Goodman would come nearest to having a hit with, ‘The Dutchman’  -  the one song he didn’t write. When the album was issued, in early 1973, Dylan was credited as Robert Milkwood Thomas.
            Though Buddah issued The Essential Steve Goodman in 1974 (which also featured ‘Election Year Rag’), it was 1975 before Goodman made his next album, when a label switch gave him greater encouragement and saw an increase in his output. The 1975 album was Jessie’s Jig & Other Favorites; then came Words We Can Dance To (1976), Say It In Private (1977) and High and Outside (1978), which included a duet with then-newcomer Nicolette Larson, and Hot Spot (1980). ‘Chicago Shorty’, as he was dubbed by friends, had also acted as a producer, notably of John Prine’s 1978 album Bruised Orange, and formed his own label, Red Pajama Records, for which he duly recorded Artistic Hair and Affordable Art (both 1983) and his last album, Santa Ana Winds, which reached record stores the day after his death.
            Goodman had been suffering from leukemia all his adult life, and from Chicago made regular and frequent trips to New York for treatment. He moved to the West Coast (to Seal Beach, just below Long Beach, in Southern California) at the beginning of the 1980s, and received treatment in Seattle. The Artistic Hair album cover depicted him standing in front of a hairdressing salon of that name, his own head bald from the effects of chemotherapy. On August 31, 1984 underwent a bone marrow transpant. Twenty days later he died of the liver and kidney failure brought on by his leukemia in hospital in Seattle. He was 36.

[Steve Goodman: ‘Eight Ball’, ‘Chicago Bust Rag’ & ‘City of New Orleans’, Chicago 1970-71, on Various Artists, Gathering at the Earl of Old Town, Dunwich 670, Chicago, 1971, CD-reissued Mountain Railroad, US, 1989; Steve Goodman, NY, 1971, Buddah BDS-5096, US, 1971-2; Somebody Else’s Troubles, NY, Sep 1972, Buddah BDS-5121, US, 1973; ‘Election Year Rag’, Buddah BDA-326, 1973; Artistic Hair, Red Pajama 001, US, 1983; Affordable Art, Red Pajama 002, 1983; Santa Ana Winds, Red Pajama 003, 1984. Many posthumous recordings have been issued, and CD-reissues of the original LPs, some remastered and with extra tracks. There is also a video, Steve Goodman Live From Austin City Limits…And More!, including Prine, Guthrie & Kristofferson, nia, US, 2003.]


MEAT-FREE ANY DAY is the new book from food writer Sarah Beattie. As some of you may know, Sarah is my wife, so yes, this is a plug - but it truly is a fine book, so allow me to tell you a bit about it... 

It contains over 150 recipes, and dozens of colour photographs, all genuinely of the food itself. No glue or plastic, no food-stylist tricks. It's an authentic cookbook for every day, for everyone.

Instead of the usual Starters / Main Courses/ Desserts, the book is, brilliantly, divided into ideal recipes for Sunny Days, for Busy Days, for Sundays, for Hanging on 'til Paydays, for High Days & Holidays, etc., etc.

MEAT-FREE ANY DAY is based on Sarah’s monthly feature in Vegetarian Living magazine, but there’s nothing Worthy or Hair-shirt or Preachy about it. This is modern, imaginative, richly satisfying food, not only for people who never eat meat but for those of us who just like to reduce our meat consumption now & then yet still want quality cuisine when we do.

I've eaten this food - I know how good it is.

MEAT-FREE ANY DAY is published in large-format paperback in the UK on Friday October 24th, at £14.99. You can advance-order it here now: http://tinyurl.com/mpvnmm9  or through your local bookshop. (The ISBN is 978-1908256508.)

PS. You can find Sarah Beattie's Facebook page here.


Welcome back to a favourite irregular series. This one's a corker (to use a quaint phrase from the recent past):


Sale! From today the beautifully digipackaged CD Bob Dylan Encyclopedia Greatest Hits  is half price for a limited period: £5 + p&p instead of £10 + p&p.

The running-time is 56 minutes 34 seconds. Tracklist is of the author (ie me) reading this varied selection of entries from The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

1.  1965-66: Bob Dylan, Pop & the UK Charts  [6:19]
2.   Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat  [3:33]
3.   Being Unable to Die, and Howbeit  [3:00]
4.   Blood On The Tracks  [10:49]
5.   Telegraphy and the Religious Imagination  [4:40]
6.   Eat The Document  [4:38]
7.   Frying An Egg On Stage  [0:52]
8.   Duluth, Minnesota  [3:52]
9.   Musicians' Enthusiasm for Latest Dylan Album, Perennial  [0:52]
10. Dylan in Books of Quotation  [3:31]
11.Love and Theft"  [13:35]


Ricky Nelson & James Burton; photographer unknown
On the occasion of James Burton's 75th birthday, here's my entry on him in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

Burton, James [1939 - ]
James Burton was born in Minden, Louisiana on August 21, 1939, moved to Shreveport ten years later and became one of the defining stylists of electric rock’n’roll guitar, playing mainly a Fender Telecaster yet owning 200 other guitars. He worked his way through backing Slim Whitman and others on the Louisiana Hayride while still virtually a child, escaping into session work after playing a striking solo while still a young teenager on the 1957 Dale Hawkins hit ‘Suzie Q’. It was on RICKY NELSON’s records that he became widely noticed and admired, playing a series of discreet yet inventive, tantalisingly brief solos on Nelson’s big hits. It’s astonishing how short the instrumental breaks were on pop singles.
            In 1969 he was asked to back ELVIS PRESLEY on his return to live performance, and stayed in service through all the numbing, demeaning tours until Presley’s death, though he was never free to impose either his flair or his restraint on this overblown orchestral unit.
            His credentials were better respected on albums by Hoyt Axton, JUDY COLLINS, RY COODER and others, and on the Gram Parsons albums GP  and Grievous Angel. After Parsons’ death he was a member of EMMYLOU HARRIS’ Hot Band (between Elvis tours), touring and recording with her. He and the steel player Ralph Mooney made the duets album Corn Pickin’ And Slick Slidin’ in 1966 (CD-reissued in 2005), and five years later Burton made his only solo album, which suffered under the title The Guitar Sounds Of James Burton, the sort of name normally associated with albums by middle-of-the-road hacks, and catches Burton trying haplessly to look early-1970s hip, in one of the world’s nastiest shirts. This album was CD-reissued in 2001.
            James Burton’s connection with Dylan  -  aside from the mere rumor that Dylan had wanted Burton in his band when he first ‘went electric’ in 1965  -  is that when the Never-Ending Tour came through Shreveport on October 30, 1996, the veteran guitarist came on stage and played with Dylan and the band on five numbers: ‘Seeing The Real You At Last’, ‘She Belongs To Me’, ‘Maggie’s Farm’, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and the final encore item, ‘Rainy Day Women Nos. 12 & 35’.

[James Burton: The Guitar Sounds Of James Burton, A&M, US, 1971. James Burton & Ralph Mooney, Corn Pickin’ And Slick Slidin’, Capitol T 2872, US, 1966.]


Blind Willie McTell died at 4.25am local time in the Ingram Building of Milledgeville State Hospital, Georgia, 55 years ago today.

 As my book Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes reports:

Whether Willie was taken into Milledgeville [after his second stroke] by ambulance or train we don’t know, but he arrived on Wednesday August 12, without any luggage or money, and after a partial examination he was placed on the ward for acutely ill patients. The doctor who saw him found him “poorly nourished”. He had no strength in his right hand, and after being asked several times how long this had been the case, he said it had happened the previous night. He could not stand up unaided, and in the days that followed, he had to be cared for in every way, and remained “always quiet”.
            The medical notes [I] obtained from Atlanta show that his condition was monitored constantly, and in great detail... On admission, he was given a “partial physical” examination by a doctor, whose report was typed up that day, and his temperature, pulse and respiration were measured. Relevant aspects of his “blood chemistry” were measured at least once daily, and the results logged. A sheet of doctor’s orders included putting him on a salt-free diet, fitting a catheter and prescribing tablets on the day of his admission and making changes in his medication two days later.
            A serological report was typed up and he was given a Wasserman Test the day after he arrived, and by the next day his chest x-ray had been developed, analysed and written up. The day before he died, the “lab girl” was told to check things every four hours (though she seems to have skipped two of these). His breathing, pulse and temperature were measured and logged twice daily throughout the week; his medicine, quite rightly, was specified item by item, daily.
            His severe deterioration on August 18 was noted promptly  -  the medical note “get stat blood sugar” implies that they were worried he was going into a diabetic coma  -  and they put him on a drip twelve hours before he died. Presumably to cover themselves, a letter dated August 18 was sent from the Director and the Clinical Director to [Willie's uncle and friend] Gold Harris, saying “This is to advise you that the above named patient is being treated on the ward for acutely ill patients and…We regard his condition as potentially critical and such that he is likely to make a sudden change for the worse and the end come abruptly.”
            He died at 4.25 next morning, Wednesday August 19. The death certificate gave the cause of death as cerebral hemorrhage. The hospital’s more detailed notes were that Dr. M.E. Smith “offered a diagnosis in this case, of: CBS (Cerebral Brain Syndrome), associated with circulatory disturbance, other, cerebral hemorrhage, left side, with psychotic reaction.”
            Today, the diabetes would be better managed, and we would term it Cerebral Vascular Accident rather than CBS. The hemorrhage was on the left side of his brain, so that it was the right side of his body that was impaired. He might well have had cerebral vascular disease for some time, and the earlier stroke may have been part of that: clearly from the medical evidence here, something had happened around nine months previously  -  that is, at the time of [his uncle] Coot’s and [his wife] Helen’s deaths  -  that propelled him into much greater illness. By the time he arrived at the hospital, the nerve-endings in his leg were impaired by blood not reaching it properly.
            There was one more significant fact in the medical records. The Wasserman Test result showed that Willie had syphilis. His “very small eyeballs” and their “opacity” therefore suggests that there may have been  -  may have been  -  congenital syphilis. This, passed through the placenta from the mother, can reveal itself in many other physical abnormalities, which Willie did not have (commonly an odd bridge to the nose), but congenital syphilis could certainly account for under-developed eyeballs and perhaps their congenital cataracts...
            So it might be that this information from the very end of Willie’s life tells us something about its very beginning.