The Freewheelin'

The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia? Now in its second revised and updated printing? Does any one person, even a momentous artist who now seems determined to die on the stage (to steal a quote from the great Midnight Cowboy) really need or deserve their own encyclopedia?

Michael Gray's weighty tome, The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia (Continuum, New York, 2008) is perhaps more than anyone but the most fanatical and fearless Dylan freaks (thank you Flaming Lips) will actually ever want or need. There are to be sure some doozies among the 850 entries. That fact that Dylan was on Dharma and Greg highlights once again that the man is capable of huge slips in judgment and taste (Saved anyone?). And a photo on page 440a (another weirdness, the photo pages sort of don't count in this book) of Bobby during his eyeliner period with a towering Muhammad Ali wrapping his arm and huge paw around Mr. Zimmerman’s shoulder, is a gem that I'd never seen before.

On the other hand, this book is basically an encyclopedia of musician and artist biographies, the theory being that each one touched Dylan either spiritually or in some direct life experience kind of way. While many are genuinely illuminating some are really a stretch. Paul Verlaine? And Gene Simmons? And what about some charts and graphs in this supposedly exhaustive study; everything you ever wanted to know about Mr. Lay Lady Lay? The lack of even a simple, straight ahead listing of his albums in chronological order, not to mention a flow chart of bandmembers, or a list of film appearances, limits this book's appeal and usefulness as a reference. Still, this is probably essential to die hards, particularly now that it's been updated with the flurry of Dylan activity that's occurred in the past few years.

Yesterday's New York Times had a sweet tale about EMI and its new owner, Guy Hands, who previous business successes include tarting up English pubs and cleaning up gas stations by installing new toilets on the German autobahns. In my unhumble opinion, the Times, which Gods knows has its flaws beginning with Judith Miller, is always best when their unmistakable brand of intentional dry humor creeps into the copy.

"But the music business, even in good times, is not welcoming to outsiders. The sensibilities of a financier like Mr. Hands are usually starkly at odds with the folkways of a creative enterprise. Artists' egos need stroking, and the measurement of success is not the same in music as it would be in running service stations along the autobahn.

"`You have to understand the artist's psyche to make it work,' " said Jazz Summers, who manages The Verve, a band signed to EMI, and was present at the dinner last autumn.

The story has even turned comical at times. After Mr. Hands discovered that some employees were laundering costs for things that were illegal (drugs and prostitutes, he said), by itemizing them on expense reports as "fruit and flowers," he set a strict travel and entertainment policy that required receipts for every expense."

Fruit and flowers. Makes sense in a hipster code kind of way. And Jazz Summers. It's good to hear that not all of what once made the music business a fun place to work has been exorcised by iTunes, downsizing and manufactured celebrity hood masquerading as genuine talent. What? Me? Cynical?

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