Hal Royaltey (hal) Thu 19 May 05 17:20
Our guest is Oliver Trager, author of Keys to the Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia. Since graduating from Bennington College in 1982, Oliver Trager has worked as a writer and editor in his hometown, New York City. Mr. Trager is the author of Dig Infinity!: The Life and Art of Lord Buckley (Welcome Rain Publishers, 2002), a biography of a neglected comedian. In 1999, Trager co-authored The Return of the Hip Messiah, a play about Buckley that premiered and enjoyed a short but successful run at Chicagos famed Second City theater. Over the past decade, he has produced several evenings devoted to Buckleys unique monologues.. Trager is also the author of The American Book Of The Dead: The Definitive Grateful Dead Encyclopedia (Simon & Schuster/Fireside, 1997) and Keys to the Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia (Billboard Books, 2004). Since 1985 Trager has been employed at Facts On File News Services as managing editor of Editorials On File, a journal that objectively surveys daily newspaper opinion of major news events. His position at Facts On File has also resulted in the editing of some twenty books focusing on a specific topic of political or social importance. Some titles include: America in Space, Americas Children, The Iran-Contra Scandal, Crime in America, Sexual Politics in America, Abortion: The Continuing Controversy, Gorbachevs Glasnost, The Arts & Media in America, Americas Minorities & he Multicultural Debate, Our Poisoned Planet, Sports in America, and Poverty in America. In 1991 he co-conceived, directed and produced Gulf Bowl, an internationally broadcast video collage commentary on network televisions coverage of the Persian Gulf Crisis. Gulf Bowl was included and shown at the 1993 Whitney Museum Biennial in New York City. In 2003 Trager wrote the voice-over narrative for Toronto filmmaker Ron Manns Mighty Dark to Travel: A Tribute to Bill Monroe and is working with Mr. Mann on Rat Fink, a documentary film about Ed Big Daddy Roth king of the custom cars designers of the 1950s and 1960s. Previously he has been co-publisher of Apocalypso, written on a freelance basis for Entertainment Weekly and has had his poetry published in The Minneapolis Review of Baseball and Elysian Fields Quarterly. Trager lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife Elaine Beery, an interior designer, and twelve-year-old son, a scholar/athlete with a yen for the Classics and a nasty sinker. Our interviewer is Howard Levine. Howard Levine is a New York soul who trained as a clinical pharmacologist. After teaching medical and pharmacy students for 8 years, he has worked developing new drugs for the last 17 years. His primary passion, after his wife, Audrey and their children, is music. He has followed music avidly since the late-1960s and remains firmly rooted in the music and musicians from that era. Along with music Howard continues to play out one of his favorite fantasies, centering for an ice hockey team on a weekly basis.
Howard Levine (hll) Thu 19 May 05 18:11
Welcome Oliver, so good to have you here with us. We have something in common in our professions - both being researchers. In my line I am looking for an answer that often hasn't been put together by other. It appears to me that you may be doing the same thing with your Dylan work. Could you tell us what turned you on to putting your encyclopedia on your to do list?
Oliver Trager (oliver-trager) Fri 20 May 05 11:38
Greetings. Howard, you flatter me. Where your research can result in actually helping people's lives, I think the best I can hope for is an "ah-ha" or the lightbulb firing on above my reader's head for a moment. Yes, in my critical analysis of Dylan's material (critiques that I hope don't seem set in stone), I am trying to lead the reader to at least some sort of mild epiphany. Deciphering Dylan's lyrics is particularly dangerous work and I always try to steer clear of dogma, presenting my take as merely "a" not "the" way to go about feeling more comfortable with whatever it is he may be expressing in a given song. But, the critical, element of the book (as you have no doubt noticed, comprises a portion of what I attempt to bring to each entry. There is, for starters, much biogphical and historical material related to both Dylan's songs and those he covered on record and in performance. As for why I put writing such and encyclopedia on my to-do list? Asky my shrink! Insanity I suppose. No, seriously. I guess I felt that with a world full of umpteen Dylan bios and scholarly literary style exgesis already out floating in the ether, there was a need a good reference book that could quickly aid both the harder-core Dylanites and newbies looking to get their feet wetter. Also, my own curiosity comes into play as well. I've long had an interest not only in analysis of Dylan's songs but in their historical/musicological folk roots. Who was the real "Stagger Lee" or "Black Jack Davy"? What is the story with "Like A Rolling Stone," "Positively 4th Street" or, for that matter, "Wild Mountain Thyme." Figured others had the same curisoity but didn't necessarily want to go through the trouble of tracking it down. So I did it for them. On level I've been doing this work and having these conversations with others and myself since I was a kind. And, as a follow-up to my Grateful dead book and on-going connection to Lord Buckley, the encyclopedia format seemed a natural.
Life Is Easy When Considered From Another Point Of View (dam) Fri 20 May 05 11:58
How long did it take you to write the book. I was continually amazed as I read thorugh it (and I read every entry) as to how much information you came up with!
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Fri 20 May 05 12:03
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outside the law and honest (tbessoir) Fri 20 May 05 12:58
A very impressive book. Full of insights and interesting facts. As I was reading it, I too was wondering how long it took for you to put it together.
Oliver Trager (oliver-trager) Fri 20 May 05 13:07
I really got start counting at about 1995 when I started in on the Dead as my approach and methodology really segued from one project to the next. So that would be like what? Eight, nine years. Yikes! And I'm amazed that anyone actually read every entry. Which ones stood out either in a positive, informative way or came off as lacking?
Life Is Easy When Considered From Another Point Of View (dam) Fri 20 May 05 13:42
hey, I'm a compulsive character! the book is at home, let me go take a look, but I didn't really find anything lacking.....i've read many Dylan books, subscribe to ISIS (have since 1993 or so), yet I found myself just absorbed in the book.
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Fri 20 May 05 13:50
Are we only suppose to talk about the Dylan book here, or can you talk about your work with Facts on File?
David Gans (tnf) Fri 20 May 05 17:34
Feel free to ask, Sharon, and Oliver can decide to answer as he sees fit. My question: Does the phrase "Keys to the Rain" occur anywhere in the Dylan canon? I know the phrase as the title of a Robert Hunter song.
Howard Levine (hll) Fri 20 May 05 19:47
The title bring Hard Rain to my mind.
Oliver Trager (oliver-trager) Sat 21 May 05 04:45
Good, surprisingly infrequently asked question. The title is drawn from "Visions of Johanna" which contains the lyric "the harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain/And these visions of Johanna are now all that remain." Okay, so it wasn't exact but I felt it evoked Dylan's mystery while describing what the book was in poetic/utilitarian way. An encyclopedia is like a key and rain is one of the more potent and frequently occuring word/symbols in the Dylan canon. The Dylanesque Hunter song "Keys to the Rain" played in there too, natch. And is there a better Dylan song than "Visions of Johanna"? -- gotta be tied for first with a few others. Other title ideas I contemplated: "Back Pages" and "Odds and Ends." Any other after the fact title suggestions?
Oliver Trager (oliver-trager) Sat 21 May 05 04:47
Sharon: feel free to ask me about anything whether it be on my bio or not. Facts on File is certainly open for discussion. Are you familiar with our company?
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Sat 21 May 05 06:28
No, not very, though seems to me I have a book by that title on my reference shelf. It sounds like an interesting place to work. How'd you end up there? How are they funded? etc.
Dan Levy (danlevy) Sat 21 May 05 06:33
Hi Oliver! I wonder whether you have considered A.J. Weberman's concordance of Bob Dylan's lyrics mapped to AJW's very strange interpretations. Rain, in his view, maps to heroin, if I recall correctly. Of course he believes that all of Bob Dylan's songs point essentially to Bob Dylan's ongoing habitual use of heroin (this is Weberman's theory). Recently, he sent an e-mail to bobdylan.com in which he demonstrated that Bruce Springsteen's new song "Devils & Dust" is actually not, as Bruce has said, inspired by a soldier in Iraq, but is rather a coded attempt by Bruce Springsteen to take Bob Dylan to task for various malfeasances.
Oliver Trager (oliver-trager) Sat 21 May 05 08:54
Hi Dan, Long time, no see. How's it been? AJ Weberman. Should I be surprised that his name popped up so quickly? Amazingly, I don't have a copy of AJ's conconrdence which is probably a good thing. Met the fellow recently and was taken aback by his general humble demeanor. Not what I was expecting. Look, he is essentially the type of dogmatist I tried really hard not be. The beauty and genius of Dylan's best is that a word like "rain" can be interpreted intellectually and/or emotionally depending on each and every listener and the particular set and setting they encounter the poetry. Another thought I had with the use of the word "rain" in the title was that it could be heard as "reign." That would put quite another spin on it, no? AJ's obsession aside, the world is probably a richer place because of him. His book "Coup d'Etat America" (I think that's the title) is landmark in JFK assassination stuff. And he invented "garbology"--though it would have been nice of him to pick another test subject. Sharon: re: Facts On File. When I first started there back in the mid-1980s, there was one big company called Facts On File. It was divided into two groups: the reference cadre which publishes subscription-based periodicals and a book group. Both were players in the library market. Still are. At some point, my half was sold and re-sold so that we are now two separate companies with more or less the same name. And we no longer share office space. Don't know where they are in NYC. Where I work, Facts On File News Services, is a part of the Weekly Reader Corporation that publishes the Weekley Reader, the World Almanac and a bunch of other stuff. Check out www.facts.com for more.
Life Is Easy When Considered From Another Point Of View (dam) Sat 21 May 05 10:34
Oliver, one of the entries I really dug into was The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll. It explained much of the song to me. Have any of your critics compalined about all of the Grateful Dead/Jerry Garcia references in the book?
Dan Mitchell (mitchell) Sat 21 May 05 13:39
I wrote an essay in college about Dylan's use of the word rain. I concluded he usually meant it to mean memory. I rarely conduct such intellectual inquiries these days, preferring instead to just listen and let lyrics wash over me and have whatever effect they will. And I have no idea whether I was right -- but I got an A on the paper. My question: why no biographical entries, etc.? I understand wanting to avoid making the thing just too unwieldy, which could easily happen with Dylan ("Johnson, Lyndon Baines"; "Rimbaud, Arthur"; "Peckinpah; Sam"; "Daniels, Charlie"; "Christ, Jesus" etc. etc. etc.) but did you consider including people very close to the Dylan story, such as Sarah Lowndes or Albert Grossman (or, for that matter, Rimbaud?) This isn't a criticism -- just curious about your thinking.
Oliver Trager (oliver-trager) Sun 22 May 05 06:19
"Hattie Carroll" was among my favorite entries to write, combining semi-forgotten US history, lyric analysis and a cogent overview of the changes Dylan has put the song through. What a song. Too bad has kept it in pretty lightr rotation over the years. Scholar/critic Christoper Ricks swears by the original release as if it was chiseled in stone. Me, I go for the Rolling Thunder versions but have heard some good mid-'90s version. Seems like Bob saves it for when he hits the DC area. Yeah, there are probably too many Grateful Dead references in the book. An occupational hazzard of being a Deadhead a guess. Glad you got an "A" Dan. What college was that? I'm a bit confused by your question re: biographical entries. There are, actually, tons of biographical entries, Sara included (see "Sara"). The real problem is that there is no index for easier access. That lacking, to be diplomatic, was the oversight of my publisher who was a wee bit too anxious to get the book to the printer. That is my main criticism with the book. An index woulda made it so much more user-friendly. Re: Grossman, Rimbaud, entries. I wrtoe but had to cut these and other entries (John Hammond, Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, Bobby Neuwirth, the Band, Baez, Never Ending Tour musicians) for reasons of space.
David Gans (tnf) Sun 22 May 05 09:42
Man, I hate that "cutting for space" bullshit. I had to cut a small but extremely significant piece of the source listings (to wit: the list of interview I did myself, which was substantial) from the back of "Playing in the Band" to save $12 in printing costs. And there was one reviewer who slammed the book for its lack of original source materials. Ratfuckers. Okay, I just made up the $12 figure, but jeez. This seems like a textbook example of why the bean counters shouldn't be able to overrule the authors and editors.
Berliner (captward) Sun 22 May 05 11:52
Publishers seem to go into these situations already believing they're going to lose money, so why bother to do things that would make the book useful and, thus, help it to sell.
David Gans (tnf) Sun 22 May 05 11:57
They also seem to have their price point and manufacturing costs figured out and then shave the book accordingly. More evidence that the industry is run by marketing people.
Oliver Trager (oliver-trager) Sun 22 May 05 13:50
In all fairness to Billboard, the book was way over the page count and many of the shavings I made did improve the final product. They also showed a degree of patience for a writer careening towards a deadline. But the lack of index is still a killer. I had a decent one half-prepared already. I do indexing as part of my job at Facts On File anyway and its something I really care about, as square and nerdy as that may sound. I mean, I often dis a book because of its missing or lame index. Irony rules once again. And a special hello to Berliner. Your "Fresh Air" music reviews are still killer.
David Gans (tnf) Sun 22 May 05 13:55
(Ed doesn't do music reviews; he does 'rock history' pieces. But yeah, they're great!)
John Ross (johnross) Sun 22 May 05 14:31
I am curious to know if FoF subjected the book to any kind of serious fact- checking. This is not to suggest that there are problems with the Dylan book, but at least on of their other "reference" books (the one on radio) is full of errors.
Dan Mitchell (mitchell) Sun 22 May 05 16:04
I don't have the book handy, and will have to check it out later re: biographical entries. Sadly, I have had limited time to enjoy it (but I really like what I've seen so far.) I tried finding a couple of people, though, and they weren't there. I tried Sara under "Dylan" and "Lowndes." (partly, I admit, in hopes of there being a new cheesecake shot of her). And in my quick thumbings-through, I didn't see any such entries for anyone else. Will look again, obviously.
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