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Bob Dylan’s 6kg of lyrics

And yet still not definitive

Hazel Sheffield | November 5th 2014

It's a good week for Bob Dylan completists. On Tuesday, volume 11 of the bootleg series was released, comprising a six-disc collection of the so-called "Basement Tapes", recorded during Dylan's 1967 sessions with The Band in upstate New York. This Friday, a hardback collection called “The Lyrics” is published. For the princely sum of £125, collectors can get hold of one of only 3,000 copies of this 6kg, gold-embossed treasure, which has been compiled by Sir Christopher Ricks, a former professor of poetry at Oxford whose 2003 book "Dylan's Visions of Sin" examined the lyrics with the same critical eye he's applied to Keats and T.S. Eliot. The publishers, Simon & Schuster, were not sending out review copies, so I had to go and visit the book at their office. One of the publishers told me they thought the 500 copies that will make it across the Atlantic to Britain might be gone on presales alone.

It was a joy to get an hour or so leafing through the mammoth book’s thick cream pages, which document Dylan's recorded lyrics and live variations from “Bob Dylan” (1962) to “Tempest” (2012). The publishers have dared to call the book "definitive" in the press release, but it won’t be definitive for long: Dylan already has a new album in the works for next year, announced to buyers of the latest bootleg by a pamphlet that wafted out from between the record sleeves. Ricks—now a professor at Boston University who spent years piecing this collection together with help from Dylan himself—knows better. He spends a large part of the book's introduction talking about the impossibility of such a task, concluding "there is no such thing as a definitive setting down". But he isn't the first to do his best: a "complete" collection of lyrics was published in 1985, detailing everything up to that point. It was updated in 2001.

Ricks knows that nothing about Dylan is definitive—even Dylan's own thoughts about Dylan. He notes the conflicting views on the importance of words versus music. "It's the music that the words are sung to that's important", goes one Dylan quote from the Sixties or Seventies. Another: "It ain't the music that's important, man, it's the words." Leafing through the book, you realise both are true.

Dylan uses lyrics to tell stories. Often these were fantastical, sometimes nonsensical stories of discovery, like “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”, a Kubla Khan-like voyage in America, or “Gates of Eden”, a mysterious fable that features lamp-posts with crossed arms, and deaf shoeless hunters. He also used lyrics to diarise his life in songs where the music seems dispensable. “Talkin’ New York”, from the “Bob Dylan” album in 1962, describes his first experience of playing the Greenwich Village clubs in New York, which includes some early disillusionment with the cut-throat music industry: “A lot of people don’t have much food on their table/But they got a lot of forks ’n’ knives/And they gotta cut somethin’”. Decades later, on “Time Out of Mind” (1997), Dylan used the same style of humour to depict an encounter with a Scottish waitress in “Highlands”: “She says, 'What’ll it be?'/I say, 'I don’t know, you got any soft boiled eggs?'/She looks at me, says, 'I’d bring you some/But we’re out of ’em, you picked the wrong time to come'."

But when Dylan needed them to, the lyrics served the music. The book records a minor change to the syntax in “Rolling Stone”, from “Highway 61 Revisited” (1965), in the line: “You better take your diamond ring down/And you better pawn it babe”. In a neat footnote beside the original line, Ricks notes that at a concert at Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966 the lyrics changed to “Take your diamond ring down/And pawn it babe”. It doesn’t look much on paper, but listen to the recording and you can hear Dylan hurling the last line at the crowd, stretching out the word “pawn” with no small amount of bile. In fact, this was the infamously mistitled "Royal Albert Hall" concert, captured on the D.A. Pennebaker documentary “Don’t Look Back”, where Dylan was accused of being Judas by a member of the crowd for abandoning acoustic performances in favour of plugged-in sets with his band. He cut some words because, at that moment, conveying his new sound mattered more.

“The Lyrics” records these changes for posterity like so many butterfly specimens pinned to a cork board, but it can never capture the surprising, chaotic way they came to be. Rather it is another facet of Dylan’s legacy that, the moment someone says they have it fixed, he demands they take another look.

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