Bob Dylan has never been one to spend too much time – or any time – explaining his music.
“I’ll let other people decide what they are,” he said recently when asked about his lyrics. “The academics, they ought to know.”
The academics have certainly tried — contemplating, decoding and teaching the master everywhere from Princeton to Dartmouth to Harvard. Obsessive fans trade alternative versions of “Tangled up in Blue” like orange juice futures, hunting for clues in the shift of a pronoun. He is Homer, he is Conrad, he is a genius, a plagiarist, a prankster, the closest thing we have to Shakespeare. And now Dylan is a Nobel Prize winner — an honor he (finally) agreed to accept in person, “if it’s at all possible.” No wonder Simon & Schuster is hustling out this $60, 679-page edition of “The Lyrics: 1961 – 2012.” This isn’t music. This is art!
Except that music has always been high art, whether it’s Skip James’s eerie falsetto or Mahler’s Ninth. The question is what you get when a song is stripped of its sound. Years ago, you got a joke, as comedian Steve Allen rudely mocked Little Richard by soberly reading every growl and moan of “Tutti Frutti.” And no less an authority than Christopher Ricks, the world’s premiere Dylanologist, raised the issue two years ago in an interview. He compared examining song lyrics to reading the screenplay for “Citizen Kane”: “The words in the movie are terrifically good,” he said, “but they only constitute part of the art that it is.”
Let’s note that Ricks wasn’t dismissing the idea, merely discussing it. In 2014, he and sisters Lisa and Julie Nemrow edited the first edition of Dylan’s lyrics to stretch to 2012. But their collection differed from this new release. Its appearance was stunning, with album covers re-created. And the content was richer, too, with an introduction by Ricks, songs annotated and multiple, alternative versions of Dylan’s studio recordings listed. That edition also listed for $299, although you can pick up one of the 50 copies Dylan signed on eBay for a cool $150,000.
The new “Lyrics” volume is stripped down, tracking Mr. Zimmerman from his self-titled debut to “Roll on John” without offering much else. Reproduced, handwritten or typed lyric sheets mark each chapter breaks, but there’s no explanation of what they signify. Are these Dylan’s original versions? Later drafts? Decorations? And do they represent the wholesale changes that reveal key aspects of Dylan’s approach or just the natural process any writer undertakes?
There’s no answer here, neither is there any desire to discriminate between the high and low points of Dylan’s massive catalog. The same font delivers the poetic majesty of “Visions of Johanna” and the embarrassing plonk of “Wiggle Wiggle,” a song that, you’ve hopefully forgotten, includes the line: “Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a bowl of soup.”
It would be nice for the book to offer more. The fact is, lyrics these days are as easy and free as a google search, and they usually come with guitar chords attached. The online service Genius can offer a breakdown of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” reference by reference. To combat this or create “added value,” as the marketers call it, “The Lyrics” should have beefed up the texts by including Ricks, Greil Marcus or another smart Dylan authority. Alternative song versions — clearly annotated — also would have been enlightening. It’s hard to know if the publishers or Dylan nixed the idea of including this material.
Which gets to one of the volume’s biggest letdowns.
In the press release for “The Lyrics,” we’re told: “Well known for changing the lyrics to even the best-loved songs, Dylan has edited dozens of songs for this volume.” But what are these edits? I’ve not devoted a lifetime to studying Dylan song variations, but I did spend a few hours trying to chart exactly what changes may have been made from the most familiar versions of Dylan’s songs.
Does removing the word “quick” from a line in “Idiot Wind” count? Should we attach special significance to seeing a line from “On a Night Like This” shift from “so glad you’re here to stay” to “so glad you’ve come to stay”? It’s hard to imagine that these tiny variances unlock anything.
So we’re left largely with the words we’ve already grown familiar with — only without the stereo on. That, in itself, does have value. Bob Dylan isn’t Timbuk 3. Any bookshelf would be well served by a hard-bound, stamped and authorized copy of the great songwriter’s work.
But appreciating “The Lyrics,” for me, requires appreciating the records themselves. Listening to “Oh Mercy” the other night, as I read along, was a simple pleasure that allowed me to remember how much I loved that record. In the olden days, before Spotify and iTunes, we could do this with the simple lyric sheets often included with releases.
One last question to contemplate: Is this volume being rushed out a week before its original publication date to respond to critics of the Nobel selection? Fat chance. I suspect the shift is simply a marketing tweak. If you don’t already get the complicated beauty of “To Ramona” or the storytelling genius of “Hurricane,” words on a page aren’t going to change your mind.
Geoff Edgers is a national arts reporter for The Washington Post.
By Bob Dylan
Simon & Schuster. 679 pp. $60