Book Review: Bob Dylan: The Lyrics 1961–2012
If you have any doubts about whether Bob Dylan deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature—or even if you don’t—pick up this newly issued fat book of his lyrics. Spanning more than half a century, it preserves an astonishingly large and innovative body of work.
Arranged chronologically, the volume devotes chapters to each of 31 Dylan albums, from his eponymous 1962 debut to 2012’s Tempest. In addition to songs from the LPs, the chapters include numbers that he wrote around the same time that did not make it onto the discs. Dylan’s first album, for example, featured only two original tracks, “Talkin’ New York” and “Song to Woody,” his tribute to Guthrie. But the chapter on that album includes lyrics for more than two dozen additional numbers from the period, among them the now-classic “Tomorrow Is a Long Time” and such early signs of a humorous bent as “Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues” and “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” neither of which officially surfaced on disc until Columbia began issuing Dylan’s Bootleg Series. Each chapter opens with the composer’s handwritten or typed and hand-edited lyrics for one song.
Inevitably, in a catalog of well over 300 compositions, some are much better than others. A handful—such as “Lenny Bruce,” a heartfelt but weakly worded tribute to the comic—seem far from profound, and even some of the great ones don’t work nearly as well on paper as they do in song. But genius permeates many of this book’s nearly 700 pages. Look particularly at the period that extended from the artist’s 1963 second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, through 1967’s John Wesley Harding; the stretch that began with 1974’s moving, highly personal Blood on the Tracks and continued through 1978’s underrated Street Legal; and the five-album burst of brilliance that began with 1997’s Time Out of Mind. I’m tempted to start quoting favorite lines, but if I did, we’d probably wind up with a book review that was itself book-length.
Reading through the volume, you’re reminded that throughout his career, Dylan has been just as adventurous as he has been brilliant. He’s been fearless about trying new songwriting styles, then abandoning them to try something else. So in this book, we get everything from political diatribes (“Masters of War”) to deftly written fantasies (“Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”) to straightforward romantic ballads (“Make You Feel My Love”) to a country moon-spoon lyric that actually includes that rhyme (“I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”). Then there are the many impressionistic numbers, such as those dominating Blonde on Blonde, that paint vivid pictures but are difficult or impossible to explain. It’s no wonder that when asked what his songs are about, Dylan once famously answered, “Oh, some are about four minutes; some are about five, and some believe it or not, are about 11 or 12.”
I can offer at least two reasons to buy this volume aside from the excellence of its lyrics. If you’re a serious fan, you’ll be interested to know that Dylan—who has a reputation for changing the words to his songs in concert—has done the same thing here. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t indicate which lyrics have been altered, but a press release notes that “Dylan has edited dozens of songs for this volume.” It will be interesting to discover which ones, and how he has changed them.
Like many rock songs, also, Dylan’s sometimes make it difficult to hear every word correctly, so this book might clear up some confusion. In Blood on the Tracks’ superb “Tangled Up in Blue,” for example, I’ve always thought Dylan was singing, “split up on the docks that night,” but it turns out the line is “split up on a dark, sad night.”
This is going to require a period of adjustment on my part.
Jeff Burger’s books include Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters, and Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters. His website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades' worth of music reviews and commentary.