In 2014, as if anticipating his Nobel Prize for Literature by two years, Bob Dylan published what he considers the authoritative version of his lyrics from 1961 to 2012, appropriately called The Lyrics, in which the original versions of the lyrics in the collection are frequently accompanied by fragments of the most important variants of the original versions. (It is important to call them lyrics rather than songs, because a lyric is the song without the music, and the song is the music with the lyric.)
The lush, $220, velum-covered version of the 961 page book (cheaper versions were also published so that you could pay just $37.95 for the abridged version of the same content, or $14.95 on Kindle) features full-size, full-color reproductions of the original album covers, in chronological order, of every album Dylan released through 2012, which is why the book measures 13.5 x 12.75 inches, is three inches thick and weighs just under twelve and a half pounds! The cheaper version has only 679 pages and weighs around four pounds. Neither version could be described as portable.
The look and feel of the more expensive version immediately triggers comparisons with two epochal events in publishing history, the publication of the First Folio of William Shakespeare’s plays and the publication of the final version of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.”
This was no accident. In 2014, Dylan had no inkling that he would be elevated to Nobel status, so the publication of a comprehensive inventory of his songs was an act of preservation, just like the First Folio was. The publication of The Lyrics was also a summing of up his career as a poet or songwriter, just as Whitman’s 1892, “death bed” edition of Leaves of Grass was meant to be by putting the poems in the order the poet wanted them to be read. (Whitman probably would have continued to tinker with LOG had he not died in 1892.)
We know about and are able to read the works of William Shakespeare primarily through the efforts of actors John Heminges and Henry Condell, who were members of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later The King’s Men) and therefore partners with Shakespeare in that venture. It was Heminges and Condell who arranged for the publication of the plays in 1623 in an edition consisting of 36 plays written over a period of 23 years but, for their efforts, we wouldn’t have “reliable” versions of 20 of the 36 plays conventionally attributed to Shakespeare, because they were only preserved in the Folio.
The First Folio performed a necessary function for Shakespeare’s legacy: it asserted his claim to the authorship of the plays, which was necessary because many of the previously published versions of the plays were published without attribution by “bookleggers,” who hired scribes to attend the plays and recreate the scripts from the performances, which resulted in numerous divergences from the actual scripts.
Interestingly, Shakespeare’s own will does not mention the plays, making it appear that he wasn’t very interested in the proceeds from them….or didn’t actually believe that he owned them. He may, in fact, have believed that the rights to the plays belonged to the King’s Company, rather than to him, personally. Despite having written 36 plays, there isn’t a single manuscript page extant from any of the plays in Shakespeare’s own hand. Historians account for this by pointing out that the plays were probably kept in the offices of The Globe Theater, which burned to the ground in 1613, the same year that Shakespeare appears to have retired from the stage…and from playwriting. This raises the interesting question of where the previously unpublished plays came from since the effort to publish the plays didn’t begin until long after the Globe Theater burned down.
Walt Whitman’s masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, was composed over a 37 year period from 1855 to 1892, which included some of the most tumultuous events in American history during that epoch – between the Civil War and the Gay Nineties – in which Whitman either took part in or observed. Dylan’s compilation spans some 52 years of American history, including some of the most tumultuous events America has gone through since World War II that Dylan took part in or observed.
In both cases, the publications of those two very important books were largely responsible for both the creation and the preservation of the reputations of the authors. Dylan’s 2012 album, Tempest, Dylan’s 35th studio album, may be his last original album, which some people believe is a coded message referring to Shakespeare’s last play, which was the The Tempest.
Dylan has dismissed the idea that he was sending a message by titling the album Tempest, pointing out that this isn’t the same wording as the name of Shakespeare’s play as The Tempest. However, the title cut of the album is about a famous shipwreck, the loss of the steamship Titanic in 1912. Shakespeare’s play, first performed in 1612, is also about a shipwreck…and the album was released on September 11, 2012, exactly 400 years after The Tempest was first performed. There is some confusion about which was Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest or Henry VIII, but there is also some controversy over whether The Two Gentlemen of Verona was really written by Shakespeare. If not, and the consensus sways in that direction, then Shakespeare wrote 35 plays, just as Dylan has released 35 studio albums of mostly original songs, culminating with Tempest, and each man “released” his 35th effort on the same day, 400 years apart.
As a summing up, however, The Lyrics is already out of date, because Dylan has since released two additional albums. 2015’s Shadows in the Night is a compilation of Frank Sinatra songs that Dylan wanted to freshen up with new treatments. 2016’s Fallen Angels is another compilation of American standards, all but one of which were also record by Sinatra. Neither of these albums includes any original Dylan material, increasing speculation that does not intend to write any more.
Is Dylan telling us the well has run dry? We hope not but, sooner or later, everyone runs out of things to say.
Thumbing through this massive tome, one is immediately struck by how much white space surrounds the text. Often there are two or three blank pages at the ends of the sections devoted to each album. The typeface is quite small, and light, and the variant wordings are even lighter, in a gray tone rather than a solid black. This makes the book quite difficult to read, and forces you to concentrate on the words more carefully.
If you are very familiar with Dylan’s work, as I am, you might have the same experience I had as I read the book. I could hear the songs being sung in my head precisely as they were originally recorded. At first it was a little eerie, because more than once my significant other’s playlist happened to pick the very song I was in the process of reading. Then, it became downright disturbing because I could hear the original musical accompaniment to the songs, even after she turned the music off, which was when I realized what was happening.
If you aren’t a die-hard Dylan fan, you might not get the same results but, for me, it was like being in the same room with him – and I mean a room, not a concert hall or some other venue, like a living room – while he was playing the song to the lyric I was reading.
If he did this intentionally, it is a mark of genius and, since Dylan is quite obviously a genius, that shouldn’t be surprising. If it is purely serendipitous, it is still a remarkable experience, if you are a Dylan fan. If not, your results may differ…but that’s not why I’m writing this article.
In 1983, Dylan released one of his most important albums, Infidels. It is important because it is, first of all, a great album and, secondly, because it represents a departure from the Christian obsession that occupied Dylan for several years back to a more universal symbolism. For those of us who love Dylan, that was a huge relief because his Christian obsession was rather embarrassment for many of us who couldn’t go there.
One of the most interesting songs on this album, from a thematic standpoint, was “Union Sundown” which sounds like a return to the youthful Dylan’s political concerns and is all about how they don’t make nothing here anymore.
(Read the lyrics to the song.) Given the current economic and political situation we are in today, these words could have been written a month ago and they would have been just as current as they were in 1983, with concerns about jobs being lost as manufacturers move their operations overseas and foreign goods flood into the American market.
There I was, warm and cozy, basking in the experience of reading Dylan instead of merely listening to him, when I happened to glance at the publisher’s declaration page that appears in every single book you’ve ever read, and noticed the statement that the book in my hand was manufactured in China.
Manufactured in China?
In 1983, Dylan pens a righteous rant about the insanity of buying cheaper foreign goods and putting American workers out of work as a consequence….and, in 2014, his publisher, Simon and Schuster, decides to ship the work of producing Dylan’s book to China.
I can’t say I’m devastated. Just saddened because it is a sign of the times: it is simply impossible to buy American because we just don’t make nuthin’ here anymore. Part of me wonders if Dylan even knows where the book was bound and printed. Part of me wonders if he cares any more.
And then I noticed that the very last song on Tempest is a eulogy for John Lennon, and wondered what John would have said to Bob about that.
Dylan is not alone when it comes to importing our culture from China. Increasingly, blockbuster films (the Chinese apparently have no interest in psychological dramas) are being financed, and often produced, in the People’s Republic of China and, when they are intended to be released in China, they are also filmed and cut to satisfy Chinese censors. Some of those films are now starting to make their way into the American market which takes business away from American production companies and makes it more difficult for them to get domestically made films green-lighted because it is so much cheaper to make them in China.