Few popular musicians of the 20th century—or of any other time—have had their work as closely studied and collected by amateur critics as Bob Dylan. Though in the last decade a dozen new biographies and anthologies have appeared from major presses, Dylan is unique for the way his writings give new meaning to the phrase “fugitive literature.”
In my hand I hold the first collection of Dylan’s lyrics, approximately Complete Works, This is not a volume with which Dylan was particularly pleased: hand-typed, unnumbered pages, replete with spelling errors. The book was published first in Amsterdam in 1968, then Xeroxed and republished in the U. S. and sold at the bookstore of New York University. A fuzzy-haired young man in dark sunglasses stares out of the cover. There is no title page, no copyright page, no editor listed; no credit given.
This book may seve as a metaphor for the anonymous International Underground Dylan consortium, aficionados from around the globe who pursue Dylan’s concert performances and party tapes with the vigor of a Joyce scholar sitting down to an attic full of previously undiscovered notes for Ulysses.
Ever since Bob Dylan taped his first known songs in a hotel room in Minneapolis in the autumn of 1960, his recordings and outtakes have posed a classic study in the pursuit of fugitive literature. “Fans” seems too weak a word to describe the computer geniuses armed with elaborate tape recorders who copy and recopy the performer’s every hum.
The legend’s cast of characters is legion: wild-haired yippies going through Dylan’s garbage in Greenwich village; production secretaries at record companies emptying safes of master tapes; party-goers clicking on midnight tape recorders to capture a brief song of the unnoticing singer from Minnesota; teenagers smuggling into concerts the first cassette recorders and thus creating “bulky sweater tapes.” If critics and biographers have noticed a paranoid streak to Bob Dylan’s personality, this is hardly surprising for an individual whose oeuvres were surreptitiously released in a 20-volume series of “Great White Wonder” discs.
Bob Dylan is probably the world’s most-pirated musician. His unauthorized recordings are on sale in Europe and South America. It took three underground printings of his collection of poems, Tarantula, before Macmillan finally persuaded Dylan to allow it to be published. One writer, Paul Cable, produced a volume of 197 closely-printed pages on Dylan’s unreleased recordings. Despite his two dozen albums, many Dylan collectors would argue that his best recordings—including the legendary 1965 English tour, which was to have been released as “Live with The Band in Europe”—have never been available commercially.
For those fond of the early, picador Dylan there is a wealth of material available: Dylan singing drinking songs, at a party at New York’s Gaslight Club with Dave Van Ronk, or the session when he recorded “If I Had to Do It All Over Again, I’d Do It All Over You.” The cut of Bob Dylan singing “Wild Mountain Thyme” in a version “larn’d from Woody Guthrie” which sounds amazingly like Jimmy Rogers at 16 rpm. There are classic Dylan ballads, recorded by other artists but never by him: “Fare Thee Well” or “Let Me Die in My Footsteps,” a song about one man’s refusal to go down in a fallout shelter when war arrives. There are hundreds of others, filling a 30-page single-spaced discography.
Dylan collectors argued about the provenance of the famous “basement tapes” the way others dissected Trotsky’s role in the Russo-Estonian war. Dylan was an oracle of his time—and there will always be a few dissatisfied with glossy press release from Delphi. Perhaps, I wrote in 1973, Dylan freaks with miniaturized recorders and stealthy, acquisitive natures are the forerunners of tomorrow’s Ph. D. candidates in Dylanology.
Whether Dylanology survives into the next millenium, major Universities, Berkeley included, have given Ph. D. ‘s for dissertations on Dylan. Some Dylanologists dedicated themselves simply to amassing as complete a collection of the master’s voice as possible, beginning with audio tapes of Dylan’s early television performances, the most important of which was the “Songs of Freedom” television program (with the Freedom Singers) on New York’s WNET-TV in August 1963. Others swaddled themselves in textual exegesis, insisting, for example, that Bob Dylan’s one-line song “All the tired horses in the Sun/How am I going to get any writing done?” was an explicit reference to Dylan’s alleged heroin use.
A. J. Weberman, who used to call himself Minister of Defense of the Dylan Liberation Front, was the man famous for not only sifting Dylan’s trash but also for recording Dylan’s answering machine messages. He even released a short-lived album on Folkways of his illegally-recorded telephone conversations with Dylan: the musician heaps contumely upon his self-appointed Boswell. Weberman first introduced himself to me more than 20 years ago, in his walk-up Bowery flat in New York, by playing a line from the Beatles: “Everybody’s talking about Weatherman… . .” as being an explicit reference to himself. His most lasting contribution to the literature on Dylan was to have been the only Dylan concordance, of which three copies reputedly survive. This enormous work was printed on computer paper at Columbia University and would have been an invaluable resource for Dylan scholars—had not Weberman included dozens of songs by other composers which he (Weberman) decided were secretly composed by Dylan, such as those on The Band’s album, “Music From Big Pink.”
Many thought that the underground syndicate would languish once Dylan installed a paper shredder and Knopf published his first major collection, Writings and Drawings in 1973. It did not. New tapes continue to appear and are airmailed to eagerly waiting connoisseurs. Though few offthe-cuff gems have surfaced recently, old ground is continually respaded; for those who care, I count 33 different recordings of Bob Dylan’s 1975—76 Rolling Thunder tour with Joan Baez, T-Bone Burnett, and Roger McGuinn, among others. (This was the tour from which the infamous film Renaldo and Clara was taken, a four-hour piece of egotism so stultifying it had one famous Dylan scholar snoring after the first hour).
Dylan’s other films have been the target of bootleggers, particularly the legendary outtakes from D. A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back. As part of his cooperation with this film, Dylan commandeered camera and stock for his own handheld cinema vérité purposes. Out of this impromptu filming came “Eat the Document,” a virtually unwatchable, out-offocus compilation from his 1965 tours. A legendary third film is rumored, the outtakes of the outtakes, in which John Lennon and Bob Dylan, among others, purportedly discuss and use drugs. Whether or not such a film exists is unimportant to the folklorist of Dylan lore; it is enough that rumors of such a tape have circulated for 15 years.
Dylan’s personal secretiveness and moodiness have fostered the transmission of these legends. These qualities are amply demonstrated in the documentary, Don’t Look Back, which in turn spurred further rumors concerning his work and life, particularly between the summer of 1966 (following his motorcycle accident) and the winter of 1968. 1 have in my files a letter from a retired corporal who insists Dylan was his sergeant in the Green Berets in Vietnam during this period. “This is a very well-kept secret,” the writer insists. I have heard otherwise reasonable men and women assert that Bob Dylan had turned into a vegetable, died, and had been replaced by a doppelganger.
The alternative corpus of Bob Dylan’s unreleased works will continue to offer scholars, amateur and professional, a fascinating legacy. Betsy Bowden mined this as an example of how songs differ from printed text to actual performance. Christopher Ricks and Michael Gray have also produced excellent scholarship, as has the recent Bob Dylan Companion of Thompson and Gutman.
Researchers have yet to use the unrecorded material to document the traditional tunes Dylan used for many of his recordings: “Who’ll Buy Your Ribbons Now” from the collector Paul Clayton becoming “Don’t Think Twice”; Martin Carthy’s version of “Lord Franklin” as “Bob Dylan’s Dream”; “Lord Randall” as “Hard Rain”; Dominic Behan’s traditionally-derived “The Patriot Game” as “With God on Our Side”; and “Brennan on the Moor” becoming the unreleased “Rambling, Gambling Willie.”
Dylan himself parodied his “underground” lyrics in the first edition of Writings and Drawings:
“ORIGINAL BASEMENT TAPES”
Could not keep all his kings
Supplied with sleep
We’ll climb that hill
No matter how steep
When we get up to it.
BOB DYLAN’S GREATEST HITS II
And his brother Don
Could not keep from keeping on
We’ll climb that bridge
After it’s gone
After we’re way past it.
Despite two large songbooks, there are hundreds of differences between the authorized Writings and Drawings and Songs of Bob Dylan and the underground corpus (e. g. , the final verse of “She’s Your Lover Now” or in “Visions of Johanna” [originally titled “Seems Like a Freeze-Out”], the line in the last stanza, “He examines the nightingale’s code”). The collections of lyrics themselves have a number of significant omissions, ranging from his sincere, early-folkie days (“Talking Ha-Va-Na-Gil-Lah Blues,” and “Baby, Cut My Hair,” and “The VD Waltz”) to those of his druggy, apocalyptic visions of America (“I’m Not There” and “Crawl Out Your Window”).
Whether or not anyone ever transcribes these songs or prepares a volume on Bob Dylan’s unreleased songs, the question remains why the works of this scruffy poet inspired such insistent pirating for so many years. It would take a brigade of dedicated sociologists, political scientists, and historians to attempt an answer. Certainly for the generation coming of age in the 1960’s, internationally there was no comparable musical/lyrical influence. Like that of Rimbeau, Dylan’s recognition came impossibly fast; being a god turns out to be a short-lived occupation. As Dylan has commented, he has spent many years of his life trying to get back to where he once was.
To find another writer who so thoroughly affected his time, one has to probe in history—Voltaire, Shakespeare, Dickens—or even Verdi, whose melodies were so popular that he had to rehearse his singers in secret to prevent new tunes being sung before the show opened.
Dylan’s works, published and unpublished, remain widely sung. For many the songs recapture the power of times past, like looking back at a house once lived in. Some of the urgency has ebbed; Dylan will probably be free from garbage-pickers and from those calling him only to record his cursing. With the comparative waning of interest in Dylan— such passionate intensity could scarcely outlast his generation—he will also be free of teenage fans sneaking among the songbooks in a local music store to dig out one last mumbled verse of Bob Dylan’s earthy twang.
The man in me must hide some times
To keep from being seen
But that’s just because he doesn’t want
To turn into some machine.
—”The Man in Me”