Why can’t Bob Dylan appreciate which are his best compositions?

By Tony Attwood

Prologue

When working on the review of Someone’s got a hold of my heart / Tight connection to my heart it became clear to me (if it wasn’t already) just how many Dylan fans really believed that Dylan had got the re-writing of this song totally wrong.  He had taken a perfectly good song, and if not spoiled it, had done something to make it less of a song than it originally was.

Of course that one example doesn’t mean Dylan has no sense of what’s what in his music.  If he didn’t know how to do it we wouldn’t have such masterpieces as Visions of Johanna, Desolation Row, It’s alright ma and so on, all of which were released on albums soon after being written.

But there are some songs – maybe not that many but I would contend that there are indeed quite a few – which represent Dylan at the height of his powers and which were (for reasons that were not immediately clear) simply not released on a mainstream album.  The most obvious overwhelming examples for me are Caribbean Wind and Mississippi.    Of course not everyone will agree, but if we add “Blind Willie McTell” and perhaps “Dignity” to the list, you begin to see where I am going with this.

The list could go on and on, including Mama you been on my mind and of course there was a period when Dylan deliberately created a whole tape of songs which were offered to other performers with the guarantee that Dylan would not release them.

That we can see as a deliberate artistic decision.  And likewise we can excuse the non-release (at least at first) of Ballad for a friend – a composition of monumental achievement for such a young writer, which was probably set aside by the A&R man as being “too morbid for today’s audience.”  Although that doesn’t explain why Bob didn’t bring it up for inclusion on a later album when he had full artistic control.

And indeed as we move on into the era when Bob wasn’t writing for other people and was in total control of what he would put on each album we find songs such as “Up to Me” not being used.  And even if the album was full of quality songwriting, why not hold it for the next album?   And all that comes before “Abandoned Love” – and believe me if by any chance you don’t know this, you really should go and listen (the review has a couple of very different versions available within it – if the links are broken when you get there, go searching).

And so it goes on through the lists of Dylan compositions including some that are so obscure that they haven’t even appeared on out take collections.  Consider I once knew a man for example – once used as part of a TV show, and then left.   Songs like that just add to the feeling that Dylan has abandoned more brilliant works in his notebooks than most acclaimed songwriters have actually completed and had published.  And I haven’t even got to songs where Dylan on stage has evolved a version that is so brilliant they ought to be included on an album even if there is already a version on a studio CD, (When He Returns being one of my favourite examples).

Why then does this happen?  Why doesn’t Bob see songs like I see them?  And can I really argue with his selection?  He is after all the master songwriter, and I’m just a commentator who writes a few songs for fun.

These are the questions I am trying to answer.  And to make sense of a whole raft of varying ideas I have divided what I want to say into a set of short sections.  I’m hoping this makes the possible explanations for this seemingly odd behaviour easier to follow.

1: Musicians are different from other artists

All creative artists experiment.  Art galleries and museums are full of the sketch books of the great painters (often kept in the basement or revealed for special short-run exhibitions).  Choreographers spend forever working and re-working possibilities of their dances in the rehearsal studios – experiments which are set aside (although often videoed but not released to the public) as the dancers work towards their final performance.

Playwrights might well re-work their plays to accommodate a cast, but the result normally dies with the end of the run.  The play as published remains the play.  Photographers might take a hundred shots of one scene, and discard almost all of them, if not all of them.   Yes, later these photos might be made available for the real enthusiast, but generally it is the one chosen image that remains selected.

So, I contend, all artists in all art forms are liable to create multiple versions of their work.  But it is only in recent times with digitalisation that we have a chance to hear the early and alternative versions of songs which were part of the experimental process.  But what Dylan does in re-working and abandoning pieces of music is the way of song writers.  Indeed there is the reporting of the conversation that Dylan had with Leonard Cohen, with Cohen saying that it took him a year to write a song while Dylan wrote a piece in half an hour.  Cohen would have re-written line after line (even word after word) of the song to craft it as he wanted it.

But Dylan doesn’t work like this.  He works fast and then changes arrangements with the band to get the final recording he likes – or he abandons a song because he can’t get it right.  Sometimes (but less often) he goes back and re-works later so that ultimately we get many different versions of songs.  Desolation Row, revived in a new form for the 2017 tour is one perfect example.

Yes Dylan works fast, and as a consequence he often just moves on, ever busy, ever touring.  Rarely is Bob’s interest in the past as it was.  He is much more interested in re-writing the past and delivering the new.  So he would sooner offer us the new, rather than something that for him is old (even if we have never had the chance to hear it before).

But such an explanation is only the beginning.

2: Pop and rock music are open to far more criticism than other art forms because of the popularity

This makes the judgement of music much harder to undertake, because from its origins in the 1950s there has been a near-universal interest in what’s new in rock, not the old, and the new is now emerging at an unprecedented speed.  As a result judgements are made instantly, the reviews are written, and retrospectives tend to have to wait a while.

Yes we still like the old – like many people I’ve got hundreds of CDs in the house, and I play them, but the essence of pop and rock has always been the new.  I think Dylan doesn’t have this vision with other people’s music, but he does with his own.  He re-writes the old successes, but doesn’t bother with the past “failures” (“failures” in his eyes and ears, not ours).

What’s more although the critics are everywhere covering all the arts – but the criticism is much more public in popular music than in other art forms simply because so many people are listening and giving their views.   A new play may open and the critics might give their views, but only a few people will get to see it.  A new CD is released and immediately everyone interested will hear at least extracts from it, judgements will be instant, and the verdict is set.  “Oh Mercy” was brilliant, “Red Sky” was rubbish.  That sort of thing.

It is hard to recover from a bad critical start with an album – whereas the playwright, the director and the producer can go back and make changes, and try again.

As we can see from the Chronology of Dylan’s song writing as shown on this site Dylan has regularly had periods where he has simply stopped writing, before re-emerging with a complete new set of songs.   He seems to be a man who accepts the desire for the new – whether it be a totally new song, or a completely new version of an old favourite.

3: Other popular art does get it wrong too 

Dylan’s activities as a songwriter are incredibly open to public debate in a way that most artists in most art forms are not subjected to.

Take TV series as an example.  The first step in evolving a new series is to set out the format idea and offer it to a few production companies, or a TV station that commissions work.

If the idea gets past that stage (which can be long and tedious and involves a lot of people throwing in their opinions) then next step is the making of a pilot episode.  If that  is considered to be ok by the powers that be, it is shown to an audience in a small theatre, the audience then filling in questionnaires about how they felt about the programme.

Sometimes the idea falls at that stage, sometimes there is the request for changes or even (rarely, but it can still happen) the making of a second pilot, and then if finally all goes well, a series is commissioned.    After that it is all down to the ratings – if they are not good enough, the who idea is dropped after series one – and most certainly a lot of shows get through all the trial stages, make a series and then vanish.

So even with all this checking and cross-checking, TV series can get it terribly wrong.

But Dylan doesn’t have any of this.  Certainly by the time of “Another Side”, if not with the making of “Times they are a changin'” Dylan had complete artistic control in relation to what was going to be on the album.   But he has never had much to base this power on, other than his own genius.  Which is quite a powerful base to call upon, of course, but even utter geniuses can make huge mistakes in terms of their art.

In short, while a lot of art requires a lot of people to come into line and agree that everything should look like this and be like that, with Dylan’s albums from a very early stage, this has not been the case.  He’s made judgements of his own, and it is not a criticism of him to say that sometimes he’s got things wrong.  It is just how it goes.

Now, moving on, for the next points, I want to look at the issue of art and the artist.

4: It is hard to judge your own art

Of course Bob Dylan has more talent in his little finger than I have in my whole being, but even so I’ve more or less managed to earn my living across the years by writing, and I had to learn very early on how hard it was to judge my own creative work.

In the early days I was endlessly surprised by this.  Some writing that I thought was ok, but not much more, was accepted by publishers, newspapers, magazines etc, while other pieces that I thought were superb were utterly rejected and no one would touch them.  Gradually as time went by and in the very specialist field I work in, I became better known – and of course I gained more experience, and I learned who to listen to and how to judge my own work.  There’s nothing unusual in this, all the other people I know in the creative arts have similar experiences – and if not they have by and large given up and take up another job.

What changed my vision of my own work was the combination of the fact that some books simply never ever got published despite my spending months or years on them and offering them to every publisher under the sun, and the occasion in which I submitted a book that got the most vitriolic rejection letter I ever received (and I got quit a few).

This rejection was really vicious.  Being fairly battle scarred by then, and having a little more faith in my own writing than in earlier times, I continued to offer the book around, and soon after got it published by Oxford University Press (just about the most prestigious publisher for the subject).  It became a best seller in its field.

So, sometimes my judgement is right, sometimes not.  I’m not a great writer by any means but I’ve had a lot published, and in terms of both public sales and (in recent years hits on internet sites) I am still very fallible.  Talking to other people in the creative arts, I don’t think this is so unusual.

5: Many artists keep the work private

I don’t think anyone has done a proper survey on the subject but I get the feeling that Dylan is quite unusual in having all his proto-songs available in the public domain.  Partly this is because of his working technique in which he writes songs in the studio and tries them out with the band – sometimes without the words or melody or much else written as yet.

If we take To fall in love with you for example, this is regarded by many (and certainly by me) as a wonderful song, even though the words are clearly only half formed.  Why Dylan chose to abandon it we don’t know, but abandon it he did.  We only know of it because the tape of the session survived.

Have other artists dismissed work of such quality as they have gone along?  I doubt that there are many; Dylan’s ability is to conjure melodies and chords out of nowhere and just play them.  But since much of the time he can do it so easily and with seemingly so little effort, he seems to leave incomplete songs scattered where ever he goes.  Lesser artists abandon less, I suspect, because they have less to abandon.

But perhaps it is more interesting to ask why he doesn’t go back to some of these past masterpieces at a time when he is finding composition more difficult.  He has after all done it on occasion (although not that often).

I think the answer lies in his fascination with and love of the newly created songs.  The old become familiar and are discarded, at least until totally new versions can be released – then they become new again.

6: Dylan believes nothing is fixed

Bob’s attitude takes us back to an age in which nothing was fixed.  The folk singers, the troubadours, the minstrels all played and sang endless variations, which is why Scottish, English and Irish folk songs turn up all over the place, each slightly amended, each reflecting the locality in terms of lyrics, melody, and particularly favoured rhythms.

And quite clearly from all his re-working on tour, Bob does not like the notion of the final, fixed rendition.   With Dylan we are not in the age of Bach, Mozart or Beethoven when every note was written exactly as it is to be performed, but to an earlier age – an age more in keeping with the plays of Shakespeare, endlessly amended and re-written for each group of players depending on the cast.

7: Bob’s working practice

If we now think of  what we know of Bob’s working practice, we can note that he’s the opposite of (to take one example) Dylan Thomas who could spend all day worrying about three words in a poem, trying to decide on exactly the right combination of adjectives and noun for his sentence.

Bob Dylan is noted as quite often writing a song while the band sit around waiting, and then when he’s ready they play it through with him a few times and record it.

There is of course nothing wrong with such an approach, and nothing to say that the slower, more considered approach of other artists is better.  It is the approach that Dylan uses, and clearly it serves him well because he has written multiple masterpieces.   But it does mean that although it can often result in masterpieces it is possible for lesser works to slip through; works that because of their novelty might appear to Bob be songs of major importance at the start, but which actually turn out to be lesser works than were originally considered.

This whole “first take” approach can work wonderfully well but it can also result in recordings which one might feel could have been improved.   Indeed I might be the only person upset by it, but the mistake by the bass player in the final verse of Visions of Johanna, on the original Blonde on Blonde recording has annoyed me from the day I heard it as a youngster when I bought the album.  The bassist forgets that then last verse has two extra lines, and so he plays as he has moved on to the ultimate “And these Visions” line.   Dylan either didn’t notice, or didn’t mind.

Thus everything about Bob is “do it and move on” – an attitude which most of the time means that…

8: Bob fiddles and then stops

Bob does make important amendments and improvement to his work of course – and we have access to some of the recordings to show us his working practices.   And sometimes this serves him very well – as with “Tell Ol’ Bill” where there is no doubt that the final version is the masterpiece.   Across the set of recordings the piece changes amazingly, ending up in the minor key (which turns out to be perfect for the message and the melody) with a new piano arrangement. The final version is quite different from where it started.

But it doesn’t always work that way.  And this I think leads us to a key point…

9: Bob rejects some of his best because they are not quite as good as he knows they can be.

This leads us on to something quite different: Dylan, as we have noted, and like virtually all creative geniuses whose working practices have been recorded by biographers and commentators, works and re-works some of his pieces.  But I think sometimes he simply doesn’t release excellent works because somehow they have a flaw that he sees.  The song isn’t quite as he perceives it in his head.   There is something wrong, but he can’t quite sort it.    He can’t overcome that flaw, so he lets it go because there are other songs beckoning. Other times, lesser works are as good as they can get, and so Bob releases them.

In short the struggle to get Mississippi to sound exactly as he knew it could sound was ultimately too much.  He gave up, dropped it from the album, thinking (perhaps) that maybe one day he would come back and try again.

10: He has bursts of creativity and contractual obligations

Bob clearly works in bursts.  While in the early years he worked consistently and we have reports of him writing and re-writing songs while living a life of leisure in Europe, later we have Bob creating songs in the studio under pressure as the band sit around waiting for the new song to emerge.  In such circumstances it is not surprising that his level of judgement is sometimes amiss.  Given more time, he might have made a different call.

I don’t think this explanation works all the way through, but I think occasionally it is part of what is going on.

11:  Bob’s total control has helped him explore, experiment and evolve, but it has its downside.

Of course I’ve never met him, never been in his studio to watch him work, so I don’t know for sure, but in the reports of musicians of who have worked for Bob I get the clear impression that no one can tell him what to do.

And I sympathise with that.  I’ve worked with creative artists of whom I am in absolute awe, and I’ve worked with creative artists of whom I am afraid.  In neither case would I have dared say a word.  (And no, I’m not saying who – you never know, the next phone call might be from one such offering me some writing work; I don’t want to screw that chance up, even if it is a long shot).

Of course the total control system is generally good, for it stopped record company executives telling him that he couldn’t release “Rolling Stone” because there is a band called the Rolling Stones, or because DJs won’t play anything that is over three minutes long, so the positives outweigh the negatives by and large.

12:  Like all creative geniuses Bob gets carried away with ideas

For a person like Bob, the new always outweighs the old.   And in a sense this final notion is a combination of many that have gone before.  When Bob is in the mood to create new songs and finds that the muse is with him, that is what he wants to do.   But also there is a drive to get the songs recorded and done.  One take quite often, sometimes two or three.  When there are seven or eight it is because something really isn’t working with the song and he just can’t get it right.

That is frustrating, and in the end Bob moves on to the new.  The song he is dissatisfied with is left behind as new ideas drive him on.   Plus that eternal desire inherited from Robert Johnson that one has “gotta keep moving”.

Mississippi, Caribbean Wind, I once knew a man, Ballad for a Friend, Blind Willie… and many more that you can select from the 450+ songs listed on this site that never made it onto the mainstream albums.

Conclusion

My view, and of course it is no more than that, is that the reason some of the great songs are abandoned and lost is somewhere in that list of 12.  Maybe one day it is one of those explanations, maybe sometimes it is several.

But if I had to choose just one, I would say it comes from that Robert Johnson drive.  You’ve just gotta keep moving.

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9 Responses to Why can’t Bob Dylan appreciate which are his best compositions?

  1. Michele says:

    I totally agree, especially for Carribean Wind, maybe I would like include Girl of the red River shore and Angelina. Some versions of Tell tale signs are better that the original (for me particulary I can’t wait) and as Paul Williams said the first versions or live versions of the album Saved have generally more vitality than the album version

  2. Michael says:

    Wonderful article that has always been of interest to me… Thanks

  3. Tony Lewis says:

    Michele included some great underrated gems such as Girl of the Red River Shore.

    “Where are You Tonight” off of Street Legal, “Narrow Way” from The Tempest, “High-water” off of Love & Theft are utterly fantastic. So are Ain’t Talkin’ from Modern Times and Highlands off of Time Out of Mind.

  4. Eric Wishart says:

    Mississippi is the second track on Love and Theft

  5. Kieran says:

    It’s mysterious, but very interesting. I think #9 is spot on – sometimes he probably feels the song just isn’t as good as it can be. Also, he often speaks about songs he left off, saying things like, “I didn’t feel we got it right”, or in the case of Caribbean Wind, that he went back to finish it but lost his train of thought. We all agree that the song is still great, but he’s on the inside looking out, and he probably sees parts of the song where he didn’t quite connect.

    In the 80’s, I don’t think there was a greater songwriter anywhere than Bob Dylan – and that’s just based on the songs he left off records. Maybe too, Bob doesn’t like to conform to what everyone wants. I read somewhere that when he’s in the studio, if the musicians fawn over a song, it rubs him up the wrong way, for some reason. Maybe he doesn’t trust their judgment?

    Sometimes though, I think he gets it right. I actually prefer Tight Connection… to Someone’s Got a Hold… & I prefer the L&T version of Mississippi to the TOOM version…

  6. Tribute says:

    This is a silly argument. Keeping a song off an album (Red River Shore, Blind Willie McTell, etc) may just be based on Dylan’s judgement that they are the most meaningful to him, the best, or whatever term you wish to use. Many creative artists retain and do not “release” or sell those works that are deeply personal or their favorites etc.

  7. Tony Lewis says:

    Was my above comment offensive?

  8. TonyAttwood says:

    No, but because we get a lot of comments that are irrelevant or indeed offensive there is a moderation system in place. But I run the site on my own, so sometimes I am out doing other things, and don’t get to clear the comments for a day. Fortunately because the site doesn’t deal with matters of immediate urgency, and many people are commenting on articles written months or years ago, it seems to work ok.

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