“Dress it up, Better have it all”: Dylan’s incomprehensible song transcribed.

By Tony Attwood

“Dress It Up, Better Have It All” (seemingly known originally just as “Better have it all”) is one of those songs that vanished for many a long year, yet were known about by having been on a list of Basement Tape songs recorded, but not available even as an unofficial bootleg.  

And then finally it turned up officially on volume 11 of the Bootleg series.  So at last we had a recording.  But there still was a problem.  No one quite knows what it is all about.

Musically the song is easy to describe: “a rockabilly 12 bar bouncy blues” seems to cover it, but it is the lyrics that are pretty hard to disentangle.   One or two brave souls on the internet have had a go, but it remains without words on Bob Dylan’s official site, although the site does have a blank page for the song just in case: no lyrics, no performance detail (there seemingly were none).  Just a blank.

Ah well, down to us then.

The song has a double bass playing rather than a bass guitar and there’s the pianist having some fun, and Bob really sounds as if he knows the lyrics, but he just isn’t going to make them clear.

And clearly some people have really got into the song – for certainly it is lively and fun.  There’s a review on Amazon of the track that says, “One of the nicer previously un-bootlegged Basement Tapes”.   But, I wonder what the writer meant by “nicer”.  It’s fun, it’s jolly and it’s incomprehensible.  But “nicer”?

It has been suggested that the song is about a woman who maybe isn’t quite doing what our Bob wants her to do.   But what do you do with a set of lyrics when the opening line is transcribed as 

“Oh, mos’ feet and it hang, can’t you see?” I groan.

On the other hand maybe Bob was trying to make up a song out of random phrases just to see what it came out like.  Except the trouble with that notion is that we can’t actually be sure what we are hearing is the lyrics he is singing.

Such as

Well, hot dog, goody me. Settle on a trail

Indeed perhaps the whole idea is for us to have to work out our own lyrics.  In that case if it had been released as a mainstream track Bob would have insisted that the lyrics were never published so he could see what ideas people came up with in articles, and then if any were any good, he’d use them in another song.  Or indeed in this song.  That would be quite a turn around.  He could stand on stage and say, “here’s a song some of you wrote”.

The Something Else Reviews however does come up with an idea

“Aw, let’s shake it up!” Dylan cackles, as if peering into a future in which fans long inoculated to the enveloping joys of this period could find themselves agape once more.

Well, maybe.

But there is one other point.  Although one can quite reasonably argue that the whole of the Basement Tapes period was an incredibly rich vein of writing for Dylan, this mini-period which contained “Better have it all” was, we should know, particularly rich.

The order in which the songs were written is of course open to debate, but as far as can be worked out what we got around this time was

Now that’s a pretty nifty list containing a number of songs most of us would, I think, recognise as being of an extremely high quality.

Maybe “Better have it all” was just a prelude to this outpouring of quality songs, and it was just sung with whatever words Dylan had in his head (hence the lack of a lyrics sheet), and even if that is all it was, it is still worth hearing as the song that preceded “I’m not there” (another song that maybe didn’t have the lyrics written), and then “This Wheel’s on Fire”, “I shall be released”, “Too much of nothing,” and “Tears of rage.”

And let’s not forget that “Too much” reached number 35 in the US charts, “This Wheel” got to number 5 in the UK singles chart, “Quinn” made number 1 in the UK, and well over 60 well known artists have recorded “I shall be released”.

Not bad for a series of songs written one after the one.  Who knows what might have happened to “Dress it up” if Dylan had finished it with a complete set of lyrics.

Here are the lyrics from Metro Lyrics, who are clearly braver than me when it comes to transcription.  The source is Band – Dress It Up, Better Have It All Lyrics | MetroLyrics

They also do a list of Dylan lyrics in the order of popularity of searching for them.

“Oh, mos’ feet and it hang, can’t you see?” I groan.
She says, ‘Oh, wha’ ‘ts arright.” I said, “Jesus, don’t take it at all.”
She’s a past-cold beauty, but she can’t light a cannonball.

Now, down by the river she’s a-hop on her knees,
and I holler to my baby, yelling, “Please, please, please!”
Oh, then I hit her and doubt my chase at all.
Now, no hoax. Let’s go! But it’s that pure soul, and it’s off the ball.

Now, honey, I’m makin’ a hot to road.
Now I’m happy to leaving, but it’s a heavy load.
I said, “Ah, my babe. She don’t meet me no half at all.”
Dress it up. Best to pick up, bub: better have it all.

[Oh, let’s shake it up.]

Well, hot dog, goody me. Settle on a trail
Down apart my knees I can’t find my kerry. Find a nail!
She old top these… oh, better hold mine up.
Please, let’s go, ‘n’ I hope it don’t interrupt.

[Oh, do it again, now. One time for Bozo and his dog.
Hot skimmin’, jumpaway. yay, yay, yay, yay.]

I hope that helped make it more understandable.

What else is on the site

1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews

 

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