“Borrowed Time”: a unique insight into Bob Dylan’s method of composition in the studio

By Tony Attwood and Larry Fyffe

“Borrowed Time” from April 1981 is a remarkable document, not just a really good, but unfinished, song.  Because what we have here is a complete recording of Dylan moving from a rough idea through to the complete music of a song along with the basic concept of the lyrics, in the space of 7 minutes 51 seconds.

And quite clearly the band playing with him are fully used to this approach because they pick up what is going on very quickly.  This is thus not a one off method of composing but a tried and test approach that Dylan and the band were used to using at the time.

Bob has already started playing by the time the tape gets going, and at the start has nothing much more than the idea (which musically defines the song).  This idea is of a piece which is in F and modulates to C in the second line.  It is not a complex device, and one that has been used in countless songs before, but one that Bob Dylan uses rarely.

The sequence as it settles down is

F Bb F
F Bb F

Simple stuff, but what makes it really work is the melody, such lyrics as we have, and the bouncy accompaniment.  And remember this is just the first run through.  Who knows where it might have gone.

What is clear at the start that the song has not evolved apart from that modulation, and indeed the opening line is not clearly defined in its chord change in the first complete verse.   Plus the notion of repeating “On borrowed time” at the end of the verse doesn’t come in until we are into the second minute of the recording, although it is a very defining addition to the composition.

It really is extraordinary how quickly Bob and the band get this song together so that by the third minute we really do have a piece in which we can have a well-constructed instrumental break, although the repeat of the last line is forgotten (having only just been introduced once).  Dylan brings it back in (three times!) for the next verse, and that leads into an other instrumental break – where again they have clearly agreed to drop the repeat.

I can’t emphasise enough what an incredibly valuable audio document this is, giving us such a fulsome insight into just how quickly the process  could work with Bob and a group of musicians who were totally in touch with how his music evolves.   Thus it is by the second instrumental break we have the clear acceptance that the repeated last line does NOT appear in the breaks, only in the sung verses – and all without anyone giving any instructions and nothing written down.

And indeed it is also extraordinary how many words Bob can get out, and indeed which the backing singer/s can pick up.

Plus we must note that Dylan, who likes humorously to mix up the medicine, may be comparing the terror of end-rhymes to that of end-times.  One possibility in the lyrics may be:

What can I tell you, we’re living on borrowed time
When you’re defeated at the end of the road
After the letter failed to explode
When you’ve been defeated at the end of the line
What can I tell you, we’re living on borrowed time

In a very real sense this is harking back to the times and rhymes of:

This wheel’s on fire
Rolling down the road
Best notify my next of kin
This wheel shall explode

What is also interesting is the comment of Heylin who writes, “… ‘Borrowed Time’ and ‘Almost Persuaded’… were presumably meant to be real songs, ‘Borrowed Time’ being an apposite title for a song that lasts ten minutes (sic) before Dylan decides to give up the search.”

And yet this is a perfectly decent, enjoyable, bouncy song going through its first run through with no lyrics sorted out other than the title.   Plus with an ability with lyrics that Dylan has who knows where it might end have gone in defining whose borrowed time and where the borrowed time is taking us.  Everything is in place to carry the song through – all it needed was a good set of words following on from that title.

Of course that was never delivered, but to see how fast the whole process could work up to the point that Dylan needed to add the lyrics is quite an insight and a half.




I do hope the original recording is fully archived somewhere, because this is such a valuable historical document with a rare insight into how the master song writer could work – at least at this time in his career.

Think there’s something missing or wrong with this review?

You are of course always welcome to write a comment below, but if you’d like to go further, you could write an alternative review – we’ve already published quite a few of these.  We try to avoid publishing reviews and comments that are rude or just criticisms of what is written elsewhere – but if you have a positive take on this song or any other Dylan song, and would like it considered for publication, please do email Tony@schools.co.uk

What else is on the site

1: 500+ 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 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 produced 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 our articles on various writers’ lists of Dylan’s ten greatest songs.

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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  1. Indeed, Dylan may even be singing “defeated at the end of the rhyme’, not ‘line’, that I first thought I heard, but it’s not all that clear, that’s for sure.

  2. This is incredible, and it gives us an idea of the composition process of Dylan, it hurts that it was never finished, by the way I wanted to ask you if you could do a review of the song ‘Waiting for the Morning Light’, which Dylan composed with Gene Simmons for his 2004 solo album ‘Asshole’.

  3. The complete basements tapes “bootleg” documents several instances of this same kind of musical process.

  4. Maybe this is a later form of composition? The way Al Kooper speaks about the “Blonde on Blonde” songs, it sounds like the lyrics were all written in advance.

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