Bob Dylan: 1971 (the fourth of the seven lean years)

By Jochen Markhorst

1971 is the fourth year of Dylan’s Seven Lean Years, the dry spell that Dylan himself places between John Wesley Harding (late 1967) and Blood On The Tracks (late 1974). These are the years when Dylan sits on the waterfront, watching the river flow, waiting for the inspiration to paint a masterpiece.

Then, in January ’71, a tape of Leon Russell floats by, inspiring a brief but long-legged revival: the songs Dylan recorded with Russell in March ’71 are on the setlist 50 years later, throughout the Rough & Rowdy Ways World Tour 2021-2024, night after night, some 200 times.

Apparently, they mean something to Dylan…

And there shall arise after them seven years of famine

by Jochen Markhorst

The designation “Seven Lean Years” for the years 1968-1974 does evoke some resistance in Dylan circles. As in any fan community, there is quite a faction among Dylan fans parrying passionately, though not always coherently, both genuine criticism and perceived criticism of the idol. The tenor of the protest is obvious: Dylan really did make some very fine songs in those years. Okay, on a detailed level the displeased differ. In defence of Dylan’s honour one brave crusader boldly declares that New Morning (1970) is “massively underrated”, another sentinel limits himself to replying in reproachful capital letters with “NASHVILLE SKYLINE!”, a third Knight of the Locked Caps claims with straight face that Planet Waves is one of Dylan’s best records at all, and the dramatic climax comes from Canada from a hopefully ironic disciple arguing that “Winterlude” is “one of the best songs he ever wrote” – but the strategy of all the patrons is, of course, identical: citing Dylan recordings from the 1968-74s as proof of his mastery. And to refute the “Lean Years” classification, which is perceived as derogatory.

Charming and understandable, this defensive reflex, but sadly ill-founded. Joseph, the founder of the concept (Genesis 41, The dream of Pharaoh) explains it well enough: seven years of abundant harvests are followed by seven years of famine – in the seven lean years, the land produces little grain, compared to the quantities of grain in the seven fat years before.

Wednesday 29 November 1967 is the third and last day of recording for John Wesley Harding. Monday 16 September 1974 is the first recording day for Blood On The Tracks. The seven intervening years may, for quantitative reasons alone, be called the Seven Lean Years:

In the “Seven Fat Years” (1961 to 1967) Dylan wrote 222 songs.

(By comparison, in these seven years 1961-1967, John & Paul came to 108 Lennon/McCartney songs. The Jagger/Richards counter stood at 77 at the end of 1967.)

In the seven years between JWH and BOTT Dylan wrote 52 songs.

To put things in perspective, those 222 Dylan songs include dozens of one-day wonders, mayflies and passing fads from the Basement (“I’m Not There” and “Clothes Line Saga”, for instance), throwaway songs we know thanks to hotel room recordings and the like (“Definitively Van Gogh”), sketches and snippets of outtakes (“Jet Pilot”). But even without those stunted songs, the production on Dylan’s Seven Fat Years remains well above that of his peers, and well above the production quantities he manages to achieve himself in later years. All in all, the comparison of Joseph’s 14 Egyptian years on the one hand, and Dylan’s first 14 years on the other, seems pretty conclusive.

Bob Dylan – Definitively Van Gogh:

The comparison with the oeuvres of other artists, while impressive, is not too relevant in this regard, of course. After all, the metaphors from Pharaoh’s dream, the Seven Fat Cows/Seven Skinny Cows and the Seven Full Heads of Grain/Seven Thin Heads of Grain are closed in on themselves; meant only for comparison with themselves. Rightly, Joseph does not relate the harvests to, say, Sumeria, Elam or Libya, but rather compares Egyptian harvest years to Egyptian harvest years.

Anyway: so the “lean years” classification refers to quantity, not quality. “Quality” is – obviously – not objectively measurable, and discussions soon degenerate into the sometimes amusing but usually not very fruitful bickering about what is a good song, what is a mediocre song and what is an out-of-category song. Still, there is something sensible to say about that too – albeit with some restraint.

Indeed, apart from the quantitative argument for referring to the seven years from late 1967 to late 1974 as “Lean Years”, it is also striking: most of the songs (about 70%) from those years simply evaporate. They aren’t played live, don’t appear on compilation albums, are covered remarkably little, are underrepresented in the various “100 best Dylan songs” lists (songs like “Wigwam”, “On A Night Like This”, “Billy”, “Living The Blues”, “Three Angels”, “One More Weekend”… it’s a long list).

I myself – like all Dylan fans – find plenty of beauty in this period (Nashville Skyline, “The Man in Me”, the 1971 “Leon Russell songs”, “Never Say Goodbye”), but I don’t think it’s too absurd to classify the mercurial songs from ’65-’66 on the one hand or Blood On The Tracks on the other as artistically more valuable. Ditto for the folk songs, love songs and protest songs from ’62-’64; it does require some mental acrobatics and uncritical benevolence to equate the beauty of, say, “One Too Many Mornings” or “Seven Curses” or “Just Like A Woman” with, say, “Country Pie” or “Wedding Song” or “Went To See The Gypsy”.

Which is not to say anything against the 52 songs from the Lean Years – with any other artist, we would describe the years in which songs like “Forever Young”, “Lay, Lady, Lay” and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” are written as the Golden Years. But Dylan, with “Visions Of Johanna”, “All Along The Watchtower”, “Hard Rain”, “It’s Alright, Ma” and all those other immortal masterpieces, has simply set the bar for himself somewhere in the stratosphere.

Bob Dylan – Seven Curses:

Dylan himself, by the way, is generally rather condescending about his work from those lean years. In interviews and in Chronicles, for example (“I just threw everything I could think of at the wall and whatever stuck, released it, and then went back and scooped up everything that didn’t stick and released that, too”); he repeatedly claims that in those years he didn’t know how to write songs anymore (“It was like amnesia” and “Never until I got to Blood On The Tracks did I finally get a hold of what I needed to get a hold of”); and Al Kooper’s account of his work with Dylan on New Morning (in Kooper’s autobiography Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards) is disconcerting.

For what it’s worth, of course; the value of Dylan’s take on his own work is not uncontroversial. But in this case I do go a long way with him, yes.

PS: Like Joseph and the Pharaoh, Dylan eventually survives the drought. The seven years following these lean years (BOTT through Shot Of Love, 1975-1981) are again astoundingly prolific, and almost at the mercurial level: 110 songs, including granite monuments like “Every Grain Of Sand”, “Isis”, “Where Are You Tonight?”, “When He Returns” and all those other immortal masterpieces.

After which the next dry spell is already upon us…

Footnote from Tony: A full list of Dylan’s compositions in the 1970s in chronological order is to be found here.


Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

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