by Tony Attwood
Ever since 1968 we’ve had the idea that Bob can and will stop composing from time to time, either because he wants a break or because he has run out of ideas. But we’ve also had the clear view that after such a pause he’ll be back in full writing mode, and ultimately a new album of original songs will emerge.
So, for example, in 1968, after an incredibly productive run of seven solid years of composing, he wrote one song. It was a hell of a song (Lay Lady Lay) – but still it was just one song – and it was delivered too late for the movie it was supposed to be in.
Now that particular dead stop was a bit of a shock given the productivity Bob had shown in the previous years – between 15 and 21 songs in each of the years from 1962 onwards, plus that massive outpouring of over 70 more or less completed songs in the Basement Tape year of 1967.
And indeed Dylan then got back to composing regularly with his country songs and the rural idyll that was “New Morning.” But in 1971/2 he had another slow down, writing four songs and some background music for Billy the Kid over a two year period. It was our first hint that occasional cessations of the creative flow could be expected.
In 1976 there was another pause and again just one song came forth – while in all the years in between one pause and the next we got the regular output of anything between seven and 18 songs a year.
Through the 1980s and into 1990 it was generally full steam ahead for Bob the Songwriter, but then in 1991/5 it was another stop period. (There are some songs that are occasionally credited to this era, but as I explain in the chronology files these songs were co-written ventures, with Dylan’s contribution having been written some years before).
Then he was off again until the next slow down which came in 1998-2000 we got just one song. It was a great song, (Things have changed) but it was just the one.
Of course we have to be realistic here: for anyone else “Things have changed” would be a masterpiece to base one’s entire reputation on, but Bob Dylan the songwriter is not anyone else. He is that rarity – the person who can write incredibly popular music through almost every decade of this life.
2002/5 was another lean period with just three songs, but then the writing picked up again until 2010, when we had another dead stop. The final collection of Dylan originals we know about were written in 2011/12, and since then nothing.
Of course we don’t know what’s he’s writing at home or in the hotel room these days, so maybe something more is about to emerge, but four years without any new material is the longest spell there has been with absolutely nothing new emerging. (Although let me add here, I might have missed a film song or two – if you know of anything written since the Tempest songs of 2012, please do let me have the details. And if it is totally obvious and I really should have known, be gentle with me in pointing out my ignorance).
But there’s another factor to put into the mix – from 2005, a number of Dylan’s compositions have been highly derivative, taking as their source anything from old blues numbers to romantic Bing Crosby songs. Of course not all are like this, but there are a few.
So the last album of original material was Together Through Life and it is said that when Bob was asked why he recorded this album at this time when perhaps another album was not really expected he said, “Inspiration is hard to come by. You have to take it where you find it.”
Of course Bob is notorious for not telling us the whole truth or even any of the truth, but combined with the lack of subsequent releases of new material, this growing time span since the last album of originals, and the persistence of his record company in releasing albums of concert recordings from days long past, and the bootleg series, I think this was a telling phrase.
To me, “Inspiration is hard to come by. You have to take it where you find it,” is as clear an indication as we have ever had that not too much is on the horizon.
Thus unless Bob is working in utter secrecy on a new set of songs we are living in the longest period of non-productivity we’ve ever had in a songwriting career that has stretched back around 56 years – and that is not counting those early years before he came to New York.
But I think we have to admit there is no reason why Bob should write any more. He’s given us all more than enough to be going on with, and just within this little venture we’ve still got around 50 songs from the Basement Tapes era to review, along with four songs from the 2008/2012 era. And surely for a genius like Bob Dylan it is better to finish on a high rather than bring out an album of songs written by Bob but which are generally thought to be not of his best.
Indeed Bob needn’t worry about Untold Dylan and our venture to review all of his songs because even when we’ve reviewed the remaining four 21st century songs and the rest of the Basement Tapes materials, even then we won’t have finished, because there are those recordings of very early songs around, some of which Bob maybe composed – and I need to check that everything from those CDs and ensure everything from the original Bootleg triple album has been covered.
Plus I think we have to say, for a man who has given us so much pleasure through his creative work, when I write negatively of “a period of writing some songs based around other people’s lyrics and melodies plus a period of nothing much at all, makes it seem like things are running down a bit” – that is just me being greedy. I’d love there to be more original work, but that is just me, and the excitement I can feel each time a new Dylan CD arrives through the post.
In some ways this current situation is not all bad; what I don’t think any of us want is for Bob to release a collection of songs newly written, but which really are not at his normal level. For anyone who has ploughed through the whole collection of reives mentioned on this site must surely have noted that aside from the works of genius there are a few songs which leave one wondering why the sketch on the back of a napkin scribbled in a hotel bar actually turned into a recording.
Of course one might hope that someone close to Bob might one day persuade him to listen again to the recording of “To Fall in Love with You”. Maybe they can slip him a note that says that in the past year on this site the review of that song is the second most accessed article on the entire site. Only “Hard Rain” has had more page views in the 12 months to 18 August 2017.
And as a side issue, in case you are interested, here is the list of the most read song reviews in the past 12 months – and I would add that there is a huge gap in readership between the top two and the rest. “To Fall in Love with You” has had twice as many reads as “Tangled.”
- Hard Rain’s a gonna fall
- To fall in love with you
- Tangled up in blue.
- The times they are a changin
- Make you feel my love
- Visions of Johanna
- I shall be released
- Farewell Angelina
So maybe Bob could go back to “To fall in love with you” and complete the lyrics – it would be a sure fire hit. (And of course then I could claim that he’d read the notion here and that would keep us going for a bit longer, arguing that one through.
But looking at the gap this time around between today and the last time Bob released an album of his original compositions, and looking at how things have worked in the past, I have a feeling matters have indeed come to an end.
However I can’t be 100% sure, and if we are to get one or more new Dylan songs in the months or years ahead I think this is most likely to happen in one of these ways:
1: Bob does some more taking of ideas from novels, film scripts and other people’s songs, weaving the ideas into something new – although with the danger that Bob himself has highlighted of just coming up with a set of random lines.
2: Another film request comes along which Bob finds interesting. After all, films have produced some remarkable Dylan work over the years, not least “Things have changed” and “Tell Ol Bill”.
3: Bob finds another song writer he can work with and the power and energy to write more songs comes from the two co-writers each keeping the other on track.
It has to be one or more of those three I suspect. If not, I really do think the list of Bob Dylan compositions that we have is most likely to be more or less complete.
You can see the list of Dylan compositions in the order in which they were written through these five indexes:
- Dylan songs of the 1960s
- Dylan songs of the 1970s
- Dylan songs of the 1980s
- Dylan songs of the 1990s
- Dylan songs of the 21st century
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. A second index lists the articles under the poets and poetic themes cited – you can find that 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