By Tony Attwood
The first thing to say is that although we don’t know of any songs Bob has written in recent years that isn’t definite proof that he hasn’t been playing around with some new ideas while on tour. In the old days we used to get copies of the sound check tapes (the sound checks often being used to try out songs – sometimes terrific songs that we never heard thereafter) and of course recordings from hotel rooms.
We don’t get these any more, but that doesn’t mean he’s not writing.
And the second thing to say is that even if Bob isn’t writing at the moment, that is not to say he won’t suddenly go into a studio and start putting down tracks. After all, that’s what he’s done before – and as I’ll try to show in this little piece, his writing up til now has not been a smooth progression year on year.
If, like me, you are what we call in England being “of a certain age” you might well have been listening to Dylan in the 1960s, in which case you will have got used in those early days to the music just pouring out and pouring out.
Even if you didn’t know the totals, you’ll have been aware that the number was high: 35 compositions in 1962, 29 in 1963, 19 in 1964, 29 in 1965… and so it went on and on and on.
In fact it didn’t stop until 1968 when Dylan wrote just one song Lay Lady Lay – and even that was delivered so late it never got used for the film that had commissioned it.
After that Bob seemed to settle down for a moment with maybe around 15 songs a year being written, but we also began to see that periods of not writing were also part of Bob’s style.
And equally interesting was the fact that sometimes in these fallow periods the songs that did emerge were particularly fine. 1971 for example saw Dylan write just four songs of which two, When I paint my masterpiece and Watching the river flow will live forever in my memory even if not in everyone’s. (And I note with interest that “Masterpiece” is being played on the current Australian tour).
Then we were off again with songs – many of them of the highest Dylan quality – coming out year on year until 1976 was a year of pause before another explosion which ended with Where are you tonight?
My point here is not to bore you stupid with a count of the number of songs Dylan wrote year by year, but rather to say, if there is a pattern to Dylan’s writing it is that after those first few years of explosive writing, he has not been a regular writer. He has often had times where he has simply stopped, times when he collaborated, times when he wrote some songs that were not always of the top Dylan standard.
Of course we’ll all have our own opinions on that, and I’m not writing this piece to convince you of my view, but I suspect everyone will feel that some years are better than others. We find 17 songs written in 1978 for example, but for me, this is far from being a bumper year.
So it goes on and even at times when Bob was seemingly losing his way a bit he’d still come up with a number of classics, which in anyone else’s portfolio would have been the absolute career highlights. In Dylan’s case, some of them never even made the regular LP of the day.
But then we really did get a big stop of 1991 to 1995 – a period that made many of us who tended to keep a regular eye on the old fella, feel that the writing days were over. Indeed even the songs that are credited from the end of that period can be argued to have had an origin way back in the leftovers of 1984. (Although one co-composition from that time Well well well really is an absolute beauty.)
But the fact that songs that were from 10 years earlier were being recycled and re-written, and the fact that there were just four of them really did seem to indicate that as a songwriter Bob had had it.
And then what did he do? In 1996 he created a collection of songs including Mississippi and Not Dark Yet But although these are masterpieces that for any other songwriter would be the all time highlight of a career, the pace was slowing down. Six songs (all of the highest quality) in 1997, nothing in 1998 and then Things have Changed in 1999.
In the 21st century it has been harder to track down exactly when Bob wrote each song, since we don’t get the outtakes any more – those engineers must be frisked as they leave the studio each day – but in this century we have had four bursts of songwriting – 2001, 2005/6, 2008/9, 2011/12.
Will Bob deliver? Who knows – he certainly never does what we expect, and equally certainly never works to order. Maybe that’s it. Or maybe, sitting in his hotel room during the current tour he’s putting the finishing touches to a new collection which will recorded as soon as he takes a break from touring.
Or maybe not. After all he’s written over 500 songs (I must check our listing, but I think we’ve reviewed something like 545 different songs that Bob has written or co-written), so it’s not as if he’s done us short. But yes, I can’t help wishing for just one more collection. Just one more CD. That last collection of songs that tell us, “This is how I see it all now.”
In fact Bob, if one of your close associates who keeps an eye on what the fans are saying, ever passes this inconsequential little ramble onto you, you can have “This is how I see it all now” as a song title. Or even an album title. And you can say, a little bit like you said way back in the 60s, “This is a title given me by some guy over in England”.
“This is how I see it all now.” Bob Dylan’s new album.
Well, I’m allowed to dream.
You might also like “Bob Dylan year by year; decade by decade” which contains links to the index of each year’s compositions, in chronological order.
What else is on the site?
You’ll find an index to our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page. You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.
The index to the 500+ songs reviewed is now on a new page of its own. You will find it here. It contains reviews of every Dylan composition that we can find a recording of – if you know of anything we have missed please do write in.
We also now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link
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.