The Current's Rock and Roll Book Club: Bob Dylan's 'Lyrics: 1961-2012'


Jay Gabler holds Dylan's 'Lyrics 1961-2012'
Jay Gabler holds Bob Dylan's 'Lyrics 1961-2012' (Hanna Bubser/MPR)

I listen to a lot of audiobooks — which I love, but I have to admit something's lost when you can't see the words on the page. Without seeing the shape of a sentence, a paragraph, a page in context, you lose some sense of how a book is held together. It can be a revelation seeing familiar words in print, which is part of the reason that it's worth paging through Bob Dylan's Lyrics: 1961-2012.

The volume, published just this month, is the most recent of three editions of Dylan's lyrics. The first came out in 1985, when it must have been a sobering reminder of how far he'd fallen; an updated version included songs written through 2001. This most recent collection was first published as a limited-edition book in 2014 — an expensive item edited and with an introduction by Dylan scholar Christopher Ricks.

There's no credit to Ricks in the new volume, which omits his introduction and incorporates Dylan's edits to "dozens of songs" — though good luck figuring out exactly which those are. What's more significant is that this is the first widely available Dylan lyrics collection to include songs from Modern Times (2006), Together Through Life (2009), and Tempest (2012).

Of course, all of these lyrics are also available on Dylan's website — completely for free, whereas even this less-special edition runs $60. Why buy it?

Well, as I mentioned above, there are insights to be gained by seeing these lyrics on the page. Comparing the structures of the songs illuminates Dylan's use of repetition and rhyme, for example. You see how relatively short the expansive-feeling songs on John Wesley Harding are, and how long some of those rambling early numbers get.

Reading Dylan's lyrics in book form, of course, also suggests a comparison to poetry — especially apt given his new status as a Nobel laureate. This book, in planning long before it was known that he'd win the prize, played a role in the will-he-or-won't-he-accept saga. A mention of the award in association with this book listing on his website was Dylan's first public acknowledgement of the prize — and when the Nobel mention was deleted, it sparked widespread speculation that Dylan intended to ignore the award altogether.

(Dylan later said, in an interview, that he's honored and hopes to travel to Sweden for the award ceremony next month.)

The lyrics are arranged chronologically by album — including songs that were written at the same time but weren't included on that album. Though an alphabetical organization would make for faster findability, this organization is better for browsing, and might inspire you to consider what track listings you would have assembled from the material Dylan had available to him at any given time. What if Oh Mercy, for example, included "Series of Dreams" instead of "Disease of Conceit"?

All in all, it's an overwhelming avalanche of brilliant songs. No wonder Dylan's set lists have been fairly static on recent tours — can you imagine reaching for this 679-page tome before every show and trying to choose a couple dozen songs? To figure out exactly how many songs are included here, I did some album-by-album math.

Bob Dylan: 2 (Dylan-written album tracks) + 27 (additional songs) = 29
The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan: 13 + 5 = 18
The Times They Are A-Changin': 10 + 6 = 16
Another Side of Bob Dylan: 11 + 4 = 15
Bringing It All Back Home: 11 + 3 = 14
Highway 61 Revisited: 9 + 3 = 12
Blonde on Blonde: 14 + 4 = 18
John Wesley Harding: 12
Nashville Skyline: 8 + 1 = 9
Self Portrait: ironically, only two
New Morning: 12 + 5 = 17
The Basement Tapes: 18 + 6 = 24
Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid: 2 (but one of them's "Knocking on Heaven's Door")
Planet Waves: 10 + 1 = 11
Blood on the Tracks: 10 + 2 = 12
Desire: 9 + 7 = 16
Street Legal: 9 + 1 = 10
Slow Train Coming: 9 + 3 = 12
Saved: 8 + 1 = 9
Shot of Love: 10 + 5 = 15
Infidels: 8 + 5 = 13
Empire Burlesque: 10
Knocked Out Loaded: 4 + 1 ("Band of the Hand [It's Hell time, Man!]") = 5
Down in the Groove: 2 + 1 = 3
Oh Mercy: 10 + 2 = 12
Under the Red Sky: 10 (no leftovers there)
Time Out of Mind: 11 + 2 = 13
"Love and Theft" (note canonical quotation marks): 12 + 2 = 14
Modern Times: 10 + 2 = 12
Together Through Life: 10
Tempest: 10
Total: 583

While we're doing math, here's another number: from that total song catalog, Dylan could play a different 17-song set every night until the sun dies five billion years from now. In fact, he could do that trillions of times over. Talk about a Neverending Tour!

Gratifying as it is to read through the lyrics, ultimately doing so will send you right back to the music. Insightful as it is to read the lyrics apart from the music, these words were written to go with music — and some songs that sound magical on record, like "Mr. Tambourine Man," just don't seem all that impressive when you isolate the lyrics.

The Lyrics 1961-2012 is an epic achievement — but it's hard to imagine Dylan winning the Nobel for these words alone. The most profound poetry isn't on the page, it's in the grooves.

Bob Dylan The Lyrics: 1961-2012 Giveaway

Use this form to enter The Current's Lyrics: 1961-2012 giveaway between 8 a.m. CDT on Wednesday, Nov. 9 and 11:59 p.m. CDT on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016.

One (1) winner will receive one (1) copy of The Lyrics: 1961-2012 and one (1) copy of Chronicles, Vol. I. Three (3) back up names will be drawn.

Prize retail value: $75

We will contact the winner on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2016. Winners must accept by 10 a.m. CT on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016.

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