I attended a talk at Columbia Univ’s Heyman Center featuring Christopher Ricks and Sean Wilentz discussing the new lyrics compilation edited by Ricks, Lisa Nemrow, and Julie Nemrow. The Nemrows publish the Simon and Schuster imprint through which Lyrics is offered. I don’t own the book because I can’t afford to buy it at the moment.
Prof Wilentz introduced Prof Ricks, asked Ricks to describe the motivation for and production of the book, and companionably ceded the two hours to Ricks, three songs, and questions.
The origins of the project involved Ricks’ longstanding desire to do something about the many and strange discrepancies in official lyrics transcriptions. We’ve learned to work around the small and very large differences between what we hear and what we read through consulting or ignoring the various official published texts, bobdylan.com, tawdry and earnest websites, each other. Ricks wanted to contribute a transcription that didn’t simply get more words right, but do justice to the “multimedia” nature of Dylan’s art, in which the words of a Dylan song don’t precede or determine the vocals. How a Dylan lyric means is how Dylan sings the lyric. Transcribing a Dylan lyric–setting the line breaks, indenting and spacing verses and refrains–invites an original approach to typesetting language whose timing is peculiarly intrinsic to its meaning and its affect. Ricks found this invitation exciting, as well he should. He understands that how our eyes read some kinds of text–poetry, or Bob Dylan lyrics–matters. Where we pause, where we reverse our train of vision to begin again with a new line, where a rhyme is embedded in a phrase and where it signals the conclusion of a phrase–any poetic text choreographs my saccades and my comprehension to create rhythms of sound and meaning. If Bob Dylan’s songs are the wonders of sound and sense that Christopher Ricks and I and you understand them to be, then let’s encourage an original form of poetic notation to transcribe them.
The Nemrows’ particular bona fides as Dylan scholars or critics didn’t come up in the talk and I’m not familiar with any work either has done on Dylan. Ricks told us that the Nemrows did the first passes of transcribing based on their listening and comparing notes with each other and they kept up the contact with Jeff Rosen’s office.
The result is a clothbound thing of Gutenbergian proportions and a most solemn design declaring from ten feet away that this is a volume of unmistakable legal, cartographical, historical, liturgical, philosophical, collectible majesty. The enormous pages are buttercream. If I had a copy, whenever I felt sad I would open it up to I and I and lay my cheek upon the paper. The size is intended to accommodate an entire song on one verso and recto span. Ricks objects to interrupting a song in its own aural time by turning a page. Apparently only It’s Alright, Ma requires a page turn.
There is the contentious and exhausting and exhaustingly contentious matter of what Ricks calls “variants”. He used only the official recordings, including the Bootleg series, and appends notes recto. Someone can tell me what the Tangled Up in Blue page looks like if he’s used the Real Live variant. And no other Tangled variant. Idiot Wind would have the small changes from Hard Rain and not so small changes from the NY session as officially issued on BS 1? And of course, no North Saigon If You See Her. Is this like leaving out one of the Unicorn tapestries? Or leaving out Benjy’s point of view in The Sound and the Fury? Or leaving out 10 different episodes in Jerzy Kosinski’s Steps? In no time at all and without even paging through the book, I am exhausted and contentious.
Ricks used Just Like a Woman, It’s Alright Ma, and Black Diamond Bay as illustrations of his aim. We had xeroxes of these as well as Mississippi which we did not have time to hear and discuss. We listened to the BOB, BIABH, D versions of the three songs. I observed:
- Just Like a Woman
- Yes, I see that rhyme is served by these breaks and indents. Pain/rain–friend/again. Knows/clothes/bows. …curls/…pearls. Each set of end rhymes is differently indented and creates a new pattern on the page. This shaping is valid on its own and then creates consistency for the one-off line for the single word Hurts as well as the lonely dangling That. Hurts belongs in this relation to curse and worse. Hurts is left after a curse and worse. And as sung, That is its own falling star in the verse.
- Ricks insists that Takes/aches/makes/breaks and fake/make/ache/break hold together in a rhyme cycle that sets apart “Just like a little girl.” I hear this, and I see and hear the pillar of takes/aches/makes/breaks. Even so, the break and indentation of “Just like a little girl” 3 times looks . . . disingenuous. It’s a lyric central to the dubious misogyny conversation that Ricks is helping keep alive; the break is not part of the song’s soundscape.
- On the other hand, the “and” that I hear clearly before “…when we meet again..” is not transcribed. It is there, breathed and real, when I listened just now.
- It’s alright ma–
- Ricks has transcribed “false goads I scuff at.” Goads?! Sean Wilentz himself remarked out loud that he has never heard the word goads in that line. Nor have I nor has anyone I know. Gods sounds wrong and I respect those who dislike goals despite hearing it. A goad is already external coercion, already an admission that one’s will is controlled. False or real isn’t relevant here. Ricks was amenable to an error there. I think a talk promoting the book is not the time to be gracious about unsubtle anomalies. That is what the editorial meetings were for.
- Why include the space before each iteration of “It’s alright, ma…”? To me, setting these lines off is a precious effect unsupported by the vocal phrasing. Does he do the same with “Forever young” and “Blowin’ in the wind” and “Ain’t talkin'”? I don’t like the imposed aphoristic reading of this kind of transcription. The refrain is sung right on the same breath as the preceding lines in each case.
- On the other hand, he does idiosyncratic business with transcribing the 2nd verse as 5 lines–not giving “is busy dying” its own line as he does with “Person crying” in the 3rd verse. Ricks told us of his fascination with the discrepancies in length in verses 2 and 7. What authority grants these discrepancies as being audible rather than imputed? This is a real question.
- He transcribes “insure you not to quit.” I respect those who hear “assure” and I question the spelling. Did he choose the money-related spelling to reinforce the song’s marketplace motif? This is clever although “ensure” is proper for the lyric’s meaning.
- And I hear, “And though the masters make the rules.” Not “Although the masters make the rules…”
- Black Diamond Bay.
- Ricks is fascinated by Dylan’s “Singing off the rhyme.” And wonder is the right response: rhymes conventionally guide the singer’s attention and the listener’s expectations for both sound and sense. Singing off a rhyme requires a peculiar kind and degree of concentration for a singer and creates peculiar kinds of surprises for the listener. And the name of this peculiar is just Bob Dylan.
- Ricks was super tickled by the rhyme, “Verandah/And a”. That’s a good one but I wanted badly to see what he makes of “virtue..dirt. You…” That one song merits a revolution in transcription.
- We had copies of this but no time to hear and discuss.
- “Walking through the leaves, falling from the trees.” Why? Why did Ricks do this? Allow it? Did he wish to follow the comma splicing pattern that is somewhat reasonable in three previous verses? Then why not “Some people will offer you their hand, and some won’t” ? No comma there. “Leaves, falling” is carelessness that could and should have been corrected.
I think the most numerous and responsive audience for the book will be competitive Dylan enthusiasts obsessed by detail. As a contribution to literary culture, it is an interesting and unwieldy creative experiment in transcribing musical speech whose artfulness makes such luscious demands on the listener’s sensuous and intellectual attention. What I want now is a series of small, homely, practical volumes of the lyrics with as many pf Dylan’s own sung variants as can be tracked down. I want a committee of informed and serious people committed to compiling the lyrics into one collection that may become an enduring reference that will be hotly contended until there’s no breath for arguing.
When I finally have my own copy of this Ricks-conceived objet-d’art I’ll display it as a trophy of my status in a community I largely avoid. On low days, the buttercream pages will restore me. I’ll greedily find mistakes and someone somewhere will victoriously prove me wrong. Vive la Dylan fan! Le Dylan fan? Capitalize Fan?. . .