Over the course of his career, Bob Dylan has announced — even started — a variety of projects that have never been released — at least not as they were originally described. Here’s three Bob Dylan legendary projects dear to my heart. Like their chameleon-like progenitor, the first two evolved into different forms. I still hold out hope for the last.
“Love That Bob”
The Bob Dylan Sitcom That Became a Movie
According to comedian/writer/producer Larry Charles, Dylan, inspired by watching too many Jerry Lewis movies on his tour bus, contacted him with the idea of doing a vaudeville-style TV sitcom series. Dylan produced a box filled with character names, one-liners, ideas, verse, and prose scribbled on scraps of paper and told Charles, “I don’t know what to do with all this.”
“We wrote this very elaborate treatment for this slapstick comedy which was filled with surrealism and all kinds of things from his songs and stuff,” said Charles in a podcast interview. “So, we say to Bob, ‘If you come to HBO with us, we’ll definitely sell the project because they won’t have the balls to say no to your face,’ and he agrees.”
Unfortunately, the ever-mercurial Mr. D. had cooled on the idea by the time Charles had arranged a pitch for the HBO suits. His mood wasn’t improved by an HBO executive VP proudly showing off his unused tickets to Woodstock. “I wasn’t there,” Dylan growled, and spent the remainder of the meeting silently staring out a window while Charles desperately tried to sell the show solo.
Even though their would-be star looked to be contemplating defenestration and the show’s producer was wearing pajamas — “I probably was having a nervous breakdown and didn’t realize, but I wore pajamas everywhere I went,” Charles later explained — HBO still greenlit a pilot. But Dylan informed Charles as they were leaving that he was no longer interested, calling the idea, “too slapstick.”
Solidly on the Bob Dylan train by this point, Charles ended up rewriting the sitcom treatment as a movie script, “Masked and Anonymous,” which was released at the Sundance Film Festival in 2003. Knowing the slapstick origins of M&A, which one critic called, “the worst movie ever to debut at Sundance,” may help to explain why a stone-faced Dylan appears trying to channel the spirit of Buster Keaton.
Dylan stolidly ignores the chaos exploding around him in the movie’s third-world version of the U.S.; Val Kilmer’s sleight-of-hand bunny slaughtering; Ed Harris in blackface; a Man-Eating Chicken which is literally that. Even the Woodstock incident at the story pitch makes it into the movie. “Jimi was at Woodstock. Janis was at Woodstock,” Jeff Bridges’ character badgers Dylan’s Jack Fate at their first meeting. “You weren’t at Woodstock, were you, Jack? Where were you?”
Bob Dylan didn’t think much of “Masked and Anonymous,” calling it an example of what happens when too many people get involved with an idea. Whatever your opinion of M&A the movie, it includes rare footage of a modern-day Bob Dylan at work. According to Larry Charles, Dylan and his Cowboy Band were filmed performing 20 or more songs, but only a handful were used in the movie. Charles reportedly campaigned to have the unused songs included in the recent Blu-Ray release of M&A, but never received a response from the Dylan camp.
“Written by Hank & Me”
The Hank Williams/Bob Dylan Collaboration That Almost Happened — Twice
It’s 1970, and Bob Dylan’s next album is eagerly awaited by his fans and followers, not least because many hope that it will finally — finally! — be a return of the Dylan of yore after last year’s weird country croon tunes in “Nashville Skyline.”
June 8, 1970 — and the double-sided album, Dylan’s second for his new label, MGM, hits the shelves. But…but… it’s even worse than the MGM-produced “Nashville Skyline”! Dylan didn’t even write the lyrics! They’re all songs by Hank Williams! Hank Williams? And not even any “I’m So Lonesome” or “CodFish Pie” or anything you might know, it’s all stuff that Williams wrote but never recorded.
“What is this shit?” Greil Marcus writes in Rolling Stone.
In some alternate universe we might have gotten that Hank Williams/Bob Dylan collaboration instead of “Self Portrait.” We came fairly close in this Universe.
Four years earlier, Dylan was recovering from his mysterious motorcycle accident in Woodstock and desultorily working on edits for both the overdue Tarantula and overdue ABC TV Special he had promised. Meanwhile, Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, was in hot-and-heavy negotiations with Columbia over the renewal of Dylan’s contract, demanding a guarantee of $2 million (about $16 mill in today’s dollars) as well as Dylan’s complete control over his recordings before they’d re-sign.
Columbia was balking. Enter Mort Nasatir, president of MGM Records, who was eager to shed the label’s old-fogey reputation. Top MGM artists at the time included Ella Fitzgerald and Astrud Gilberto. MGM “rock” acts consisted of the Cowsills, the Osmond Brothers and other B-level players.
Nasatir was ready to do most anything to sign Dylan, including offering the big bucks Grossman wanted for his talent. The enigmatic Grossman had already brought many of the acts he managed under the MGM umbrella — Richie Havens, Gordon Lightfoot, Ian & Sylvia — and was simultaneously negotiating a deal to deliver Janis Joplin to the label. If he could get MGM to also land Dylan, it might as well just rebrand itself as Bearsville Records… and the Bear would be in control of it all.
Of course, they’d need Dylan’s agreement to pull off Nasatir’s and Grossman’s dreams, so Nasatir dutifully planned a trip to Woodstock to put a human face on the deal and to convince Dylan that MGM’s rep as the label rock stars went to die was undeserved. Sounding out Dylan’s likes and dislikes from Grossman before the visit, Nasatir learned that Dylan was a big-time Hank Williams freak. Then Nasatir knew just the lure! MGM had a trunkful of unpublished, unrecorded Hank Williams lyrics that had been moldering in the Wesley Rose archives since Williams’ death. What if they gave them to Dylan as a signing bonus? Imagine, a Bob Dylan Hank Williams collaboration from beyond the grave!
Dylan liked the idea — perhaps as much for the prospect that the burned-out artist of 1966 wouldn’t have to invest any lyric-writing energy into the work as his fondness for Hank Williams. Nasatir left Woodstock with a signed contract and Dylan would issue two new albums a year for MGM over the next five years while pocketing $2 million large ones.
That didn’t happen, although Nasatir announced signing Dylan at MGM’s sales conference, and Ralph Gleason wrote a blurb detailing the deal for his San Francisco Chronicle column. What actually happened to derail the deal remains murky, but it appears that Columbia went through backchannels to inform MGM that they had a ton of tape of unreleased Dylan recordings — including live material ranging from 1963 through `66 — and they wouldn’t be shy about flooding the market with all of it if their hoss wasn’t put back into the Columbia stables muy pronto.
“Every time you put out a Dylan album, we’ll put out two,” Nasatir was told. “We’ll lowball you. We’ll out-market you. We’ll convince the public that we’re the only ones with the real Dylan sound. Your Dylan brand won’t be worth shit by the time we’re through.”
The MGM board had other problems — including a nasty takeover battle — and decided it was the right time to blink and go home. Everything was put back into its rightful place just as it had been before Nasatir arrived at Woodstock. Columbia, Grossman, and Dylan renegotiated to their mutual dissatisfaction. And the Hank Williams lyrics went back to a’molderin’ for the next 40-odd years.
Flash forward to circa 2003, and the Hank Williams lyrics have finally made it into Bob Dylan’s hands. Holly Williams, Hank’s granddaughter, goes backstage after a Bob Dylan show in Alabama where Dylan hands her some typewritten pages that she immediately recognizes as Hank’s.
Dylan had been struggling with doing something with the unfinished songs since 2002, when Mary Martin, the person who had introduced Dylan to the band which would become The Band, called him with an idea for a project involving the Hank Williams songs. Dylan would choose twelve lyrics from the 30-odd available, add music, and record the results for a solo album. Dylan, who must have thought that he was destined to eventually get the lyrics, told Martin he was interested.
Unfortunately, there are more tears shed over answered prayers than over unanswered ones, as saintly poet Teresa of Avila once said. Dylan found that the Muse was not singing to him; the bird had flown; the train had left the station; and he had a dozen Hank Williams lyrics but no music. “Maybe other people,” he told Holly Williams. “I don’t want the responsibility anymore.”
Maybe the lyrics were cursed. Hank’s mother, Lily and his wife, Billie Jean reportedly came to blows over the notebook of lyrics right after Williams’ funeral. They were then secured at Acuff-Rose until either stolen from or thrown out by SONY, which had acquired Acuff-Rose’s property in 2002. The charges against the collectors who had bought/found/stolen the notebook were eventually dropped and Hank’s lyrics were put back under lock and key before being sent to Dylan.
It took Dylan’s offices a half-dozen more years to recruit artists, record, and release the new project — what would become The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams album. Dylan did supply a contribution, as did his son Jakob, both forgettable tunes that as one reviewer noted disappointed not because [they] imitated Hank, but because [they] ignored him.
But maybe in that alternate universe the double album Written by Hank & Me was released in 1970 by Bob Dylan on the MGM label to general disdain. And maybe in that universe’s 2021 the album has been re-evaluated and is now well-loved.
It’s a big multiverse. Anything can happen.
Chronicles Volume Two Coming in 2021?
Bob Dylan began writing what would eventually appear as Chronicles Volume One sometime in the late ’90s, where the prose started life as liner notes for a re-release of his back-catalog albums. That project was never completed, but by 2001 Dylan had a couple of hundred pages of what was now a memoir-in-progress and a publishing contract with Simon and Schuster.
“[It] will be in the form of articles,” Dylan said of his then-untitled book. “The point of departure will be the different songs. I’ve noticed that it’s a good way of remembering things from the past.” After going through several revisions and possibly a round of ghost-written edits — the first volume of Chronicles was published in 2004.
“It took me maybe two years in total. I was touring so much in the beginning, on days off or on a bus, I’d write my thoughts out in longhand or on a typewriter. It was the transcribing of the stuff, the rereading and retelling of it, that was time-consuming, and I came to figure that there had to be a better way. I know what that is now. You need a full-time secretary so that you can get the ideas down immediately, then deal with them later.” ~ Bob Dylan on Chronicles Volume One in a 2008 interview
To date, Volume One has been the one and only volume of Dylan’s Chronicles, but rumors and hope persist that someday we’ll see a Volume Two. Dylan has reportedly been working on a sequel since the publication of the original Chronicles to almost universal critical acclaim. The book spent 19 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list and was a finalist for the American National Book Critics Circle Award.
“Most people who write about music, they have no idea what it feels like to play it. But with the book I wrote, I thought, ‘The people who are writing reviews of this book, man, they know what the hell they’re talking about.’ It spoils you … they know more about it than me. The reviews of this book, some of ’em almost made me cry — in a good way. I’d never felt that from a music critic ever.” Bob Dylan — with tongue firmly in cheek — on the critical reaction to Chronicles Volume One in a 2004 interview
In 2008, Uncut magazine hinted that Dylan was putting the finishing touches on the Volume Two manuscript during a seven-week hiatus of the Never-Ending Tour, and that publisher Simon and Schuster hoped to have the book out by the end of the year. Four years later, in another interview, Dylan claimed, although not in a particularly encouraging fashion, that the unpublished Volume Two was still in progress.
“Let’s hope [it happens],” he told Rolling Stone in 2012. “I’m always working on parts of it. But the last Chronicles I did all myself. I’m not even really so sure I had a proper editor for that. I don’t want really to say too much about that. But it’s a lot of work. I don’t mind writing it, but it’s the rereading it and the time it takes to reread it — that for me is difficult.”
That was nearly a decade ago, and there hasn’t been much new news on Chronicles Volume Two. What news there has been of Volume Two has been strange news. A 2010 article in Crain’s New York Business noted that a literary agent was shopping a “proposed series of books” authored by Dylan to various publishers, including Chronicles Volume Two. In turn, Simon and Schuster issued a statement noting that Dylan was still under contract with them for any forthcoming books and they were eagerly awaiting his submission of Volume Two. A “source close to Dylan” later told the LA Times that no deal for any proposed book projects had been closed. None of the books mentioned in the Crain’s article have been published by anyone.
Yet Volume Two does have an ISBN (0743230779 if you’re interested). Various online booksellers around the world advertise the book with publication dates ranging from 2019 through 2030 as if you could buy — or at least order — it right now with one mouse click.
But you can’t.
Perhaps one day we’ll all be able to. 2020 saw the surprise release of Dylan’s “Rough and Rowdy Ways” and a new episode of his Theme Time Radio Hour show. Maybe 2021 will be the year of Chronicles Volume Two.
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