The first time I heard the word ‘bootleg’ it was in the context of Bob Dylan, when samizdat recordings started leaking out in the early seventies, although the first one I actually bought was by Hendrix, a terrible LP called ‘Sky High’, which, somewhere in the un-mix, has a drunk Jim Morrison straying into a concert Hendrix is giving. I bought it from an obscure little record shop in Oxford Street, where I seem to remember going up a lot of stairs, into a dingy parlour. It was called Virgin … (I can’t recall whether the owner was a shy young man in a beard with a train-set and a toy aeroplane).
But then Dylan suddenly started authorising the release of many of these ‘unofficial’ songs, and if ever there were out-takes to bewilder the ear, they are his. On the first, three-CD release, rather pompously called ‘Volumes 1-3’, there were weird nuggets, including the first take of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ (then in a weird waltz time: ONCE upon a time, you THREW the bums a dime…). But there was one stand-out song, an out-take from the ‘Blonde on Blonde’ sessions. (Try as I might to shift it from its perch, that record is still obstinately amongst my favourites. Maybe the music you hear when you’re fourteen always stays with you.) It was called ‘She’s Your Lover Now’. The archivists say there were about a dozen takes, and that this was about as good as he got (he forgets the words during the last verse, and the whole thing shudders to a halt). The words, taken from his collection of Lyrics (called ‘Lyrics’), were already published, but they had been transcribed from the unpublished, unfinished, and presumably final take. Dylan being Dylan, he never went back to it.
I’ve read several books on Dylan. Usually their problem is that they try too hard to make a case for his writing after the 1960s, or fuss about his marriages, and so on. But I had missed the three-book ‘Bob Dylan – Performing Artist’ until this summer. Published in 1990 (I came across it in a second-hand shop), Williams, to my surprise and pleasure, devotes six pages to ‘She’s Your Lover Now’, and even goes so far as to say that if he had to choose ‘a single performance to stand as evidence of Dylan’s greatness as an artist… ‘She’s Your Lover Now’ (solo at piano) would be the one’. But the ‘solo at piano’ version isn’t on any official release, even now. So imagine my surprise to find it parked on YouTube, the first refuge of scoundrels (sound accompanied by an image).
It’s up there with the great put-down songs he wrote – ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, ‘Positively Fourth Street’, and ‘Ballad Of A Thin Man’. But it does sound a great deal more personal. If you don’t like Dylan or his voice, stop now. The recording is rough and ready. There is some doubt as to whether he is playing the piano (I suspect it’s him). He starts by humming fragments, and then launches, lo and behold, into the full four (long) verses. What makes it different is that it addresses two people alternately – the lover who has rejected the narrator, and her new boyfriend. So structurally, it is a great deal more complex. Like all Dylan songs of the time, it comes at everything obliquely, and peppers its subject with ironic and surreal asides. It also does the Dylan trick of squeezing a quart of words into a pint-pot of line.
Somehow, the fact that it sounds like it’s his first take makes it all the more powerful, even if the breakneck band version has its merits. It’s unsentimental, too. The narrator knows he was hard to live with (‘Why didn’t you just leave me if you didn’t want to stay?’). But in shrugging off the whole affair, he also launches some great invective at the new boyfriend (‘You just sit around and ask for ashtrays. Can’t you reach?/ I see you kiss her on the cheek everytime she gives a speech’), in a way which is wistful as well as bitter. The bile about the ex-lover is somehow greater because it is as often directed via the new boyfriend as directly at her (‘She”ll be standing on the bar stool/ With a fish head and a harpoon/ And a fake beard plastered on her brow./ You’d better do something quick:/ she’s your lover now.’)
Dylan mangles words with skill. She’s YER lo VER now drags out a rhyme where there isn’t one. His voice is, as the song said ‘like a dead man’s last pistol shot’. And the hate – ‘Now your eye cries Wolf, while your mouth cries ‘I’m not scared of animals like you’ – is tempered by the love still there – ‘Your mouth used to be so naked/ Your eyes used to be so blue/ Your hurts used to be so nameless/ Your tears used to be so few’. I think it’s a great, complex song, a real lost gem. Give it a while to get started, by the way.)