By Alan Kozinin
When music fans in the 1960s described Bob Dylan’s songs, in terminology of the day, as “heavy,” they didn’t know the half of it.
A hefty new edition of Mr. Dylan’s collected work, “The Lyrics: Since 1962,” due from Simon & Schuster in November, is slightly larger than an LP, more than 960 pages long, and weighs about 13 and a half pounds. It’s actually the more affordable of two limited editions — a printing of 3,500 copies (500 are for the British market) — and will sell for $200. A numbered edition of 50 copies, each signed by Mr. Dylan, will have a slipcase and gilded pages; that edition is priced at $5,000.
“It’s the biggest, most expensive book we’ve ever published, as far as I know,” Jonathan Karp, Simon & Schuster’s president and publisher said. The signed edition is available from dylansignedbook.com; the $200 version will be available in bookshops.
The book is not simply an update of the previous compilation, “Lyrics: 1962-2001.” Christopher Ricks, a British literary scholar on the faculty of Boston University (and the author of the 2003 analytical overview, “Dylan’s Visions of Sin”), edited the lyrics and wrote a lengthy, philosophical introduction, with the sisters Lisa and Julie Nemrow as co-editors.
The Nemrows, who run a design company and imprint, Un-Gyve Press, also created the book’s luxurious layout. The songs are presented chronologically, including alternative versions released as part of Mr. Dylan’s archival “Bootleg Series.” The album covers, front and back, are reproduced.
The way the songs are laid out is meant “to help the eye see what the ear hears,” Mr. Ricks said. “If you print the songs flush left,” he added, “it doesn’t represent, visually, the audible experience.” So refrains, choruses and bridges are indented. And where Mr. Dylan intended a line, however long, to be unbroken, it sprawls across the 13-inch-wide page.
How did the editors know which lines were meant to be unbroken? Did Mr. Dylan provide feedback or comments? Mr. Karp said he had heard that Mr. Dylan provided notebooks and manuscripts. Mr. Ricks refused to elaborate.
“I think the right thing for us,” he said, “is not to go into the question of the particular kinds of help and assistance and advice that we were in a position to receive.”
The editors’ other mission was to show the different ways Mr. Dylan has performed the songs over time, or even at a single recording session. When a song’s previously published lyrics differ from what Mr. Dylan sang on the original recording, the differences are noted. So are differences that crop up on officially released live recordings, or outtakes from the “Bootleg Series.” (Only officially released albums are considered.)
“Some of the changes were minute things — a telling change of preposition, perhaps — which make a gigantic difference,” Mr. Ricks said. Others include added or deleted verses, or show Mr. Dylan’s composition process at work. The version of “Tombstone Blues” on “Highway 61 Revisited,” for example, opens with the lines: “Well John the Baptist, after torturing a thief.” An annotation shows that in an alternative version, released on “The Bootleg Series, Vol. 7,” Mr. Dylan sings: “Ah, John the blacksmith, he’s torturing a thief.”
Who does Mr. Ricks regard as the audience for the book?
“It is, in a way, a work of scholarship,” he said. “But it is also a book for people who love these songs, and who would be grateful to be reminded that these songs are always in a state of extraordinary flux. They’re amazing, shape-changing things.”