The great English writer Geoff Dyer was asked to provide advice for writers. He gave 10 different tips, and, in typical Dyer fashion, the tips are funny, self deprecating, self contradictory, instructive, and inspirational. The eighth tip, in particular, stands out:
“Have regrets. On the page, they blossom into desire.”
This is a beautiful concept, illuminating how autobiography can feed and fuel writing. This approach certainly speaks to the song “I’ll Keep It with Mine,” which has an interesting recording history. Dylan wrote the song and recorded the original demo in early 1965, introducing the song with a laugh as “Bank Account Blues.”
Eventually released 20 years later on Biograph, the demo features Dylan alone at the piano with his harmonica as the only other musical accompaniment. The piano sounds like a full-on clichéd saloon piano in an old western, and fittingly, it’s slightly out of tune. It’s funny to picture Dylan recording for Columbia Records – one of the largest record companies in the world at the time – spotting a dusty old piano in the corner of the studio and saying, “I want to play on that!”
By early 1965, Dylan had only recorded a handful of songs on piano. As discussed in the “Can’t Wait” post, he is an idiosyncratic piano player, and, in this early phase of his career, is best playing solo with the piano rather than trying to play with a band.
Dylan tried to cut the song again a year later in early 1966 in the New York sessions of what would eventually become Blonde on Blonde. These New York sessions were Dylan and producer Bob Johnston’s first recording attempts for the follow up to Highway 61 Revisited. The New York sessions were generally not successful as heard on this version of “I’ll Keep It With Mine.” Dylan is hesitant in his singing at the beginning. Johnston cuts in to encourage the band members providing musical support, saying to them: “What you were doing.” The beginning is all fumbling, and some of the difficulty may be a combination of Dylan still getting used to playing piano with a backing band as well as the unusual chord progression and meter of the lyrics. Eventually Dylan and the band lock in on a groove. Dylan becomes more confident in his singing, and the track builds to a beautiful ending. But no complete take is recorded again during the New York sessions. At this point, Dylan and Johnston are frustrated with the lack of results from recording in New York and seek a new recording environment in Nashville. The New York version of “I’ll Keep It With Mine” was eventually released on 1991’s The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991.
In Nashville, Johnston worked with the A-list Nashville session men on an instrumental version of “I’ll Keep With Mine,” presumably with the goal of Dylan overdubbing his vocals to this take or recutting the entire song live with this new arrangement. We have no such version with Dylan’s vocals; only the instrumental cut with the Nashville cats survives. 2015’s The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965–1966 includes all of the recordings from the Blonde on Blonde Nashville sessions and various rehearsals leading up to the complete instrumental version:
It’s not clear who did this arrangement – producer Bob Johnston, instrumentalist and Dylan musical consigliere Al Kooper, or a collective band effort – but the result sounds like a mixture of two other Blonde on Blonde songs: “Fourth Time Around” and “I Want You.” The lead guitar – possibly by Charlie McCoy – is the focus of the track. It sounds like a Sixties instrumental cover of a Bob Dylan song, a folk rock cut that could have been a hit.
The lore surrounding “I’ll Keep It With Mine” is that Dylan gave the song away to Judy Collins, who recorded it in 1965. Nico, another female singer with connections to Dylan, covered the song in 1967 on her solo debut Chelsea Girl. Tom Wilson, who produced the original Dylan demo back in 1965, produced Chelsea Girl with Nico and probably introduced the song to her. The Nico version can be off-putting at first listen because of Nico’s unconventional vocal delivery, but, as said previously, the meter of the words with the timing of the chords do not line up in a traditional way, making Nico’s phrasing oddly perfect for the song. This version juxtaposes Nico’s voice and a single guitar with an overly-enthusiastic string section. She is able to fully embrace the core message of the song in her delivery.
When considering the lyrics of “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” Dyer’s advice to writers applies as the song is a straight come-on. Dylan must have been filled with regrets because “I’ll Keep It with Mine” is all desire. The song is not as blatant as “I Want You,” but the message is clear in the opening lines:
You will search, babe
At any cost
But how long, babe
Can you search for what’s not lost?
The narrator is saying, “I’m right here.” Continuing with this direct approach, Dylan sings in the refrain:
Come on, give it to me
I’ll keep it with mine
He’s being coy about the meaning of “it” but we all know what “it” means in this context. Any regrets Dylan has in this song has been transformed into passion. This song of passion lured in both Judy Collins, Nico, and many others to cover the song.
The most alluring part of “I’ll Keep It with Mine” occurs in the second verse. Dylan sings:
I can’t help it
If you might think I’m odd
If I say I’m loving you not for what you are
But for what you’re not.
The second line is a beguiling set of lyrics that may not stand up to a grammatical breakdown as a sentence, but works in the passionate context of the song. The narrator is saying that there are many reasons why he shouldn’t be sharing his passion with the intended audience of the song, but the power of the attraction is too strong. As the song says, “I can’t help it.”
“I’m loving you not for what you are but for what you’re not” is a tantalizingly great line. It draws the listener into the song, a place of desire. The line brings to mind the novelist Milan Kundera, another great writer on the subject of desire. The first two chapters of the novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being are essentially an essay in which Kundera considers the idea of eternal return and the opposition of lightness and weight. In the beginning of the third chapter, Kundera writes, “I have been thinking about Tomas for many years. But only in light of these reflections did I see him clearly.” This is the opening for Kundera to present a story of two lovers, all while playing with the concept of weight and light and examining the ambiguous nature of these senses.
Kundera’s transition from philosophical consideration to narrative in that simple sentence is masterful. It frames the novel for the reader on how to view the relationship of this couple, but also tracks for Kundera himself the inspiration for the story as well as creating a superstructure for the written work while in the process of writing.
Not unlike Kundera needing a metaphysical and abstract theory to begin a work of fiction, the concept behind the line “I’m loving you not for what you are but for what you’re not” could have been Dylan’s own motivation for writing the rest of the song. The concept of this line is so strong that one wishes a writer would take it up for their own starting point of a novel. For Dylan, the line was enough to produce a song. Despite how good the song is, his songwriting output in the mid-60s was so prodigious that it didn’t fit into the context of the albums he was producing at the time. It never found a place in Dylan’s musical output until many years later.
Photo by: Scott Bunn