When I Paint My Fiscal Masterpiece

Over the summer, a friend hosted a pool party and complained about the delays and challenges involved in getting his water heater fixed. This is the sort of champagne problem, we joked, that you wouldn’t bring up at a Black Lives Matter demonstration. I thought of this when I presented a paper at “Bob Dylan and the Beats,” a weekend conference at the Bob Dylan Institute in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was invited because Dylan is a central character in my book “Americanaland: Where Country & Western Met Rock ‘n’ Roll.” At one point, before beginning his presentation, one of the participants mentioned that amidst all the talk of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, nobody had mentioned his membership in NAMBLA, the North American Man/Boy Love Association. The comment was met with an awkward silence that made me think of another topic that might be met with disfavor: “When I Paint My Fiscal Masterpiece.”           

The paper would begin when after the release of his 1962 debut album, Dylan agreed to be managed by Albert Grossman, who was riding high with the folk supergroup that he’d created, Peter, Paul & Mary. Grossman’s brainstorm had been to jazz up folk music with humor, social consciousness, and a sexy woman. Peter, Paul, and Mary’s 1962 debut album sold more than two million copies and earned black-listed folk singer Pete Seeger a nice payday by including his “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” Dylan took $1,000 of his manager’s cash to buy himself out of his publishing deal with Leeds Music for which he’d received a $100 advance. Grossman then arranged for Dylan’s songs to be published by Witmark and Sons, with whom the manager had his own deal to receive half of the publishing income of any artist he brought to the company. All was in order by the time Peter, Paul, and Mary’s second album made an enduring hit out of Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

“They were kindred spirits,” said Dylan’s girlfriend Suze Rotolo. “Albert never denied who he was, but he had that way of observing and not being forthcoming. Bob never gave a straight answer. . . . He was creating his own legend and his own fiction of himself.” The two changed each other’s lives. “You could look at Albert’s passport pictures,” said Vinny Fusco, who worked for Grossman, “[and] there was B.D. and A.D.—Before Dylan and After Dylan.”

Working with Grossman earned Dylan an MBA in the music business. The manager had already taught the young songwriter that the real money in the music business was in music publishing and Dylan soon enjoyed the fiscal fruits of being one of music’s most successful songwriters, with his songs covered by everybody from The Byrds to Johnny Cash, and from Van Morrison to Jimi Hendrix. In 1966, when Dylan went into seclusion in Woodstock after a tumultuous world tour and a tumble over the handlebars of his Triumph motorcycle, Grossman was quick to exploit the new songs he wrote while woodshedding with his backing band. The sessions at a home dubbed Big Pink began with Dylan leading the musicians through a wide variety of country, folk, and rock tunes, but before long, new songs began to tumble out of Dylan’s imagination. “It amazed me,” said keyboardist Garth Hudson, “how he could come in, sit down at the typewriter, and write a song.”

Grossman kept tabs on the sessions and had sixteen new Dylan songs copyrighted; the object was to create “mailbox money,” which is to say revenue for Dwarf Music, the new publishing company that Grossman had established for Dylan. Money soon flowed in from songs recorded by, among others, Manfred Mann (“Quinn the Eskimo”), the Byrds (“You Ain’t Going Nowhere”), and Fairport Convention (“Million Dollar Bash”). Dylan also collaborated on a few tunes with his backup musicians, giving lyrics to Richard Manuel, who put music to “Tears of Rage,” and to Rick Danko, who co-wrote “This Wheel’s on Fire.” These songs plus Dylan’s own “I Shall Be Released” would be on Music from Big Pink, the debut album by the musicians who now called themselves The Band. The group was also managed by Grossman, and it should surprise no one that all the songs on Big Pink were published by Dwarf Music.

Robbie Robertson, who would quickly become The Band’s primary songwriter, was also a student of Albert Grossman, and he had a bitter falling out with drummer Levon Helm when he declined to share his publishing income with the group. “Levon was influenced by a more recent model,” said John Simon, who produced the first two albums by The Band. “Songwriters in [some] bands would show up in the studio with their songs only in fragmentary form. Then the other players in the group would contribute a little bit, often only their parts, and claim partial authorship for their efforts. But what those players did is not writing. Writing is the creating of melody and lyrics. . . . And though I completely understand and sympathize with Levon’s anger about it, all in all I have to side with Robbie on the traditional definition of authorship.”

Dylan was angry when he discovered that Grossman owned 50 percent of Dwarf Music though was oddly oblivious that his subsequent publishing contract with Big Sky Music contained the same split with his manager. Before long, however, Bob fired Albert and lawsuits would linger until a final settlement in 1987 required Dylan to pay the late Grossman’s estate $2-million. By that time, Dylan had streamlined his operation for maximum profit; one example of his business savvy was getting a 70-30 financial split for a 1987 tour of outdoor stadiums with the Grateful Dead. In recent decades, on his “Never Ending Tour,” Dylan has employed compact and talented bands. Rumors have it that some personnel changes have been precipitated by salary disputes. Meanwhile, back at the home office, Jeff Rosen has acted as “General Manager” to Dylan’s business and music publishing enterprise..

While Dylan has released new records throughout his career, he has also enriched his reputation and bank account with 16 volumes of “The Bootleg Series,” which have collected unreleased songs and alternate takes from his deep catalog. Bruce Springsteen has similarly dug into his archives for lavish boxed sets. Meanwhile, both Dylan and Springsteen have each cashed out in the streaming era by selling their publishing and master recordings for somewhere north of $500-million. One item that wasn’t included in Dylan’s sale was his recent collaboration with T Bone Burnett on a new recording of “Blowin’ in the Wind” rendered as a one-of-a-kind item etched into a lacquer-coated aluminum disc said to offer superior sound quality. The recording was sold at Christie’s auction house for $1.8-million. Who pocketed the loot—excepting Christies, which typically takes 25%-- remains a mystery. Dylan has long used auction houses to handle his paintings and iron-work sculptures; liquor stores sell his high-end whiskey, Heaven’s Door. Dylan has also authored two non-fiction books: a best-selling memoir, Chronicles Volume 1, and a new book, The Philosophy of Modern Song, with the unusually high list price of $45.

None of this is meant to question Dylan’s motivations or artistic achievement; indeed, he’s earned his riches and his career offers a worthy example of how to handle the business of music. In recent years, items from Dylan’s history have found their way to the auction block. In 2014, a handwritten copy of “Like a Rolling Stone” sold for $2 million, while the electric guitar Dylan played at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival fetched nearly $1 million. Ultimately, the contents of Dylan’s personal archives were purchased for $20-million by Tulsa billionaire and philanthropist George Kaiser, who had earlier paid $3-million for a similar cache belonging to the estate of Woody Guthrie. The archives form the basis of a new museum administered by the University of Tulsa’s Institute for Bob Dylan Studies. The core collection consists of 6,000 purchased items that include writings, recordings, memorabilia, and film. Wandering through the exhibits, however, I also saw instruments and other items on loan from musicians and other associates of Dylan. There are also painted portraits by Dylan on loan from private collectors. Talk about a win-win for Bob, who at the age of 81, continues to make art without neglecting the bottom line.