Carole Bayer Sager was one of the most prolific songwriters of the 1970s, working with artists like Neil Simon, Carole King, Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, and today’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Bob Dylan. The following is an excerpt from Bayer Sager’s new memoir They’re Playing Our Song in which she describes a 1986 writing session with Dylan.
I’m sure the idea of me writing with Bob Dylan sounds as alien to you as it was to me when he called. The whole idea of collaborating with him seemed ridiculous. If anyone felt like a self-contained solo artist to me, it was Dylan.
He changed a generation. No, he wasn’t having hits when we wrote together, but he was still tirelessly releasing new records full of ambitious material and was always taken seriously because he was Bob Dylan.
I had met Bob a number of times. His girlfriend at the time was my friend Carole Childs (formerly my old friend Carole Pincus), and she suggested we write together. Bob liked the idea, so one day in the spring of 1986 we found a day for me to drive out to his Malibu ranch and see what we might come up with.
I drove out to where Bob had lived for years now. It was farther than most homes I knew out there, but what surprised me (and yet did not surprise me the minute I put a Bob Dylan filter over it all) was the kind of rundown feeling the place had. The greenery was growing any way it wanted, and there were no gardeners shaping the plantings. It looked a lot like Bob looked to me — unkempt, frayed, and worn. His beard was growing in all directions, too.
He really was a man of few words. “Let’s go out to the barn,” he said. How I wished I had the self-acceptance to be in cowboy boots, but they didn’t have high enough heels. The ground on the walk from his main house to his barn was more uneven than his beard or his shrubbery. A divot here, a clump of soil there; I prayed that breaking an ankle would not be part of my “writing with Bob Dylan” story. His big, musty barn reminded me of a summer camp in the middle of winter.
Two single beds faced each other, with random quilts and guitars lying around. He sat on one of the beds and I just sat myself down on the other, facing him. We were around five feet away from each other, which is unusual since I usually sit very close to where the composer is seated. He picked up one of the two guitars that were sitting against a cracked wall. An old wood upright piano was in a far-off corner waiting to be played. I had a feeling it had been waiting quite a long time.
I had to focus on why I was sitting facing Bob Dylan because there was a part of me blown away by what an unlikely pair we made together — he completely disheveled from head to toe and I in full makeup, tight jeans, tee shirt and studded leather jacket. I was wearing my “faux” rock ’n’ roll look and failing miserably, and he could have told me he had come in from just rolling around with some farm animals and I would not have disbelieved him. He looked like he hadn’t bathed in weeks.
In all truth, though he was an icon, I was a not a follower. I missed the Dylan Revolution somehow, with the exception of a few classics like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and “Lay Lady Lay.” So I knew the hits, but I was listening more to the polished sound of pop and R&B. I appreciated Bob’s thorny poetry as a lyricist, but I was always in search of a great melody. Friends whose taste in music I respect have played me some of their favorites and when I listened, though I appreciated how very good some of the lyrics were, they didn’t hit me in my solar plexus because there was no melody to speak of.
Still, I sat in his barn and I was completely aware that This Is Fucking Bob Dylan!
I had my usual yellow lined legal pad and he gave me a pen when I couldn’t find mine in my overstuffed bag which included a wallet, a card case, a makeup bag in case I was sleeping over, Kleenex, Chapstick, a small collection of star crystals in a small silk pouch which I carried because I was afraid to stop carrying them in case they were protecting me, a croc case for my Lactaid and my Stevia, cards with people’s names on them I no longer knew, a mirror given me by Elizabeth with undistorted magnification, my eyeglasses, a rubber tip that a dental hygienist had dropped in one day, and scores of useless other things that just kind of piled up in there .
“Thank you,” I said, taking my head out of my bag long enough to take his ballpoint pen, which I wished had a thicker tip.
I refocused. “So, do you have any ideas of what you feel like writing?”
“Well, I’ve got a little bit of an idea.”
He mumbled his words very softly. I thought he said “I godda libble bid a deer.”
He started strumming his guitar. I had to admit, this was cool. Bob Dylan strumming a guitar. And then he began humming a melody. It was a simple one. He didn’t ask me if I liked it but he sang,
“Something about you that I can’t shake.”
And he played the melody to the next line and I nervously said, “Feels like it’s more than my heart can take?” I was kind of writing and asking a question at the same time. And he sang,
“Don’t know how much more of this I can take / Baby, I’m under your spell.”
Usually the composer waited for me to come up with the lyrics, playing the melody for me until I heard words I wanted to write. In this case, Bob was way ahead of me. “That’s good,” I said, feeling more like a stenographer than a lyricist.
As we continued I kept offering him lines. Sometimes he’d say, “I like that” and I would be so happy as I wrote something down.
In the middle of the song, I went over to look at his lyric sheet and I felt like an eighth grader who was trying to cheat on her English test. Bob was essentially the student you didn’t try and cheat off of. He was hunched over his paper, hiding it with his left hand and his curly head of hair.
“Can I see?” I asked.
Most of the lyrics of mine that I thought he’d liked weren’t even written down — just one or two lines.
Finally, I said, “I feel like you don’t really need me here writing this with you because you seem to have your own idea of what the lyric should be.” I was being honest.
“No, I need you here,” he said. “I wouldn’t be writing this if you weren’t here.”
He played the same melody again. Another verse.
I was knocked out loaded in the naked night
When my dream exploded…
And I said, “What about ‘and I lost your light’?”
He sang, I noticed your light.
Well, that was a little something. He continued, “Baby …”
I said, “How about, ‘Baby you know me so well.’”
He was quiet and then sang, “Baby Oh what a story I could tell.”
I would toss out a line and he would say, “That’s good,” and sometimes even sing the whole line, so by the time we finished I thought I had contributed maybe twelve lines to the lengthy song.
A few days later he had laid a rough version down on a cassette and sent it to me.
Of the twelve lines I thought I had written, maybe there were three or four left in the song. I immediately called him.
“Listen, I don’t think it’s fair to you to say we wrote this song together. So much of the lyric is yours. I just don’t feel right taking a credit.”
“Never would have written it if you weren’t here,” he said again. “And you wrote some good lines.”
Most of them never to be heard, I thought.
“Well, I don’t feel right taking fifty percent of the song,” I said, and he quickly said, “Well, how ’bout you own half of the lyric and I’ll own half.”
“Sure, that sounds better.”
When the record came out he called the whole album Knocked Out Loaded, a line from “our” song. I would have been proud, but that wasn’t one of my five lines. Anyway, it gave me great bragging rights, because how many people can say they wrote a song with Bob Dylan? He worked with very few writers during his career and I certainly know why. Still, it was bizarrely thrilling,
USA Today said in the last paragraph of its review of Knocked Out Loaded, “It’s ironic and appropriate then, that the album’s best song, ‘Under Your Spell,’ was written with old-fashioned tunesmith Carole Bayer Sager. Dylan can’t help but sing its delicate melody, and when he reaches the last line, ‘Pray that I don’t die of thirst two feet from the well,’ old friends will be happy to give him water.”
I loved that last line too. I wished it was mine.
From They’re Playing Our Song: A Memoir by Carole Bayer Sager. Copyright © 2016 by Carole Bayer Sager. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.