A few years ago, the producer Michael Cash had an idea he thought could be big. Cash is based in Woodstock, New York, a town rich in Bob Dylan history. Early in the pandemic, he got to thinking about a relatively obscure Dylan-related project from the mid-2010s: Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes, in which artists like Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, and Rhiannon Giddens recorded songs based on newly uncovered Dylan lyrics.
Cash, whose background is largely in hip-hop, was friendly with the album’s producer, T Bone Burnett, and thought he could push the concept further. He envisioned an album of Dylan songs recorded by artists like Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, and Post Malone. “So I said to T Bone,” Cash recalls, “‘would you mind if I did The Attic MP3s or something? I want to fuck with this whole archetype.’ And he goes, ‘Run with it.’”
Cash reached out to Dylan’s longtime manager, Jeff Rosen, and pitched the idea of Post Malone recording a Dylan song. Malone is known to be a huge Dylan fan — he’s even claimed to have had some friendly chats with the older artist — and boasts massive streaming numbers, a fact that, Cash says, caught Rosen’s attention. Cash says he sent Rosen a photo of the Dylan tattoo on Malone’s left bicep, as well as a link to Malone’s pre-fame cover of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”
After several weeks, Cash received some good news. “It was like two o’clock in the morning,” he says. “Jeff texts me: ‘Bob’s going to write you something. He’s got something in mind that he wants to craft specifically for this.’” (A source close to the Dylan camp says that Dylan already had the lyrics lying around.)
Cash remembers the date — Nov. 18, 2020 — when Rosen sent along the lyrics to a song called “Be Not Deceived.” “It was talking about a loss of innocence,” Cash says, summing up Dylan’s words. “And what people are going through — disfranchised, kind of leaderless masses of children with no parent or guardian or shepherd or anything. It talked about going out and making your own way. And when you read it, honestly, it’s poetry. It’s beautiful.”
After Rosen sent over the lyrics to “Be Not Deceived,” Cash connected with Malone on the phone. “I read [the lyrics] to him,” he says. “Post was literally in tears.”
START OUT AT Big Pink, the famed Saugerties, New York, house where Dylan and the Band made The Basement Tapes, head east on Route 212, and cross the Hudson River. Drive a few more miles and turn down a quiet country lane, and you’ll find Michael Cash’s studio. Built in an old barn, and set on 10 acres, it’s a big, bright space with five pianos, a Moog, a Roland, and a Hofner bass, among other gear. “This is like a super fucking bed and breakfast for rock stars,” Cash says. “You can come, you can lock in, you can go for a hike, you can go get lost and not see anybody. At the same time, you can go into the studio whenever you want — just tell the engineer, like, ‘run it.’ That’s the vibe.”
Cash took a winding path to get there. He grew up in Yonkers, just north of New York City, and spent much of his youth working on hip-hop projects, with stints at the well-known rap labels SRC and Loud Records. He collaborated with DJ Whoo Kid, who produced and hosted mixtapes for 50 Cent and G Unit, among others. “I was working with [Whoo Kid] on his Murda Mixtapes before 50 Cent got shot,” Cash recalls. “I’ve been responsible for so much music that I’m unknown for.”
Fascinated by the history and aura of Woodstock, he moved there in 2014. “I did the whole hip-hop thing, and then eventually you start to listen to other music,” he recalls. “Music in the Hudson Valley is just kind of my thing because there’s a scene there, man. There’s a lot of great musicians that live up there.”
A few years later, Cash worked with Burnett on an unfinished project called The Covenant, which brought together artists like Black Thought of the Roots, Elvis Costello, Nathaniel Rateliff, Cassandra Wilson, DJ Premier, and more at Cash’s studio in Woodstock. That one stalled out during the pandemic, but it sparked the idea for the Dylan collaborations.
In March 2021, Malone visited Cash’s studio to record “Be Not Deceived.” According to Cash, Malone brought his mom, girlfriend, and a film crew; he also rented a place nearby — a “palatial palace,” as Cash puts it. The producer claims Malone spent some of his time there “ghost-hunting.” “No, seriously,” Cash says. “He was like, ‘Yo, dude, I’m ghost-hunting. There’s ghosts.’”
According to Cash, Malone believed the famously reclusive Dylan would attend the sessions. “They’re like, ‘Yeah, we heard Bob was going to be there,’” Cash says. “Yeah, right, yo. Is Salman Rushdie going to be there with Edward Snowden?” (Through a representative, Malone declined to comment for this article.)
All the same, Cash says, the sessions were fruitful: “We had a lot of fun. And Post is a fucking cool kid, man.” Cash, Malone, and a crew that Cash says included Malone’s producer Louis Bell laid down a version of the track.
By Cash’s estimate, they got about 40 percent done before Malone had to take off. “We got the stenciling done, he got some colors in, but he definitely wasn’t finished,” Cash says. “It needed flair. It needed more layers. It wasn’t a complete piece of music, but it was definitely a song. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. There was a bridge, there was a chorus. It just needed to be finished.”
It still isn’t. “[Rosen] heard the song,” Cash says. “He liked it, and then everybody left the studio and it just got… Look, all I can tell you is it went from being something to be excited about to just turning into a circular, figure-eight pattern. Nobody had an answer.”
Despite his best efforts, Cash had trouble getting Malone to finish the track. “I was like, ‘Dude, he’s going to finish this track. Bob Dylan wrote it.’ I’m wrong. I’m an idiot. This thing was just never going to come out.”
Eventually, Dylan’s team got tired of waiting. As Cash recalls, “Rosen said to me at a certain point, ‘Well, we’re just going to retract the lyrics.’”
“Bob and Mr. Rosen do things a specific way,” Cash explains. “They get things done in a New York minute and then it started to become…. Honestly, they just were like, ‘This should be finished.’”
So what happened? Malone isn’t saying, and Cash is mum on specifics, but says “it just seems like nobody really managed expectations, and it just seems like nobody communicated. A really cool piece of music got made, and then it just got weird. It got really weird.”
Cash has been busy with other projects, including curating music for as part of a collaboration between Dodge and Motor Trend. He’s working with Hunter S. Thompson’s widow, Anita, to steward the writer’s legacy, and Thompson’s famed illustrator Ralph Steadman, whose art Cash co-curated for a recent exhibit.
He’d envisioned a whole album of Dylan collaborations, with even more big-name artists, noting “Bob loves Drake.” He didn’t even finish one track, but he’s philosophical about the experience. “This is like a fever dream, man,” Cash says. ”[It’s like] we all died in the pandemic. This isn’t real. Because it just started off as, honestly, sitting around and saying something, and it was a good idea, and it just didn’t turn out to be one of those ideas that actually…. It’s disappointing, too, right?”
Cash still hopes to complete “Be Not Deceived” someday. “My hopes are that Mr. Dylan and Mr. Rosen give back the right to use the lyrics,” he says. “I would like it if the record gets finished. That’s basically my Jerry Springer final thought. So maybe it got weird, but this is two really important musicians that I feel put the work in and it needs to be shared.”