Monday, October 17, 2016

Classic Albums: Bob Dylan Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3

Last week's announcement of Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize win has put the Bobfather back on my brain. Every couple of years or so I go on a deep Dylan jag where his music dominates my listening habits, and it looks like this win may have started a brand new one. All of this got me thinking about the first Dylan album (in this case, box set) I ever owned.

I had never really listened to Dylan when I was a 16 year old in the October of 1991, but I'd heard so much about him, and even checked out Clinton Heylin's biography of him from the local library. I was at the moment where I was discovering music not on the Top 40, but without a guide, other than the occasional issue of Rolling Stone bought at Walgreen's. In a strange bit of serendipity, a record store in a neighboring town was going out of business, with cassette tapes 66% off. I noticed that the just released The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare and Unreleased, 1961-1991) box set was there for the taking for only ten bucks, and I took the plunge. (I also bought my first Replacements album at that same sale. It was a good day.) It was strange to dig into Dylan through cast-offs and B-sides, but looking back on it, the best way to be introduced to him. It meant that when I heard his more famous material, I could put it into a broader context. And even if you happened to listen to his official stuff first, these "bootleg" songs open up an entire world.

Dylan was the first artist to be widely bootlegged, and one of the few this side of Prince whose vaults can yield unending amounts of great material. (Nice try, Beatles Anthology.) The complexity of his words and his studied mask of mystery pretty much impel his fans to know more. The official Bootleg Series, several volumes long by now, emerged more out of necessity than anything else due to how much of Dylan's material was being put out in substandard bootlegs.

The first three volumes were all sold together, but all tell a vastly different story. The first tape or disc takes us only to 1963. This volume tells us the story of Bob Dylan young folksinger, the new Woody Guthrie singing topical songs with a harmonica and a guitar. This is the figure misguidedly canonized by so many hardcore Village folkies, the one they would later call "Judas" for going electric and rock and roll. It starts with "Hard Times In New York Town," about the Minnesota country boy trying to make it in the hard-shouldered urban canyons of Gotham. Volume 1 ends with Dylan at Town Hall, no longer just playing Village coffee houses. It ends on such a fitting note, with a poem dedicated to Woody Guthrie, the man who was the obvious inspiration for this part of Dylan's career. In between there are many gems, including the piano version of "When The Ship Comes In" and "Let Me Die In My Footsteps," perhaps the best song about living with the threat of the Bomb. When I was 16 I listened to this tape the most, mostly because it was the least challenging and most familiar, since my parents were big fans of the poppier acts of the folk boom, like Peter, Paul, and Mary and the like. In any case, topical, finger-pointing songs like "Who Killed Davy Moore?" appealed to a teenager first realizing that he was actually a progressive and not a Republican.

The second volume is the one I later gravitated to, but also the strangest. Whereas the first one captures a specific moment in Dylan's career, the second takes us from 1963 to 1975, from Dylan the edgier folkie to Dylan the electric master of mayhem to the post-motorcycle crash recluse to the reborn artist of Blood On The Tracks. This volume also has precious little from his holy trinity of mid sixties peaks: Bring It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. Many of the songs from that period are also incomplete, perhaps reflecting the toll of touring and drugs. There's a weird, minute-long piano waltz version of the epochal "Like A Rolling Stone" that ends with Dylan tiredly announcing "My voice is gone, man." The promising "She's Your Lover Now" comes to a crashing halt. At the same time, there's a great version of "I'll Keep It With Mine," later famously sung by Nico. The songs seem chosen to imply that Dylan's years of quiet were the necessary result of exhaustion.

We get two precious little songs from the famous Basement Tapes, but both grabbed my attention so much when I first heard them that my obsession with what he recorded at Big Pink was born. There's the silly yet catchy "Santa Fe" and a jaw-droppingly beautiful rendition of "I Shall Be Released." From there, things get eclectic, reflecting Dylan's wanderings in the late 60s and early 70s, including the lovely, straight up country song "Wallflower," later put on wax by the great Doug Sahm. After hearing all the rock and folk, the bright country steel guitar on this song is jarring. The second volume ends on a much different note, however, with three songs from the Blood On The Tracks sessions. The version of "Tangled Up In Blue" on here is maybe my favorite, perhaps because you can hear the buttons on Dylan's jacket clanging on the guitar. It's such a great glimpse into his spontaneous recording process, a habit that can drive his collaborators nuts. "Call Letter Blues," which is "Meet Me In The Morning" with different lyrics, lays Dylan's separation from his wife bare. "Children cry for mother/ I tell them mother took a trip." It all ends with "Idiot Wind," completely and utterly different from "Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie." The youthful hope has curdled into middle-aged bitterness. I love this version so much more than the one on Blood On The Tracks. It's more spare and wistful, less hateful. This version was perhaps too rare and real for the secretive Dylan to show the world. He had to cover up his vulnerability with vitriol.

I made a habit of listening to volume 2 on dark, lonely nights. The first side (remember album sides?) is the sound of a man breaking down in the midst of his career peak. The second is the sound of a man flailing and then hitting an emotional valley only to be shocked into making something great in response. That's an arc you can only get from the Bootleg Series, not from any compilation of Dylan's official recordings. Volume 2 might be the truest single disc picture of Bob Dylan that exists. It is not an album in the traditional sense, but is perhaps more masterfully organized and curated than any other compilation.

Volume 3, I must admit, is the least played of the three, but just as revealing. It starts strong, with songs from Dylan's mid-1970s comeback, including a great live rocking "Seven Days" and the pretty little baseball song "Catfish," about pitcher Jim "Catfish" Hunter. Unfortunately, it then gets into outtakes from Dylan's trilogy of Christian rock albums, and there's nothing here that revealing. His music in that era also imitated the dominant, middle of the road California cocaine rock. The real revelations come in the second half, with a passel of songs from the sessions for 1983's Infidels much stronger than much of what was officially released. "Blind Willie McTell" has become legendary as an example of how Dylan's outtakes in his 80s slough were better than the crap he put on wax. This fact is an enduring topic of conversation, but I think it just shows how bad his judgement had become, how lost he was. In 1991, listening to these songs I thought I was hearing the last gasp of a once great, but spent artist. The last song, "Series of Dreams," had an elegiac quality to it. Perhaps now, after thirty years, the dream is over and Bob Dylan has nothing left to say.

Of course, what I didn't understand then was that the Oh Mercy sessions that birthed that song gave Dylan the spark and confidence he needed to continue after many years of treading water. The great Signs Of Life entry in the Bootleg Series shows a second career beginning at this point, one with its own high points. In a way, the first three volumes of the Bootleg Series tell a story that the hits and well known songs never could. It shows a great artist able to weather two extended low points and still come back with songs just as good as any he wrote in his sixties heyday. If you want to hear the real greatness of Dylan, it's not on the broad interstate highways of "Blowin' In The Wind" and "Like A Rolling Stone," but in the potholed backroads of "Mama, You've Been On My Mind" and "Foot Of Pride." His cast-offs are other people's masterpieces.

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