From "The Basement Tapes" to "Thin Wild Mercury Music," the Dylan bootlegs.
By Damon Krukowski
MARCH 30, 1998: I wasn't alone in spending an inordinate amount of time listening to Bob Dylan this past year -- in addition to the usual collection of obsessive Dylan fans (more accessible than ever thanks to the Internet), the mainstream music business re-embraced its prodigal son, giving Dylan three Grammys, including Album of the Year. But I found Time out of Mind (Columbia), the much-praised new album, lacking what I look for from Dylan. Instead, I've been listening to bootlegs.
There are bootlegs for every stripe of Dylan fan: acoustic ones and electric ones, of early and more recent vintage, studio outtakes and live recordings, even live recordings by studio engineers (for official but as-yet-unreleased live albums). Many aficionados follow author Paul Williams (of Crawdaddy magazine fame) and insist it's only in live performance that Dylan's artistry can be fully realized, and this fervor fuels an endless flow of bootleg performance recordings. The last 10 years, which Dylan has spent on the road as part of what he originally called the Never-Ending Tour (he's since disclaimed the title), have been chronicled and recorded by fans on a daily basis, as Dylan seems to have inherited much of the Grateful Dead's DAT pack. There are searchable databases on the Internet for every set list that Dylan has played on this 10-year tour. And on my favorite Dylan site, Tangled Up in Jews (www.well.com/user/yudel/dylan.html), you can track the correspondence between his touring schedule and the calendar of Jewish holidays, in order to draw your own conclusions as to whether Shabtai Zisel ben Avraham v'Rachel Riva (and you thought it was hip to know his name is Zimmerman!) is still observant, and if so to what degree.
My own interests tend toward the middle years, call it High Dylan, which begin around '65 and end more or less after Blood on the Tracks, the 1975 comeback album that this year many reviewers felt compelled to compare with Time out of Mind. (It is crucial to remember that in Dylanography, the same events occur over and over in a predictable cycle: adulation, disaster, disappearance, comeback. Dylan is on his umpteenth comeback.) Among the bootlegs of this period is the most famous live recording of Dylan (it may be the most famous live recording of rock and roll), the Royal Albert Hall show of 1966, which was originally bootlegged on vinyl in the late '60s. Make that the "Royal Albert Hall" show, because a recent bootleg double CD called Guitars Kissing and the Contemporary Fix has for the first time pieced together the entire performance, in the process establishing that it didn't take place at the Royal Albert Hall at all but at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester! On the road in England with the Hawks (a/k/a the Band), Dylan was playing a half-acoustic, half-electric show that provoked his folk audiences to a near-riot of anger and confusion. In the "Royal Albert Hall" recording (at the Free Trade Hall), there is a famous exchange between Dylan and an audience member who yells "Judas!" in the silence between two songs. "I don't believe you . . ." says Dylan, "you're a liar!" And then to the Band, just audible on the tape, "Get fucking loud!" They launch into a raucous "Like a Rolling Stone."
Also dating from Dylan's mid-'60s collaborations with the Band are what have undoubtedly been the most talked about bootlegs recently, The Genuine Basement Tapes. Last year Greil Marcus drew attention to this remarkable five-CD document in his book Invisible Republic (Holt), which draws a parallel between these recordings and Harry Smith's 1950s Anthology of American Folk Music, itself recently reissued on CD by Smithsonian/Folkways. For those who need a primer to this icon of bootlegging: the Basement Tapes were private recordings that Dylan made with the Band in Saugerties, New York, during 1967, while he was out of public circulation after a motorcycle accident. A one-record acetate of Dylan and Dylan/Band originals from these sessions was then circulated by his music publishers among other musicians (several of whom -- Peter, Paul and Mary, Fairport Convention, the Byrds, and the Band themselves -- popularized them); this acetate also made its way into the underground marketplace as part of the first rock bootleg. Dylan himself left these songs (and the Band) behind and moved on to his next official album, John Wesley Harding (which I would characterize as the disaster in that particular version of the cycle, though many Dylan fans swear by it). The complete sessions were unearthed in recent years and promptly bootlegged on CD.
Marcus's book is an impassioned, impressionistic reading of The Genuine Basement Tapes as a work of literature steeped in the grand, gloomy, Old Testament prophetic traditions of the Puritans, plus writers of the American Renaissance like Melville and Hawthorne; regardless of the merits of his argument, his hyperbole is delightfully highbrow and high-flown . . . like Dylan's lyrics of the time. And it is certainly the lyrics of the Basement Tapes' songs -- the pure products of America gone crazy, to paraphrase William Carlos Williams via Marcus -- that make them such a mystery, more so than the vagaries of their release history. In songs like "Million Dollar Bash," "Too Much of Nothing," and "I Shall Be Released" (to name some of the best-known), Dylan makes absolutely no sense. And yet his emotions are completely clear -- which may well be why he was reluctant to release the Basement Tapes. The funny songs are funny, the tragic ones are tragic, yet they share the same ludicrous strings of images and wordplay ("Yeah! Heavy and a bottle of bread," from the song of the same title), so much so that you can hardly tell one from the other. Which makes for powerful confusions.
The theory that Dylan's unreleased recordings harbor his truest emotional statements is supported by a great new bootleg that surfaced last year, and that earns my vote for Best Release of the Year by a Grammy Winner, any category: Blood on the Tapes. This CD collects all the initial recordings that Dylan made in 1974 -- the so-called New York sessions -- for what would become Blood on the Tracks. Some of these takes Dylan considered finished enough that they went all the way to test pressing before he scrapped them and re-recorded the entire album. They are unadorned, raw, improvisatory. Dylan plays acoustic guitar rather than electric, alone or with understated accompaniment; the songs lose the stately grandeur you associate with the finished album but gain in personality and emotion. The subject of the spun-out stories of these songs is, in these original takes, clearly the singer himself. An obvious conclusion, perhaps, but were Blood on the Tracks not so good at the tricks of its detached, narrative style, Blood on the Tapes wouldn't be such a surprise.
Another superb recent bootleg collection is Thin Wild Mercury Music, which takes its name from an oft-cited statement Dylan made in a 1977 interview:
"The closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind was on . . . the Blonde on Blonde album. It's that thin, that wild mercury sound. It's metallic and bright gold . . . It was in the album before that, too [Highway 61 Revisited]. Also in Bringing It All Back Home. That's the sound I've always heard."
Thin Wild Mercury Music collects outtakes and alternate takes from those three bright-gold albums, which were recorded (for the most part) in 1965. The trio represent Dylan's great rock statement -- before them he was a folk singer, and after them he retreated to the basement and reinvented folk singing. But in 1965 he developed a true rock-and-roll style, and the outtakes of Thin Wild Mercury Music provide fascinating snapshots of its progress, like photos of a painting as it undergoes revision. Dylan's 1965 persona is as essential to mid-'60s rock -- and as essentially inimitable -- as the Velvet Underground . . . and not so different at times. "I'll Keep It with Mine," which Dylan left to Nico to make famous, dates from this period, as do the numerous musical and even sartorial quirks that Lou Reed lifted from '65-era Dylan (dark glasses, snotty attitude, street-wise raps . . . Dylan got there first).
For those reluctant to delve into the demi-monde of bootlegs (a world most easily accessible these days via the Internet), last year also saw the re-release of Columbia's official answer to these collections: The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3. Among the obsessives, this three-CD set has a bad rep, because everyone has a gripe about the choices -- wrong take, wrong song, etc. There is even a parallel, truly bootleg collection, The Genuine Bootleg Series, created in response! But no one denies that the official release has at least some of the best tracks from Dylan's vast body of unreleased studio work. Of the albums discussed here, the set largely ignores the Basement Tapes but does include some of the best New York sessions from 1974, several outtake gems from 1965, and also many excellent earlier recordings (and the notes hint that the Albert Hall live recording may one day receive an official release of its own). The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3 also includes a sampling of the post-1975 unreleased tracks that Dylan apologists frequently cite to make their case for his more recent work, including the infamous religious albums of the '80s.
As for the most recent work, the Grammy-winning Time out of Mind, to me
it's the emperor's new CD. Dylan's voice is gone, or at least he's pretending
it is -- he's growling like the old blues men he imitated less convincingly but
more charmingly when he first started out. Even more disappointing, to me, is
the absence of the imagery that once spilled out of him. Many people describe
the album as a clear-headed, harsh look at aging. But I can't forgive Dylan --
the great twister of phrase -- when he resorts to unretouched clichés, no
matter how harsh a truth he may be facing. On my personal chart of Dylan's
cycles, this album ranks as a disaster. But that means the comeback can't be
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