A collection of released and previously unreleased Dylan material covering the period 1962 to 1981. Unreleased material mixed by Thom Panunzio, assisted by Jim Ball at the Record Plant, NYC. Mastered digitally by Greg Calbi at
Sterling Sound, NYC. Columbia Records co-ordination by Bruce Dickinson, Don De Vito and Jeff Jones
"This set could have been all unreleased songs. If it was worth my while, I could put together a ten record set of unreleased songs, songs that have never gotten out and songs that have never been bootlegged." Bob Dylan 1985
"There's some stuff that hasn't been heard before, but most of my stuff has already been bootlegged, so to anybody in the know, there's nothing on it they haven't heard before... All it is, really, is repackaging, and it'll just cost a lot of money." Bob Dylan 1985
When "Biograph" was released in November 1985, most people (myself included) welcomed it as an absolutely essential addition to Bob Dylan's catalogue, but time has shown that it is little more than an expensive con. Dylan himself, as the above quotes illustrate was less than impressed with it, and was quick to play down his involvement with its release. That is not to say that "Biograph" is without merit because there is much to savour on it, but in order to understand what it is, one has to look at what it is not. It is not a greatest hits package, although the track selection here is no better or no worse than other collections that have gone under that name. It is not a live album, although there are some live tracks included, and it doesn't fall into the category of rare and unreleased (1991's Bootlegs Vols. 1-3 would redefine that phrase), although again it does contain some previously unreleased material. But by far the biggest problem with the album is the seemingly haphazard sequencing of the tracks, which cover a period of almost twenty years and give the word "random" a whole new meaning. Tim Holmes, reviewing it in Rolling Stone, which gave it five stars, says "The album is thematically, albeit loosely, structured," but gives a less than satisfactory explanation as to what this structure is. On the plus side, there are some positives. This would be a good place for a newcomer to Dylan to make a start, as a significant number of the previously released tracks are classics and would serve as a well rounded introduction to his music. Virtually every album up to 1981 is represented, the only omissions are "Self Portrait" and "Dylan," with 1976's "Desire" perhaps surprisingly being only represented by live versions of "Isis" and "Romance In Durango," two of that album's finest songs. "Biograph" came at a time when Dylan's career was ready for a much needed boost, the album that preceded it, 1985's "Empire Burlesque" gave little indication of Dylan's true worth, and its two successors "Knocked Out Loaded" and "Down In The Groove" were simply poor. The album that followed them, "Dylan And The Dead" is best ignored completely. It would only be in 1989 with the Daniel Lanois produced "Oh Mercy" that Dylan's musical fortunes began to improve.
The first four tracks on disc one give some indication of the crazy sequencing. Beginning with 1969's "Lay, Lady, Lay," one of the few real hits that Dylan has had, we jump back to 1962 and the debut album for "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down" the only song in this entire set that Dylan did not write. From there we move forward to 1970's "New Morning" for the lightweight, era defining "If Not For You" and then back to 1967 for the "John Wesley Harding" closing track, "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight." These are all relevant selections from the back catalogue, but if the debut album was to be included, why not choose one of the self penned songs from it, this would surely be a good opportunity to include the outstanding "Song To Woody." The first of the previously unreleased songs (in 1985 anyway) is "I'll Keep It With Mine," a song that Dylan wrote for Nico that featured on her album "Chelsea Girl." The version that appears here is not the same as the one on "Bootlegs Vols. 1-3," and I reluctantly have to admit that of the two, this one is superior. It was recorded at the same prolific session (January 14th 1965) that produced no fewer than five of the tracks that ended up on "Bringing It All Back Home," and surely should have been included on that album.
The next four tracks have a theme in that they all come from Dylan's "protest" era, two from 1963's "Freewheelin'," sandwiched between two from the following year's "The Times They Are A'Changin'." These four (the "Times" title song, "Blowin' In The Wind," "Masters Of War" and "The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll") are all classics that Dylan was performing in concert in those early sixties years, and indeed continues to do so, "Masters Of War" being the song that he performed at his Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award ceremony in 1991. Fitting into this theme, is the next previously unreleased song, the much bootlegged "Percy's Song." It was recorded at the same "Times" session that produced the album versions of "The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll" and "When The Ship Comes In," and the reason for its omission from the album may well have been its length, as it certainly was not rejected on merit. The song may have had a factual base, when he performed it at his Carnegie Hall concert on October 26th 1963, Dylan introduced it as "...a song I wrote about a friend of mine and it's called Percy's Song." He also took the time to credit the composer of the tune "...I took the tune from a song that a folk singer by the name of Paul Clayton sings, called The Wind And The Rain." "Percy's Song," along with several of the other songs that Dylan performed that evening was scheduled for an aborted live album, another possible reason for its omission from "Times." In the song, also known as "Turn, Turn," Dylan, telling the story in the first person, pleads with an obdurate judge who has passed a seemingly brutal sentence (ninety-nine years) on a friend, the titular Percy, for the manslaughter of four people in a car that he was driving.
"But I knew him as good/As I'm knowin' myself" sings Dylan, adding that "...he wouldn't harm a life/That belonged to someone else," but the judge refuses to be swayed, eventually throwing our narrator out of his office, who turns to his guitar for solace, but "...the only tune/My guitar could play/Was, Oh, The Cruel Rain/And The Wind." Dylan is in fine voice here, and performs the song in a chillingly prosaic manner. Britsh folk group Fairport Convention recorded a version of "Percy's Song" for their 1969 album "Unhalfbricking."
We jump back a year for the next unreleased track, interestingly Dylan's first electric recording "Mixed Up Confusion," was also his first single, issued backed with "Corrina, Corrina" from the same session. The release predated that of the album "Freewheelin'" for which it was originally intended, by some five months. The single, which was apparently issued to capitalise on the Christmas rush of December 1962, sank without trace and was quickly deleted. The version that is on Biograph is not the same take that was used on the single, although it does come from the same session, November 14th 1962. That session also produced the album version of "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" and the version of "Kingsport Town" which was later included on 1991's first Bootlegs collection. "Mixed Up Confusion" has a raw sound that Clinton Heylin describes as "Sounding like an outtake from one of those fabled mid-fifties Sun sessions..." and gives little indication of where Dylan would be in a few short years, although legendary guitarist Bruce Langhorne did say that he (Dylan) was "...doing some very interesting things with the guitar."
"Tombstone Blues" is the official album track from "Highway 61 Revisited," but "The Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar" is the track that was originally omitted from 1981's "Shot Of Love" before being reinstated on later vinyl pressings and the cd issues. This began something of a trend for Dylan in the eighties, the list of high quality songs that he dropped from various albums is legendary, and whether it was because he did not recognise their true worth (unlikely) or because he was using them as an insurance policy for possible leaner times in the future remains unclear. What is in no doubt however is the fact that "Groom" strengthened "Shot Of Love" immeasurably.
"Most Likely You'll Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)" is the live version from 1974's "Before The Flood" and is as different from the original on 1966's "Blonde On Blonde" as it is possible to be, perfectly illustrating the full throated treatment that Dylan was giving his work on that notorious tour. "Like A Rolling Stone" is the classic album track from "Highway 61" and it still remains one of the most (if not the most) recognisable song in Dylan's entire catalogue. Rolling Stone magazine recently voted it the best song of the rock era. Then we move back to 1963 again for the criminally overlooked "Lay Down Your Weary Tune." Recorded at the same session that yielded the "Times" title track and the exquisite "One Too Many Mornings," it is fairly easy to see why this would not have fitted the overall theme of "The Times They Are A'Changin'" (the lightweight "Eternal Circle" and the inconsequential "Suze, The Cough Song" were recorded that same evening). "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" has a gentleness about it and an almost fragile beauty as Dylan uses wonderful images and similes to describe the allure of nature in musical terms. "Struck by the sounds before the sun/I knew the night had gone" captures that magical pre-dawn moment, and the hallucinogenic feel of "The morning breeze like a bugle blew" and "The ocean wild like an organ played" along with the double image of "The cryin' rain like a trumpet sang" are forerunners of the mystical imagery that would form such an integral part of later writing. All this is coupled with the almost spiritual refrain "And rest yourself 'neath the strength of strings/No voice can hope to hum." This song was performed live at the already mentioned Carnegie Hall Concert (the only known live performance) and was also intended for the shelved live album.
"Subterranean Homesick Blues" is the official album track recorded in March 1965, but the live version of "I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)" is previously unreleased. Recorded in Dublin, Ireland on May 6th 1966, this is the song that Dylan used to taunt his hostile audiences on that famous take-no-prisoners tour of that year. That taunting, along with a superior live version of this song can be heard on the "Live 1966" album, and although this version lags behind that one in terms of quality, it still captures the moment perfectly. Disc One ends here, and Disc Two opens with an acoustic "Visions Of Johanna" from the same tour, but from a different concert, this is from May 26th 1966, the first of two nights at London's Royal Albert Hall that brought that much discussed tour to an end. The contrast between the two halves of those concerts, so brilliantly captured on the "Live 1966" album is again shown here, Robert Shelton described it as "...rapt attention for his solo acoustic work and anger during his electric set," and this version of the classic "Visions Of Johanna" is quite stunning with the predictable polite applause at the end. Dylan showed the audience the other side of his gemini persona in the second half, and it was here that, before the last number, he told the audience "...believe me, we've enjoyed every minute of being here"
Next up is the outstanding "Every Grain Of Sand," the closing track from 1981's "Shot Of Love," oddly sandwiched between selections from 1966 and 1967. The latter, "Quinn, The Eskimo" is a "Basement Tapes" outtake, but a vastly different one to the shambolic live Isle Of Wight version which is on 1970's "Self Portrait." This is the only official "studio" version of the song and the sound of Dylan's voice and that of the backing musicians leave one in no doubt as to its origin. Shame that it was deemed surplus to requirements for "The Basement Tapes," but at least we can enjoy it here. The following six tracks, a bit of a mixed bag, are all official album tracks ranging from 1964 to 1975, although the latest of these, (1975's "Million Dollar Bash") was actually recorded in 1967. The other five consist of four classics, ("Mr. Tambourine Man," "Dear Landlord," "It Ain't Me, Babe" and "To Ramona") and one mediocre track ("You Angel You") from 1974's "Planet Waves." Then we are back into the realms of previously unreleased material for the original recording of the "Blood On The Tracks" song "You're A Big Girl Now." The album was effectively recorded twice, due to Dylan's dissatisfaction with the early New York takes, of which this is one. Many of the songs were re-recorded in Minneapolis over Christmas 1974 with varying degrees of success, and it would be a difficult choice to pick the better of the two versions of this one. This version is slower and more contemplative than the one that made the album and on balance is probably the superior cut, but that may well be because the album track by being ten years older in my mind is more familiar.
Staying (briefly) in the mid seventies, we are now treated to "Abandoned Love," a superb outtake from "Desire," even though thematically it is closer to the previous album. This is a man who has made his decision, and while he may be ready to accept it, he is not perfectly happy with it, "I love to see you dress before the mirror/Won't you let me in your room one time 'fore I finally disappear?" His heart is overruling his head, "My head tells me it's time to make a change/But my heart is telling me I love ya but you're strange," but there is a sting in the tail of the song, "Won't you descend from the throne, from where you sit?/Let me feel your love one more time before I abandon it." "Abandoned Love" was recorded on July 31st 1975, at the same session that produced the album's heart rendingly personal "Sara" and it may well be that Dylan felt he would be gilding the lily by including it. The song has only ever been performed live once, at the Other End in New York shortly before he recorded it. "Tangled Up In Blue," the opening track from "Blood On The Tracks" completes this mid seventies trio.
The third and final selection from the 1966 tour is a flawless rendition of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," this time from the May 17th concert in Manchester that became the legendary album (though there are still those that dispute that). I know I am repeating myself here, but every time I listen to these concerts, I cannot believe the silence during the acoustic sets, followed by the almost reverential applause. Dylan certainly had these audiences in the palm of his hand, and his pronunciation and diction were clearer and more precise than they would ever be again, certainly one of the album's highlights.
Back in the mid sixties, artists were still expected to issue singles from their albums (or LP's as they were then known). Columbia obviously felt that Dylan should be no different and consequently released a string of singles at this time. Two of these were "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?" in December 1965 and "Positively 4th Street" some three months earlier. Both are included here and are interesting because they illustrate Dylan's amazing progression as a writer. The former (backed with the title track from "Highway 61 Revisited") has all the classic Dylan ingredients from that period, compelling word usage, obscure yet vivid imagery and most of all, the sneering taunts that only he could write and get away with. One verse in particular, the third, is particularly striking, "He looks so truthful is this how he feels/Trying to peel the moon and expose it/With his businesslike anger and bloodhounds that kneel/If he needs a third eye he just grows it/He just needs you to talk or to hand him his chalk/Or to pick it up after he throws it." Wow! This was a single in 1965. The second of these two, backed with "From A Buick 6" is probably the more well known and was recorded late in July 1965, just days after the infamous events of the Newport Folk Festival of that year, so no prizes for guessing who it was aimed at. It always surprises me when people use this song to illustrate the nasty side of Dylan's writing, he wrote far nastier stuff than this (Al Kooper called him "...king of the nasty song"), perhaps it's because his fury and indignation are so naked here. The venom is quite apparent in "Do you take me for such a fool/To think I'd make contact/With one who tries to hide/What he don't know to begin with," as is the sneering quality of "...I know your dissatisfied/With your position and your place/Don't you understand/It's not my problem," but the final insult is saved for the last verse, "Yes, I wish that for just one time/You could stand inside my shoes/You'd know what a drag it is/To see you." Surprisingly, "Positively 4th Street" was a hit, it peaked at #7 in the Billboard charts.
We now jump forward to 1975 and the Rolling Thunder Review, two selections from which are featured here. The first is of course "Isis" the classic "Desire" track that Dylan usually introduced as being "...about marriage." This version is not the Boston one that was later featured on the "Live 1975" album but rather from Montreal on December 4th 1975. Dylan dedicated the song to one of Montreal's famous sons (Leonard Cohen) who may or may not have been in the audience, "...this is for Leonard if he's still here" he said, and gave the song its usual full-blooded treatment. We go from the sublime to the ridiculous to close Disc Two, "Jet Pilot," an odd "Highway 61" outtake about a cross-dresser. This was an early (and very different) version of what would eventually become "Tombstone Blues."
Disc Three opens with four previously unreleased tracks, the first being the "Shot Of Love" outtake, "Caribbean Wind." This is for me, one of the finest songs on this collection, but Dylan felt that he could not get it to where it needed to be, consequently it was left off the album (but it was in good company, have a look at some of the other outtakes from "Shot Of Love"). "I started it in St. Vincent" he said, "when I woke up from a strange dream in the hot sun" Even though he acknowledged that he had written something "...very inspired" he committed the fatal error of over writing it to the point that it got away from him. "He struggled with it and I could never figure out why" said drummer Jim Keltner, "...every time you'd hear it back there was something missing." The song is steeped in powerful images and has similarities with "Groom" and the later "Jokerman." Mysterious or unattainable women are often at the core of Dylan's best writing, and "Caribbean Wind" is no exception. "Was she a child or a woman, I can't say which/From one to another she could easily switch" echo sentiments from a much earlier song, and "She looked into my soul through the clothes that I wore" gives some idea of her powers. There is a poignancy about the lines "Atlantic City by the cold grey sea/I hear a voice crying "Daddy," I always think it's for me" but Dylan's use of exotic place names (Caribbean, Nassau and Mexico) is as powerful as his rhyming structures, "desire" with "fire," and his image of "...distant ships of liberty on them iron waves so bold and free." He spoke of his frustration with the song and how there were "...four different sets of lyrics," but this version is powerful and evocative, and one of the album's undoubted highlights.
Even if one accepts how strong the writing and performing were on "Blood On The Tracks," it is still hard to accept that "Up To Me" did not make the cut. Recorded at the September 1974 sessions for that album, two things strike you about this song, the first is the way the lyrics hang together so brilliantly, and the second is Dylan's lazy, laid back performance as if he is improvising on the spot (if he was then he is even more gifted than we give him credit for). Listen to his delivery of "I was much too stubborn to ever be governed by enforced insanity" and "In fourteen months I've only smiled once and I didn't do it consciously" or the emphasis on "my" in the line "And the girl with me behind the shades, she ain't my property," a great song, a great performance and an underrated gem.
Back to the sixties now for the last two of this quartet. The first is the "Freewheelin'" outtake, "Baby, I'm In The Mood For You" and great fun it is too. The afternoon session on July 9th 1962 that this take comes from produced four of the tracks on "Freewheelin'," and very diverse they are, but in order to hear how diverse, listen to the take of "Worried Blues" on "Bootlegs Vols. 1-3," it comes from the same session! It's great to hear Dylan letting himself go with this song, and just enjoying it. The last track in this group is an outtake from the first "Blonde On Blonde" session, October 5th 1965, and unlike "Up To Me" it probably was improvised in the studio, something Dylan did a lot of back then. The song is pretty unremarkable, and does little other that illustrate how the mid sixties sound was developing, although some of the characters (jumpin' Judy, the rainman and the undertaker in his midnight suit) have a certain familiarity about them. The next track is the minor cut "I Want You" from "Blonde On Blonde" that was at one stage rumoured to be the title of the album.
1981's "Shot Of Love" was too uneven to be thought of as a classic Dylan album, but it does have some good tracks on it. One of these is the underrated "Heart Of Mine," and I say underrated because that is my opinion of this song which took a long time to grow on me, but now I really like it. It was released as a single in the summer of 1981 backed with "The Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar" (in the UK and Europe, the B side was "Let It Be Me") and Dylan was performing it in concert that year. This live version is from New Orleans, November 10th of that year, and Dylan turns in a powerful vocal performance. In uncharacteristically light hearted fashion, he took the opportunity to inform his audiences how poorly it was selling, three copies, five copies etc., and invariably they sold in the town he happened to be performing in. The next two tracks are both official album tracks, the first is "On A Night Like This," the opener from 1974's "Planet Waves," and the second is the "Blonde On Blonde" classic, "Just Like A Woman." Then we are back in 1975 and the Rolling Thunder Review. "Romance In Durango" is the second selection from that tour, and comes from the same evening and venue (Montreal, December 4th 1975) as its predecessor "Isis." These two songs from "Desire" were very much a part of the backbone of those concerts, and like other songs from that album that were featured in late 1975 they have strong and vivid storylines which Dylan and his band of itinerant gypsies used to great advantage on stage. My only (minor) complaint here is that by taking these two out of context and featuring them in different parts of the album, one tends to lose much of their intensity. There is much more satisfaction to be had by listening to the "Live 1975" album, because although it is taken from several different concerts, it gives one a sense of what those performances were really like.
Having been spoiled by several unreleased or live tracks, we now have eight tracks in succession that are officially released album selections. The first three follow a theme (sort of), with the first being "Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power)" from 1978's dark, brooding and sometimes undervalued "Street Legal." When reviewing this album for Rolling Stone, Greil Marcus called this song "...the most musically striking number [on the album]" before going on to remark, oddly, that it was "...really just a pastiche of the Eagles' "Hotel California."" The next two "Gotta Serve Somebody" and "I Believe In You" are two of the finest tracks from the following year's "Slow Train Coming" an album that is appreciated more today than when it was released. These are followed by "Time Passes Slowly," an inconsequential song from a mediocre album, 1970's "New Morning," before we have "I Shall Be Released" a classic that is also available on "Greatest Hits Vol 2," "Masterpieces" and "The Essential Bob Dylan." Another classic, "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" is next, and although this has been recorded by countless people over the years, the original from the soundtrack of Sam Peckinpah's "Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid" is still the best. The live version of "All Along The Watchtower" from 1974's live album, "Before The Flood" bears little resemblance to the original, but like the earlier choice from that album, it gives an indication of where Dylan was vocally in 1974. The final track in this group of eight is "Solid Rock" one of the better songs from 1980's vaguely unpleasant "Saved." Popular opinion is that Dylan's live shows at this time (religious content notwithstanding) were among his best ever and that the songs that were recorded in the studio for "Saved" did not match the stage performances. If that is, or was, the case then perhaps a live version of "Solid Rock," which was apparently one of the most popular, might have been a better option. As it is, the few good songs on that album tend to get lumped together with the undeniable preachiness of the whole project.
The final song on the album is the well known and often performed "Forever Young." Not one of the two versions from "Planet Waves," or a live version, but a publishing demo from June 1973, some five months before the "Planet Waves" sessions began. I have no problem with this being the last song here, but why this demo version? It brings little or nothing to the album as the performance is totally devoid of any feeling or emotion. As one of Dylan's most enduring works, a more passionate presentation or one with a little more depth would have been a more fitting way to bring proceedings to a close.
"Biograph" was certainly an interesting concept when it was released in November 1985, but to most people, after nearly twenty years in the marketplace it remains something of an enigma. It sold well and was awarded gold disc status, but not too much should be read into that given the curious way that these things are assessed (each of the 5 LP's in the original box set was regarded as a separate unit, so relatively few sales when added together would give an unrealistic figure). Time is not the only thing to have blunted it's impact, the increasingly impressive bootleg series, with it's genuinely rare and unreleased material make it look second rate and ill considered. Rolling Stone awarded it five stars, and Tim Holmes, in his favourable review had these prophetic words, "..."Biograph" is a scratch on the surface of the tip of the iceberg, a tantalizing invitation to explore anew the rest of the Dylan catalog." Richard Williams, writing in The Times said "...in the way it mirrors the inconsistency and contradictions of [Dylan's] extraordinary career, Biograph is the closest he has come to creating a full self-portrait." He went on to describe Dylan as "...an enigmatic figure who did as much as anyone else to mould post-war Anglo-American popular music and the international youth culture which it was to inspire." Michael Gray, in the introduction to his formidable but excellent "Song & Dance Man 111" described it thus, "An affirmation of the astonishing variety as well as richness of Dylan's corpus, the collection was well received by the public and went some way to reviving that fickle thing, Dylan's critical reputation." Sadly it would be a few years before that happened, and when Dylan himself said "I always thought that one man, the lone balladeer with the guitar could blow an entire army off the stage if he knew what he was doing" one has to wonder if he knew that it would be a while before he would be in that position again.