"It was important for me to come to the bottom of this legend thing, which has no reality at all. What's important isn't the legend, but the art, the work. A person has to do whatever they are called on to do."
Bob Dylan 1991.
The importance and significance of this collection in Bob Dylan's catalogue cannot be overstated or exaggerated. The superb packaging of this, the first in a sporadic series of previously unreleased material, set a standard of excellence that would be maintained, and in some cases even surpassed. Covering the first twenty-eight years of Dylan's career (1991 refers to the release date not the final recording, which was 1989) this three CD set is a fascinating insight into what Rolling Stone called "...the paths not taken." Comprised of out-takes, demos, alternative versions and the odd live recording for added spice, the fifty-eight tracks on offer here illustrate the amazing depth and diversity of Dylan's work. Available for the first time as an official bootleg (an oxymoron if ever there was one) we can hear these recordings without the poor sound quality that is associated with illegal tapes or CDs due to the endless copying on inferior equipment. The tracks are arranged more or less chronologically, unlike 1985's "Biograph," with almost half covering the pre-1965 acoustic period. Included here are such gems as "Bear Mountain," "John Birch," "Seven Curses," the much covered "Farewell Angelina" and the wonderfully heartfelt, if nervously performed "Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie." The patchy middle period (1965-1975) offers several classic outtakes and alternates from "Blood On The Tracks" and "Desire," and the final third (the late seventies to 1989), a period not often associated with Dylan's strongest work, is perhaps the richest of all. Here we find some exemplary performances that were inexplicably, and in some cases criminally omitted from official releases, "Angelina," "Lord Protect My Child," "Foot Of Pride" and "Blind Willie McTell" are all among the finest that Dylan has ever written or performed. Few artists, if any, could produce a similar collection of unreleased material, and none that I can think of could produce one of equal quality. Michael Gray, a man who knows more than a little about Dylan and his work said that this album could "...establish Dylan's place as the pre-eminent songwriter and performer of the age and as one of the great artists of the twentieth century."
After the two famous recording sessions with Columbia late in November 1961 that would result in his first album, Dylan returned to Minneapolis for the Christmas holidays. While there, on December 22nd he gave an apparently impromptu performance which was recorded by Minneapolis folkie Tony Glover. There appears to be some confusion about where this tape (known as The Minneapolis Hotel Tape) was actually recorded. Some sources give it as the home of Dave Whittaker, one of Dylan's mentors from the early days, and others as Bonnie Beecher's apartment. However, it seems likely that the tape from Beecher's apartment is the earlier Minnesota Party Tape. Whatever the truth of the matter, it is from The Minneapolis Hotel Tape that this version of "Hard Times In New York Town" comes. The song was almost certainly written around the time of the "Bob Dylan" recording sessions, and Dylan's performance of it here displays a certain nervousness which is odd considering he was among friends. Similar in style to "Talkin' New York" but without the humour, and as the late John Bauldie points out in his excellent liner notes, Dylan had no reason to be down on New York, a city that was at that time being particularly kind to him. That said, the performance is a gem that has a restless intensity that is indicative of much of Dylan's early work. Two other songs from this tape have recently had official release, "I Was Young When I Left Home" was included as a bonus on the limited edition version of 2001's "Love And Theft" and the traditional "Wade In The Water" cropped up on the Japanese release "Live 1961 - 2000" in the same year.
"He Was A Friend Of Mine" and "Man On The Street" were both recorded at the sessions for Dylan's debut album for Columbia (the former on the evening of November 20th, the latter on the afternoon of November 22nd) but neither made the album. On hearing these songs now, one has to wonder what the criteria for track selection was. Dylan performs the traditional "He was A Friend Of Mine," with its haunting melody, in a far more relaxed manner than several of those that made the album, and it was an integral part of his repertoire in the time preceding his first album sessions. More significantly, "Man On The Street" is a Dylan original, even though it leans heavily on folk tradition. It is interesting to note that while stressing the pathos of the eponymous figure, Dylan assumes that he is in no way responsible for his situation. This is a theme that would often appear in Dylan's writing, particularly when he tackles subjects dealing with social conscience, of which this is one of his first. He would use this theme, which may or may not have been inspired by an actual incident, again a few months later with "Only A Hobo" (also included here).
The version of "No More Auction Block" that appears here, the only one known to be in circulation, is perhaps the most astonishing of all of these early tracks. This emotion filled performance from a twenty-one year old Dylan comes from an evening at New York's Gaslight Cafe in October 1962. He probably learned the song from Odetta, one of his heroines, and even though the sound quality leaves much to be desired, there can be no doubting the passion of the performance, utterly compelling.
The album credits "House Carpenter" with being recorded in March 1962, but it was almost certainly recorded some four months earlier. Intended for, but not used on "Freewheelin'" (the first of several here), this song again highlights Dylan's remarkable speed and intensity, both in vocal and guitar work. He could have picked this song up from any number of folk singers who were performing in Greenwich Village at that time, and it has the distinction of being (possibly) the oldest song that he has ever performed. The hilarious "Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues," another "Freewheelin'" outtake recorded in April 1962 was ground-breaking for Dylan in that it was probably the first time that a newspaper article provided inspiration for a song. Even by today's standards, the song is very funny but it is made more so by Dylan's wry delivery and superb timing. His droll observation of "Besides, anyhow, the more the merrier" on seeing the huge crowd, and the deadpan "Quite lucky to be alive though" after his list of physical injuries are quite priceless. The final verse with his suggestion of how to treat unscrupulous, money-grabbing entrepreneurs is perfectly fitting, and the song which was hugely popular with his audiences set a new standard in folk music.
"Let Me Die In My Footsteps," a song that Paul Williams called Dylan's "...first anthem" was also dropped from "Freewheelin'" after being included in the early, promotional pressings. A shame this, because it is one of Dylan's finest songs from this period. Defiantly patriotic, he tells us that he will not join those in the bomb shelters who "Instead of learning to live they are learning to die" and he calls upon others to follow his example and "Go out in your country where the land meets the sun/See the craters and the canyons where the waterfalls run." This was a song that he had apparently been carrying in his head for about two years, and after this recording (April 25th 1962) he performed it many times on stage, to the extent that he eventually tired of it. "Rambling, Gambling Willie," a song that was recorded the previous afternoon, also suffered the same fate. Dylan's song about the compulsive gambler with the predictable heart of gold ("He supported all his children and all their mothers too") is a subject he would tackle with greater success later in his career. Willie is one of his early flawed characters, and the delay in the release of "Freewheelin'" saw the song being replaced with the more thoughtful and introspective "Bob Dylan's Dream." Recorded at the same sessions, "Talkin' Havah Negeilah Blues" is an engaging piece of nonsense that Dylan introduces as "...a foreign song I learned in Utah." Lightweight in the extreme, it does showcase his impeccable comic timing, witness the yodel at the end!
The sessions for what would become "Freewheelin'" continued on July 9th 1962 after a break of a couple of months, and two (markedly different) songs from that date are on offer here. "Quit Your Low Down Ways" sees Dylan returning to the vocal style that he employed on his first album, and here as there, he fails to pull it off. He tries to sound much older than his twenty-one years, and the track which was not surprisingly dropped from the album is one of this collections very few failures. The second is "Worried Blues," a song that Dylan is obviously more comfortable with and one that he had been performing live for some time. A simple song lyrically, that Dylan manages to imbue with passion and feeling, but again this is reminiscent of the material used on the debut album and when one considers the rate at which he was moving, it is perhaps no surprise that this did not make the album. As the sessions progressed, Dylan was anxious to wrap up the album as he had a commitment to appear in a BBC play and had to leave for England. The session on November 14th produced the beautifully understated gem "Kingsport Town." Loosely based on Woody Guthrie's "Who's Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet?" this unremarkable song is made memorable by Dylan's wonderful delivery of it
"Walkin' Down The Line" is a great little throwaway number performed here for Witmark publishers as part of a three year deal that Albert Grossman had shrewdly secured for Dylan in July 1962. An early example of the wordplay that would make Dylan such a unique artist can be heard in this otherwise inconsequential song. His nonchalant attitude to lifes problems is brilliantly but simply summed up with the delightfully alliterative "My money comes and goes/And rolls and flows and rolls and flows/Through the holes in the pockets of my clothes." Incidentally, the contract that Grossman had set up proved to be a particularly successful one; by the time it had run its course, Witmark had published no fewer than 237 original Dylan compositions.
During the trip to England in the winter of 1962/3, Dylan wrote prolifically, and returned to the States with a whole batch of new songs. The decision to recall the already released copies of "Freewheelin'" was not taken lightly, but recalled they were, ostensibly because the version of "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues" was considered politically sensitive. This was given added weight by the fact that Dylan was not allowed to perform the song on The Ed Sullivan Show of May 12th 1963 and this serendipitous turn of events allowed the substitution of a number of songs that had been recorded some three weeks earlier. Five songs had been recorded at that session and the only one not to make the reconfigured "Freewheelin'" was "Walls Of Red Wing" which is included here. This grim depiction of a Minnesota reform school is one of Dylan's bleakest songs, and although he performs it in the first person, he had no inside knowledge of the place. In a concert at New York City Town Hall some two weeks before he recorded it, he referred to it as having "...no high school football teams or nothing like that. No cheer leaders" and the picture he paints of the cruel regime endured by the inmates is depressing indeed. "Oh, the gates are cast iron and the walls are barbed wire/Stay far from the fence with the electricity sting" and "It's many a guard that stands around smiling/Holdin' his club like he was a king" explain why "It's many a night I pretended to be a-sleepin'/Inside the walls, the walls of Red Wing." As John Bauldie points out "...it wasn't a song that a great many people queued up to record." Fair comment, but it was recorded by Joan Baez who in those days would sing anything as long as it was written by Dylan.
Dylan never sounded more like Woody Guthrie than he does on "Paths Of Victory" the first outtake from "The Times They Are A'Changin'" the sessions for which began in August 1963. This is not one of his best efforts from the period, but it is a song that he had been trying out on stage for some time, and although he reworked the lyrics, he was never happy enough with the finished version to give it official release. One of the most interesting things about the song is Dylan's extremely rudimentary piano playing.
On October 26th 1963 Dylan gave a concert at New York's Carnegie Hall which was taped by CBS with a view to putting out a live album, the imaginatively titled "Bob Dylan In Concert," which would combine the songs performed here with four ("New Orleans Rag," "Dusty Old Fairgrounds," "John Brown" and "Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie") from the earlier Town Hall concert. But the project was shelved and we would have to wait until 1974 for the first official live Dylan album. However, two of the songs that he performed that night are included here. The first, the notorious "John Birch" that may or may not have been responsible for "Freewheelin'" being recalled was becoming a concert favourite, and Dylan was revelling in his and its notoriety. This is evident from the fact that it was still being included in live performance more than a year later and is part of the 1964 Philharmonic (Halloween) Concert, where it is still as funny and equally as fresh. It's hard to believe in today's more enlightened (?) times that the idea of looking for communists in such innocuous places as under the bed, up the chimney, in the toilet bowl and television set could be seen as anything other than satirical. Incidentally, the song originally contained a verse that made reference to the holocaust, that Dylan dropped, only to rework it into the later (and far more serious) "With God On Our Side." The second song is the topical (for the time) "Who Killed Davey Moore?" another that was an important part of Dylan's repertoire and was based on the tragic death of the boxer of the title who died two days after being knocked out in the ring in March of that year. Blatantly using the "Who Killed Cock Robin?" style, Dylan asks everyone involved to shoulder some responsibility without ever getting a satisfactory answer to the titular question. This song was given it's live debut at the New York Town Hall Concert, merely a couple of weeks after the actual event, and it also crops up on the Philharmonic Halloween Concert, where Dylan is oddly dismissive of it. Soon after, it was dropped from his live repertoire.
The next two tracks both come from the August 12th 1963 session for "Times," the same one that produced "Paths Of Victory." The first of these, "Only A Hobo," is a reworking of the earlier "Man On The Street" and is typical of the socially aware songs that were largely responsible for giving Dylan his tag of protest singer. He makes no attempt in this song to apportion any blame or responsibility, he merely reports the sad death of a pathetic, nameless hobo. "A blanket of newspaper covered his head/As the curb was his pillow, the street was his bed" is his bleak description of the tramp's final resting place, and the stark, matter-of-fact chorus line "Only a hobo, but one more is gone" is perhaps more telling than any finger pointing. The second song, "Moonshiner" is one of Dylan's most amazing performances from this entire period, and the title character of the song could well be the hobo of the preceding piece. Having no illusions about his situation, the Moonshiner ponders on how his life might have been different, "God bless them pretty women, I wish they was mine/Their breath is as sweet as the dew on the vine" and the sorry mess that he has made of his life, "The whole world's a bottle, and life's but a dram/And when the bottle gets empty, it sure ain't worth a damn." The twenty-two year old Dylan sounds about a hundred and as if he has experienced every one of the Moonshiner's problems, and why this recording was omitted from the album is a total mystery. The line from this song "Let me eat when I'm hungry, let me drink when I'm dry" was paraphrased for 1997's "Standing In The Doorway" at a time when Dylan did not have to affect the world weariness that he produces so convincingly here.
Both "When The Ship Comes In" and "The Times They Are A'Changin'" are Witmark demos that were recorded with Dylan accompanying himself on the piano in August and October 1963 respectively, although the album wrongly dates "Ship" as 1962. Two outstanding songs that cemented Dylan's position in the folk (protest) movement, the former apparently came about, according to a story that Joan Baez told Anthony Scaduto, by Dylan being refused accommodation in a hotel. This song contains some of his best images, and the balance of menace and redemption is masterful. "The fishes will laugh/As they swim out of the path/And the seagulls will be a-smiling" and "Then the sands will roll/Out a carpet of gold/For your weary toes to be a-touching" are evidence of a master craftsman at work. "The Times They Are A'Changin'," the title track of the 1964 album is perhaps Dylan's best known song from this period. It is difficult today, with so many of these lyrics having become clichés to remember the effect of them at a time when so much was happening. Without wishing to labour the point, it is worth remembering that when Dylan was writing this, the Beatles were singing "She Loves You" the Rolling Stones were still (unconvincingly) recording cover versions of R&B songs, and Elvis had just finished filming Fun In Acapulco. The official version of the song, of which Dylan said "I knew exactly what I wanted to say and for whom I wanted to say it," was recorded two months later, a month before the Kennedy assassination, the times were indeed changing.
Volume One of this set closes with what may well be the most astonishing selection here. "Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie" is taken from the April 12th New York City Town Hall Concert in 1963, where Dylan performed (that is probably the wrong word) it as an éncore. His introduction of this long, stream of consciousness poem is hesitant and understandably nervous, and it has been inexplicably edited. "Woody is more than a folk singer. He's really something else more than a folk singer..." has been taken out as Dylan goes straight into the reason for him writing this piece that he has with him "...by accident actually." (Yeah, right!). The poem which is probably unique in Dylan's body of work is not really about Guthrie, who only crops up right at the end, but more about Dylan himself, and gives us more insight into him than almost anything he has ever written. To quote from this or take anything out of context would be meaningless and self defeating, it has to be listened to (or read) in its entirety. It is heartfelt and honest, and the fact that Dylan is able to get through this immense torrent of words without stumbling (although he almost does once) is testament to his performance abilities. A fine piece of work that is totally at home in the context of this artist's early output.
Volume Two opens with "Seven Curses," an outtake from "The Times They Are A'Changin'" that really should have been on the album. When you consider that this was recorded on August 6th 1963 and that everything up to now covers a period of less than two years, the astonishing progress that Dylan was making becomes apparent. The simple tale of the curses placed on the lecherous, mendacious judge is made more chilling by Dylan's prosaic delivery of it. It certainly wasn't omitted from the album for any reasons of merit, and thematically it would have fitted. We can only assume that because all the other songs on the album fall into a recent time frame, "Seven Curses" with its historical feel would have been the odd man out in a collection that Dylan obviously put a lot of effort into. Paul Cable in his book on unreleased recordings describes it thus, "...the words and tune combine to hit something I just cannot define. [It] explains why people collect unofficial Dylan material." Fortunately this song, and this version, now has official release. On the other hand, it is not difficult to see why "Eternal Circle" did not make the album. Far too lightweight for the overall context and certainly inferior to the two non socio-political songs ("Boots Of Spanish Leather" and "One Too Many Mornings") that were included. Dylan had attempted this song on several of the "Times" sessions, and this one from October 24th 1963 is probably as good as it was going to get. That is not to say that it is a bad song, the story of the girl in the audience who is more interested in the song than the singer has a certain wry humour to it, and his own affected indifference to his position "I glanced at my guitar and played it pretending/That of all the eyes out there I could see none" is superb. It would have made a good single if Dylan was in that market, but it did not belong on "The Times They Are A'Changin'." From the same session comes "Suze (The Cough Song)," possibly Dylan's first attempt at a guitar/harmonica instrumental piece that grinds to a halt when he has a coughing fit, hence the title. Other than illustrating producer Tom Wilson's amusement, this ode to Dylan's girl friend does little other than offer some light relief from the more serious stuff.
On the evening of June 9th 1964 Dylan went into Studio A at Columbia in New York city with a few friends and a couple of bottles of red wine and after telling Tom Wilson "We're going to make a good one tonight" proceeded to record his entire fourth album in one session. Towards the end of the session, this version of "Mama You Been On My Mind" was recorded in one take (the liner notes for this incredibly credit it with coming from the "Bringing It All Back Home" sessions). In a perfect world, this song that Dylan was performing live, sometimes duetting with Joan Baez, would have made the album, in place of either of the two "humorous" tracks that were included. "Another Side..." was poorly received, partly because of the content and partly because it could have benefited from a little more time being spent on its production. As a result, many of the fine songs are often overlooked, a fate that has included "Mama You Been On My Mind," so it is good to see its inclusion here. One of Dylan's better early love songs, and as Anthony Decurtis pointed out in his Rolling Stone review "Dylan's vocals often take on the contemplative quality of someone thinking, rather than singing aloud."
"Farewell Angelina" is one of the many treats on this collection. For many years it was thought that Dylan wrote but did not record this song, and that Joan Baez's version, as with much of Dylan's mid-sixties material, was the definitive one. Dylan did in fact record it on January 13th 1965 in the first of the three sessions that would produce his fifth album "Bringing It All Back Home" and it is important in his catalogue because it is here that we see the beginnings of the surreal lyric structure that he was to become so unique for in the mid sixties. Dylan performs the song slowly, and the contemplative almost mesmeric images of gypsies, bandits and pirates pile on top of each other in a performance that Clinton Heylin says is hard to fault. "...my new songs I'm trying to make more three-dimensional. There's more symbolism, they're written on more than one level," Dylan said in 1965, describing several of his songs from this period, and many of his trademark lyrics crop up here, from the onomatopoeic, alliterative "The triangle tingles..." to the more surreal "The sky's embarrassed" and the whole of the third verse, with its Alice in Wonderland like playing-card symbolism. Equally period defining is the acoustic version of "Subterranean Homesick Blues," that comes from the same session. The amazing torrent of images that Dylan conjures up here almost defy description, Paul Williams calls it "...a brilliant early example of rap music." and refers to Dylan as a natural rapper, and it is strange to hear him enunciate these extraordinary words so deliberately. The released version with its electric backing is probably the superior one, but it is interesting to re-evaluate these lyrics in this version, and remember just how amazing they were in 1965, and how different to what anybody else was writing or recording.
"If You Gotta Go, Go Now" is a song that Dylan was performing in concert between "Gates Of Eden" and "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" as a little light relief from those two heavyweight numbers. It had its debut at the October 31st Halloween Concert in that position, and remained there throughout the UK tour of 1965. This recording comes from the third and final "Bringing It All Back Home" session on January 15th, which produced the bulk of the album. However, it was recorded acoustically and was overdubbed at CBS studios on May 21st of that year while Dylan was on tour. Thus the musicians that the liner notes credit with being on this track may be incorrect, and the back-up singers remain anonymous. This is a song that was more successful when performed live than under studio conditions, as it relied on audience response for its impact, and although audience participation is not something normally associated with Dylan, the point is made by listening to the album of the aforementioned Halloween Concert. Of course, what was considered risqué in 1965 is seen as little more than quaint by today's standards, and the song has long since disappeared from Dylan's repertoire.
The first two sessions for "Highway 61 Revisited" were on the 15th and 16th of June 1965, some six weeks before the tumultuous events of the Newport Folk Festival of that year. At the first of these, Dylan (now fully electric) recorded "Sitting On A Barbed Wire Fence" (aka "Over The Cliff"). This engaging piece of nonsense was obviously largely improvised at the session and was omitted because of the superior material that made the album. That said, it is interesting to hear this outtake with Dylan's self assured confident vocals, and the distinctive sound of Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield, who contributed so much to the sound of "Highway 61 Revisited." That album of course opens with the classic rock song of all time. In a recent poll, Rolling Stone magazine voted Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone" the greatest rock song ever, and it would be hard to argue. Listening to the snippet here, only one verse and the chorus before Dylan's voice gives out, it is hard to believe that this became the classic that was released on the album. "I wrote it. I didn't fail. It was straight...Rolling Stone's the best song I wrote." he said of the song that many consider his masterpiece. He tried to get it down at the end of the January 15th session, "I recorded it last on a session after recording a bunch of other songs" and this is one of those attempts. It was tackled again the following day; fifteen attempts were made at it, by the end of which the musicians had passed their peak and take four was chosen as the album track. Witnessing the transition of songs like this, and how the skeletal beginnings were fleshed out into the finished product is what makes collections like this so worth while.
One of the songs that Dylan performed with the Butterfield Blues Band on that contentious day in July 1965 was called "Phantom Engineer" and this version of it, with Mike Bloomfield's searing guitar, is also from the June 15th session. The released version, with the name changed to the cumbersome "It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry," is slower and bluesier and is the one that most people prefer, but this one is certainly not without merit. The problem with this, the more up tempo of the two is that you tend to lose the effect of Dylan's superb imagery, but having said that, one has to wonder how the original final verse, "Well, I just been to the baggage car/Where the engineer's been tossed/I stamped out forty compasses/Sure don't know what they cost" would have fitted the slower delivery.
The sessions for "Blonde On Blonde" ran from October 1965 to March 1966 and were recorded in New York and Nashville. Both "I'll Keep It With Mine" and "She's Your Lover Now" are from the January 1966 New York sessions. The start of "I'll Keep It With Mine" is disorganised to say the least, and it is only with Bob Johnston's prompting that Dylan perseveres, and amazingly the whole thing comes together. The song dates from mid 1964 and a demo version (for Witmark) was released in 1967. Dylan "gave" the song to New York chanteuse Nico, a lady more famous for her looks and her lifestyle than her singing prowess, and it appears on her debut album "Chelsea Girl." The version that Dylan performs here is very different to the solo piano one on "Biograph" and Al Kooper's organ is very much at the forefront of this piece. Numerous attempts were made to get a completed take of "She's Your Lover Now" but this unfinished one from January 21st is the best we have. The pity here is that Dylan did not persevere with this, because it is one of his great songs. The lyrics, the delivery and Sandy Konikoff's crazy drumming all combine to make this a criminal omission from "Blonde On Blonde." Dylan has proved time and again that he is the master of these vicious, vitriolic lyrics, "Positively 4th Street," "Ballad Of A Thin Man" and the later "Idiot Wind" but this is up there with the best of them. The convoluted lyrics that were to defeat even Dylan's amazing vocal dexterity are among the best he has ever written, and the sneering delivery of lines like "Pain sure brings out the best in people, doesn't it?" and "Now you stand there expecting me to remember somethin' you forgot to say" make you wonder what the incident was that sparked this piece of venom. The disdainful way that the third party is addressed as "you" in the line "Yes, you, you sit around and ask for ashtrays, can't you reach" and the mocking tone that hides the jealousy in the line that follows it "I see you kiss her on the cheek ev'ry time she give a speech" illustrate Dylan's extraordinary ability to infuse so many emotions into one song. Great stuff!
Sadly, a scant four songs cover the late sixties and early seventies. Perhaps it is understandable, given that this was not Dylan's most prolific period, and some of the stuff that did see the light of day was not of the highest quality. Everything that was recorded for "John Wesley Harding" made the album, and the leftovers from "Nashville Skyline" and "Self Portrait" were simply not very good (or ended up on "Dylan"). Which leaves "The Basement Tapes," about which, just about everyone has an opinion. Apparently more than a hundred songs were recorded and the version of "I Shall Be Released" that appears here is one of them that did not make the official CBS album released in 1975. Of course this song has been recorded by countless people over the years and Dylan himself has performed it thousands of times in many different guises, but this version that has Dylan accompanied by Richard Manuel's haunting, eerie falsetto is perhaps the best. This is indeed one of the highlights of this set. Many great songs were written and recorded in that basement in 1967, unfortunately "Santa-Fe" is not one of them, and its inclusion here is little more than a joke. The good humour that produced many of the finer songs is also evident here, but the finished product just falls flat.
There was a preliminary session for the "New Morning" album in New York on May 1st 1970 with Beatle George Harrison in attendance. This slow version of "If Not For You" comes from that session, but Dylan recorded a more up tempo version later that year which became the opening track on the album. Whether Harrison actually played at this session is open to question, but he obviously liked the song, because he recorded a version of it for his 1971 triple album "All Things Must Pass." Such is the power of rumour, that there was even talk of Dylan and Harrison recording an album together. Not only did that not happen, but Dylan himself did very little work in the first couple of years of the seventies. He had two sessions in 1971, one with Leon Russell in March and one with Happy Traum in October, but these were really only to pad out his "More Greatest Hits" release of that year, then on November 4th he was back in Columbia's studios to record his single "George Jackson." It was at this session that he recorded the very different "Wallflower" that is included here. Although both of his country albums had been fairly successful commercially, neither of them had been really convincing, and I get the same feeling with this song. There's nothing wrong with it, it's a harmless little country waltz, but as far as I am concerned it just does not work.
And so we jump ahead two years to November 1973 and the recording sessions for "Planet Waves," and the start of one of the most interesting and productive phases of Bob Dylan's amazing musical career. Given the close working relationship that he had with the Band, it is perhaps strange that "Planet Waves" is the only studio album that was recorded entirely with them, but it was the album that began Dylan's renaissance. This version of "Nobody 'Cept You" was recorded at the November 2nd session although it had been tried out some months earlier. The only reason that it wasn't included on the album was that Dylan preferred the newly written "Wedding Song" although there are those that might question his judgement. "Nobody 'Cept You" had been performed to enthusiastically receptive audiences during the opening concerts of the famous 1974 tour with the Band and consequently many were surprised when this new song was not on the album when it was released in mid January. More mysteriously, the last live performance of this song was on January 16th, the day before "Planet Waves" was released.
Apart from being Dylan's best album (to most people anyway) "Blood On The Tracks" is also one of the most interesting in terms of pedigree. The original sessions took place in New York in mid to late September 1974 and the album was to all intents and purposes wrapped up and ready for release. In fact some copies were pressed and sent out to radio stations, in anticipation of a pre Christmas release. However, when Dylan went to Minneapolis for the Christmas holidays he confided to his brother David that he was not happy with what he had recorded and proceeded to recut several of the tracks. Four of the original New York tracks are included here, and the biggest surprise is how different they are from the ones that were eventually released. "Tangled Up In Blue" is one of three tracks originally recorded on September 16th in New York, one of the finest on the album, and indeed one of the finest in Dylan's entire catalogue. Switching pronouns, something that he constantly does with this song, makes it no less personal, and the more thoughtful, reflective delivery adds to this. The lyric changes are few, but significant, "He was always in a hurry/Too busy or too stoned/And everything that she had planned/Had to be postponed" he sings here with more than a trace of regret, in lines that would disappear from the later version, as does "He thought they were successful/She thought they were blessed/With objects and material things/But I never was impressed," notice the change of pronouns again, and the emphasis on "I." Purely a personal observation, but I prefer this version to the originally released one.
Coming from the same session is "Call Letter Blues" an intensely personal song that was dropped from the album, although Dylan did use the backing track for the replacement song "Meet Me In The Morning." It is unlikely that "Blood On The Tracks" would have benefited from the inclusion of "Call Letter Blues," the song is just too personal, and although Dylan constantly denies that this album was about him and his marital situation, including this track would not have added any weight to his argument. "The children cry for mother, I tell 'em mother took a trip/I walk on pins and needles, I hope my tongue don't slip" are perhaps the most blatantly personal lines he has ever written, and it was the right decision to leave this song off the album, time having blunted its harshness. Richard Lehnert writing in Stereophile in July 1991, gives his impression; "This song is about the bleak, blank suffering of a family breakup - I can smell this cheap walk-up apartment two floors over a bar in the decaying center of some small mid-western town, the walls painted in Landlord Dysentry Green and barely warmed by leaky gas space-heaters - it's not romantic." Over the top maybe, but pertinent.
From three days later comes the original New York recording of "Idiot Wind," again, vastly different from the later, Minneapolis version. Far more sorrowful than angry, it is easy to see why the lyrics were changed, even if the delivery was more malicious in the later version. We lose the more passionate "Hoofbeats pounding in my head at breakneck speed/Are makin' me see stars" and the regretful "You didn't trust me for a minute, babe/I've never known the spring to turn so quickly/Into autumn," that so perfectly describes the disintegration of a relationship. There is also regret in the lines "We pushed each other a little too far/And one day it just turned into a ragin' storm," but on a lighter note, listen to the wonderful rhyme of jaw with Mardi Gras. Listen also to the pathos in the lines "Lady killers load dice on me/Behind my back, while imitators/Steal me blind," all of which makes the final, unchanged lines "We're idiots, babe, it's a wonder we can even feed ourselves" all the more poignant. I would not like to choose between these two versions, but I suppose we should be grateful that we have that choice.
Volume Three opens with the final outtake from "Blood On The Tracks." Recorded at the same session as "Tangled Up In Blue" and "Call Letter Blues" this version of "If You See Her, Say Hello" has a matter-of-factness about it, an acceptance that is missing from the angst-ridden Minneapolis version. There are a few changes in the lyrics, the most significant one being "If you're making love to her..." in the earlier version becomes "If you get close to her..." in the later one. Otherwise it is basically the same song, but even here, the verbal shrug of the shoulders, the couldn't care less attitude of the final line "Tell her she can look me up - if she's got the time" is quite transparent.
Dylan found the mid seventies to be a prolific time for him as far as writing was concerned, either alone or in the case of the "Desire" album, with Jacques Levy. But writing was one thing and getting the songs down in the studio quite another. The early sessions for "Desire" proved to be frustratingly unproductive, only producing one track,"Romance In Durango" that actually made the album. But from those July 1975 sessions come the two outtakes that we have here. "Golden Loom" was recorded on the 30th, and although the liner notes credit "Catfish" with being from the 28th, it was probably recorded on the 29th. The former of these two is the superior song, and has all the ingredients that we have come to associate with "Desire," Dylan's fine voice, Emmylou Harris playing catch-up on background vocals, Howie Wyeth's pounding drums and Scarlett Rivera's ubiquitous country fiddle. For me, this could easily have replaced the inconsequential "Mozambique" (the only weak song on the album). Dreamlike in structure, "Golden Loom" is steeped in mysticism and ritualism, and although short, the images are powerful, "Moonlight on the water, fisherman's daughter, floatin' into my room..." and "I see the trembling lion with the lotus flower tail" are mental pictures that linger in the memory. This is one of the few songs from this period that Dylan wrote alone, and there is an excellent version of it on Roger McGuinn's 1977 solo album "Thunderbyrd" along with several McGuinn/Levy compositions. "Catfish" is not as successful. Based on legendary pitcher James Augustus (Catfish) Hunter, this could have done with a little more work. Recorded (probably) at the end of the July 29th session, the sleepy, lazy, late-night feel of the song probably came naturally, but there were too many better songs being worked on for this to have made it.
"Seven Days" is probably more associated with Ron Wood than it is Dylan, who wrote it and performed it live a few times during the second Rolling Thunder Review concerts in early 1976. This version was recorded in Tampa, Florida in April, and as good as the song is, Dylan tends to rush the vocals, in fact there is a whole lets get it over with quickly feel about the whole performance. Wood's version is on his 1979 album "Gimme Some Neck" and his rendition of it at the 30th Anniversary Concert is to me, the definitive live version of this song.
Much of the late seventies is ignored here, so we get nothing from the "Budokan/Street Legal" era, as we jump three years straight into the Christian period. "Ye Shall Be Changed" is one of the songs recorded for but not included on, Dylan's first gospel album, "Slow Train Coming" and your opinion of this song will depend largely on your opinion of much of his output from that period, because as good as it was, it does have a certain sameness about it. Familiar themes can be found here, the aimlessness of earthly life "From early in the morning 'til way past dark/All you ever do is hustle" and the heavenly reward "...ye shall be changed/In the twinkling of an eye, when the last trumpet blows," but typically for this period, there is no doubting his commitment. The song is from the May 2nd session, although the album sleeve (but not the booklet so it is probably a misprint) credits it with coming from May 27th. "Every Grain Of Sand" is one of the most beautiful and moving songs that Dylan has ever written, and when it appeared as the closing number on 1981's "Shot Of Love" many saw it as an open questioning of his faith. Written in the summer of 1980, it leans heavily on the poetry of William Blake, "...it was an inspired song that just came to me" he said "I felt that I was just putting down words that were coming from somewhere else and I just stuck it out." This version was recorded at Dylan's Rundown Studio in Santa Monica on September 23rd 1980 for demo purposes. He invited Jennifer Warnes to perform a duet with him, but unfortunately her uncharacteristic lack of confidence, possibly due to her not knowing the lyrics, results in her being barely audible. One of the most remarkable things about the recording is the dog in the background trying to get in on the act! Even though this performance does not match the one released on "Shot Of Love" (nothing could) it is still noteworthy for the amount of passion and emotion that Dylan manages to impart, a fact that is true for even the weaker songs from this period.
The next three song are all outtakes from "Shot Of Love," an album that I find infuriatingly difficult to like. The first of these is "You Changed My Life" and one cannot help but be swept along with the sheer exuberance of it. During the Christian period, Dylan's songs that dealt with his own redemption as opposed to the ones where he was trying to teach others the error of their ways, were more successful and convincing, and this is a case in point. Recorded during the April sessions for "Shot Of Love," Dylan was on a roll, but the band and the background singers are obviously struggling to keep up with his intense vocal performance. To some, the lyrics were a little too forthright "Eating with the pigs/Off a fancy tray/I was bold, I was looking good..." but no-one could ever accuse Dylan of being half hearted or luke warm when he has the bit between his teeth, and there is a particularly fine movie simile in the last verse, "You came in on the wind/Like Errol Flynn..." wonderful stuff, and I can think of at least three tracks on "Shot Of Love" that this could have easily replaced. This would have been true of "Need A Woman" as well, if Dylan had been able to come up with satisfactory lyrics during one of the many rewrites. It is interesting that in this song where he is looking for that most elusive of creatures, the perfect woman, Dylan is able to confront his own frailties, "Searching for the truth the way God designed it/When the real truth is that I may be afraid to find it" and is honest enough to admit that we can never run from ourselves "Whatever is waiting in the future/Could be what you're running from in the past." Richard Lehnert points out that with this song, the preceding one and the other outtake that is not included here, "The Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar" (that was reinstated on later versions of "Shot Of Love") Dylan was "...making great, kick-ass rock 'n' roll." Ry Cooder recorded an inferior version of "Need A Woman" (although he added an "I" to the title) on his 1982 album "The Slide Area."
Of all the "Shot Of Love" outtakes included here, the strongest and by far the strangest is "Angelina." It is hard to know what to say about this song, John Bauldie in his liner notes comments that the song is probably "...as much a mystery to [Dylan] as to anyone else" and says that it "...heads off for the deepest, darkest parts of poetic mystery." Dylan has never discussed the song (no surprise there) and has certainly never performed it live. It appears to have come from a short session at Rundown on 26th April 1981 (the liner notes give it as Clover, 4th May 1981, but that was the overdub session) and was originally sequenced to be the final track on "Shot Of Love," although whether to follow or replace "Every Grain Of Sand" remains uncertain. The imagery that Dylan employs here is as stark and as powerful as anything he has ever written, and the Angelina of this song is light years away from the benign namesake of 1965. Clinton Heylin, among others, has made reference to the use of a rhyming dictionary (something Dylan doesn't often do) but there is far more here than just the rigid rhyming structure and the seductive, almost trance-like delivery. The sensual image of the serpent and the uneasy eroticism of "His eyes were two slits that would make any snake proud/With a face that any painter would paint as he walked through the crowd/Worshipping a god with a body of a woman well endowed/And the head of a hyena" are not your run of the mill lyrics. The surreal, dreamlike quality of "The valley of the giants..." and "...the combat zone" juxtapose with the existent "...Jerusalem or Argentina" as the real and the unreal come together. "Angelina" was recorded in one take, and Dylan almost stumbles on the phrase "...tree of smoke" and a lesser person might have gone for another, but there was obviously something magical happening, and thankfully this one stood. A stunning performance of an equally stunning song. Having these three songs placed in sequence like this makes one wonder what "Shot Of Love" could have been, but hindsight vision is always 20/20.
That same argument could of course be used for 1983's "Infidels," five outtakes from which appear here. The first of these, "Someone's Got A Hold Of My Heart" was reworked and became "Tight Connection To My Heart," the opening track on 1985's "Empire Burlesque." Dylan's vocal on this, the earlier version, is far superior, and even though it dominated three days of the April sessions, (this take comes from the 16th) he felt that he hadn't nailed it. The harmonica, which disappeared from the later version is always a welcome addition, but the fade-out always takes me by surprise, I have the feeling that this song could have benefited from one more verse. "Tell Me" is one of those songs that could have gone either way, interesting conversation piece at the beginning of a relationship or toe-curlingly embarrassing piece of juvenile soul-searching. Unfortunately it takes the latter path and becomes one of this album's very few bombs. I don't know if it's the mawkish background vocals or the trite lyrics, complete with the questioning hmmm? at the end of each enquiry, but either way the decision to leave it off "Infidels" was the correct one. There were enough mistakes with the track selection on that album without making a bad situation worse by adding this.
By way of contrast, "Lord Protect My Child" is a superb piece of writing and a sincere and heartfelt performance. The title says it all, and Dylan approaches this in much the same way as he did with 1974's "Forever Young" with which it shares a theme. "As his youth now unfolds, he is centuries old/To see him at play makes me smile" is a sentiment that needs no embellishment. It is easy to recognise how the innocent dreams and hopes of the young can be destroyed in an uncaring world, "He's young and on fire, full of hope and desire/In a world that's been raped...raped and defiled" but he sees hope for the future, "There'll be a time, I hear tell, when all will be well/When God and man will be reconciled" and his only hope until that time comes is "Lord, protect my child." This is a finely balanced piece of writing, that Michael Gray sees as "...one of the rare occasions when Bob Dylan comes clean and deals concretely with plain questions about growing older..." and one has to wonder why it did not make the album, but there were several other fine songs that were ditched in favour of inferior material.
"Foot Of Pride," one of those that was ditched is one of Dylan's most complex and convoluted pieces of writing. There are so many images crammed into this song that it is difficult to know where to start, and Dylan spits it out in great chunks that are so full of ideas it is almost like an assault on the senses. The first image, "Like the lion tears the flesh off of a man/So can a woman who passes herself off as a male" is there almost before you take your seat, and it catches you off guard as you are swept along in this amazing deluge of words and bizarre characters and ideas. The "...retired businessman named Red" who "...only deals in cash to sell tickets to a plane crash" and "Miss Delilah" (another wonderful Dylan character), a philistine who will "Feed you coconut bread, spiced buns in bed..." to name but two! Then there is the startlingly complex "A whore will pass the hat, collect a hundred grand and say "Thanks"/They like to take all this money from sin, build big universities to study in/Sing "Amazing Grace" all the way to the Swiss banks" and the sinister "They got "Mystery" written all over their forehead/They kill babies in the crib and say "Only the good die young..." And throughout this incessant tirade you are constantly reminded "There ain't no goin' back/When that foot of pride come down/Ain't no goin' back." Perhaps not surprisingly, there were numerous takes before Dylan got the one that he wanted, then he left it off the album! This was the song that Lou Reed (unwisely) chose to perform at the Thirtieth Anniversary Concert, and the image of him reading these amazing words from an auto cue, obviously totally baffled as to their meaning was not one of the high points of that night.
If there was one song that Bob Dylan was born to write, it is surely "Blind Willie McTell," another song that almost defies description. In much the same way that "Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie" is not about Guthrie, "Blind Willie McTell" is not about McTell. Dylan uses the blind Georgia blues singer as a focal point for his narrative, and as powerful as that narrative is, it is really all about the delivery of it. With the sparse accompaniment of himself on piano and Mark Knopfler on guitar, Dylan performs a perfectly controlled piece that will raise the hairs on your neck and bring a lump to your throat. It took eight years for this song to get official release because Dylan felt that he "...didn't record it right" and yet it stands as his masterpiece. From the opening lines "See the arrow on the doorpost/Saying this land is condemned" he creates a mental picture that is both vivid and elusive at the same time. The landscape of "Them charcoal gypsy maidens" "...the crackin' of the whips" and the "...woman by the river/With some fine young handsome man" and the ambiguity of "He's dressed up like a squire, bootleg whiskey in his hand" are images that stay in the mind even if the words that describe them don't. But this is a different world, a world of dead or ghostly images, in today's world, "Well, God is in His heaven/And we all want what's His/But power and greed and corruptible seed seem to be all that there is" a savage indictment indeed. McTell, who died in 1959 was one of Dylan's many influences, and this song that he felt "...never got developed in any way that it should have really," is one that lesser performers might consider making a Faustian pact to create. This is, without doubt, the finest song on this collection. Before we leave the "Infidels" outtakes, it is worth mentioning that it is often noted that that album suffered because of the songs that were omitted and while that is certainly true it is also worth remembering that "Infidels" is nowhere near as poor as many would have you believe, in fact it is one of the best albums from a decade often considered Dylan's least productive. That said, had some of these tracks been included rather than some of those that made the cut, "Infidels" would have been in Dylan's top three (the other two being 1975's "Blood On The Tracks" and 2001's "Love And Theft").
The two final tracks on this collection come as something of an anti-climax, but that should in no way detract from their quality. "When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky" is an earlier version of the "Empire Burlesque" song that was recorded four days before the one that was chosen for the album. Like many people, I prefer this version, the vocal alone makes it the superior take and this is one occasion where the later version should have been substituted with this more spontaneous one. Sly and Robbie's rhythm section is predictably solid and Roy Bittan's piano work is superb. Rewriting the lyrics was not necessarily a good idea either, the rewrite lost the excellent lines "I gave to you my heart like buried treasure/But suffering seems to fit you like a glove" and the disdainful "...you're disappointed with those that did not deliver/But it was you that set yourself up for a fall" became the more benign "I've never asked you for nothing you couldn't deliver/I've never asked you to set yourself up for a fall." The other superior thing about this take is the way that the song builds in intensity as it progresses, as if Dylan knew that something was happening here, and the menacing tone of the final "And you'll give it to me now/Or I'll take it anyhow" is quite startling. Do yourself a favour and play these back to back - no contest.
The final track is the superb "Oh Mercy" outtake, "Series Of Dreams," a song that I loved from the first time I heard it. Why Dylan went against Daniel Lanois' wishes and dropped this from the album is one of life's bigger mysteries, it has that same late-night, smoky, heat-soaked feel about it that was so unique to the "Oh Mercy" sound, and as reluctant as I am to second-guess Dylan, this might have made a better closing track than "Shooting Star," excellent though that song is. The song has a dream like quality about it, and the shadowy feel of some of the lyrics, "Wasn't thinking of anything specific" and "Nothing too very scientific" add to that. The vocal is wonderful too, Dave Henderson in his book Touched By The Hand Of Bob describes Dylan's voice as sounding "...like he's crouched next to you in the back seat of a broken down car." Lanois, for his part praised Dylan's commitment as a lyricist, but admitted "Some of the vocals we worked on quite a bit and the lyrics were changed..." One of these changes would have been the disappearance of the wonderful lines "And you're walking out of the darkness/And into the shadows of doubt" but the lyrics that remained are still quite remarkable. Also on the plus side is the video that was made for this song, one of the few times that Dylan has made a successful venture into that medium.
This then is twenty-eight years of Bob Dylan's recording career, released to celebrate his fiftieth birthday; three CDs, fifty-eight songs and just under four hours of music, and at a time when his career was experiencing something of a reawakening. Half a decade of mediocre material had been left behind with the release of 1989's critically acclaimed "Oh Mercy" and 1990's underrated "Under The Red Sky." The 1991 release of "Bootlegs Vols. 1-3" continued this positive trend, and the nineties would see two very different but excellent albums in the next two years. These would be followed by Dylan's 1995 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame before the 1997 release of "Time Out Of Mind," his finest album for years. "Bootlegs" was well received both critically and commercially and was the launchpad for a string of previously unreleased live material. Anthony Decurtis, writing in Rolling Stone, where it rated four stars, said "Traveling the hidden byways...Dylan found his voice, and it's inspiring to hear it ring so true now, in all its starts and hesitations, its yearnings and disappointments - in all its triumphs." The late John Bauldie, who wrote the liner notes, finished his introduction with the words "...if the writers and critics who are called upon to reassess Bob Dylan's achievements find that the superlatives have all been used up on his back catalogue of official releases, they'll just have to come up with a bunch of superlative outtakes, won't they?" This superb collection is highly recommended and gives an alternative look at a man who is not only wonderfully unique, but has continued to reinvent himself and stay ahead of the chasing pack for so long that he really has no equal.