"They were not to be used. I thought it was well understood. They were just not to be used...They were just to warm up for a tune. I didn't think it was that bad really." Bob Dylan 1974
This was the album that CBS released in November 1973 as a retaliatory measure for Bob Dylan severing professional ties with them and signing a contract with David Geffen's Asylum label. This was a vindictive action on their part, coming as it did two months before the release of "Planet Waves" an album that would contribute considerably to Dylan's rehabilitation as a musician and restore some much needed credibility. "Dylan" was made up of out-takes from the 1969 and 1970 sessions that produced "Self Portrait" and "New Morning" respectively, and when one considers the quality of the material that was released, the stuff that did not make the cut was never going to be of any great distinction. That said, "Dylan" is nowhere near as bad as it could have been. Admittedly most of it is pretty poor, but there a few surprisingly good tracks, "Mr. Bojangles" and "Can't Help Falling In Love" in particular, and on balance this album probably did Columbia more harm than it did Dylan.
It is on the first track, "Lily Of The West" that you realize that this album is mixed with the female chorus very high (this is a problem on just about every track). The other thing that strikes you is Dylan's voice, which is straight out of the "Nashville Skyline/Self Portrait" era, not surprising as this is one of the "Self Portrait" outtakes. Not a great song, but better than some that made the album, the chorus on the last line of each verse is particularly irritating.
The harmonica introduction on "Can't Help Falling In Love" sounds as if it fell off the end of "John Wesley Harding" and when the vocal begins, you expect to hear "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight." This is one of the album's better tracks, but I always have difficulty believing that the "New Morning" outtakes actually came from those sessions. It is common knowledge that Dylan was an Elvis fan, and this song with its obvious Elvis connections is almost an homage to The King. Dylan does a more than creditable job, and you have to love that voice. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of "Sarah Jane" (aka "Rock A Bye My Saro Jane"), one of the least memorable tracks on the album, which sees Dylan trading la la la's with that horrible syrupy sweet chorus - best avoided.
Dylan's version of "The Ballad Of Ira Hayes," perhaps not surprisingly given the time frame, owes much to Johnny Cash, but without Cash's rich baritone, the spoken vocal tends to sound a little weak. Comparisons aside, Dylan turns in a reasonable performance of Pete LaFarge's tragic but true tale of a hero ignored because of his ethnic background. Hayes was one of six marines who hoisted the American flag on Mount Suribachi after the bloody battle for the Japanese island of Iwo Jima in early 1945. On his return to the States he was briefly "...wined and speeched and honored, everybody shook his hand" but soon forgotten. He succumbed to alcohol, spent time in jail and ultimately his death was as tragic as it was ignominious "He died drunk early one morning, alone in a land he fought to save/Two inches of water in a lonely ditch was the grave for Ira Hayes." Like Hayes, Pete Lafarge was of Pima Indian descent and was active in the folk movement in the early sixties. He attracted the attention of the FBI when he formed FAIR (Federation for American Indian Rights) and died in 1964, officially of a stroke but rumours of suicide persist.
Jerry Jeff Walker's "Mr. Bojangles" is probably the best track on the album. Just about everyone from Nina Simone to Robbie Williams has recorded a version of this song, based on a real life character by the name of Bill Robinson, but Dylan's is one of the best. Robinson, who died in 1949 aged seventy two is typical of the brilliant but flawed characters that Dylan is drawn to both in fact and fiction "I met him in a cell in New Orleans, I was down and out/He looked to me to be the eyes of age as he spoke right out" he sings, lyrics that he could well have written himself. The description of Bojangles is vivid, "...he'd dance for you in worn out shoes/Silver hair, ragged shirt and baggy pants, that old soft shoe" and his situation wryly poignant "...I dance now at every chance for drinks and tips/But most of the time I spend behind these county bars, 'cause I drinks a bit." A great little song that Dylan does credit to, the only downside being the ubiquitous overdubbed female chorus that spoils this performance. This is also true of the traditional "Mary Ann," which, like the earlier "Sarah Jane" is best avoided. The vocal and the melody are both vaguely reminiscent of Dylan's early folk days, but the over production kills any charm that it might have had.
I often feel that Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" is the oddity of the album. This song with its theme of loss, be it ecological or a loved one is not an obvious choice for Dylan. For the first two verses he remains faithful to Mitchell's slightly tongue in cheek lyrics, as they chronicle the destruction of paradise in order to build car parks and hotels and the production of perfect, blemish free fruit at the expense of wild life, then he goes off on a tangent. He replaces her euphemistic "...big yellow taxi" with a bulldozer that takes away his "...house and land" in a curious twist of the song that Wilfrid Mellors calls "...much less nervous, more kittenish, than the original." Aware as I am that these were only warm-ups and not meant for public consumption, I cannot help hearing an air of desperation about this song that makes it sit uneasily with its companion pieces.
I cannot imagine any reason why "A Fool Such As I" was omitted from "Self Portrait" as it is far superior to many of the tracks that were included. Perhaps it was felt that there was enough Elvis inspired material already on the record, but here Dylan's vocal is very good and he sounds more relaxed than on some of the tracks. For once, the back-up vocals are not too intrusive, and blend in with Dylan's voice more easily. This song adds weight to the already ample evidence that if he had chosen the path of middle of the road crooner, he would not have been the worst one around. The version of "Spanish Is The Loving Tongue" that is included here was also recorded in Nashville during the "Self Portrait" sessions and suffers from the same problems of over production and simpering back-up vocals as most of the other tracks. Another, far superior version was recorded in New York in August 1970 and released as the B side of "Watching The River Flow" in June of the following year. This short song with its uncomplicated lyric touches on two of Dylan's favourite themes, the Tex/Mex landscape and unrequited love, the simplistic beauty of "Still I say her love words over/Mostly when I'm all alone/Mi amore, mi cora sole" is matched by the poignancy of "Broke her heart, lost my own/Adios, mi cora sole." The question has to be asked that if Columbia had as much material at their disposal as they maintained, why did they release an inferior version of a song that had been in the public domain in single form for more than two years?
When it was released in November 1973, "Dylan" caused much head scratching among the general public. Dylan was coming out of a creative trough and this was probably the last thing he needed. Of course, timing was the thing. There may be those that think the release of this album a few days before Dylan officially announced a massive tour, his first in nearly eight years, was a coincidence. It is more likely however, that Columbia, thinking that they would never get Dylan back into the fold, decided to cash in on their rebellious artist. "Bob Dylan made an eternal contribution to music, and we have the catalogue to prove it" one executive was quoted as saying at the time, and there is an air of finality about those words. But the album was not a complete disaster, it reached number seventeen in the Billboard charts, and did little if anything to harm Dylan's career. The one studio album that Dylan did release for Asylum, "Planet Waves" sold well, as did "Before The Flood" the double live album that was a chronicle of the above mentioned tour. He re-negotiated his contract with Columbia and returned to them for the January 1975 release of "Blood On The Tracks" arguably his finest album ever, and the beginning of a musical renaissance both in the studio and on stage. He remains with them to this day, and "Dylan" though not the worst album in his catalogue, is certainly one of the least essential.