From the Shelf: Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series Vol. 1 – 3


Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series Vol. 1 – 3 (1991, Columbia/Legacy)

There’s a stock line about Bob Dylan’s bootleg series, his collection of leftovers, outtakes, alternate takes and other detritus. It’s that even his unused tracks, the stuff he didn’t think was good enough to be on his albums, is so good it’d be the best track on almost any other artist’s albums.


I really hate it when a cliché has this much truth.


For years, Dylan was one of the most-bootlegged artists out there. Indeed, he was the first rock artist to be bootlegged – for a longer history of this, check out my review of Clinton Heylin’s Great White Wonders – when a few of his scraps were compiled into Great White Wonder, the first bootleg LP.


And unlike most other artists, Dylan was hit hard with bootlegging because there was so much he wasn’t releasing. After a much-publicized motorcycle crash in 1966, Dylan took a break. He had just come off a world tour where he was constantly being hounded by the media, swarmed by fans and heckled, badgered and generally annoyed by everyone.


He needed a rest. So he encamped to Big Pink, a house up in upstate New York, where he recorded with his backing group (soon to be known as The Band) and spent time playing a little bit of everything and recording it all to tape. These recordings weren’t meant for the general public, though: they were industry recordings, demos for other artists to listen to and cover. This is what The Byrds did with You Ain’t Going Nowhere and The Band did with This Wheel’s on Fire. And when Dylan did finally release a new album in 1968, his new country sound was not only a departure from what he’d been building towards before, but also didn’t contain those tracks. It didn’t take a scholar to realize something was amiss.


Which is where those enterprising bootleg people came in: oftentimes they had connections to insiders and were privy to these demo recordings. Other times, they were completists who tracked down rare singles, mis-pressings and alternate versions. And sometimes they were devoted fans who tracked down other recordings, be it from rehearsals, informal jams or live shows where they could sneak tape machines past security guards.


And with Dylan, there was a lot out there for the devoted: besides The Basement Tapes, there were other recordings: him playing in a Minnesota hotel in 1961, live gigs from The Gaslight Café in New York and the never-issued Carnegie Hall live album. Even before tape trading was a thing, there was a lot of Dylan stuff floating around.


So it makes sense that he was so heavily bootlegged. And over the years, as he issued some material while leaving other stuff untouched, this only grew. Occasionally the demand for something was so great, he’d release a track or two from his archives, but even then it wasn’t the same thing people were usually looking for. He re-recorded some basement tape songs for the second greatest hits collection and Columbia released The Basement Tapes as a double LP in the mid 70s, albeit with overdubs and additional material by The Band. Later, he’d release a couple more rare songs on the compilation Biograph: the 45-only track Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window, the Basement Tapes recording of Quinn the Eskimo.


But it wasn’t until 1991 that Dylan really raided the vaults. That year he released the first album in his Bootleg Series (the first three actually: each CD in the set is considered it’s own volume). Clocking in at 58 songs and nearly four hours, this CD set is a clearinghouse of his outtakes. And like the stock line, there’s some really good material here.


Most of this set is dedicated to his early years: 34 of these songs come from the pre-motorcycle accident period, with the majority of these coming from before he went electric. They show him evolving as an artist, going from someone who played protest songs and classic folk music to someone interpreting the blues and finding inspiration in his own life. On “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” Dylan is at his funniest and on “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie” he recites one of his poems. Even before it gets to his electric material, this is an exhaustive look at his first creative burst.


Things kick up on second disc with an acoustic take of “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” which is strange listening: the album version is iconic, the song that kicked off his electric period, and hearing it so stripped down is like seeing the frame behind a movie set. It’s easier to make out his lyrics, but it lacks the oomph of the electric version. You can hear him stumble on a chord change and his rapid delivery almost seems stumbling. It’s an interesting look at the construction of one of his most famous tunes.


And as it roars into outtakes from Highway 61 Revisited, there’s another behind-the-scenes look: the original piano-driven demo for “Like A Rolling Stone.” A few years ago, Rolling Stone called the Highway 61 version the best rock song of all time. And this version is night as day from the official version: as a demo it lacks the iconic organ riff, but it’s in 3/4-waltz time, a rearrangement that fundamentally shifts the song into something more cramped. Again, a fascinating look at how his songs grew and evolved during recording.


After a brief sojourn into the basement tapes and some album outtakes, the series focuses on the so-called New York sessions from Blood on the Tracks. The story goes like this: Dylan recorded the album in a stripped down fashion in New York and on the eve of the album’s release, changed his mind about the material, finding it too personal. A few songs were re-recorded in Minnesota and swapped into the delayed album. Normally, this would be something of interest to only the hardcore, but it happens that Blood on the Tracks is one of Dylan’s best albums.

The first track from these sessions is also the best on this set: an earlier version of “Tangled Up In Blue.” This version, barer than the official take, is longer, includes a few extra lines and indeed sounds more personal. Dylan once remarked that it took him “10 years to live and two to write,” this song and it’s not hard to what he meant here, singing about a broken relationship from an ever-changing perspective. The other tracks from the New York sessions included here – “Idiot Wind” and “If You See Her, Say Hello” ­– are also top notch, showing him at his best.


The third disc covers a lot of ground over a few tracks. It goes from Blood on the Tracks to 1989’s Oh Mercy a period of trouble for Dylan: he became a born-again Christian for a spell in the early 1980s, recording three Gospel-influenced albums. But 1983’s Infidels was a return to form for Dylan. As the liners to this set say, he hadn’t been this prolific with material for years and much of it was of high quality: the album included classics like “Jokerman” and “Sweetheart Like You,” but the sessions were rich with material. There’s five outtakes included on this set, including the bluesy Someone’s Got A Hold Of My Heart.


But the best one, and a track good enough to have been the best cut on Infidels is “Blind Willie McTell,” a haunting blues number which has some of Dylan’s best singing ever, even as he says nobody could sing the blues like Blind Willie could. It’s a shame this track only came out on this set: it’s easily one of his best songs.


That’s the irony of a set like this: these tracks are all essentially scrap material and most of it was never really considered for official release at the time. While some of these tracks are gems, some of the best stuff Dylan ever recorded (and he’s recorded a lot over the years) even these castoffs are still good listening: the demos and rough takes show his creative process, the outtakes how strong a songwriter he is and live material how good he is on-stage.


If you want an introduction to Dylan, there’s a few really good compilations out there (and the original albums don’t hurt either). But if you want an introduction to what makes people go out to swap meets, record fairs and listen to dubbed cassettes, The Bootleg Series: Volumes 1-3 is a great introduction.

Originally published July 7, 2012




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