Posts Tagged ‘bob dylan

14
May
16

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

11
Nov
14

The Rise and Fall Of Folk Music: Positively 4th Street – David Hajdu

Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard FariñaPositively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña by David Hajdu

A confession: I may have a slight Bob Dylan obsession. I own a bunch of his albums, have written a bunch of pieces about him and own a handful of books about him and his music. Dylan’s a fascinating guy: how did this awkward, mumbling guy from Minnesota take the folk world by storm, explode into rock music and revolutionize music in less than five years?

Those questions were part of the attraction for David Hajdu’s book positively 4th Street. His four-headed biography also covers Richard Farina and the Baez sisters, Mimi and Joan. And Hajdu’s book more than delivers. He covers the rapid rise of Joan Baez, the emergence of Dylan and the long incubation period for Farina’s novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me (previously reviewed here!). It’s not always pretty, sometimes not even nice. If I’m being honest, it’s why I enjoyed this so much.

At the book’s centre are the two Baez sisters, Joan and Mimi. They grew up on the west coast with Quakers for parents and learned guitar early. As a musician, Joan was prodigiously talented: before she turned 19, she performed in coffeehouses, popped up on compilation albums and debuted at the Newport Folk Festival. She was also driven to succeed: Hajdu recounts how she hustled her way backstage at Newport, hung just off to the side and asked just about every performer if she could duet with them.

Joan didn’t let people get in her way, even if they were family. Hajdu writes how Joan shut her sister Mimi’s career down almost before it started, telling Mimi she couldn’t sing to protect her own career: “I didn’t want any competition,” said Joan, “and I felt my success would overshadow her.” (pg 25) Indeed, this dismissive attitude comes through at various points; later, upon hearing “Blowin’ In the Wind”, she remarks how she didn’t think Dylan “had it in him.” (pg 120)

Is it insecurity? I don’t think so, especially when compared to Hajdu’s portrait of Richard Farina. While Farina comes off occasionally as a fun guy, prone to throwing parties and generous with praise and adventure, he also appears as insecure as jealous husbands get: opening (and answering!) his wife’s mail, telling his first wife Carolyn Hester what to eat and how to dress and convincing other people to sneak his pistol across international borders.

He does not come off as a nice guy at all. Prone to flattery and lying, Farina would tell people either what they wanted to hear or wild half-truths: he had ties to the IRA, a metal plate in his head, he fought in the Cuban revolution. For all the fun parties he threw, for all his innovations to folk music – Hajdu makes an interesting case for him revolutionizing the way the people play the dulcimer  – he never comes off as someone who’d be fun to be around for any length of time.

It’s interesting to compare him to Dylan, though. They share some traits, especially one for reinvention. But where Farina comes off seeming like a self-promoting liar at times, Dylan comes off like an enigma: he tells so many blatant falsehoods about himself – he raced motorcycles! Ran away to join the circus! Played on early Elvis albums! – he almost dares you to realize he’s fucking with you; Farina just seems to crave attention.

And once Dylan enters the book, his personality dominates it. Hajdu covers his early years and especially his relationship with manager Albert Grossman. It was Grossman’s pushy management style that led to his songs being covered by artists like Peter, Paul and Mary even as his first LP stalled on the charts, but Hajdu alleges cash payoffs to club owners and reporters helped ensure Dylan found stage time and notice in the press.

But if he needed a push to get started, he quickly shot off like a rocket. Before long, Joan and Bob were on top of the folk world. Hajdu covers some of the breathless coverage from the trade papers of the day, who write about them in gushing terms. While they each influenced the other, he’s also careful to show how wide apart they were even at their closest; politically, musically and even in terms of personality, they were ill-matched.

Dylan’s quick sense of reinvention keeps the book moving. While Farina and Mimi became a married folk duo, experimenting with incorporating rock into folk and as Joan’s music took a more direct, anti-establishment bent, Dylan was jumping headlong into rock, playing with The Hawks and writing in wild, pot-fuelled bursts. It couldn’t last.

Throughout the book, Hajdu never lets Dylan get one over on him: Dylan was capable of writing great music, but he was capable of being vicious and cruel, too. Hajdu never shies away from Dylan cheating on Joan, from his ever-increasing drug use or from him eviscerating Joan in songs like “She Belongs To Me.” Here’s his take on “Positively 4th Street”:

“The subject of (the song) is prey to a twisted psychology close to sadism… Once he establishes himself as a wounded victim, Dylan uses this justification to rip his opponent apart.” (pg 279).

Hajdu mixes this criticism throughout the book, providing background for songs and explaining technical points about the music, but it’s never as outspoken as Clinton Heylin’s books on Dylan. It’s well researched, with a nice bibliography and background notes and he’s interviewed just about everyone involved (even Thomas Pynchon!). While only Dylan refused interviews, Hajdu had access to a trove of unpublished interviews from the Experience Music Project.

Rating: 8/10. I enjoyed this one a bunch, plowing through it in only a few days. It’s a compulsive, informative read on an interesting time in music. While nobody really comes off too nicely in this, that’s part of the appeal for me: it’s not an exercise in mythologizing, another book about how great Dylan or Baez are. It’s a book about four young people, each of them flawed in their own way, who broke into folk before breaking it apart. Recommended.

30
Dec
13

Best New Albums 2013: #2 – Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series, Volume 10: Another Self Portrait

Running through the end of the month (with a short Christmas break), I’ll be running a post each weekday taking a look at one of my top 20 albums of the year, slowly working my way down to number one. Some I’ve reviewed previously for Bearded Gentlemen Music – I’ll provide links where necessary – and the entire list will eventually end up there, too. But for most of these records, this is the first time I’m writing about them at length, making this a chance to explain my choices in a little greater detail. Last year’s list is no longer online, but for 2011′s Best Canadian Music click here and for 2010′s list, click here.

#2: Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series Volume 10: Another Self Portrait

Back in the 60s, Dylan was it. Maybe a few more artists sold more records, maybe a few pushed the limits of rock a little further, but nobody mattered more to music. As pretty much every critic has said, Dylan’s impact on music is almost incalculable. People turned to Dylan for anthems, even as Dylan said he wasn’t a spokesperson. People looked to him for meanings, even when he said sometimes he didn’t have them.

After a much-publicized motorcycle crash and a couple of country albums, critics were increasingly annoyed: what happened to the artist they idolized? Their disappointment climaxed with 1970’s Self Portrait, especially when Rolling Stone’s Greil Marcus infamously asked “What is this shit?” (Funny: I’d have the same reaction to his turgid book Dead Elvis)

The album didn’t tank though. Even without any memorable songs, it actually sold better than any of Dylan’s past few albums. And a few months later, his New Morning went some lengths to restoring his critical ratings, too. The critics were quick to move on from Self Portrait, painting it as misstep, a failed experiment or, more often than not, “hey let’s talk about something else instead.”

Which makes Volume Ten of The Bootleg Series maybe the most essential one yet.

Previously, this series has looked at demos and live performances. There’s one of a messy, powerful gig in 1966 where the audience seems intent on disrupting his electric band; there’s one showing all the demos he recorded for Whitmark. There’s even one of a 1964 show where Joan Baez sings a few songs with him. By and large, they’re all good, even the demos one.

But this is a different beast. With a multitude of alternate versions, outtakes and loose material from the same period, Another Self Portrait is exactly that: another look at an overlooked album. I don’t know if it blows the original away – truth be told, I haven’t the heart to sit down and compare the two, since I like both already – but it certainly changes the way we look at this music: it’s folksy and charming, fun and lighthearted. Occasionally glimpses of the older, spooky Dylan show through. But largely, it’s the work of a man who’s recording the kind of music that inspires him and doing his best to create his own music in that vein.

Songs here reach as far back as The Basement Tapes (when will that Bootleg Series ever come out?) and as far forward as some 1971 sessions. But by and large, it focuses on 1970, when Dylan was recording songs that’d end up on either New Morning or Self Portrait; as it turns out, there wasn’t a lot of difference between the two.

Some of the songs are covers, others have multiple versions. But nearly everything’s a killer here. Personally, I like both takes Time Passes Slowly (this has to be his most underrated song), the electric piano version of Went to See the Gypsy, the two rollicking live numbers recorded with The Band and the version of New Morning with a horn section. But on these two CDs, there’s nary a wasted moment. My biggest fault with the thing is that there isn’t more: where’s the stuff from the Johnny Cash TV show, the leftovers from Nashville Skyline? I guess there’s always Volume 11.

01
Jul
13

Music and Myth in America: Mystery Train by Greil Marcus

Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' RollMystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll by Greil Marcus

Rock is the quintessential American music form. Say what you will about jazz, bluegrass and hip-hop, it’s rock that people identify with the US more than any other. It’s one of those assessments that people make not because of the music, or the people who make it, but because of the culture: rock is so tied into what it means to be an American, it’s hard to separate it. Even the Brits try to sound like they’re from the south when they rock out.

In this  series of essays about America, rock music and the cultural history between the two, Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train is an attempt to place music in the greater context of America and, in particular, American culture. Here he’ll go between Moby Dick to Robbie Robertson to Stagger Lee to Elvis, making the connections one never thought about before and can’t help but see afterward. Don’t worry, it sounds more high-handed than it is and it’s a blast to read to boot.

In a series of essays about bands and musicians – Sly Stone, The Band, Robert Johnson and Elvis, among others – Marcus looks at the roots of music and the traditions between each, tying together disparate elements like Moby Dick and slavery to music’s role in culture. It’s thought provoking and gave me, someone who’s been listening to some of these acts for years, a new angle to look at their output.

One good example is The Band’s second album: Marcus makes the case that their long experience and travels through America, first as the backing band for Ronnie Hawkins and later for Bob Dylan, gave them the breadth and exposure to America to become commentators on it; only an outsider could write as nuanced a look at the south as The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and make it, as Marcus writes, “not so much a song about the Civil War as it is about the way each American caries a version of that event within himself.”

Later, Marcus ties together the common elements between the songs on their second album, The Band:

“The shifts between songs finally let us understand that the man who sings King Harvest wants nothing more than to sing a song like Rag Mama Rag; we understand that the voice on Rag Mama Rag is real because it’s been shaped by the terrors of King Harvest and knows a chance to dance them away for what it’s worth.” (pg 57)

 

In this essay, Marcus makes a great case for this album’s importance: it’s more familiar than their first record, although it lacks a song as iconic as The Weight, and that familiarity comes from the common roots of their music. It’s an album inspired by where we’ve been, looking backwards at a time when music was pushing forwards, coming together as a remarkable synthesis of two. It’s unfortunate that The Band lost the thread shortly after, releasing one good concert film (The Last Waltz), one decent album (Stage Freight) and some forgettable ones before breaking up for good in the mid 70s.

The other essays are just as provoking. In Every Man Is Free, he ties the literature of Los Angeles and the spectre of slavery to the music of Randy Newman (in particular the 1972 album Sail Away). In another, he examines the legend of Stagger Lee’s ties to black culture, and especially how they relate to the music of Sly Stone. To wit:

“On the way to the silent riot Sly shouldered the racial and sexual fantasies of a huge audience and staggered under them, as if he were Staggerlee himself back from the dead to live up to his myth. The images of mastery, style and triumph set forth earlier in Sly’s career reversed themselves; his old politics turned into death, his exuberance into dope, his old music into a soundtrack for a world that didn’t exist. As an artist, Sly used those facts to reverse the great myth itself.” (pg 78)

The heart of Mystery Train is his in-depth look at Elvis, which ties together all the elements of America: he cuts through the bullshit and hype to look at how one man came to represent so much, mean everything to a style of music and almost leave it as quickly – even if he still gave glimpses of his raw power here and there: on Ed Sullivan, on the Comeback Special, in the way he commanded himself on stage, doing so much while doing so little. A nod here, a move there and he had the crowd eating out of his hand.

Also of note is a giant Notes and Discographies section, which offers a more straightforward history of each act, breaking down their careers and discorgraphies (often with pointed opinions towards them), literature about them and suggestions for further reading. It’s nice to have a reference like this and having a seasoned critic like Marcus not only offer suggestions on where to go for everything (he seems to have an opinion on thousands of records), but what to read and to make it completely readable is a nice bonus.

Rating: 8/10. I read the fourth edition, which means the discography section was a little out of date (it’s since been updated, but I can’t speak to specifics), but it was still a blast. Still, the little things that nagged at me most were in the main text. Recommended for music fans, but I imagine some will find it a little pretentious. Still, there isn’t a better book in it’s vein. And if you’re like me, you’re going to go back and listen to these bands again and again.

 




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