Just in time for his 50th(!!!) birthday came the unbelievable announcement that a box set full of previously unreleased Dylan tracks had been sanctioned and approved by both artist and label. Not only would this make Bob the first major artist worthy of two box sets, but the potential to finally hear some of this stuff in best-ever fidelity was enough to make fans drool.
And drool we did, when the bounty was revealed. The Bootleg Series box was dubbed “Volumes 1-3”, subtitled “Rare & Unreleased” from the years 1961 through 1991. Naturally half the stuff—most of the first two discs—comes from the first seven years of his career, but you expected that.
The first disc alone only goes up to 1963, with plenty of outtakes from his first three albums, a few publishing demos and even some live recordings. As many of these were known for years as published lyrics, it can be alternately fascinating and disappointing to hear the music underneath. Highlights include “Hard Times In New York Town”—a great place to start—and “No More Auction Block”, which gives a hint to the inspiration behind “Blowin’ In The Wind”. “House Carpenter” is a scary sea song, “Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues” is his first real funny song (compared to “Talkin’ Hava Negila Blues”) and “Let Me Die In My Footsteps” may be repetitive but it’s effective. “Quit Your Low Down Ways” might have been left aside had people realized he’d stolen the yodel from Elvis. “Paths Of Victory” is an example of the type of song he’d soon leave behind, and “Moonshiner” is another nice one from the end of the protest era. The disc closes with “Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie”, a poem read aloud to the Town Hall audience.
Things get very interesting on the second disc. “Seven Curses”, a powerful gallows pole song, and “Eternal Circle” show his increasing depth as a poet. “Suze (The Cough Song)” has a riff similar to “Nashville Skyline Rag”. “Mama You Been On My Mind” is from the end of the Another Side sessions, and it’s beautiful. The equally stunning “Farewell Angelina” comes from the Bringing It All Back Home sessions, and we’re guessing he left it out because he drops his pick halfway through. “Sitting On A Barbed Wire Fence” doesn’t live up to the promise of the lyrics we had for 20 years, while “It Takes A Lot To Laugh” is in its faster incarnation than the lazy take from the Highway 61 album. “I’ll Keep It With Mine” is a rehearsal that doesn’t quite make it, yet the phenomenal “She’s Your Lover Now” nearly gets to the end. “I Shall Be Released” was obviously left off the official Basement Tapes since the guitar is so woefully out of tune. We jump all the way ahead to the anticlimactic George Harrison take of “If Not For You”, followed by a lackluster “Wallflower”. “Nobody ‘Cept You” isn’t much of a loss either, but the strangest choices are the alternates of the alternate takes of the New York Blood On The Tracks songs. “Call Letter Blues” turned out to be “Meet Me In The Morning” with different lyrics, and while this mix of “Idiot Wind” is not as aching as the original, it’s still wonderful.
The third disc begins with a different “If You See Her, Say Hello”, then it’s off to Desire country. “Golden Loom” has lots of Emmylou, but “Catfish” is as dull as the ball game it describes. “Seven Days” is a live take from the end of Rolling Thunder. From here it’s a race to the finish. “Ye Shall Be Changed” is the first of the pretty good Christian songs. “You Changed My Life” and “Need A Woman” don’t do much, but “Angelina” has a mystery lacking from those albums. “Someone’s Got A Hold Of My Heart” isn’t much better than the song it became. “Tell Me” is annoying, but “Lord Protect My Child” makes up for it. “Foot Of Pride” is an evil rant, and “Blind Willie McTell” is almost as incredible as the fans would have you think. “When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky” also isn’t any better than the album track, but “Series Of Dreams” is a nice way to end it.
Having three CDs of legendary unreleased material made up for much of the sludge of the previous decade or so. “Farewell Angelina”, “Mama You Been On My Mind” and “She’s Your Lover Now” made The Bootleg Series box worth the price of admission. Knowing that the set was cut down from a proposed four discs made us hope against hope that more volumes, as promised in the booklet, would soon be coming. As it turned out, they would, but we’d have to wait.
The most amazing thing about the set was the knowledge that as good as this stuff was, they weren’t considered worthy of release back when they were originally recorded. Some would say that this was due to Bob being his own worst editor, but the glass-half-full camp prefers to think of it as proof of his genius—even his leftovers are masterpieces.
Bob Dylan The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991 (1991)—4