Friday, January 15, 2016

Bob Dylan 60: The Cutting Edge

Nearly a generation after it began, Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series continues to answer the dreams of fans, while adding to their nightmares. For the third year in a row, the compilers confounded all expectations, upping the ante each time.
In the annals of rock, the 18 months of creativity that resulted in Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde (as well as, by extension, the performance still referred to as the Albert Hall concert) are paralleled by few other artists. Outtakes from those albums have already been highlights of previous Bootleg Series installments, but now, in an astounding prequel to the complete Basement Tapes, and following three different “anniversary” or “copyright extension” collections, only with a lot more fanfare and easier availability, every recorded note of Dylan’s studio sessions in 1965 and 1966 has been presented to any discerning fan with six hundred bucks to spare. (Knowing full well that 18 CDs of multiple takes are too much for lots of people, there’s a six-CD distillation that still includes the complete evolution of “Like A Rolling Stone”, and a two-CD sampler that whittles 19 hours of tape down to two and a half.)
Unlike the Beatles, or Brian Wilson, who were busy pioneering their own recording techniques on different continents and coasts, Bob viewed the studio as another performance. Every song was recorded live, whether by himself or a room full of musicians. The lyrics would even change slightly, sometimes to match the dynamics of the song in progress. Overdubs or inserts were minimal, so whenever a take broke down, they started from the top. It becomes apparent why many takes were passed over for the ones that made the final cut, and the listener is often frustrated by hearing musicians from fifty years ago not quite getting the sound Bob hears in his head, and we’ve had imprinted on our brains.
That said, when the pistons were firing, Bob could work quickly. Bringing It All Back Home was recorded in three days, most of the first scrapped for later takes, often because they sound too much like Another Side Of Bob Dylan, which he was trying to get past. Two fine outtakes reappear here—“I’ll Keep It With Mine” and “Farewell Angelina”—and we hear his growing impatience with producer Tom Wilson. Amazingly, the false start of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” comes from day one, and tacked onto a band take from a day later. (And while Bob does laugh, the hooting we hear is Wilson.) He was also coming to grips with having a band trying to keep up with him; earlier stabs at “Mr. Tambourine Man” involve a drummer. Much time was spent on “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” in a bid for a pop hit, wisely left off the album.
Once paired with new producer Bob Johnston for Highway 61 Revisited, he was a little more productive, and that album was recorded in three chunks of sessions. He never did figure out what to do with “Sitting On A Barbed Wire Fence”, which always sounded like a pale copy of “Outlaw Blues”, but at least he found the germs of other lyrics in it. It’s nice to hear “Queen Jane Approximately” before the guitar went out of tune, and fun to hear everybody crack up at the first use of the police whistle on “Highway 61 Revisited”. We get to experience “Desolation Row” as it passes through several rock arrangements, any of which are worthy of the final product.
The guys soon known as The Band were part of the first sessions for Blonde On Blonde, where things like “Jet Pilot” and “I Wanna Be Your Lover” were begun and abandoned. A couple of rocky “Visions Of Johanna” attempts still have promise, but a frustrating day spent on “She’s Your Lover Now” pretty much guaranteed why Bob never went back to it (though a few piano-based rehearsals predict the arrangement of “Dear Landlord”). Only Robbie Robertson was brought to Nashville, where local guys (directed by Al Kooper, or so he’d have us believe) helped whip the rest into place. Even that wasn’t easy going, as too many misfires on “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” prove, particularly the ones with the knock-knock-car horn-“who’s there” intro. Even “I’ll Keep It With Mine” was still in the running at this point, but ignored once “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” arose. Amazingly, six of the album’s 14 songs were nailed in the final 25-hour session.
The final disc of the massive set is devoted to hotel room recordings, as depicted in D.A. Pennebaker films of the time; the segments from 1966 are fascinating, with Bob finding his way through song ideas with Robbie. And those who bought the big package got an added bonus via download: 50th Anniversary Collection 1965 presented another 15 hours of music in the form of ten acoustic concerts, four partially electric concerts (including Levon Helm on drums before he bailed) and other performances. The two-CD “best of” will leave you wanting more, so the six-CD set just might fill the average appetite.

Bob Dylan The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12 (2015)—4

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