Friday, September 24, 2021

Bob Dylan 68: Springtime In New York

From the first Bootleg Series set, the compilers have focused on providing proof of Bob Dylan’s genius by sharing an alternate view of his craft via the songs he left off of albums. Where many discards from his first handful of LPs tended to be the tenth or eleventh best songs he’d recorded that day, the ‘80s was a time when he rehearsed, recorded, and revised almost constantly, whereupon several scholars insist that the Bard of Hibbing could no longer be trusted to sequence his own albums.
Three full decades after that first volume, the sixteenth installment in the series is dedicated to the first part of that troubled decade. Springtime In New York doesn’t merely follow on from Trouble No More (a.k.a. the “born-again era”) three volumes earlier; it overlaps, with many of the tour rehearsals and outtakes from Shot Of Love coming from sessions already mined. (The set was released, as had become the pattern, in a two-disc edition as well as an expanded five-disc package; as most Dylan diehards would invest in the latter, that’s the one we’re treating as standard.)
Revisionist history tells us that Dylan wasn’t so much lost in the early ‘80s as he was “finding his way”; the rehearsals that make up the bulk of the first disc begin with new takes on “Señor” and “To Ramona” before running through covers as startling as “Sweet Caroline” and “We Just Disagree”; we’d never heard the AC country hit “This Night Won’t Last Forever’, but “Jesus Met The Woman At The Well” and “Abraham, Martin And John” are already familiar from the gospel period. “Need A Woman” is an alternate from the first Bootleg box, while “Let’s Keep It Between Us” is a wonderful original played often on tour but making its welcome official debut here. Again, the band that accompanied him for the gospel shows is stellar.
The second disc delves into the recording sessions that resulted in Shot Of Love. Here, still, he’s “searching”, with somewhat polished arrangements of covers like “Let It Be Me”, “I Wish It Would Rain”, and Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart”. The best songs left off the original album have already been archived elsewhere; the included alternate of “Angelina” is nice but not as striking as the previously released take was when it emerged. “Lenny Bruce” is included in a mix with elements wiped before its release; presumably those are the “Casio” parts as depicted on the tape boxes in the packaging. A handful of originals heard first here are varied if occasionally lackluster: “Price Of Love” features a Bo Diddley beat and cheesy organ; “Don’t Ever Take Yourself Away” was buried on a TV soundtrack ten years ago and comes out as a cross between “Ramona” and “Romance In Durango”; “Fur Slippers” is an early arrangement of a one-chord song later given to B.B, King; “Borrowed Time” has promise but sits in an ordinary chord sequence; “Is It Worth It?” is a work in progress on the way to “Dead Man, Dead Man”; “Yes Sir, No Sir” is startling, enticing, and mysterious.
The two discs’ worth of Infidels outtakes finally bring the set’s title into context, considering where and when they were recorded. We already liked Mark Knopfler’s production on this album, as well as the contributions from the band, so hearing alternate takes of six of the album tracks is welcome. “Jokerman” and “Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight” are the original master tracks before the artist took advantage of the newfangled digital technology to tinker with the lyrics and phrasing. Then there are the leftovers; “Blind Willie McTell” was a highlight of the first set in an acoustic incarnation; this one adds electricity and more tension. We get to follow the journey to “Foot Of Pride” via an alternate take as well as two early drafts entitled “Too Late”. “Julius And Ethel” is an oddly timed piece of social commentary destined to be clouded by the facts. “Someone Got A Hold Of My Heart” might be the best version yet of this song, but that’s not saying much, and “Tell Me” is a toss-up. This version of “Lord Protect My Child” shows its musical similarity to “License To Kill”, while “Death Is Not The End” is notable for running two minutes past the length heard on Down In The Groove. Covers still abound; “This Was My Love” sees him exploring Sinatra three decades early; “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground” is different from a rare B-side; “Baby What You Want Me To Do” is a duet with Clydie King and features a lot of Mick Taylor, so that’s good.
The fifth disc is the most challenging. While it begins with “Enough Is Enough” (an otherwise unknown original performed at one of the concerts mined for Real Live) and “License To Kill” as performed on the David Letterman show, we move into the making of Empire Burlesque. In most cases, it’s clear that while the production didn’t help the album, the songs weren’t quite there either. Although some of the gloss has been removed, it can’t save tracks like “Tight Connection To My Heart”, “Seeing The Real You At Last”, or either version of “Clean Cut Kid”. However, “I’ll Remember You” and “Emotionally Yours” are lovely, and the alternate of “Dark Eyes” sounds like an outtake from World Gone Wrong, proving that he really hadn’t changed at all. “New Danville Girl” presents a more accessible view than its eventual “Brownsville Girl” incarnation, but of the two versions of “When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky”, we prefer the “slow” one, but it’s still a chore since he yells through both of them. While never finished, “Straight A’s In Love” has promise, but goes way too fast for everyone involved.
As has also been the trend, the discs are short; the two-disc is just over two hours and the deluxe set could fit on four CDs. Maybe they knew better than to overload our ears with too much Bob. We could easily enjoy more outtakes from Infidels, and there have been accounts of numerous 1986 sessions with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in between tours that were not represented on Knocked Out Loaded. (“Band Of The Hand”, anyone?) Surely they’re not holding out for a standalone set dedicated to the period between Empire Burlesque and Oh Mercy. While we’re at it, why not have all three songs from the 1984 Letterman performance? Why not include the rehearsals?
All this is quibbling, of course. Springtime In New York is welcome and worthy of the canon. It definitely shows what was missing on the lesser albums, and highlights what we already liked of that period. Enjoy.

Bob Dylan Springtime In New York: The Bootleg Series Vol. 16 1980-1985 (2021)—

1 comment:

  1. Really enjoyed your review. Now I have to dig out a CD player to actually listen to my new 5-cd set : )