Recorded: January 1965 – May 1966
Released: November 6, 2015
So I don’t have to talk about this, since it is a compilation album, and my rule was that I didn’t have to talk about compilation albums. But in case you don’t have any idea what this is, here’s what the Wikipedia article says: “it comprises recordings from 1965 and 1966, mostly unreleased demos and outtakes from recording sessions for his ground-breaking albums Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. “
The other complication is (again, per Wikipedia): “Three different versions of the set were released simultaneously: a two-disc 36-track Best of edition in the packaging and format standard to the rest of the series after the first installment; a six-disc 111-track box set Deluxe edition similar in packaging to its counterpart from the previous Bootleg set; and an 18-disc 379-track limited Collector’s Edition available exclusively by order from Dylan’s official website…”. The “Collector’s Edition” included “…every note recorded during the 1965–1966 sessions, every alternate take and alternate lyric”.
So… I sprang for the Deluxe edition when this came out, so that’s 111 tracks. I’ve listened to these 111 tracks a few times over the past few weeks, and I have a grab bag of reactions that I’ll share in no particular logical order:
- There are a few (but just a few) “hidden gems” here… that is, they were outtakes that weren’t officially released for years or decades. I’ve already talked about several of them: “Farewell Angelina” and “I’ll Keep It With Mine”. The other song that gets talked about a lot is “She’s Your Lover Now”. Lots of people love this song. Pitchfork, for example (which doesn’t generally stan Dylan because he’s too old, etc.) had a nice passage on it, including: “it’s easily one of the best songs Dylan had written to that point, meaning it’s one of the best songs he’s ever written period, an alternately hilarious and pained story of a guy, his ex-girlfriend, and her new boyfriend encountering each other at a party.” But they also note that “Dylan was never able to record it properly.” It’s a complicated song musically and lyrically, and Dylan and the musicians never make it all the way through the song without messing up, and he eventually gave up on it. This is another song that I’ve just never warmed up to. Maybe I’m just too fussy, but I don’t feel like he ever got it right… I don’t find any of the versions very appealing musically, and as I’ve said often, I think Dylan’s best songs (and there are lots of them) are very appealing musically.
- There are lots of “alternative” versions of the songs that appeared on Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. What’s cool here isn’t that they are “better” than the ones selected for release. It’s that they show Dylan’s process. Again, if you haven’t read about it, he basically works through his songs — to some extent lyrically and to a large extent musically — with his backing musicians. This is how he “finds” the song: Robbie Robertson said (somewhere) that musicians have to be “fast and flexible” to play with Dylan. You see this in the Bringing It All Back Home sessions, where he’s figuring out this whole “electric backup band” thing. He tries a lot of songs acoustic first, then decides that some of them actually can use electric accompaniment… but what? Full rock’n’roll (or blues?) band? Or just a little “coloring”… ala Mr. Tambourine Man? He works that out, too.
- And for Highway 61 Revisited and Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, he’s pretty much settled on “Yes, I have a full band backing me up”, but he’s very much working on the arrangements/feel of the songs (as well as finalizing the lyrics) — he’s playing, and listening to what he hears… is it the sound he’s looking for? Most of my least favorite songs from these albums are the fairly conventional “blues-ish” ones… and basically, he’s working out what type of blues he wants them to be… fast or slow, serious or humorous, etc. These are interesting to me in part precisely because since I don’t like many of these songs as much, I like the somewhat different directions he explored (e.g., on “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat” or “It Takes A Lot (It Takes a Train To Cry)”).
- 20 versions of “Like A Rolling Stone!” What not? You get to hear the whole progression of his greatest song.
- “Highway 61 Revisited” without that damn siren whistle, so that’s a plus.
- Most of the different takes on a song are within a fairly “sensible” range of possibilities… like I said, a fast or slow blues, prominent piano or not (in the same basic arrangement), etc. But then there’s “Visions of Johanna”. The early takes are with The Hawks (later The Band). They’re uptempo rock versions… and wow, do I ever think they are not right. At the end of one of them, Dylan says something like “That’s not right…”, and I assumed he was talking about the whole conception of it as an uptempo rock song… but no, it was the execution of it. So then Dylan moved to Nashville, worked with mostly completely different musicians, and nailed “Visions of Johanna” on the very first day… and that’s the version on Blonde on Blonde.
It looks to me like the Deluxe version is now available on the streaming services, so if you’ve made it this far, check it out when you have the time… but I think you should view this mostly as an educational experience rather than a super enjoyable musical experience.