The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete

The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete – Wikipedia

Recorded: June-October 1967

Released: November 4, 2014 (Hey, that’s my birthday!)

Gathering my thoughts on this has been killing me. I’ve been listening to this off and on for the last month or so, and trying to figure out what to say. The problem is (looking either ahead to the 21st or back to the 19th) is that it contains multitudes.

And remember: the first rule of “The Basement Tapes” is that Bob Dylan never made an album called “The Basement Tapes”. Dylan was living in Woodstock in 1967 with his young family, getting away from the insane pace of the past few years, and his friends who’d backed him up on his 1966 tour and parts of Blonde on Blonde were there, too. Over a few summer and fall months, they spent a bunch of time creating and recording songs in the basement of the house where Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel lived. Robbie Robertson was in Woodstock, too. ((Most of) The Band, don’t ya know.) 

Dylan did not intend these to be sessions for an album. But he was still working for The Man — i.e., the Record Company — and The Man wanted some value. So Dylan said he was writing and recording a bunch of songs that could be demoed for other artists (and yes, that happend, e.g., this), so I guess that gave him some breathing room.

These recordings became the heart of the first rock bootleg album, and at least in part because of their underground nature, became legendary, a hidden artifact that only a few had tasted, but many lusted after. By 1975 Dylan gave permission for the record company to do an official release of basement tapes recordings, so they brought Robbie Robertson in to take the lead on making this happen. He was most involved in selecting songs to include, cleaning them up, adding in new overdubs, and throwing in some songs by The Band. The result was the official “Basement Tapes” album. By the way, that Wikipedia article gives much more detail about the context of the recordings than the one about the Bootleg Series The Basement Tapes Complete…

So… I first heard the official album probably in the 70s or mid 80s at the latest, then bought an extensive bootleg in the mid to late 90s, then finally listened to the official Bootleg Series version when it came out in 2014. And as I said, I’ve listened to all or large parts of it a handful of times now … and I’m still not quite sure what I think of them. 

Remember the whole “legendary” bit? This (along with the 1966 Dylan tour) created The Band (qua Band). Multiple books have been written just about these sessions; best title is Greil Marcus’s “The Old Weird America”. Great description of the songs — was Dylan recovering the old weird America… or creating something that never really existed? (By the way, I only read the book when it came out, and found it obscure and pretentious… I should probably try again.)

I guess the first thing that puzzles me about The Basement Tapes is: what was Dylan up to? Sure, he sold it to the record company as writing and recording demos, but if you listen to the entirety of the tapes (which are in order on the Bootleg Series release), it’s clear he spent a bunch of time first looking for something (old weird America, anyone)… or else just having fun with his buds…. or both?  They ran through bunches of old country songs (some of them unashamedly cheesy, IMO), some good versions of Johnny Cash tunes (I’m particularly fond of “Big River”), a few songs he came back to time and time over his career (“Spanish is the Loving Tongue”, “People Get Ready”, “A Satisfied Mind” … good here, but better versions come later), some modern folk songs, some traditional folk songs, and some utter nonsense (“See You Later Allen Ginsburg”, “I’m Your Teenage Prayer”, “Kicking My Dog Around”). 

Why these songs? Remember that Dylan had just gone electric, and with (The future) Band had finished an incredible rock tour the year before. No trace of that here. And if he wanted to go back in time, why not go back to his teenage rock’n’roll days? Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry… they were right up The Band’s alley. So why utterly avoid early rock’n’roll, and instead go into country and diverse folk sources? 

And then come the originals. Most (but not all) of the most polished originals were included on the 1975 Basement Tapes. I really enjoy listening to these songs, but there’s one reaction I can never escape: many of them are just nonsense. “Million Dollar Bash” – “Well, that big dumb blonde with her wheel in the gorge / And Turtle, that friend of hers, with his checks all forged / And his cheeks in a chunk, and his cheese in the cash / They’re all gonna be there at that million dollar bash.”  And pretty much all of “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread”. 

I like to be able to know (and maybe tell people) this is what this song is about. I feel like I can do that for most of Dylan’s previous songs, but for some of these I just can’t. Yet I really like listening to “Million Dollar Bash”, “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread”, “Lo and Behold”, “Apple Suckling Tree”, “Please Mrs. Herny”, etc. Dylan’s voice is so expressive, and he sounds like he’s having just the best time.

Of course, there are “serious” songs, too: “Tears of Rage”, “I Shall Be Released”, and “This Wheel’s on Fire” come to mind. “Tears of Rage” and “I Shall Be Released” often are considered among Dylan’s best. I can see why, but for me, the performances are a bit lacking because I don’t think Dylan’s voice is well suited for parts of the songs — he sounds strained on the high notes… not emotionally strained, but like it’s hard for him to sing them. “This Wheel’s On Fire” is pretty great, though — no complaints there.

Lots of the songs aren’t quite finished… either in the lyrics, or the arrangement, or the performance… words are slurred, the mix of instruments is weird, songs kind of just end. Again, this can’t be considered a criticism, since these recordings never were meant to be heard. But I do like the more finished performances. For what it’s worth, “Odds and Ends” is one that always hits me as most polished and successful — it’s such a rollicking good time, why wasn’t this a hit? ‘You know what I’m saying and you know what I mean… odds and ends, odds and ends, lost time is not found again!”

And then there are treasures that remained hidden/forbidden after the 1975 release. Two stand above the rest: “I’m Not There” and “Sign on the Cross”. “I’m Not There” is shocking to listen to: the lyrics are not done, in fact, they’re barely there. Often Dylan slurs words, and when he doesn’t, the words he chooses don’t fit at all. Here was one try at a transcription of one of the verses: “I believe where she’d stop him if she wants time to care / I believe that she’d look upon beside him to care / And I’d go by the Lord and when she’s on my way / But I don’t belong there.” And other transcriptions are totally different. But it’s a great song — someone wrote that it’s Dylan’s saddest song ever. You can figure out what the song is ‘about’.

“Sign on the Cross”… a crazed country gospel sermon, but not a parody (not like what the Rolling Stones did in “Far Away Eyes” a decade later. I enjoy the sound of that song, but their contempt is palpable.) He means it: “Oh, when your days are numbered / And your nights are long / You might think you’re weak / But I mean to say you’re strong / Yes you are, if that sign on the cross / If it begins to worry you / Well, that’s all right you can sing a song / And all your troubles will pass right on through”

I’ll end with this: “Everybody’s in despair, every girl and boy / But when Quinn the Eskimo gets here, everybody’s gonna jump for joy”.

Shadow Kingdom

Shadow Kingdom: The Early Songs of Bob Dylan – Wikipedia

Recorded: ?

Released: July 18, 2021

Bonus! Dylan’s “broadcast event”… “filmed performance”… “series of linked music videos”… The latter probably is most accurate. Pitchfork said: “As he sings in dusky rooms filled with cigarette smoke and lamplight, mannequins and Western characters, the whole thing takes on a surreal, ghostlike quality.” 

I’ve watched the whole thing three times, I think, and it’s a real pleasure. What this showcases is Dylan’s skill as a song interpreter… with the twist that these are all his own songs. These aren’t ramshackle tossed off run throughs; these are fundamental reimaginings of the songs that fit where Dylan is now. Given the ravages to his voice over the 30 to 55 years since he wrote these songs, he obviously changed how he sings them, but the changes to the musical settings in many cases are at least as fundamental. If you think this is how all these songs would have sounded if had recorded them for “Rough and Rowdy Ways”, you’ll be close (maybe that’s when he came up with these arrangements?) There also are lyric changes, and they’re interesting, but I don’t think they change the songs in a meaningful way.

There are a couple songs that don’t work as well for me: “Watching the River Flow”, “To Be Alone With You”, perhaps… it still feels like he hasn’t quite found the way to sing them with this current vocal abilities. But these are the exceptions.

Highlights for me:

  • Beautiful version of “Forever Young”. Seeing and hearing him do this at the age of 80 is moving, but if the performance wasn’t great, it would just be sad. But the performance is great, perhaps best version of this song ever.
  • “Queen Jane Approximately”: one of my least favorite songs from “Highway 61 Revisited” comes across beautifully in Dylan’s new mode.
  • “Tombstone Blues”. This is insane. Instead of the driving blues rock of the original, It verges on spoken word, delivered over a barely there ominous accompaniment. A prophetic vision, recited as if he’s receiving it in real time.
  • “What Was It You Wanted”. This was the biggest surprise for me. First, “Shadow Kingdom” was billed as “The Early Songs of Bob Dylan”, which I and everyone else assumed would mean the 1960s and maybe early 70s, and this is form 1989’s “Oh Mercy”. Second, while I really like Oh Mercy, it could barely crack the Top 10 of Dylan’s albums. And finally, “What Was It You Wanted” is my second least favorite song on the whole album (“Disease of Conceit” comes in last). And yet, this was a stunning performance. I feel like the song never existed before, even though Dylan’s singing actually is quite similar to the Oh Mercy version. Perhaps the melody just perfectly fits where his voice currently is at. Perhaps the stark stripped down arrangement gives room for the essence of the song to come through. And perhaps the message of paranoia, isolation, wondering what does this other person want? Is that a kiss of betrayal? is just so spot on. 

As of now (July 24, 2021), this performance is set to disappear in a day or so. I expect it will come out again in a permanent form. Whenever you have the chance, take a listen. It will change the way you imagine these songs, and change your view of what Dylan can do.

The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965–1966

The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965–1966 – Wikipedia

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”.

Yikes.

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.

The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert

The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert – Wikipedia

Recorded: May 17, 1966

Released: October 3, 1998

Let’s just start by saying that if for some reason you haven’t listened to this, stop reading, and go do it now. And even if you feel like you know it well, it still wouldn’t hurt to give it a listen and try to hear it with fresh ears. Oh, just to be clear, this concert was at Manchester, not the Royal Albert Hall, but because it had been bootlegged as the “Royal Albert Hall concert”, they kept that in the title of the official release (besides, “Royal Albert Hall” sounds so much cooler).

There’s been so much written about this concert and tour that I can’t conceive of saying anything new. It’s an astounding performance by someone who’s about to turn 25 years old, has already written a boatload of stunning, unprecedented songs, been called the “Voice of a Generation”, raised various controversies, and created a new sound to bring into the world what he’s hearing in his mind. 

A few observations: on the acoustic songs, he sounds so weary, strung out, and yet warm. Sometimes tender, sometimes mocking, and are we sure of the difference? (And who’s he mocking?) I remember reading a quote that he wasn’t just burning the candle at both ends, but taking a blow torch to the middle, and you can tell. Another thing that struck me: he introduced “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)” by saying “It used to be like that, now it goes to this”…. He now owns his songs, and performs them as he feels them: most of the songs he performs acoustic had electric backing on the studio albums, and three of the songs he performs with the Group (see Bob Dylan: Bob Dylan: The 1966 Live Recordings Album Review | Pitchfork) were acoustic on the studio recordings. That doesn’t matter. He commands the songs and brings them to you here as he understands them at the time. And finally, why would anyone have bought tickets to this concert, knowing Dylan’s going to rock out, and then boo him for… rocking out?

I’m not going to talk about every performance, as they’re all great (again: whole books about this concert!). Most performances are quite different from the studio versions, not better or worse, just equally great, although I would choose the performances of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “I Don’t Believe You” over the studio versions. And “One Too Many Mornings” is utterly transformed into an electric majestic storm.

And then there’s “Like A Rolling Stone”: the “Judas” shout from the audience, Dylan’s “I don’t believe you… you’re a LIAR”, followed by his aside to the band “Play fuckin’ loud”. This is a common take, but this is probably the single greatest moment in rock history… because of course Dylan and the band follow this with a bringing-down-the-walls-of-the-temple performance of “Like A Rolling Stone”. This is Babe Ruth calling his shot: ‘Williams’ summary of the story included, “In the fifth, with the Cubs riding him unmercifully from the bench, Ruth pointed to center and punched a screaming liner to a spot where no ball had been hit before.”’ 

I pointed before to the Pitchfork article about the insane 36 disk box that contains all of Dylan’s 1966 live recordings. It has so many choice quotes that apply to this concert, so I’m just going to end by including a few of them:

  • “Dylan is luminous and fragile-sounding during his opening solo acoustic sets, and equally fierce and possessed during the electric second halves, backed by the quintet that would soon become the Band, who match him in super-charged vitality.”
  • “Containing the notorious back-and-forth in which an audience member calls Dylan “Judas!” and Dylan snarls back, “I don’t be-lieve you, you’re a liar” (and to the musicians “play fuckin’ loud”)…”
  • “One takeaway, though, and perhaps the perpetual Dylan hot take, is that the dude actually is an amazing singer, lingering sensuously on every syllable during the quiet acoustic sets and occupying every bit of smarter-than-thou word-play and put-downs when the electric guitars come out.”
    • This is me, again, and Oh My God yes, this is amazing singing.
  • “Speaking almost entirely in parables in interviews and press conferences, the Bob Dylan that stood in front of audiences in 1966 had an unearthly air, a beautiful and vibrating young alien. “Bob Dylan got very sick backstage and I’m here to take his place,” he announces in Glasgow…”
  • “It would be the last time Dylan regularly performed extended solo acoustic sets, and it is a form he has mastered.”

Blonde on Blonde

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blonde_on_Blonde

Recorded: January-June 1966

Released: June 20, 1966 (?)

Listening to this while going through Dylan’s albums in order clarified something for me. If you look at rankings of Dylan’s albums (there are lots of them), this album is typically first or second, and is almost always ahead of Highway 61 Revisited, and certainly ahead of Bringing It All Back Home. And it now seems to me there’s one main and one lesser reason for that. First, the sound: at last he’s been able to capture the sound inside his mind. Of course, there’s his famous quote from the late 1970s: “The closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind was on individual bands in the Blonde on Blonde album. It’s that thin, that wild mercury sound. It’s metallic and bright gold, with whatever that conjures up.” And the sound is gorgeous … consistent across the recording. And it isn’t just the arrangements and instruments: there’s something about Dylan’s voice… how to describe it? A warm, knowing, insinuating drawl? It’s striking and effective.

Second, the lesser reason: I think he’s unified two lyrical strands that previously were mostly implemented in separate songs: the serious (e.g. “Mr. Tambourine Man”) and the comic (e.g. “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”). But with one exception, the comedy is just integrated into songs, with a resulting feel of absurdity rather than humor. 

The exception is “Rainy Day Women No. 12 and 35”. This is a song that Dylan played live a lot during the 1990s, and I never liked it then. However, I really do enjoy the album version: it’s got a great sound (see above), and Dylan’s performance actually makes me believe it: “I would not feel so all alone… eeeeeeeverybody must get stoned.”

Before I’d ever heard the album, I’d heard the conventional opinion of the album, and when I did hear the album, I was … underwhelmed. Listening now, in sequence, I understand why it strikes me that way. It’s the songs themselves. Despite the gorgeous sound, there are a number of songs here that I really have no desire to hear: “Temporary Like Achilles”, “Obviously 5 Believer”, “4th Time Around”. I like “Pledging My Time” more, but still doesn’t do that much for me. 

And there are only three or four songs that I absolutely want to hear: “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)”, “Visions of Johanna”, “Just Like A Woman”, and usually “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” — a beautiful song, but so long and the lyrics can strike you either way. I vibe with the Michael Gray comments on the Wikipedia article: in his first take he said Dylan was “cooing nonsense in our ears”, but later revisited it to say: “Whatever the shortcomings of the lyric, the recording itself, capturing at its absolute peak Dylan’s incomparable capacity for intensity of communication, is a masterpiece if ever there was one”.   

I also really enjoy “Most Likely You Go Your Way And I’ll Go Mine” and “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again”, but they’re just not at the same level. “Absolutely Sweet Marie” is Dylan at his garage-rock poppiest, and I love it.  I also know some people really like “I Want You”, but somehow it’s always felt kind of rushed to me. 

And there is no doubt that “Visions of Johanna” is a stunning achievement, maybe his greatest artistic success ever. And I just love “Just Like A Woman”. I am aware of the view that it’s misogynistic, and I also am aware that, not being a woman, I’m not the best person to adjudicate that charge. However, to me the tenderness of the performance belies that interpretation, and I’ve always heard the line “but you break just like a little girl” as enormously sympathetic.

The album sure does sound great, though: everyone keys on Dylan’s “thin wild mercury music”, but for me “bright gold” is even more apt.

Highway 61 Revisited

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Highway_61_Revisited0

Recorded: June-August 1965

Released: August 30, 1965

Starts with “Like A Rolling Stone”. Ends with “Desolation Row”. Does it matter what comes in between?

So much has been written about “Like A Rolling Stone”. Honestly, there is no greatest Dylan song… but if you’re forced to pick one, this has to be it. Revolutionary rock song. Incredible lyrics, music, performance. 

And “Desolation Row”… the WIkipedia article quotes Philip Larkin describing it as “enchanting tune and mysterious, possibly half-baked words”.  Hmmm… pretty fair, but I lean a lot harder into “mysterious”j, and I think “half-baked” is beside the point. It’s one compelling image after another, and a beautiful melody and performance.

But what about the songs in between? Well, as I alluded to in my comments about “Bringing It All Back Home”, I think Dylan achieves a unified sound and tone here… no more half acoustic, half electric. The songs sound like they’re performed by a group of musicians that know what they’re doing, and they’re producing the sound Dylan was reaching for.

I’ve always loved “Tombstone Blues” — just a classic from this period. Spittin’ facts:

You will not die, it’s not poison

Is there a hole for me to get sick in?

The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken

I really like “Highway 61 Revisited”, too, although I do not like the siren whistle. The first verse blew me away the first time I heard it, and I’ve known it by memory for decades:

God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”

Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”

God says, “No.” Abe say,s “What?”

God says, “You can do what you want Abe, but

The next time you see me comin’ you better run”

Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”

God says, “Out on Highway 61.”

I’m well aware “Ballad of a Thin Man” is considered a classic, but I’ve never really warmed up to it. I mean, obviously, I like it, but somehow never have connected with it the way I do with so many of Dylan’s other songs.

“From a Buick 6” is replacement-level Dylan. I like all the rest of the songs, but none of them have ever really grabbed me. “Queen Jane Approximately” might come closest. I love the way the music swells after the first two lines and sets up the third line that leads into “Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?”

Here’s something I never would have thought until I’ve gone through this exercise, listening to “Bringing It All Back Home” quite a few times, then “Highway 61 Revisited”. I think the songs on “Bringing It All Back Home” are overall better than on “Highway 61 Revisited”. In the “near filler” category, I prefer “Outlaw Blues” and “On The Road Again” to “From A Buick 6”. In the Hall of Fame category, I prefer “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Desolation Row” to “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”, but wow, tough call. But after that, for me at least, “Bringing It All Back Home” is the clear winner, with “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” very near Hall of Fame status… and I prefer all the rest of the songs on “Bringing It All Back Home” to the rest of the songs on “Highway 61 Revisited”. Still, “Highway 61 Revisited” has the more unified sound, and luckily, I don’t have to choose between them.

Outtakes! “Positively 4th Street” might not strictly qualify as an outtake; it was recorded during the Highway 61 sessions, but maybe always intended as a single. Still, it too is a Hall of Fame song, with the definitive closing kissoff:

I wish that for just one time

You could stand inside my shoes

And just for that one moment

I could be you

Yes, I wish that for just one time

You could stand inside my shoes

You’d know what a drag it is

To see you.

Bringing It All Back Home

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bringing_It_All_Back_Home

Recorded: January 13-15, 1965

Released: March 22, 1965

Dylan goes electric!  This was his first studio album to feature electric backing. As I mentioned in my review of his 1964 Philharmonic show, it’s hard for me to access the outrage this caused among his following. (Also, given that the infamous Newport Folk Festival performance was four months later, how could people have been shocked that, y’know, he played the songs there the way they’d been played on the album?)

I’m now getting to the point in Dylan’s career where whole books have been written about his songs, albums, and concerts… and I’ve read some of them myself. So I am trying not to make this a “review”, because I can’t imagine I’ve got anything new to say. Instead, I’ll try to come at the album from the perspective of what it might have been like to experience it when it was released.

So, when I try to listen to this album with fresh ears, what strikes me is that with his songs, he’s found what he was reaching for on “Another Side…”, but his arrangements are maybe not quite there yet. There isn’t a consistent instrumentation for all the songs on the album (which I think he achieves with the next two studio albums). It’s a bit of a simplification to say Side 1 (of the LP, baby!) is electric, and Side 2 is acoustic, since  “She Belongs To Me” and “Love Minus Zero (No Limit)” on Side 1 feel mostly acoustic (and indeed, he often did these acoustic in concerts… for what it’s worth, these feel like the most “folk rock” songs Dylan ever recorded… which for me just mean closest to a Byrds-like sound), while ‘Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” on Side 2 both have a little electric accompaniment. 

And the electric songs don’t seem like rock’n’roll or rock, either, more like “electrified blues”. Now, I don’t think there’s any reason Dylan had to be trying for “rock’n’roll”; the point is, I don’t think he achieved a fully realized sound here.

OK, but (there’s always a but): the songs are pretty much great. Except for “Outlaw Blues” and “On The Road Again”, the rest of the songs range from great to Hall of Fame. (What do I mean by “Hall of Fame”? They’re all songs that appear on at least some ‘Dylan’s N Greatest Songs’ lists.), they include two top 10 songs — “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” (true story: in high school we had to do some sort of reading in English class, and I chose “It’s Alright Ma”… I assume everyone in class was pretty much befuddled) — and several others that I like nearly as much. And “Subterranean Homesick Blues” may be the coolest song Dylan ever did, and the video was revolutionary.

Two special notes. I have loved “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” since the first time I heard it, and still love it today. When I’m done listening to its wild mashup of American history, literature, and contemporary observation, I want to go back to the beginning and listen again… false start and all. 

The man says, “Get out of here / I’ll tear you limb from limb” / I said, “You know they refused Jesus, too” / He said, “You’re not Him

But the funniest thing was / When I was leavin’ the bay / I saw three ships a-sailin’ / They were all heading my way / I asked the captain what his name was / And how come he didn’t drive a truck / He said his name was Columbus / I just said, “Good luck

I guess most people love Maggie’s Farm. There are a couple live versions I really like, but studio version never has done that much for me.

Outtakes! “If You Gotta Go, Go Now (Or Else You Gotta Stay All Night)” — as the Wikipedia article says, the “title provides much of the subtext”.. but quite enjoyable. “I’ll Keep It With Mine” — a lovely song.

And then we have “Farewell Angelina”, another song I simply love. I think it’s one of Dylan’s most beautiful songs and vocal performances. While in something like “Gates of Eden”, the images just wash over me, and I have a hard time attributing much meaning, here I feel like there is some simple and profound meaning that I can almost (but not quite) grasp. (Maybe I just like my imagistic Dylan more restrained: “Farewell Angelina” > “Gates of Eden”; “Lay Down Your Weary Tunes” > “Chimes of Freedom”)

Farewell Angelina, The night is on fire / And I must go…

Farewell Angelina, The sky’s changing colors / And I must leave…

Farewell Angelina, The sky is folding / I’ll see you after a while…

Farewell Angelina, The sky it is trembling / And I must leave fast…

Farewell Angelina, The sky’s flooding over / And I must be gone…

Farewell Angelina, The sky’s flooding over / And I must go where it’s dry…

Call me any name you like / I will never deny it…

But Farewell Angelina, The sky is erupting / And I must go where it is quiet.

Yeah… and he left it off the album.

The Bootleg Series Vol. 6: Bob Dylan Live 1964, Concert at Philharmonic Hall

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bootleg_Series_Vol._6:_Bob_Dylan_Live_1964,_Concert_at_Philharmonic_Hall

Recorded: October 31, 1964

Released: March 30, 2004

The first Bootleg Series! (Because Vol. 9 The Witmark Demos 1962-1964 doesn’t have a specific date, I get to skip it.) What a difference from “In Concert – Brandeis University”… less than a year and a half later, yet Dylan — still only 23 years old — has gone from an unknown to a star, the King of Folk. And the audience knows it — they love him, and rightly so. By now, he’s written and recorded (by my count) around a dozen utter classics.  And he has grown as a performer — he owns the songs and the stage and delivers a commanding performance, combining the prophetic (“The Times They Are a-Changin’”, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”, the protest (“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”), the personal (“Spanish Harlem Incident”, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”, “To Ramona”, “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)”), the comic-yet-serious (both talking blues, “If You Gotta Go, Go Now (Or Else You Got to Stay All Night)”), and now, from the yet unreleased “Bringing It All Back Home”, the stream of consciousness, visionary (“Mr. Tambourine Man”, “Gates of Eden”, “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”).

OK, stop. If you’re bothering to read this, and you haven’t heard this album, just go listen. I think it’s available on all the streaming services. This is peak pre-electric Dylan. I first listened to Dylan over 10 years after this concert, came to him as a rock fan, not a folk fan, so thought the whole fuss about Dylan “going electric” was just a bunch of folkie fuddy duddies. But I have to say, when you listen to this, and hear what he was capable of with just a guitar, harmonica, and That Voice, I can see why people didn’t want him to do anything else. (Of course, I understand the whole symbolic issue of what folk and rock “meant”, but that still feels alien to me). I mean, it’s just stunning.

By the way, Joan Baez is a guest on four songs. I am not a Joan Baez fan; I don’t like her voice, and especially can’t stand her vibrato. But I like her OK here! Specifically, she and Dylan transform “With God On Our Side” from the turgid album version to something that does justice to the song (it’s about 2 minutes shorter, which tells you how much livelier it is).

Finally, think of this: Dylan plays “Mr. Tambourine Man”, which the crowd doesn’t know yet — hasn’t been released — followed by “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”. Talk about a flex. I have no doubt that when the Nobel committee was considering Dylan for the Nobel Prize in Literature, these were two of the songs they were thinking about. And he still is only 23… and all his greatest albums are still ahead of him.

Another Side of Bob Dylan

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Another_Side_of_Bob_Dylan

Recorded: June 9, 1964 (one day??!?!!)

Released: August 8, 1964

Yep, it is “another side” of Dylan. When I listen to this, I hear him reaching for something, but not quite getting there. There are some great songs here: “All I Really Want To Do”, “Spanish Harlem Incident”, “Chimes of Freedom”,  and (depending on your taste), “To Ramona”, “My Back Pages”, and “It Ain’t Me Babe”. But for me, most of the songs as recorded here  are somehow unfinished, either as songs per se or as performances. 

For the issue with the performance, read the Wikipedia article and the 1964 New Yorker article; Dylan recorded the album in one session that lasted about five and a half hours “while polishing off a couple bottles of Beaujolais”. Dylan always wanted spontaneity in his recordings, but I think this just didn’t give him enough time and reflection to work through enough takes of the songs to get them right.

To me, this is one of the very few sets of Dylan songs where I prefer cover versions. I think (too lazy to check) that The Byrds recorded all the major songs from this album, and they just feel much more developed. Yes, I realize their style was very different than solo-Bob-Dylan, but I actually don’t feel this way about Mr. Tambourine Man — both the Dylan and Byrds versions are great. The performances here are like sketches that need to be filled in.

For the issue with the songs, clearly he’s moved away from topical songs to personal and imagistic songs, stringing together descriptive phrases intending to paint a picture in the listener’s mind. The two paradigm examples are “Chimes of Freedom” and “My Back Pages”. I think “Chimes” is a great song, but as I’ve already said, I can’t get completely behind the performance. But it helped me to read Paul Williams’ take on this song in his great book: “Performing Artist: The Music of Bob Dylan Vol. One, 160-1973”. This song about Dylan’s experience watching a lightning storm; suddenly the song’s imagery becomes concrete, which helps me appreciate the thoughts and analogies it sparked in Dylan’s mind. Thing is, I see this as kind of a transition between “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” (its advantages are a better melody and more controlled imagery) and the masterpieces that were about to come, most specifically “Mr. Tambourine Man”. 

“All I Want To Do” always makes me smile: so many things he doesn’t want to do… all he really wants to do, baby, is be friends with you. “Spanish Harlem Incident” is a beautiful little song.  I’ve never really warmed up to “I Don’t Believe You”, but really, his signing is pretty great, with the final verse hitting home: 

And if anybody asks me / “Is it easy to forget?” / I’ll say, “It’s easily done, you just pick anyone / And pretend that you never have met”

Do people love “It Ain’t Me, Babe”? I have the impression it’s considered a classic Dylan song, but I’ve always (unfairly, I suppose) considered it to cover similar ground as “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”, but it just isn’t as good.

But the good news is there are two humorously absurd songs, “I Shall Be Free No. 10” and “Motorpsycho Nightmare”. I enjoy basically his entire body of humorous songs from his early years (I hit my limit on “The Basement Tapes” — more on that later). My college roommate and I always laughed over the friend who

When my name comes up he pretends to barf / I’ve got a million friends

To wrap up, “Another Side of Bob Dylan” is a transitional album. Both the songs and the performances are reaching for something (great), but don’t quite get there. Maybe the Beajolais didn’t help, either.

The Times They Are A-Changin’

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Times_They_Are_a-Changin%27_(Bob_Dylan_album)

Recorded: August-October 1963

Released: January 13, 1964

I have to confess: I just don’t like this one as much as “The Freewheelin’…”. I think the reason why can be expressed in terms of what I imagine it would have been like to hear “The Times…” in 1964, right after “The Freewheelin’ was your last exposure to Dylan. Two things you notice right away: he emphasizes topical songs, and there’s no humor. I think this makes the album a tougher listen, and (retrospectively) more dated.

OK, but! There still are classic songs here, again, a handful that if anyone else had written them, could have made their career. The title song, “One Too Many Mornings”, “Boots of Spanish Leather”, and “Hattie Carroll” at least. FWIW, I prefer “The Times They Are A-Changin’” to “Blowin’ In The Wind”, a stirring call to action to plaintive questioning. And while the story behind “When the Ship Comes In” is really pretty petty, this is another one that never fails to lift me up:

We’ll shout from the bow your days are numbered

And like Pharaoh’s tribe

They’ll be drownded in the tide

And like Goliath, they’ll be conquered

And when it comes to the topical songs, “Hattie Carroll” is without a doubt his best ever. Despite being based on a specific incident, its message remains timeless. And the lyrics, melody, and performance are all outstanding. And I’ve always loved “Only a Pawn in Their Game”. I actually feel this song taught me to look at the world in a new way:

But the poor white man’s used in the hands of them all like a tool

He’s taught in his school

From the start by the rule

That the laws are with him

To protect his white skin

To keep up his hate

So he never thinks straight

‘Bout the shape that he’s in

But it ain’t him to blame

He’s only a pawn in their game

So why the disappointment? Well, I’ve already mentioned the lack of humor, but it really is striking, and it lends the whole album a kind of monochromatic air. And finally, there is one song that, as performed here, brings the whole thing to a grinding halt: “With God On Our Side”. I like the idea, I’m a sucker for the history lesson, but the arrangement is just unbelievably tedious, just a few aimless acoustic strums and a dirge-like tempo. When I listened to it as part of this exercise, I felt like it was dragging pretty badly, and I looked at the display, and there were like 4 and ½ minutes left. Oh well, some live performances are much better!

Also worth mentioning: “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” and “Percy’s Songs” are outtakes from these sessions. So this lets me say FOR THE FIRST TIME, “You know, sometimes Bob Dylan leaves the best songs off his albums!” OK, maybe not the very best, but I have always loved “Lay Down Your Weary Tune”, and would put it somewhere up there on my personal list of his best pre-electric songs. And “Percy’s Song” also is a very good listen.

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