It’s absolute bliss to descend into the late 1960s world of Bob Dylan as he works his way through the songs that would go to make up that flush of seminal albums.
Should I have pay hundreds of dollars for this 18 CD collection Bootleg series from 1965-1966, of which only 5,000 copies were manufactured worldwide? Well, at 17 hours and 45 minutes of music, I’m going to say yes.
The collection also includes photos, article-essays, and re-issued vinyl 7” singles.
As Ben Rollins writes in one of the accompanying hardback books’ introductions, “This collection contains EVERY note played in the studio during those fourteen months.” It’s probably more accurate to say “every note recorded” rather than played, but you get the idea.
As a songwriter, this is an incredible insight into Dylan’s process, and it’s fascinating to hear him working out the songs over multiple versions, adding to the lyrics, trying and failing, aborting takes and versions, coming back to the songs later for more takes, fussing with the stye, tempo, key, approach.
The collection starts with acoustic songs like “Love minus zero” and “She belongs to me,” introducing us into this intimate setting as Dylan approaches these milestone songs. “I can’t do any song as good as I can do it the first time,” Dylan calls out to producer Tom Wilson, which seems to portend the widely repeated article of faith that Dylan recorded quickly, mostly in first takes, even before musicians had fully learned the song, in order to capture the right energy and rawness. Dylan may have worked quickly, but first take is not usually final take, as evidenced by this collection.
“Mr. Tambourine Man” is a case in point – listen to how many versions Dylan makes his way through, often stopping mid-take, before he arrives at a final version. For one take Dylan strips out the bass because it’s distracting him, and despite playing a beautiful version with just the drums and the electric guitar accompanying him he stops before the end and says the drums are going to make him lose his mind. In the next take he whittles it down to just the electric guitar accompaniment.
Hear Dylan trying different tempos, keys, intensities and sounds for “It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry” or “Outlaw Blues.”
Or take the development of songs like “Sitting on a barb wire fence” where he’s trying out lines that will appear in “Queen Jane Approximately” and “Leopard-skin Pill-Box Hat.”
“She’s your lover now” contains touches of what would appear in “Stuck inside of Mobile” and “You’re a big girl now” and later we hear “One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)” in its infancy, as he’s still working his way towards that epic chorus, evolving the lyrics each time he sings the song, tightening the band around him.
There are some beautiful early versions of “Love Minus Zero,” recorded before the song is even fully written, along with the first recordings of “Gates of Eden” and “It’s alright ma, I’m only bleeding,” along with a sublime “Crawl out your window” which is slower and with more feel than the jumpy jangly versions we’ve heard. We have a complete take of “I’ll keep it with mine” (which Dylan jokingly calls “Bank Account Blues”), and we get to hear Dylan make first use of the whistle on take 7 of “Highway 61” – he can barely keep himself from laughing.
Do we really need all those takes? Some have scoffed at the idea of 20 takes of “Like a Rolling Stone” or eight takes of “Positively 4th Street,” but I’m not one of those. Hearing these takes puts that long held myth of the Dylan-of-the-one-take in new perspective: here you can follow the development through 14 versions of “Just like a woman,” or 20 versions of “Sooner or later (one of us must know),” at one point the producer intoning over the studio speakers “Bob, would it help to put the lyrics up there on the stand?” after Dylan flubs one of the lines late in a take, only for Dylan to shoot back “No, that wouldn’t help at all, man.”
You can hear the band learning the chord progression for “Like a Rolling Stone,” telling each other which chords come where.
Listen, for example, to Dylan struggling to find the right approach for “Desolation Row” or “Visions of Johanna”:
“I don’t want to get it so fast”
“Wait, that’s not right”
“No that’s not the song, that’s not it, I can’t…”
“No! Stop! That’s not the sound, that’s not it!”
Hear him evolve the lyrics in “Just like a woman”:
“I can’t complain tonight as I walk inside the rain”
“I feel no pain tonight as I walk inside the rain”
“I can’t feel no pain tonight as I walk inside the rain”
Upon first approaching Dylan’s work, you’d be forgiven for feeling that the three big sixties albums seem to stand clear on their own island, unlike anything that came later. For first time listening it can be something of a shock to hear “Nashville Skyline” and “John Wesley Harding.” Yet, hearing the various styles and performances on these 60s bootlegs, and hearing the other outtakes around those later albums (“Another Self Portrait,” for example) suddenly it makes a lot more sense and you can see the progression Dylan is going through as he evolves.
The last CD in the collection, with Bob singing old folk and blues standards and Hank Williams songs with an acoustic guitar further cements that sense of these 60s albums fitting snugly into the overall experiment and evolution Dylan was going through as a continuos unbroken stream, rather than the fragmented segments you sometimes get a sense of from merely hearing the albums themselves. You can also hear glimmers of inspiration or, dare we say it, theft, in songs like “Wild Mountain Thyme” (the strumming pattern and rhythm sounds like it could have been an inspiration for “Desolation Row”), “I can’t leave her” (you can hear elements of “Just like a woman” and “You’re a big girl now”) and “If I was a king” (similarities to “One of us must know”).
The collector’s edition also contains some interesting bonus extras:
- a 70 page accompanying book giving invaluable context, background, and personnel details for the sessions, along with a wealth of excellent photos, and facsimiles of lyric sheets and memorabilia.
- a 166 page book of photos and memorabilia.
- Five acetate / tracing paper style reprints of various advertising plates, album release reviews, and photos.
- An actual film strip (ten frames) from the 16mm release print of “Don’t look back”
- nine mono 7” single re-issues, many of which contain truncated or shortened excerpted versions of songs (along with a leopard skin printed spindle for playing them on your record player):
- 1. “I want you” / “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blue” live in Liverpool England
- 2. “Just like a woman” (2’56” truncated version) / “Obviously 5 believers”
- 3. “Leopardskin Pillbox Hat” (2’ truncated version) / “Most likely you’ll go your way and I’ll go mine”
- 4. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” / “She belongs to me”
- 5. “Like a Rolling Stone” / “Gates of Eden”
- 6. “Highway 61 Revisited” / “Can you please crawl out your window”
- 7. “Sooner or later one of us must know” / “Queen Jane Approximately”
- 8. “Rainy Day Women N. 12 & 35” / “Pledging My Time”
- 9. “Positively 4th Street” / “From a Buick 6”