Life at 33 1/3: Dylan: History in the making

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Bob Dylan: The Cutting Edge, Bob Dylan 1965-1966, The Bootleg Series Vol. 12 (Columbia)

It could only be Bob Dylan, releasing an 18 CD box set containing all the work in progress stuff that was left behind during the making of three albums recorded in 1965 and the early months of 1966, “Bringing It All Back Home”, “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde On Blonde”, and getting away with it.  There’s no other artist on this Earth that could hold your attention through hours and hours of aborted takes, false starts, studio chatter, jokes, coughing and sudden second thoughts that catch producers Tom Wilson and Bob Johnston off balance every time.

Here’s a sample. They’re ready to start recording “Gates Of Eden”, or so Tom Wilson has been led to believe, announcing:

– CO85287 “Gates Of Eden”.

– No!

– Aren’t you gonna do it?

– I’m gonna do this other one first.

– What’s the name of it?

– “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”

Resigned chuckle from Wilson.

– OK, reslate. CO85287 “It’s Alright Ma”

Dylan starts the song, but comes to a halt after 25 seconds, and Wilson tells him to back off just a little (from the microphone).  Then Bob cuts through:

– I really don’t feel like doing this song, and I have to do it though… (Moans) It’s such a long song…

Wilson chuckles.

– Suit yourself, I’m with you.

And off they go again.

There’s also a wonderful banter when take 3 of “Mr. Tambourine Man” breaks down.  At the time the arrangement included drums going bomp-cha! bomp-cha! all the way through  as if played by a five year old kid, and suddenly Dylan simply can’t take it anymore, three minutes into the take he stops playing and hollers:

– Hey! I can’t…eh… the drum is driving me mad.  I’m going out of my brain!

Not surprisingly the takes that follow are without drums, and the song as we know it starts coming to life.

Yes, this is about songs coming to life.  And not just any old songs, but the songs, the songs that changed the face of rock music and took it to places it had never been before.  The cutting edge.  Those three albums are all parts of the grail.  Everything in rock music will forever be measured against them.

Dylan himself talked about these recordings, or rather “the source of creativity” that triggered them (to borrow Ron Rosenbaum’s expression) in Ron Rosebaum’s classic 1978 Bob Dylan interview:

“I always hear other instruments, how they should sound.  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.  That’s my particular sound.  I haven’t been able to succeed in getting it all the time.  Mostly I’ve been driving at a combination of guitar, harmonica and organ, but now I find myself going into territory that has more percussion in it and (pause) rhythms of the soul.”

Rosenbaum: “Was that wild mercury sound in ‘I Want You’?”

Dylan: “Yeah, it was in ‘I Want You,’ it was in the album before that too ….”

Rosenbaum: “ Highway 61 Revisited ?”

Dylan: “Yeah. Also in Bringing It Back Home.  That’s the sound I’ve always heard.”

And that’s what “The Cutting Edge” is all about, the search for that sound.  It is hard to put down in words how fascinating it is to be there, like a fly on the wall, in that studio, at that particular time, and witness the proceedings, history in the making.  How relaxed the musicians all appear to be, even at times when they surely don’t have a clue about where they’re heading, you feel their commitment to and trust in Dylan’s instincts, even Dylan himself comes across relaxed and in good humour most of the time, although he is quite clearly an obsessed young man on fire.

You are treated to numerous alternate solutions to all the songs you should know by heart, every time discarded for a different try, a slightly new angle, always getting closer to the sounds inside Dylans head.  “Like A Rolling Stone” started out as a waltz, would you believe?  There’s an electric take of “Desolation Row”.  A way too slow version of “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands”, the endless and gradually more aggressive search for the perfect “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” that keeps eluding him, the many different takes of “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry” (boy did he work hard on that one before he found the right arrangement and performance!) and then there are songs that they nail more or less on the first take.

Spread out between the familiar Dylan tracks are the songs that never made it to any of the albums or singles that were released in 1965-1966.  Some of them he gave away.  Like “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” (Dylan worked hard on that one too before he abandoned it) that became a massive hit in the UK for Manfred Mann.

Other ‘lost’ gems: “I’ll Keep It With Mine” (a song he kept coming back to, but never seemed to be able to nail), “Farewell, Angelina”, “You Don’t Have To Do That” (incomplete), “California”, “Sitting On A Barbed-Wire Fence”, “Medicine Sunday” (early version of “Temporary Like Achilles”), “Jet Pilot”, “I Wanna Be Your Lover” (done again and again and again, but finally abandoned), “Lunatic Princess” (incomplete) and my absolute favourite, “She’s Your Lover Now” – the greatest stack of put-down lines ever written, masterfully conceived as a dialogue in shifting angles, he talks to his ex-girlfriend in the verses and turns to her new lover (“with the cowboy hat”) in the quirky choruses.  The only complete version of the song is what sounds like a demo take, just Dylan and a piano leaking into the song mike, but what a vocal performance it is!  And what caustic lines, they cut like razorblades!

As a bonus, the 18th CD contains 21 demos recorded in hotel-rooms, for the most part during his 1966-tour of Great Britain.

What ended up on “Bringing It All Back Home”, “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde On Blonde” are as far as I can see the definitive versions.  I don’t disagree with any of the decisions made at the time.  So why on earth rave about 18 CD’s of what was left behind – and seemingly for good reasons?  Because it sounds like and is history in the making.  You are invited in.  You are there.  It’s a privilege.  And Dylan is on fire.  Everything they did in there has a burning edge to it.  They’re all obsessed with what they are creating and with the man who keeps pushing them further on, into the unknown.

As this is not a CD column, I’d better find a good vinyl-excuse for doing this piece, and yes, it is possible to get a slice of “The Cutting Edge” on vinyl.  It is not the biggest of slices, but rather a vinyl version of the 2 CD “The Best of The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12”, 36 tracks extracted from the 379 track collector’s edition-version.  That might look like not much at all, but the pill is sugar coated as these 36 tracks play very well and have a much more continuous flow and variation than the monster-version (a full CD of “Like A Rolling Stone” in its numerous different, but not that different variations probably sounds like overkill to the average listener), it plays more like a real album, if you know what I mean.  But you don’t get my favourite version of “She’s Your Lover Now”, unfortunately.

What you do get is three 180 gram vinyl albums packaged in a slipcase with separate booklet with exclusive photography and liner notes.  It also includes the entire album on 2 CDs.  And if bought on Amazon there’s a free MP3 download on offer as well.

If you are slightly more interested, but not insane like me (the 18 CD box is expensive, about US$600, and only 5000 copies were made, mine is numbered 2222, not bad, eh?), you could go for the 6 CD ($150), 110 track solution that’s got books and stuff inside its slip case.

I am happy with my monster box.  The box itself is designed by people who know what nerds like.  There’s books printed on high quality paper.  There’s nice looking printed see-through paper sheets.  There’s a ‘leopard skin’ adapter for 45s.  There’s all the nine vinyl singles that were released in the US in 1965-1967 in individual picture sleeves.  There’s even a strip of original film cells from “Don’t Look Back”.  And the music, to quote Dylan’s website bobdylan.com: “… every note recorded during the 1965-1966 sessions, every alternate take and alternate lyric.  All previously unreleased recordings have been mixed, utilizing the original studio tracking tapes as the source, eliminating unwanted 1960s-era studio processing and artifice.”

And I love it.

Released: November 6, 2015.

Produced by: Tom Wilson and Bob Johnston.

As for the vinyl triple, this is its content: Love Minus Zero/No Limit – Take 2/I’ll Keep It with Mine – Take 1/Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream – Take 2/She Belongs to Me – Take 1/Subterranean Homesick Blues – Take 1/Outlaw Blues – Take 2/On the Road Again – Take 4/Farewell, Angelina – Take 1/If You Gotta Go, Go Now – Take 2/You Don’t Have to Do That – Take 1/California – Take 1/Mr. Tambourine Man – Take 3/It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry – Take 8/Like a Rolling Stone – Take 5/Like a Rolling Stone – Take 11/Sitting on a Barbed Wire Fence – Take 2/ Medicine Sunday – Take 1/Desolation Row – Take 2/Desolation Row – Take 1/Tombstone Blues – Take 1/Positively 4th Street – Take 5/Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window – Take 1/Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues – Take 3/Highway 61 Revisited – Take 3/Queen Jane Approximately – Take 5/Visions of Johanna – Take 5/She’s Your Lover Now – Take 6/Lunatic Princess – Take 1/Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat – Take 8/One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later) – Take 19/Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again – Take 13/Absolutely Sweet Marie – Take 1/Just Like a Woman – Take 4/Pledging My Time – Take 1/I Want You – Take 4/Highway 61 Revisited – Take 7