It wasn’t such a hot time in many other ways, but 1975 was a great year to become a Bob Dylan fan.
After a couple of years of being aware of Dylan’s somewhat forbidding artistic standing — I’d been reading Rolling Stone regularly for a couple of years, and his name was intoned with a reverence that God and Eric Clapton could only have envied — my teenaged self decided to buy the new Dylan, Blood on the Tracks, shortly after its January release.
Short of having 2001: A Space Odyssey be my first Stanley Kubrick film, I can’t think of a more overpowering introduction to a major artist. I won’t pretend that a suburban high school kid could relate to every aspect of an album composed by a mature man, a wealthy and fabulously successful performer mourning the collapse of a marriage, but I could certainly relate to the craftsmanship of the songs, the vividness of the imagery, and above all the glimpse into the mind of someone learning to stand tall with heartbreak. Those are good things to think about at any age.
And yet there was more to come. The Basement Tapes, which Rolling Stone critics referred to the way Biblical scholars cited the Dead Sea Scrolls, appeared unheralded on a humid afternoon, and I could hardly get it home fast enough for the first listen. With fall came word of the Rolling Thunder Revue, and then in January Desire appeared. Is it any wonder Dylan remains the gold standard for songwriting, in my eyes and ears?
These posts by William T. Vogt Jr. about his encounters with the original Bob Dylan bootlegs — notably the legendary Great White Wonder — really take me back. Specifically, they take me back to the northern New Jersey burg of Fair Lawn, and a tiny no-name record store on Route 4 that was nothing more than a large walnut-paneled room with indoor-outdoor carpeting, a cash register, and a long bin of vinyl record albums that included — shhhhhh! — a pretty impressive selection of white-jacketed bootlegs.
There I did purchase my first boot, an acceptable Led Zeppelin concert recording called Bonzo’s Birthday Party that had a mimeographed picture of a pig popping out of a birthday cake. (It didn’t sound so hot, but it was hardly worse than The Song Remains the Same, which Zep for some reason was content to let stand as its only official live album for too long.) There also did I purchase my second boot, a fairly classy looking item called Joaquin Antique (walking antique, get it?) that contained, akong with an assortment of oddments, the original versions of five key songs from the original version of Blood on the Tracks. All of a sudden I was a music scholar, critically listening through clicks and pops to discover new — that is to say, old — incarnations of songs on their way to immortality.
This was Bergen County, N.J. The only two movie theaters within walking distance were the Century Plaza, a twin theater next door to the Garden State Plaza in Paramus (where I had the magical experience of seeing my first James Bond movie, You Only Live Twice), and the Hyway Theater in Fair Lawn (where I had the equally magical experience of seeing Jaws on a night when literally every seat was occupied and the audience was completely in the palm of the director’s hand). So believe me when I tell you that a hole-in-the-wall record store along Route 4 that sold bootlegs was the next best thing to a portal into an alternate universe — a much more interesting one.
One day I walked into the hole-in-the-wall to buy some more boots, only to have the proprietor look away and say distantly that he couldn’t stock them anymore. So that was that, for the time being. There were other stores selling boots, and then CDs and the Internet and eBay and all the other avenues for distributing the things diehard fans want. Joaquin Antique resurfaced as Blood on the Tracks: New York Sessions, which set the original versions of the five songs in with the original release. I don’t doubt for a second that a double-disc Bootleg Series release is in the cards, either before or after Dylan shuffles off this mortal coil, and I’ll buy it the second it comes out. Right now, I’m just happy to have study material for exploring one of the landmarks of American popular music.
As I’ve written elsewhere, most of the arguments against bootlegs simply don’t wash, particularly as applied to concert recordings. I also think that for all of the Eighties and most of the Nineties, Dylan has been better served artistically by bootleggers than by his own record company — or his own instincts, which caused him to hold back songs like “Blind Willie McTell” while releasing Down in the Groove. And while I don’t much like Dylan’s gospel period, I think if Columbia had granted his wishes and released Solid Rock as a live album, it would have won quite a few more converts.
All I know is that when I heard there was another version of Blood on the Tracks in existence, I had to hear it, just as when I learned that there were actually scores of Basement Tapes recordings, I had to hear all of them. I’d prefer to hear them in authorized form, without a bunch of Band outtakes thrown in to foster the idea that those sessions were some kind of mutual give-and-take between Dylan and The Band, but for the moment Columbia and Dylan seem content to toss out collections of stray songs from movie soundtracks and other ephemera.
I mean, put Tell-Tale Signs up against A Tree With Roots and tell me which collection does more justice to Dylan’s artistry.