Tag Archives: bootlegs

Bootleg memories


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 Bonzo's Birthdayof 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.

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Web welcome

Clinton Heylin has a Web site! I assume this is a new development, since he was one of the authors I wanted to blogroll as soon as I started doing my thing on the Intertubes, but could find no Web presence until now. Heylin goes into the Good Writes blogroll section immediately. 

Heylin’s biography of Bob Dylan, Behind the Shades, is the best and most comprehensive work on His Bobness to date, and his history of bootleg recordings is a valuable work of pop culture scholarship. Heylin’s other books include a biography of folk goddess Sandy Denny, a history of punk rock, and valuable books about the Velvet Underground, the Sex Pistols, the Beatles and Orson Welles’ battles with Hollywood. 

Heylin’s latest  book, Revolution in the Air, addresses Dylan’s growth as an artist by analyzing each of his songs in the order of composition — a typically ambitious and opinionated undertaking. Unlike so many writers captivated by Dylan’s work, Heylin eschews hagiography and fannish gushing. This makes him anathema to many Bobcats, but in my book it makes him and Michael Gray the two most reliable and informative writers on Dylan now in print. (Neither man may be pleased by this pairing: Gray’s Bob Dylan Encylopedia occasionally tweaks Heylin for his elbows-out style, buyt c’mon guys, we’re all friends here, right? Right?)    

It will surprise no one except A.S. Byatt and David Hare that the man who has delved so usefully into the lyrics of Bob Dylan also has a book out about Shakespeare’s sonnets. Now that I’ll want to read, too.

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Friday finds


This image of the recent space shuttle launch is just one of a collection of great Twitter images gathered here that show the launch from all kinds of perspectives. The backyard photos have a real Ray Bradbury “Rocket Summer” feel to them. And as long as we’re watching the skies, here’s a nifty slide show on the history of the telescope.

William Zinsser on writing (and rewriting) On Writing Well.

Are you ready to learn the secret of the mother of all funk chords?

“All real narrators are unreliable.  That is a great strength: it is realistic.  Another is that one can hint at things left hidden.  A third is that you can reveal in Chapter 19 something that was hidden in Chapter 9.  Please don’t ask for examples.”

You’ve heard the band, now drink the wine.

I’ve already linked to this post once before but I’m doing it again because I think the writer has really captured something about this band’s greatness.

I’m sorry. I know I should be open-minded about such things, but really . . . this is just so sad.

Alex Ross has heard the upcoming Bob Dylan album and the word is good: “There’s a fantastically chilling, end-of-one’s-rope number called ‘Forgetful Heart,’ which has this Kafkaesque image: ‘The door has closed dylan-through-lifeforevermore / If indeed there ever was a door.’ But the sadness of the scene is lightened by sweet-sounding arrangements (mandolin, accordion, and violin fill out the band) and by flashes of wit (“Down by the river Judge Simpson walking around / Nothing shocks me more than that old clown”). Some up-tempo, old-time rockers also keep the night terrors at bay.” Allan Jones agrees: “Together Through Life gets in your face immediately – with the wallop of the cheerfully-titled ‘Beyond Here Lies Nothin”, which is driven by spectacular drumming and massed horns, a trumpet prominently featured – and over the course of its 10 tracks doesn’t back off, doesn’t appear to even think about doing so, Dylan’s voice throughout an unfettered roar, a splendid growl.” And Bill Vogt is taking a trip down memory lane with the bootlegs in his life.

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Mmmm . . . bootleggy

I’m having a swell time with Tell Tale Signs, the eighth installment in the Bob Dylan bootleg series. The songs are mostly outtakes from Oh Mercy, Time Out of Mind, “Love and Theft” and Modern Times, with a sprinkling of live tracks and scattered soundtrack songs thrown in for good measure. As much as I like the song “Mississippi,” I’m not sure I need two more versions of it — three, if you count the version on the overpriced three-disc special edition — but I’m not going to fall yet again into the bootleg-snob mistake of complaining about how this series is mismanaged, how it leaves out crucial tracks from pivotal sessions, how it seems to be organized as collector bait rather than a documentary of one of American music’s most important artists. All of that is true, but even after the complaints have been noted, the facts remains that Tell Tale Signs is a tall mug of strong coffee after the kettle of lukewarm sleepy-time tea that was Modern Times. And, as I think I said earlier, I’m having a swell time listening to it.

Unlike the initial “Bootleg Series” release, this grab-bag volume has no lightning-bolt revelations, no songs like “Blind Willie McTell” that stop you dead in your tracks and leave you wondering what madman let them sit in the can unheard for so long. Tell Tale Signs is just an engaging, entertaining collection of songs from a musician whose leavings would serve as career foundations for lesser artists. If you don’t know Dylan, it’s not the place to start. But if you do know Dylan, and if you know the albums where these songs debuted, Tell Tale Signs is a showcase for Dylan as an artistic explorer, radically altering song structures, tempos and instrumentation as he looks for the soul of every song.

To me, the two biggest surprises so far have been “Tell Ol’ Bill,” a loping piano-driven tune from the soundtrack of an unheralded Charlize Theron film called North Country that just went onto my Netflix queue, and “Red River Shore,” which would have been a signal improvement over some of the more lead-footed numbers on Time Out of Mind. There are also samples from an unreleased album’s worth of songs Dylan recorded with David Bromberg during a period adrift in the early 1990s. Two of the Bromberg tracks are placed as bait on the special edition’s third disc, and they just don’t sound all that good to me. They don’t open up new vistas, they don’t overturn assumptions in the manner of the unreleased Basement Tapes recordings or the original version of Blood on the Tracks, they just certify the soundness of Dylan’s decision to keep them on the shelf.

I guess we’ll have to wait a while for a more complete Basement Tapes anthology, or a double-disc collection of the original Freewheelin’ song lineup, or an in-depth collection of the Blood on the Tracks sessions. But since I already have bootlegs of them (as do you, in all likelihood, if you’re interested enough in Dylan to have read this far) I take an indulgent view of collections like Tell Tale Signs. Perversity is Dylan’s middle name, but that’s part of the reason I still follow his music so avidly, three decades after I bought my first Dylan album, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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