Obsessing over the details of the products of creativity is nothing new. It’s very common in literature, where emendations, commentary, and notes are a large part of the work of literary forensics. Take, for example, this new edition of T. S. Eliot’s poems (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), edited, in part, by Christopher Ricks, a scholar who has written extensively about Bob Dylan. This 1,344-page book contains 360 pages of poetry, and nearly 1,000 pages of critical material.
It’s less common with popular music, in part because the task is less interesting. Listening to outtakes, retakes, and overdubs, is generally boring. But with Bob Dylan, the process is different. While many musicians did record all the music at the same time, it wasn’t the rule, even back in Dylan’s day. Often the music was recorded separately from the vocals, and there were overdubs for guitars, backing vocals, and other instruments. But Dylan worked with all his musicians – or, at times, just himself, his guitar, and his harmonica, laying down takes without overdubs. (There’s one notably exception, where a guitar part was recorded to overdub on Desolation Row, and there are some inserts and vocal or harmonica overdubs in these recordings.)
But, for the most part, what you hear is Dylan with his backing musicians, in the studio, performing rehearsals and final takes, with plenty of false starts. For the most part, these songs are wrapped up in a couple of takes. There are exceptions; Like a Rolling Stone took an entire day, and 20 takes, many of which were rehearsals, though there are also four stems (master takes of individual instruments, or two instruments together).
The first revelation in this set comes when you get to the second disc, and, after one false start, Dylan plays It’s All Right Ma, I’m Only Bleeding perfectly, in one take. When you listen to the complicated lyrics and the somewhat intricate guitar, it’s simply amazing to think that he did that song so well without needing to try again. The false start was stopped only because he was too close to the mic, and producer Tom Wilson asked him to “back up a little.”
“I really don’t feel like doing this song, but I have to do it though. It’s such a long song.”
Then Bob plays the song perfectly.
Shortly before that, they play Maggie’s Farm; one take, in the can. A bit later, Gates of Eden, one take. And later, It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue, again, just one take to record a perfect version of the song.
Naturally, not all songs are recorded in just one or two takes. On this set, you listen as Dylan tries to get things just right with songs like It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry, which requires a half-dozen takes, or Like a Rolling Stone, which goes through a total of 16 attempts, before everyone realizes that the fourth take was perfect. The Blonde on Blonde songs take a bit more work, and there are a lot more takes that are marked as “Rehearsal,” as Dylan gets the band to understand what he wants.
In a way, you can almost feel cheated that the songs on Bringing It All Back Home were all recorded so quickly. Just a bit more than two discs of this set include the sessions from that album; 55 takes over three days, to record 11 songs. The other two albums required a bit more work, but not that much. It’s clear that Dylan was less certain of what he wanted with the next two albums, and there are more rehearsals, more changes as the sessions go on.
We’re used to hearing an album as a collection of songs frozen in time, but we ignore how they evolve, how they coalesce over time as artists play them, adjust the tempo and mood, and finally hit the right tone. On this set, for many of the songs that aren’t locked down in one take, you hear this process. But in addition to the changes in the music, Dylan also changes the lyrics as he goes on. It’s not clear if, in between takes, he sits down and edits the lyrics, or if he just extemporizes based on sketches of some of the songs. Tombstone Blues, for example, has lots of changes from the first run-through to the final take.
Yes, this set is for obsessives, for those interested in the process rather than the results. But the alternate versions of many of Dylan’s best-known songs make it worth hearing. I sprung for the limited 18-disc edition, but there are many reasons (other than the cost) to not buy this version. The 6-CD version (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) offers plenty of extra tracks, and cuts out a lot of the false starts; and if you’re just a casual Dylan fan, the 2-disc “Best of the Cutting Edge” (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) lets you hear the best alternate takes and unreleased tracks.
Yes, part of the reason for this release is financial. Just as Dylan’s management has issued a number of extremely limited “copyright releases” in recent years, to ensure that the 50-year limit or performance copyright in Europe is renewed, this set can be seen as another copyright release, protecting those songs recorded 50 and 49 years ago. The timing is perfect for this set, and Dylan is protected now for several years, since the recordings he made following these three records were The Basement Tapes, which were released in a complete version last year. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) But while The Basement Tapes were recordings of a bunch of young guys getting high and messing around – and, still, making some very good music – this set is Dylan in control at the peak of his creative powers, creating great music.
So what’s next in the Bootleg Series? Another Self Portrait (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) covers the years 1969-1971, which fill out the time following The Cutting Edge and The Basement Tapes. Then there’s the period from 1973 to 1975, which include the movie “soundtrack” Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Planet Waves, and the essential Blood on the Tracks. Will we be graced with “every note Bob Dylan recorded” for those years? Some of those sessions might not be very interesting, and the original Blood on the Tracks versions are widely available in excellent quality bootlegs, but that album alone just begs for a deluxe version with more material, such as alternate takes.
Yes, fellow Dylan fans, our thirst has been satiated for another year. In the meantime, I’d very much like to hear those other Frank Sinatra covers that Dylan recorded in the sessions for Shadows in the Night. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)