US - New York - Full Moon 237 - 12/25/15
The Best Of The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12
Columbia Records/Sony Music
I'm not a big Bob Dylan fan. I only have a handful of his albums, mainly from his mid-1960s period. His most fascinating period to these ears. So I didn't hesitate too long buying this
latest volume of his Bootleg series. The title says it all. Dylan in transition. From acoustic folk singer to full blown electric rocker. From when lyrics mattered most to the amalgam of
lyrics, melody, instrumentation and sound in happy combination. The album include recordings from his sessions for the albums Bringing It All Back Home (released in March 1965), where he
played electric guitar on an album for the first time, Highway 61 Revisited (August 1965) and Blonde On Blonde (May 1966). It also covers the period when he shocked parts of his audience at the Newport Folk Festival on 25. July 1965 when he entered the stage with an electric Fender Stratocaster and a full rock backing-band (the horrors, the horrors!) and being shouted 'Judas!' at during a concert at Manchester Free Trade Hall for the same reason on 17 May the following year.
Let's take the statistics first. I bought the standard double CD-version of the album. There are also a 3 LP + 2 CD box, probably with the same songs, and a Deluxe Edition with six CDs
available. For the real die-hards there's even an Ultra Deluxe 18 CD Limited Edition, available only from bobdylan.com. The cheap version includes 36 tracks and 33 songs in all. There are alternative takes of eight songs from Bringing It All Back Home, including an early version of "Outlaw
Blues" named "California", seven different songs from Highway 61 Revisited and nine from the double album Blonde On Blonde including an early take at "Temporary Like Achilles" when it was called "Medicine Sunday". Two of the Highway 61 songs are represented twice. It's two of the most classic songs of the entire collection: "Like A Rolling Stone" and "Desolation Row". At the end of disc two there's also a short false start of the "Highway 61" title track with slide whistle and laughter. Here's also takes of three songs released as non-album singles in the period: "Positively 4th Street" (released in September 1965), "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?" (December 1965) and "If You Gotta Go, Go Now" (January 1967) and of two songs given away to female artists of the day: "I'll Keep It With Mine" (recorded and released by Judy Collins as a single in 1965 and by Nico on her solo debut album Chelsea Girl two years later) and "Farewell Angelina" (recorded and released on the album of the same name by Joan Baez in 1965). Dylan's own versions of the latter two songs weren't unearthed until two or three decades later.
This leaves us with four more songs. Different takes of "Sitting On A Barbed Wire Fence" (from the Highway 61 sessions) and "She's You Lover Now" (from the Blonde On Blonde sessions) were represented on Bob's first bootleg album Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991 from 1991. "You Don't Have To Do That" and " Lunatic Princess", from the Bringing It All Back Home and Blonde On Blonde sessions respectively, haven't been released officially earlier, as far as I've found out. Unfortunately they are mere sketches, last only about one minute each and were probably both only tried out once in the studio.
The album includes six songs of Dylan on his own with guitar, harmonica or piano and three where he is helped out by one more musician. The earliest recording included here stems from January 1965 where Bob is helped out by guitarist John Sebastian, later of The Lovin' Spoonful fame, playing bass. On the remaining 27 songs, Bob is backed by an entire band, four of them by The Hawks, later to be known as The Band. Most of the remaining include Mike Bloomfield on guitar and Al Kooper playing keyboards. The story of guitarist Kooper shoehorning his way into the studio to play organ, an instrument he had no experience with at the time, on "Like A Rolling Stone" is well documented and was a cornerstone in the development of Dylan's electric sound at the time. The Deluxe version of the album includes an entire CD devoted to the development of the song, from rehearsals to the definitive confident organ driven song released as a single and on the Highway 61 album 50 years ago last summer. On the bargain album there is one unfinished version in 3/4 with Paul Griffin playing non-audible organ recorded the first day and one in 4/4 closer to the definitive electric version recorded the following day. The organ playing, by Al Kooper this time, is still quite discreet compared to the chosen version back in 1965, though.
Generally the takes included on the new album are not as strong as the version on the original albums. I guess the songs were recorded several times live in the studio. What was considered the best take was chosen and improved with an extra guitar track, maybe new vocals, too, whereas the Bootleg versions live up to the name by just being basic recordings. On the other hand, some of the versions includes some elements not included on the finished versions. For instance there's a doorbell ringing and the band shouting 'Who's there?' at the start of "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" and the version is generally more jolly than the one that ended on Blonde On Blonde. In the choruses of "Tombstone Blues" on Highway 61 'Mama's in the factory, she's got no shoes, Daddy's in the alley, he's looking for food, I'm in the kitchen with the Tombstone Blues' all the way through the song. On take 1 included here, Mama, Daddy and I are trading places during the song, lighting the fuse and stuff. We could go on and compare every bootleg track with the original album counterparts. The Dylan devotees have probably done so already. For me it's more important to notice that the songs weren't finished when Bob and the boys entered the studio. They were developed there and then, in a very short time, but it was still time to try out different instrumentations and refine the lyrics. There is a laid-back and care-free feel about the recordings and that's probably what appeals the most to me. And Dylan's occasionally multi-layered, occasionally humorous, occasionally stream of consciousness lyrics comes as a bonus. It feels like all the musicians are slightly drunk and having a good time no matter what Bob is singing about. It's a feel I can only recall Tom Waits has successfully recreated later, only he tend to be more drunk or having a bad hangover.
On 29 July 1966 Dylan had his motorcycle accident and stayed out of the limelight for more than a year. When he returned with the album John Wesley Harding by the end of 1967, he had gone back to more acoustic music. His intense and interesting electric one and a half years hiatus covered on 1965-1966 The Best Of The Cutting Edge was definitely over for a while. Though there are some sections on the album where Bob's harmonica playing is on the verge of being annoying and his nasal voice can be too much, most of the time it is highly entertaining and interesting. And it's a great reminder of three stunning albums released around 50 years ago.
Copyright © 2015 JP