I foretold this release, in a weird but perfect way. A year ago, they released a ‘Bootleg’ series for Dylan’s ‘Basement Tape’ years. I thought it would be many things, it was none of them. Here is what I wrote about a year ago regarding the ‘Basement Tapes’ release.
This review should have written itself. In fact, I could have written it without listening to a single song. In fact, I dare say I can tell you what every other review says. I bet they say “it’s a fun, and loose, Bob Dylan. Dylan finally leaves the spotlight behind and gets back to being Bob. These sessions show a behind the scenes look at the genius mind. We get a glance at the genius without the filters he so carefully created to keep us at bay.”
It turns out there was a great collection that showed a fun and loose and peaking Bob Dylan. It wasn't this, though. It was this newest one, the 'Cutting Edge'. Here is what is also crazy, the era is only a year or two apart between these two box sets. Even weirder, a year after that, he would be singing like this. That was weird, and I still can't piece it together.
YET… they just released another set of the ‘Bootleg’ series.. and it is all those things I thought that last set would be. This is the behind the scenes of an insanely productive era for Dylan around 1965 where he knocked out ‘Freewheeling Bob Dylan’, ‘Another Side of Bob Dylan’, and ‘Blonde on Blonde’ (that latter is a double album in itself). I can’t think of a more productive time for any musician in any era. Also, it’s all fucking really great music.
This is not a set for a casual fan, none of these are. If you think Bob Dylan is just pretty great, you don’t need hours of outtakes. Ask my wife, who is ready to start hiding my 16 cd’s worth of ‘bootleg’ series collections.
I don't have a thought-through piece here. Just some observations I want to hit.
Here is what I learned with this new set ‘ the Cutting Edge’
Just as we suspected, his titles are complete nonsense, and have nothing to do with anything. You can hear him riffing on titles throughout, and always with a laugh
He has much more singing control than I ever thought. You know how people like to mock Dylan for that over annunciation, Tom Petty-esque nasally ‘jeezzz I can’t find mah knnneeeeez’***. It isn’t really how he sings. In these demos, he very rarely goes ‘full Dylan’ on the vocals. As if he is just laying down the melody for the band, and doesn’t want to waste his voice
The songs were far from fully formed in his head. When he came in and started working the songs, they were different keys, different speeds, and with different lyrics. Most singers and bands hash all this out long before the studio. Dylan was in a unique position of control that he could build these songs right in the studio.
His musical sense is as impeccable as I thought. I can’t think of a single outtake or alternate version that was better than the studio version that finally got out. I listen to a LOT of bootlegs, across all genres and across all platforms. Often, it seems the final version that a band released was a coin toss against an alternate version.
Bob recorded in real time with a very large band. This is unheard of. No one does that, except the Beatles. When Dylan was recording, everyone was in the same room playing together at the same time, and everyone was being recorded. That simply is not how recording is done… ever. In the studio, you always lay down each instrument and vocal separately. The reason is so you can individually cut tracks, edit tracks, or adjust volume. If the bass player gets fired a week after the album was done… no worries. Just bring in the new guy and have him record the songs… you punch him in after the fact. The rest of the band doesn’t even have to be there.
This is a bold trust Dylan had in his musicians. When you record this way, the music from other instruments bleed into each other’s feeds. The practical concern for this is if you decide after the session that you want to cut the organ out… you kinda can’t. Because, you can now hear the organ on the vocal track, the mic’d drums, and maybe even in the microphone popped up against the guitar amplifier. It’s smart, though. Dylan was, not surprisingly, right. When everyone plays together, you really get a ‘feel’, a ‘vibe’.
I was surprised how really not great initial recordings of iconic songs are. Take ‘I want you’, or ‘Just like a Woman’. I regard both as perfect, perfect songs. In hearing the demos and alternates, they didn’t start out good at all. Not even a little. Normally, I can hear a kernel of genius in a demo.. that just needed to be coaxed out. If you played me these two songs as they were demos, I would have told you to throw them both out.
I learned that tempo is EVERYTHING, at least with Dylan songs. Some of his slow and brooding perfect monstrosities become dismissive at a quicker pace. An example of this would be ‘visions of Johanna’. Originally, it was quicker. I thought maybe that would be better. The slow version is really slow, and goes on forever. Literally… forever. Most Dylan songs around this time were 6 to 10 verses each. The average pop song was, and still is, 3 verses. No more, no less. Queen Jane, and Visions of Johanna need to simmer. They get all their power from that simmer. I can’t help but wonder how that treatment would have helped ‘Maggie’s Farm’. Sure, it’s a good song with great lyrics… but maybe if they went all ‘Blonde on Blonde’ on that song, it could be an iconic memory as well.
Lastly, I see great trust Dylan had in his musicians. You get to here Desolation Row without the amazing acoustic guitar work, and perfect guitar intro. That should be a plus, right? Get rid of the frills and give me just pure Dylan. Nope, the songs falls a bit flat without it. An even better example is ‘Positively 4th St’. This is currently my favorite Dylan tune by a mile. It has been for about 6 months now. It was the single song I was most looking forward in this set. It is here, but without the overbearing and deafening keyboards. Those keyboards weren’t Dylan, Dylan is a piano guy. It is rare, if ever, that I declare a song needs more organ. Positively 4th st, without
Al Kooper just going apeshit on the organ… is just ok.
Most, if not all, of these musicians outshine Dylan in capability. An insecure star wouldn’t surround himself with guys who are all way better. Look at Little Richard. Before Jimi Hendrix was famous, he was a side man for Little Richard. Hendrix was great, and people started to notice. So, Little Richard fired his ass. There was room for one star on stage, and that is for the star. Most stars feel that way. Dylan knew enough to surround himself with more talented people, and it would up his game. What’s the phrase? ‘A rising tide lifts all boats’
**** that is an actual Dylan lyric