Dylan’s Bootleg Series – A User’s Guide

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Ah, the term “bootleg.” It conjures up so many wonderful emotions. Quickly after buying my first album, Some Girls, I discovered the secret world of bootleg recordings. A bootleg, or “boot” as they’re commonly known, is a song or collection of songs an artist has recorded but not yet released. I can remember being in used record stores, in the “special” section down in the basement where albums in plain paper wrappers with curious names by my favorite artists could be found. I vividly recall slipping cash into someone’s hands in the back room of a local record store in exchange for Springsteen bootleg concert recordings.

For the longest time, I thought Springsteen was the only artist who was bootlegged in a major way. In 1978 his tour in support of Darkness On the Edge of Town was epic and widely bootlegged. It was a bit of a comeback after his legal problems after Born To Run and those radio broadcasts found their way onto cassettes and vinyl albums. On one recording, he even says, “this song will likely find it’s way to you courtesy of your local bootlegger.” I love that the original bootleggers were enterprising individuals who smuggled whiskey into the U.S. during Prohibition. The marriage of Bourbon and Vinyl goes back many years, my friends. But I’m getting off point.

It turns out Bruce wasn’t the only prolifically bootlegged artist out there. Bob Dylan was just as bootlegged, and many of his boots were studio recordings Bob hadn’t released for one reason or another. His writing was so prolific he often had more songs than he needed, so there were always leftovers. Those leftovers he didn’t release as non-album singles, which was a wide spread practice, even into the 70’s, usually stayed in the can until someone made a copy, and someone made a copy of that and so on and so on. Now, one can sympathize with the artist who isn’t receiving any renumeration for these bootlegs but at the same time much of this music needed to be heard.

Dylan, frustrated by not getting paid for his hard work finally decided to trump the bootleggers and start his own “Bootleg Series” and open up the vaults. I must say, it has been an interesting journey into his creative process. But at this point, there are 11 in the series, not including his excellent first box set, Biograph, and with literally 12 boxes out there, it can get a little confusing. As a public service to rock fans and Bob Dylan fans everywhere, it occurred to me someone should put together a “user’s guide” of sorts. Think of it as a reference document detailing this brilliant series by this brilliant artist. Hope it helps, and as always, enjoy!

Volume 0.0 – Biograph – Biograph was not a part of the Bootleg Series. Released in 1985 it literally created the market for boxed sets. There would be no Eric Clapton’s Crossroads, or Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band’s Live 1975-1985 without Dylan’s Biograph. The baby boomers were getting older and had the money to shell out for a 5 album set. I own Biograph on vinyl and I treat it like a holy talisman. It has hits, album cuts, unreleased songs, and unreleased live versions of songs. It’s not chronologically based but loosely based around either a theme or a certain style. It is what it is named – a musical biography of the man. I’d put this up against his autobiography Chronicles, any day.

Bootleg Series Volume 1 to Volume 3 – Rare and Unreleased 1961 – 1991. This box set of 3 CDs, carries on in the tradition of Biograph, and contains unreleased studio cuts. The first disc, and the beginning of the 2nd, are Dylan only accompanied by his acoustic guitar and harmonica. It’s the Dylan who took the folk music world by storm. These were songs recorded by Dylan so he could get the tune and lyrics copyrighted and sold to other artists. Even the King of Folk needs to pay the rent folks. Early in disc 2, like his career, it turns electric. The real gems here are the unreleased takes from Blood on the Tracks, the early versions of songs from that album that were recorded in NY. I’m hoping for a Bootleg Series edition for just that album some day. This is a great, very deep collection of unreleased tracks.

Bootleg Series Volume 4 – Live 1966 – The Royal Albert Hall – This is simply put, a stunning historical document. If the American Revolution had been recorded, this is what it would have sounded like. Dylan decided to go electric, hired a band known previously as the Hawks, soon to change their name to the Band (as they were derisively referred to by Dylan’s once devoted folky fans) and toured England. It was a tumultuous tour to say the least. Levon Helm, the drummer in the Hawks/Band actually quit and flew back to the States, he couldn’t take the vitriolic response of the crowds. You can hear that hostility in this recording. Dylan realized he needed to do an acoustic set to start his concerts to placate the fans. But even during the acoustic set they hiss and make disruptive noises. I haven’t seen a fan base this hostile since the Chief’s had Todd Haley as their head coach. Toward the end of the electric set, one idiot in the crowd screams “Judas”. Dylan responds with “I don’t believe you,” then turns to the band and says, “Play fucking loud.” The band tears into Like a Rolling Stone. Simply riveting.

Bootleg Series Volume 5 – Live 1975 – The Rolling Thunder Review – This volume in the series documents a really under served part of Dylan’s career. The 60’s are over, the cynical me-generation 70’s are in full swing. Dylan started hanging out with a bunch of musical refugees in the West Village in New York and they eventually started touring. It’s amazing to hear the affection the crowd now holds for Dylan… all the hostility of ’66 was gone. This tour was around the time of Desire, so there are a lot of great live versions of that album’s songs here.

Bootleg Series Volume 6 – Live 1964 – Dylan at the apex of his popularity with the folk crowds. He was their King and he’s playing in Carnegie Hall. All acoustic, folky protestor Dylan. Later in the set, his girlfriend, Joan Baez shows up to do a few duets. I realize that they were the Jay-Z and Beyonce of their time, but I’ve never been a big Baez fan. I do like that her version of Babe I’m Gonna Leave You inspired Led Zeppelin to record the song, but I could do without her here. This is a virtual love in with Dylan and his folk music following. Great live recording, though.

Bootleg Series Volume 7 – No Direction Home – This is the soundtrack to the excellent Martin Scorcese documentary of the same name. This is for the true collectors only. There are some great live takes on the classics and some great alternative versions as well. The incendiary performance from Newport when Dylan went electric with members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band is here. Michael Bloomfield – man, how we miss you!

Bootleg Series Volume 8 – Tell Tale Signs, Rare and Unreleased 1989 – 2006. This one came as a complete surprise. This era was not exactly Dylan’s high water mark. But this 2 disc set sounds like a “lost album” from the period. There are different takes on songs released from that era that are far superior here. There are also some cuts that inexplicably didn’t get released. This was a treasure trove of unreleased material and really hangs together well for a set that spans such a wide period of time.

Bootleg Series Volume 9 – Witmark Demos – This is the only volume I do not own. Again, my thoughts, this is for serious completists only. Dylan went to the Witmark Publishing Company and recorded these demo’s to get copyrights in order to sell the songs to other artists. Everybody has to make a buck and he could’t release everything he was writing. My issue here is 2/3 of these songs are on Volume 1 and a few more are on Biograph, so this is the first Volume in the series where you see serious overlap. I have heard from a friend that the audio and remix on this set is far superior to anything previously released. He said it sounds like you’re sitting in the recording booth on a stool next to Bob. So, the set has that going for it.

Bootleg Series Volume 10 – Another Self Portrait (1969-1971)- This was as big a shock to me as Volume 8. Self Portrait, an album Dylan released at a real crossroads in his life, is his most reviled. It is often cited as an album that could have ruined his career. He quickly released New Morning, which was heralded as one of many Dylan comebacks. This box has some unvarnished versions of songs that were overdubbed for the album release, and these versions are far superior. It actually covers the period from before Self Portrait, to right after New Morning, and I feel it gives a great picture of where Dylan the artist was at that time. This is a great glimpse into his creative process.

Bootleg Series Volume 11 – Bob Dylan & The Band, The Complete Basement Tapes – This one, at 5 discs, is the motherlode. Dylan and the Band released a 2 disc set compiled from the famous sessions at Big Pink, but that set was merely an appetizer. Finally, all these years later this box has all of it. The fifth disc disintegrates into mostly song sketches vs songs, but the sound quality and the quality of the music those guys performed in that basement is like the Magna Carta of rock ‘n’ roll. They invented country-rock, roots music and reinvigorated rock ‘n’ roll in that basement. This is a master piece.

So there you have it folks, my user’s guide to the Dylan Bootleg Series. Enjoy!

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