“What’s a sweetheart like you doin’ in a dump like this…” – Bob Dylan, “Sweetheart Like You”
I’ve long been a Bob Dylan fan. To me he’s one of the greatest artists and poets of the last 100 years. While I don’t own all of his albums, I do own most of them. I remember Courtney Love describing Hole as being “a catalog artist like Bob Dylan.” Besides being a sign that she was likely on drugs, I would agree that Bob Dylan is a guy who’s catalog is one that you can become extremely immersed in. I’m so deep a fan that I’m not only into the main LP releases I’m also a huge fan of his “official” Bootleg Series. I will admit, like his main album releases, I don’t own all of the Bootleg Series, but I own most of them. I do so love my box sets…as evidenced by my recent love for George Harrison’s new All Things Must Pass 50th Anniversary box.
Almost from the start Dylan was a heavily bootlegged artist. He decided to beat the bootleggers at their own game and started releasing all of these treasures from the vault. Admittedly I haven’t posted anything on the Bootleg Series since I wrote about the set that chronicled his Christian period. My first Dylan album – because it was popular at the time I started listening to music and you tend to buy what you’re hearing on the radio – was Slow Train Coming. Stupidly I didn’t realize it was a Christian album until I got it home. I was horrified that I’d look uncool so I gave the album to my brother. But I really dug Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13. It was mostly live stuff covering Dylan’s aforementioned Christian period from Slow Train Coming to Saved to Shot of Love. I didn’t post on Vol 14 which chronicled Dylan’s masterpiece Blood On The Tracks because I got it for Christmas and packed it when I moved to this rental property, which is akin to a van down by the river. I thought we’d be here six months. That was three years ago. I can’t find Volume 14, it’s still in a box somewhere, I’ve never had the chance to hear it. I didn’t publish on Travelin’ Through: Volume 15 as it was only the second time in the Bootleg Series that I wasn’t interested and didn’t buy that one.
Bob recently released Springtime In New York: The Bootleg Series, Volume 16 covering the early 80s, specifically 1980 to 1985. Ah, the early 80s. So much happened to me in those years. I started and finished high school. I fell in love for the first time and coincidentally had my heart broken for the first time… “Oh, to be young and feel love’s keen sting…” I started college in those years. I made the friends I would hold onto for a lifetime. It was a personally tumultuous time period for me as everyone’s young adult life is. Things were pretty tumultuous for Dylan by 1980 as well which may be why I’ve really gotten into Springtime In New York…It’s all I’ve been listening to for two weeks except for Chrissie Hynde’s new LP which is coincidentally all Dylan covers… and Bowie’s recently unearthed “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven.” By 1980, people were starting to question Dylan’s relevance probably because nobody was into his Christian music.
I’ve known people who were Born Again, like Dylan in the late 70s. Typically they hit some form of rock bottom with substance abuse or depression. It’s like a pendulum, they swing hard into their faith. They go through the “convert everybody everywhere” phase. Pretty soon the pendulum falls back to the center. Some come out of it and revert back to their non believer status, some hold onto their faith but realize that not all of the secular world is “evil.” You just have to ride out that whole intense, newly converted phase. It’s like Sting sang, “Men go crazy in congregations, they only get better one by one.” Dylan followed that pattern. He was extremely preachy by the time Saved came out. I can’t even listen to that record although “In The Garden” is one of my favorite songs and I’m pretty much a Druid.
By Shot Of Love, which I think is unfairly labeled the third album of the Christian trilogy, Dylan was showing signs of coming out of his preachy phase. There were more secular themed songs like “Lenny Bruce” or “In The Summertime.” While Volume 13 extended through Shot of Love, which is where this set starts, Vol 13 focused more on live stuff from that era and this is studio stuff. The heart and soul of this box set is the late period gem Infidels from 1983. Dylan could have done whole box on that LP alone. I remember my friend Drew brought that album home and I thought, “Uh-oh, I wonder if he knows Dylan is making Christian music now…” Fortunately for Drew, by ’83 Dylan was back to making fantastic secular music. I remember taping Infidels on cassette and wearing that thing out. Produced by Mark Knopfler it’s a great Dylan LP… but it’s more famous for the songs that Dylan left off than what’s on the record like “Blind Willie McTell.” The final record in this set is 1985’s fantastic Empire Burlesque. I’ll be the first to admit Empire Burlesque has a very 80s production style and sound but I love it. I bought that record the day it came out. I loved “Tight Connection To My Heart.” Springsteen, when inducting Dylan to the Rock Hall, said “If a new singer/songwriter came out with an LP like Empire Burlesque today, they’d be hailing him as the new Bob Dylan.” And Springsteen knows something about that “new Dylan” tag.
Dylan was clearly searching after coming out of his Born Again phase. The dawn of the 80s finds an artist grasping for relevance, for his direction and for inspiration. It’s fascinating stuff. Everybody loves a good comeback! Springtime In New York has a plethora of studio outtakes and different versions of previously released songs from that era. Some of these songs have different versions released on Bootleg Vol 1 to 3. If I have any complaints about this set each disc is relatively short. If you’re going to stretch this out to 5 discs, fill up each disc. And as I’ve been reading on line lately, there were a lot of songs omitted from this set from that period. Certainly “Caribbean Wind” should be here somewhere? People who buy these Bootleg box sets are generally, to put it politely, completeists. We want all the stuff so we can line it up and listen to it and debate which versions are the best. Yes, I realize I may be admitting in that last sentence that I have a problem… but it’s a great, melodic problem to have.
Disc 1 of this set contains recorded rehearsals for the 1980 fall tour in support of Shot of Love. What struck me listening to these rehearsal tracks was how much fun it sounded like Dylan was having. No one really associates “joy” with his Christian period, he seemed angry. But disc one chronicles Dylan with his band doing some of his older stuff and some wacky covers. The first two cuts here “Senor, (Tales of Yankee Power)” and “To Ramona” are just great. I’d have loved to have seen the tour just for those songs, if he even played them live. I love the bluesy romp of “Mystery Train,” a track associated with Elvis. He does another Elvis adjacent tune in “Fever.” There’s some great stuff on disc 1, although even I’ll admit I will never listen to Dylan singing Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” ever again.
Disc 2 is centered on outtakes and alternate versions of tracks from the Shot of Love sessions. Again, the first track on the disc grabbed me. “Angelina” is a great Bob Dylan song. The passion of his vocal performance here is breathtaking. “Price of Love” is a funky rocker. Dylan’s take on the Temptation’s “I Wish It Would Rain” is a nice surprise… although the Faces will always own that song… to me anyway. “Is It Worth It?” is a track I really think should have made the final cut for Shot of Love. If Bob were to ask me that question about Springtime In New York, “is it worth it?” I could only reply, yes!
Disc 3 and 4 are all centered on Infidels. As I said before, this whole box probably could have been centered on that album. What a band Dylan assembled for this album! Mark Knopfler who produced the album is on guitar. Mick Taylor erstwhile Rolling Stones’ lead guitarist is in the band and brings a bluesy fiery lead guitar with him. Sly and Robbie – reggae legends – are the rhythm section. And Knopfler brought Alan Clark with him from Dire Straits to play keyboards. Of course if you look hard enough you’ll find Ronnie Wood, Ringo, various members of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers playing on certain tracks but I digress. Knopfler had to split for a European tour before they mixed the record and there have been debates ever since about what his original mix would have sounded like. They could have probably released a box with his mix, the original mix etc but I’ll take what we have here. If Infidels suffers from anything its Dylan’s choices on what to include and what to exclude that’s in question here. The material itself is superb but Dylan’s “curation” of the project is what may have hampered it’s success. Dylan’s confidence was a little shaky.
One of the highlights from disc 3 & 4 is the full band version of “Blind Willie McTell.” I’ll take any version I can get of that song. It’s one of Dylan’s greatest songs. There’s a great version of “Someone’s Got A Hold of My Heart,” an early version of “Tight Connection To My Heart” here. I know both of those songs have versions released on Bootleg Series Volume 1 to 3, but it’s interesting to hear these different takes. There are two versions of a song called “Too Late” which later morphed into “Foot of Pride” which is also here… “Too Late” is performed both in an acoustic version and a full band version and it may be my favorite song in the whole box. If forced to choose I’d pick the band version. It’s a stunner. “Baby What You Want Me To Do” is a bluesy romp. “Julius And Ethel” about the Rosenbergs is a Chuck Berry style rocker. All of this is great stuff.
Disc 5 starts off with a couple of live tracks, “Enough Is Enough” which I don’t think ever got recorded in a studio. It’s a rocker like “Highway 61.” How did that not make it onto a record? There’s also a live version of “License To Kill” from his legendary performance on David Letterman backed by punk rockers The Plugz. I do wish they’d included the recording of “Neighborhood Bully” from that show – it’s legendary but alas it’s not here, check it out on YouTube. From there we get a host of Empire Burlesque outtakes. That album has such an 80s glossy sheen to it and they clearly attempted to strip that away here. The songs, absent that 80s sound come across as more direct and powerful to my ears. “Straight A’s In Love” (not to be confused with the Johnny Cash track of the same name) sounds like Dylan doing an Elvis Costello track. There are two versions of the great song “When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky” recorded with Little Steven Van Zandt and Roy Bittan from the E Street Band. There’s a slow version and a fast version… I still think the version on Bootleg Series Vol 1 to 3 is definitive but both these versions are still highlights from this set. Bittan’s piano on the fast version steals the show. The epic “New Danville Girl,” which is the original version of “Brownsville Girl,” is even better than I thought it’d be. The set ends with the acoustic “Dark Eyes,” a track that always haunts me, in all its versions…
All in all I was thrilled with Springtime In New York. This is one of my favorite of the Bootleg Series. Most people probably don’t own the three albums this box covers and I think that would actually add to your enjoyment as you discover this lost chapter of Dylan’s story. This is the sound of an artist trying to regain his footing and find his place in the secular world again. There is fascinating, beautiful music here. I love when Dylan looks back on an overlooked part of his career and reveals that there was so much more going on… much like Neil Young does in his Archives series. If you’re a Dylan fan and especially a fan of his Bootleg Series this is essential listening.