In a previous post on BourbonAndVinyl I published a “User’s Guide” to Bob Dylan’s vast collection of “Bootleg” recordings/box sets. I actually went all the way back to his first box set, “Biograph” the box set that started the entire box set cottage industry. Obviously I’m a Dylan fan. But I have to admit, when I heard the title of this latest edition, ‘Volume 12, The Cutting Edge 1965-1966’ I was a bit put off. I’ve been hoping for a box from the “Blood On The Tracks” sessions – he recorded that timeless classic first in New York with some session musicians and then a second time in Minneapolis with a local band. After the Basement Tapes (Vol 11), “Blood on the Tracks” is my Holy Grail. I can imagine sitting around for hours listening to the different takes of the album and analyzing the differences. Perhaps I need a few more hobbies. The other Bootleg I’d like to hear is for the oft overlooked album, “Infidels” that my buddy Drew turned me onto in college. Like “Blood on the Tracks”, it has several versions. Mark Knopfler produced the album but had to leave for a tour before he could finish mixing the songs. The record company and Dylan inexplicably cut a couple of songs from the final album including the latter day masterpiece, “Blind Willie McTell”. I’ve heard there is a Knopfler mix out there which would make for some interesting musical spelunking.
Which leads me back to ‘Vol 12, The Cutting Edge’. When I first read about the 6-disc compilation (the 12-disc seemed like too much and the 2-disc “highlights” seemed too slight) I thought it would be for completists and collectors only. I was, as usual, wrong. What I hadn’t taken into account was the time period, 1965 to 1966. Over the course of those 18-24 months Dylan reached what can only be described as his creative zenith. The only thing comparable would the Stones from “Beggars Banquet” to “Exile On Main Street” or the Beatles from “Rubber Soul” to the White Album. He released 3 of the greatest albums of music of all time – not just rock music, but music period – “Bringing It All Back Home”, “Highway 61 Revisited”, and “Blonde On Blonde” who many point to as the first ever double vinyl album. Even the outtakes from that era are fantastic. Dylan’s genius explodes on these three albums as he transforms his music from more traditional folk to rock and roll. It was clear Dylan was becoming tired of the confines of mere folk music – “Another Side of Bob Dylan” was a rock and roll album in every way except for the lack of instrumentation. For me, Dylan’s early music was always as much influenced by Leadbelly as it was Woody Guthrie. Yes, Dylan was the ultimate folk singer, but damn was he bluesy. He did “In My Time of Dying” and “Highway 51 Blues” on his first album for God’s sake. There’s a lot of protest in those old blues.
One of the things about Vol 12 that put me off as well was the song sequence. Instead of mixing up the various takes of the songs that ultimately (for the most part) ended up on his three masterpieces, they sequence the songs together. So you get all the four takes of “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” in a row. I was concerned this would be tedious listening. I have to admit the only time during my repeated listens that it did become tedious was on disc 3 which is totally dedicated to “Like a Rolling Stone”. I get it, it’s a huge song from a huge artist but an entire disc devoted to that one song? I don’t think anybody needs to hear the “Master Take (Piano, Bass)” from “Like a Rolling Stone”. The world could have done without that. So listen selectively from disc 3 folks. That aside, I really liked the sequencing of the songs. I think many of us just imagine that when an artist writes a song, the song pops into his head fully formed. Listening to the songs morph over the course of 4 or 5 takes is a fascinating look at the transformative job of creating a work of art. Melodies and lyrics change with almost each take. It’s like the statue of “The Thinker” by Rodin at the Nelson Atkins Art Museum. Sure, the finished, huge bronze statue is awesome, but so are the smaller, clay versions that Rodin did as he was “sketching” out his ideas. So too is the Cutting Edge like sculpting. Dylan would start with an idea and shape it in the studio. I think my favorite cuts here are of “Visions of Johanna”. Now, admittedly it’s one of my all time favorite songs, but listening to it’s transformation is magical. It starts off light, almost a lilting melody. It slowly gets heavier through each take. The way the songs are sequenced it almost feels like you’re sitting in the control booth next to Tom Wilson or Bob Johnston, producing the record. The first version of “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” on the set breaks down and Dylan says, almost petulantly “I never do a song as well as I do it the first time…” Producers must have the patience of Job.
There are some great outtakes here, some that ended up on Vol 1-3. “Farewell Angelina” one of my all time favorites, “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” which was later so wonderfully covered by the Cowboy Junkies, and “Jet Pilot” are all here. Some of the rehearsals and songs that collapse are as interesting as the final takes. Dylan does an early version of “Mr. Tamborine Man” with drums and bass that just falls apart as Dylan exclaims, “The drums are throwing me off, man.”
For me, of the three records during this period of Dylan’s career, “Highway 61 Revisited” is my favorite. I mean, it’s hard to choose, it’s like picking a favorite child but I love “Highway 61 Revisited” because the criminally overlooked genius Michael Bloomfield is on hand to play lead guitar. Bloomfield was a founding member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and he just shreds on the songs he’s playing. On the outtakes from songs on “Highway 61…” you can hear Bloomfield’s distinctive guitar weaving in and around Dylan’s lyrics as they dance, trying to find the right tempo or the right melody. Mike brought a real bluesy feel with him to Dylan’s songs. Bloomfield and Dylan belong together. Not to say the songs where the Band’s Robbie Robertson plays guitar are anything to sneeze at. Clearly Dylan has exquisite taste in guitar collaborators.
The 6-disc set ends with a 9 minute version of his epic, epic song “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”. That song is perhaps Dylan’s most artistic song ever. I can’t imagine what it was like to be in the studio when he brought that one in. This particular outtake was fascinating. I only wish there had been a few more versions of that particular song.
I have to say, the folks that are curating the Bootleg Series have done a fabulous job with Vol 12. Again, the outtakes from this period of Dylan’s career are more interesting than many artist’s finished products. I know one thing for sure, I’ll never automatically assume I won’t enjoy a Bootleg Volume until I’ve heard it for myself. ‘The Bootleg Volume 12, The Cutting Edge’ is a BourbonAndVinyl highly recommended album.
Pour something strong, put on the head phones, and enjoy. Cheers!