Forgiving Bob Dylan: Why the adverts, eighties, and *that* Christmas album can’t taint his bootleg genius

Dylan's new release, volume 12 of the Bootleg Series

Dylan’s new release, volume 12 of the Bootleg Series

In gleeful anticipation of the most exciting Bootleg release yet, Getintothis’ Paul Riley talks about his love/hate relationship with an idiosyncratic genius and compiles a more discerning top 10 than usual.

‘Oh Bob. Not another advert.’

Those of you who are more than a little into Dylan may well have felt a lurch of the belly if you have come across his Superbowl advert for American car manufacturer Chrysler. This is a knee-jerk reaction to be sure, one that assumes that we have part-ownership of someone we’ve never even met, and yet it is something I am completely guilty of.

For better or worse, Dylan is an institution. How many other artists have a fan-created website just to compile a list of his fan websites? From the humble beginnings of one of his better Best Ofs, to a minor addiction to a certain online auction site, I have built up a fairly respectable collection but have nowhere near the financial means to buy the whole shebang. I would dearly like to own everything, and this despite knowing that there are more than enough duff, sketchy and downright ropey releases in his back catalogue (‘Oh Bob. Not a Christmas album’). Fair enough, all proceeds went to hunger-relief nonprofit Feeding America, but… what? This video is symptomatic of a guy who has finally lost it, or possibly, Dylan gleefully showing us again that he gives not one fuck what anybody thinks.

Chrysler isn’t his first foray into the world of commercials, or as Bill Hicks would have it, becoming acquainted with a certain part of the Lord of the Underworld’s anatomy. Bob has flogged shit for Victoria’s Secret, Cadillac, Apple and on one memorable nadir, shared the screen with fellow music legend and punctuation provocateur in support of Pepsi. If you blanched at the galling American triumphalism spouted by Bob for Cadillac, hearing that cardboard MC Black-Eyed Pea hunt down and kill a mortally wounded version of Forever Young is something that cannot be borne for more than a few seconds.

Having said that, as a recording artist, there are few who can come close in terms of creativity and output (we’re talking about Dylan again now, FYI). I will be the first to admit that output is not necessarily a guarantee of quality; for every consistently outstanding artist there are many who have had some dreadful moments (Neil Young’s Monsanto Years), many who should probably have applied much more quality control (Paul McCartney), and some whose continued appeal leaves me completely mystified (Jean-Michel Jarre; U2).

With that in mind, and fully acknowledging my own bias, I can forgive Dylan his adverts. Not that he needs my forgiveness; who am I to judge? It is testament to his importance in my own development as a music lover that I am so emotionally invested in someone I have never met. He goes against all expectations, and does things his own way. Hence my disappointment over that Chrysler ad is a reminder that I don’t own Bob, and perhaps he does adverts just for that reason. Or for the cash.

His live performances are also notorious. Given that, on his unending tour, he has played between 85 and 117 shows every year this century, it is understandable that he needs to mix things up a bit. Having said that, even from early on as a live performer his shows have sometimes been cantankerous, seeming wilfully obtuse, designed to antagonize his fans.

My first experience of Dylan in 2005 was such a show. He played piano throughout the night as if anticipating my wish to see him at least pick up a guitar. Giant searchlights pointed out into the audience made it impossible to take a picture, and it often took a good thirty seconds to guess the song from his monotonous and mumbled vocal delivery.

There were some great moments, notably a menacing version of The Man in the Long Black Coat and the infectious blues groove of Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again, yet my overexcited anticipation set me up for a rather upsetting evening.

Down but not out, I took a chance on two further occasions. The second show was pretty enjoyable, but still somewhat mystifying. Third time, Liverpool Echo Arena, was the charm. He played, and it was incredible. I’ll admit to feeling a little giddy as I saw something approaching what I had hoped for, and this before he mumbled ‘This is for my friends’ into the microphone and performed George Harrison’s Something. Take the piss if you will, but I felt that was a bit magic.  These days, Dylan rarely acknowledges his audiences. I hate that certain brand of Scouse Pride that ignores everything after The Beatles as much as most of my peers, yet that salute to Our Fair City provoked an embarrassing lump in my throat.

Having said that, our plucky GIT reviewer at the time seemed less than impressed with the performance; ‘Like Bagpuss with less of a sense of urgency’. Perhaps seeing Dylan is something that gets better with practice.

A vintage GIT review from someone much less forgiving…

Speaking of unimpressed, there is the infamous Manchester Free Trade Hall show, which serves well enough as a clumsy tie-in to the reason for writing this piece. Dylan has been releasing his own Bootleg Series since 1991, and in 1998 he released the aforementioned live show as Bootleg Series Vol. 4Bob was touring, and the folkies were pissed off. An audience member infamously called him a ‘Judas’ for having the temerity to switch to electric guitar. Dylan’s response was to tell his band, ‘Play it fuckin’ LOUD!’ Hippies weren’t happy, but this was 1966 and Dylan was in a new place. He closed the set with Like A Rolling Stone.

Today we will see the latest installment of the Bootleg Series, perhaps the most exciting release so far. From 1965-66 Dylan’s new direction gave us three of his very greatest works. In just 14 months he recorded and released Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: Bootleg Series Vol. 12 covers the outtakes, demos and alternative versions of songs from those three pivotal albums, including early Blonde on Blonde sessions featuring future members of The Band (Dylan later scrapped everything, went to Nashville and re-recorded the album with session musicians).

Read our piece on the 50th anniversary of Bringing It All Back Home

For those who love him this new release will be a fresh perspective on an artist at what is possibly the peak of his creative brilliance. Those who hate him, I suspect. may not have bothered to read this far. Fair play, each to their own and all that, although between me and you, I think they’re ALL FOOLS.

While waiting to get my paws on a copy of this sexy beast, I have found myself going back to another compilation, Biograph, which was released twenty years ago last week. A collection of unreleased material, alternate takes, live performances and album tracks, it is an excellent eye-opener to the range and variety of Dylan material out there. It also contains two booklets with rare photographs, and an interview with accompanying track notes by writer Cameron Crowe.

In 1985 Bob had been a recording artist for 24 years, and had already amassed such a wealth of material that Rolling Stone called this five-record set ‘a scratch on the surface of the tip of the iceberg’. With that in mind, here’s a Top 10 selection I’ve drawn from that already well-chosen selection of recordings, to spare this writer the unenviable task of picking an alternative best ten moments from over fifty years of an uncompromising genius.

10. I’ll Keep It With Mine – Previously unreleased (Recorded in New York City, 1965)

This is a rare early recording of Dylan at the piano. Recorded in the same night as All I Really Want To Do, To Ramona, My Back Pages and fourteen other songs, it gives a hint at what it may have been like in a control room, watching him lay down track after track in quick succession. This song never made it onto a studio album.

9. Masters of War – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (Recorded in NYC, 1963)

One of Dylan’s most well-known faces is that of a young upstart protest singer. Tracks such as Blowin’ In The Wind have become so ubiquitous that they are sometimes seen as just nice tunes, rather like Springsteen’s Born In The USA, famously used on the campaign trail by President Ronald Reagan, whose staff seemed to miss the vitriolic anti-Vietnam focus of the verse lyrics.

Masters of War has no catchy chorus, instead consisting of eight verses of the most powerful anti-war imagery ever spat from behind an acoustic guitar. Sadly, its lyrical prescience has not aged at all.

8. Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll The Times They Are A-Changin’ (Recorded in NYC, 1964)

Where the scope of Masters of War is wide ranging, at the other end of the spectrum, there are songs focusing on a single character’s story that are no less universal in the themes explored. Notable examples of this include the epic Hurricane, the story of a black prize-fighter Rubin Carter, wrongly imprisoned for murder, and The Ballad of Hollis Brown, a tale about a poverty-stricken farmer from South Dakota.

Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll is a similar tale of injustice. In 1963, William Zantzinger (‘Zanzinger’ in the song), beat black maid Hattie Carroll about the head with his cane in a drunken rage, as he felt she was too slow getting him a drink. Shortly after the assault she died of her injuries. Lonesome Death… tells of the resulting trial which got Zantzinger a laughably lenient sentence. He may have got off very lightly at trial, but Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll was ever present throughout his life, and followed him even to his obituaries.

7. Jet Pilot – Previously unreleased (Recorded in NYC, 1965)

This snippet of the Highway 61 recording sessions gives an exhilarating glimpse of a band that would play songs through in a number of different ways until they hit on the right arrangement. Jet Pilot sees a playful Dylan experimenting with jokey, improvised lyrics, and was the original version of Tombstone Blues.

6. Percy’s Song – Previously Unreleased (Recorded live in NYC 1963)

Another track from Biograph which never appeared on a studio album, Percy’s Song is based on a melody by folk singer Paul Clayton. A live recording from a performance at Carnegie Hall, the protagonist tells of a friend who was imprisoned after causing a car wreck. As noted by one Dylan scholar (yes, there are many), the ballad form, in which a refrain is repeated throughout the song, is a particularly difficult art to master; as the words do not change, the story development must come from the nuances of the singer’s performance. This is something that Dylan does masterfully.

5. Tangled Up In Blue – Blood On The Tracks (Recorded in NYC, 1975)

One of the most well-known of our selection, Tangled Up In Blue is a fascinating story song with hints of Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski in the experiences it relates, a long and complicated relationship set to a backdrop of strip joints, basement bedsits, temporary jobs and bohemian living in 1960s America. It is a dazzling lyrical display that contributed to Dylan’s growing reputation as a poet musician.

4. Isis – Previously unreleased version (Recorded live in Montreal 1975)

Forty years before a bunch of murdering lunatics put a slight on the word, Isis was one of the most celebrated songs on seminal album Desire. This tangled tale of love forsaken and an ill-thought-out quest is given a searing live treatment on a recording that, before being included on Biograph, was only to be found on a promotional sampler released to radio.

3. Gotta Serve SomebodySlow Train Coming (Recorded in Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, Alabama, 1979)

Proof, if it were needed, that spiritual epiphany needn’t spell a bad patch for an artist’s output, Gotta Serve Somebody is one of the first songs of Dylan’s so-called ‘Religious Phase’. It was produced by RnB veterans Barry Beckett and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Jerry Wexler, who in his role as a partner at Atlantic Records we can thank for signing Led Zeppelin (on the advice of Dusty Springfield and his knowledge of Jimmy Page from performing with The Yardbirds).

With its menacing organ, bluesy stomp and outrageous yet restrained gospel backing vocals, Gotta Serve Somebody is religious music with an attitude, and it bagged Dylan a Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance by a Male in 1979.

2. I Shall Be Released – Greatest Hits Volume II (Recorded in NYC, 1971)

This song was completed too late for inclusion on John Wesley Harding, and only exists in one demo recording, released on Greatest Hits Volume II. It is, admittedly, one of the weaker recordings on the compilation. Made famous by Dylan’s backing band-turned-musical-legends The Band, Dylan played this song at their final concert, immortalised by Martin Scorcese in what may be the greatest music documentary of them all, The Last Waltz.

Given the roughness of the early Biograph version and the eye-watering collection of musicians who performed it at The Last Waltz, it is only fair we give you the definitive version: The Band’s.

(Oh, and if you haven’t already seen The Last Waltz in full, we humbly suggest you do so, with all speed.)

1. Forever Young – Previously Unreleased Demo (Recorded in NYC, 1973)

Biograph saves the best ‘til the very last with this version of Forever Young, the closing song of the compilation. As the liner notes say:

This impromptu solo performance was never meant for release. Visiting the office of his New York Publishers, Dylan was asked for the words and music of Forever Young so the song might be copyrighted. Dylan picked up a guitar, and played the composition into an ageing reel-to-reel tape recorder.

This is a spontaneous performance, haphazardly caught on tape. The tape was partially erased, only for the recording to be recovered at a later date, and yet it is the most strikingly beautiful track on Biograph, and perhaps a better version than the two (one slow, one fast) that appeared on 1974’s Planet Waves.

This is a gem for a Dylan fan, for he is an artist whose recorded works in no way reflect the vastness of his songwriting heritage. It is a fitting way to finish this selection, in anticipation of the unheard treasures that will feature on the newest release for this perennially beguiling artist.