The Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Page 2

Inside the museums, the jury has finally returned its verdict, infinity has been found guilty, and you begin to suspect yourself of reducing what was the most dangerously exciting, inspired time of your life to mere nostalgia. Sometimes it's just too painful to listen to the music anymore; besides, no one else seems to care. "Oh, yeah, I was all idealistic and everything back in the '60s. I liked Dylan's early stuff...hey, is he still a Jesus freak?" But you knew these people back then. You remember how important Dylan was to them. You remember 20 people sitting in total silence on someone's grimy, candle-wax-encrusted rug, listening for the first time to John Wesley Harding, that great outpouring of timeless biblical grief and sorrow. It mattered. It was worth it. And no one's word has been worth as much since.

Then you read the letter from Columbia Records outlining the contents of Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3. You simply do not believe it. You read it again; this time your heart thumps so hard the pen in your breast-pocket bounces. My God. They're doing it. They're actually doing it. At last---for his 50th birthday, CBS is releasing 58 prime, vintage Bob Dylan songs from his entire career, 1961-91, all previously unreleased. Some long-buried, long-ossified emotional muscle relaxes for the first time in almost 20 years---for the first time since you'd first heard Blood on the Tracks and wept with the release of a tension you never knew you'd had.

You have to give up hope to realize your dreams. I did, and the dream has come true. Listening to The Bootleg Series is like playing five or six brand-new Bob Dylan albums---three of them from the '60s---that, somehow, impossibly, unthinkably, you overlooked when they were first released. The songs included here are "outtakes" in name only; in many cases, their outtake status is wholly inexplicable: had Infidels, for example, included four of the five songs ultimately dropped from its lineup, it could easily have been one of Dylan's best ten albums. Given the fact that you can only make a breakthrough like the Bringing It All Back Home/Highway 61 Revisited/Blonde On Blonde triple-KO once in a century, this is, simply, Bob Dylan's most important album.

After listening to all three well-packed CDs the first time through, and after giving myself plenty of time to wake from the blissful dream I was sure I was in the middle of, I began to spread the word. People soon fell into two distinct camps: those who'd heard The Bootleg Series and those who hadn't. No one who hadn't seemed very excited at news of its release. Those who had were virtually in shock.

I took my car in for a tuneup and a brake job. Jim, who runs the garage, had just bought the Bootleg Series. By this time I'd already learned to cool my Dylanophilia. "Well? What'd you think?" Jim shook his head, staring at the garage's oily floor. Finally, he looked me in the eye. "It's incredible, man. Unbelievable. Like being back in the '60s again."

I now had a problem less spiritual than professional: how to write about this amazing set without the cynical reader assuming I've been slipped a bulging envelope by some guy in a suit from Sony Music Entertainment Inc., aka CBS, aka Columbia Records?

I read Anthony DeCurtis's account in Rolling Stone. Well-written, informed, patrician, remote, restrained. My, how times have changed. But I couldn't do it myself; no, my complete lack of critical distance must somehow become a virtue. And, for the record, at least one of Dylan's feet is made of clay, even in my eyes: I have problems with his serious blind spots about women; the fact that I almost never believe his singing, emotionally; and his defensiveness, so strong that half the time I scream at the turntable, "C'mon! Level with me!!" After all, Dylan has released only three records of honest vocal emotion: Another Side of Bob Dylan, most of Blood on the Tracks, and, believe it or not, Nashville Skyline.

And now, at least a third of The Bootleg Series. As important and unique as I ever might have thought Dylan to be, even at his height in my esteem, this set tells me I've greatly underestimated him. Biograph was only the beginning.

Nor are these slightly differing alternate takes of Dylan's Best, of interest only to bootleggers and die-hard collectors of pop trivia who really should get a life one of these days. Dylan performances of 44 of the 58 songs laid out here in chronological order have never been officially released, let alone been easily available. The remaining alternate takes all sufficiently differ from their already-released versions to make fascinating listening for even the casual Dylan fan. Subsequent volumes of the Bootleg Series will include live material, including the legendary Royal Albert Hall Concert with the Band. And a quick look through the 1985 edition of Dylan's Lyrics 1962-1985 reveals scores of songs for which recordings have never been released, including "Love is Just a Four-Letter Word," "I'd Hate To Be You On That Dreadful Day," and "Hero Blues." And who knows what else?---plenty of the Bootleg tunes were not printed in Lyrics.

But could all these "new" and/or "lost" songs be worth listening to? After all, everyone has their off days.