The Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Page 5

We're now well into Disc Three, with the biggest surprises still to come: outtakes from Slow Train Coming, Shot of Love, and most of all, Infidels. We start out slowly with "Ye Shall Be Changed," which is at least as strong as anything on Slow Train, an album more remarkable for Mark Knopfler's guitar and production values than for Bob Dylan's songwriting. Then things step up a notch with the original publishing demo of Shot of Love's "Every Grain of Sand," complete with Jennifer Warnes's harmony vocals and someone's dog barking in the background. This was the best song on that grossly underrated album, and one of Dylan's best of the last decade; this entirely unpretentious acoustic take sounds as if it was made because someone's soul needed it to be made; it's humbly haunting. "You Changed My Life" is a love song to God---you've heard it before, except maybe for embarrassingly top-heavy conceits like "You came in like the wind, like Errol Flynn."

"Need A Woman" is gritty, nasty rock-blues, a companion-piece to another great Shot outtake, "The Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar" (Biograph), and far better than Ry Cooder's streamlined, macho buffo rewrite on his own The Slide Area. Though most erstwhile Dylan fans, offended by His Born-Againness, don't know it to this day, Dylan was making great, kick-ass rock'n'roll on Saved and Shot of Love. Best of all edits from the latter album, however, is "Angelina," a long, strong song that sounds as if written to the same Angelina Dylan bade Farewell to 20 years before. Singing to her in the same surreal lingo of dwarfs, pirates, parrots, and 52 gypsies, she's a woman he's tried hard to love, but, since this is Bob Dylan, she's also his mortal enemy, his honorable opponent, his sacred partner in the ritual warfare of the heart. No one ever called Bob Dylan a feminist. "In the valley of the giants / where the stars and stripes explode / the peaches they were sweet / and the milk and honey flowed. / I was only following instructions / when the judge sent me down the road / with your subpoena." These are the raw materials of the American subconscious, scrambled archetypes, the automatic writing of American originals that you find only in the music of The Band and Bob Dylan. As Dylan himself said a quarter of a century ago, he prefers to recount his dreams "with no attempts to shovel the glimpse into the ditch of what each one means." You could also say that he's still mining the same rich ore even if he's banked his refining fires.

It gets better, as five outtakes from the Infidels sessions file by, each better than the one before. Infidels was a strangely diffident album, Dylan pulling his punches, sounding careful and polite after three straight LPs of aggressively pushing Jesus. Had these five songs replaced some of what ended up on that 1983 album, there's no question Infidels would still be kicking Oh Mercy out of the Dylan's-Best-Album-Since-Blood-on-the-Tracks slot. "Someone's Got A Hold Of My Heart" is a far superior early version of "Tight Connection To My Heart," which ended up on Empire Burlesque. It lacks the pumped-up, trumped-up feel of the latter album---a good thing ("Never could learn to drink that blood and call it wine, Never could learn to look at your face and call it mine"). "Tell Me" is a lovely song about everything you don't know about that new love; it's the other side of Joni Mitchell's "Mr. Mystery." "Lord Protect My Child" is a straightforward gospel song which, with a not too different arrangement, could have appeared on John Wesley Harding; and "Foot of Pride" swirls in apocalyptic rage that gains more and more momentum as it uncoils. This fascinating song is unlike anything Dylan's done elsewhere---virtually impenetrable to the intellect, startling to the soul: Beautiful people with "mystery" written on their foreheads who "kill babies in their cradles and say 'Only the good die young'." "In these times of compassion / When conformity's in fashion / Say one more stupid thing to me before the final nail's driven in." Dylan sings like his very soul is on the line, as I believe it was: When the foot of pride come down, ain't no goin' back. Dylan eats this song alive.

But I've saved this paragraph for "Blind Willie McTell," which is not about Blind Willie McTell. The old black blues singer appears only in the recurring refrain "Nobody sings the blues like Blind Willie McTell"; he's used as a bleak, minor-key talisman, a touchstone, a dark unifier, a central, never-revealed mystery much like the role played by the Jack of Hearts in Dylan's "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts." The song, musically similar to "St. James Infirmary Blues," is an elegy for a tired, weary, worn-out world that has moved on, leaving only this dry husk of itself behind for the ghosts that now inhabit it. It starts out with: "Seen the arrow on the doorpost [golf course? dark horse?] / Saying this land is condemned / All the way from New Orleans / to Jerusalem // I traveled through East Texas / Where many martyrs fell / And I know no one can sing the blues / like Blind Willie McTell." Then things start to go downhill fast. The tent raised for the final circus in "Desolation Row" is being struck here, and it's a harrowing evocation---all is decay, corruption eats away at the fabric of reality, no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell, and he's dead. The song ends with: "Well, I'm gazing out the window / of the St. James Hotel / And I know no one can sing the blues / like Blind Willie McTell." I like to think this is the same St. James Hotel that still stands, a hundred miles up the road from here in Cimarron, New Mexico, where the dining-room ceiling is still full of bullet-holes from every gunslinger you ever heard of, from the Earp brothers to Doc Holiday. And if you gaze out the window, you can still see buffalo herds and the endless plains of eastern New Mexico stretching on to the Texas Panhandle. But regardless of the refrain's lionizing of McTell the way some lionize Dylan, in his grief-torn conjuring of this bleak spiritual landscape Dylan sings these blues far, far more than merely well enough. The song itself is brilliant, and the bare-bones accompaniment---Dylan on piano, Mark Knopfler on acoustic guitar---is perfect. I listen to this "Just Like New Desolation Row Approximately Revisited" again and again; it haunts me through the day.

The Bootleg Series fades out with two quite recent recordings: the original version of Empire Burlesque's "When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky," again superior to the power-pop anthem of the same name on that album. It's in a major key here; Burlesque's minor-key transposition sounds merely melodramatic, while this one builds and builds. And finally, from the Oh Mercy sessions, "Series of Dreams," in which "nothing comes to the top." And no, it doesn't.

That about does it. Sound? Sorry. Anyone who cares how a Bob Dylan album sounds probably wonders how he could've gotten so famous with such an awful voice. Not relevant (footnote 1).

What is relevant is the accompanying deluxe 72-page book. John Bauldie's literate, informed liner notes are always intelligent and accessible, and there are plenty of previously unpublished Dylan photos.

But downright miraculous is the fact that you can just go down to the record store and buy this thing at rather a reasonable price. I still can't get over it. I keep waiting to wake up and find out it was all a dream, that this set doesn't really exist, that I've got to go back to my vague, scratchy, dub-of-a-dub-of-a-dub-of-a-dub-of-a-dub-of-a-dub bootlegs. That I've got to keep hoping.

I don't. In these dark dream-days of looming environmental apocalypse, a blessing has been bestowed on us via the labyrinthine machinations of multinational greed. Do yourself a very great favor: buy this box before Dylan or Sony change their minds. For anyone in whose life Dylan ever played an important role, even for a moment, The Bootleg Series not only contains something for everyone---there's more here than you could possibly imagine.

Footnote 1: OK, OK. Considering the varied and marginal sources of this 30-year look back in a direction you didn't know you'd come, it sounds damn good. And yes, of course, there's plenty of hiss on some of the home recordings; most of the studio outtakes sound at least as good as the albums they were dropped from.