The Bob Dylan Bootleg Series

BOB DYLAN: The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased, 1961-1991) Columbia C3K 47382 (3 CDs only). Jeff Rosen, prod.; Mark Wilder, Tim Geelan, Josh Abbey, Jim Ball, engs. AAD. TT: 3:50:52

You keep hoping. You buy his albums, even if you feel more like a sucker after each one. You read the occasional interview and marvel at his hermetic self-involvement, clench your fists at his maddening determination to never give a straight answer---one of the very things you once loved most about him. Every once in a few years you see him on TV, and in his eyes is nothing but pain that's gnawed him hollow, scraped him down to the rind, the songs forced out of this jerky wire puppet with the dead face. You see him on the Grammy Awards in early '91, and he's so crippled by pain you put your fingers against the screen and bow your head and cry. And you hope that the decades of betrayal---betrayal of you, of his time, his generation, but most of all himself---will end, if only long enough for him to spend a few days in the studio getting down ten or a dozen songs real enough, sharp enough, vulnerable enough, visionary enough to take you to that place he took you album after album, saying things you couldn't paraphrase but that you knew were absolutely perfect statements of truths no one had ever known before, let alone spoken.

When only his voice, only his unpredictably perfect phrasing, only his Everyman harmonica could set off those astonishing words, verse after sinuous, twisting verse of them, bitter words grown from the pain of a life-passion so intense it hid behind veils of surreal irony and sarcasm sharp enough to hack entire new realities out of the old, until this kid, this wise guy, this fragile boy, this punk androgyne could sing, in his ultimate image of freedom, of yearning "to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free, silhouetted by the sea"---an image that, from the Beach Boys to Hollywood to Pepsi and cigarette commercials to the vague intentions of an entire generation (yes, that of the '60s) was what we all wanted anyway: infinite freedom, union with nature, with the cosmos, with the entire dance of life. What do we want? Everything. When do we want it? Now. Ridiculously immature demands? Assuredly. But the very speaking of such total demands in the entirely new context of a secular fundamentalism seemed to make so many other things possible, and Bob Dylan, more than anyone else, gave us permission to ask, to demand.

Because it all goes back to Dylan. Any time you hear a song that sounds as if written by a thoughtful person with a visionary streak, you can thank Bob Dylan. He invented the singer/songwriter; every singer/songwriter since can tell you the day and hour he first heard Bob Dylan sing.

So you keep hoping that sometime, in his compulsive survival dance, and with the grace of divine accident, he'll stumble into that place again and let you know. Because after the motorpsycho nightmare of 1966, and despite the record companies' endless hypes of various "New Dylans," he was never replaced. As you enter the fourth decade of the public Bob Dylan, it's clear that no one even came close. To this day, that fact remains so painful that you've hidden it beneath world-weariness, cynicism, bitterness. And when yet another exercise in emptiness like Under the Red Sky is released, you write a review so mean-spirited you wince when you see it in print. But the betrayal hurts: how can he release records so hollow after so many packed so full that they still pour out their inexhaustible riches every time you drop the needle? Dylan goes from folkie to protest singer? Fine. Protest singer to introspective singer-songwriter? Great! Dylan goes electric? Rock'n'roll! Dylan goes country? Fine by you. Dylan gets born again? No problem---his belief is passionate, he's still out on that line; you can keep even that with yours. But...Under the Red Sky? Dylan & the Dead? Or---a truly terrifying record, product of a vast spiritual void---Live at Budokan? No. Too much of nothing there.

So you keep hoping: Why couldn't he just release all the wonderful material you know is in the vaults? You know it's there because you've got the bootlegs to prove it---nearly 20 of them, with very little overlap. And you know that has to be just the beginning. You've even had dreams about all that unreleased stuff, dreams of deluxe six-LP sets, great lost Dylan songs---whole albums---whose lyrics you can never quite remember when you wake. And you were far from alone in all this groping after hidden meaning. Is it any surprise that Dylan's first album to go gold was the hardest one of all to find: the Great White Wonder bootleg?

You keep hoping, but finally you decide that, really, it is too much to hope for. They'll never release those lost songs, those lost moments on studio and stage, those fleeting moments that are some of the few left that can still make you feel proud to be an American. You've still got his great records---and all the other ones. They still inspire, but increasingly they sound like just one more part of history rather than the end of it, rather than the great summing up, the conflation of time and space, the readying of every soul who ever lived for that last, greatest show of all in the back alley called Desolation Row---the song the world ends to.