Monday, 22 April 2013
Bob Dylan - Dylan and Bootleg Series Vol, 10 by Terry Kelly
A Country Mile or Two: the Dylan album, 40 years on
By Terry Kelly
Released on November 16, 1973, Dylan was more an act of corporate revenge than a bona fide album. Shoddily produced and packaged, Columbia Records put the album out after Dylan abandoned his old label for David Geffen's then super-hip Asylum Records, for whom he produced Planet Waves and the live double album, Before the Flood. For the average fan in late 1973, the Dylan album must have seemed a very strange concoction, being a series of outtakes or warm-up tracks from Self Portrait and New Morning, three years previously. The clue to the album's cynical and money-motivated provenance was obvious before pulling the vinyl from its sleeve. The cover profile picture of Dylan was by Al Clayton and originally appeared on the inside of the gatefold sleeve of Self Portrait, as Dylan stood in the studio with fiddle player Doug Kershaw, with one of his children crawling around his feet. Billed on the reverse of Dylan as a "serigraph" by one Richard Kenerson, the original photograph appeared - for no obvious reason - to have been daubed with red, yellow, purple and black streaks. Oddly, although the selfsame picture, in a more muted form, appears on the reverse, the credit for it reads: "Back cover photograph and album design by John Berg." It was John Berg who had supplied John Wesley Harding's haunting cover photograph, so we can only assume that he had a bad day at the office when he worked on the Dylan album. Apart from the information that the "original recording sessions" were "produced by Bob Johnston," the album sleeve contains little or no other detail, the many Nashville and New York musicians involved - including such luminaries as Charlie McCoy, Pete Drake, Kenny Buttrey, Al Kooper and David Bromberg - being expunged, in almost Stalinist fashion, while Dylan himself is not even granted his Christian name on the front or reverse of the sleeve. Columbia's publicity for the album included a photograph of their former artist on the set of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid from the previous year. It may or may not have been a private record company joke, but the picture showed Dylan scowling into the camera. Despite the 'official bootleg' nature of the release, Dylan apparently sold in excess of 500,000 units, reaching number 17 on the US Billboard chart and going gold. But Dylan was apparently the singer's only album not to chart in the UK, where his records generally did better than his native US.
The critics weren't kind. In a review for The Guardian (January 3, 1974), headlined "The Most Embarrassing Piece of Plastic Ever Produced In the Name of a Great Artist" - a line drawn from the accompanying scathing review - Robin Denselow slams "a miserable attempt at two Presley hits" and what he calls "a dirge-like version of Joni Mitchell's Big Yellow Taxi," while suggesting that several tracks "are wrecked by bad production and an over-dominant girlie chorus." Denselow grudgingly adds that "only one song, Lily of the West, is up to standard." Writing in Consumer Guide, noted US rock scribe Robert Christgau stated: "Listening to this set of rejects from what used to be Dylan's worst album does have its morbid fascination - if you'll forgive the esoteric reference, it's like watching Ryne Duren pitch without glasses. Not only are the timbre and melody off - he was always wild - but he also doesn't phrase cogently, and the songs just hit the dirt. All of which is CBS's punishment after Bobby had the bad manners to sign with another label." Rolling Stone, meanwhile, mocked the album, declaring: "Guaranteed to net only horselaughs." Leading Dylan scholar Michael Gray, reviewing the album for the long-gone Let It Rock (April, 1974), is more measured, detailed and responsive: "Me, I like it. I don't accept the much-aired view that if it had been up to Dylan, he would never have released an album of this calibre...Whether Dylan would have released the material is hardly the main point at issue; a more interesting question is, what was the purpose of these tracks when they were recorded? The answer, clearly, is that they were warm-ups for particular songs already released on a previous Dylan album, and anyone with a competent interest in the artist's output can make the right connection in every case." But Gray also slams "the obvious fact that the record has been doctored by Columbia in New York," adding: "Basically the album has been given a horrendous re-mix by some anonymous apeman who plainly has the hots for all the girls in the girl-chorus." Gray also disagrees with Denselow, calling Dylan's reading of Big Yellow Taxi "fine and upstanding," Can't Help Falling in Love "moving and thoughtful," and both The Ballad of Ira Hayes and Mr Bojangles "respectful and sensitive and not without emotional power." But the normally meticulous Gray comes slightly unstuck in his early, pre-internet, pre-rock data crit of the album, suggesting A Fool Such As I "was cut at the Nashville Skyline sessions as a warm-up for To Be Alone For You," while further speculating that Sarah Jane is a 1967 Basement Tapes recording, with backing from The Band during their Big Pink period. Fast-forwarding to 2006, and The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, Gray still rates Can't Help Falling in Love, Mr Bojangles and A Fool Such As I as the "best tracks," while again condemning "back-up vocals horrendously far forward," and excoriating the album as a "shoddy bully-boy tactic of a release." (But I also recall my frustration in 1974, when Dylan returned to Columbia, who had promised to clear their vaults of more unreleased material.)
With the aid of Glen Dundas's ever-useful Tangled - A Recording History of Bob Dylan (2004), it's possible to trace not only the source of the songs on Dylan, but to link them vocally to the officially released tracks from Self Portrait and New Morning, with two of the songs on the album drawn from sessions from the former and seven from the latter. The earliest recorded Dylan track appears to have been the more musically baroque take of the two officially released versions of Spanish Is The Loving Tongue. Recorded in Nashville, on April 24-25, 1969, Dylan had seven attempts at the song, just after cutting the Self Portrait version of Living the Blues. Back in the studio the following day, Dylan paid homage to Elvis in his playful version of A Fool Such As I, which actually became the later title of the Dylan album, or at least its subtitle in some countries. The Elvis track was the liveliest cut from a session when he successfully captured more ballad material for Self Portrait, namely Take Me As I Am, I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know, and Let It Be Me. Most of the material on Dylan was recorded at Studio E at Columbia Studios, New York, between March and June of 1970, during the New Morning sessions. The musicians included Charlie Daniels on guitar, Al Kooper on organ, David Bromberg on guitar and dobro, Russ Kunkel on drums and Ron Cornelius on guitar. It is said that Dylan originally intended to release an album of original songs and covers, but this idea seems to have been rejected nearer the release date, perhaps in response to the negative critical reaction to Self Portrait. Among several takes of the still unreleased bluegrass standard, Alligator Man (which Michael Krogsgaard told The Bridge was scheduled to appear on an earlier version of the album) and three takes of Oh Lonesome Me - presumably the Don Gibson number - both Peter La Farge's The Ballad of Ira Hayes and the jaunty, very badly mixed Sarah Jane were both cut on June 1, 1970. The following day, among multiple, incomplete takes of Time Passes Slowly, Dylan recorded both Jerry Jeff Walker's classic Mr Bojangles and the delicate, rather lovely Mary Ann. June 3 found Dylan recording another Elvis homage, Can't Help Falling In Love, from The King's 1961 Blue Hawaii soundtrack album. This recording is one of the highlights of the Dylan album - Michael Gray calls it "simultaneosuly witty and touching" in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia - with some of the song's vocal inflections echoing some of those on New Morning, while the harmonica playing is tender and evocative. (The way Dylan sings "some things were meant to beee..." is vocally close to "sure gonna be wet tonight on Main Streeeeet" in Sign on the Window, and there are many other vocal resemblances between the two albums, such as the 'recitation' section of Ira Hayes and Three Angels.) Dylan also cut the classic murder ballad, Lily of the West, on June 3, perhaps remembering the song from an early Joan Baez recording. Dylan revisits his early love song, Tomorrow Is A Long Time on June 4, transforming it into a bluesy dirge, while picking up the pace for an eccentric version of Joni Mitchell's Big Yellow Taxi, with Al Kooper's organ always appearing to be chasing - and never keeping pace - with the vocal.
Almost 40 years on, Dylan can still feel like a guilty audio pleasure. In a way, it was a precursor of the Bootleg Series, despite its dubious origins. But it's also a useful addendum to both Self Portrait and New Morning. I'm writing this in early March, 2013, just a week after details were released of a new Dylan single on 7'' vinyl. The A-side will feature a demo version of Wigwam, backed by a previously unheard take of Eric Andersen's Thirsty Boots (both Self Portrait tracks and both recorded at Columbia's famous Studio B In New York, between March 4 and 5, 1970.) The even more welcome news for this Dylan fan is that both tracks will appear on the forthcoming Bootleg Series Vol. 10, which will apparently feature unreleased tracks from the 1969-70 sessions which produced Self Portrait, New Morning and the 'bastard child' which became the Dylan album. As a dedicated fan of country period Dylan, I couldn't be happier. Dylan recorded many covers for Self Portrait and New Morning which have never circulated. True, outtakes from hipper albums like Blonde On Blonde or Blood on the Tracks would probably generate more interest among Dylan's fanbase and greater coverage in the rock press, but I find the prospect of a double album of previously unreleased material from 1969-70 mouth-watering. So what can we expect from the next instalment of the Bootleg Series? Apart from the tracks confirmed on the vinyl single, there are various cover versions, either complete or fragmentary, such as a brief attempt at Otis Redding's (Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay, The Universal Soldier, When a Fellow Is Out of a Job and These Hands, all from a New York session on March 3, 1970, takes of Tom Paxton's Annie's Going To Sing Her Song, plus the traditional numbers Little Brown Dog, Railroad Bill, House Carpenter and Tell Old Bill, plus the aforementioned Thirsty Boots, all from a session the following day. March 5 produced another clutch of unheard Dylan covers, including Little Moses, Come A Little Bit Closer, Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies and My Previous Life. That's quite apart from stabs at Alligator Man, Runnin,' Jamaica Farewell, Long Black Veil, Lead Belly's Bring Me Little Water, Sylvie and another nod to The King, with a version of the Stan Kesler-Charlie Feathers song, I Forgot To Remember To Forget, which Elvis recorded at the Sun Sessions on July 11, 1955. While no one is suggesting that all of these tracks will be either complete or of the first-rank, in terms of quality or performance, the fact that Dylan recorded these songs at the height of his vocal powers, while surrounded by some of the best musicians in Nashville and New York, makes their release, at the very least, of great interest to serious fans. One man who has actually heard some of the tracks we may find on the next Bootleg Series is Michael Krogsgaard, who was granted access to Dylan's recording session archives in 1995. Interviewed by The Bridge in March, 2007, Krogsgaard described how he heard recordings of Dylan and David Bromberg trying out some of the covers, such as The Universal Soldier, without any other session musicians and before overdubs, explaining: "They did one or a few takes of each song - some are incomplete, like Universal Soldier, that misses the last lines...and a song like Days of 49 was basically just Dylan and Bromberg. Then Al Kooper overdubbed with bass, drums, electric guitar etc. As the session evolved, more and more musicians were involved, ending with a full band with background vocalists, on which Kooper just had to add strings or other orchestral instruments....(I Forgot To Remember To Forget) was not a warm-up thing. It was recorded like the other tracks. A serious try-out. It was from the session where he clearly had a cold, which I assume will sound very charming in this song...The original version of the Dylan album, which was actually made as a matrix, included interesting takes like Runnin,' - from 1969 - and Alligator Man from the 1970 session." (Amazingly, as far back as 1972, Anthony Scaduto's groundbreaking Dylan biography mentioned both Thirsty Boots and Jamaica Farewell as outtakes from the sessions for Self Portrait and New Morning.)
It's impossible to say how many of the aforementioned songs will make The Bootleg Series Vol.10. Of course, some unreleased country material has already slipped out. Last year, a bootleg album called Nashville Sessions 1969 And More (Rattle Snake) featured outtakes of Lay Lady Lay and One More Night from Nashville Skyline, plus alternate takes of Blue Moon and different mixes of other tracks from Self Portrait. What is almost certain is that the material on the next Bootleg Series will have been treated with far more tender, loving care than that afforded to the tracks on the Dylan album in 1973. Sadly, what is also clear is that Greil Marcus' infamous opening line of his Self Portrait review, which appeared in Rolling Stone on July 23, 1970, seemed to seal the critical fate of the double album. His opening salvo - "What is this shit?" - has given generations of fans a far too easy opt-out critical clause not to engage with the album for themselves and to treat Dylan's country period, including the rough diamonds on the Dylan album, with continued disdain. When I interviewed Marcus for The Bridge in October 2010, he still dismissed most of the album, with the possible exception of Copper Kettle. But Greil Marcus is plain wrong: Self Portrait is a great album. And I can't wait for the next Bootleg Series.
From The Bridge No. 45 (http://www.two-riders.co.uk/)
And now it's about to be released: http://fridaynightboys300.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/bob-dylan-bootleg-series-volume-10.html