At some point in the career of a band or artist there’s a switch made from “chart topper” to “main stay.” Their weight in social currency is edged out by a growing wealth of respect and ubiquity. While they may not be as exciting as the hot new song from the hot new artist, there’s a safety in music from artists like these. Sometimes this manifests in the form of post-mortem dedications (Amy Winehouse, Elvis, Tupac) and sometimes, in the case of the titans who have not left us yet, the empty spaces between new content is peppered with bootleg releases, alternate takes, rehearsal takes, peeks at the gaffs and goings on of our favorite musical people. This month, possibly the most prevalent modern musician, the truly singular Bob Dylan, has released the 12th Volume in his ever adored (at least by me) Bootleg Series. This particular edition, The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12, examines content from the equally legendary albums Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited.
Months back, I was listening to an interview with executive producer T-Bone Burnett, following the content blast that was the massive double release of the fabled “Basement Tapes,” and the (for lack of a better word) cover-band-super-group “The New Basement Tapes.” H had this to say about the quasi-collaborative nature of the project: He had this to say about the quasi-collaborative nature of the project: “It’s irresistible to get to collaborate with a 27-year-old Bob Dylan. We felt maybe we could catch up with him at this point.” In a way, this and every other volume function in the same way. Each track is an insight into one of the greatest modern musical minds. In Vol. 12, we get the same chance that T-Bone and co. received: a chance to work with Bob Dylan in his prime years.
The music for its part is utterly Dylanian. Effortless and encapsulating, each song with a thousand readings and angles, all of them correct. “Visions of Johanna,” normally a bruised, windy little tune takes on a bullet train’s pace and a pirouetting blues lead. Conversely, “Like A Rolling Stone” (one of Dylan’s first electric tunes, which boiled the blood of his hard core folk fans of the time) drops its fuzzy vibes and crisp strings for a country waltz and saccharine harp, which fights Dylan for the lead in a starry eyed saunter. Even the demos play like toothy cuts through the status quo. As with “Desolation Row,” already one of Dylan’s more somber tracks, accompanied here only by bare piano chords and a plucking stand up bass. It may be a little less romantic, but rather than hearing a different portion of his soul transplanted on the track, consider instead the practical side of composition. A young, harried genius, obsessing over which bar to start on the harp, or which tempo best fits the tune. It’s unbelievably exciting to watch, especially so for a Dylanite such as myself.
I know my bias is showing, and I may be fan-boying a little bit, but when you’re talking about a collection of tunes that is knowingly incomplete, It’s like listening to the audio track of some strange musical nature documentary, observing his behaviors and choices in his natural habitat. My need to grind down to the facts is nullified. These are the facts. Raw, spontaneous, and maybe not fully realized. It’s like watching Scorsese direct Taxi Driver, like watching Salinger writing Catcher In The Rye. When you’re listening to someone so pervasively canonized to our pop culture vocabulary, it’s just fun to listen to what might have been. A note hither or yon, and this could have been the song being played in your headphones, or discussed in your music history class, or wafting out of a lovingly pressed vinyl.