Dylan's Stock Soars with `Bootleg'
A compilation of outtakes and studio sessions offers a unique review of his 30-year career
BOSTON — THE story goes something like this: Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were driving along the East Coast, possibly to a town where she had a show. When they reached the hotel where Baez thought she had a reservation for the night, Dylan - looking typically disheveled - inquired at the desk about her room. He returned to the car with a negative reply. Puzzled, Baez went herself to check. The hotel staff, anticipating her arrival, immediately received her. When she insisted that they give Dylan a room too, the staff agreed, but would not speak to him directly.
That night in 1962 Dylan, with characteristic anger, turned the insult into a scathing attack on the establishment. ``When the Ship Comes In'' heralds the end of oppression and illegitimate authority, blending Biblical and literary references and popular protest slogans: ``And they'll raise their hands/ Saying, `We'll meet all your demands'/ But we'll shout from the bow/ `Your days are numbered.'/ And like Pharaoh's tribe/ They'll be pounded in the tide/ And like Goliath, they'll be conquered.''
This anecdote - recounted in John Bauldie's liner notes from ``Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3, Rare and Unreleased'' - is typical of Dylan's reaction to personal and societal injustice. Recently put out by Columbia Records, the 4-hour, 58-track collection of demo takes, studio sessions, and long-shelved recordings offers a unique and chronological review of the folk singer's 30-year career.
First-month sales of ``Bootleg'' were higher than expected and ``considerably better than `Biograph' initially,'' according to the record company. ``Biograph'' was almost a self-portrait, a career-spanning collection of songs and interviews released in 1985. Dylan fans have always had an insatiable appetite, and ``Bootleg's'' enthusiastic reception suggests that Biograph left them wanting.
Bootlegging is the illegal distribution of copyrighted material - stuff that fans relish getting their hands on. Officially unreleased Dylan recordings have circulated for at least 20 years, but not of the quality or breadth of this collection.
The ``Bootleg Series'' shows Dylan with his trench coat and sunglasses shed. It chronicles the artist's rapid development and prolific songwriting in the early years. The studio sessions show his humor and creative process. The demo takes and early versions of released songs show a softer, at at times more soulful, approach to lyrics, vocal range, and delivery.
The chronological arrangement also follows Dylan's journey through the social Angst of the '60s, his recovery following a motorcycle accident, to his acceptance of Christianity, in a way that no single album does.
Robert Zimmerman grew up in Hibbing, Minn., a small, tired mining town. As Robert Shelton notes in his biography, ``No Direction Home,'' Bob changed his name when he was a junior in high school. It started out ``Dillon,'' taken from the fictional frontier hero Matt Dillon of ``Gunsmoke.'' He then changed it to ``Dillion,'' a common last name in Hibbing at the time. He settled on ``Dylan'' in 1961 after reading about poet Dylan Thomas in a newspaper.
In 1961, at the restless age of 20, Dylan hitchhiked to New York. Within months he had taken the subterranean coffeehouse scene by storm, and with the help of a rave review by the New York Times, secured a recording contract with Columbia Records.
As the early cuts on ``Bootleg'' attest (those dating from 1961 to 1963), the folk singer produced and evolved at a furious pace. Songs like ``Let Me Die in My Footsteps'' and ``Rambling, Gambling Willie'' were only withheld from Dylan's second album, ``The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan,'' because as quickly as he'd record them, he'd write new songs to replace them on the album.
The early songs also show Dylan's attempt to emulate, and eventually make his own, the musical structure and social commentary of his major influences. From Woody Guthrie he honed his concern for the downtrodden; from Scottish ballads he learned to create his own tragic folk heroes.
Of special note is a rare live recording of Dylan reciting a 5-page poem called ``Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie,'' brilliantly delivered in rambling cadences.
The story behind ``Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues'' - a biting tale based on an actual father-son Hudson River boat trip that never left dock, is also revealing. As Mr. Bauldie notes, the song was originally inspired by Noel (Paul) Stookey, later of the folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary. Stookey handed Dylan a copy of a newspaper clipping of the Bear Mountain story; overnight, Dylan produced nine verses.
``Bear Mountain'' is one of Dylan's early experiments with talkin' blues - a kind of singsong lampooning that originated in South Carolina in the '20s. Although it was ultimately left off the Freewheelin' album, it marks the first time Dylan put a current incident into the folk format - a practice that Joan Baez and others adopted.
If there's an easy criticism to be made about Dylan, it's his voice. The harsh North Country twang and drawling vowels grate on the unappreciative ear. But the sound of his voice matches perfectly his man-in-the-street approach.
In songs like ``No More Auction Block,'' ``Mama, You Been on My Mind,'' and ``Angelina,'' Dylan is as moody and soulful as his subject requires.
Bootleg has some dogs: a piano version of ``The Times They Are A-Changin''' hits a flat, sour note each time the chorus comes around; ``Seven Days'' fails to capture any feelings worth relating to.
Dylan has been battered around the last 30 years as he explored folk music and tinkered with rock music. But along the way he has been the Jack Kerouac, Bertolt Brecht, and William Yeats of song.
As the progression of ``Bootleg'' shows, the angry young man of the '60s is ever more introspective. He endures because the search endures; there is still social injustice, there is still pain in relationships.
As Mr. Shelton muses at the end of his biography, Dylan ``may follow Rimbaud's route, having articulated more of the language of revolt than the world was then ready for.
Or he may follow Yeats's route of more seeking and more finding and even greater creativity toward old age. Knowing Dylan ... he'll probably do it his own way. He always has.''