Bob Dylan’s first album, recorded in New York in late 1961, was simply called Bob Dylan. The creation of ‘Bob Dylan’ – the persona, the sound, the look – was as important as the record’s contents. He’d been using the alias since the summer of 1960. His given name was Robert Zimmerman and he had grown up in Hibbing, a small mining town in Minnesota; he was the son of Abe, an electrical goods supplier, and Beatty, and the grandson of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. The name he chose has often been said to be a tribute to Dylan Thomas, but it seems he first thought of it as ‘Dillon’, possibly after the hard-bitten Dodge City lawman Matt Dillon, hero of the TV Western Gunsmoke. He was twenty years old, skinny and scruffy in jeans and a ‘Huck Finn cap’. In an early article in the New York Times, his future biographer Robert Shelton described him as ‘resembling a cross between a choirboy and a beatnik’. In the nine months since he had arrived in New York he had become a seasoned performer on the Greenwich Village folk club and coffee-house circuit, but he was less familiar with the recording studio. He was ‘terrible’, his producer John Hammond recalled: ‘Bobby popped every p, hissed every s, and habitually wandered off mike.’ But in another sense he knew just what he was doing. The album was made in just six hours of studio time – two three-hour sessions – at a cost of around $400. Five of its thirteen songs were cut in single takes.
Most of the record consists of folk and blues standards, but whether uptempo or slow there’s an urgency about them: the leap and glide of the harmonica; the shifting moods of the steel-string guitar from aggressive strumming to liquid finger-picking. The voice is thin, hoarse, scratchy, smoky, with a fake Okie accent that he will soon discard and a knack for idiosyncratic phrasing that will endure. ‘Mr Dylan’s voice is anything but pretty,’ Shelton wrote: ‘All the “husk and bark” are left on his notes and a searing intensity pervades his songs.’ Dylan himself has compared his voice to the howl of a coyote.
The album’s best-known track is ‘House of the Risin’ Sun’, a traditional song recorded by Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly among others, here performed in a version he learned from Dave van Ronk (the folk singer lightly fictionalised in the Coen Brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis). It’s a haunting song, and it came back to haunt him in the summer of 1964 when he heard it on his car radio in the moody R&B reworking by the Animals. ‘I nearly jumped out of my seat,’ he later said. By convention this was the Damascene moment that led to his ‘going electric’ the next year. But two other tracks on Bob Dylan are more significant. They are ‘Talkin’ New York’ and ‘Song to Woody’. The first, introduced by a skirl of harmonica, is a laconic account, half-sung and half-spoken, of his arrival in the city; the second is a plangent tribute to the dying Woody Guthrie, whom Dylan idolised, and to the tradition of itinerant, truth-telling folksingers and bluesmen that Guthrie represented:
Here’s to Cisco and Sonny and Lead Belly too,
And all the good people who have travelled with you;
Here’s to the hearts and the hands of the men
That come with the dust and are gone with the wind.
These songs are the first compositions by Dylan on record. The music is derivative – the tune of ‘Song to Woody’ is very close to Guthrie’s ‘1913 Massacre’ – but the words are Dylan’s. They are the first breath of that great storm of songwriting that ripped through the 1960s, the first steps on the road that has led him, 55 years and 37 studio albums later, to the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Like many of his fans, I consider Dylan to have been at his greatest in the 1960s. There have been many later spikes of greatness, most notably the twin peaks of Blood on the Tracks (1975) and Desire (1976), but they are measured against the quintessential Dylan of that first decade. I know this is partly nostalgia: I was a teenager then and he was one of my idols. He followed up his debut with three more acoustic albums – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, The Times They Are a-Changin’ and Another Side of Bob Dylan – containing folk music of rapidly evolving subtlety and bite, plus protest songs like ‘Masters of War’, ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game’ and ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’. I was too young, and too much of a chart-watching pop-picker, to pay much attention to these, though I attended to them greedily in retrospect. Listening back to them now I feel a sense of wonder at their clarity and beauty, and a sense of loss for what was swept away in the tumultous evolution that followed: the first electric period of 1965-66. But though something was lost, it’s this electric period that is seen by many of his admirers as his peak, an era of trail-blazing originality. His fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home, was the first I owned. I bought it in the early summer of 1965, shortly before my 15th birthday. (It was a toss-up between that and The Angry Young Them by the Belfast group Them, featuring a sullen, gingerish lad called Van Morrison on vocals.) I added it to my fledgling collection of LPs. Singles, or 45s, were still the thing then, stacked six-high on the spindles of those trusty Dansettes and Fidelitys, which exuded a faint smell of warm rubber when you opened up the lid to put the next stack on. But increasingly a new album was the proper sign of commitment, though at a cost of 35 shillings they had to be chosen with care. We pooled what we had, and listened together in bedrooms and poky school studies, our tastes a finely calibrated index of our friendships.
Bringing It All Back Home was the new chapter, the album of transition, its tracks a valedictory mix of exquisite acoustic or semi-acoustic (‘Mr Tambourine Man’, ‘Love Minus Zero’, ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’) and spiky new electric (‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, ‘Maggie’s Farm’, ‘Outlaw Blues’). The headline of an article in Record Mirror summed it up : ‘Bob Dylan: the Runaway Prince of Folk’. The Mirror was then the hippest of the three music weeklies (though much shorter lived than Melody Maker and New Musical Express) and had more photographs. ‘Exclusive colour pics’ brought us the new Dylan look. Gone was the Chaplinesque scruff of the Greenwich Village days and the work-shirted protest singer of the Civil Rights rallies. Now he was a figure of unimpeachable mid-1960s cool: the shades, the tab collar, the skinny jeans, the Cuban heels, and that tousled hairstyle which seemed a much hipper version of the boy-bouffants favoured by London Mod combos like the Who and the Small Faces. His style was essentially transatlantic Mod – it came across with the British Invasion that brought the Beatles to Shea Stadium and the Animals to his car radio. This was the way Dylan was offered to us: packaged and photographed, marketed and monetised, a style icon. He was the poetic ‘voice of a generation’, but he was also at this point a pop star, and had to compete with such headline grabbers as P.J. Proby, whose songs were briefly banned from the BBC after the scandal of his trousers splitting onstage, an unfortunate double mishap that occurred first at the Croydon ABC and then a few days later in Luton.
Bringing It All Back Home was followed by the majestic Highway 61 Revisited, released in the late summer of 1965, opening with that lone staccato snare-shot which heralds the raw power of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and ending 51 exhausting minutes later with the bleak dream vignettes of ‘Desolation Row’. Then a few months later came the altogether more baroque double album Blonde on Blonde, with its crepuscular, druggy ambience, its cast of eccentric characters, its narratives of break-up and breakdown, its lapidary images (‘her fog, her amphetamine and her pearls’), its drawled vocal phrasings (‘And Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues, you can tell by the way she smiles’), its unheard-of length (‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ filling a whole side) and its strange, secretive instrumentation achieving what Dylan would later define as ‘that thin, that wild mercury sound’.
These three seminal albums were created over a period of just 14 months, and their evolution in the studio can now be traced in magnificent detail in the six-CD set, The Cutting Edge 1965-66, released late last year. It is the latest instalment of Dylan’s ‘Bootleg Series’, an archive of previously unreleased material which Columbia has been making available at irregular intervals since 1991. The series draws on a huge reservoir of recordings, including studio demos and out-takes, early home recordings and live performances. It offers alternative versions of well-loved songs and, more occasionally, pristine versions of unknown songs. (It should be noted that these are official releases, so the use of the word ‘bootleg’ is inaccurate or at least ironic: the ‘true’ – i.e. illegal – Dylan bootlegs are another story.)
The Cutting Edge takes us straight into the laboratory – mostly the Columbia studios on 7th Avenue in midtown Manhattan, though the final sessions of Blonde on Blonde took place at Columbia’s Music Row studios in Nashville. ‘What we have here,’ the liner notes by Sean Wilentz and Bill Flanagan announce, ‘are work tapes – rehearsals, demos, alternate versions, discarded songs, fragments, early drafts and spare tracks – from the 1965 and 1966 sessions.’ Most of this material was ‘never meant to be released’, and there has been ‘no attempt made at creating finished, glossy recordings’ (though, being sourced from the master tapes, their fidelity is pretty high). This is a musical narrative told in 111 tracks, tracing the laborious and intermittently fraught construction of these works.
The first 27 tracks in the collection are drawn from the Bringing It All Back Home sessions, which took place over three days in mid-January 1965. The opening session begins in a relaxed acoustic ambience, with Dylan easing into ‘Love Minus Zero’, accompanied by John Sebastian on bass, but the first thing we hear is the lugubriously reassuring voice of the producer, Tom Wilson, announcing ‘“Dime Store” – Take 1’. This is one of a number of unfamiliar early titles, for these are songs still in the making. Thus ‘She Belongs to Me’ is first slated as ‘My Girl’ and later as ‘Worse than Money’; and Highway 61’s ‘From a Buick 6’ was originally called ‘Lunatic Princess’; and ‘She’s Your Lover Now’ was ‘Just a Little Glass of Water’. Some of these first thoughts are merely facetious – ‘Farewell Angelina’ was never really called ‘Alacatraz to the Fifth Power’, Dylan is just winding Wilson up – but sometimes they seem better than the official titles. ‘It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry’, for instance, has always seemed a daft title for that lovely song: it would have been better left as ‘Phantom Engineer’. It’s also interesting to hear the unplugged versions of songs that ended up electric, such as ‘Outlaw Blues’ and even ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, which as the driving opener of the finished album (and as the charting single taken from it) figures in most people’s minds as the foundation stone of electric Dylan. He sings it first with just acoustic guitar and harmonica, chanting the words in what John Bauldie described (in the liner-notes of Bootleg Series Vol. 2, where it first appeared) as ‘an extraordinary skip-rope monotone’. This is clearly a run-through for the benefit of the backing musicians, and the next morning they arrive at the finished product in just two takes, with Dylan’s vocal now the jabbing, sardonic, jump-cut anthem that rattled our walls half a century ago:
Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine
I’m on the pavement thinking ’bout the government
The man in the trench coat, badge out, laid off
Says he’s got a bad cough, wants to get it paid off
Look out kid it’s somethin’ you did
God knows when but you’re doin’ it again
An interesting sideline of The Cutting Edge is its reproduction of some of the original manuscripts, or more often hand-corrected typescripts, of the lyrics. (If Dylan were an Elizabethan playwright they would be called his ‘foul papers’.) The leaf containing the lyrics of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ has its original title, ‘Look Out Kid’. In this first typewritten tumble onto paper the opening lines read (all spellings and spacings as in the original):
johnny’s in the basement/ mising up the medicene
I’m on the pavement thinking bout the govt
man in the trnch coat/badge out laid off
says he’s got a bad bill–wants t get paid off
Dylan’s acoustic run-through follows this wording of the fourth line, which makes sense (‘bad bill’ = counterfeit note) but in the final version is changed to ‘bad cough’ for the sake of adding another of the internal rhymes in which the song abounds. I like the orthography: the oblique stroke marking the natural caesura of the lines; the contracted forms (‘an’ for ‘and’, ‘t’ for ‘to’). They convey the rhythms and dictions of vocal delivery; they stress that these are song lyrics not poems. The typescript contains a discarded quatrain that is going pretty well until it breaks down at the third line, which the fourth attempts to repair:
it’s nowhere / all bare / they just pay your fare there
frog smog/ thick fog/ they’ll tell you that its fresh air
(dont [‘look’ deleted] why but the water well’s dry/
(don’t ask why–but you better say goodbye –
There are also some late insertions, including one of the song’s most famous lines, ‘you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.’ Lost (though possibly recoverable if one had the original to study) are the two lines below the title. They are apparently a different opening to the song, but have been fiercely typed over with a row of x’s. A couple of words are distinguishable with a magnifying glass, but my attention is drawn to a blank space nearby, where other words show through faintly from the verso – a fragment of a song or poem entitled ‘Mavis’, of which only a few half-lines can be read:
down in chicago there …
she sings the blues …
I dream she’s singing …
I wake up thinking that I’m …
The person addressed is doubtless Mavis Staples, the Chicago-born singer and activist whose rich, deep gospel voice adorns Staple Singers numbers like ‘Uncloudy Day’. They had met in New York in the early 1960s and, in her words, ‘court[ed] awhile’.
These pages are alive with mental movement, as poets’ drafts always are, and it occurs to me that these multiple studio takes – all these warm-ups, run-throughs, experiments and cul-de-sacs – are a series of musical drafts, arriving eventually at the take that will make it onto the album, the one they call the ‘keeper’. This process of invention on the hoof is palpable in the sessions, and required a lot from the musicians who played with Dylan. He comes in with a buzz of ideas, half-formed songs and sound qualities, and everyone on both sides of the glass has to play catch-up as best they can. ‘His intent was very strong,’ one of the musicians on the session, the guitarist Bruce Langhorne, said:
He would generate a thread from the beginning of his song to the end of his song that you could really latch onto, either as a listener or as an accompanist. And I would latch onto his thread and I knew what he was going to do. That’s the telepathic part: I had some idea of what he was going to do before he’d do it.
Langhorne is one of the unsung heroes of the Bringing It All Back Home sessions. His elegantly understated guitar fills are a kind of ‘soft electric’ that forms a bridge into the new musical terrain Dylan is broaching. His finest contribution occurs in the last session, when ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ was finally caught and canned. Langhorne is actually credited by Dylan as the original Tambourine Man. He’d brought a large Turkish frame-drum into one of the Freewheelin’ sessions in 1962. ‘It was as big as a wagon wheel,’ Dylan recalled, ‘and this vision of him playing this tambourine just stuck in my mind.’ The song was written during a Southern road-trip in early 1964, after a wild night during Mardi Gras in New Orleans (‘Let me forget about today until tomorrow’), and was first captured on a tape recording made in May of that year with the folk singer Eric von Schmidt at his home in Sarasota, Florida. Its first live performance was in London, at a Sunday afternoon concert at the Royal Festival Hall on 17 May. (Those were the days, when you could hear the world premiere of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ and be home in time for tea.) He tried it in the studio on 9 June 1964, during the legendary all-night session when he recorded the whole of Another Side of Bob Dylan. Two takes survive, with Greenwich Village folkie Ramblin’ Jack Elliott putting some harmonies over the chorus, but it wasn’t good enough to go on that album. Around this time he made a demo version for his music publisher, Witmark Music – by the sound of it a home recording – a rather dirge-like rendition, accompanying himself on piano. This can be heard on Vol. 9 of the Bootleg Series (The Witmark Demos). Something is missing in all these versions, and wasn’t found until he returned to the song on the third day of the Bringing It All Back Home sessions. He begins with Langhorne on guitar and the veteran jazz and R&B percussionist Bobby Gregg on drums, but it’s a struggle. Take 1 is a false start. Take 2 breaks down after a minute or so, with Dylan complaining about the drums being too loud: ‘Me and Bruce’ll just play it, OK? It’s kinda pulling me a little bit. It’s pulling my ear.’ But Wilson, the producer, calms him down, and Gregg is still drumming on Take 3, which again grinds to a halt. ‘The drum’s driving me mad,’ Dylan says: ‘I’m going out of my brai–.’ And Wilson shuts off the sound with what comes across fifty years later as a brisk irritated swipe. The irony is piquant – this paean to ecstatic rhythm mired in problems with the drumming – but Dylan’s instinct is right, and the fourth take, with just Langhorne playing delicately behind him, is the keeper. The album was released in mid-March 1965, and a couple of months later we woke up to the sound of jingle-jangle guitars and Californian harmonies, as the Byrds’ cover version of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ raced up the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, and, in the pop press formulation, ‘folk-rock was born.’
As early as 1964 Pete Seeger said that ‘Bob Dylan may well become the country’s most creative troubadour – if he doesn’t explode.’ It was prescient. The 1965-66 studio sessions documented in The Cutting Edge took place against a backdrop of intense pressure. The sessions themselves, up in the hermetic confines of the seventh-floor studios, were a soundproofed respite from the general tenor of Dylan’s life at this time. It was a whirlwind period of spiralling drug use, punishing tour schedules, hostile audiences who booed and heckled him – ‘Judas!’ – for forsaking his folk roots, and increasingly desperate press conferences where he sat behind his shades, smoking endless cigarettes and mumbling cryptic responses to obsequiously aggressive reporters who didn’t much like him or his music. Some of this can be seen in D.A. Pennebaker’s film Dont Look Back, which records in unblinking black and white a two-week slice of Dylan’s British tour in the summer of 1965. Pennebaker was also present with his camera on the even crazier world tour of 1966, but his footage was hijacked by Dylan, who worked with another director, Howard Alk, to produce a seldom seen expressionist mishmash called Eat the Document.
The explosion predicted by Seeger came to pass in the summer of 1966, ushering in the third and most mysterious phase of 1960s Bob Dylan – the chapter of silence. On the morning of 29 July 1966, in the vicinity of a hamlet in the hills of upstate New York called Bearsville, Dylan lost control of his 500cc Triumph Tiger-100 motorcycle and crashed. He suffered concussion and – according to his own account – some ‘busted’ vertebrae. He was driven by his wife Sara to Middletown, some fifty miles away, where he was treated by a doctor they knew, Ed Thaler, and spent the next few weeks recuperating in an attic bedroom of Thaler’s house. The news leaked out patchily. A two-sentence report in the New York Times of 2 August – headlined ‘Dylan Hurt in Cycle Mishap’ – seems to have been the first public notice. The story must have been carried in the British press though I don’t remember reading it. I remember only the long months of rumour that followed. At first there were wild stories: he had broken his neck, he had been horribly disfigured, he would never sing again. Then there were conspiracy theories: the crash was a hoax, a cover-up or metaphor for some other kind of drug-related crash. This eerie silence lasted a year and a half, and was finally broken in the first months of 1968, with the release of an austere, admonitory collection of stripped-down country ballads, John Wesley Harding.
In a sense the conspiracy theory wasn’t far off the mark. The crash wasn’t a fiction, but it was – or it served as – a moment of sudden and drastic re-evaluation. As Shelton drily remarks, ‘it was widely reported that Dylan nearly lost his life. It seems more likely that the mishap saved his life.’ ‘In many ways [the accident] was really good for me,’ Dylan said later: ‘It really slowed me down.’ ‘In Woodstock, a little after the accident, sitting round one night under a full moon, I … said, “something’s gotta change.”’ In his memoir, Chronicles (2004), he says that the accident made him see ‘everything through different glasses’. He also cites the importance of his family in this new vision of things. He had secretly married Sara Lownds (née Shirley Noznisky) in November 1965, and the first of their four children, Jesse, was born the following January; he adopted Sara’s daughter from her first marriage too.
Though all was silence and mystery then, we now know that Dylan was holed up in rural Woodstock doing what he always did – making music. The product of his long seclusion was the legendary ‘Basement Tapes’, which in the view of the Dylan discographer and biographer Clinton Heylin may well be ‘Dylan’s greatest collection of songs’. According to Heylin the first session was recorded in a room in Dylan’s house near Woodstock in about June 1967, but the majority took place in the cellar of a house in the nearby village of West Saugerties known locally as ‘Big Pink’, which had been rented by his new backing group, the Hawks (soon to be rechristened the Band). The sessions went on for four months, very unbuttoned and informal. As Dylan later told Jann Wenner, the editor of Rolling Stone: ‘You know, that’s really the way to do a recording – in a peaceful relaxed setting, in somebody’s basement, with the windows open and a dog lying on the floor.’ What began as a kind of therapeutic loosening-up blossomed into a sequence of songs stranger than anything he had previously written. Some of them – ‘Too Much of Nothing’, ‘Tears of Rage’, ‘Nothing was Delivered’ – are stark and skeletal. Others, like ‘Million Dollar Bash’, ‘Tiny Montgomery’ and ‘Please, Mrs Henry’, offer quirky stories and scenarios from the American underbelly. They are parallel to (but a lot better than) the surreal ‘experimental’ prose poems he’d been working on for a while, eventually published in 1971 as Tarantula.
By the time of the last session in November, they had recorded around 140 songs, thirty of them Dylan originals, the rest loose reappraisals of old songs: blues, folk, rockabilly, doo-wop – whatever took their fancy. The soundscape is as rudimentary as it could be – the breeze-block acoustics of the Big Pink basement, all the leaks and flutters and wobbles attributable to the ‘shitty little tape recorder’ they were using (as the Band guitarist Robbie Robertson put it) and the parsimonious 3¼ inches per second recording speed – but none of this mattered, Robertson said, because ‘we weren’t making a record, we were just fooling around.’ The gloomy echo-chamber ambience is indeed part of their allure. As Greil Marcus wrote in his book about the recordings, Invisible Republic (1997), ‘the murk creates its own mystique.’
News of the secret cache of Dylan compositions began to leak out in the early months of 1968. Copies of an acetate containing 14 of the songs were circulated among production companies, with the intention of attracting other artists to record them. This resulted in the appearance of two rather watered-down cover versions in Britain – Manfred Mann’s ‘Mighty Quinn’ and the Brian Auger-Julie Driscoll recording of ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’ – which further whetted our appetite for the real thing. In June Rolling Stone published an article calling – somewhat in the manner of a Times editorial – for this ‘rough collection of songs’ to be made public; ‘Dylan’s Basement Tape Should Be Released’ runs the headline. It notes that the recording quality is ‘poor’ but thinks the tapes ‘could easily be remastered’ and that ‘the concept of a cohesive record is already present.’ Another year passed and then suddenly, in July 1969, this vacuum was filled – not by Columbia Records or any other industry giant, but by the appearance of the first Dylan bootleg.
Supplied discreetly to certain record stores and radio stations in the Los Angeles area, the first pressings of this epoch-making album were splendidly anonymous: a blank white gatefold cover containing two vinyl discs with blank white labels. This packaging gave the record a nickname that swiftly became its title, and soon the covers were adorned with a rough rubber-stamping that read: ‘Great White Wonder’. It was pressed and distributed by two young LA-based ‘fringe-of-record-business-hustlers’, Dub Taylor and Ken Douglas, who went on to become major players in the bootleg market. They were wholesaling the records at $4.50 apiece, and they were doing brisk business, only slightly hampered by the fact that neither of them owned a car. In the first few weeks they shifted more than two thousand copies and the stores (selling them at anything between $6 and $12) were clamouring for more. Here at last were the basement songs everyone was waiting for, or at least a tantalising sample of them: just nine songs. But in a sense the rest of the compilation was even more tantalising: four out-takes from various Columbia recording sessions, two tapes from TV shows and eleven songs from the earliest years of Dylan’s career. The latter were culled from an amateur tape, copies of which had been passing through collectors’ hands over the past few years, but which was unknown to the wider world. The tape was recorded in Minneapolis by an old friend of Dylan’s, Tony Glover, in December 1961 (a month after the recording of his first album). It’s generally known as the ‘Minneapolis Hotel’ tape, though it seems ‘hotel’ is an in-joke and the songs were recorded at the apartment of another friend, Bonnie Beecher, often said to be the subject of that beautiful ballad from Freewheelin’, ‘Girl from the North Country’. Suddenly this whole new dimension opened up, this great hinterland of unreleased Dylan material.
I don’t think I had ever heard of a bootleg record before Great White Wonder, and people still sometimes say it was the first ever. It was actually a new chapter in a fringe business not much younger than the recording industry itself. The original bootleg commodity was whisky, so called because a flattish bottle of the stuff could be snugly concealed down the leg of one’s boot. The earliest printed appearance of the word in this sense, according to the OED, was in an 1889 edition of the Omaha Herald. The transference to other clandestine commodities came a bit later. A 1929 article in the Hollywood magazine Variety notes the popularity of ‘bootleg disk records’, though these were probably illegal copies of existing releases – counterfeits, in other words, as distinct from the true bootleg, which is an unauthorised copying of material that has never been released. This new kind of piracy was opened up by the development of portable disc-cutters in the 1930s – the Wilcox-Gay Recordio was the favoured brand – and the first true bootleg is probably a recording of a 1933 Louis Armstrong concert in Denmark, fed via a radio-link to a disc-cutter. Efforts by the record companies to confront this new threat were hampered by the vagueness of the law. While the British Copyright Act of 1911 provided protection for sound recordings throughout the British Empire, the US Congress had rather fudged the matter when it declared in 1909 that ‘there was no visible expression of creative effort within the grooves of a record.’ By the end of the 1930s cases were being brought against bootleggers for ‘infringement of property rights’, but they continued to thrive, and for some of them one is eternally grateful. Jerry Newman’s wonderful recordings of the pioneer jazz guitarist Charlie Christian jamming at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem in the early summer of 1941 are probably the richest relic of his tragically brief career; and Dean Benedetti’s 1947 compilations of Charlie Parker solos (he didn’t waste disc-space on the rest of the number) were enough to fill seven CDs when eventually released forty years later.
The success of Great White Wonder opened the way for a whole tribe of bootleggers and literally hundreds of illegal compilations of his work have appeared since. Dylan has been officially described by the Recording Industry Association of America as ‘the most bootlegged artist in the history of the music industry’. The scale of this piracy eventually led to Columbia’s decision to release its own Bootleg Series, offering more material, with better sound quality and better documentation. The appearance of The Basement Tapes Complete (Bootleg Series Vol. 11) in 2014 gave us for the first time all of the 1967 Woodstock recordings – 139 tracks, including such previously unheard gems as ‘Sign on the Cross’.
This was the way the saga of the Dylan decade ended: in April 1969 Nashville Skyline, an anodyne collection of country songs and undoubtedly the dullest record of his career so far, was released; in July Great White Wonder appeared with its message that the best way forward was to go back, back into this mysterious locked vault of previous recordings to which the plucky bootleggers (‘quack Robin Hoods’ Dylan called them) would provide the key. And then, on the last day of August, his appearance with the Band at the Isle of Wight Festival, where the faithful gathered to greet him – a crowd of 150,000 according to contemporary estimates – in a large muddy field near Woodside Bay. It was his first major concert for three years, and the first time I’d seen him live. He wore a white suit and sang in the comic opera, country-crooner style of Nashville Skyline. The performance was patently under-rehearsed and never really took off. The opening chords of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ got a huge cheer but halfway through he forgot the words.
There were just two stand-out moments on that chilly August night. One was a solo acoustic rendition of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’: how could it fail to move us? The other was a song called ‘Minstrel Boy’. It was the only one he played that we hadn’t heard before, one of the vast repertoire from the Big Pink sessions; the original version remained unheard until the release of the full Basement Tapes. The chorus is plaintive – ‘Who’s gonna throw that minstrel boy a coin?’ – and he sang it with such soul that for a moment it felt like he was back in those early innocent days, a smoky-voiced young singer playing for a pittance in a Greenwich Village coffee-house. This illusion passed quickly, as did the concert. It was over in less than an hour, which meant, according to well-informed sources, that the minstrel boy was playing for about a thousand dollars a minute. The show was a disappointment but we didn’t really mind. He’d given us so much already.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.