So, you’re a fan of the wee man from Minnesota, and you’re thinking of getting the December issue of Uncut for the free CD of Dylan tracks from his bootleg series. Is it worth it?
Well, for starters, you’d better get your skates on, because Uncut’s peculiar publication schedule means, although we’re only half way through November, the issue featuring the Bobster is already being replaced on the newsagent shelves by the January 2019 one! Of course, my colleague, friend and joint investor in Uncut manicpopthrills (we buy issues turn about and pass them on – canny Scottish tip for you all!) would grumble that another issue with Dylan on the front will be along in a minute, but let’s ignore him for now and focus on the December CD.
Actually, whether it’s worth it or not is really down to how much of a Dylan completist you are. If, like me, you’re something of a lapsed believer, there are some things of interest here: a reminder that, however dreary some of his deity-bothering material was in the 80s, he at least had the sense to hire the best of touring bands (a rocking version of Slow Train); nice too, to hear again the way he ramped up gentle folkie ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ on the Rolling Thunder tour; and an outtake from one of my favourite albums, Oh Mercy, ‘Born in Time,’ which is kind of in the category of ‘good but I can see why he left it off.’
I really wonder though about all these old guys bringing out multiple outtakes, retakes, forgotten reggae versions and so on. Dylan’s a serial offender here: I noted with amazement that his Bootleg series, a rolling record of ‘official,’ cleaned up releases to counter the tsunami of bootleg versions that he’s been subject to over the decades has reached number 14. This included Volume 12, The Cutting Edge, which, in its limited-edition 18-disc Collector’s Edition incarnation, contains ‘…every note recorded during the 1965–1966 sessions, every alternate take and alternate lyric.’ Take a week off work to listen.
Dylan isn’t alone, of course. The Beatles (or at least those with the relevant rights) and the Stones have been raiding their archives for years. Others like Pink Floyd aren’t far behind. It’s a lucrative venture, and you can see what’s in it for the record companies.
But, really, do you need 16 different takes of ‘Like A Rolling Stone,’ when you’ve got the one Dylan and Bob Johnson plumped for? Some artists, of course, are no longer with us, and there’s much to be plundered from Prince’s Vault that would be worth a listen, given how prolific the other little guy from Minnesota was. And then again…
Then again there’s the story of that nearly-lost Dylan classic, ‘Blind Willie McTell…’
1983, and Dylan’s emerging from his aformentioned born-again phase, engaging Jamaican rhythm section Sly and Robbie, ex-Stone Mick Taylor on guitar, and one Mark Knopfler, resting between Dire Straits albums, as producer of what will become Infidels. It’s an okay album, certainly better than the dirge-like gospel that went before, not to mention the dross that follows it up until Lanois drags Dylan off to New Orleans and makes Oh Mercy with him. However, what’s on Infidels isn’t nearly as interesting as what’s not on it.
At some point during the recording sessions, Dylan sits down at the piano, with Knopfler picking up an acoustic guitar. Perhaps with those two humungous talents together alone in the room it’s not surprising that magic happens, but boy, does it happen in bucketloads. His Bobness is later to claim that it was a demo version so the rest of the band could learn it, but Dylan only knows why that didn’t happen. There’s another take out there in the ether with Taylor on slide, but it’s the Dylan/Knopfler version that starts to circulate in bootleg form amongst the faithful.
This seems to put Dylan in such a huff that he refuses to release it, or indeed even play it live, for years, and is quoted as saying in a Rolling Stone interview: “I started playing it live because I heard the Band doing it. Most likely it was a demo, probably showing the musicians how it should go. It was never developed fully, I never got around to completing it. There wouldn’t have been any other reason for leaving it off the record. It’s like taking a painting by Monet or Picasso – goin’ to his house and lookin’ at a half-finished painting and grabbing it and selling it to people who are ‘Picasso fans.'”
So, an unfinished masterpiece, then, Bob? Certainly a lot of people see ‘Blind Willie McTell’ as one of the little fella’s best. In a style that’s now called Americana, the vivid imagery of chain gangs, slavery ships, and bootlegged (ironically enough) whiskey paints a lyrical picture of a lost South that Dylan builds, verse by verse, his trademark croak betraying a rising passion as the song progresses. His own idiosyncratic piano and Knopfler’s subtle guitar accompaniment somehow work as the perfect sonic backdrop to the words.
A note here for Dylanologists – there’s been a debate amongst aficionados ever since the song emerged as to why the Bobster chose Blind Willie McTell for the refrain of ‘Ain’t nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell…’ when the real life McTell was actually quite a cheery sort of song and dance man who played ragtime as much as blues. Blind Willie Johnson, on the other hand, really, really could sing the blues. The answer, I think, is no more complicated than, as any songwriter knows, there’s a lot more words rhyme with ‘McTell’ than ‘Johnson.’
Why is this song so good? You might not agree, of course, but one reason I think this version’s so revered amongst fans is because it’s not overproduced, or overthought. I was talking to my friend and fellow songwriter Martin McGroarty about this the other night: when a song is newly forged, fresh from the furnace, those first few performances when you’ve just written it hold something special that you never get back. There’s a freshness to it, an emotion in the voice, that can come across no matter how primitive the recording method.
By a coincidence, I was out seeing a Dylan tribute band on Friday night. Yeah, I know: I don’t make a habit of it. ‘Bob’ himself seemed a bit off his game: maybe it was him starting the first song of the show with the wrong harmonica that threw him, the way it can. Could have done without all the chat from the bass player, who seemed to feel it necessary to share with us at one point that he wasn’t much of a Dylan fan himself. The guitarist was great, though: and if ‘Bob’ got the lyrics of ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ a bit, well, tangled up, he clearly was an aficionado, and his song choices, including ‘Blind Willie McTell,’ were totally sound. Shame my home town, by the size of the audience, isn’t stuffed with fellow Dylan fans.
On the other hand, maybe that’s no bad thing…
Adverts down here. Nowt to do with me matey