To celebrate Bob Dylan's twenty-fourth year on record, Columbia has released Biograph, a five-record set that is not only a major retrospective but also a reassuring, sometimes startling, overview of Dylan's contributions to our culture. With its fifty-three recordings (nine officially unreleased songs, three unreleased studio versions, six unreleased live tracks and four hard-to-find singles), Biograph is a scratch on the surface of the tip of the iceberg, a tantalizing invitation to explore anew the rest of the Dylan catalog.
The album's title suggests a life's history under examination, and Biograph provides as comprehensive, revealing and fulfilling a text as a mere ten sides of Dylan will allow. It tells the story of a man's complex and inexhaustible romance with his mentors, influences and heroes: rustic minstrels (Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams); haunted blues singers (Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith); romantic, visionary and hipster poets (John Keats, William Blake, Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg); roots rock cats and media superstars (the Reverend Richard Penniman, Elvis Presley).
Despite this plethora of sources — acknowledged or interpreted — the songs on this set give incontrovertible evidence of a continuing explosion of genius. He blew away all restrictions on content in popular songwriting. Even in the wake of the New Wave, any songwriter who veers into abstract, surrealistic or associative imagery owes a debt to Bob Dylan. In the lavish booklet that accompanies Biograph, Dylan makes a simple claim: "Tin Pan Alley is gone. I put an end to it." (Which isn't to say Bob's not capable of some old-school songwriting himself, as the "moon" --"spoon" rhymes in "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" demonstrate.) Though his association with the protest movement of the Sixties produced the enduring anthems "Blowin' in the Wind" and "The Times They Are A-Changin'," the songs from this period skirted the obsolescence of topicality. Even the mournful outrage of "Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" stands up more than twenty years later. Dylan's most important political act was to liberate radical perception and consciousness and put it into jukeboxes.
The assemblers of Biograph obviously knew Dylan's catalog extremely well, enjoyed access to the complete work and cared enough about the project to worry about its cumulative impact. Biograph — with its intelligent and sensitive mix of greatest hits, best songs and fine rarities — serves both hard-core Dylanphiles and neophytes. The album is thematically, albeit loosely, structured. The setting of the greatest hits — "Lay Lady Lay," "Like a Rolling Stone," "Blowin' in the Wind," "The Times They Are A-Changin'" — alongside less familiar songs creates a feeling of rediscovery. Since the album avoids chronological ordering, the listener is made less aware of Dylan's "reinventions" and is drawn instead to the incredible consistency of his vision and themes.
Side one is devoted to love songs and includes "I'll Keep It with Mine," a long-time favorite of bootleggers. Recorded by Nico — it appears on Chelsea Girl — the tune is one of Dylan's best examples of the compression of contradictory attitudes. Side two is solid Sixties protest folk music. Sounding as relevant in Ronald Reagan's America as it did in the Sixties, "Masters of War" damns the munitions-industry conspiracy. The unreleased "Percy's Song" spins the poignant saga of a victim of an unfeeling court system. Side three includes Dylan's first experiment with an electric band, 1962's "Mixed-Up Confusion"; the hottest Jesus rant ever recorded, "Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar"; and a sample of Dylan's punchline existentialist humor, "Jet Pilot."
Just as he had been castigated by folk purists when he had gone electric in 1965, Bob Dylan came under fire for his overtly Christian albums, Slow Train Coming, Saved and the underrated and overlooked Shot of Love. Placed in the structure of Biograph, the songs from these albums echo and reinforce the sense of deep spiritual commitment apparent in Dylan's earlier, more secular songs. The act of creation has always been an auto-da-fé in Dylan's case. One hears it anew in the unreleased "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" (recorded in 1963), wherein all God's creation is metaphorically broken down into musical instruments. A newly available 1966 live acoustic version of "Visions of Johanna" finds the poet in the predawn hours alone with the heat pipes and the image of the "ghost of electricity" burning her way into his brain. The faint echo of Dylan's voice in the concert hall adds an eerie, spectral dimension to the performance. Dylan's singing on this recording renders the Blonde on Blonde version nearly obsolete.
The otherworldly presence active in Dylan's best performances translates well into the uplifting conviction of the faith-in-God numbers "I Believe in You" and "Every Grain of Sand." On the yowling live version of "Isis," he marries the Egyptian goddess of fertility and does not emerge unscathed. In contrast to the blazing firepower of his impassioned love-as-entrapment yarns, Dylan is also capable of the mournful bittersweet croon that surfaces on "Up to Me" (a rough draft of "Shelter from the Storm") and a rollicking live version, of "Heart of Mine."
Included with Biograph are extensive notes on every song, with Dylan providing rare and insightful commentary on background and inspiration. The accompanying booklet features a lengthy interview wherein Dylan, in an uncharacteristically straightforward manner, talks about various aspects of his career and family, his childhood in Hibbing, Minnesota, and his early days in New York, his albums and tours and all points in between.
If there is a fault with Biograph, it's the obvious and unavoidable one: the omission of personal favorites. Every aficionado will notice a few, but every aficionado's will be different. After all, my Bob is not your Bob.
This story is from the January 16th, 1986 issue of Rolling Stone.