Three CDs, fifty-eight tracks, nearly four hours of music — the first three volumes of The Bootleg Series stand solidly on their own terms as an essential statement of the breadth of Bob Dylan's artistic achievement. This collection is obviously not where a newcomer to Dylan — whoever such a person might be — should begin. These songs — outtakes from albums, alternative versions of well-known and lesser-known tunes, the occasional live track demos Dylan recorded for his music publisher so his songs could be transcribed and made available to other artists — are not his greatest hits or his most influential work. They do not even demonstrate a definite creative progress, as do the songs on Biograph — despite the absurdly confused chronology of that earlier collection.
No, the tracks on The Bootleg Series document the blue highways of Dylan's imagination, the paths not taken, the back roads that sometimes run parallel to and sometimes veer away from the main road — songs from a planned live album that got scuttled, songs that seemed old-fashioned after fresher impulses gripped Dylan's restless soul, songs too similar to or too different from other songs on a particular album, sketches that never quite assumed full character. With the help of John Bauldie's excellent liner notes — detailed without being obsessive, interpretive without being bullying, appreciative without being fawning — listeners can get a distinct feel from this set for the kinds of decisions that make a song or shape a career.
But The Bootleg Series by no means requires such specialized interest in exchange for its pleasures. Hearing the songs without any reference to their standing in the Dylan canon is a spellbinding experience. In fact, it could even temporarily diminish one's enjoyment of a song like "Rambling, Gambling Willie" — even as it deepens one's understanding of Dylan — to know that the tune was pulled from The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan so that "Bob Dylan's Dream" could be included on the album. Without question, "Bob Dylan's Dream" — a dark, troubling reflection on innocence forever lost — is the superior song, but nearly thirty years later the comparison is important only to the most dedicated Dylan followers. More casual fans can simply be swept up in the exuberant spirit Dylan brings to the outlaw ballad of "Rambling, Gambling Willie" and enjoy the charming innocence that Dylan, who was all of twenty-one at the time, felt he had outgrown.
Beyond that, some of the performances on The Bootleg Series are just extraordinary, up to the standard of Dylan's most profound moments on record. The contradictory emotions — longing, bitterness, affection, resignation — that inform Dylan's world-weary rendering of "Mama, You Been on My Mind," an outtake from Bringing It All Back Home, will be familiar to anyone who has been haunted by a former lover. "I'm just whispering to myself, so I can't pretend that I don't know," he sings, letting his pride slip and his honesty show, his voice lagging dreamily behind his own tempo on acoustic guitar. "Mama, you're on my mind." Another outtake from Bringing It All Back Home — the poetic "Farewell, Angelina," a surreal meditation on leaving love behind — is equally transporting. On the arresting "Blind Willie McTell," recorded with Dylan on piano and Mark Knopfler on guitar during the 1983 sessions for Infidels, Dylan transforms an oblique celebration of a dead blues master into a stark, existential indictment of the emptiness of life in the modern world.
Dylan's political aspect is also well represented on The Bootleg Series. Recorded in 1962, "Let Me Die in My Footsteps," with its stirring refrain, "Let me die in my footsteps/Before I go down under the ground," is a dignified response to the bomb-shelter craze generated by cold-war paranoia. On a similar but lighter note, "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues," recorded live at Carnegie Hall, in New York, in 1963, skewers the lingering vestiges of McCarthyism in America. And Dylan's rendition of the slave spiritual "No More Auction Block," from a 1962 performance at the Gaslight Café, in New York's Greenwich Village, is riveting; he would later adapt the tune's melody for "Blowin' in the Wind." "Man on the Street" and "Only a Hobo," which, in a better world, might merely seem like sentimental holdovers from Dylan's fascination with Depression-era ballads, take on an unsettling contemporary resonance, given the problem of homelessness ravaging this country.
Meanwhile, Dylan the rocker steps forward on a torrid version of "Seven Days," recorded live in Tampa on the 1976 Rolling Thunder tour, as well as on the ardently sensual "Need a Woman," an outtake from Shot of Love, and "Foot of Pride," a blistering track left over from Infidels. Guitarist Michael Bloomfield tears into a faster alternate version of "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry," from the sessions for Highway 61 Revisited, while Dylan and the Band, then known as the Hawks, shake up the acerbic "She's Your Lover Now," recorded during the 1966 sessions for Blonde on Blonde.
Finally, however, The Bootleg Series is not about the rockers, splendid as those tracks are. With two exceptions — one being Dylan's nervous, moving recital of one of his poems, "Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie," at a 1963 New York concert, the other being a song on which he is joined by a second, unidentified guitarist — the first twenty-eight tracks on the collection feature Dylan performing solo on acoustic guitar or piano, and on many of the other tracks the accompaniment is spare. Indeed, Dylan's vocals often take on the contemplative quality of someone thinking, rather than singing aloud.
These songs, then, are testament to an individual's struggle to bring meaning to experience, to an artist searching for a personal voice that can take the measure of an emotion and a time, to that voice rising to say what it needs to say. Traveling the hidden byways charted on The Bootleg Series, Dylan found his voice, and it's inspiring to hear it ring so true now, in all its starts and hesitations, its yearnings and disappointments — in all its triumphs.