Bob Dylan, whose enormous archive of unreleased studio and concert recordings has been the bread and butter of the bootleg record industry for more than two decades, will finally release his own official “bootleg” March 26th on Columbia Records. Entitled Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare and Unreleased) 1961-1991, the fifty-eight-track, deluxe box set was produced and compiled by Jeff Rosen, who did the honors on the best-selling 1985 Dylan retrospective, Biograph. It will be available as three compact discs, three cassettes or five LPs and is composed entirely of previously unissued studio outtakes, demo recordings and live performances covering Dylan’s entire career. The set includes a seventy-two-page booklet with historic photos, recording-session details and an extensive critical essay by John Bauldie, a noted British Dylanologist and the editor and publisher of the acclaimed Dylan fanzine The Telegraph.
The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3, which has been in the works for about a year, is the first in a projected collection of Columbia releases devoted exclusively to the hidden treasures in Dylan’s huge tape stash. Though much of the material included on Volumes 1-3 has been heard, and loved, by Dylan bootleg collectors for years, The Bootleg Series represents the first official, systematic mining of Dylan’s mother lode of previously unreleased recordings. And even hard-core Dylan nuts will flip over such newly discovered gems as the heretofore unknown studio recording of “Farewell, Angelina,” a Dylan original made famous by Joan Baez, and the brief studio rehearsal version of “Like a Rolling Stone” performed as it was originally written – in waltz time!
In the first installment of The Bootleg Series, the focus is on Dylan’s prodigious growth and extraordinary productivity as a songwriter, beginning with his ingenious adaptations and bold transformations of traditional folk and blues source material in the early Sixties. The set then traces Dylan’s postprotest odyssey through electric folk rock, the rootsy lyricism and country-blues introspection of his Woodstock years and his stunning return to form in the mid-Seventies with Blood on the Tracks and the Rolling Thunder Revue. The set climaxes with a dozen dramatic examples of the sacred-secular tug of war that characterized his controversial studio work during the late Seventies and Eighties. The final track in the set, “Series of Dreams,” is a lyrically and rhythmically dynamic Dylan original cut surprisingly left off his acclaimed 1989 LP Oh Mercy.
The Bootleg Series opens appropriately with the wryly semi-autobiographical “Hard Times in New York Town,” from the fabled December 1961 tape recorded in Minnesota after Dylan’s first visit to New York, during which he was discovered and signed by Columbia’s John Hammond. It’s followed by two outtakes from Dylan’s Columbia debut album, “Man on the Street” and a superlative reworking of the traditional “He Was a Friend of Mine.” The next twenty-two tracks cover Dylan’s accelerated maturation during 1962 and ’63 into a brilliant folk stylist and prolific, visionary songwriter. There are nine outtakes from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and six from The Times They Are A-Changin’, as well as a publishing demo of the latter’s title anthem performed by Dylan at the piano. There are also three songs from Dylan’s triumphant 1963 shows at Town Hall and Carnegie Hall in New York, both of which were recorded for a prospective but subsequently scrapped live album. Dylan’s breathless recitation of the poem “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie” at Town Hall marked the first and last time he ever read his own verse in concert.
The electric phase of Dylan’s career kicks off here, ironically with an acoustic demo of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (complete with producer Tom Wilson’s spoken intro, “Quiet on the set . . . take 1”). “If You Gotta Go, Go Now (or Else You Gotta Stay All Night),” a playful pillow-talk romp briefly available as a European single in late 1967, makes its belated stateside debut, followed by a galloping Highway 61 Revisited outtake called “Sitting on a Barbed Wire Fence,” which is distinguished by Dylan’s incomparably dry wit (“She’s making me into an old man, and man I’m not even 25”) and Mike Bloomfield’s stinging lead guitar. “She’s Your Lover Now,” a 1966 studio recording with the Hawks (a.k.a. the Band) long revered by Dylan collectors, epitomizes the spirit of epic poesy and gritty roadhouse locomotion of Blonde on Blonde, even though the track breaks down when Dylan flubs the words near the end. (Bauldie kindly includes the missing lyrics in his commentary.) Several Dylan classics are presented in alternate, sometimes radically reworked versions. They include “If Not for You” (with George Harrison on guitar) and “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Idiot Wind” from Blood on the Tracks, heard as they were first recorded in New York in September 1974, before Dylan recut (and in the case of “Idiot Wind,” rewrote) them in Minneapolis shortly before the album’s release four months later.
But more than half of the songs – thirty-eight to be exact – are original compositions that Dylan wrote and either recorded or performed but otherwise chose not to release. These include the immortal “I Shall Be Released” from the 1967 Basement Tapes; “Seven Days,” a song that he only performed five times on the Rolling Thunder tour (the recording is from one of those shows); and “Blind Willie McTell,” a jewel from the 1983 Infidels sessions that has long been overdue for official release. As Bauldie writes, “In attempting to express feelings of his own inadequacy as a blues singer and in confessing the oppression of his knowledge, Bob Dylan sings the blues indeed, a soul-rending blues that puts him on a par with any of the old bluesmen – Blind Willie McTell, Robert Johnson included.”
In his liner notes, Bauldie promises that future volumes of The Bootleg Series will feature classic concert material, including Dylan’s epochal 1966 performance with the Hawks at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Certainly, the consistent brilliance and revelatory quality of the music on Volumes 1-3 ensures that, as Bauldie puts it, “whatever reputation Bob Dylan has enjoyed as a writer and performer in his 30-year recording career will inevitably have to be reviewed in the light of this historic collection.”
This story is from the March 21st, 1991 issue of Rolling Stone.