Forty Days and Forty Nights: Preparing for the Mother of All Box Sets, in 189 Easy Steps
So as any good Bob Dylan fan knows, November 6th will bring what is for some the greatest Bootleg Series ever released -- Volume 12: The Cutting Edge, an exhaustive (even in the 6-CD incarnation) look at the creation of Bob’s three electric classics: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde On Blonde. For the truly insane, however, there was really only one option: the 18-disc “Collector’s Edition,” boasting what Sony claims will be “every note recorded” during the seminal 1965 and 1966 recording sessions. Every. Goddamn. Note. I'm not even the biggest fan of Dylan’s electric period -- given his vast career to choose from, I’ll usually opt for John Wesley Harding (1968), Blood On The Tracks (1974), Oh Mercy (1989) or Love & Theft (2001) before I reach for the thin, wild mercury music of his Newport-folkie-infuriating rock breakthroughs.
But this is too incredible to pass up -- the chance to be a fly on the wall and hear the entire creative process for three classic album, in as close to “real time” as we’ll ever get if we weren’t actually there. For a Beatles fanatic like me -- Bob and the Beatles are “tied for first” for all time in my heart, where they never have to jockey for position -- this Bootleg Series is like buying the right to be Mark Lewisohn, led into Abbey Road’s Studio Two and being handed a pile of tapes. “Here’s all of 1965 and 1966 -- have fun.” Except for the Dylan fan, this is something that is actually happening, and instead of having to be frisked by security guards at the end of your listening session, you get to keep those precious recordings forever.
Kinda puts the whole pricing controversy into perspective for me. Yes, yes, $600 is an ungodly amount of money, and I will feel the pinch for about a year as I pay it off -- but really, how does that compare with the ability to listen to ANY take of ANY Dylan song from 1965-1966, any time I want, for the rest of my life? Nothing compares to that. Nothing. So this post isn’t about the pricing or the practicality of owning such a luxurious set. Rather, this is about how I “purified” myself for the experience of Bootleg Series, Vol. 12. This thing is too damn big, too damn expensive to just treat it like any old box set. I had to PREPARE myself for it, so I could get the most possible enjoyment out of it.
On the day of the announcement, September 24th, I got caught up in all the hype and excitement, and I dutifully watched the YouTube announcement and the first preview track put out by Sony. I was giddy with joy, but then I remembered that as I said above, 1965-66 isn’t exactly my go-to Dylan era. Will I spend all this money and somehow end up strangely disappointed or underwhelmed? How can I make sure that this mountain of music will hit me with a freshness that I haven’t felt for some of it since I first became a fan in the 1980s? I realized that day what I had to do.
On September 25th I swore off all Bob Dylan music recorded after December 31, 1964. His entire post-folkie career would cease to exist, and I would completely immerse myself in his first four acoustic albums, and all accompanying ancillary recordings from 1961-1964. My calling was two-fold: (1) to finally gain a deeper understanding of Bob’s folk period, and (b) to wipe my mind of everything that came afterwards, so that when I finally cracked open the Bootleg Series Vol. 12 box and popped in Disc 1, I would be shocked and amazed at what I heard. Truthfully, though, this would also be an exercise to help keep me distracted so that my entire life wouldn’t grind to a halt while I daydreamed about BS12. So, it was a three birds with one stone kinda deal.
So I set out to compile a playlist that would tell the “story” of Folkie Bob. Shouldn’t be too hard, right? The guy only made four acoustic albums. But between previous Bootleg Series releases, the Copyright Extension sets covering 1962-1964, and various live releases, I quickly amassed over 300 tracks. I wanted this to be more “listenable” than “complete,” so I set about whittling it down to the essentials, while also putting everything in chronological order by recording date. This process alone took about two weeks, in between work and other everyday stuff. Clinton Heylin’s Recording Sessions book was indispensable for the studio stuff, and I relied on liner notes and Wikipedia for the live stuff. Eventually I cut it down to 180 tracks (about 12 hours of music), but once I posted the playlist on the internet for other Dylan fans to see, a few very welcome suggestions bumped it back up to 189 tracks.
I won’t post the entire playlist here -- it’s SO damn long, and I still may tweak a few things here and there -- but I may break it down into CD-length sections in future posts to fully explore Bob’s folk years. It starts (fittingly) with a 1961 live cover of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” and goes into the November 1961 sessions for his self-titled debut album for Columbia. From there, the sessions for his breakthrough second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, stretch out for over a year, broken up by bursts of demo recordings and landmark live recordings from the Gaslight Cafe (1962) and NYC’s Town Hall (April 1963). In the individual batches of studio sessions, we see Dylan blossom as he finds himself, and moves away from covers and derivative folk-blues tunes towards writing timeless classics like “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” By the time he releases The Times They Are A-Changin’ in early 1964 he is the king of the new Folk Movement, and when he records Another Side Of Bob Dylan six months later, he’s already leaving them behind.
Much is made of Bob’s amphetamine fever dreams of 1965 and 1966 -- culminating in the motorcycle crash in mid-1966 that sidelined him for over a year -- but his development from 1961 to 1964 is no less remarkable. Limited to nothing but this period, playing on a loop in the background most days from breakfast to bedtime, I truly grew to love this early stuff in a way that I never had before. The rough-and-ready first album. The intimate Gaslight Cafe recordings. The triumphant Carnegie Hall concert of October 1963, and the restless farewell of the so-called “Halloween Concert” of 1964. The endless demos -- some of which were never recorded “properly” in a recording studio. The masterful “finger-pointing” protest songs and delicate love ballads. Bob Dylan would be a legend even if he never picked up an electric guitar.
Speaking of which ... In December 1964, Dylan’s producer Tom Wilson took four of Bob’s old tracks and overdubbed an amplified backing band on them. Bob wasn’t present for these sessions. Was something blowin’ in the wind? Did Dylan and Wilson discuss what they were going to do in January 1965, and play around with these three tracks as a demo of what an electrified Bob would sound like? We don’t really know what their purpose was, but three of them have been released over the years, and my playlist ends with these “electrified” versions of “Mixed Up Confusion,” “Rocks And Gravel” and “House Of The Rising Sun.” They offer a tantalizing glimpse into what was then an unknown future.
Today is November 4th. I just got an email from Sony that my massive 18-CD set has been shipped, and I should have it by the “end of the day” today -- two days early! I check the calendar, just out of curiosity, and in a delicious coincidence, my “fast” lasted for exactly 40 days. You can’t make this stuff up, folks. Well, you COULD -- but I didn’t. My 40 days in the desert was enriching in ways that I never expected, but I’m nonetheless thirsty for what comes next. I wasn’t able to truly “forget” what Bob did or sounded like after 1964, but after more than a month of nothing but his earliest stuff, I think it will be thrillingly welcome when he “goes electric” later today.