And, oh yes, the music… holy Bloomfield, what music. It’s true that any sane person would settle for the well-curated six-CD Reader’s Digest distillation of this set that retails for $500 less (or even the not-shabby two-disc version). But sanity is overrated when you have the chance to hear every note of music put down over the course of 14 months for the greatest three-album run in rock history. In a severe exercise in archival clear-cutting, no false start or bum chord recorded for Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, or Blonde on Blonde has been left behind. And neither have any of the dozens upon dozens of truly inspired outtakes that punctuate the studio chatter.
I’ll admit that I originally thought I’d be writing a comic piece about a marathon listening session as an experiment in the limits of the endurance of the human spirit. But I’ll have to save that for writing about the next 80-disc Grateful Dead box set and let that one test the David Blaine in me. Because you know what? Although it’s hardly all gold, if you love rock n' roll, and have any curiosity about what it’s like to be in the presence of genius in a golden age, the 18-disc experience is like being a fly on the wall of heaven.
I won’t pretend I made it all the way through without narcolepsy setting in and requiring a next-day reset after all. There may have been some sleep-deprivation deliriums in the final stretches. I’m telling you: In the final hours, I saw Johanna. Really, I did. Well, it could have been Louise.
The subtitle for the first half of this disc could be “Dylan Stays Acoustic.” The outrage over his plugging in at the Newport Folk Festival is still seven months later. He spends the first day of sessions for Bringing It All Back Home -- which would be his half-acoustic, half-electric transitional LP -- playing on his own, or with one or two quiet accompanists. The closest indication of louder things to come is a previously unreleased version of “Outlaw Blues” with a gnarly Bo Diddley beat that’s better than the version he put on the record. The real highlight of this calm before the storm is “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” a gorgeous love song delivered with Dylan’s foot pumping on a crude-sounding tack piano, which he would inexplicably fail to release in any form for another two decades.
And then, the next day, all controlled hell breaks loose, as Dylan goes electric before our very ears. Just as July 5, 1954 should be a national holiday to memorialize the day Elvis Presley sort of invented rock n' roll at Sun Studios, maybe we should also take a day off each year to commemorate January 14, 1965, when Dylan first recorded with a full band and seemed to invent a new way of playing and hearing music. Dylan’s never-ending electric era commences with a couple of nice versions of “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” but when they next launch into “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” it feels like the moment when Wizard of Oz transitions into color. He’s taking Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business” and running it through blues, country, folk, British Invasion, Burroughs, and Beat Generation filters, and it’s here that the erstwhile protest singer reveals his true identity for the first time. He’s not Pete Seeger… he’s Puck.
The two band takes on “Subterranean” don’t sound all that different, but that’s what’s striking, actually. Because there’s an incredibly fuzzy guitar tone on the outtake that takes the tune into the realm of garage-rock, and I’m shocked to find it carries over into the version that was released on Bringing It. Turns out all the official album versions -- which are only included in the 18-disc version, not the 2- or 6-disc iterations -- have been remixed, so that they sound akin to the rehearsals and alternate versions. And to my ears they all sound more vibrant and alive. Or am I just trying to justify having traded away my kid’s college education to buy this thing?
A few bars into a take of “On the Road Again,” we get one of several testy exchanges between Dylan and his producer. Tom Wilson cuts off Dylan a few bars in, saying, “That tempo’s too fast to squeeze in those words, Bobby.” An irate Dylan, not appreciating being interrupted when he’s on a roll, answers, “Hey man! Come on. We were going to do it.” Wilson: “If you want to do it right, go slow. If you want to do it that way, go ahead.” Dylan wants to do it that way, all right, and he nails it on the next take. No one puts Bobby in a slow corner. This may be the beginning of the end for Wilson, who’ll be replaced in the producer’s chair on the next album. I get so used to hearing Wilson’s voice -- and his bemused chuckle when Dylan gives him ridiculously fake song titles to mark some of the sessions -- that I’ll come to miss him after he’s gone.
Here’s a potential holy grail: Dylan is cutting “Mr. Tambourine Man,” a song he only ever released acoustically, with a band! There is only one problem: It really, really sucks, thanks to a super-stiff drum part. And Dylan knows it. Three minutes in, Dylan halts things. “The drumming is driving me mad. I’m going out of my brain!” I want to tell Bob: I know, right? It’s only a slight tragedy that he never does try another band arrangement, leaving that for the Byrds.
“Can’t buy no thrill,” Dylan sings in “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” -- and then immediately disproves it with a run of fiery takes on that song that are almost worth the $600 cost of admission. The drummer who ruined “Mr. Tambourine Man” makes up for the previous day’s sins by playing “Train” in a portfolio of tempos -- straightforward at first, then with some swing, then in an exhilarating double-time that eggs guitarist Mike Bloomfield on into increasingly stinging flights of fancy. Could you ever get enough of Dylan extending a talk/sung syllable the way he does with “I wanna be your lover, baby, don’t wanna be your boooooooooooss”? I’ll speak for you in saying no, you could not.
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Bloomfield is even more on fire when they move on to “Sitting on a Barbed Wire Fence.” So scorching that, in the middle of the second take, Dylan feels compelled to spontaneously mention him in an improvised verse: “I got this woman out in L.A., she makes sweat run down my brow/Well, she’s good, all right, but she ain’t as good as this guitar player I got right now.” Then he screams. If you ever heard Bob Dylan scream before, you’ve listened to a lot more bootlegs than I.
The disc ends with a first stab at “Like a Rolling Stone”… as a gentle 6/8 ballad, of all things. It’s no good, at all. As they retire for the night, Disc 3 ends on a cliffhanger: Will our heroes discover the song needs to be in an aggressive 4/4, or will the future of sneering, sarcastic rock be thwarted by their belief that “Rolling Stone” is asking to be performed a wimpy waltz? I’m on the edge of my couch.
Here’s the disc devoted entirely to the second and final day of recording “Like a Rolling Stone.” By the time they start in on it this time, they’ve obviously already done some rehearsing off-mic and come up with the new arrangement we know and love, so what you’ve read in some other articles about hearing the total evolution of the song is not exactly true. They nail it on Take 4, but for almost the only time in this entire boxed set, Dylan doesn’t recognize the true keeper and keeps going. I do love a late take where the singer unexpectedly lets his voice go up higher on the last syllable of “You’ve got no more secrets to con-cee-alllll!” Soon, he complains, “Why can’t we get that right, man?” Because you already did, man.
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The real highlight of the all-“Stone” disc are the stems -- isolated channels that have been included as a bonus to let you hear the distinct instrumental parts. Most remarkable is a track that allows you to hear Paul Griffin’s piano part, which is phenomenally entertaining in its own right. Here you realize the genius of what Dylan was doing as a band leader: eschewing anything we could call true solos, yet encouraging his keyboard players and guitarists to “solo” through entire songs beneath him.
Wilson is replaced by Bob Johnston for the rest of the 1965-66 sessions. His approach to producing, unlike Wilson’s, involves letting the tape roll even when the band hasn’t quite nailed an arrangement yet. Lucky for us. “I don’t know how long I can keep singing it,” Dylan gripes after the day’s seventh take of “Tombstone Blues.” But Mike Bloomfield is just getting started and gets more revved up as he goes along. “I can’t take him… You gotta put a wall up over him, okay?” says Dylan, laughing at the guitarist’s firepower. Is he complimenting him, or is he slightly irritated at having to compete with Bloomfield’s screaming licks? “I can’t sing, so loud, all right?” Dylan finally admits. It’s a great contest of strength and will, while it lasts.
Dylan muffs the lyrics of “Positively 4th Street. Johnson asks, “Bob, would it help if you put the lyrics up on the stand?” “No, it wouldn’t help at all, man,” he answers, and you have to laugh, wondering how one head can hold that many words. When they finally get it, Dylan enthuses, “All right, let’s go home!” But that doesn’t apply to me -- I’m already home, with more than 12 hours left to go.
I may have met my Waterloo, because there are 14 different tracks devoted to “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?”, a song I find only marginally fascinating. I do love hearing Al Kooper play the celeste, initially, and there’s a fun moment where, inspired by the Christmas-y quality of that instrument, the band members start playing “Jingle Bells.” But after almost a half-hour of the tune, I’m ready to crawl out the window and go see if, like, the Easybeats are rehearsing at another studio down the street. Dylan must be on my same exhausted wavelength” “Oh man, I’m about to cave in,” he confesses.
Fortunately, they move on, to “Highway 61 Revisited,” which starts out in a different key than the familiar one and doesn’t yet have any comical police whistle effects. Only on take 7 do they introduce the siren-like sound that fans either love or hate. Dylan has to beg his guys to stop cracking up. I’m laughing with them, but make a mental note that I’m going to go back to the pre-sound effects versions in the future.
“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” has a hazier, more buzzed quality when they start out the session than by the time they finish it, thanks to Al Kooper’s keyboard part. “Floyd Cramer piano, man,” someone in the room remarks. Floyd Cramer on weed -- yes, that’s it!
This is the draggiest of all the discs. Multiple “Tom Thumbs” and “Queen Janes” lead to “Ballad of a Thin Man” (or “…of the Thin Man,” as Dylan introduces it, maybe intending a more overt tip of the hat to Dashiell Hammett than we knew). This is obviously in the all-time upper tier of Dylan songs, but its careful pacing has me considering going out for an energy drink for the first time. The laser intensity of his vocal helps snap me back to attention. I feel like Kevin McCarthy trying to stay alert in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and if I lose focus, I’ll turn into Mr. Jones.
At last, a true holy grail: a solo piano version of “Desolation Row” that I don’t think has ever been rumored before, much less bootlegged. It is only two minutes long -- a verse, a chorus, a piano solo, and finis -- which is slightly frustrating for a song that normally stretches over 11 minutes. But it is a magnificent two minutes. Consider me revived.
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Toward the end of this disc, Dylan starts recording for the first time with his road band, the Hawks, aka the Band. For the first time in any of these tapes, really, he and his musicians are just jamming -- on templates, throwaway scraps, or joke songs (the enjoyably raunchy transgender ditty “Jet Pilot”). Maybe that’s why Levon Helm gets fed up and leaves after a day. Dylan tries out “Desolation Row” with Robbie Robertson and company, but the listless playing is not working for him: “No no no, I dunno, something’s wrong, it’s like I gotta fight it, man. I’m fighting it… I can’t do that.” Maybe using studio musicians on all the previous sessions was a good idea after all? To be continued…
Now this is more like it. The Hawks’ garage-rock inclinations are just swell on “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” a first-class guitar rave-up with repeat value. One more reason to love Dylan: He can take us on deeply wordy head trips, but set aside the Mensa material to bang his dead through pure-groove pieces like this one. He might not have ever written a finer lyric than “I don’t want to be hers/I want to be yooouuurs!”
What’s wilder still is when Dylan and the newly Helm-less Band play “Visions of Johanna,” which you and I know as a stately ballad, at an incongruously furious tempo. And it goes on that way for a careening seven… eight… nine minutes at a time. Dylan clearly thinks things are getting out of hand, and tries to calm the group down, slowing the pace before he finally just abandons the tune for another more sober time. But hearing those ridiculously raucous early takes is a revelation… as if tapes revealed that the Beatles originally tried “Blackbird” as a rockabilly rave-up. Dylan may not have cared for these over-amped versions of “Johanna,” but they’ve made me a new man.
“Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” gets another try, this time with more cowbell. Lots more cowbell. There is, in fact, an actual cowbell break during each of the choruses. But there are even more interesting experiments to come as Dylan and the Hawks experiment with “She’s Your Lover Now,” finally playing it in an unlikely double-time by the end of the disc. Combine the speeded-up tries at “She’s Your Lover Now” here with the over-caffeinated “Visions of Johanna” on the previous disc and you could piece together quite a proto-punk alternate version of Blonde on Blonde.
Dylan grows increasingly frustrated by how he feels the Hawks are mangling “She’s Your Lover Now.” “Aw, it’s ugly,” he says. “I can’t. I can’t even.” Did Bob Dylan just invent the 21st century catchphrase “I can’t even”? I think he did! “It’s not that way at all… I can’t hear the song anymore.” He’s so fed up that he announces his intention to do what will be just one last take -- and he sends the players out of the studio to do it, sitting down at the tack piano all by himself.
This is how we get another holy grail we didn’t even know we were searching for, in the form of a solo piano “She’s Your Lover Now.” Unlike the aforementioned version of “Desolation Row” on disc 8, this solo piano version doesn’t cut off after a mere two minutes -- it goes on for nine. No wonder that, after hearing the set, Elvis Costello said, “The whole clambake is worth that one performance.” Dylan is always getting his lyrical digs in, but in this epic, there’s something about addressing both his ex-lover and her new guy that brings out an extra helping of beautiful spite.
The Hawks don’t speed everything up. When they come back into the studio, they try out “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” as an amazing slow blues stomp. “Honey, can I be your chauffeur/You can ride me, honey, I’ll be your chauffeur,” he sings. As Austin Powers would say: "Grr, baby."
“One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” is the song in this set we truly hear progress from a very rough start to a polished finish, as heard on 20 tracks stretched over two discs. It’s not just the music that mutates, but the core sentiment. The first time he starts to run through “One of Us,” Dylan sings, “I’m sorry I was bad to you.” But on subsequent takes, he changes his tune and sings “I really wasn’t that bad to you” instead. Maybe spending a lot of hours in the studio with a bunch of musicians has a way of making a lyric turn more macho.
As with the earlier isolated instrumental tracks for “Like a Rolling Stone,” the collector’s edition provides the same service with bonus stems broken out from the final version of “One of Us Must Know.” Once again, Paul Griffin proves himself a true piano hero with a lively, ever-changing keyboard part that reminds me of something Steve Nieve might have laid down years later. I can’t wait to play it again.
“Lunatic Princess,” a song scrap barely more than a minute long, has some curiosity value. But the real draw here is repeat versions of “4th Time Around,” which finds Dylan ditching the Hawks/Band for a full complement of Nashville musicians for the first time. The delicate guitar figures that run through “4th Time” mark one of the few times in Dylan’s “electric period” when the acoustic instrumentation can’t be described as anything but exquisite. It’s as if he were laying down the first track for Blood on the Tracks, a decade prematurely.
W… T… F? This is the appropriate response to a previously unheard arrangement of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” that’s demented beyond our wildest imaginings of anything we might ever hear on a Dylan record. First he and the Nashville cats try it out as a basic blues stomper, but along the way they adopt a wacky new idea: The song starts with a doorbell buzzer, followed by everyone in the studio yelling “Who’s there?,” succeeded by a car horn sound. And it is effing hilarious. At least initially. Over the course of 11 takes of this the joke wears thin, especially when someone decides the car horn should sound for a few seconds every time Dylan sings the title phrase. They finally drop this idea, maybe because, after “Highway 61,” Dylan realizes he could become known as king of the sound effects records. But for the first few minutes, it’s comedy gold.
After this, Dylan exits the studio, leaving the band to run through an instrumental version of “I’ll Keep It With Mine” nine times, possibly to atone for the crime against good taste they’d committed with that car horn thing.
The first take of “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” is a slightly sleepy one. I’m starting to drift off to dreamland when something jolts me awake: In this early draft, Dylan sings the name “Sara” twice, name-checking his new bride. He thinks better of it and, by take 2, the sad-eyed lady is anonymous again.
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After finishing “Lowlands,” they spend the rest of this disc on “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again,” which also has a name-check surprise that only appears in the first take. He sings: “…with the Nashville blues again.” Did he intend that just as a one-time nod to the city where they were recording? Or did he realize that another city that started with M would make for better alliteration with Mobile? Perhaps he just wanted to throw A.J. Weberman off the scent of his garbage by giving him directions to the wrong Tennessee city.
There are 14 tries at “Memphis Blues Again,” and the song gets so increasingly thrilling as more of the familiar elements come into place. The finished song has nine verses, so hearing all those lead-up versions just makes it seem like you’re getting one long epic take.
With its period-specific, Farfisa-style organ opening, “Absolutely Sweet Marie” is the only song that sounds like something you might have heard some other band play on pop radio. I keep thinking We Five have broken into the studio and are playing “You Were On My Mind” behind Dylan. I don’t say that like it’s a bad thing.
If anyone thought the lyrics of “Just Like a Woman” were misogynistic the way they turned out, we learn they were even a little more vicious in the earliest stages. He tries out “Woman” in the loping 6/8 style we all know… but then, just for the hell of it, has the band hilariously speed it up into a sort of funky hippie foxtrot. What’s with all the unused double-time tracks in this set? Sometimes I’m convinced that, in 1965, Dylan knew all this stuff would come out someday and was just trolling us.
What a pleasure to repeatedly enjoy the piano playing on “Temporary Like Achilles” -- part Floyd Cramer, part Jerry Lee Lewis in his mellow country mode.
I can’t wait to hear alternate versions of “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” to see whether they really were stoned in the studio. Only… there are no alternate takes! What? Miraculously, they got that one on the first try. The only extra we get is an introductory bit of studio chatter, where the producer asks Al Kooper to stop playing the radio -- you can actually hear a snippet of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” coming through a mic! -- and then asks Dylan what the name of the song is. In typical fashion, he just makes up a fake title: “A Long-Haired Mule and a Porcupine Here.” Then the party that we all know from Blonde and Blonde begins and ends. At least this remix goes on a few seconds longer before fading out, so we hear Dylan doing an extra bit of abrasive humming. Still, If there are no rainy day women #6, #10, #24, or #37, I may want my money back.
The chronological/studio portion of the package climaxes with several stabs at “I Want You.” It’s the last track he will ever lay down before the motorcycle accident leads him to retreat from this thin, wild, mercury sound into the basement tapes. I can hardly say how much I adore Take 1, which has an entirely different feel from the final version -- besides there being no harmonica, Al Kooper’s organ is so otherworldly that it scarcely sounds like an organ at all. It’s a much more dreamlike evocation of desire, and one that perfectly reflects my slightly wobbly mental state.
Ohhh, mama. Could this really be the end?
Not quite: There’s this bonus disc, which exits the studio to pick up scraps from three acoustic hootenannies captured in hotel rooms on tapes of varying quality, captured by documentary crews or a journalist. None of this material is on the 6-CD set, so Sony including it on the 18-disc version represents an offer few Dylanologists of means could refuse. The most obvious reason to pick up the 18-disc version of the set is the concluding bonus disc. Some previously unheard original compositions, like “If I Was a King,” make their debut here, though they seem a bit quaint and old-fashioned compared to the more electrifying material he was recording in this same time frame. He must have realized, with some of these folkie numbers, that it’s hard to go back to Maggie’s Farm once you’ve left.
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The most magical moments on disc 18 arrive in a jam session in a London hotel with Joan Baez and Bob Neuwirth. Dylan runs through a brisk series of country covers, and Baez is clearly not as up on her Hank Williams and Webb Pierce as he is, so she hums along wordlessly on the hillbilly stuff. But when they get to “Wild Mountain Thyme,” she knows every word, and if they haven’t sung this together a hundred times before, you could fool me. Their harmonies on this one track are flawless and impossibly lovely… and nearly worth the 50-year wait. Why didn’t Baez and Dylan record entire albums together? We probably know the answer to that. But, still.
It’s hard to fathom that Dylan had room in his brain for all these country and folk oldies -- reflecting the Woody Guthrie wannabe that he’d seemed to be on his first album -- while at the same time his head was swimming with “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and the dozens of other newly-minted rock classics he was in the midst of recording. What kind of brain chemistry was swirling under that moptop?
I’ve exhausted all 18 discs, and they’ve exhausted me. Sleep will not actually be a respite, though. Because when, at the end of this loose, staggering greatness, I finally allow myself to deliberately drift off, you can bet that I’m dreaming “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream.”