It would seem that every time in the last 30 years Dylan sang into a microphone, a tape was smuggled out, copied and passed through an underground of fans. With this 58-track, boxed set of demos, alternate takes, rehearsals and concert recordings, average civilians can get in on both the ephemera and the classic moments.
In its off-the-cuff way, The Bootleg Series is as important as the guitar-plunking poet’s 1985 retrospective of authorized recordings, Biograph. (Producer Jeff Rosen compiled both collections.) The sound quality is vastly better than that on any of the estimated 1,200 unauthorized records.
The stark Volume 1, with Dylan backing himself on guitar and harmonica, is the most intriguing. It’s a coffeehouse sampler that begins with “Hard Times in New York Town,” sung at a Minneapolis hotel just after Dylan’s first trip to New York City in 1961, when he signed with Columbia Records.
Also strong is “House Carpenter,” a traditional ballad cut from The Free-wheelin’ Bob Dylan. Oddities range from a yodeling “Talkin’ Hava Negeilah Blues” to a 1963 Carnegie Hall performance of “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues.” In a useful 68-page booklet included in this set, Dylan expert John Bauldie notes that Dylan had been barred from singing the Birch song, a funny anti-anti-Communist manifesto, on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Dylan was always an original. But his borrowings in those early days—from Woody Guthrie, for instance—are obvious. By Volume 2, his artistry is assured, his presentation articulate and evocative. This album contains surprising versions of some compositions, including an acoustic version of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and a fragment of “Like a Rolling Stone” in a fractured waltz tempo. There’s also a haunting “I Shall Be Released” done with the Band after Dylan’s 1966 motorcycle accident; the keening harmonies of the late Richard Manuel sound like the voice of an anguished angel.
Volume 3 (1974-1989) is the least satisfying, dominated by clumsy if fervent songs growing out of Dylan’s conversion to Christianity. Among the exceptions: a tribute to an old blues singer, “Blind Willie McTell.”
If you’re still disturbed by Dylan’s appearance on the Grammy Awards, fidgeting with his hat and croaking about God knows what, browse in this collection. Listen, say, to “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie.” Its pell-mell poetry is a vivid reminder of how much Dylan has had to say, and of the often remarkable ways he found to say it. (Columbia)