"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Bob Dylan must be the first musician in history whose unreleased songs are as well known, and in many cases better, than his officially issued work. Certainly no other artist has been so bedeviled by underground recordings. The 40 or so albums that make up the official Dylan canon are all but lost in a sea of bootlegs so vast that collectors have organized them into subcategories, any one of which contains enough entries for months, even years of study.
After decades of failing to stop the bootleggers with complaints and litigation, Dylan and his record company decided to beat them at their own game by launching “The Bootleg Series” in 1991. The most recent installment, “Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Revue” (Columbia/Legacy), contains superb music, but it illustrates two uncomfortable facts. First, that for well over half his career, Dylan’s art has been better served by the bootleggers than by his own label — or, indeed, by Dylan himself. And second, that underground releases must get a good share of credit for sustaining interest in Dylan as a continuing creative force. The official Columbia releases are fine for charting the first incandescent phase of Dylan’s career. But from the mid-1970s onward — decades marked by long silences, artistic fumbling and a parade of bungled albums — the real story of Dylan’s artistry comes not from Columbia, but from bootleg labels with names like TMOQ, Swingin’ Pig, Dandelion, Q, Crystal Cat, Rattlesnake, Wild Wolf and Scorpio.
Considering the twists and turns that have marked Dylan’s career, it’s only fitting that the man himself can be credited with sparking the subindustry that so irritates and benefits him. It all started when word got out that Dylan was refusing to release a batch of songs recorded in 1967 with the musicians who would become the Band. And so, in the summer of 1969, some enterprising souls issued a vinyl album of several Basement recordings, mingled with Dylan performances from the early folkie period, under the title “Great White Wonder.” (Clinton Heylin’s “Bootleg: The Secret History of the Other Recording Industry,” is the indispensable record of how this happened.)
And yea verily, “Great White Wonder” did beget “Troubled Troubador,” which did beget “Waters of Oblivion,” which begat “Little White Wonder,” after which Columbia stepped in with the much-doctored and woefully incomplete 1975 release of “The Basement Tapes.” (When the album became a hit, Dylan is supposed to have said, “I don’t believe it! I thought everybody had ‘em already.”) Fresh batches of Basement recordings — mostly covers of folk and traditional songs, the bulk of them of interest only to cultists — leaked out in 1986 and 1990, begetting the five-CD “Genuine Basement Tapes” set, which in 2001 begat a four-CD upgrade called “A Tree With Roots.” These officially unreleased recordings are so popular that Greil Marcus could write about them in his 1997 book “Invisible Republic” (since retitled “The Old Weird America”) with the expectation that anyone who didn’t already have the source material could track it down without much difficulty.
And that’s only the beginning. The Dylan bootleg catalog is wide and deep. Its best entries include “New York Sessions,” the original version of “Blood on the Tracks,” which Dylan pulled back at the last minute so he could drastically revise the five key songs, and “Rough Cuts,” which proves that Dylan had enough quality material to make “Infidels” a masterpiece, rather than a precursor to such career-killers as “Empire Burlesque,” “Knocked Out Loaded” and “Down in the Groove.” A popular set of outtakes from “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” shows the young folkie experimenting with electric backup years before he stood the Newport Folk Festival on its ear. Every phase of his concert career, from the blowhard 1974 comeback shows to the Never-Ending Tour that continues to this date, has generated a slew of bootlegs, most of them superior to Dylan’s official live releases.
Some underground labels even use their releases to mock the Columbia/Legacy offerings. “Biograph,” a 1985 54-song retrospective of greatest hits and unreleased songs, sparked “Ten of Swords,” a 10-album vinyl set that earned an approving mention in Rolling Stone. The initial three-CD issue of Columbia’s “Bootleg Series” was savagely criticized by many fans, and prompted Scorpio to issue “The Genuine Bootleg Series,” a trio of three-disc sets that are consistently more enjoyable and comprehensive than their legit cousin. The next official “Bootleg Series” installment, released in 1998, documented the Manchester Free Trade Hall show from 1966 (often mislabeled the “Royal Albert Hall Concert”), the show where some meatball called Dylan a Judas for playing rock ‘n’ roll. Two years later, Scorpio one-upped Columbia with “Genuine Live 1966,” a 10-CD set that gathers several concerts into one opulent package. To show just how far the completist impulse can go, a competing label called Vigotone has issued a 26-disc box set that collates every known bootleg from the chaotic 1966 tour.
Sometimes the mockery extends to Dylan himself. By general agreement, the rock bottom of Dylan’s concert career took place at a 1991 show in Stuttgart, Germany. Dylan opened with a train-wreck version of “New Morning,” then staggered through a series of barely coherent performances that left fans uncertain as to which songs they’d actually heard. Some wag took a recording, chose the dorkiest possible photo of Dylan for the cover, and issued it as a bootleg under the title “Name That Tune.”
If there is no underground rejoinder to this latest “Bootleg Series” release, that’s only because the Rolling Thunder Revue has already been extensively documented by such gold-standard bootlegs as “Cowboy Angel Blues” (Q), “Mapleleaf Gardens 1975″ (Heartbreakers), “A Dark Night on the Spanish Stairs” (Rattlesnake) and “Knight of the Hurricane” (Razor’s Edge). The attention is completely warranted. The 40-or-so shows on this autumn swing through New England generated some of the finest performances of Dylan’s career, and the Revue itself — an unlikely blend that included comrades like Joan Baez and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, glitter rocker Mick Ronson, ex-Byrd Roger McGuinn and rockabilly bassist Rob Stoner — was probably the most sympathetic and listenable backup band Dylan ever assembled. Dylan tried to revive the Rolling Thunder spirit in 1976, but the tour quickly turned rancorous as his tottering marriage finally collapsed. The only official record until now has been “Hard Rain,” captured at the bitter end of the 1976 jaunt. It is little short of scandalous that the magical 1975 shows have gone unreleased for over a quarter-century.
Give credit where due: While the 22 performances on the Columbia/Legacy release have all been in the hands of collectors for years, never before have they sounded as good. The set cherry-picks songs from four venues where Dylan brought in a professional crew to film performances for “Renaldo and Clara,” the unwatchable art-house epic filmed with members of the Revue pressed into service as actors. New details emerge from the songs: We finally get to hear Stoner’s muscular bass playing, and notice fresh nuances in Dylan’s singing, which was raspy but full-bodied and at times even powerful. Scarlet Rivera, a violinist Dylan spotted in Greenwich Village, here confirms her place with Bruce Langhorne, Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper and Robbie Robertson as one of Dylan’s most distinctive collaborators.
“The Rolling Thunder Revue” shows Dylan infusing new life and anger into a warhorse like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” and bringing “Isis” into its definitive form. The full-band numbers are superb, but the quieter moments are the ones that stand out. “Sara,” for example, sounds like a bit of special pleading on “Desire” — that line about “Stayin’ up for days in the Chelsea Hotel/ Writing ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ for you” has never rung true. The version offered here has some lyrics not found on the “Desire” version: “Sleepin’ in the woods near a fire in the night/ Where you fought for my soul and went up against the odds/ I was too young to know you were doin’ it right/ You did it with strengths that belong to the gods.” Those verses are some of Dylan’s most nakedly expressive writing — a glimpse into the unspoken debts and loyalties that underpin any marriage.
Yet collectors have been rather lukewarm about this release. Rather than try to capture the flavor of a typical Revue show — for all the looseness of the performances, the set lists were pretty rigid — “The Rolling Thunder Revue” offers a random assortment of gems. It’s no surprise that the solo turns from Roger McGuinn and Joni Mitchell didn’t make the cut, but Columbia/Legacy needn’t have skimped on the duets with Joan Baez that were a highlight of Revue shows. Each disc offers only about 50 minutes of music, hardly more than vinyl — a bit of corporate stinginess that extends to the bonus DVD, which features only two of the excellent concert sequences from “Renaldo and Clara.” The bootleggers, with their penchant for complete warts-and-all concert recordings, are still the source for a true representation of the Rolling Thunder Revue.
That this should be the case goes to the heart of why underground recordings exist, despite the best efforts of the recording industry. Most of the arguments against bootlegging have a way of self-destructing. The recording industry says bootlegs are bad because they cheat the artist and his label of revenue, then says it cannot release the material because it wouldn’t sell in sufficient quantity. Columbia has no problem using unreleased tracks as collector bait; witness “Love and Theft,” which was originally issued with a two-track “bonus disc” in order to goose sales. If there is no market for this stuff, how can the bootleggers be endangering the industry?
The argument is even weaker with the concert recordings that make up the bulk of underground recordings. The artist was paid for his performance; the audience members paid for their tickets. If no official concert recording was to be released, then how could a bootleg recording be cheating anyone of revenue? The industry’s crocodile tears over fans’ being sold a “substandard” performance aren’t very convincing; if the performance was that bad, perhaps the artist should consider reimbursing everyone who attended the show.
The strongest line of attack remains that of respecting the artist’s wishes. If Dylan doesn’t want this stuff released, shouldn’t his wishes be honored? The argument would carry more force coming from another source. Columbia itself had no qualms about dissing Dylan in 1973, when it punished his brief flirtation with another label by issuing “Dylan,” a collection of gangly outtakes from “New Morning” and “Self Portrait,” assembled with an eye to causing the maximum amount of embarrassment for the errant artist. And when the man himself shuffles off this mortal coil, does anyone doubt that the formerly solicitous company will waste any time in launching a series of posthumous expensive box sets along the lines of its Miles Davis reissues?
A lot of fans don’t want to wait that long, and more power to them. It would be the height of arrogance to suggest that an artist is not the best judge of his own work. Yet to compare the bootleggers’ output with the authorized releases put out during the same period, it’s hard not to conclude that the shadow labels have done a better job of reminding everyone of what made Bob Dylan’s work worth following in the first place. And to conclude that without their efforts, Dylan himself might not loom as high on the landscape of popular music. The official record gives us the listless gospel of “Saved,” the empty stadium rock of “Real Live” and the nasal bleating of “Good As I Been to You.” The bootleggers show us that beneath the rubble, buried by Dylan’s own caprices and occasional bouts of corporate foolishness, there is evidence that Dylan is not just a 1960s-vintage antique. For a man to have helped create his own nemesis is ironic enough. For that man to owe thanks to his self-created nemesis is, well, Dylanesque.
Dylan, characteristically, seems a little conflicted about all this.
During the recording of “Planet Waves” in 1973, Dylan was so afraid of getting bootlegged that he kept the tapes in his van while he went out carousing in Greenwich Village. In the booklet accompanying “Biograph,” he offers this amusing rant:
“I mean, they have stuff you do in a phone booth. Like, nobody’s around. If you’re just sitting and strumming in a motel, you don’t think anybody’s there, you know … it’s like the phone is tapped … and then it appears on a bootleg record. With a cover that’s got a picture of you that was taken from underneath your bed and it’s got a strip-tease type title and it costs $30. Amazing. Then you wonder why most artists feel so paranoid.”
Even so, that paranoia didn’t keep him from providing an approving blurb for “Invisible Republic” — a book that might as well have been commissioned to boost sales for the shadow labels. “Sugar Baby,” the closing song on “Love and Theft,” offers the now-famous couplet: “Some of these bootleggers, they make pretty good stuff/ Plenty of places to hide things here if you wanna hide ‘em bad enough.”
Steven Hart is a freelance writer in New Jersey at work on a novel.More Steven Hart.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)