Bringing it all back home

New box sets from Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen released on Columbia only confirm what collectors have known for years -- that these artists have been sitting on some of their best work (even if they didn't think so).

By Robert Levine

Published November 11, 1998 5:47PM (EST)

You may already have seen one of the many respectful reviews of "The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966 (The 'Royal Albert Hall' Concert)." Most of them go a little something like this:

The most remarkable, emotionally charged moment on "Live 1966" -- and perhaps the most remarkable, emotionally charged moment on any album ever -- comes when a heckler, upset by Dylan's electric band, calls out "JUDAS!" For a moment, time itself seems to hold its breath -- all you can hear is the lusty audience booing as Dylan and Robbie Robertson tune their guitars. Then it's Dylan's turn: "I don't believe you," he sneers. "You're a liarrrrr." Just as he carries the last syllable into an animalistic snarl, Mickey Jones comes down hard on his snare drum and the band launches into an impossibly angry version of "Like a Rolling Stone" ...

Nearly every review of this landmark release begins the same way because this concert, the bootleg made from it and even the anonymous heckler himself have become part of the apocrypha of St. Bob, who suffered the jeers of the ignorant many so that he might uplift a righteous few. In fact, Dylan's "Royal Albert Hall" performance became a VH1 "Behind the Music" moment long before anyone even agreed on what happened there. For a time, fans didn't realize the recording actually came from a Manchester concert. And at a recent panel discussion about the rerelease of D.A. Pennebaker's tour documentary "Eat the Document," more questions arose. Was some of the crowd noise possibly caused by cheers? Could the audience even make out the songs, since most of the venues Dylan played on that tour weren't designed for amplified music? Not even Pennebaker could say for sure -- and he was there with a camera.

The way the truth of Dylan's performance has been swallowed up by the legend surrounding it suggests a secret history, a tale given shape by the bootleg tapes traded by true believers, not by the master narrative of record company releases. For more than two decades, much of Dylan's best work was officially locked away, even though it circulated freely among collectors. The only other modern-day artist who has deliberately kept so much of his important work from the public is Bruce Springsteen, who is delving into his own vaults with "Tracks," a four-CD set of B-sides, alternate versions and unreleased songs.

Much of what has kept these artists' "secret" histories a secret are the realities of album marketing, which dictate that a major artist release roughly an hour's worth of cohesive material every two years or so. (The Artist Formerly Known As Prince left Warner Bros. primarily because it wouldn't let him release more than that.) Both "Tracks" and "Live 1966" suggest that both Springsteen and Dylan choose what material to release based on thematic consistency, commercial potential (nearly every song on "Tracks" is better than the karaoke classic "Glory Days") and, just as often, bad judgment. Most critics don't take unreleased material seriously simply because it's not easily available. But that doesn't make bootlegs any less artistically important -- many of the songs featured on "Tracks" were staples of Springsteen's live show for years, and Dylan included many of his unreleased songs in his book of lyrics.

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Neither artist has been left wanting for critical accolades. But add "Tracks" and "Live 1966" to their respective canons, and both Springsteen and Dylan actually seem underrated. Long considered rock's poet laureate, Dylan never released a great live album; yet here, he comes across as a more dynamic performer than any of his '60s peers. Only onstage did he bring to wild, organic perfection what he once called "that thin, wild mercury sound" that gave "Blonde on Blonde" the sensual bite to match its visionary reach. But without hearing "Live 1966," one might mistake his next release, 1968's quieter "John Wesley Harding," to be a retreat from the revolution he'd started, rather than a natural next step.

No single recording on "Tracks" has acquired quite the mythic stature of Dylan's Royal Albert Hall concert, but there are enough great songs on "Tracks" ("Thundercrack," "Zero and Blind Terry" and "Loose Ends" are among the best) to cast Springsteen's career in a whole new light. Perceived as a brilliant but intermittently inspired songwriter who released only 11 albums over the past 25 years, Springsteen makes it clear with "Tracks" that he could have released at least four more -- and that there's plenty more where that came from. He writes in the liner notes that the collection contains "the alternate route to some of the destinations I traveled to on my records," which conjures images of an alternate history that might have been: a more hopeful "Darkness on the Edge of Town" that included "Don't Look Back," perhaps, or a more ruminative "Born in the U.S.A." with "This Hard Land."

Indeed, the most striking thing about the collection is just how many worthy songs Springsteen let fall by the wayside just so "Darkness" could tell the story of a man born to run and "The River" could focus on blue-collar dreams deferred. It also reveals how he's mutated other songs to fit in with the themes he was exploring at the time: Originally recorded for "Nebraska," the unreleased acoustic take of "Born in the U.S.A." was contemplative, while the released version was so bombastic that Ronald Reagan mistook it as a patriotic anthem.

There's a limited market for a four-CD set of Springsteen outtakes, but the timing does seem right: He has a book of his lyrics due out in December ("Bruce Springsteen Songs," Avon Books), he'll be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next March and there's the rumored possibility of a reunion tour with the E-Street Band next summer. Dylan, as usual, is more enigmatic about his motivations. He has said that if he thought the Manchester concert were any good, he would have released it years ago. But that seems like a dodge. If he doubted the music's power, why would he have performed a similar set for months on end? And why choose to look back now? One possible answer is that, for the first time in a decade, Dylan's new material is too strong to be completely overshadowed by his past glories. But it's also true that both Dylan, 57, and Springsteen, 49, have reached That Certain Age when they're worried about their place in history.

At a time when Springsteen hasn't released a new album in three years (or had a decent-sized hit in twice that long), "Tracks" seems designed to remind the public that he's a rock archetype, as significant as the Rolling Stones, not just an All-American hitmaker like John Mellencamp. The collection's size makes it clear that he's as prolific as any of his peers, and its stylistic breadth (it stretches from the fiery demos he first recorded for Columbia in 1972 to the slick, atmospheric track he recorded earlier this year, "Gave It a Name") guarantees it a serious critical reception. Springsteen may no longer be paying for Columbia's Christmas bonuses, but when he shows up at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, no one will have to ask what he's done for them lately.

The Dylan set plays to history in more obvious ways. A recording that was once only available on dubbed tapes or low-quality vinyl, "Live 1966" has the look of a bona fide Historic Event, complete with a handsome slipcase and a short booklet full of archival photos. It represents quite a switch in how Dylan views his career: Seven years ago, he accepted a Lifetime Achievement Grammy as only he could -- by slurring his way through "Master of War" as the ground war was beginning in Iraq. But recently, his live shows have had an energy that they've lacked for more than a decade. Rather than throw out his songs with showboaty guitar solos, Dylan seems to be reinventing them with uncharactaristically warm vocals.

Ultimately, both "Tracks" and "Live 1966" are less about these artists making peace with their past than they are about them advancing their elder statesman status. Dylan only seems interested in releasing material most collectors already own anyway -- it's rumored that the next volume of "The Bootleg Series" will be another one of his most avidly traded recordings, the more biting original version of "Blood on the Tracks." Springsteen is as much of a control freak as ever -- only a month ago, he filed a lawsuit blocking the release of early songs that he doesn't even own the copyrights to.

In fact, both artists owe their bootleggers more than they would like to admit. While they were deciding which of their songs would fit best on their next album, fans were taping, trading and helping to build their legacies. Because of those fans, these songs are already considered essential; the official releases will simply validate their historic importance. Who knows how the material might have been received if it were available now for the first time -- then again, no one ever yells "Judas" about a CD in a slipcase.

Robert Levine

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