Love Dylan, hate him, or don’t really care, one fact cannot be argued. The three albums herein known as The Electric Trilogy: “Bringing It All Back Home,” “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde On Blonde,” changed popular culture forever.
No working musician could escape their shadow, few wanted to try.
Three records, 34 songs, recorded in 15 months, beginning when their creator was 23. Had Dylan’s motorcycle veered into that Dead Man’s Curve, on that July afternoon in 1966, their impact would be no less. Arguably, they would loom even larger, dwarfing all of the “J’s,” Dean, Morrison and Hendrix in the “what if they had lived” obsession.
Bob Dylan not only survived the accident, he used it as a cunning exit strategy from the overwhelming and soul destroying job of living up to his image, a grim task that he still has to grapple with, and daily.
Now comes the release of three versions of “The Cutting Edge 65-66” -- a complete, a more complete, and an insanely complete chronicle of what went down in the studio from January 13th 1965 to March 9th of 1966, while The Electric Trilogy was being recorded. There is a 2-disc “casual listener” version, a 6-disc “so, you think you know Dylan” version, and an 18-disc, 357-track, “you must be clinically insane to want to own this” compendium version, with every take, every musical fragment, and every piece of recorded studio banter laid out for listener dissection.
Guess which one I coveted?
One can truly understand why Dylan has been so consistently evasive about the inner workings of his creative process. It’s clear from these 18 discs that this process was a mystery even to him when he was, by all critical accounts, at the peak of his powers. Song after song, he relentlessly pursues the perfection he alone could hear, and in every single case during this 15-month creative marathon, he achieves it.
There are, of course, naysayers castigating Sony or Dylan, or both, for preying on the vulnerable fanatic by cashing in on poor sods foolish enough to spend $600 for 18 hours and change of outtakes.
Assuming Dylan pockets half the sales of this $600 behemoth, and assuming the 5,000 “limited edition” copies being marketed sell out, he’ll make a cool $1,500,000. But IBM probably paid him more for one stilted conversation with a computer. Another theory is that this release is just a ploy to extend the copyright on the material another 70 years. Previously, incredibly limited editions of Dylan’s ’62, ’63 and ’64 sessions have been stealth released, and immediately became overpriced eBay collectables. Why not cut out the middleman?
Perhaps. But I suspect another reason this has been released is that Bob Dylan wants this out there, throwing down the gauntlet yet again. You want to see how easy this was? You want to excavate my myth? Come on down, have a listen, and get back to me.
Now, why on earth should anyone wade through 20 takes of “One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later), let along 11 takes of the forgettable “Outlaw Blues"? Well, not only are you getting as close to witnessing history being made, you’re watching a genius wrestling a vision to the mat, and emerging from the ring, triumphant.
These 22 sessions are spread across 18 discs - discs that unfortunately don’t adhere to a strict daily recording chronology, as some sessions bleed over to another disc. According to these discs, two and half hours of tape was rolled for “Bringing It All Back Home,” 6 hours brought forth “Highway 61” and nine hours gave us “Blonde On Blonde.” How you approach such a daunting mass (or mess) of material is your own business, if you decide to approach it at all, but context is key.
This data dump is not without precedent. Greil Marcus did an entire book after he was allowed to listen in on the session that produced “Like A Rolling Stone,” and Sean Wilentz brilliantly documented the entirety of the “Blonde on Blonde” sessions.
Now, though, anybody willing to pony up $600 can become a music scholar.
The question still remains. Why?
Each of these 22 sessions plays like a short movie with its own unique structure, twists, turns, dead ends, heroes, villains and, ultimately, a completely satisfying ending. There is only one real dead end in this series, but that dead end is a key to understanding the entirety of the journey and all that was at stake along the way.
Some of these films are over an hour long, where each take of each song is honed down to its fully realized form. In some cases, like the “High Noon” shoot out on the last night of the "Blonde On Blonde" sessions, six “keeper” tracks were recorded in one session and time goes by in a heartbeat. But other songs take multiple takes and over an hour of listening to emerge fully formed.
Was the destination worth the journey?
Again, nobody said this would be easy.
Dylan is a ruthless editor of his own work. Too ruthless, as his later career has born out, with classics that would have transformed his '80s albums being killed off, deliberately, perversely. That shock-proof bullshit detector that’s a prerequisite for any great artist seemed to have shorted out on occasion, but Dylan is anything if not consistent in his working habits.
What this chronicle leaves out, obviously, is what went on between the takes. The private rehearsals, cigarette breaks, and in the case of many of these songs, lyrics being improvised to complement the music that was being improvised.
This two-way feedback resulted in a unique piece of collaborative art and is a working method that Dylan has used throughout his career. “Going Electric” was more than plugging in. A very solo artist was surrendering to the unyielding circumstance of creation.
Rather than a bandleader, Dylan is a benign creative vampire, sucking the life force from his musical colleagues, the first with no equals, then and now. He had only his ambition, his muse, his creative angels, and his abundant demons to keep him on track – and that was enough.
It all starts here, and now, we have it all. Every take, every note, every painstaking miss that aspires to be a Hit. These albums didn’t have to exist, they didn’t have to be classic, they didn’t have to be anything.
Again, not a place for tourists or, frankly, most sane people.
Wading through these sessions is like studying early drafts of the Declaration of Independence and wondering how Jefferson crossing out a few words would change history. The Electric Trilogy did that much for music, the '60s renaissance and its cultural hangover. Plus, the Trilogy figured out how to incorporate a police whistle and a Salvation Army Band into the proceedings - something the Continental Congress never thought of.
The following is a user’s guide for the hardy few who might want to make the journey.
How best to digest 18 hours and 48 minutes of insane creativity? Well, by going temporarily insane, and plowing straight through in one semi-marathon listening session. I also elected to organize the music around the individual recording sessions and, thanks to the wonderful and essential scholarship of Michael Krogsgaard, those dates and details have been exhaustively compiled.
“Dylanspotters,” of which there are blissfully many, will no doubt fact check and correct some of the data below, but every effort has been made to keep track of the all important minutia.
Anyway, I suffered for Dylan’s art, now, it is your turn.
BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME
Jan. 13 to Jan. 15, 1965
Total Session Time: 2.27
Session 1 (of 3) for "Bringing It All Back Home," Jan. 13, 1965, CD 1, tracks 1 through 18, Disc One (53.22)
The electricity starts, acoustically, with a first pass on one of Dylan’s most perfect, and enduring songs, “Love Minus Zero, No Limit.” Right from the beginning, a constant trope of these sessions appears, which is Dylan coming up with cursory or, more commonly, surrealistic titles for his compositions. Was this intended to screw around with The Man, Tom Wilson, the soon to be deposed “producer” of these first sessions? Who knows. In this case, “Dime Store” goes for about a minute and half, before it falls apart. “I’ll do this one more time, if I can’t do it, I’ll do another song,” says Dylan, introducing another trope to these sessions, which is, when in doubt, go to something else in order to allow the muse time to reconvene. In this case, we move on to “Alcatraz to The 9th Power,” wait…no, “Bank Account Blues, wait…no, “I’ll Keep It with Mine.” This, much bootlegged, track introduces trope number 3, the out of tune whorehouse piano that Dylan so clearly loves to play. Much more of that, later. Next, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. Pretty straight performance, nothing surprising. But the first take of the next song, “Bob Dylan’s Later Dream,” soon to be known as “Bob Dylan’s 115 Dream,” makes oddball history. This 27-second false start breaks down with Dylan's hysterical laughter, which is not an uncommon occurrence during these cumulative sessions but, in this case, the meltdown winds up being used on the actual record -- grafted onto the beginning of the final electric take of the same song recorded the next day. Back in 1965, this calculated unprofessionalism is widely taken for the raised middle finger that it indeed is, and does not endear Dylan to some of his more earnest former fans. The next take nails the entire song, but definitely demonstrates why Dylan had to go electric, and soon, like tomorrow. He clearly needs the company. Next up, the first take of “She Belongs To Me,” another timeless jewel. Proof? Dylan just played it at the Albert Hall, in fact, has performed it in all four of his career spanning appearances there, in 1965, 1966, 2013 and October of 2015.
Soon to be improved by the ghost of electricity, an acoustic take of “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Then, another blues, the first of what will be six takes of “Outlaw Blues.” Not much going on here, or ever really - more a throat clearing exercise but, whatever. Next take, and two last tropes, the surrealistic title that has nothing to do with the song and the diligently, nay obsessively, worked on generic blues number. “What is this one, Bob. Hey Bob!!! Uh, the name of this one is…” On The Road Again.” Well, alright then. This is the first of 11, yes 11, takes of a blues chant that, even after “keeper” take number eleven, could have wisely been discarded into the dust bin of history.
Which brings us to our final trope. Bob Dylan’s capricious disregard for his own material. For now, he moves on to the one and only take of “Farewell, Angelina,” an absolutely glorious song and performance that was only a rumor until 1991 when it was officially released on the first Bootleg Series. Here is a composition with carefully crafted, beautifully poetic lyrics and a haunting melody equal to some of Dylan’s best songs, yet, he only performed this one time, on this one day, before, yes, moving on to 10 more takes of “On The Road Again.” Sigh. Dylan giveth, and he taketh away. Next, another lost song - not a haunting masterpiece like “Farewell, Angelina,” but certainly a better song than “Outlaw Blues” or “On The Road Again” — “If You Gotta Go, Go Now”. This would become a minor hit for Manfred Mann a couple of years later and it might have worked for Dylan too. But not now. Time to move onto a song sketch called “You Don’t Have to Do That.” After 50 seconds, our ADD hero abandons that ship and says he wants to move over to the piano, for yes, another slightly out of tune, solo blues number, “California.” This too has been oft bootlegged, and deserved to stay that way.
Enter Bruce Langhorne, AKA “Mr. Tambourine Man,” with his electric guitar. In the words of a later Dylan song, “things are going to get interesting, right about now.”
With Langhorne playing soulful back up, Dylan delivers the 3rd take of “Love Minus Zero, No Limit.” A perfect take, again, oft bootlegged, and it is, to the official version, as the original acoustic “Blood On The Tracks” sessions are to the re-dos recorded a few months later, when, once again, Dylan second guessed his own (considerable) achievement. On to another take of “She Belongs To Me,” again with Langhorne, and again, a perfect rendition.
Bob is on a roll!! Magic is in the air. Praise Jesus!
Oh God, no. Another electric version of “Outlaw Blues” which, in its discordant mess, sounds like what the people at Newport thought they were booing at. A complete mess, and there seems to be no place to go but out the studio door, to end the session.
But tomorrow is another day.
Session 2 (of 3) for "Bringing It All Back Home," Jan. 14, 1965, CD 1, tracks 19 through 27, CD 2 Tracks 1-8 (35.42)
Not looking back, Dylan plunges into the electric void. With Bruce Langhorne on the world’s most sympathetic guitar, along with William Lee (Spike’s dad) on bass, Dylan nails four master takes, along with four more versions of “Outlaw Blues” and four more of “On The Road Again.” Never underestimate the persistence of genius, or the genius of persistence. Pretty much everything this day is in two or three takes, a hone for perfection. In the short snippets between these takes, Dylan sounds like a jittery chipmunk, as he continues to take on poor Tom Wilson in song title jeopardy. “She Belongs To Me” is going by the title “My Girl,” which might have come as a surprise to Smokey Robinson who, according to Dylan at the time, is “America’s Greatest Living Poet.”
By the end of the day, “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” “She Belongs To Me,” “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” and thank Jesus, “Outlaw Blues” will be finalized.
The artist is on a roll and only this particular artist could possibly roll any harder.
Session 3 (of 3) for "Bringing It All Back Home," Jan. 15, 1965, CD 2, tracks 9 through 24, CD 3 Tracks 1-4 (57.47)
Who knows what went on when tape was not rolling, but the last session of Dylan’s first electric album starts with the big bang of the one and only version of “Maggie’s Farm.” One take, and a master recording. But Dylan is only lulling us into a false sense of complacency - for next, we get six more takes of “On The Road Again.” Six. More. Takes. At least we uncover a new first draft verse. “Well, your grandpa’s cane, it turns into a sword, your grandma plays for pictures that are painted on a board, everything inside my pocket, your uncle steals, you ask me why I don’t live here, honey, I can’t believe that you’re for real!” Dylan’s clearly having a blast, with the Vice Principal in Charge of Recording Studio Discipline, Tom Wilson, trying to keep things moving along. Wilson interrupts the second to last take, admonishing Dylan, “That tempo’s too fast to try and squeeze in those words, Bobby.” To which a clearly exasperated Dylan responds, “Hey man, we were going to try and do it.” “Well, if you want to do it that way…,” says Wilson, “Well, go ahead.” Dylan does just, and a master take of “On The Road Again” is (mercifully) accomplished.
Whatever tensions between Producer and Artist are lurking in the studio get dissipated in the next few hours. The electric guitar is put down and Dylan decides to get serious. The entire second side of “Bringing It All Back Home” is recorded, back to back. After one false start, the one and only take of “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding.” Next, the one and only take of “Gates Of Eden.” Then a desultory start at an electric, well, a drummer driven, “Mr. Tambourine Man.” As the Byrds were already getting around to this, probably good for all concerned that Dylan abandoned this attempt, and instead recorded this one and only version that appears on the album. Sadly, this one might have benefited from another couple of passes, as a few clams are encountered. Wilson, perhaps assuming Dylan will return to one of his greatest songs with the zeal with which he obsessed over lesser tracks, just lets things roll. The last song of this acoustic interlude, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” is again nailed in a single attempt.
Onwards, to record the hit Dylan single that was never a hit single. “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” was a crowd pleasing ditty, that along with “Mr. Tambourine Man” should have been on Dylan’s previous album, “Another Side Of Bob Dylan.” Had he included those two tracks, and excised, say, the eminently excisable “Motorpsycho Nightmare, the one song Dylan has publically regretted recording, the execrable revenge fantasy “Ballad in Plain D,” a good album, could have been a great one. But any album that is recorded in just one session (which “Another Side” was), with a massive bottle of Beaujolais on hand (which “Another Side was), can be excused its trespasses, I guess. “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” is a straight ahead, crowd pleasing, slightly jaundiced love song, which gets four increasingly exuberant focused takes, and with the exception of a brief release in Holland, it is a song that would not see the light of day for decades.
How catchy was this tune? Well, Fairport Convention had the only hit of their 50-year career with it, and that was sung in French.
With these four takes complete, “Bringing It All Home” is wrapped up, and Dylan goes back on the road as the solo troubadour. The album is released in April, and the next month Dylan tours England, accompanied by D.A Pennebaker’s film crew, a morose Joan Baez and an artist who knows that something is happening, but can’t quite put his finger on just what that is, yet.
That day will come.
On June 16, 1965, to be exact.
HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED
June 15 1965 to Aug. 4, 1965
Session 1 (of 6) for "Highway 61 Revisited," June 15, 1965, CD 3, tracks 5 through 22 (51.33)
Total Session Time: 5.53
Bruce Springsteen famously referred to the shot heard round the world as “that snare shot that sounded like somebody had kicked open the door to your mind.” How that snare shot came to be is the cover story of the first of the Highway 61 sessions, the album that Dylan once said “was something that even I would listen too.”
There has been a lot of myths and analysis of just how lightning was captured in a bottle across these two days. One urban legend has Al Kooper sneaking onto the organ during the first takes of “Like A Rolling Stone, ”and Dylan battling yet again with Tom Wilson to let him keep playing. Wrong. Al’s at the organ from the very first, on two other songs and 13 different takes, well before Dylan gets around to even trying out “Like A Rolling Stone.” Another apparent myth is that Dylan convened these sessions to record “Stone,” when, judging from the 18 disc mother lode, either “Stone” was brought in as a work in progress, and ignited under the fuel of kindred music spirits, or Dylan spent the aforementioned 13 takes on two different songs as the world’s longest delaying tactic.
Short form is that Dylan has assembled the dream band, driven by the man who made Al Kooper hide behind the organ, Michael Bloomfield. If you view these sessions as Michael Bloomfield’s greatest hits, you can’t go too far wrong, because they are, and Dylan certainly knew it. As Dylan sings in the “let’s see if this thing can go to 11” vamp “Sitting On A Barb Wire Fence” (aka “Over The Cliffs) “I got this woman in LA, she makes the sweat run down my brow. Well, she’s good alright, but she ain’t as good as this guitar player I got right now.”
Truth in advertising.
Bloomfield looms large over “Highway 61,” and in take after take (after take) he never hits a wrong note.
The festivities start with “Phantom Engineer” (Number Cloudy, according to the already enervated Tom Wilson), which would soon see the light of day under the title “It Takes A Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” (somewhere, the Columbia Records Title Clerk develops a nervous tremor). Like its bluesy predecessors, this one would take an inordinate amount of takes to get right, 13 in all. Thanks again, Bob. The first four takes play around and around a fast paced arrangement, roadhouse blues, and never quite getting there. So, in traditional Dylan fashion, he abandons it, and moves on to the previously mentioned “Barbed Wire Fence.” To me, this seems like a sound check, a flexing of musical muscles, as even by Dylan’s toss away, fluff standards, the lyrics are clearly just place holders, dialing in the “sounds inside my mind” that he is trying to capture.
On to the first stammering takes of “Like A Rolling Stone.” After a few waltz-like tentative stabs, oddly reminiscent of next March’s epic “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands,” Bob and the boys decide to call it a day, with that song very much in embryonic form.
Did Dylan sleep on it? Did he know what was waiting, just within his grasp? The next day will bring forth a miracle.
Session 2 (of 6) for "Highway 61 Revisited," June 16, 1965, CD 4, tracks 1 through 17 (52.00)
Only one song was recorded on this day, and what a song. This is the day when superlatives found their watering hole. This entire disc is devoted to the creation of “Like A Rolling Stone.”
Watching a classic emerge take after take is one of the best mini-movies of the entire enterprise, but what I find most fascinating is how it differs from the evolution of the other Dylan classics in this climatic year. The drill is consistent. Dylan works towards a certain target, and once he hits it, knows when he’s done. Not here. On Take 4, Dylan records the climatic snare drum that kicked open Springsteen’s mind and the hero, master take of “Like A Rolling Stone” is done. But according to the “Cutting Edge,” Dylan doesn’t seem to realize what he hath wrought, and goes on to record seven MORE takes of the song, before giving up in a kind of snarl, and one venomous exchange with Tom Wilson, who will be fired shortly thereafter.
“Why can’t we get that right?” complains Dylan, who tends to speak in italics, not realizing he already did get it right, and that, five takes earlier. How could Dylan achieve perfection and not know it? Why did he keep going onto what were clearly dead ends and inferior arrangements? Was he, for once, second guessing perfection in this second session?
The answer, my friend, is, well, you know.
Session 3 (of 6) for "Highway 61 Revisited," July 29, 1965, CD 5, tracks 1 through 23, CD 6, track 1, (1.14)
A lot of water under the bridge in the six weeks since the last Highway 61 Revisited session. “Like A Rolling Stone” has just been released and is on its way to becoming a top five hit. Four days earlier, suitably inspired, Dylan plays Newport, and plays a train wreck version of his new hit along with, among others, an out of control version of the still-to-be-figured-out “Phantom Engineer.”
This does not go as planned.
Listening to the show, over 50 years later, two things come to mind. One, just how together an allegedly un-together performance can sound and, just what did Dylan think was going to happen, anyway?
So, clearly chastened, humbled, insecure (as if), Dylan heads into the studio for a session that produces two master takes and a hit single that redefines the phrase “biting the hand that feeds me.” Coincidence? Doubtful. Now, fully in command of his muse, with a new producer, Bob Johnston, at the helm - the Titanic sails at dawn.
First up, yet another multi-take blues extravaganza, “Tombstone Blues.” Clearly, this one has been worked up carefully and indeed, Dylan had premiered it during an acoustic workshop at Newport just a few days earlier. In the earlier takes of this kaleidoscopic chamber of modern American horrors, we meet a new “blacksmith with freckles” amongst the usual rogue’s gallery of bizarre Dylan characters. Again, in take after take, Mike Bloomfield drives the proceedings. After take ten Dylan plaintively whines, “I can’t sing so loud,” before going onto two more takes, then giving up, for the moment.
Feels like time for lunch.
Now, it’s back to “Phantom Engineer.” Although this song has been worked over obsessively and played before a stunned audience, Dylan has changed up the tempo, and turns another numbing blues into something wholly different. Apparently, this alchemy was done while the other musicians were taking that lunch break, and Dylan quietly worked it out at the piano. These “private time” moments of solo reflection are sadly undocumented, even in this exhaustive collection, but here is where any surviving maps can only point us straight into the unknown. The first take of what we must now call “It Takes A Lot To Laugh” already nails the final arrangement. The song is transformed, and it’s just a matter of a few tries to achieve the master take.
“What’s the name of this, Bobby?” asks new country gentlemen producer Bob Johnson. “Uh.....” Dylan replies, verrrry slowly, “the name of this is...uh.....Black Dally Roo.” For those playing at home, Dylan carefully spells it out, and, then, changes “R-O-O” to “R-U-E,” and finally, changes the title again to “Crimson Dally Rue.” (The Title Clerk wonders when Happy Hour starts.) Later on, the song will get the slightly less oblique title of “Positively 4th Street.” Unlike the rest of this session, this song is under control from the very first take, every beat and lyric honed to perfection. All that is missing is the carnival popcorn organ of Al Kooper that will give the song its musical identity, and will cut through AM radios throughout the country a few weeks later. Six takes later that essential ingredient is baked in and Dylan, astonishingly, moves on to the first take of perhaps his most literary epic, “Desolation Row.”
As is so often the case with his “folk” songs, the arrangement and lyrics are present from take one, with a few minor variations that seem designed to tantalize Dylanologists.
Dylan gets through the entire take, a version that suffers from the sin of lifelessness, but hey, it’s been a long day.
Session 4 (of 6) for "Highway 61 Revisited," July 30, 1965, CD 6, tracks 2 through 19 (37.07)
Another day, another blue, yellow, green electric dollar. The session starts productively with three quick takes of “From A Buick Six” --- which clearly has been rehearsed off stage. The rest of the session is devoted to one of those white whales that must have driven Dylan crazier than his default mode. Here’s an interesting historical goodie. According to Anthony Scaduto’s “Bob Dylan; A Biography,” one of the first, and still best Dylan tomes, “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window” is the song that indirectly helped kill Phil Ochs.
After the fall release of “Window”, (of which we will be soon to be privileged to hear 22, yes 22, takes), Ochs had the temerity to tell a nightclubbing Dylan that while the song was “OK,” it wasn’t a hit. Dylan, not pleased, stopped the limousine, and kicked Ochs to the curb, sneering, “You’re not a folk singer. You’re a journalist.” Crushed, his friendship with Dylan over, this blow to Ochs’s self image was crippling, and the death spiral to his 1976 suicide began.
And it goes without saying, Ochs was right, the song wasn’t a hit.
But that was then, this is now.
Take 1 of “Look At Barry Run” (the Title Clerk gives up and heads to the bar) begins with a jovial Dylan laughing with his comrades in arms. “The doctors are here,” says Dylan, and the spirits of Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine and Dr. Howard govern the proceedings. Like the organ in “Positively 4th Street,” the tinkling celeste punctuates another of Dylan’s revenge fantasies. Drummer Bobby Gregg is the MVP of this session, driving the train even after Dylan admits that “I am about to cave in.” Be strong, Bob. After 14 takes, the final version from this session is locked, a perfect rendition. Dylan’s phrasing on the line “his religion of little tin women” is simply beautiful, some of the best singing from the entire marathon “Highway 61” sessions.
And, of course, Dylan refused to release the track, with a version escaping by being mislabeled and issued as the “B” side of the “Positively 4th Street” single. The consequences of deliberately weird titles, one hazards.
With this (that), this 4th session ends, and everybody takes the weekend off. On Monday, there will be Police Whistle and four (4!) master takes for one of the greatest albums in rock history.
Session 5 (of 6) for "Highway 61 Revisited," July 30, 1965, CD 6, tracks 20 through 29, CD 7 Tracks 1-20, CD 8 Tracks 1- 4 (1.37)
An epic session, that will produce the keepers of “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Ballad Of A Thin Man,” “Queen Jane Approximately” and “Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues.” Not a lot of mystery here, just astonishing focus and professionalism, but one burning question endures. Just what genius suggested adding a police whistle to the roadhouse blues of “Highway 61 Revisited?” Played by Dylan, in one of the most virtuosic moments of his entire 50 year career, this insane addition turns what could have been another semi-forgettable blues into an indelible classic. Four takes go by before somebody calls for the whistle. Where did they find it? Was it just laying around in Studio “A”? If not, who made the run to the music store? On such mysteries, empires turn. One of the greatest moments of this entire set is a 35 second take composed of Dylan just wailing away on aforementioned whistle, with the giggles of his fellow musicians surrounding him. “That was the funniest damn things I have ever heard”, one says, off mike. The fun is still infectious these long 50 years later, and reminds us just how goofy Bob Dylan could be, if he felt like it.
Next up, “Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues.” With some lyrics that migrated from the aborted “Sitting On A Barbed Wire Fence,” the takes begin with a mostly worked out arrangement. Just some words need to be shuffled and some harmonica breaks calibrated. Dylan is a lyrical magpie, who clearly never forgot anything he ever wrote. His songs are often a collection of lines that get stuck in his memory hole, and it’s another one of his gifts that when they are finally exhumed and deployed, they work perfectly.
Eight takes, and another master bites the dust.
The song that follows, “Queen Jane Approximately” is a Dylan classic that has somehow escaped being canonized as such. As with the other songs in this epic day, the arrangement and lyrics are good to go from take one, it’s just a matter of extracting the perfect take. Dylan’s singing is brilliant, and the first take has some phrasing that just might be more soulful and sensitive than the final version but, once again, the best take was the one that made the album. That tinkly celeste and ubiquitous off tune piano make a welcome reappearance and give the recording its playful drive. Listen again to the way Dylan delivers the line, and italicized word, “you’re sick of all that repetition,” in the master take. Nobody sings Dylan like Dylan, said the old Columbia ads, and those ads are right.
“Hey, this is called “The Ballad Of The Thin Man, Part 1”, intones Dylan, kicking off Monday’s penultimate number. Maybe we’re still waiting for Part 2, or we already have heard it and just don’t know it. (We’d check with the Title Clerk, but they’ve left for the day.) Anyway, Bob works in mysterious ways. Right from the first take, the song displays all of its spectral qualities, not the least of which is the House Of Horrors organ played by Al Kooper. When this song was taken on the road in the Fall, the equally spooky Garth Hudson would take this template about as far as it could go, but Kooper goes far enough in the very first take.
Just two versions, and the song, and 5th session, is complete. Almost home free, but there is one canvas in dire need of refinement.
Session 6 (of 6) for "Highway 61 Revisited," Aug. 4, 1965, CD 8 Tracks 8 - 14
“Highway 61” is now an embarrassment of riches. But it was still lacking a “wow” finish.
Time to make another trip to “Desolation Row.”
After a short take with what sounds like prepared piano, and another with normal piano, Dylan gets down to his acoustic business. The first take is just Dylan and Sam Goldstein on bass - beautifully sung, lyrically masterful, but....missing....something. The same thing goes for the second take, just almost perfect, but......
Enter Charlie McCoy. A crony of Bob Johnston, McCoy is invited to this last session. Magpie Dylan is (of course) familiar with Charlie’s work at the helm of an obscure band called “The Contours,” and McCoy is invited to pitch in. A guitar is found, the last “almost perfect” take is rolled, and McCoy’s overdubs a brilliant, filigree guitar, that transforms the take into something sublime. McCoy is a Nashville Cat and, at the end of this session, Johnston slyly plants the idea that Dylan might want to record down there.
The Magpie files that bit of information away.
After a quick harmonica overdub (unused) for the open of “Tombstone Blues,” it’s a wrap.
Two months will pass before Dylan goes back into the studio, for what must have felt like the musical equivalent of root canal therapy. Even geniuses can have a bad day.
BLONDE ON BLONDE
Session 1 (of 10) for "Blonde On Blonde," Oct. 5, 1965, CD 9 Tracks 1 – 12 (39.53)
Total Session Time: 9.07
How do you top, let alone equal, an album that even you would listen to, if you were Bob Dylan? This is the central paradox and third act of this extraordinary run at creative immortality. Since we last left Our Hero, he has toured his latest music, with a band that would ultimately become “The” Band, with Al Kooper finally abandoning ship, and handing over the organ proceedings to Garth Hudson. For now, Levon Helm is on board, and this crack roadhouse band is about to head into the studio, with a handful of musical sketches and one full blown masterpiece to capture. To begin with, a couple of sketches are put down. First up “Medicine Sunday.” Dylan sings; “You know you want my loving, Mama, but you’re so hard.” Then, “Jet Pilot,” which extolls the virtues of a girl that “all the bombardiers are trying to force out of town.” Apparently, she’s got “all the downtown boys, at her command.” But, it seems, there is a small catch. “You got to watch her closely, because, she ain’t no woman, she’s a man.” Dylan had clearly been hanging out at Andy Warhol’s Factory.
One take, and this song vanishes into the deserved rear view mirror.
Next, Dylan makes a valiant stab at a first pass at a “hit” single, when he essays a title of cretin simplicity, “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” The first take is an instrumental jam, that allows the “mathematical guitar genius” Robbie Robertson a chance to show off his prowess. Enough already. Onwards. Two desultory takes of Phil Ochs’s nemesis, “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window” are attempted. After the second take, Dylan complains, “I can’t hear anything in here, you know? There’s just this dull sound in here, you know?” That dull sound isn’t just confined to Studio “A’s” acoustic characteristics, as miracles have been performed in that very same location just 8 weeks earlier. No, the dullness is in the whole proceedings. Now, it’s back to “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” 10 takes are essayed, and while spirited, the depth and overall bench strength of the “Highway 61” band is sorely missing. The song is nailed, basically, but Dylan ultimately decides not to release it. The session is wrapped up with a long jam that vaguely follows along the lines of “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window” that again shows that Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson could safely put their bar band days behind, but this, and the entire day’s frustrating session, show little more.
Session 2 (of 10) for "Blonde On Blonde," Nov. 30, 1965, CD 9 Tracks 12 – 20, CD 10 Tracks 1-12 (1.06)
Dylan has one thing on his mind today, and that is to stalk and capture a magnum opus.
“Visions of Johanna” is lyrically a masterpiece, and Dylan comes into the studio obviously knowing just how brilliant it could be. “It’s not the sound,” he says on an early take, “that’s not it.” What “it” is seems lost in the ozone. Inside the recording reels and across 11 frustrating takes, Dylan keeps employing perspiration to capture inspiration. What’s fascinating is to listen to these artists at the sharp end of their powers, with The Band desperate to prove themselves in a big time studio setting and Dylan desperate to equal, let alone top, the results of his last experiences in the same studio. Listening to them shadow punching through take after take reminds you of Stephen Sondheim’s aphorism, “Art isn’t easy” – and it is these first “Blonde On Blonde” sessions that really make you appreciate Dylan’s talent.
Even geniuses have to sweat and these sessions are dripping with creative frustration.
There are four complete versions of “Johanna,” each one failing to hit the target. Ironically, Dylan would hit that mark night after night in May of 1966, when he emoted the song during his acoustic sets. No matter what time he performed those versions, it always seemed like 3 A.M. But in the recordings of November 30th, 1965, it always seems like real, pedestrian non-magic hour, in a studio with a “dull” sound. The last take of “Johanna” slows down the pace, and comes closest to inhabiting the ethereal spirit of the song, but, close is just not enough, and with a audible crooning whimper on the last verse, Dylan moves on.
Of course, compounding things is the Spinal Tap like disappearance of yet another drummer. Apparently, after the last dire session, Levon Helm decided to take an easier, less stressful job, and went to work on an oil rig. The ever capable Bobby Gregg sits in, but remember, before they were The Band, the group went by the name “Levon and The Hawks” and consistency can be the soul of musical virtue.
But when in doubt, it seems, one can always go back to “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window.” “Does everybody know the song,” asks Dylan,“cause the right chords aren’t coming across.” Al Kooper is in the building, so, that must help, but six takes don’t come close to approaching the “Highway 61” version. No matter, they finalize the soon to be released and not-hit single, and the session mercifully ends.
1965 -- and Bob Dylan’s greatest year -- ends with a whimper, and not the big bang he was hoping for.
Session 3 (of 10) for "Blonde On Blonde," Jan. 21, 1966, CD 10 Tracks 13 -24, CD 11 Tracks 1-4 (58.53)
If I had to recommend just one disc of these 18 to celebrate Bob Dylan’s gifts, it would be this. This entire disc is devoted to the sessions and 15 takes that resulted in the complete creative collapse of what could have been a masterpiece – a song that never was recorded or ever performed again – in any form – after that day.
“Just A Little Glass Of Water” is the title of what will become known as “She’s Your Lover, Now.” This disc tracks that song’s evolution and de-evolution, and contains the most studio chatter and direction from Dylan, illuminating his working processes and frustrations. Although clearly in command, and the man on deck, his ship hits the reefs in take after take. It reminds me as nothing so much as the surprisingly great Tom Cruise movie “End Of Tomorrow.” A series of catastrophic deaths, but after every single one, we wake up at the beginning. Maybe this is what Dylan was talking about when he sang about ”waiting to find out what price, you have to pay to get of going through all these things twice” in a more satisfying session (and location) a couple of months later.
“Do that, Richard, please do that, PLEASE, just do that,” Dylan literally begs Richard Manuel on the last band take, but Dylan still goes down, with no life preserver tossed his way. “I can’t hear this song anymore”, he says, and in 15 takes, Dylan only gets through the complete song once. Bob Johnson counts off “the last take, anytime.” “OK”, says Dylan wearily, “it’s not going to be exactly really right”, but, it is as close as anyone will want to go, or we can go.
In this last take, he’s only playing the tune for himself, on the by now requisite out-of-tune piano. It feels like everyone else has gone home, and, this final exquisite solo version feels like Dylan channeling Frank Sinatra’s “One For My Baby, One For The Road” in its nocturnal life of quiet desperation.
“Pain sure brings out the best in people, doesn’t it?” asks Dylan as his whorehouse piano rolls, and the answer, based on this session, and this last extraordinary recording of this extraordinary lost song is “yes.”
Session 4 (of 10) for "Blonde On Blonde," Jan. 25, 1966, CD 11 Tracks 8 -20, CD 12 Tracks 1-6 (1.19)
It’s been four days. Back to Studio “A.” The sorrow of defeat behind them, the quest for the thrill of victory begins anew. On “The Cutting Edge”, this session is one of the most complete snapshots of a songs evolution, and unlike “She’s Your Lover, Now,” Dylan brings one masterpiece safely into port.
In session “4’, drummer Bobby Gregg again joins the proceedings, Al Kooper returns, and a piano man named Paul Griffin is about to tinkle his way into immortality, and play the best piano ever to be heard on any Dylan recording, with the possible exception of Dylan himself on “New Mornings” (produced by Kooper) “Sign On The Window.” “I’m not going to play the piano, really, I don’t think” says Dylan, and fortunately he decides to stick to his word.
First up, the by now obligatory tossed off blues number. Two takes of “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat,” a shockingly durable song that Dylan has for decades performed off and on and would obsessively return to over and over (and over) across the next few months. The first long take always Robbie Robertson, once again, plenty of room to demonstrate the awesome firepower of Canadian Citizenry, and the second version at least manages to gather all of the musicians together, in order to focus them on the day’s magnum opus.
“I’m missing a paper, is there a pen over there?” Dylan asks, as clearly he intends to do some in-studio lyric writing. We are about to hear a record 22 takes of what will finally emerge as “One Of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later), the only track from these New York sessions to actually make it to the final cut of “Blonde On Blonde.” But judging from the aural evidence, at first, Dylan doesn’t really have any song ready to record. “We’ll just play it, and go as far as we can on it,” is his instruction to the musicians, and off they go. The first take is just a short tone poem, with innocuous lyrics, ending with Dylan saying, “That’s not right, Al, I don’t get it. What’s the tempo?” Kooper’s emerging role as in-house bandleader is evident, a skill that is going to come in very handy in the following couple of months. Clearly, Dylan and Kooper have been strolling around the perimeters of this tune for a while, but they still don’t have much to show for it. After the first slow run down, Dylan proclaims, “I’m ready to go home,” but wait, not so fast. The first 8 takes of “One Of Us Must Know” are a slow shuffle, but something happens that must have inspired Dylan to stick around. Take 9 starts with a bang, and a faster pace, and for the first time, we hear what will become the final arrangement, with Griffin and Kooper weaving a keyboard tapestry of piano and organ. By take 18, Dylan finally, finally, hears the sound he has been pursuing for these three long months. Five takes later, they not only all hear it, they manage to capture it on tape. Griffin’s piano is way up in the mix, and Dylan’s voice takes on a new dimension and timbre, a chameleon like change that 50 years later, still seems like sorcery.
Lighting, meet bottle, but that bottle’s location is about to change, big time.
But first, one last pit stop in Studio “A.”
Session 5 (of 10) for "Blonde On Blonde," Jan. 27, 1966, CD 12, Tracks 7-10
“I’m scared, man”, Dylan says after the one and only take of a song sketch called “Lunatic Princess.” Smart fellow. This ramshackle session produces nothing of real consequence, unless you yearn for two more takes of “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat.” Thought so. Interestingly enough, Dylan heads back to the first “Bringing It All Back Home” session and records a full band version of “I’ll Keep It With Mine.” Clearly, he was fond of the song, but not enough to keep working at it.
The session doesn’t exactly end, it peters out. “Well?” asks Dylan, after wrapping up the desultory take of “I’ll Keep It with Mine,” “What do you want to do?”
That would be the key question.
After five recording sessions, very close to the entire time it took for him to record “Highway 61 Revisited,” and two days more than it took to record the entirety of “Bringing It All Back Home,” Dylan has exactly one song in the can for his next album.
This is not good.
But help is on the way.
Session 6 (of 10) for "Blonde On Blonde," Feb. 14, 1966, CD 12, Tracks 11-17, CD 13, Tracks 1-21 (58.44)
Off to Nashville, where Dylan finds his mojo, and finds it in pristine operational condition. The story of how Dylan made his way to Nashville has been oft repeated but, suffice to stay, he got there. In the very first take of the very first Nashville session, it’s clear that everything is hitting on every possible cylinder. Charlie McCoy is back, Al Kooper and Robbie Robertson made it down from New York, and a handpicked cadre of supreme Nashville musicians graced Dylan, and we civilians 50 years on, with their presence. In the same way that bassist James Jamerson is pulsing behind the seismically wonderful music coming out of Motown, Kenny Buttrey, aka “God’s Metronome,” drives each and every one of these Nashville takes where they need to go. At the end of the first take of “4th Time Around,” a melody, er, “borrowed” from John Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood,” Dylan says something that’s unprecedented in all of these sessions to date. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, it was my fault, there,” apologizing for a flub to musicians who were clearly playing a different game then he has been used to.
Dylan knows he has something to prove, so, well, he goes right ahead and proves it.
First up, 12 takes of “Norwegi—oops—4th Time Around.” Joe South plays just about the prettiest guitar anyone has ever heard, at least on the opening of a Dylan recording, and clearly, it’s not a question of if the song will be nailed, it is when. Dylan’s amphetamine with honey voice is in full flower and a master take is shortly knocked off.
Where do you go from there on your first day in a new studio and new city? Getting the monkey of “Visions of Johanna” off his back. There are three aborted takes and then the one and only Nashville recording of the complete song. And what failed to materialize in November, despite their best efforts, is captured on this first full run through. Kooper’s slipstream organ, Buttrey’s sensitive drumming and Dylan’s 3 a.m. voice mesh perfectly. The ghost of electricity is finally conjured up, for the master take.
Where can you possibly go after witnessing such a miracle? Well, glad you asked! How about 10 more takes of “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat”! How is it possible that Dylan can effortlessly nail a song of the limitless depths of “Visions of Johanna” in the one and only real take, yet take 10 more stabs at this song, and still not get it right??
It gets worse.
The last take of “Leopard Skin” opens with an alarm clock, a “knock knock” car horn toot, and then, an all band chorus of “who’s there?” for one last shuffle take of the day, punctuated – often – and badly -- by the previously mentioned car horn.
I know, genius can be perverse, but this perverse?
The night is young, but this night is far from over.
Session 7 (of 10) for "Blonde On Blonde," Feb. 15, 1966, CD 13, Tracks 22-30, CD 14, Track 1-4 (50.55)
This session’s listing shows something unusual. First, the clock switches at midnight to a new day, but nobody seems to have gone home. From 1 a.m to 4 a.m, eight takes of that old standby “I’ll Keep It With Mine” are recorded. But a little audio sleuthing shows something unusual. There is absolutely no sign of Bob Dylan on any of these takes. It appears Al Kooper is conducting the “Union Overtime Musical Choir” on multiple takes of a time-wasting instrumental.
Where is Bob?
Well, while unofficial bandleader Al Kooper is keeping everybody awake with busy work, Dylan is sitting in the studio commissary, chugging Cokes and eating candy, and oh yeah, casually writing a masterpiece, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” Soon, Bob Dylan and his new song emerge from the commissary, Dylan spreads his newly scrawled lyrics within arm's reach, and in perhaps the most chilling moments of all of these “Cutting Edge” sessions, lays down a complete 10-minute take. Nobody but Dylan knew where things were going during this first take, and one suspects that even Dylan was surprised at the stuff he was hearing.
One more short take, another complete take, and then, the third time around, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and an unprecedented entire album side of “Blonde On Blonde” is complete.
If the final product forever captured the enervated sound of 4 a.m., well, it was 4 a.m. and enervation is a polite word for how everybody must have felt.
Everybody sleeps the sleep of the just and takes Wednesday the 16th off.
Session 8 (of 10) for "Blonde On Blonde," Feb. 17, 1966, CD 14, Tracks 5-16, CD 15, Track 1-2 (40.55)
Another dawn patrol. According to the ever invaluable Michael Krogsgaard, this next session began at 4 a.m., and ended at 7 a.m. Being that only one track was recorded, one wonders what was going on earlier that evening. Perhaps, considering what they were about to record, and what the final take would sound like, maybe a short round trip to Mars took up the slack time. Or maybe the Columbia Title Clerk spilled a drink on the studio log.
The lyrics to “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again” emerge on the first take pretty much fully formed but, at first, the arrangement is a rather nondescript rolling blues. By the second take, things are beginning to pick up, a trend that will continue through into the dawn. The glitch seems to be the intro, which Dylan and the boys repeat over and over, trying to get the timing right. Five takes go by, and then we hear Dylan prophetically ask his long-suffering producer, “Is it rolling, Bob?” to which Johnson replies, somewhat impatiently (remember, Krogsgaard could be right about the time), “Let’s get it!!” And then...they don’t. Again. And again. And again. And then finally, 10 takes from the beginning, the intro is worked out, the pace is picked up, and the first working draft of a classic is “effortlessly” laid down. As all systems are now “go,” one more take nails the master, and either everyone goes out for 7 a.m. breakfast, heads back to Mars, or both.
Session 9 (of 10) for "Blonde On Blonde," March 8, 1966, CD 15, Tracks 3-17, CD 16, Track 1-8 (1.15)
Everybody takes a well deserved two weeks off, except for Bob Dylan, who has to play a couple of concerts and prepare for the 1966 World Tour From Hell (not the official title). But all work and no play does not make Bob a dull boy. And when the “Blonde On Blonde” sessions reconvene, things hit creative overdrive. They have to. This record has to be out in the spring. On this first day back, Dylan rips into another classic, “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” aka drummer Kenny Buttrey’s Greatest Hit. He drums like a man possessed and the only real question is just how soon they can attain perfection.
Pretty soon, it turns out, and everyone moves on.
Working title, “Like a Woman” and one of the bigger surprises of this box set. This is one of those song-jewels that you assume always had its setting. Not exactly. It would take 14 takes to wrestle this one into the boat, with lyric changes galore, odd shuffle arrangements and the traditional “Blues Song” break in the middle of the session.
The evolution of one line says it all. “Annie, she’s my friend. I believe I’ll go see her again” is a line that stays pretty much the same. But, on the next four takes, we get for the next line (you can sing along at home):
- “Wrapped in(side) her dreams, her fog-amphetamines.....
- “She don’t have to log (dog, frog?? Try again, Bob), amphetamine and fog.....
- “She don’t ever know, why I have to go....
- “She don’t bother me, and ask where I expect to be....
You get the idea. This defines “work in progress” and after these four takes, the song is put on the shelf, and it is time to get the blues. Again.
It takes a merciful four takes to get “Pledging My Time” where it needs to be, which is not very far, but good enough to make the final album.
Back to “Like a Woman.” Now, Annie has been magically transformed into “Queen Mary” and a Queen she will remain for the next nine takes. The line-in-progress has always been transformed. “Nobody has to guess, that baby can’t be blessed, till she sees finally that she’s like all the rest, with her fog, her amphetamine and her pearls”.....
Not just different lyrics, but lyric perfection. All of the stray words, thoughts, emotions, fully realized. When did Dylan find the time to rewrite the song in the middle of this session? During a bathroom break? Over lunch? Scribbling at the microphone? Talk about poetic grace under pressure. After these lyric changes, and equally masterful tinkering with the arrangement, the master take is put to bed, and the session ends.
Nine sessions down, one to go, and then, Dylan has to hit the road, again.
But amazingly, six of “Blonde On Blonde's” 13 songs do not exist yet.
Session 10 (of 10) for "Blonde On Blonde," March 8-9, 1966, CD 16, Tracks 9-14, CD 17, Track 1-12 (1.06)
The festivities began at 6 p.m., and go on for 12 hours, until everyone punches out at 7 a.m. the following morning.
Let’s do the math, shall we.
Six masters for “Blonde On Blonde” were recorded and, in most cases, created from pretty much lyric scraps during those 12 hours. Rumor has it that only one song was really together before the evening began.
Thar be giants.
First up, “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way, And I’ll Go Mine.” Six takes, with only two full versions recorded. A first take, and the last “keeper” version. The ever talented Charlie McCoy adopts the hallowed “Police Whistle” approach and picks up the trombone, which somehow brings the whole enterprise to life. Most of the rehearsal is taken up with Charlie and Bob figuring out how to synchronize harmonica and trombone, probably not a combination ever heard anywhere in the world since the night of March 8, 1966. But they manage the complicated docking procedure, and move on.
Onwards. “Temporarily Like Achilles.” It’s clear by now that the Poor Title Clerk has completely given up and is probably down the street, getting drunk. Suitably inspired, four woozy takes gets this rickety contraption on the ground. The Human Magpie retrieves the line “Honey, why are you so hard” from Oct. 5, 1965, and the old memory hole, and makes it a point of lyrical reference.
One more down.
Next up, the “Police Whistle” School of Recording Science attempts their greatest masterpiece. “What’s the name of this, Bob?” asks Johnson. “A Long Haired Mule and a Porcupine” replies Dylan, and somewhere, the Columbia Title Clerk takes another shot.
Then, miraculously, we hear just what “everything and the kitchen sink” actually sounds like, for the one and only take of the best-selling hit single of Bob Dylan’s entire 50-year career, “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” aka “Everybody Must Get Stoned.”
Sometimes, you just have to say, what the fuck.
Up next, “Black Dog Blues,” which, when they finally sober up, the Title Clerk will clock in as “Obviously Five Believers.” Bob Johnson emcees the proceedings. “Everybody together from the top and all the way through, because one take is all we need on this, man, it’s there.” It takes three takes, but Johnson had the right idea. It was there.
And then, like a bad penny, Marley’s Ghost and the sequel to “Dumb And Dumber,” “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat” shows up -- again. God help us, but just one take gets it, and Robbie Robertson once again upholds the constant promise of Canadian Manhood with an absolutely blazing solo.
One more to go. And a great one.
Al Kooper has recently confessed to making a huge mistake, and that was telling Dylan at the beginning of the Nashville sessions that “I Want You” was Kooper’s favorite song. So Dylan, being Dylan, refused to record it, and held it back for the very, very last Dawn Patrol recording. Over seven takes, an apparently relieved Kooper’s organ glides over the melody, and then punctuates every verse.
Once Dylan perfects the bouncy harmonica intro, their work, and these sessions, are over.
CD 18 is composed of well-meaning table scraps, song fragments and hotel room hootenannies, some direct from the camera rolls of “Don’t Look Back” by director D.A Pennebaker. The first eight songs are from that May 1965 tour of England, live from the Savoy Hotel. These eight run-throughs show where Dylan had been in terms of influences, with Hank Williams, classic blues and mountain ballads all merging together. The next May, in another hotel room in Glasgow, for the still criminally unreleased film “Eat the Document,” Pennebaker caught Dylan and Robbie Robertson as they sketched out two new songs, songs that show where Dylan was heading, had he not taken that wrong turn on his motorcycle two months later.
The final seven songs of the “Cutting Edge” were recorded in yet another hotel room, just three days after Al Kooper pried “I Want You” out of our reluctant hero. “Positively Van Gogh” definitely showed lyrical promise, and Dylan introduces “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” as “the best song I ever wrote.” Certainly the best one ever written in a Nashville Studio Commissary.
And with that, our odyssey ends.
Was this trip necessary?
We all know what happened next.
Dylan has a motorcycle accident, lays low, produces stealth and not so stealth masterpieces, hits the road in 1974, and returns in August of 1974 to Studio “A” where he tried, and succeeded beyond his wildest dreams to do, as he put it, “consciously, what I used to do unconsciously.” Those sessions would result in the most harrowing parts of “Blood On The Tracks,” and all of these assorted sessions are rumored to be appearing soon, on a massive box set near you. And oh yeah, manages to keep somewhat busy for another 40 years after that.
But the 18 discs of “The Cutting Edge” show just how conscious the unconscious creative mind can be, and illustrate just how hard it is to paint one’s masterpiece. And as these 22 sessions demonstrate, Bob Dylan was his own best critic. No wonder he’s had such an adversarial relationship with “real” critics.
The Beatles at least, had each other to lean on, in the studio and on the road, with two towering co-dependent musical geniuses sparking ideas of one another or, at the bare minimum, keeping each other honest. They also had Uber Producer George Martin in the house to provide counseling, and on demand musical solutions, once they had painted themselves into a creative corner. But Bob Dylan was really on his own, with no clear direction to his creative home, no strong willed producer, nobody at his level to provide course correction, and certainly nobody to help him punch up the lyrics, while the union musician clock tolled.
As the director Peter Hall said about Peter Sellers, "It's not enough in this business to have talent. You have to have the talent to handle the talent." This holds true for any number of musical geniuses, and is what separates Dylan from Elvis Presley, Brian Wilson, and yes, John Lennon, who all simply shorted out from the circuitry overload of their immense gifts.
As idiosyncratic, perverse, demanding and just plain ornery as Bob Dylan has consistently been across his entire career, he has always somehow managed to handle his talent.
And if there is any value at all to these 18 discs, it is being a voyeur as Dylan not only handles, but caresses, embraces and consummates his unique relationship with his prodigious talent.
Fifteen takes of “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat” is a small price to pay for such insights.