Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground

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Bringing It All Back Home could have been a much different album. Dylan recorded alternate takes of most of the first side cuts and could have released a solo acoustic (or minimally adorned) version of the entire thing had he wanted to do so. Some of those versions are just as good as the tracks that wound up on the album. “Maggie’s Farm”, which was recorded in one take, would have been left off, but that might have opened up a slot for “I’ll Keep It With Mine”, one of the better songs that Dylan never put on a studio album.

Recorded by Dylan in January 1965, “I’ll Keep It With Mine” was released later in the year as a single by Judy Collins. Apparently Collins believed that Dylan had written the song for her. Other sources suggest that it was written for Nico, who Dylan had met while in Europe in 1964. Nico recorded it on her debut album, Chelsea Girl, in 1967. It is entirely possible that Dylan told a lot of people he wrote the song for them…

Re-listening to the Nico version of the song, I am struck by the early connection between Dylan and The Velvet Underground through Nico. I will admit that I first started thinking about this project when Lou Reed passed away last year. Reading the many posts of my friends on FaceBook and elsewhere I was struck by my inability to really put my interest in Reed’s work into words, and I remember thinking “How are you ever going to be able to say anything when Dylan passes away, if you can’t wrap your head around Reed’s impact on your life?”

For me, Lou Reed was the singer-songwriter who dethroned Dylan. There came a moment in my high school days when all of my friends transitioned into listening to the Velvet Underground, as they traced their New Wave roots backward through time. The strong consensus was that the Velvets were great for all the reasons Dylan was lame. They were hard, he was soft. Over the next few years I would convince myself that they were right.

While Dylan and Reed would become friends in the 1980s (Reed would play Farm Aid, and the 30th Anniversary Show, for example), they seemed really distant in the 1960s. Andy Warhol apparently tried to court Dylan’s interest in the Velvets, but unsuccessfully. Reed railed against Dylan publicly.

Still, Nico reminds us that they could have been a lot closer than they were had things worked out even slightly differently. And on the Bringing sessions, there is a version of “She Belongs To Me” that sounds so much like Lou Reed that it is kind of weird: Dylan does the talk-sing thing that Reed did so well, and the spare guitar in the background is reminiscent of a lot of what Reed would later do.

They don’t seem to have crossed paths much during this period, but it would have been interesting if they had.

I can’t find a link to the version that I’m listening to (alas), but here’s a solo version of “She Belongs To Me” from Manchester on the 1965 tour. It doesn’t sound like Lou Reed, but it does sound quite different than the recorded version with the backing band.

Bringing It All Back Home

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Released in March 1965, Bringing It All Back Home was the first Bob Dylan album to crack the top ten. It is a self-consciously two-faced album. The seven songs on the first side recorded with a backing band would anticipate the break that Dylan would have with the folkies come summer, while the four solo acoustic songs on side two would wrap up a transformative career in folk music.

Let’s start with side two. This is as great a side of an album as you’re going to find anywhere. Four songs, and they’re all fantastic. “Mr. Tambourine Man” is a song that Dylan had been performing for the better part of a year when he released it. Recorded for, but not used on, Another Side of Bob Dylan, this is a truly transformative pop song, stretching the limits of what could be done lyrically with the format. Already a hit for The Byrds by the time the album came out, this is one of Dylan’s most iconic songs.

“Gates of Eden” is another masterpiece that Dylan had been performing for quite some time, one of the most beautiful songs he’s ever written. In late 1964 Dylan was introducing “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” with the subtitle “It’s Life and Life Only” (a line from the song). Another hauntingly apocalyptic song, Dylan would do a number of fantastic electrified versions of this in the years to come. Finally, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. This may be my favourite Dylan song of all time. I’ll talk more about this in a couple of days, but I’ll just say that I’ve never heard a bad version of this song. Those four songs are all A+ material. The mark of a man who is breaking with the musical traditions that made him a star by elevating the folk song to the status of art.

The first side, with its backing band, is not as good. Not bad, per se, but just not as good. We’re still listening to the rock star in a gestational period. “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, Dylan’s first single to crack the top forty, is monumental. “She Belongs To Me” is solid, and “Maggie’s Farm” (recorded in just one take) is tremendous. “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” is really strong, though, again, he’d later do better versions of this later in his career. The remaining three songs on the first side (“Outlaw Blues”; “On the Road Again”; “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”) are just sort of there. “115th Dream” is further proof that when Dylan put his name in his songs, they generally underwhelmed.

The album’s cover photo, by Daniel Kramer, may be his best, and was one of his most studied. Strongly staged with the album covers and magazine images, with Sally Grossman, the wife of his manager, Albert Grossman, in the background, the image has been mined for its significance by Dylanologists for a long time