A Brief Interruption

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“Well, my shoes, they come from Singapore,” Bob Dylan sings on “Union Sundown”, one of the singles from Infidels. I don’t have shoes from Singapore, but maybe I will in a couple of days. I fly tomorrow to take part in the Cultural Industries and Convergence workshop at the National University of Singapore. My silence of the last two days is not reflective of a lack of interest in the Dylan year, so much as it has been a rush to get set to go on this trip and to spend some time with my son before I leave.

Dylan has only performed in Singapore twice: in 1994 and in 2011. That’s two more times than I have been there. I leave my house tomorrow at 5:30am and I arrive on Monday night at 11:00pm, losing a day along the way. I hope to write up my final thoughts on The Basement Tapes on the plane, and will probably listen to the five hours of tapes one last time along the way.

I have no idea how good my internet access will be on this trip – though I should have it in my room at NUS, so with luck the only interruption in blogging will be due to the time change and the jet lag. 1969 is another not very busy Dylan year, but I still plan to blog about it.

The weirdest part is definitely going to be the temperature shift. As I write it is -18C in Calgary, and it is 32C in Singapore. Tough to dress for that kind of change.

Since Dylan doesn’t have an appropriate song, let’s turn the stage over to Tom Waits. He’s got a song for almost any occasion:

The Old, Weird America

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I’m still working my way up to considering The Basement Tapes. For a moment yesterday, listening to it in the background as I did some fairly routine correspondence at work, I felt like I got it. For a moment I was there at Big Pink and I was hearing The Band and I was understanding what it was that they were trying to accomplish. And then someone came into my office to talk to me, and it was gone. I wasn’t able to get it back today.

Thinking about The Basement Tapes – and I’m listening to A Tree With Roots, which is about five hours of tapes, not the album that Columbia released to battle the bootleggers – it is tough to maintain focus. This thing is literally ten times longer than John Wesley Harding, and I’m not even sure I could totally take in that album in just a week. This isn’t one long session – it’s months of material, sort of haphazardly thrown together. It isn’t curated, as the earliest bootlegs were, and that is a large part of the problem.

What is strange for me is that I can remember a time in my life when I really, really wanted something like A Tree With Roots. It was around the time that the fuller recordings began to circulate on bootlegs – the mid-1980s. I’m not sure if I had seen a copy, or just knew it existed (I’m not sure how I would have known – I didn’t have any friends who were more knowledgeable Dylan fans than I was, and I wasn’t very knowledgeable. I’m not sure I had a single friend who actually liked Dylan, actually). I can remember talking about it with one of my high school English teachers with such vivid detail that I find it bizarre, particularly because I’m not even sure what we might have studied in that class. But I remember talking about The Basement Tapes as I was headed out to my lunch break or to another class.

At my high school, in Burlington, Ontario (a suburb outside of Toronto), there were five English teachers, and three of them were Dylan fans (actually, the other two might well have been as well, but I just don’t remember them ever talking about it). One was an aging hippie in whose classes we read anti-war plays from the 1960s that made very little sense to us in the age of Reagan. He was a great, wild-eyed teacher that kept us engaged. I remember that he liked The Talking Heads, but no other music that was contemporary to our generation. Another was also an aging hippie, though now completely buttoned down. There were rumours that back in the day he’d smoked up with his students, but it was always a story from way back. He was the huge Dylan fan – he would quote him in poetry classes frequently, and I can still remember the day that I beat him in a debate using Bob Dylan lyrics. For an afternoon I was a legged at Aldershot High.

The teacher that I’m thinking of now, however, was Ms Tessler, who taught me in Grade Ten and one class in Grade Twelve. I remember we read Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Women, and MacBeth, probably not in the same class. I remember no other readings from her classes, but I do remember that she had done her MA at McGill University (on Robertson Davies? maybe Mordecai Richler?) and that she was a fan of Dylan, and that she talked one day about going to see Leonard Cohen perform in Toronto the night before, and that none of us cared. For some reason I have a very clear memory that her favourite Bob Dylan song was “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again”, and I can remember telling her that I was interested to hear The Basement Tapes and she told me that there were copies around. I think she meant the Columbia album, which I found in a used record store soon after.

Looking back, it’s no wonder none of my friends liked Dylan. It wasn’t Empire Burlesque that was the problem, it was that the whole high school staff thought he was great. I’m surprised that Mr. Creighton’s admiration of David Byrne (he showed us a videotape of Stop Making Sense once – for what possible reason?) didn’t ruin The Talking Heads for us either. Face it, it is impossible to like the bands that your high school English teacher likes.

But that was my earliest memory of The Basement Tapes. I never liked the album that much (“Stuck Inside of Memphis” is only okay too). Tonight I read the first third of Greil Marcus’s The Old, Weird America (originally published as Invisible Republic). He tries to lay a groundwork for loving The Basement Tapes, but he hasn’t sold me yet. I’ll give them another try tomorrow for Ms Tessler, who, with luck, is still out there teaching high school, trying to get the kids to listen to Leonard Cohen.

This is Cohen from 1986, probably the same tour, but this was recorded in London:

Browsing Dylan Bootlegs on eBay

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I spent a little time over lunch looking at Dylan bootlegs for forthcoming years, particularly what was out there on the internet to buy (there is a great deal to trade, but since I don’t actually own any, that’s tough for me!). It seemed like a good idea to head over to eBay. You have to add “vinyl” to your search, because Dylan and Columbia have complicated matters considerably by the use of the term “Bootleg Series” (which was probably part of their intention).

The album above, Stealin’, was the first Dylan bootleg to use studio outtakes, and it is one of the most important of all bootlegs. The owner is only asking $10 for it, but it’s not the first edition, which is the one that would be quite valuable. That version has this label:

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Stealin’ was an album that mixed material from a lot of different sources, which was quite common with the earliest bootleggers and then became less so as time went on.

This one:

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is a later generation copy of Great White Wonder. The owner is asking $50 for it. I have no idea if any of these are fair prices, but it seems steep to me.

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Help! is another bootleg that combined a number of sources. This seems to be the 1978 version. I like this one for the evident cheapness of the cover printing, which is probably just a Xerox copy. This gives a nice sense of where the bootleg industry was at the time. Yours for $80.

Finally, this:

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is a version of The Basement Tapes that the owner is asking $100 for.

Given how convoluted the history of some of these bootlegs are, I can’t imagine that I’m going to jump into the market any time soon. I sort of want the copy of Stealin’, even if it isn’t the first edition, but the shipping to Canada is way too high.

I should put one of those little “Donate” buttons here….

 

 

Bootlegging (2)

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A few more thoughts on Clinton Heylin’s book Bootleg: The Secret History of the Other Recording Industry, of which I’ve now finished two-thirds.

Dylan, obviously, has lost his centrality to this particular narrative. Probably the most interesting chapter, in many ways, is the one about early punk and new wave, particularly focusing on The Sex Pistols live recordings and EMI sessions (released as Spunk) and The Buzzcocks. Heylin’s argument that bootlegs were the best advertising for a music scene that only the hippest of the hip initially cottoned on to (recall, only about 70 people saw the Sex Pistol’s first show in Manchester, and about half of them immediately started their own bands) is quite compelling. The bootlegs recorded versions of bands that were no longer extant (like the Devoto/Shelley version of The Buzzcocks) became important documents of a music scene that imploded quickly upon itself.

Much of Heylin’s book revolves around recording technologies – pressing vinyl, then home-taping and tape-trading brought about by the cassette tape and Sony Walkman, then DAT, and then the CD. The effects of home-taping on the bootleg industry (“Home taping is killing the piracy industry”…) are interesting, particularly given my own age and the point where I entered the scene, which was at the tail end of vinyl bootlegging. The chapter about the crusade against DAT is now a familiar song, and it will be replayed against recordable CD-Rs and the copying of MP3s.

Heylin sheds considerable insight into two of the major Dylan bootlegs. The first of these is Zimmerman: Ten of Swords, the mega-bootleg that I bought as a teenager. First of all, Heylin is very dismissive of its quality, which I found surprising since I thought it was great. More importantly, he goes into a great deal of detail about the problems that this caused with Columbia in 1985 when the box set was released at the same time as Biograph, only it contained a far greater amount of unreleased material. Cameron Crowe, not yet filmmaker Cameron Crowe, wrote the liner notes for Biograph but also praised Ten of Swords, and Rolling Stone ran a rave review of it, which caused Columbia to pull their ads from that magazine in a fit of pique.

Apparently, Columbia went after the bootlegger to make an example of him, but because the discs had been printed in multiple locations (to save time), no record pressing shop knew that they had done the “ten album set” that the FBI was asking about. Heylin notes that had the FBI put any thought into it, they could have tracked down the producer by going after the printer of the boxes. But that didn’t happen.

Ten of Swords also had an unexpected knock-on Dylan bootleg effect. A man wishing to order a copy for himself happened into a northwest store that was ordering them, and as thanks for acquiring it, provided the store with tapes from 1967 at Big Pink. The man was, apparently, a roadie from Dylan’s 1974 tour and had these things sitting in a box. These reels were The Basment Tapes material that wasn’t released on Great White Wonder. This is a substantial amount of material – dozens and dozens of songs, mostly traditional, that Dylan and The Band were dredging out of their collective unconscious. These were provided to the producers of Ten of Swords, but were not a big hit in the way that the material from Great White Wonder (and the official Columbia version of The Basement Tapes) were, nor as big as Ten of Swords.

Heylin sounds surprised at this, but I can tell you I’ve been listening to this material for about five days and it is grating on me. So much of it is just not good. The version I have is A Tree With Roots: The Genuine Basement Tapes. I’m still building up to talking about this one, as it is a key piece of Dylanology, but I have to say that I’m looking for the way into it all. In comparison to Ten of Swords and the other early 1960s recordings, it just doesn’t grab me. I’m hoping that Greil Marcus will be able to sell me, but that’s for another day.

The Woody Guthrie Memorial Concert

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Bob Dylan wasn’t completely one hundred per cent out of the public eye in 1968 – he did perform for about half an hour in January at the Woody Guthrie Memorial Concert at Carnegie Hall.

After a long hospitalization, Guthrie passed away on October 3, 1967. Apparently Dylan told Harold Leventhal that he would be the first to volunteer to perform at any memorial concert that would be arranged for him. Those shows (one in the afternoon, one in the evening) took place on January 20, and featured Judy Collins, Jack Elliott, Richie Havens, Odetta, Arlo Guthrie, Country Joe McDonald, Tom Paxton, and, of course, Pete Seeger.

Each of the artists sat on stage while the others played, and Dylan performed three songs with “The Crackers” (The Band, before they were known by that name, but after they were known as The Hawks).

Dylan’s performance, his first in nearly two years, was highly anticipated. The Rolling Stone review of the show noted that tickets were being scalped for $25 (about five times the retail price), but that there weren’t enough scalpers to satisfy the demand.

The songs that Dylan and The Band performed give a strong sense of how they were working together in 1967 on The Basement Tapes. “I Ain’t Got No Home” is quite different from the way that Dylan sang it at the beginning of the decade, and “The Grand Coulee Dam” has a strong influence from The Band in the way that it swings. “Dear Mrs. Roosevelt” was the lone down-tempo song that they did. All three are suggestive that a Dylan concert around this time would have been really interesting. While he used a band here, Dylan played acoustic rather than an electric guitar, and the bluesy sensibility is a stark contrast to the rock shows from 1966.

In addition to their fifteen minutes, Dylan joined the rest of the performers on “This Land Is Your Land” and “This Train is Bound for Glory”, two of Guthrie’s most rousing songs.

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The afternoon show is the one that seems to have been released on CD (and on vinyl in 1972). It’s available through the usual retailers. Apple let me buy just the Dylan songs for 99 cents each, and they’re well worth it. The album itself is pretty extravagantly priced, if you ask me.

Two of the three songs show up on YouTube. Sadly, it is “Grand Coulee Dam” that is the best of the trio, and that I couldn’t find. Play these through – they’re a glimpse of what might have been.

Bootlegging

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1968. Bob Dylan has gone quiet. No tour. No album. Only one single – “All Along the Watchtower” – from a 1967 album.

The quiet seemed to drive his fans a little crazy. Dylan had actually spent a large part of 1967 recording The Basement Tapes with The Band. They produced well over one hundred songs of extremely varying quality. I’ve been listening to these over the past few days wondering when I’m allowed to write about them.

Here’s the thing: I’ve written about Dylan’s live performances in the years that they occurred rather than in the years that they were released (and many of them haven’t been) on the assumption that some Dylan fans heard them at that time. But for things that were recorded in studio, I’ve waited until the year that they were actually released. The Times They Are A-Changin’ was recorded in the fall of 1963, but it was a January 1964 release, and that’s where I put it. So where do I put The Basement Tapes?

They were recorded mostly in 1967, but no one outside of Dylan and The Band and whomever else was there would have heard them. They were circulating in 1968, because Rolling Stone reviewed them that year (it’s a review well worth taking the time to read). A very small portion of them became available as Great White Wonder in 1969.They were released, edited and over-dubbed, by Columbia in 1975. It’s a mess. I’m putting them here. Just not today. (Oh, and I’ll talk about the Columbia version in two months time).

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What I have been doing today is reading up on the history of the bootleg album. Clinton Heylin’s Bootleg: The Secret History of the Other Recording Industry is not a very good book. It’s confusingly written, with a lot of acronyms. Players in the industry are introduced with very little detail. It’s mostly an amalgamation of facts, poorly put together and somewhat scattershot. But it is an interesting read.

Heylin is a big Dylan fan. He’s written a lot about him, including authoring the new booklet that accompanies The Complete Album Collection. If you look on ExpectingRain.com you can see that he’s a controversial figure, although I don’t know enough about the posters on that site to know who’s full of it (those people are professional Dylan fans, I’m still strictly amateur). Anyway, Heylin identifies the root of the entire bootleg industry with Dylan. Specifically with The Basement Tapes.

The way he tells it, and it sounds convincing to me, Dylan upset the applecart with the release of John Wesley Harding. The break from Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde was just too severe, and fans had trouble processing it. When word began to leak out that there were all kinds of recordings of Dylan and The Band with a sound that bridged the gap. Worse, word got out that the material might even be better than John Wesley Harding.

The recordings for The Basement Tapes range in quality considerably. Some are absolutely dreadful, and they sound as if they were recorded on a reel to reel while someone holds the microphone under their armpit. Some sound roughly professional. Some of the songs are disastrous butcherings of classical folk songs by people who might have been too altered by alcohol or chemicals to know any better. Others are demos for songs that would be sold to other bands. It was this last group that circulated to agents and record companies as acetates, and then got ripped off.

Great White Wonder, the first bootleg album, was a double album released in July 1969. It was a mix of items. Sides one and three were from the Minnesota Hotel Tape from December 1961. Side two had four studio outtakes and two Basement Tapes recordings, and side four was all Basement Tapes. It was a sensation, and it ignited an entire industry.

I’ve only read about a third of Heylin’s book so far, and I’m hoping that it will provide me with some more answers. Among the things that I’ve learned so far is that the earliest bootlegging at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s focussed on the Big Three (Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones) before branching into Led Zeppelin and then other bands. That they existed in a quasi-legal limbo because of the weakness of copyright law at the time (that would change dramatically in 1976, when the copyright laws in the US were dramatically reformed). For instance, it is not entirely clear that in 1969 a recording of the Minnesota Hotel Tapes were illegal since most of the songs were in the public domain, and it was recorded before Dylan signed to Columbia. Live bootlegs, like the “Royal Albert Hall” show, became a big thing quickly. Bootleggers regularly ripped off other bootleggers, and Canadian bootleggers benefitted from even more lax copyright laws than the US, but had few pressing plants to work with.

The whole thing is super-fascinating. I know that I’m going to get to the end of this book and a) wish that I knew more about this, and b) had more of these items, even as I know that the quality isn’t really there.

Here’s a bootleg copy of “Nothing Was Delivered”. It sounds awful, but there is something about the crackling sound that makes it all that much more illicit, more appealing….

“All Along the Watchtower”

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Although it was initially released on John Wesley Harding at the end of 1967, I can write about “All Along the Watchtower” as a 1968 release because it was the sole Bob Dylan contribution from that year. Dylan released this as a single in November 1968, somewhat redundantly since The Jimi Hendrix Experience had released the definitive version in September of that same year.

There are a large number of Dylan songs that are better known in their cover version than in the Dylan version – songs by The Byrds and by Peter, Paul and Mary – but this one is an absolute blowout. Indeed, there must be a large number of people in the world who think of this as a Hendrix song that Dylan has covered. And indeed he has. His website shows that this is the song that he has performed most frequently in concert (2, 186 times – that is a mind-boggling number no matter how you slice it). Dylan didn’t start performing it live until 1974, and he has always leaned more towards the Hendrix version than to his own album cut.

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The Hendrix version is absolutely iconic – you can recognize it easily from the opening notes. It is positively anthemic. Dylan’s version is hard to hear in retrospect – you’re always comparing it to its better known cousin, which has that much more energy. Dylan’s version isn’t a bad one, it’s just that Hendrix’s is a great one.

Lyrically, it’s a vexing song. Check out the way people grapple with it on various websites. Some see it as a reference to the Book of Isaiah, but that mostly stems from the image of the watchtower. Others read it as a class war statement. Some see Jesus in the Joker. It is certainly highly fatalistic and mystical.

On the remake of Battlestar Galactica, “All Along the Watchtower” holds the key to all of human understanding. That’s a lot of weight to put onto a pop song, but if you’re going to explain your entire series that way, this is probably one of your better choices. It’s a cyclical song that fits strongly with the themes of that show.

Given how frequently Dylan has performed it, I’ve often wondered if it is his “favourite” among his songs. “Like A Rolling Stone” is the only song that he has performed 2,000 times (and fewer than “Watchtower”), and only a small handful of others cross the 1,000 performances mark. To me, it sounds like the first song that signifies the fully mature Dylan sound, but even then it is filtered through the Hendrix sensibility and not the Nashville sound that you find on John Wesley Harding. It’s such a short, cryptic song – it has all the spare elements that Dylan seemed to be looking for at that point in his life.

Here’s the Battlestar Galactic version: