There are a lot of moments that I will recall in the future about this blog. I will probably always remember listening to the entirety of A Tree With Roots on a plane to Singapore, for instance. I will always remember the crushing disappointment I felt the first time I listened, in my kitchen, to a bootleg of the only live version of “Brownsville Girl”. And I will always remember learning that the Eric von Schmidt tape was on The 50th Anniversary Collection (1964).
The 50th Anniversary Collection (1964) is the third, and biggest, dump of Dylan material into the European market in order to extend copyright protection on unreleased material for another two decades. For three years this has become a December ritual. The message boards fill with queries in October – “Will there be a set this year?” and then rumours in November – “Yes, and it will be nine LPs this year” and the detectives set to work, looking at Bjorner’s site and trying to imagine what unreleased material will be on there.
The discussion this year was interesting. Some people don’t seem to “get” these releases. They don’t get that Sony doesn’t care if anyone buys them. There was discussion about whether Sony would release the October 10 show from Philadelphia, which is a very poor quality audience tape. Why, some asked, would they release that? It’s not good enough. But good enough has nothing at all to do with it. Sony is protecting everything. Everything, that is, that they think is saleable.
What has become clear after three 50th Anniversary releases is that Sony does not much fear bootleggers. They put out 1,000 vinyl copies of the 1964 set. The sets appeared within the week on torrent sites and they’re still there. Sony must realize that there are very few casual Dylan fans that are going to bother getting these sets so that they can have the a recording of a show from Philadelphia where the recorder may have been smuggled in in someone’s armpit and left there all evening.
What they don’t want is for anything to fall into the public domain in Europe. It is the PD material that is the problem, because European bootleggers will print that stuff up and sell it on Amazon.fr, Amazon.de and Amazon.co.uk and all the rest. It will all be quite legal and it will look like “real” Dylan material and then someone will buy it and it will suck and they’ll be upset and they’ll blame Dylan and Sony, even though they had nothing to do with it. If Sony didn’t copyright the Town Hall show, bad sound quality and all, someone would release it this week legally and annoy a bunch of unwitting fans. So Sony puts it out for the cognoscenti, most of whom don’t even want it – because they already have it, and because they know the quality is poor.
While the presence or absence of this show was being considered in the fall, it also became possible that there might be unreleased music on this set. The 1962 and 1963 don’t have very much material that wasn’t already circulating among collectors. The era has been picked almost completely clean. 1964, however, had some rarities.
In his book, The Dylanologists, David Kinney writes about Dylan tapes that are so rare that even the most inside of the Dylan collectors don’t have them all:
Still deeper below the surface were the tapes that were so underground that the men and women who had heard them had sworn to say nothing about them: Tapes That May Not Be Mentioned. A group of preeminent collectors sitting down for dinner would own recordings they could not even discuss with each other. One estimated that as many as twenty-five of these did not circulate. I twas likely that no single person had everything. Even big-time collectors like Mitch were suspicious enough to worry about who was meeting behind their backs> Some lost sleep over the idea that a fellow collector might own a tape that they didn’t even know existed.
Well, I was in Florida visiting my parents in December when this year’s track list was released. My father brought in the local Sarasota newspaper and showed me an article – the Anniversary Collection included the “first known recording of “Mr Tambourine Man”, which had been recorded at the home of Eric von Schmidt – 532 Beach Road, Siesta Key, Sarasota, Florida. Say what?
Not being so fully immersed in the obscure side of Dylan collecting, I wasn’t even fully aware that this tape was rumoured to exist. Some quick internet surfing revealed that this tape was not widely circulating – or perhaps not circulating at all – and that people were going crazy for it.
The 1964 collection marks a change for Sony. The two previous sets included only things (with a couple of small exceptions) that were known to exist and that had been bootlegged. The assumption was that Sony didn’t want to add new things into the hands of the bootleggers, but were protecting what they knew could be released. This was a shift. They gave out new material – they were protecting what they had in their hands, whether anyone else had it or not.
The Von Schmidt tape wasn’t the only thing either. The holy grail of early concerts was Dylan’s 1964 London performance at Royal Festival Hall on 17 May. This show was professionally recorded with the intention of contributing parts of it to a planned live album that never came to pass. Scroll down to the bottom of this page to see how this show was discussed by the experts as something that was known to be out there – maybe they’d even heard pieces or even the whole show once upon a time. Note how Clinton Heylin talks about this version of “Mr. Tambourine Man”. Now realize that this tape hasn’t circulated for fifty years. Do all that and then recognize that Sony just released this for 1,000 people in Europe.
Here’s the thing. I can understand the anti-bootlegging arguments and I can understand the pro-bootlegging arguments, and all that is fine and nice in the abstract. But last night as I was going to sleep it occurred to me that there were Dylan fanatics who dreamed of hearing this their entire life – people who literally died before Sony ever even acknowledged that, yes, yes, they had they whole thing. They just didn’t want you to know, because it didn’t fit into their release schedule. It’s infuriating.
What makes it so egregious is that the concert is just so great. Really, it is amazing. I’ve listened to it three times in the past twenty-four hours and for the first time I sort of get it. I get why so many of Dylan’s fans didn’t want him to go electric and begin writing the way he did in 1965 – he comes across as so fully formed here that he’s wrecking something perfect. I still don’t share that view – not even a little bit – but when I hear this show I begin to understand the point of view. I have some sympathy.
There are a lot of frustrations here. Sony refusing to sell this material to people outside of Europe is one (they only made the collection available to brick and mortar stores – no internet sales allowed, and there are stories on the message boards of Americans buying it online only to have their orders cancelled out from under them). Sony has also cut the stage banter (except for where it is integrated into part of the playing of the song). I guess this means that the stage banter is public domain – maybe someone will release it on CD (they did with Elvis!). There is now a trilogy of great early unreleased Dylan shows – Carnegie Hall and Town Hall from 1963, and Royal Festival Hall from 1964. It would make a great triple CD set.
The Von Schmidt tapes, not so much. Yes, a first “Mr. Tambourine Man” is historically significant, but the sound quality is what you would expect from a home recording at this point in history. There’s a lot of blues jamming between Von Schmidt and Dylan. They conclude with Von Schmidt’s “Joshua Gone Barbados” which is, ironically, also on this year’s Complete Basement Tapes – on shuffle my phone threw up both versions in close proximity, though, sadly, not back to back.
The other great material on the set comes late. There are well-circulated concert performances from later in the year (including Newport Folk Festival), but the fifth LP is all outtakes from Another Side of Bob Dylan, including “Denise” a song that I had never heard. There are alternate takes of “Spanish Harlem Incident”, “I Don’t Believe You”, “Chimes of Freedom”, “Mr. Tambourine Man”, and “I Shall be Free No. 10” (four of these). Since so much of these sessions has been gone over for the Bootleg Series, this isn’t the a-list material. There is an alternate take of “Ballad In Plain D”, my pick for worst Dylan song.
Most of the rest of the set I already had – partial recordings of shows in San Francisco and San Jose, for example.
Of the three 50th Anniversary Collections this one is, by a wide margin, the best. Not just the biggest, but the most revelatory – two “secret” tapes finally seeing the light of day for the typical collector. Also, it has really created excitement for 2015. It is clear that Sony is going to have to do another dump in December, this time of really key material – recording sessions for Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and parts of Blonde on Blonde. Also, there are a ton of concerts (not all recorded, obviously). It could be an enormous set. The 2016 set, covering 1966, would be even more enormous. That set has already been partially compiled by bootleggers as Jewels and Binoculars – it is 26 CDs. Presumably the Sony set might be even more inclusive than that. So for the next two years there could be enormous sets coming. After that, though, a few years of very little. Dylan did no touring after the motorcycle accident for three years, and what recording he did do was released this year as The Complete Basement Tapes. There will be some other material to protect, but they can probably release it as a seven-inch single….
The other thing to consider is the long-rumoured forthcoming contributions to the Bootleg Series. Fans have been waiting patiently for a Blood on the Tracks set, but there is also a sense that a Blonde on Blonde set is probably coming. If it is, it almost has to be this year. Sony can’t dump all of the recordings into Europe over the next two years and then come back in 2017 or 2018 with a curated Bootleg Series of that same material. They will need to get the Bootleg Series of 1965/1966 out this year, and then dump the stuff that isn’t good enough into the hands of the hardcore faithful. Don’t be surprised if we get a 1965/1966 Bootleg Series release this fall.
One final note. There is some dispute about the recording location of the Eric von Schmidt tape. Basically the question is: Did Dylan actually visit Sarasota in May 1964? Von Schmidt’s daughter is quoted as saying she doesn’t believe that he did. We know that Dylan played the Monterey Folk Festival on May 1 and that he left for England on May 9. Would he have gone to England from California via Florida? It’s conceivable, but it also seems unlikely. Could the tape have been recorded in New York? That seems more likely.
Nonetheless, and just in case, I made a pilgrimage to 532 Beach Road (we saw the Christmas lights). Whatever was there is not there any longer – like so much of Sarasota it has been torn down and turned into condos. At least we now have the tapes.
I’m not sure how long this will stay up there, but listen to Dylan sing “Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright)” from the Royal Festival Hall show. This is, in my opinion, as good a version of this song as has ever been sung. Columbia and Sony sat on this for FIFTY YEARS! Rumours have it that the tape was in the hands of a Russian collector who didn’t share it for all this time. But here it is, and it’s glorious: