The Rock n Roll Curmudgeon Rides Again
The Bob Dylan Bootleg Series: A Totally Subjective Retrospective
Author’s Disclaimer: If ever I have set out on a fool’s errand, this is most certainly it: Ranking Dylan’s voluminous Bootleg Series. So, like the man himself told a beleaguered Christopher Columbus on the riotous “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” from Bringing It All Back Home
The impetus for this mad hatter exposition comes with the recent release of Fragments Time Out Of Mind Sessions 1996-1997 (see my review of Volume 17 at https://www.allaboutjazz.com/fragments-time-out-of-mind-sessions-1996-1997-the-bootleg-series-vol-17-bob-dylan-columbia-records) A deep, deep 5CD dive into the darkness of that still acclaimed 1997 release, where the standard bearer eased to the edges of the spotlight as the pallbearer took center stage, Fragments disappoints neither novice nor obsessed completist. But where o where, my wary reader, does it rest with the coven of its sixteen other sisters?
To get to where I’m going, let me lay out what I think is my thought process. Down the decades, there have been so many great, unofficial bootleg recordings of much of what the Bootleg Series serves out as official releases that, when considering, let’s say The Bootleg Series Volume 4: Bob Dylan Live, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert (which was actually recorded at Manchester Free Trade Hall, 5-7-66) this wasn’t anything new. Besides, I don’t even think the official release comes anywhere near the wider, more immediate sound of Scorpio’s epic Guitars Kissing & the Contemporary Fix released three years before Volume 4. Ditto The Bootleg Series Vol. 6: Bob Dylan Live 1964, Concert at Philharmonic Hall. Released in 2004, six years after Midnight Bear’s sonically superior All Hallows Eve & More, Philharmonic Hall, Oct. 31.
With Dylan and the Band busy being born at 2188 Still Road (now Parnassus Lane) in West Saugerties, 1967, the same can be said for The Bootleg Series Volume 11: The Basement Tapes. There was so much stuff out there decades prior to its 2014 release that one could argue that no one knows exactly what constitutes a basement tape and what doesn’t. But more of that later.
So, as you can rightfully tell, I’m coming at this with a vaguely jaded POV. But that’s what I’ve banked my whole writing career on and, as someone once said, it’s too late to stop now.
Perhaps this as good a spot as any to give a brief history of the proud, bootleg tradition. Handwritten pamphlets exist that bootlegged Shakespeare back in the days when Bards ruled the land. There are clean, though crude recordings of Charlie Parker’s solos, arias from the Metropolitan Opera, the blues from Appalachian hollers and southern cotton fields. If we include pirate or counterfeit recordings (cheaply made copies of official recordings) let us consider the miraculous existence of Bone Music, a Soviet era subculture that copied state banned rock n roll, r’n b, jazz, blues, etc on discarded x-ray film. (To read more on this rogue innovation, check out: https://www.x-rayaudio.com/ ) One of the best-selling jazz albums of all time, Erroll Garner’s Concert By The Sea (Columbia, 1955), would have been a bootleg had not his manager, Martha Glaser, found an illegal tape recorder backstage taping the trio in performance.
Rock n roll blew the bootleg market wide open. Live radio broadcasts of the Beatles, the Stones, The Who, the Kinks, Led Zeppelin, Springsteen, you name the band or performer and I’m a dollar sure there’s a boot out there. Someone takes a Panasonic or GE tape recorder into Montreal’s Finjan Club, Philly’s Second Fret, or downtown’s Gaslight, Folk City or CBGB’s and there you have Dylan, Van Ronk, Mitchell, Baez, Talking Heads and Patti Smith. It’s a one of a kind library hard to resist.
If you’re thinking to yourself “well doesn’t that violate the artist’s creative rights” of course it does. No one’s ever denied that or shied away from the practice once they started. It was one of the thrills actually, possessing a live wild moment. Trademark of Quality’s (or TMOQ) Great White Wonder, (or GWW) came first amid the tumult of ‘69, a double album smattering of studio outtakes, early Basement Tapes, the Minnesota Hotel tape, and live sessions with Johnny Cash. There was potential for arrest and a thousand dollar fine if you were found to be holding Tarantula’s Zimmerman: Ten of Swords, a massive 10LP, 134-song ranging from the Leeds and Whitmark demos, more studio outtakes, highlights (and future official releases) among them — “Let Me Die In My Footsteps,” “Talkin’ Bear Mountain Massacre Blues,” “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” “She’s Your Lover Now” — live moments from the Gaslight, Town Hall, Carnegie Hall. I still have mine and no arrest record.
While many artists berated the practice, the Grateful Dead allowed bootlegging and actually promoted it. Bands through the 80’s and 90’s embraced the practice hoping to create a wider community of fans. The Internet enabled that. Smart phones bring us everything by everyone today. For a thorough look into the culture and business, read Clinton Heylin’s Bootlegs! The Rise And Fall Of The Secret Recording Industry (Omnibus Press, 2010)
As I come to end of this first installment, I’m listening intently (as I have since 2013) to The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait (1969–1971) one of the sets I consider critical to the whole Dylan canon. A 4CD set consisting of recordings from and between the albums Self Portrait and New Morning, including the complete Isle of Wight concert with the Band in 1969, and sits high on my list. But that’s for another day. Stay tuned.
Mike Jurkovic is a frequent contributor to Lightwood with music reviews and poems. He is president of CAPS (Calling All Poets) Press and co-runs to CAPS poetry reading series in New Paltz, NY. His newest book is Buckshot Reckoning.
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