Intimate Glimpses Torn From Dylan’s Back Pages : BOB DYLAN “The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare and Unreleased) 1961-1991" <i> Columbia</i> ****
Could it be that the Grammy Awards, for once, actually gave us one of the year’s most electric moments in pop?
Bob Dylan’s performance of “Masters of War” on the Feb. 20 telecast was so far from the mainstream sound of the rest of the show that it was possible for Dylan admirers to (a) agree that the rendition was virtually incomprehensible, and yet (b) disagree sharply over whether it was good or bad.
The truth is, Dylan would have appeared just as radical--to most fans of his early folk-style albums as well as viewers who were seeing him for the first time--if he had walked onto the Grammy stage in 1965 and sung “Subterranean Homesick Blues” in the rapid-fire, hurricane style of the record.
Dylan’s artistry has always been rough-edged, a point that is documented in this sprawling, almost four-hour retrospective set.
To suggest that this collection of mostly 10- to 30-year-old odds and ends is more compelling than 98% of the new music that will be released this year is not quite the indictment of the current pop scene that it might at first seem
After all, the box set of 58 tracks--about a quarter of which have never appeared on record before, including bootlegs--is also more stirring than 95% of the albums released in the ‘60s, the so-called golden decade of rock.
Artistry of the impact of Dylan’s is a rarity in any era and in any creative field.
Taken truly from Dylan’s musical back pages, “The Bootleg Series” offers intimate and revealing glimpses of his artistic instincts. They’re the musical equivalents of family snapshots that give us disarming new perspectives of someone whom we have known for years only through formal, studio portraits.
The album’s highlights, drawn mostly from outtakes (songs recorded for but not included on an album) and from publishers’ demos, touch on some classic Dylan material.
Among the outtakes: “Let Me Die in My Footsteps” (a 1962 song about the Cold War that is described in John Bauldie’s extensive liner notes as Dylan’s first anthem), “Farewell, Angelina” (a 1965 composition that was popularized by Joan Baez but never included on a Dylan album), “You Changed My Life” (a religious song from the 1981 “Shot of Love” sessions) and “Series of Dreams” (an especially striking song from the Daniel Lanois-produced 1989 “Oh Mercy” sessions).
The demos and alternate versions of familiar songs range from “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” (with just piano backing), “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (acoustic), “Every Grain of Sand” (piano, guitar), “Tangled Up in Blue” (from the “Blood on the Tracks” sessions) and an especially tender “If You See Her, Say Hello” (also from the “Blood on the Tracks” sessions).
Perhaps the most memorable track, historically, is the slow, waltz-time rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone,” where Dylan is apparently previewing the song in the studio for the musicians, who then juiced it up into the full-tilt rock classic that we know from “Highway 61 Revisited.”
For all its fascinations, however, this is far less a definitive retrospective than 1985’s “Biograph,” or even five carefully chosen studio albums.
Still, “The Bootleg Series” adds substantially to the understanding and appreciation of rock’s greatest songwriter--a man who, more than anyone else, showed rock ‘n’ roll how to think, and who continues to write about infidels and desire, isolation and faith with unparallelled imagination and passion.