BLOOD ON 86 TRACKS: 6-CD SET CHARTS MAKING OF BOB DYLAN’S MASTERPIECE

The appearance of the 6-CD box set ‘More Blood, More Tracks’ as Vol. 14 in ‘The Bootleg Series’, Bob Dylan’s ongoing mega-collection of archive releases, is a landmark moment for his followers, as it charts the making of 1975’s ‘Blood on the Tracks’, considered by many if not most to be the best of all his albums.

It has already generated some excellent writing, by Alex Ross in the New Yorker (13 Nov 2018):
https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/bob-dylans-masterpiece-is-still-hard-to-find
(‘Bob Dylan’s Masterpiece Is Still Hard to Find’)
and Greil Marcus in Rolling Stone (25 Oct 2018):
https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/real-life-rock-top-ten-746600/ ;
and in France, in the magazine Rock&Folk (No 616, Dec 2018), a review by Nicolas Ungemit (p. 81) and an article (‘Bob Dylan’) by Charles Figat (pp. 46-50).

Details of the release are:
‘Bob Dylan, More Blood, More Tracks – The Bootleg Series Vol. 14, Deluxe Edition’ (Columbia Records, 2018): 6 CDs with book/disc case with introduction by Ben Rollins, notes by Jeff Slate and detailed track listing; plus ‘Stories in the Press: Photographs, Writings and Memorabilia’, souvenir illustrated book with introduction by Ben Rollins, including reproduction of Dylan’s notebook for the songs.

My own take follows, in which I will concentrate mostly on the song canon and lyrical aspects of this release.

**
Bob Dylan’s never-ending Bootleg Series marches on, and with this release reaches its Vol. 14 (actually the twelfth release, since Vols. 1 to 3 appeared as a single package). Since Vol. 8 the presentation of the releases has become distinctly postmodern, with multiple variants and permutations and only the most comprehensive (and expensive) avatars having definitive status for Dylan completists (if in our times of information overload that category of person still exists). This latest offering is available in an abbreviated 1-CD version and a full ‘deluxe’ 6-CD version (the latter accompanied by two souvenir books). The full version breaks new ground in being marketed as the series’ first limited-edition issue, the Dylan community having been warned that once the current run of pressings has been exhausted, it will not be reissued. This review will concentrate on the full version, given that the 1-CD release, even if it is the version that will remain on the market, offers but a highly incomplete selection.

The deluxe ‘More Blood, More Tracks’ won itself immediate special status among Dylan fans, even before release, for the irrefutable reason that it charts the complete recording sessions for ‘‘Blood on the Tracks’’, the album near-universally hailed by the singer-songwriter’s acolytes as his unsurpassed masterpiece. Michael Gray, already with a quarter-century’s hindsight, called it in 2000 ‘an album of genius’, ‘triumphantly showing more subtlety and nuance than anything he’d ever done’ (‘Song and Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan’, London: Cassell, 2000, p. 8), indeed declaring: ‘This album is almost certainly his best’ (p. 181) – a judgment which later decades have vindicated.

This addition to the Bootleg Series thus joins 2015’s vol. 12, ‘The Cutting Edge’, which similarly gathered, in its 18-disc maximum variant, Dylan’s complete recording sessions for his other indisputable peak period, namely 1965-1966. Thus, what we already had for ‘Bringing It All Back Home’, ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ and ‘Blonde on Blonde’, we now also have for ‘Blood on the Tracks’.

All 86 tracks were laid down in 1974-1975, and with one exception all relate to ‘Blood on the Tracks’, the studio album finally released in January 1975. The exception is yet another recording (on my count Dylan’s fifth to have official release) of the folk standard ‘Spanish is the Loving Tongue’, which, while pleasant enough, feels like an intruder. The remaining 85 tracks consists of variants on a total of 12 songs – the ten that appeared on the 1975 album, plus two that surfaced later, ‘Call Letter Blues’ and ‘Up to Me’.

For all that Dylan’s listeners know them so well, it is useful to recall the ten remarkable songs which graced the finished ‘Blood on the Tracks’ that appeared on the world’s delighted markets in January 1975: five in versions emanating from the New York sessions of September 1974, namely ‘Simple Twist of Fate’, ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’, ‘Meet Me in the Morning’, ‘Shelter from the Storm’ and ‘Buckets of Rain’; and five re-recorded in Minneapolis in December 1974, i.e. ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’, ‘Idiot Wind’, ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ and ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’. ‘Call Letter Blues’ and ‘Up to Me’ were omitted, most likely as being too similar respectively to ‘Meet Me in the Morning’ and ‘Shelter from the Storm’.

The fascination exerted by the new compilation is despite the fact that the six discs do not really contain any brand-new revelations. There are no previously unknown songs, and no undiscovered significant lyrical variations. The notes to the first of the two souvenir books outline in all requisite detail the 86 tracks’ origins and, where relevant, previous release(s).

It is worth mapping the tracks that had official release between the 1975 album and today, appearing on compilations, soundtracks or B-sides, not least because several feature alternate lyrics and highly different performances. The earliest are ‘You’re A Big Girl Now’ (17 Sept 1974, Take 2, remake) and ‘Up To Me’ (19 Sept 1974, Take 2, remake 3,) which surfaced in 1985 on the 3-disc compilation ‘Biograph’, the latter song coming as a surprise to most listeners. Then in 1991, on ‘The Bootleg Series vols. 1-3’, came ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’ (16 Sept 1974, Take 2), ‘Idiot Wind’ (19 Sept 1974, Take 4, remake), ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ (19 Sept 1974, Take 3, remake 2), plus Take 2 from 16 Sept 1974 of the previously unknown ‘Call Letter Blues’; the first three all offered significant lyrical variants. Later, a version of ‘Shelter from the Storm’, similar but (see below) not identical to Take 1 of that song from 17 Sept 1974 saw the light of day, first on the film soundtrack ‘Jerry Maguire’ (1996) and subsequently on the 1997 compilation ‘The Best of Bob Dylan’; and finally, Take 1, remake from 19 Sept 1974 of ‘Meet Me in the Morning’ had surfaced in 2012 as the B-side to a single fronted by ‘Duquesne Whistle’. The years between 1985 and 2012, then, saw the official release of six of the ten ‘Blood on the Tracks’ songs in alternate versions, plus the two songs dropped from the album. The four songs of which no official alternate takes existed till now were ‘Simple Twist of Fate’, ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’, ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ and ‘Buckets of Rain’.

 

    

 

Lyric differences are an obvious issue when one evaluates different recordings of the same song, but in the case of this release absolute novelties are conspicuous by their absence: indeed, in live performance over the years Dylan has rehandled the words of both ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ and ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ far more radically than anything that emerges as genuinely new on this release. There are lyrical divergences between New York and Minneapolis for ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, ‘Idiot Wind’, ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’ and ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’, but for the three first-named the differences concern versions that appeared on ‘The Bootleg Series vols. 1-3’ and thus entered Dylan lore decades back. The New York sessions themselves meanwhile throw up surprisingly few lyrical variants of any significance: the only ones worth writing home about are for ‘Meet Me in the Morning’ and ‘Shelter From the Storm’. Nonetheless, what is new is that we now and for the first time have all the recorded lyric variants, outtake or finished version, together in one place.

For ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’, ‘Shelter from the Storm’ and ‘Meet Me in the Morning’, what we have by comparison with the released album is, in each case, an extra stanza. In the first-named, an additional (sixteenth) stanza coming between stanzas 11 and 12 of the released version, we have the privilege of extra data on three of this complex song’s protagonists:

‘Lily’s arms were locked around the man that she dearly loved to touch
She forgot all about the man she couldn’t stand who hounded her so much
I’ve missed you so, she said to him, and he felt she was sincere
But just behind the door he felt jealousy and fear
It was just another night in the life of the Jack of Hearts’.

This stanza was, however, known to the more assiduous among Dylan’s followers, having appeared in the official lyrics books since ‘Lyrics 1962-1985’ in 1988 (the Christopher Ricks variorum edition of 2014 includes it as an ‘unsung verse’). It was also sung by Joan Baez in her performance of the song on her 1976 live album, ‘From Every Stage’.

The box set offers four versions of ‘Shelter from the Storm’, all from 16 September 1974. One (Take 3) is incomplete; of the remaining three, Take 4 is the ‘Blood on the Tracks’ version, Take 2 is very similar, and the only version with substantive lyrical variation from the standard release is Take 1, which the track listing claims to have been ‘previously released on the Jerry McGuire [sic] original soundtrack’ (‘More Blood, More Tracks’, Rollins/Slate book/disc case, p. 52). In fact it is not exactly that version: it has the same vocal and guitar tracks but also features piano and bass parts which have been edited out of the Maguire take (which incidentally – in a reissue not mentioned in the ‘More Blood, More Tracks’ print material – had a second release in 1997 on an obscure compilation that was not released in all markets (and not in the US), ‘The Best of Bob Dylan’, where the notes credited it to the film. Curiously, Slate’s detailed notes on the songs tell a different story from the track listing, admitting that ‘it’s this version, without bass and piano [my italics] that is used in the film Jerry Maguire’ (book/disc case, p. 29). The Maguire/Best Of version thus both is and is not present here. What it and Take 1 do share is an extra stanza, coming in as sixth and bringing the song’s stanza count up to eleven. Attentive Dylan listeners may recognise it, but it appears in no published lyrics book, not even the Ricks variorum. On Take 1, the standard stanza 6 (‘Now there’s a wall between us’) becomes stanza 8; standard 7 stays in its place; and standard 8 to 10 become 9 to 11. The additional stanza reads:

‘Now the bonds are broken, but they can be retied
By one more journey to the woods, the holes where spirits hide
It’s a never-ending battle for a peace that’s always torn
Come in, she said, I’ll give you
Shelter from the storm’

Finally, ‘Meet Me in the Morning’ appears on this compilation in a version earlier released only on a Dylan rarity, namely as the B-side to the single featuring ‘Duquesne Whistle’ which appeared in 2012 to promote Dylan’s album ‘Tempest’. This differs from the standard ‘Blood on the Tracks’ version by including an extra stanza: otherwise it is the same take. The ‘new’ material comprises an extra fourth stanza between standard stanzas 3 and 4, with standard 4 and 5 thus becoming 5 and 6. The edited, 5-stanza version which appeared on ‘Blood on the Tracks’ is not included in the box set. The extra stanza had, though, been included in the various lyrics books, with the variorum edition again noting it as ‘unsung’. It runs:

‘The birds are flyin’ low, babe, honey I feel so exposed
The birds are flyin’ low, babe, honey I feel so exposed
Well, I ain’t got any matches and the station doors are closed’

The three ‘missing’ stanzas are all of quality, and detailed analysis would show that all three add something to their respective songs. Also important, though hardly a new discovery, are the substantial lyric variations between New York and Minneapolis affecting ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, ‘Idiot Wind’ and to a lesser extent ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’. Thanks to The Bootleg Series vols. 1-3, these lyrical differences have been well enough known for almost three decades, but it may be as well to suggest here that there is no question of superiority/inferiority as regards Dylan’s rewriting of these songs. For ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ it may be regrettable that Minneapolis eliminates the third-to-first-person modulation in favour of first person throughout, but Dylan used the same technique on the released version of ‘Simple Twist of Fate’, and employing it twice on the same record could have looked like overkill. By contrast, Minneapolis improves on New York in stanza 3 by shifting the scene of the drifter-narrator’s second job from L.A., ‘loading cargo onto a truck’, to the more atmospheric New Orleans, ‘on the fishing boats / Just outside of Delacroix’. In stanza 6 too, Minneapolis scores over New York by replacing the rather thin lines beginning ‘He was always in a hurry …’ by a more precise location in time and place, on Montague Street and with ‘revolution in the air’. In the case of ‘Idiot Wind’, New York and Minneapolis have completely different musical backgrounds inviting head-to-head comparison. New York has a reference to the I Ching, a gesture towards Chinese spirituality unparalleled in Dylan, while Minneapolis replaces the Chinese text by a more mundane ‘fortune-teller’. On the other hand, it is Minneapolis, not New York, that has the killer lines: ‘Idiot wind / Blowin’ like a circle around my skull / From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol’, triumphantly replacing the less expressive ‘Blowin’ like a circle around my jaw / From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Mardi Gras; in a stroke of genius, Dylan traces a west-east line across a United States no longer of carnival but where something is rotten in the heart of government. Meanwhile on ‘If You See Her, Say Hello,’ the changes, though confined to one stanza, got Pete Hamill’s sleevenotes pulled from later pressings of the album, as he had quoted lines (‘If you’re makin’ love to her / Kiss her for the kid …’) from the song’s New York avatar that did not correspond to what Dylan sang on the album. Also worth mentioning is the presence in the box set (in multiple takes but with no important lyric variations) of a neglected song, ‘Up To Me’ – which includes lyrical gems like ‘I was just too stubborn to ever be governed by enforced insanity’ and ‘Was I a fool or not to protect your real identity?’, but despite being available since 1985 via ‘Biograph’ has never fully received its due, the likes of Michael Gray, Christopher Ricks and Stephen Scobie mentioning it but in passing.

The packaging includes, in the second book (‘Stories in the Press’), material of relevance to the lyrical aspect. Pete Hamill’s ill-fated sleevenotes appear, though as a screenshot-type full-page facsimile, not as text, and thus not in user-friendly from. There is also the intriguing reproduction of pages from a notebook of Dylan’s that maps parts of the songs’ composition, containing manuscript lyrics for seven of the songs from the released album plus ‘Up To Me’ (including the extra stanzas for ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ and ‘Shelter From the Storm’) – together with, intriguingly, another nine songs which never made it to the sessions, let alone the album, and which if I mistake not were hitherto totally unknown and will no doubt be providing Dylanologists with fresh woods and pastures new to explore. The compilers committed an error in the marketed version of the box, leaving out four pages corresponding to an eighth ‘Blood on the Tracks’ song, ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’, plus part of ‘Tangled Up in Blue’. However, diligent fans spotted the omission and informed the record company, who apologised and made the missing pages available (and downloadable for free) via Dylan’s official site at: http://www.bobdylan.com/news/missing-notebook-pages/.

It is of course part of Dylan mythology that, for the half of the album’s songs concerned, the New York recordings (or those hitherto known) are preferable to their Minneapolis equivalents, and that in some universe of Platonic forms the ideal ‘‘Blood on the Tracks’’ would therefore consist of ten triumphant New York numbers, with Minneapolis defenestrated. Thus, for Alex Ross, ‘Blood on the Tracks’ is the ‘greatest, darkest album of [Dylan’s] career’, but the released album, while he admits it has ‘eloquent defenders’, is to his ears not as good as the New York ‘masterpiece of melancholy’ and ‘cuts out much of the complexity’. Greil Marcus, by contrast, argues that aspects of ‘Blood on the Tracks’, notably the New York sessions, have been ‘overpraised and overfetichised’ over the years. From a different point of view, Charles Figat asks: ‘Pourquoi cet album est-il si important?’ (‘Why is this album so important?’) and answers: ‘Peut-être parce que le chanteur y atteint un sommet d’écriture et s’y livre comme jamais auparavant’ (‘Perhaps because on it the singer reaches a peak in his writing and gives of his all like never before’) (Figat, p. 46), thus praising Dylan’s achievement without privileging a given variant.

Alex Ross notes that it is now possible to ‘assemble the original “Blood on the Tracks” from [the contents of] “More Blood, More Tracks”‘ and even lists the track sequence for doing so. This is indeed the case, but curiously what cannot be done is to assemble the released ‘Blood on the Tracks’ from this collection, thanks to the discrepancy between the edited and unedited takes of ‘Meet Me in the Morning’. Postmodernist once again, this capacious box set fails to hold within it the full ‘authentic’ components of the ‘Blood on the Tracks’ that everybody knows. It could have included a remastered version of the released album, as was done earlier in the Bootleg Series for ‘Self Portrait’, but if ever there was such an idea it was dropped.

All in all, I would prefer to avoid sterile argument about ‘what’s real and what is not’, and suggest that now that we have all the recordings at our fingertips, to promote or prefer one ‘Blood on the Tracks’ over another, New York over Minneapolis or vice versa, is simply unnecessary: each listener can choose. ‘More Blood, More Tracks’ as a whole confirms ‘Blood on the Tracks’ as Dylan’s best album, his ‘Sergeant Pepper’ or ‘”Heroes”‘, and allows us an unforgettable glimpse into the work-in-progress of a Bob Dylan at the height of his powers.

 

Note added 18 April 2019:

This article has now been published in the Dylan fanzine THE BRIDGE (UK): No 63, Spring 2019, pp. 59-69.

 

 

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