See how Dylan works and reworks a song in archival recordings
Among the many things Thomas Edison famously said, he remarked that "I have not failed once. I have simply found 10,000 ways that do not work."
That idea is clearly evident in "Bob Dylan — The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: Bootleg Series Vol. 12," the revelatory latest release of Dylan archival recordings released Friday.
Culling a wealth of outtakes, alternate versions and rehearsal snippets during sessions over an astonishingly fertile period for Dylan, which yielded three of the most influential albums in rock history — "Bringing It All Back Home," "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blonde on Blonde" — the new set offers a panoramic view into the creative process of one of the 20th century's great artists.
The album is being released in multiple formats: a two-CD "Best of the Cutting Edge" with 36 tracks (mostly alternate takes of the finished recordings from each album); a six-CD deluxe version and an 18-CD "collector's" version ($599.99, available only at www.bobdylan.com) that compiles every moment recorded in those studio sessions.
The "best of" collection offers the equivalent of a snapshot. But the deluxe version is where things get truly fascinating, with multiple takes on landmark songs as "Like a Rolling Stone," "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Desolation Row" and "Visions of Johanna."
The third disc comprises 20 takes, recorded over two days, of his monumental 1965 hit "Like A Rolling Stone," which topped a list of the "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" as ranked in 2011 by Rolling Stone magazine.
'Audio master class'
For anyone remotely interested in how great art is made, this is the equivalent of an audio master class as Dylan works and reworks the song until it captures the energy, defiance, outrage, empathy, celebration and liberation embedded in the lyrics.
The song starts with full band accompaniment, but it's played as a waltz, which isn't as odd as it might sound. But in that three-beat pulse, it's a dance rather than a declaration of spiritual independence.
Early in the process, he sings, "You used to make fun (instead of 'laugh') about/ Everybody that was hangin' out." As the band tries to figure out the song's structure, Dylan is heard saying it should be "a little bit slower, and softer."
He also hasn't settled on the song's famous chorus.
"My voice is gone," he croaks after the fourth take. "Want to try it again?"
These sessions came at the end of a day recording the "Highway 61 Revisited" album, and the group called it quits after five passes late that night. The next day they reconvened, this time with Al Kooper taking over on the organ.
Kooper was a guitarist who'd hoped to crash the sessions, but he reportedly was awestruck hearing what Mike Bloomfield was playing and shifted to the organ instead.
Bloomfield is heard discovering the slightly distorted backing figure that would become one of the song's musical signatures, and Kooper is experimenting with single note organ lines rather than the chords Griffin had been playing, but they're still unfocused. So far, Dylan's harmonica also is anonymous.
Day 2 is where all the elements coalesce into the version that appeared on the album, yet they continued with 11 more takes — faster tempo, less organ, more piano, less guitar ("Is my guitar too loud?" Dylan asks at one point, clearly more interested in the big picture than the prominence of his own instrument.)
It's akin to watching the team of workers who had to assemble the Statue of Liberty upon its delivery in 1885. When Kooper finally hits on the organ motif that answers Dylan's query "How does it feel?" it's like the lighting of its torch.
There's a sense of musical inevitability that emerges across the multiple takes of "Like a Rolling Stone," but elsewhere there's an equally powerful argument for the malleability of art.
Although Dylan rejected attempts to record "Visions of Johanna" with members of the Hawks (who would in a few years become better known as the Band), there's a rollicking version here that is every bit as valid as the more laid-back recording he made in Nashville with session pros and chose to release on "Blonde on Blonde."
On the "Bringing It All Back Home" and "Highway 61 Revisited" sessions, he's frequently heard interacting with producer Tom Wilson, who will ask "What's this one called, Bob?" to which he often gives outlandish spur-of-the-moment responses such as "Uhhh, 'Bank Account Blues.'" Producer Bob Johnston had taken over for Wilson, for reasons still unknown, when Dylan started recording "Blonde on Blonde," much of which was completed after he shifted from New York to record in Nashville.
In addition to the even greater depth that all these experiments are presented in on the 18-CD collector's version, which is being limited to 5,000 copies, the entirety of disc 18 demonstrates Dylan's passion for country, blues and folk music in songs recorded in hotel rooms during his various tours in 1965 and '66.
We hear him sing Scott Wiseman's "Remember Me," Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and traditionals such as "Wild Mountain Thyme."
They testify to his firm grounding in roots music styles well before he hunkered down with the Band at Big Pink in New York after a 1966 motorcycle accident that took him out of circulation for months, during which they recorded the mountains of material that later surfaced in "The Basement Tapes." That, of course, was rock's first massively circulated bootleg album, and because his outtakes had been widely disseminated by bootleggers and pirates, Dylan and Columbia Records decided to serve them up in more intelligently and authoritatively assembled packages starting in 1991 with the first officially sanctioned "Bootleg" series release.
All the versions of "Bootleg Vol. 12" also include insightful essays from rock aficionados and Dylan specialists, and the collector's edition also comes with new pressings of all nine singles released during that period, including "Positively 4th Street," the deliciously stinging hit that never made it onto any of those albums.
The deluxe edition also comes with a 120-page book filled with period photos and facsimiles of typed and handwritten lyrics showing the evolution of various songs as Dylan was modifying them.
Whether Dylan ever spent much time studying Edison isn't clear, though he obviously shares an affinity for the invention Edison considered his favorite: the phonograph.
But "The Cutting Edge" recordings prove Dylan to be fully in sync with another of Edison's pearls of wisdom when he said: "Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always just to try one more time."