Monday, November 16, 2015

I Climbed the Everest of Box Sets in One Day

Why? Because It Was There.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015 was an ordinary day in many respects. Kids went to school, work got done, bills got paid, did some shopping, did some cooking, went to the gym, watched some TV, etc. But one thing made the day unusual, and another thing made it extraordinary. First -- and, big-picture-wise, most importantly -- my wife Sharon was in the hospital following abdominal surgery. Months of pain and tests and consultations had resulted in an 80% guess that her appendix was to blame -- and sure enough, it was. It wasn’t your typical appendicitis -- it was described to me by her excellent surgeons as “angry” and “funky,” twisted and backwards, and poking things it shouldn’t be poking. Long story short: They had operated on Tuesday, everything went great, and she was recovering nicely.

So Tuesday was a long day, but ended well. The boredom of the waiting room was interrupted shortly before 1:00 pm: an email from Sony notified me that Bob Dylan’s epic, over-priced, normal-fans-need-not-apply The Bootleg Series, Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge (Collector’s Edition) had been shipped! That ended any pretense of getting work done on my laptop. When the FedEx tracking number finally went live I got another surprise -- the 15.5-pound treasure chest would be delivered by “end of day” Wednesday! Release day wasn’t until Friday, so this sent a jolt of giddy joy straight to my brain. The only real “problem” was, this box set contains 18 CDs -- at LEAST 18 hours of music! -- and I couldn’t exactly put my life on hold to sit down and savor every minute of it. I had recently undergone a 40-day “fast” to prepare myself for this box set, so an ordinary reception just wouldn’t do. But how to best experience this once-in-a-lifetime event?

Some quick background: This box set -- which I’ll call “BS12” for short -- contains “every note recorded” during the 1965-1966 studio recording sessions that produced three of the most legendary albums in rock history: Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde. This was a period of intense creativity and relentless touring and controversy for Bob, fueled by cigarettes, speed and God knows what else, as he searched for the “thin wild mercury sound” that he captured on these three albums. For a lot of fans, this is THE holy grail of box sets. What better way to honor the manic spirit on those silver discs than to incorporate their sounds into my own hectic life?

So I resolved to listen to the entire box in one uninterrupted stretch, no matter where I was or what I was doing on the day it arrived. The first thing I had to do on Wednesday morning was to make sure that NOTHING prevented the delivery of the box -- I could not bear the thought of seeing one of those “Sorry We Missed You!” notes stuck to my door. So I made sure that FedEx knew they were to leave the package no matter what:

Next I figured I’d better get my shit together, because I wanted to be able to give the box as much attention as possible, as quickly as possible. So as soon as the kids were off to school at 8 am I got to work. (I work at home, or else none of this would have been possible.) I get some stuff done quickly, and then decide maybe I should get the bills paid and in the mailbox before the mail arrives -- usually before 11am. And this is where the fun begins....

10:49 am: With a few more checks left to write out, I run to the mailbox to see if the mail had arrived yet. It hasn’t -- whew! -- but Sweet Baby Jesus, what is THIS?!

Could it be here this early? I’m not ready!! But here it is, so I pick it up -- damn, this fucker is heavy -- and drag it inside. I stare at it in shock for a few minutes, like it’s the Ark of the Covenant and my face will melt if I open it and I’m not deserving.

10:59 am: I’ve opened the outer box and gotten to the real deal. I try to find a safe place to balance it on my mess of a desk, and I open it gingerly.

11:02 am: Oh my God, this thing is frickin’ beautiful. I am actually trembling a little.

11:05 am: The box is intricately packed, with a sized sheet of tissue paper between each layer of product. Each of these protective sheets is filled with photos or news clippings -- nice touch, Sony. I’ve sent the missus a couple of photos to her phone, and she gamely pretends that this is anywhere near as interesting as what she’s going through. (She’s in the hospital, remember?)

11:10 am: I’ve finally made it to the bottom of the box, past the strip of cels from the classic 1965 documentary Don’t Look Back, past the huge photo book and the hard-cover liner notes, past the nine replica 45s,

and all the way down to the cherry on the bottom -- a leopard-skin 45 adaptor for the stereo:

11:12 am: All right stupid, this stuff is cool and all, but what about the MUSIC? Disc one is now in my iMac’s CD drive -- because I know that I will be listening to most of this on the go via my iPod Classic.

11:28 am: Disc 1 is ripped into iTunes, Disc 2 is in progress, so I create a playlist for BS12 and drop in the Disc 1 tracks. I hit “Stop” on my all-folk-Dylan playlist, which I’ve been listening to exclusively for 40 days in near-religious preparation, and I hit “Play” on Disc 1, Track 1. I hear the voice of Dylan’s producer, Tom Wilson, say “We got a good sound here” -- squee! -- and announce, “‘Dime Store,’ take one.” Here we go!

11:41 am: The Cutting Edge (BS12 for short) has debunked its first myth as I get to the acoustic run-through of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream.” On the album, Bob starts on acoustic and breaks down laughing after one line, causing Wilson to fall into hysterics before calling for take 2, which resumes immediately with the band. It was always assumed that the band had missed its cue and that’s why everyone was cracking up; but since this take was from the all-acoustic first day of the Bringing It All Back Home (BIABH for short) sessions, there was no band in sight. So we’ll never know what caused those giggles, but the album master is an edit of the acoustic false start and the full-band take a couple of days later.

11:48 am: Based on Disc 1 of BS12, BIABH could have easily been another acoustic “folk” album like 1964’s Another Side Of Bob Dylan. Only one track (“Maggie’s Farm”) wasn’t attempted as a solo recording, but all the others were, and it would have been ... fine. But Bob on Another Side was already starting to sound restless, like he was looking for a new direction and not particularly eager to stay in this place any longer. Adding the band to all the “Side 1” songs of BIABH transformed the songs and the album -- and changed the course of 1960s rock music. I don’t think any of what followed would have been the same if the electric blast of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” hadn’t broken the ice first.

12:08 pm: Bills are finally all paid; I’m reminded of how much I paid for BS12 ($680). I rush to the mailbox -- goddamn it, I missed the mailman! Oh well...

12:12 pm: OK, time to start getting some work done again -- hey, what’s that? The first take of the first song (“Love Minus Zero/No Limit”) with the band! Hooray! A wild “Outlaw Blues” done Bo Diddley style follows, and at 12:26 we hear the first “album master” of the set (“Love Minus Zero” again). Hearing the entire process of a song growing from a demo to a finished master is a thrill, and it’s what the Collector’s Edition of BS12 is all about. If you don’t love false starts, abandoned ideas, wrong turns and studio banter, you’re much better off with the 6-CD version.

12:31 pm: Trying to focus on work, but I’m too easily distracted by the sounds coming out of my computer speakers. The first electric “Subterranean Homesick Blues” pops up, and Bob is tripping all over the lyrics -- but can you blame him? Unlike a lot of the other songs on BIABH, this one doesn’t work at all as a “folk” song -- it was made to be fast, loud and HARD. Listening to Bob and Tom Wilson debate how to intro the song is the kind of “fly on the wall” moment that I love about this set, and I’m expecting many more.

12:44 pm: Disc 2 playing now. Disc 11 ripping. BACK TO WORK!!

12:52 pm: Oh, man, Bob just sang one of my all-time favorite lines: “They asked me for some collateral and I pulled down my pants”! People forget how hilarious Bob could be when he wanted to.

12:55 pm: All right -- back to work FOR REAL this time!

1:22 pm: My heart skips a beat as the immortal “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” almost never gets recorded. Wilson stops Take 1 for a technical issue, and Bob complains, “I really don’t feel like doing this song -- I have to do it, though. It’s such a long song.” His producer, to my surprise, almost seems to be discouraging him: “Suit yourself. I'm with you.” But fortunately it’s a song Dylan knows well; he’d been playing it live for months. He nails the master on the next take.

1:36 pm: More tension seems to stir between Dylan and his producer as they prepare to record “Mr. Tambourine Man” with the band.

BOB: “If you’d look at me, Tom...”
WILSON: “Haaah?”
BOB: “If you look at me, you’d see when I wave my hands, and you’d know!”
WILSON: “Well, I asked were you ready, and then I have to look down to write the take number, Bob...”
BOB: (five-second pause) ... OK ... hmph...”

1:40 pm: Bob protests after one failed attempt that the drums are distracting him, and after making it about halfway through another take, he halts the proceedings: “I can’t, I can’t -- the drumming is driving me mad! I’m going out of my brain!” The drums are dispensed with, and Bob quickly achieves the master take with just a gentle electric guitar accompaniment.

1:51 pm: One of my favorite songs from the BIABH period is one that didn’t even make the album -- “If You Gotta Go, Go Now.” Utilized as a comic-relief breather in his protest-heavy late-1964 concerts, Bob aims for a pure pop single here, and he and the band charge their way through four spirited takes, all complete. An edit of Takes 1 and 2 eventually got released as a single (in Holland!) in 1967, and Take 4 had already been released on The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3: Rare And Unreleased. Just a fun song, and the last one worked on during the BIABH sessions. And now I’ve gotta go -- to the grocery store!

2:03 pm: I’ve loaded all 18 CDs onto my iPod, and I’m pulling into the Stop & Shop parking lot as the Highway 61 Revisited (H61 for short) sessions start. I have to pick up my 13-year-old, Brian, from school in an hour. I grab a cart, consult my shopping list and start grabbing stuff. I realize I haven’t eaten anything all day and pick up a pre-made sandwich from the Deli.

2:23 pm: I’m in the cereal aisle when I realize how different the H61 sessions were from the BIABH. On that first “rock” album, recorded just six months previously, Bob was essentially still a folk musician, playing with a band. The failure to pull of an electric “Mr. Tambourine Man” showed that he was still adapting to playing with other musicians, when he was used to only having to worry about his own performance. But the H61 sessions (starting on June 15, 1965) are a different animal altogether -- this is blues-rock, hard and uncompromising. Bob is all-in, and the players around him no longer sound like they’re playing “around” him -- they’re all in this together, full steam ahead.

2:50 pm: Unpacking groceries, scarfing down some lunch, and listening to several takes of the H61 outtake “Sitting On A Barbed Wire Fence.” A fun song, ultimately a throwaway, but it sounds like it was a blast to be at that session.

3:06 pm: Pick up Brian at school. His 17-year-old brother, Carter, has his own car, so we won’t see him for awhile. Do I tell Brian what I’m attempting to do today? Nah -- he already thinks I’m weird.

3:12 pm: We start what for many people will be the centerpiece of the entire set -- the sessions for Bob’s career-defining hit, “Like A Rolling Stone.” Sixteen takes were attempted, totaling 41 minutes on CDs 3 and 4. Dylan and producer Tom Wilson -- in the last song he will record with Bob -- struggle with the arrangement, attempting it a few times as a waltz, before Bob throws in the towel, complaining that his voice is shot. They reconvene the next day, and the song starts to take shape. The rehearsal of the remake (Disc 4, Track 1) sounds not unlike the arrangement they will play at Newport the following month, but they still can’t get through an entire take.

3:28 pm: Remake Take 2 starts to sound familiar, Take 3 is almost there, and then ... Take 4 ... remarkably, the first (and only) complete take of the 15 attempts -- but it’s perfect. They caught lightning in a bottle just long enough to get that one magical take on tape, and that was all they needed. This is the track that would etch Bob Dylan permanently in rock history, and we’re hearing its birth “live.” The rest of the session is anti-climactic, as they struggle to get a “better” take. Someone must say something about Bob’s inability to get all the way through the song again, because we hear him protest, “It's six minutes long, man.” After another collapsed take, Bob is getting frustrated: “Why can’t we get that RIGHT?” Ultimately, out of wisdom or exhaustion, they realize there is no point in trying. Perfection was sitting there all along, in Take 4.

3:45 pm: OK, this is where my day gets a little crazy. I’ve got a chicken in the oven -- so I can make chicken soup for Sharon -- remember Sharon? -- when she comes home from the hospital. Now that all the CDs are ripped and I’m just listening and taking notes, I actually am getting some work done. In 45 minutes I have to drive Brian to CCD (“Sunday School” for heathen Catholic children who go to public school), and after that it’s going to be a whirlwind for several hours.

4:32 pm: Driving Brian to CCD; listening again on the iPod in the car. The affable Texan Bob Johnston has assumed control of the H61 sessions -- no real explanation is ever given for Tom Wilson’s departure -- but a change in tone is felt when, after a couple of muffed takes of “Tombstone Blues,” he exhorts Bob and the band: “Don’t play it, FEEL it!” Possibly the most perfect advice ever given in rock history.

4:51 pm: Hey, it’s the Chamber Brothers! “Tombstone Blues” was never a favorite song of mine, but I first started to love it when I heard an outtake version with the Chamber Brothers on backing vocals (released on The Bootleg Series, Vol. 7: No Direction Home in 2005). The BS7 version was incomplete, though, and I was hoping for a complete Chamber Brothers version here. All incomplete takes, unfortunately, but still a blast to hear.

4:58 pm: Back home. Throwing some steaks on the grill before it gets too dark. I have two teenage boys, and that chicken wouldn’t last one night in this house. Listening to Disc 5 on the CD player in the breakfast room.“It Takes A Lot To Laugh” -- after many takes and remakes -- is finally the slow, smoky blues it was meant to be. Squeeze in a little more work in between checking the steaks.

5:19 pm: “What’s the name of this one, Bobby?” It’s a question asked many times on this box set, and you never know what the answer is going to be. “I’ll Keep It With Mine” is introduced as “Alcatraz To The 9th Power” and then promptly changed to “Bank Account Blues.” “Love Minus Zero / No Limit” started out simply as “Dime Store,” and even the unflappable Bob Johnston has to laugh as he calls for a take of “Phantom Engineer Number Cloudy.” That song was released with the equally inscrutable title “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry.” At the moment, however, Dylan’s answer to the question above is, “Black Dally Roo” -- no, make that “Black Dally Rue” or “Crimson Dally Rue” ... “Take your pick,” Bob says. The song turns out to in fact be the hit follow-up to “Like A Rolling Stone,” the vitriolic “Positively 4th Street.” Here, though, at the beginning, it’s almost sorrowful, wistful, like “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” To say it changes considerably over 12 takes would be an understatement.

5:30 pm: Steaks are done, and I didn’t burn ’em! It’s pretty dark outside now.

5:41 pm: “Desolation Row” Take 1! Previously released on BS7. Just Bob on acoustic, a bass player and an electric guitar. Sounds pretty damn awesome for a first take...

5:48 pm: Leaving to get Brian at CCD; listening again in the car via iPod. The brief session for “From A Buick 6” is starting. It’s never been a favorite of mine, but it’s still remarkable to hear in real-time how they got from a tentative first stab to a fully realized performance in just two takes. Amazing.

6:01 pm: Sitting in the parking lot, waiting for Brian to get out. The first sessions for the goofy-but-maybe-not-so-goofy “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” are held. (It’s introduced by Dylan as “Look At Barry Run,” because, why not?) Bob seems to be in high spirits, and when after a couple of quick flubbed takes Johnston calls for Take 3, Bob protests laughingly, “Let’s go! Take 1 again! Let’s start at the beginning -- Take 1, not Take 3!” They start over with Take 1, and by Take 17 they’ve taped a “master” -- but only by accident. This take got pressed onto the first batch of singles in place of “Positively 4th Street” and all those 45s had to be recalled. Some of them didn’t of course, and Take 17 had long ago been bootlegged. This is its first official release on CD, and therefore a highlight of the entire box for me.

6:27 pm: Home for a FAST dinner with Brian. Carter is at band practice, so we won’t see him until later. “Highway 61 Revisited” (the song) is just getting started.

6:46 pm: Brian and I leave for the hospital to visit Sharon. Take 6 of “Highway 61” is playing. A few minutes later, Bob’s police whistle is introduced to the proceedings, and a fairly average song becomes a classic. Traffic is a bitch; Brian asks why I’m scribbling notes on the back of a map while we sit at a train stop. I tell him not to worry about it. By the time we finally get to where we’re going, we’ve listened to all 16 takes of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.”

7:20 pm: We arrive at the hospital and park. I take my first break from listening in eight hours. Why? (a) I’m not a monster, and (b) I think listening on headphones while visiting my bed-ridden wife would not have gone over so well. I’ve listened to the first 7 hours of this box set in just under 8 hours -- not bad, but I have a long way to go.

8:30 pm: We’re back in the car, heading home. We had a very nice visit, took Sharon for a couple of walks -- always important the day after surgery -- and chatted about our days. She’s pretty wiped out, so we leave so she can get some rest. After about five straight takes of “Queen Jane Approximately,” Brian finally looks up from his phone and comments on the music: “I like these things, where you hear them working on the songs.” (YES!) I don’t push my musical obsessions on my kids, so it’s great to get positive feedback once in a while. Brian has heard me play stuff like this before -- notably by the Beatles and the Beach Boys -- so he’s not unfamiliar with false starts and studio chatter. We talk about how Bob worked in the studio and I describe the scope of the 18-CD set we’ve been listening to. His eyes widen with a “Wow” -- and that just about sums it up, doesn’t it?

8:52 pm: We return home, to the sounds of take 7 of “Queen Jane.” I take another break from the music -- not because I need to, but because “Survivor” is on Wednesdays and some family rituals are beyond my veto. Besides, Brian has had a crazy afternoon himself, and this is a good way for us both to unwind.

9:53 pm: I’m heading to the gym. It closes at 11pm, so I only have an hour. I figure if I’m going to pull an all-nighter with this box set, maybe I should refresh myself and get the blood pumping a little first. I really hate going to the gym; it’s one of those things I do because it’s “good for me” -- like eating spinach. Just about the only thing that makes it bearable is that I can listen to music the whole time, and tonight this is especially true. The irony of hearing “Desolation Row” pop up again, while I'm toiling away in an otherwise-empty aisle of ellipticals, is not lost on me. But WOW -- what a version of “Desolation Row”! If this was an instrumental, I’d swear it was the Velvet Underground. An incredible, raw version of this song.

10:28 pm: Sweating my ass off on the ARC Trainer, another unexpected surprise -- over five hours after I thought I’d heard the last of it, we get the final album master of “Tombstone Blues” WITH the Chamber Brothers vocal overdubs! What a treat!

10:42 pm: As I trudge off to the showers, Bob taunts me with some more “Desolation Row” -- this time, a stripped-down, piano-and-harmonica demo. It’s only two minutes long, but it I wish they had attempted a full take this way. If you listen to the bass here, you can hear the roots of the jauntier version Bob would perform thirty years later on MTV’s Unplugged. Wow.

11:01 pm: Home from the gym. Second chicken is in the oven, and I’m doing the dishes. I hear the master take of “Desolation Row” and realize how important Charlie McCoys’s spanish guitar overdub is to the song. The boys are both in bed now, and the rest of the night belongs to me.

11:17 pm: Checking emails. Time to get back to work -- but first I’m going to check in at the Steve Hoffman Music Forums to see how my fellow Bob fans are holding up. Surely a few of them got their sets early like I did, and the others are chewing their nails down to the first knuckle by now. I’m two-thirds through Disc 8, and I’ve listened to 8 hours and 41 minutes of the set in the first 12 hours since I got it. By the time we get to “Medicine Sunday” (Take 1) -- and early version of “Temporary Like Achilles” --  we are finally at the cusp of the legendary Blonde On Blonde sessions.

12:07 am: After making it through the “I Wanna Be Your Lover” session -- more fun than I expected -- and a couple of takes of a nice mid-tempo instrumental, we have finally arrived at the doorstep of one of the crown jewels of this set, and indeed of Bob’s entire career -- the majestic “Visions Of Johanna.” The song seems completely composed from the start, but the players -- mostly members of the Hawks (eventually The Band) -- have no idea what they have on their hands here. Bob warns them early on, “I don’t wanna get it too fast; it’s gonna be strong enough, you know?” But they bash through it a few times, with Bob constantly stopping them to slow things down. “No! That’s not the song -- that’s not it.” They try to rein it in, and Rehearsal Take 4 starts off interestingly, with shakers substituting for full drums at the start; but they can’t seem to help themselves, and they gallop through Take 5 at full speed.

12:29 am: Work on “Visions Of Johanna” continues. My work, meanwhile, has ground to a halt as I am transfixed by these sessions. Rehearsal Take 6 introduces a harpsichord -- in an apparent attempt to find the delicacy that Dylan is looking for -- but by Take 7 it is already shoved in the background. Take 8 was released on BS7 back in 2005, so we can see that as the “best” version of the “rock” “Visions.”

12:47 am: When we hear the honeyed drawl of Bob Johnston inform Bob (and us) that “We’re rollin’ on 9,” we’ve entered Phase Two in the development of “Visions Of Johanna.” Bob and the Hawks are finally getting onto the same page, and the song starts to achieve the gentleness and grace that it clearly needs. Harmonica, organ, harpsichord and finger cymbals are leading the way now, keeping the guitars and drums in the background, and they finally complete a take with number 14. Is it perfect? For now it is.

12:59 am: Is that a cowbell I hear? Must be the “Crawl Out Your Window” remake. I prefer the original version, but the single master here (Take 10) sounds great, and the fadeout is longer -- and uncensored, so we hear Bob’s full “Oh my God” at the end. I think I’ve got a nice balance of listening and working going on here.

1:14 am: Never mind. I hear the slate call for Take 1 of “Just A Little Glass Of Water” and I know that I’m about to hear my single most anticipated sequence of the entire behemoth 18-disc box: the tragic, heart-breaking story of my favorite “Electric Bob” song of them all, “She’s Your Lover Now.” Over the course of 16 takes, in an hour’s worth of recordings, we hear a would-be classic spring to life, struggle to become whole, and collapse under its own weight. If there was a single reason why I spent the outrageous amount of money that this set commanded, it was to hear THESE tracks. If they had all been on the 6-CD set, or were available as individual downloads, I probably would have passed on this, and I’d be getting some much-needed sleep right now.

1:26 am: Early takes of “She’s Your Lover Now” are more like a wounded yelp than the brutal takedown it would become towards the end of its life in the studio. Take 6 finds a groove of sorts, and Dylan gets a good chunk of the lyrics in, but the slow, marching beat just doesn’t conjure the anger the song seems to be reaching for. We do get one of Bob’s oddest lyrical variations, though, when he sings, “What are you, some kinda moose? Is there nothin’ you can say?”

1:45 am: The song starts to feel appropriately accusatory by Take 9, but Bob stops it short, puzzled. “It’s not right.” He switches to piano, afraid that he’s “losing” the song, and leads the band through some rehearsal takes. After slowing it WAY down, trying to find his way back into the song, things start to pick up during Takes 12 and 13. The tempo picks up in Take 13 and Bob starts howling the words, and they feel ready for a proper take.

1:51 am: They are SO close on Take 14, but Bob still seems hesitant about some of the lyrics. It breaks down after three minutes. Take 15 of “She’s Your Lover Now” threatens to become what Take 4 of “Like A Rolling Stone” was -- the one perfect take that captures the song’s glory for all time. Everything falls into place, Bob is ripping through the song, and they finally get to the final verse, and ... and ... something goes wrong. It sounds like the bass guitar falls out of tune, but they might have plowed through it if Bob hadn’t stopped singing. Take 15 was a highlight of the very first Bootleg Series release in 1991, and it’s been a favorite of mine ever since. But on that night it was over, like a dead man’s last pistol shot, baby.

2:02 am: Bob is beyond frustrated now: “Ahhh, it’s ugly!” They slow it down again and shamble through four minutes of rehearsals, before he finally gives up. “I can’t ... I can’t hear it.” [Music Nerd Note: I paused here to fix the terrible split between Take 15 and the rehearsal take that followed it. They actually faded out Take 15 DURING the breakdown, and then started the next track in the middle of the breakdown before going to the rehearsal! WTF? Fortunately, all the music was there and the edit was simple. There, that’s better.]

2:11 am: It’s painful to listen to that final rehearsal track; all the spirit has been drained from the room. At one point Dylan snaps at Richard Manuel, “Hey, do that, Richard. Please do that -- PLEASE. Just do THAT.” Johnston suggests they take a break -- maybe they do, maybe they don’t. But after a few more attempts, Dylan waves the white flag: “I can’t hear the song anymore.” 

2:16 am: The band is either sent home or told that they were done for the night. Bob feels the song slipping away from him, maybe forever. Johnston agrees to one “last take” and what follows is the legendary, long-bootlegged solo-piano recording of “She’s Your Lover Now.” I’ve never loved this version -- always preferring the blistering (if incomplete) Take 15 -- but it’s never sounded this good before, and in its complete context for the first time, it’s devastating. “It’s not gonna be exactly really right,” Bob pre-apologizes, but there’s no need -- he salvages the song by transforming it completely. Gone is the anger and confrontation, replaced by sadness and regret; it’s like the reverse of what happened to “Idiot Wind” in 1974 when Bob replaced the mournful New York take with a bilious Minnesota remake. With just tack piano and voice, it’s like the post-breakup flip side to “I’ll Keep It With Mine.” He finally gets the full song on tape and mutters "huh" in resigned surprise. “Did you get that down?” They did, but Dylan would never return to the song in any form, in the studio or live. Everything that went right with “Like A Rolling Stone” went wrong for “She’s Your Lover Now,” and just like that, a great song was cast into the abyss, never to be heard again. Thank God for the Bootleg Series, and thank God for this set for preserving the whole session.

2:31 am: If we can assume that Bob and co. needed something lighter to ease the sense of failure from the previous session, then “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” might be the song that saved the Blonde On Blonde (BoB for short) album. So far, they had attempted two “major” songs for the new album, and hadn’t come up with a satisfactory master for either one. Four days after the exhausting “Lover” session, a loose, silly blues may have been the perfect palate-cleanser. Although on the surface they also ended up “laboring” over this one too (working on it on four separate occasions before nailing the master take), it never threatens to disrupt the sessions as a whole. They amble through two takes of the song, not really sweating it, and not seemingly attempting anything triumphant.

2:40 am: With the warm-ups of “Pill-Box Hat” out of the way, Bob and the Hawks dive right into another hard-born classic: “One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later).” But in a reversal of their recent failed efforts, in 24 takes over 50 minutes they build a great song from the ground up, from almost nothing. It’s so incomplete when they start that I’m tempted to think that Bob wrote it as an “answer song” to “She’s Your Lover Now.” It’s a break-up song, but less angry, more willing to share the blame. Did Bob write this to fill the void that “Lover” had left in him? I tend to resist fanboy “interpretations,” but these songs just seem to be like fraternal twins to me -- linked, but different.

3:13 am: Time starts to drag around 3 am. It’s not the hardest stretch of an all-nighter -- that would be between 6 and 7 am -- but it gets tough around now. “One Of Us Must Know” finally starts to sound recognizable around Take 16, and it is evident that it was going to be something special by Take 19.

3:49 am: Oh shit, I nodded off at my desk sometime during Take 24 of “One Of Us Must Know”! Looks like I slept through the four “stem” extractions of the final master -- no big loss, really. I’ll go back to them. Let’s just pretend I slept through the plane ride, because after finishing that song Dylan and Johnston moved the whole project from New York City to Nashville, in the hopes that the consummate pros working the sessions down there would bring some better results. It turned out to be just what they all needed.

4:17 am: Unlike many of the BoB songs, “Fourth Time Around” seems to have arrived at the studio fully formed; it was just a matter of capturing a winning performance of the delicate arrangement. Take 11 is nice, but Take 19 is the keeper.

4:30 am: Finally -- the Nashville “Visions of Johanna”! Immediately the vibe is right, and the Nashville cats know exactly how to handle this song. Two quick false starts and a breakdown later, and perfection is achieved.

4:47 am: Oh my, I’ve been waiting for this one -- the “doorbell” version of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.” It was one of the preview tracks, but since I was “fasting” I never got to hear it. Bob and the boys sound as loopy as I feel right now. Amazing that they put so much effort into a throwaway version of the song!

5:12 am: Damn, I nodded off again ... [checks playlist] ... I’ve missed most of the instrumental takes of the so-called “I’ll Keep It With Mine” -- a pretty track, no doubt, but it sounds like Bob’s not even on it. At least I’m timing my naps well... 

5:16 am: Uh-oh, here comes “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” -- love the song, but it’s practically a sleeping pill right now at pre-dawn. Such a great song, though. Legend has it that the band was laughing amongst themselves during the first take, because they weren’t expecting a 12-minute song and thought they had “peaked” too soon. But I don’t hear it. This song was recorded in the wee hours of the night -- not much earlier than it is right now -- and it sounds like it. Probably couldn’t have been pulled off quite the same during the day -- it needs that bleary-eyed world weariness.

6:15 am: As I said above, when you’re pulling an all-nighter, it’s the hours between 6 and 7 am that are the toughest. The sun comes up, it starts to feel like “day” again -- and it starts to hit you that you haven’t slept and probably won’t for another 18 hours or so. Second wind time doesn’t usually hit me until around 9:00. For now, I have several more takes of “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again” to keep me company. Honestly, this isn’t helping me right now.

6:35 am: “Absolutely Sweet Marie” -- now that’s more like it! Pretty much intact from Take 1, with Take three being the master. We must have entered the period where Bob would demo the songs for Al Kooper in his hotel room, and then Kooper would teach the musicians the arrangements before Bob got to the studio. Not as much experimentation at this point, but quicker, more efficient recordings.

7:05 am: “Just Like A Woman” takes a little longer to gel. More complete takes than usual here, with Take 3 being a nice one, and Take 4 a faster, more “garage-y” version. They take a break, bang out “Pledging My Time” (7:23 am), and resume work on “Woman.” Takes 8 and 16 are nice (and complete), but Take 18 is the winner.

7:50 am: Another favorite of mine helps me keep my eyes (and ears) open -- “Most Likely You Go Your Way And I’ll Go Mine.” Only two complete takes out of six, but they knew what they were doing early on here. I do wish the trumpet and organ were featured more in the final mix, though.

8:15 am: Oh dear, I must have slipped into la-la land again. Looks like I missed most of “Temporary Like Achilles.” But it’s past 8 am now, the sun is fully up, and I should be able to power through the rest of this. We’re at the very end of Disc 16 -- over 17 hours down, less than 2 hours to go!

8:20 am: Hey, it’s the perfect wake-me-up song -- “A Long Haired Mule And A Porcupine Here” ... otherwise known by the perfectly logical title “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” ... otherwise known to stoners everywhere as “Everybody Must Get Stoned.” The “rehearsal track” is shorter than I’d hoped, but still perfect -- and the song is another one-take wonder, with this new mix being just a tad more out of control than the regular album mix. Lots of fun, and now I’m starting to see the light at the end of this box set tunnel.

8:30 am: Brian gets up early -- no school today -- to watch golf. Yes, golf. On the Golf Channel. Yeah, that’s a real thing -- just ask your dad, or maybe your grandfather.

8:41 am: “What’s the name of this one, Bob?” “I Want You.” And finally, after about 18 hours of crazy titles, sarcasm and irony, anger and regret, Bob gives the simplest possible song title and delivers the song with complete sincerity. The first takes are a little rough, but once the drums adopt more of a shuffle beat it started to come together, and a new Bob Dylan single was born.

8:58 am: The “hotel recordings” are playing, so that means the first 17 discs of The Cutting Edge (Collector’s Edition) are done, and now we’re on the “bonus disc” of hotel recordings. For the first time in nearly a day, I’m hearing tracks that I have NO relationship with. I know some of them were excerpted in the documentary Don’t Look Back, but I don’t remember most of them.

9:06 am: After all the madness of the studio sessions, suddenly we’re back in Bonnie Beecher’s apartment, with Bob holding court and playing favorites for his friends. Right now it’s “Lost Highway.” We get to a Dylan original, “I Can’t Leave Her Behind,” and it’s his prettiest love ballad in a long time -- maybe since “One Too Many Mornings” in 1963. Is this and indication of where he might have gone without that fateful motorcycle accident? We’ll never know.

9:33 am: My God, the Denver hotel tape still sounds awful.

10:08 am: With the final notes of a hotel demo of “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” fading away, I am done. Was it worth it it? Hard to say. I really didn’t get THAT much work done overnight, and honestly I barely made it through the final hours -- I’m going to need to re-listen to a lot of this stuff later today. But you can’t get an 18-CD box set and not see it as a challenge, a dare -- a mountain to climb. I climbed it, and the view was great. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I find myself at the bottom again, and it’s time to start climbing back up.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Forty Days and Forty Nights: Preparing for the Mother of All Box Sets, in 189 Easy Steps

So as any good Bob Dylan fan knows, November 6th will bring what is for some the greatest Bootleg Series ever released -- Volume 12: The Cutting Edge, an exhaustive (even in the 6-CD incarnation) look at the creation of Bob’s three electric classics: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde On Blonde. For the truly insane, however, there was really only one option: the 18-disc “Collector’s Edition,” boasting what Sony claims will be “every note recorded” during the seminal 1965 and 1966 recording sessions. Every. Goddamn. Note. I'm not even the biggest fan of Dylan’s electric period -- given his vast career to choose from, I’ll usually opt for John Wesley Harding (1968), Blood On The Tracks (1974), Oh Mercy (1989) or Love & Theft (2001) before I reach for the thin, wild mercury music of his Newport-folkie-infuriating rock breakthroughs.

But this is too incredible to pass up -- the chance to be a fly on the wall and hear the entire creative process for three classic album, in as close to “real time” as we’ll ever get if we weren’t actually there. For a Beatles fanatic like me -- Bob and the Beatles are “tied for first” for all time in my heart, where they never have to jockey for position -- this Bootleg Series is like buying the right to be Mark Lewisohn, led into Abbey Road’s Studio Two and being handed a pile of tapes. “Here’s all of 1965 and 1966 -- have fun.” Except for the Dylan fan, this is something that is actually happening, and instead of having to be frisked by security guards at the end of your listening session, you get to keep those precious recordings forever.

Kinda puts the whole pricing controversy into perspective for me. Yes, yes, $600 is an ungodly amount of money, and I will feel the pinch for about a year as I pay it off -- but really, how does that compare with the ability to listen to ANY take of ANY Dylan song from 1965-1966, any time I want, for the rest of my life? Nothing compares to that. Nothing. So this post isn’t about the pricing or the practicality of owning such a luxurious set. Rather, this is about how I “purified” myself for the experience of Bootleg Series, Vol. 12. This thing is too damn big, too damn expensive to just treat it like any old box set. I had to PREPARE myself for it, so I could get the most possible enjoyment out of it.

On the day of the announcement, September 24th, I got caught up in all the hype and excitement, and I dutifully watched the YouTube announcement and the first preview track put out by Sony. I was giddy with joy, but then I remembered that as I said above, 1965-66 isn’t exactly my go-to Dylan era. Will I spend all this money and somehow end up strangely disappointed or underwhelmed? How can I make sure that this mountain of music will hit me with a freshness that I haven’t felt for some of it since I first became a fan in the 1980s? I realized that day what I had to do.

On September 25th I swore off all Bob Dylan music recorded after December 31, 1964. His entire post-folkie career would cease to exist, and I would completely immerse myself in his first four acoustic albums, and all accompanying ancillary recordings from 1961-1964. My calling was two-fold: (1) to finally gain a deeper understanding of Bob’s folk period, and (b) to wipe my mind of everything that came afterwards, so that when I finally cracked open the Bootleg Series Vol. 12 box and popped in Disc 1, I would be shocked and amazed at what I heard. Truthfully, though, this would also be an exercise to help keep me distracted so that my entire life wouldn’t grind to a halt while I daydreamed about BS12. So, it was a three birds with one stone kinda deal.

So I set out to compile a playlist that would tell the “story” of Folkie Bob. Shouldn’t be too hard, right? The guy only made four acoustic albums. But between previous Bootleg Series releases, the Copyright Extension sets covering 1962-1964, and various live releases, I quickly amassed over 300 tracks. I wanted this to be more “listenable” than “complete,” so I set about whittling it down to the essentials, while also putting everything in chronological order by recording date. This process alone took about two weeks, in between work and other everyday stuff. Clinton Heylin’s Recording Sessions book was indispensable for the studio stuff, and I relied on liner notes and Wikipedia for the live stuff. Eventually I cut it down to 180 tracks (about 12 hours of music), but once I posted the playlist on the internet for other Dylan fans to see, a few very welcome suggestions bumped it back up to 189 tracks.

I won’t post the entire playlist here -- it’s SO damn long, and I still may tweak a few things here and there -- but I may break it down into CD-length sections in future posts to fully explore Bob’s folk years. It starts (fittingly) with a 1961 live cover of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” and goes into the November 1961 sessions for his self-titled debut album for Columbia. From there, the sessions for his breakthrough second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, stretch out for over a year, broken up by bursts of demo recordings and landmark live recordings from the Gaslight Cafe (1962) and NYC’s Town Hall (April 1963). In the individual batches of studio sessions, we see Dylan blossom as he finds himself, and moves away from covers and derivative folk-blues tunes towards writing timeless classics like “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” By the time he releases The Times They Are A-Changin’ in early 1964 he is the king of the new Folk Movement, and when he records Another Side Of Bob Dylan six months later, he’s already leaving them behind.

Much is made of Bob’s amphetamine fever dreams of 1965 and 1966 -- culminating in the motorcycle crash in mid-1966 that sidelined him for over a year -- but his development from 1961 to 1964 is no less remarkable. Limited to nothing but this period, playing on a loop in the background most days from breakfast to bedtime, I truly grew to love this early stuff in a way that I never had before. The rough-and-ready first album. The intimate Gaslight Cafe recordings. The triumphant Carnegie Hall concert of October 1963, and the restless farewell of the so-called “Halloween Concert” of 1964. The endless demos -- some of which were never recorded “properly” in a recording studio. The masterful “finger-pointing” protest songs and delicate love ballads. Bob Dylan would be a legend even if he never picked up an electric guitar.

Speaking of which ... In December 1964, Dylan’s producer Tom Wilson took four of Bob’s old tracks and overdubbed an amplified backing band on them. Bob wasn’t present for these sessions. Was something blowin’ in the wind? Did Dylan and Wilson discuss what they were going to do in January 1965, and play around with these three tracks as a demo of what an electrified Bob would sound like? We don’t really know what their purpose was, but three of them have been released over the years, and my playlist ends with these “electrified” versions of “Mixed Up Confusion,” “Rocks And Gravel” and “House Of The Rising Sun.” They offer a tantalizing glimpse into what was then an unknown future.

Today is November 4th. I just got an email from Sony that my massive 18-CD set has been shipped, and I should have it by the “end of the day” today -- two days early! I check the calendar, just out of curiosity, and in a delicious coincidence, my “fast” lasted for exactly 40 days. You can’t make this stuff up, folks. Well, you COULD -- but I didn’t. My 40 days in the desert was enriching in ways that I never expected, but I’m nonetheless thirsty for what comes next. I wasn’t able to truly “forget” what Bob did or sounded like after 1964, but after more than a month of nothing but his earliest stuff, I think it will be thrillingly welcome when he “goes electric” later today.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Bootleg Series, Vols. 27-44: How the Hell Did We Get Here?

When Bob Dylan’s latest “Bootleg Series” release was announced on September 24, 2015, the question “How big can these things actually get?” was definitively answered: As big as they fucking want. What started as a rather conservative 3-CD endeavor in 1991 (the adorably-named Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3 -- as if the campaign would stay small enough to count each CD as a “volume”) has become a runaway train driven by a phantom engineer. This is both a good thing (more music for Dylan fans) and a bad thing (less money for Dylan fans to spend on, like, food and stuff). The “Collector’s Edition” of The Bootleg Series, Vol. 12 will cost -- best sit down for this -- $599 + tax and shipping. But if you’re willing to be one of the luck 5,000 who pony up for the goods, you’ve been well prepared for this day.

The first Bootleg Series was a huge success; it seems almost silly now that Sony panicked and cut it from four CDs to three, fearing fans would flinch at the price tag. After discovering that Dylan fans were more than willing to pay for The Bard’s scraps and leftovers, more archival releases followed in 1998, 2002, 2004 and 2005 -- all 2-disc affairs. By 2005’s Volume 7: No Direction Home, however, the series had started to eat its own tail, re-tracing ground already covered on the first set. It was fair to wonder if the Bootleg Series might run out of steam sooner rather than later.

Perhaps feeling that a shake-up was in order, Dylan’s manager and Bootleg Series Godfather Jeff Rosen swung for the fences with The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs. A virtual sequel to the first set (subtitled “Rare and Unreleased, 1961-1991”), Tell Tale Signs picked up where Vols. 1-3 left off and presented an overview of his best rare and unreleased material from 1989-2006. It was a rich well to draw from, covering some of Bob’s most beloved late-career albums, from Oh Mercy to Time Out Of Mind to Modern Times. Fans had known for years that there was a lot of great live and studio material from this period, but had never dared to think that an entire Bootleg Series set would be devoted to it.

The sense that this was a “big” release was also reflected in the purchasing options. There was a single-CD “best of” version, a “standard” 2-CD version, and a “Deluxe” 3-CD box set. No big deal, right? After all, the first release had been three discs. But this time, instead of simply packing the discs and a nice booklet into a slipcase and charging $30-40 for it, they put it in a REALLY nice slipcase with a stupid book nobody cared about, with a price tag reading “$129.99.” Sony had taken a step into the abyss, and was inviting us to follow them.

The righteous anger of Dylan fans was swift and furious; I may have even had a thing or two to say about it. The lyric “money doesn’t talk, it swears” was quoted a lot. The pre-release price did dip to around $100 eventually, and I did cave and get the damn thing, because (a) I’m a Dylan fanatic and the period covered by Tell Tale Signs is important to me, and (b) I used Amazon points to defray the cost so I could tell myself it only cost about $45. It stung, but I never regretted owning that music -- and to Sony, that was the important part.

Who knows if the cries of “Injustice!” ever reached Jeff Rosen’s ears, but for whatever reason, subsequent Bootleg Series releases have offered more bang for the buck, even as they got bigger and more expensive. The Bootleg Series Vol. 9, a somewhat ho-hum (but still essential) collection of demos, was a normal 2-CD set -- and if you bought it from Sony’s website you got a free live CD of a recently-discovered 1963 concert, just because. But the seed had been planted at Sony: Fans will pay a LOT of money for this stuff, as long as we don’t rub their faces in it.

The 10th Bootleg Series set (subtitled “Another Self Portrait”) was a watershed event, both for Dylan fans and the bean-counters at Sony. It was a brazen move, taking a bunch of outtakes from Bob’s most universally-hated album (1970’s Self Portrait) and asking us to pay THEM for the pleasure of listening to them. Let me repeat that: they made a Bootleg Series from the REJECTS from Bob’s WORST album. What were they thinking? And while I'm at it, what were WE thinking when we bought it?! Surely we were into “scraping the bottom of the barrel” territory here.

But the amazing thing was, not only did Another Self Portrait NOT suck, it was amazing! For the first time, a Bootleg Series release didn't just reinforce Bob’s reputation -- it actually IMPROVED it by salvaging and completely re-contextualizing what had always been seen as a “lost” period (the post-motorcycle-crash “semi-retirement” years of 1968-1971). In another ballsy move, this was also the first Bootleg Series to break past the three-CD barrier -- this time, the “Deluxe” version contained the standard 2-CD set, a rare (and coveted) live recording from 1969, and a remastered disc of the original Self Portrait double album. Throw in a couple of truly beautiful books and you’ve got a $100 box set that actually was worth every penny.

The 11th entry in the Series, 2014’s Complete Basement Tapes -- long considered inevitable by Dylan fans -- pushed the envelope even further. In addition to the now-standard 2-disc version for the casuals, the super-fans were treated to a SIX-disc deluxe set, along with a now-standard barrier-busting price tag of $150. Just six years removed from the outrage of the $110 Tell Tale Signs set, fans eagerly lapped up BS11’s deluxe box, with only minor grumbling about the escalating cost. The difference between 2014 and 2008 was that Dylan’s Basement Tapes (recorded in a garage, actually, in Woodstock with future members of The Band in 1967) were widely recognized as a crown jewel of the entire Bootleg Series, and again, the packaging and books included were era-appropriate and beautifully produced.

It also helped that Mr. Rosen basically emptied the vault for BS11; while fans had been expecting maybe a 4-CD distillation of the legendary recordings, he delivered basically everything that was considered of “releasable” quality. Was Sony just feeling extra generous, throwing the Dylan nerds a bone so they wouldn't have to listen to gripes about this or that personal favorite being omitted? Perhaps. But I think it also had a lot to do with changes in European copyright laws, which took effect in 2012 and limited the copyright protection of unreleased audio recordings to 50 years -- while extending the protection of recordings released in 1963 and later to 70 years. Basically, if a rights holder (Sony, Dylan) ever wanted to profit from their dusty old  vault scraps, they had to “use them or lose them” before they turned 51.

Therefore, as a sidebar to the Bootleg Series, Sony has been quietly complying with the new European Directive, releasing an exhaustive set of studio outtakes, live concerts, and home-recordings each December since 2012. These sets are completely “uncurated” and not for casual listening, and are slipped out in random record shops in Europe in tiny quantities ranging from 50 to 500. Literally everything in Dylan’s vault from 1962 through 1964 that Sony might EVER want to exploit has been retained for the next 70 years. This helps us understand why Mr. Rosen took the “kitchen sink” approach to BS11 -- he was going to have to release this stuff before 2017 anyway, so why not get ahead of the game and make some extra money at the same time?

Which brings us to the announcement of The Bootleg Series, Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge, 1965-66. With the EU copyright situation in mind, it was logical to expect a mammoth deep dive into Bob’s most lauded period as a recording artist -- the “electric period” that bore three classic albums: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and the immortal Blonde On Blonde. By now, the 2-CD version seems woefully inadequate, so for the more adventurous fan there is a lavish 6-CD “Deluxe Edition” set -- featuring the same packaging and extras that previously represented the top of the line for Vols. 10 and 11. But since all of those precious 1965 and 1966 outtakes will fall into the Public Domain if not released this year and next, we now have the biggest Bootleg Series package ever released -- the immense 18-disc behemoth “Collector’s Edition.”

As mentioned above, this sumbitch costs a staggering $599 -- more like $680 with tax and shipping tacked on, and God help you if you’re ordering this thing from outside the U.S. After all the angst and hand-wringing over the Tell Tale Signs set in 2008, I ordered this beast almost without hesitation -- partly because I've been carefully conditioned to accept this by Sony for seven years, but also because I really think this is a once-in-a-lifetime box set. By promising to release “every note recorded” during these legendary recording sessions, fans can actually purchase an audio time machine and be a fly on the wall while three of the most important albums in rock history are created. Kind of hard to put a price on that kind of experience.

Yet there is plenty of outrage over this set, because serious, dedicated fans feel “priced out” of this amazing experience -- the kind of experience they used to joke they would give a limb or expendable organ to be able to enjoy. Turns out you CAN put a price on this, and it’s $600+ -- and that is simply too much for some folks. Hell, it’s too much for me, too! I actually had to apply for a credit card I didn't need because they were offering a $250 cash back bonus; that cut my net cost down to around $400 -- still an outrageous amount of money. I’ll spend most of 2016 paying off the rest by applying my Amazon Visa points to my statement, rather than using them to buy music, which is how I usually buy my music. So pain will be felt, but this just wasn’t something I could pass up.

So here we are. Could Sony have imagined in 1991 -- while they were nervously trimming the first Bootleg Series box from 4 discs to 3 -- that they would someday charge $600 for an 18-CD set? Not in a million years. Could I have guessed in 1991 that I would someday PAY $600 for an 18-CD set? Not in a BILLION years. But in the dying twilight of physical media for music, this is the future for music fans. My advice? Starting saving your pennies NOW for next fall’s box sets.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Next To Last Thoughts On Bob Dylan (Part 2)

Well, yesterday was Bob Dylan's birthday, and I feel compelled to say something about it. Not too compelled, obviously, since I didn't do this yesterday, but I do love Bob and I want to salute not the mere fact that he's made it to 70 years old, but the fact that he did it while remaining a vital creative force. Sure, his voice is truly shot now -- and I say this as a long-time lover and defender of his never-ending croak -- but he still has the ability to shock, surprise, delight, and piss off his fans, and that's something to be grateful for.

I discovered Bob Dylan in 1984, as a junior in high school -- probably the perfect time to discover Bob. I'd been on a decade-long Beatles bender, and my idea of expanding my musical horizons was listening to Beatles solo albums. But at least that had exposed me to John Lennon's serrated Plastic Ono Band LP, so I was prepared for music a little more fierce and complex than the Fab Four's pefectly polished pop. Actually, now that I think of it, George Harrison's overtly religious solo work prepared me for Bob's Christian music, and maybe Paul McCartney's silly love songs prepared me for Bob's country phase. I was going to make a cheap joke about how Ringo's solo music didn't prepare me for anything, but I can't -- I love Ringo, and he's got enough people making cheap jokes about him. His drumming made me pay attention to drumming, and without that I may never have appreciated Kenny Buttrey's drumming on John Wesley Harding.

Anyhoo, I wasn't planning on becoming a Bob Dylan fan, it just happened. A friend at school -- you know, that one kid you knew in high school who "got" Pet Sounds when he was only 14? -- had been bugging me about Dylan, and of course I knew "Like A Rolling Stone," but the light bulb didn't go on over my head until I heard "Positively 4th Street" on the radio (the late, lamented WNEW-FM in the NYC area). The viciousness of the lyrics -- present in "Rolling Stone" but apparently over my head at the time -- were doubled here, and it appealed to my dark, cynical adolescent heart immensely.

I wish that for just one time, you could stand inside my shoes
You'd know what a DRAG it is to see you...

Wow. I'd never heard anything quite like that in a pop song before -- and I'd done a "poetry" analysis in English class about John Lennon's evisceration of McCartney, "How Do You Sleep?" But this was harder stuff, even though it was more vague, less personal -- the emotion was raw, not clever, there were no puns or winking put-downs. This was the real deal. I was sold.

This being 1984, I headed out to Sam Goody as soon as possible to make it official. I always bought albums in pairs -- so I could have something for both sides of a 90-minute cassette -- so I would need two Dylan LPs to be my "first." Deciding entirely based on the weirdness of the song titles, I chose The Times They Are A-Changin' and Highway 61 Revisited. It was a happy accident that I chose these two; God knows what would have happened if I'd chosen two of his more, um, difficult works to start with. Though released only a year and change apart, they couldn't have been more different -- one was filled with dusty, acoustic Guthrie-esque tales of injustice and outrage, and the other was a maelstrom of electric music and surreal lyrics. I'll never forget sitting on the end of my bed, staring at the Emerson turntable on my dresser, blown away by the cruelty of "With God On Our Side" and transfixed by the imagery of "Desolation Row."

Still, my development into a life-long Dylan fanatic was a slow train coming. In the heady rush of new love, I went out and bought "companion" albums for the first two -- The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (to go with the folky Times) and Bringing It All Back Home (the 1965 precursor to H61). They were fine, of course, but in 1985 Dylan put out a NEW album -- Empire Burlesque -- and that's when I first realized that there were people in this world who made fun of Bob Dylan, mocked his singing, his hair, his lyrics, and just his entire persona. [NOTE: I'm not linking every damn album -- just go to Amazon and listen to the samples!] Apparently, he wasn't the ultra-cool poet and philosopher I assumed he still was -- he was an over-the-hill rocker making silly videos who had to be taught how to "sing like Bob Dylan" by Stevie Wonder. ("We Are The World" reference -- look it up.)

Thankfully, the epic Biograph box set gave me a lot to chew on after this unsettling experience, but then Bob followed that up with Knocked Out Loaded and Down In The Groove, two of the worst albums ever released by anybody, anywhere. I found songs to love on both of those records -- my fondness for "Under Your Spell" is inexplicable; I still ache when I hear his cover of "Rank Strangers To Me" -- but let's not kid ourselves: it was hard times in Bob-ville. But just when it seemed ol' Bob was floundering straight into oblivion, the universe picked him back up and set him on the right path. His tribute-album cover of Woody's "Pretty Boy Floyd" (1988) was brash and full of life; that same year, his membership in the Traveling Wilburys brought back his sense of humor. And finally, fatefully, he sang backup on a U2 song ("Love Rescue Me"), and Bono urged Bob to think about working with their producer, Daniel Lanois.

The day I bought Oh Mercy was the day I became a Dylan fan for life, for better or worse. I'd read about the recording sessions in March of 1989 -- he was sneaking about in New Orleans, recording with Lanois' crew, who had just done a Neville Brothers album. He had all new songs -- not scraps from the last several years of studio discards. He was singing like Dylan again, only not like Dylan, again (if you know what I mean). The title alone -- Oh Mercy -- was tantalizing and promised great things. The wait for the September release was interminable. I was in college now, in Westchester County, New York. I was at the Galleria Mall when the record store opened on September 18th. The new albums weren't even unpacked yet -- I asked them to find the box with Dylan's new album in it, and they did. I didn't have a turntable at school -- and I hadn't accepted CDs yet -- so I quickly made the practical decision to buy the cassette, so I could listen to it in the car. I was giddy as I jogged back to my tan 1982 Mustang in the parking garage. I started the engine, tore off the plastic wrap, and inserted the tape into the deck.

For some reason, the moment I flash back to -- experiencing the entire moment: the sights, the sounds, the feelings -- is the moment I paused at the exit of the parking garage, poised to turn right and return to my everyday life. The album's first song, "Political World," was playing, and I was dazed by the experience. This sounded nothing like Bob Dylan -- more like U2, really -- and yet it was the greatest thing I'd ever heard. The single, "Everything Is Broken," had been on the radio since July or August, but this was the first time I heard the album as a whole. It was amazing, and I hadn't even gotten to "Ring Them Bells," "The Man In The Long Black Coat," "Most Of The Time," or "Shooting Star." The music was lean and spare, but somehow big and expansive. His voice -- that voice! -- had lost all its 1980s whine, and Bob sang everything in a low, menacing grumble. I didn't know it at the time, but it was the beginning of a renaissance that would continue (more or less) until the present day.

Twenty-two years later, Oh Mercy may not be my all-time favorite Dylan album -- on a given day, that honor could go to John Wesley Harding, Blood On The Tracks, or Love & Theft instead -- but it's still my favorite Dylan experience. I didn't know at the time that Bob (incorrigible, he) had left some amazing gems off the album -- "Dignity" and "Series Of Dreams" among them -- but I had the rest of my life to figure that out. Oh Mercy was the beginning of Dylan's career for me, as a fan -- the way someone who was turned on by "Subterranean Homesick Blues" might think of Bringing It All Back Home as his "first" album, and not his fifth. Since then, Bob has thrilled me, annoyed me, perplexed me, and awed me -- all past the age where most rockers are spinning their wheels, recycling their "classic" sound on stage or on CD.

I'll finish by avoiding cliche -- after all, quoting "Forever Young" or "Long May You Run" would be pretty lame, and would suggest that I've learned nothing at all from Bob in 25+ years. Instead, I'll quote one of my favorite (and one of Bob's most recent) masterpieces, "Ain't Talkin'." These lines were probably written about his friends, or his never-ending touring band, but I'd like to think they're about his fans as well:

All my loyal and much-loved companions
They approve of me and share my code
I practice a faith that's been long abandoned
Ain't no altars on this long and lonesome road

Happy Birthday, Bob. Thanks for the company.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Celebrating Brian Wilson's 2004 SMiLE

Well, it's been a few weeks now, and "The SMiLE Sessions" hasn't been cancelled! Don't laugh -- for a project that has been announced, and cancelled, in 1966, 1967, 1972, 1988 and 1995, this is indeed a victory of sorts. While we wait for more substantial news (a release date, a track list), I think now might be the best time to revisit the SMiLE that already HAS been released -- namely, 2004's Brian Wilson Presents Smile (BWPS).

I really hope that the release of "The SMiLE Sessions" doesn't convince scores of SMiLE fans that they never need to listen to BWPS ever again. Brian's reimagining of the project (I hesitate to assert that he "finished" or "solved" it) will still be a remarkable achievement, and without the catharsis achieved by completing BWPS, I don't believe he ever would have authorized the project we're looking forward to now. In 2004, USA Today asked him about releasing the original Beach Boys SMiLE tapes, and he said "Never. Those are gone forever. I don't want those made public because they bring up bad memories. I don't think about the old days anymore. I never do." I think he needed to make peace with SMiLE via BWPS and then let it sit for a few years before "The SMiLE Sessions" would ever have been even remotely possible.

So let's step back for a second and appreciate what we HAVE before we resume fantasizing about what we MIGHT get in the new box. Songwriting for Brian Wilson Presents Smile was undertaken, after a 36 year pause, in late 2003 by Brian and SMiLE's original lyricist, Van Dyke Parks. Darian Sahanaja, one of Brian's band members and long-time SMiLE geek, put together a bunch of vintage bootlegs for Brian to listen to, and together they stitched together a program -- not the original 1966/67 SMiLE, but rather a setlist of SMiLE music suitable for live performance. Tossing aside the restrictions of a 1960s LP, they came up with a three-movement song cycle that incorporated all the well-known SMiLE pieces and flowed like a real album.

After touring BWPS to rapturous audiences in early 2004, Brian and the band ventured into Sunset Sound in Hollywood -- the site of some of the original "Good Vibrations" and "Heroes And Villains" sessions -- to record the "album" version. Just as he did during the original SMiLE sessions -- and just as NO ONE does today -- Brian recorded the instrumental tracks in "modular" parts, with the entire band playing live in the same room. Some fans have mentioned the lack of "darkness" in the BWPS tracks, and while I don't disagree, I don't think it means that the new recordings are "softer" or "lighter." Several instrumental versions were released with BWPS, between the LP's 4th side and several CDs, and when I listen to those (without the distractions of Brian's modern voice and the not-the-Beach Boys backing vocals) I'm just as stunned as when I listen to the 1966 tracks. For those who want to track them all down, the available instrumental BWPS tracks are:

Heroes And Villains (LP side 4)
Cabinessence (LP side 4)
On A Holiday (LP side 4)
Wind Chimes (LP side 4)
Roll Plymouth Rock (giveaway CD from fanzine Endless Summer Quarterly [ESQ])
Mrs. O'Leary's Cow (ESQ giveaway) [same as album, but clean intro/outro]
In Blue Hawaii ("Good Vibrations" CD single b-side)
Surf's Up (Beautiful Dreamer Bonus CD)

Anyway, I think the reason we're sensing this lack of "darkness" is relatively simple -- and it's not because Brian necessarily tried to make it to sound "happier." In 1966, the Wrecking Crew (et al.) had to CREATE this music under the watch of an intensely inspired Brian Wilson, and they were expected to nail their parts quickly so they could move on and not waste studio time. The Wondermints (et al.) only had to learn to PERFORM the music, and they had all the 1966 tapes to refer to, and as much time as they needed to learn it, and they probably didn't have Brian hanging over them every minute.

Not only that, but the BWPS album was recorded AFTER they completed the SMiLE tour -- meaning they had not only rehearsed the songs extensively, they were completely comfortable playing them by the time they approached the album in the studio. I think this is why we feel they are "lighter" or "happier" or that "something" is missing -- but when you listen to the instrumental tracks, the musicianship is still there, and the magic of the compositions still glows.

Which brings me to one other thing I've been thinking about lately: Let's not be too cavalier about the "darkness" that Brian Wilson has had to live with for most of his life. It's easy to chatter about Brian's failure to finish SMiLE in 1967 and how great it is that it's going to get "finished" now, with or without him, but I wouldn't take his authorization of this project as a signal that all his demons have been slain. He may be happier than he's been in decades, and he may be getting the best medical and psychological care of his entire life, but I think most of us suspect that Brian is still an incredibly fragile person, much more than he or his camp would ever let on. He himself hints at his continuous battles, and I was surprised to re-read some of the things he said in 2004 while promoting BWPS.

For example, in the audio interview with David Leaf (on the same CD as the instrumental "Surf's Up"), Leaf asks Brian to clarify the story about how he believed that his song "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" (aka "Fire") had caused actual fires around Los Angeles. Brian confirms that he DID really believe that, but admits (paraphrasing), "That's silly, because there's no way that me recording a song about fire could cause a fire somewhere else." I thought, OK, sounds a little like he's reciting what a therapist told him, but fine -- he got over it. But then Brian added, "I got over that a couple of years ago," and I was taken aback. A couple of YEARS ago! Meaning that as late as 2002, Brian Wilson still feared that he caused fires in Los Angeles because he recorded "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow."

In the USA Today interview, Brian reminds us that his mental breakdowns didn't end in the 1960s, or the "bed years" of the 1970s, or the coke years of the 1980s, or the post-Landy years of the 1990s. He told Edna Gundersen that "I had a pretty good nervous breakdown a few years ago [i.e., in or around the early 2000s], where I felt emotionally broken down, and I've slowly been repaired from it. I still have moments where I think I have it, but it goes away. Music's been part of my salvation." Far from the general public perception that Brian was "unhealthy" a long time ago, and is "recovered" now, the truth is that every day is a probably struggle for him -- at least compared to those of us who don't have similar problems.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm ecstatic about "The Smile Sessions" too, but I think we should all reflect on what an epic struggle this project was for Brian, and still is. The press release may say he's "thrilled" about it, but even if he is, it's a relatively recent change of opinion. The Orange County Register asked him in 1999 if he would ever allow a Smile box similar to the Pet Sounds box, and he flatly rejected the idea. When asked why, he said, "Because I hate that [expletive] album." Personally, I hope that all the praise "The Smile Sessions" will undoubtedly receive will help Brian finally put SMiLE to rest -- but I also fear that it would break his heart if his fans tossed BWPS aside because of the "real thing" being released.

Brian Wilson Presents Smile will stand the test of time, in my opinion, simply because it contains music and lyrics that don't exist on the 1966 tapes. While I don't love all the new lyrics in BWPS, and I don't think the "three movement" structure has any basis in history, the album still holds up for me, as I play it along with all my vintage SMiLE stuff (officially released and ... otherwise). It may or may not be historical, but the BWPS transition from "Wonderful" to "Song For Children" to "Child Is Father" to "Surf's Up" is still spine-tingling. The way "On A Holiday" uses the "whispering winds" chant (as found on the Smiley Smile album) to link to "Wind Chimes" is brilliant. The music is expertly played and the sound is crystal clear in a way that the original tapes simply will never be.

"The Smile Sessions" producers Mark Linett and Alan Boyd have indicated that they will use BWPS as the "template" for their version of the Beach Boys SMiLE "album." They may think they're honoring it by doing so, but I think the effect would be the opposite. If they succeed TOO well, then many fans will decide that they simply never need to listen to Brian's version again, because all the stuff they liked can now be heard using the "real" tapes and Beach Boys harmonies. I hope they try to piece together the best possible "1967 version" of SMiLE -- 12 to 14 tracks, probably not linked or segued together, with no additional recordings AT ALL, and sequenced like a two-sided LP. This will allow BWPS to retain its status as a unique and compelling version of SMiLE.

Coming soon: An appreciation of Brian Wilson's "wilderness years" (1967-1977)

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Look! Listen! Vibrate! COMPiLE! Last Call For SMiLE Nerds!

Well, the unthinkable is being thought, the unspeakable is being spoken, and the unimaginable is being imagined -- The Beach Boys' legendary SMiLE album is finally being released, 44 years after being shelved by damaged mastermind Brian Wilson in 1967. The news was first leaked by a loose-lipped Al Jardine, who, in an amazing coincidence unprecedented in the annals of public relations, was trying to drum up interest in his solo album. After the inevitable Internet firestorm (heh, "Fire"...), Al tried to throw some cold water on it, but it surprised almost no one when the news became official on March 11th:

Read the announcement made on Billboard's website and the accompanying interview with Beach Boys engineer and compiler extraordinaire Mark Linett.

Three days later, the news became even more official, with a press release posted to Brian Wilson's website. If you're a SMiLE fan, or a Beach Boys fan, or a fan of 1960s pop in general, go to those links and read up on "The Smile Sessions," which has the potential to be a genuine "holy grail" release for a sizeable cadre of fanatics. But this post isn't about that.

The front cover of my SMiLE CD

I'm here to talk about how this affects ME -- namely, the possibility that the "finished" version of SMiLE that I labored over for a year or more might become obsolete. I'm not alone in this fear-slash-joy -- making your own SMiLE is a rite of passage for SMiLE fans, and hundreds (if not thousands) of them have done the same, stitching together the pieces (either officially released or from bootlegs) into something they consider a "complete" SMiLE. Friendly debates raged on message boards -- whether "Surf's Up" should have been the final track, whether there was ever really going to be an "Elements" suite of songs, whether each album side would be a continuous collage of music or traditionally banded individual tracks, whether "Good Vibrations" belonged on it at all, etc. Scans of hand-written notes and tape boxes and record company memorandums were kept at the ready as evidence.

It's all in good fun, but for better or worse the fun will end -- or, rather, CHANGE -- when "The Smile Sessions" is released (hopefully) sometime this year. Part of the beauty of SMiLE is that it WAS unfinished -- so we could mold it in our own images, as it were. Homemade SMiLEs were like snowflakes -- no two were alike, and I think we liked it that way. It made SMiLE into something organic and alive, ever-evolving. Disc One of "The Smile Sessions" will attempt to end the debate, and present the most complete version of the 1966/67 SMiLE possible with the tapes they have been able to recover from the project. (Several reels are known to be lost, but who knows what has turned up in the last few years.) Mark Linett hints that they will probably try to use Brian Wilson's own "homemade" SMiLE -- Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE (BWPS) -- as a template, which will not be a popular decision for a lot of hardcore SMiLE scholars. Historical evidence suggests that in 1966/67 SMiLE would have been a traditional 10-12 song album, not a three-movement double-LP. There will be a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth if Linett decides to mimic the BWPS model TOO closely, with digitally-manipulated segues and (god-forbid) modern-day vocals adding the new lyrics.

The way I see it, though, Brian and the Beach Boys aren't going to stamp out the "DIY SMiLE" community -- they're just jumping into the sandbox to play along. Brian's 2004 version was crafted specifically to be performed on stage, and tracks were edited and arranged with that in mind. "The Smile Sessions" will hopefully try to re-create what MIGHT have been a Beach Boys album released in 1967, but even if they get a little too jiggy with it, discs 2-4 of the deluxe set will give us extensive session outtakes (in stereo) and un-futzed-with versions of what appears on disc one. The more the merrier, I say, and I'm sure I'm not speaking for only myself when I predict that most of us who buy the deluxe boxed set of "The Smile Sessions" will be diving into those bonus discs and re-compiling -- or even re-thinking altogether -- our own personal SMiLE comps.

With that in mind, I would like to present my own version of SMiLE, which I worked on for a little over a year, from Winter 1999 until I finished it (or gave up, take your pick) in January 2001. I imagined it as a CD reissue of the original album, meaning that it would be an LP-length "album" with bonus tracks. I wasn't strictly beholden to historical evidence, though, and used link tracks, demos and other things that some purists frown upon. My main objective was to put my absolute favorite bits of SMiLE onto ONE CD, rather than spread out on more than 20 official releases and bootlegs. And so, the tracklist:

01. Our Prayer (1:06)
02. Heroes and Villains (4:44)
03. Wind Chimes (2:57)
04. Do You Like Worms (4:20)
05. The Old Master Painter/You Are My Sunshine (1:07)
06. Link: How I Love My Girl (1:33)
07. Wonderful (2:01)
08. Link: Heroes and Villains (1:14)
09. Cabinessence* (3:32)

10. Look* (2:50)
11. He Gives Speeches (0:58)
12. I’m In Great Shape (demo) (0:25)
13. Vegetables (2:40)
14. The Elements** (7:34)
15. Surf’s Up (4:10)
16. You’re Welcome (1:36)

17. Good Vibrations (alternate mix) (3:39)
18. Heroes and Villains** (alternate) (4:20)
19. Barnyard (demo) (0:56)
20. Wind Chimes* (early version) (2:52)
21. Wonderful* (early version) (1:45)
22. Vegetables (early version) (2:37)
23. Child Is Father to the Man (0:47)
24. Fire* (take 2) (1:50)
25. The Old Master Painter* (sessions) (2:24)
26. Surf’s Up* (instrumental track) (1:37)
27. Surf’s Up* (Brian’s demo) (3:38)

*Stereo   **Mono/stereo

Unfortunately, I can't post PDFs to my blog, or I would upload the booklet that I made for the CD, complete with nerd-tastically detailed liner notes that explain the sweat that went into this. Consider yourselves spared -- but here are a few notes: All of the edits used were my own, except for the so-called "Anne Wallace mix" of "Surf's Up" which expertly combined Brian's 1966 demo of the song with the unfinished 1966 instrumental backing track -- a trick that Mark Linett himself has already completed for "The Smile Sessions." Some of my edits followed other fan edits, but I tried to refine and improve the editing as well as the pieces used in the edits. "Do You Like Worms" for example used 9 different segments for a four-minute song. My stab at "The Elements" was comprised of "I Want To Be Around/Friday Night/Woodshop" (for "Earth"), an instrumental portion of "Wind Chimes" (for "Air"), "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" (for "Fire," the only known-for-a-fact portion of Brian's original "Elements" plan), and "Water Chant"/"I Love To Say Da Da" for "Water." As a wink to Sgt. Pepper's "endless chord" at the end of "A Day In The Life," I ended my SMiLE with an endless fade-in of "You're Welcome." "Good Vibrations" is relegated to the bonus tracks section -- just a personal choice; I know that it probably would have been on the LP in 1966 or 1967.

The tray insert for my SMiLE CD

So that's what I've been enjoying as "SMiLE" for a decade now. I'm looking forward to having my decisions and opinions challenged by "The Smile Sessions," and I'm looking forward to the sonic upgrades for several tracks I omitted simply because I didn't like the sound quality of the bootleg versions ("Barnyard," "Child Is Father To The Man," "Holidays," etc.) I've been on a Beach Boys/Brian Wilson/Smile bender this month because of the news -- like, an epic, Charlie Sheen-level bender -- and it's going to be hard to think about anything else until we at least get a release date. I hope everything progresses smoothly, and I hope Brian is happy with the results. My next post will be about Brian and his own 2004 version of SMiLE, and why I don't think it should be forgotten in the wake of "The Smile Sessions." Stay tuned!