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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Bob Dylan: Biograph


CD I: 1) Lay Lady Lay; 2) Baby Let Me Follow You Down; 3) If Not For You; 4) I'll Be Your Baby Tonight; 5) I'll Keep It With Mine*; 6) The Times They Are A-Changin'; 7) Blowin' In The Wind; 8) Masters Of War; 9) Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll; 10) Percy's Song*; 11) Mixed-Up Confusion*; 12) Tombstone Blues; 13) Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar; 14) Most Likely You Go Your Way And I'll Go Mine; 15) Like A Rolling Stone; 16) Lay Down Your Weary Tune*; 17) Subterranean Homesick Blues; 18) I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)*.
CD II: 1) Visions Of Johanna*; 2) Every Grain Of Sand; 3) Quinn The Eskimo*; 4) Mr. Tambourine Man; 5) Dear Landlord; 6) It Ain't Me Babe; 7) You Angel You; 8) Million Dollar Bash; 9) To Ramona; 10) You're A Big Girl Now*; 11) Abandoned Love*; 12) Tangled Up In Blue; 13) It's All Over Now, Baby Blue; 14) Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?*; 15) Positively 4th Street*; 16) Isis*; 17) Jet Pilot*.
CD III: 1) Caribeean Wind*; 2) Up To Me*; 3) Baby, I'm In The Mood For You*; 4) I Wanna Be Your Lover*; 5) I Want You; 6) Heart Of Mine*; 7) On A Night Like This; 8) Just Like A Woman; 9) Romance In Durango*; 10) Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power); 11) Gotta Serve Somebody; 12) I Believe In You; 13) Time Passes Slowly; 14) I Shall Be Released*; 15) Knockin' On Heaven's Door; 16) All Along The Watchtower; 17) Solid Rock; 18) Forever Young*.

Our long journey through The Amazing World of Dylan's Vaults begins here, as early as 1985, when the people at Columbia, possibly suspecting that Bobby has finally outlived his greatness, decided to summarize it like no other greatness had been summarized before — with a sprawling, pompously packaged, multi-disc package: five vinyl LPs, and then, a year later, three CDs in the then still brand-new and expensive format. Apparently, this was one of the first, if not the first, «boxset», starting off a trend that will never die until there is still at least a small army of diehard fans in the world to make the expenses pay off.

Usually, I begin every review of this kind by saying how much I dislike the idea of the «boxset both for the casual and the serious fan», and Biograph is no exception. It is certainly capable of giving you a very good idea of who is Bob Dylan, why he matters, and how much of an exciting artistic journey he has had in twenty years. Yet certainly, casual fans and neophytes have no rea­son to listen to most of the rarities included here — especially if the rarities are included at the ex­pense of such seminal tracks as ʽA Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fallʼ, ʽIt's Alright Maʼ, ʽDesolation Rowʼ, ʽHurricaneʼ, among but a few. And the serious fans — why in the world would they want to pay for three CDs' worth of music when they really only get one, at the very best?

Perhaps it would have made better sense if the album(s) were at least properly sequenced, to present a logical musical history (as it would later be done on The Bootleg Series). But the se­quencing is deliberately messy. Statistically, it does look like the first CD is a bit more on the early acoustic side, the second one concentrates a bit more on the mid- and late Sixties, and the third one has a bit more material from the 1970s and 1980s, but that is, at best, still just a limp tendency. Placing the studio version of ʽI Want Youʼ next to a live rendition of ʽHeart Of Mineʼ hardly seems like the right thing to do — perhaps it reflects somebody's personal philosophy of Dylan's music, but whose? And why?..

Probably for historical reasons, and also because no better alternative has been presented so far, Biograph has never gone out of print. But its main value today still remains in the approximately ninety minutes of music that are either unavailable elsewhere, or remain scattered on various compilations. The real bad news is that it ties together most of the pre-Bootleg Series rarities, but not all of them: the most glaring omission arguably being ʽWhen I Paint My Masterpieceʼ, the single version of which was originally released in 1971 and still remains openly available only on various greatest hits compilations. Meaning that Biograph won't even be able to solve the basic demands of the quintessential completist.

Still, none of this is arguably Dylan's fault (I am not sure of how much the man himself was in­volved in the project — most of the time, Columbia made all these decisions without him), and there is no question that most of these ninety minutes of single A-sides, outtakes, demos, alter­nate versions, and live performances are outstanding. Just a few highlights here to tickle the fancy:

— no Dylan portrait circa 1965 may be complete without access to ʽCan You Please Crawl Out Your Window?ʼ and especially ʽPositively 4th Streetʼ, which so belongs on Highway 61 Revisi­ted that it's not even funny: unquestionably the angriest, most vitriolic song ever written by the man, just a lengthy, monotonous, unstoppable, exhilarating spew of venom set to an unforgettable folk-rock organ riff that most resembles a triumphant, self-confident whistle — as the artist takes a step back and surveys with pleasure the hacked and mutilated limbs of his enemies' bodies. (Bob would, of course, later deny that ʽPositively 4th Streetʼ was about the folk purists who thought themselves betrayed by his going electric — but, as rare as it is for Dylan, the lyrics speak for themselves in a most straightforward manner: "you say I let you down...", "you say you lost your faith...", "I used to be among the crowd you're in with...", etc.).;

— ʽMixed-Up Confusionʼ is the man's first ever single, and it's... well, not electric, but it is re­corded with a complete rhythm section and at breakneck speed. Think any of the songs on Bob Dylan with added drums, bass, and piano and sped up to a decent rockabilly tempo. Fascinating? Perhaps not that much. Fun? Definitely. Remember, Bobby Zimmerman started out as a rock-and-roller in his early teens, and maybe his early folk career wouldn't have been nearly as exci­ting if it didn't have some of that «rock'n'roll rebel» essence left over in it;

— at least two electric-era outtakes, ʽI'll Keep It With Mineʼ and ʽI Wanna Be Your Loverʼ, are also classic 1965 songs in their own rights; the latter was probably shelved because of extreme variational dependency on the Beatles' ʽI Wanna Be Your Manʼ, although, of course, the Beatles' repetitive chorus is only taken here as a jump-off point (most likely, it just got stuck in Bob's mind one day and he decided to play ball). The musical arrangement, carried here by the Hawks, is a little less inventive than the usual standard of Highway 61, but I guess that, with a little more work, the song might have carved out its own strong identity;

— from the latter days, ʽAbandoned Loveʼ is a lively violin-carried tune from the Desire sessions that was hacked off to make way for ʽJoeyʼ (!) — a sacrilegious decision in the eyes of some of the fans, I guess, although I do admit that the song is a little too close melodically to ʽBlack Dia­mond Bayʼ to satisfy the diversity requirements that Bob set for himself on that album. And then there is one of those famed outtakes from the 1981 sessions, ʽCaribbean Windʼ, a six-minute epic that never made it onto Shot Of Love for unclear reasons; an inspired, anthemic performance, even if not particularly heavy on hooks (its most «memorable» element is the imitation of the wind in question through a series of inhaling and exhaling noises, which is either funny or irrita­ting, but hardly an inspirational find).

Lesser finds involve some decent live recordings, alternate versions of which from the same tours would eventually be released in a better context through the Bootleg Series (ʽVisions Of Johan­naʼ and ʽI Don't Believe Youʼ from the 1966 tour; ʽIsisʼ and ʽRomance In Durangoʼ from the 1975 tour); an alternate version of ʽShelter From The Stormʼ with completely different and, I'd say, better lyrics (ʽUp To Meʼ); an early, repetitive, almost trance-inducing folk epic from 1963 (ʽPercy's Songʼ); and some other stuff that would take too much time and space to discuss. In any case, what has been listed is already enough to call this first batch of «Dylan rarities» an essential listen — and with our current digital possibilities, it is easy to extract and re-sequence it in your favorite order, although I sure wish Columbia would do it on an official level someday.

As a final trivia, the liner notes here were written by Cameron Crowe, who knows his Dylan fairly well — the essay is a fun and informative read, for the neophyte at least — but as for the song info, it could certainly have used more actual information (such as, for instance, the names of the players) and a little less rambling. Much to Crowe's honor, he lets Dylan himself do most of the rambling (almost every track is accompanied by some of Bob's thoughts on the subject), but one must always remember that Dylan's words usually only reflect Dylan's current state-of-mind, and it is quite likely that his stories on these songs circa 2014 would be completely dif­ferent (even where facts, not opinions, are concerned) from the same stories circa 1985. After all, the man has never had any stabilized center of gravity, so what can you expect?

Check "Biograph" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Biograph" (MP3) on Amazon


  1. The company executives are greedy whores, always ready to take advantage of the fact that Dylan has never given a ding-dong about cleaning up his massive back catalogue. That's why they've always thrown a rarity here and there to make diehards buy some mastodontic box sets for one or two tracks they haven't heard before.
    ."More Bob Dylan's greatest hits" from 1971 holds the 1st prize in this department as it has "Watching the river flow", "Tomorrow is a long time", "When I paint my masterpiece" and a faboulous triad of "I shall be released", "You ain't going nowhere" and "Down in the flood" from a session with Happy Traum - all unavailable elsewhere.
    More inanity (or caclculated greed) can be traced in a compilation called "Masterpieces" released only in Australia, Japan and New Zeland which included some (but surely not all, oh no, that would be too good) of the aforementioned Greatest Hits stuff along with "George Jackson" and "Rita May" which to this day haven't appear anywhere else.
    I include all this for sheer information as I don't think you'll be reviewing all that stuff :)

    1. That doesn't only apply to BD, but to many other artists as well. Discography of Deep Purple Mark II always has been a mess too, with all the non-album singles, B-sides, outtakes and BBC-recordings. One example:

      Track 5.

    2. One of the stranger omissions on this set was 'I Shall Be Released', from the original 'Basement Tapes' sessions (it wasn't on the 1975 album, and didn't appear until The Bootleg Series in 1991). As mentioned, 'George Jackson' was another glaring one. The studio version of 'Caribbean Wind' -- probably Dylan's greatest composition from 1976 to 1997 -- is welcome, but it's also really bad compared to the oft-circulating rehearsal from 1980 (and the one and only time it was performed live in 1980), which is sublime.

      And why we're at it, why didn't they take this chance to unleash 'Blind Willie McTell' or 'Nobody 'Cept You', two of his greatest-ever songs? (I guess they didn't want to give fans actual value for money...)

      About Dylan's involvement in this: I know that the track-listing originally included a live version (probably from '66 or '74) of "Like a Rolling Stone", but Dylan himself asked Columbia to change it so that they included the original studio cut instead.

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  3. I remember the hype when this came out. I got it as Christmas gift in 1985—having only one other Dylan album, Empire Burlesque. I know, weird, right? But when it came out, it definitely felt like not only were Dylan's best days behind him (which was understandably true, given the kind of days that were behind him), but that he was a washed-up crackpot, never to rate again as an ongoing creative entity. Granted, he didn't do much to help that perception with the next couple of studio albums.

    But the tone of the contemporaneous reviews of this box set was something like, "Remember how great Dylan used to be?" It also came on the heels of his universally panned (though not all that bad) Live Aid performance. His performance was far better than the event deserved!

  4. Just a note that the rarities contained within Biograph and the Greatest Hits albums, along with a few others (George Jackson, Things Have Changed, etc.) have been compiled on a release called Side Tracks:

    Unfortunately, it is available in standalone form on vinyl only, while the CD is embedded in the Complete Album Collection Vol. 1 box set. Still, I love those Biograph liner notes...

  5. Biograph should only be considered as a ten-sided record, as opposed to three CDs. I break down the basic themes here:

    It's a not perfect set, but still thumbs up in my house.

  6. I understand why this irritates you, but you can't argue with the music itself. The totally random sequencing is the major flaw, which, I have to agree, makes no sense. I reprogrammed the songs in chronological order, which traces Dylan's evolution brilliantly. The biggest new finds for me are the brilliant "Up to Me "; and "Lay Down Your Weary Tune", which gloriously outshines ANYTHING on its parent album. I don't regret buying this a bit, even with all of the overlaps in material.