BOB DYLAN: THE BOOTLEG SERIES VOL. 2: RARE & UNRELEASED (1963-1975; 1991)
1) Seven Curses; 2) Eternal Circle; 3) Suze (The Cough Song); 4) Mama, You Been On My Mind; 5) Farewell, Angelina; 6) Subterranean Homesick Blues; 7) If You Gotta Go, Go Now (Or Else You Got To Stay All Night); 8) Sitting On A Barbed Wire Fence; 9) Like A Rolling Stone; 10) It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry; 11) I'll Keep It With Mine; 12) She's Your Lover Now; 13) I Shall Be Released; 14) Santa-Fe; 15) If Not For You; 16) Wallflower; 17) Nobody 'Cept You; 18) Tangled Up In Blue; 19) Call Letter Blues; 20) Idiot Wind.
The first thing to notice about Vol. 2 if you treat it as a slightly autonomous entity is the stretching of time: where the first volume barely covered Dylan's first three years, the second volume extends all the way from the still acoustic 1963 to the electric period to the «country revival» and further on to the Blood On The Tracks era. Additionally, a much larger number of tracks is represented by alternate takes and demos of songs we already know. This can actually mean only one thing — namely, that Dylan's vaulted backlog is not nearly as huge as we consider it to be; most of the stuff he put down in the studio did end up on official albums (or, alternately, was so bad that it was destroyed on the spot or deemed completely unsuitable for release). One logical explanation is that by 1964, he was in total control both of his own creative urges and of his studio production, so that ideas rarely ended up wasted, nor was there any post-production censorship, either (as there was with ʽTalkin' John Birch Paranoid Bluesʼ, for instance). But that's just one possible explanation — with a guy like Bob, you're always better off looking for at least two.
Anyway, even the early takes and demos on Vol. 2 give plenty of food for thought. Some are curios, providing insight into roots of legends — like the acoustic demo of ʽSubterranean Homesick Bluesʼ and that snippet of an early take on ʽLike A Rolling Stoneʼ, with Bob banging out the skeleton of the song on electric piano, still somewhat absent-mindedly and in a waltz tempo at that — clearly, the night was still young. Some show an alternate vision of the song that, according to Bob, did not work out, and he's almost always right: ʽIt Takes A Lot To Laughʼ, when set to the melody of ʽSmokestack Lightningʼ at twice the regular speed, «rocks» technically, but has no true angry snap to it: once they recast the tune in its «lazy», sittin'-around-doin'-nothing incarnation, that's when it really got its nasty sneer.
There is a crowd of people out there, I know, ready to defend the acoustic version of ʽIdiot Windʼ as every bit the equal of the fully arranged final take — but the song is a «screamer» by definition; when you tell your counterpart that "you're an idiot, babe, it's a wonder that you still know how to breathe", you do not usually do it «subtly», in the tone of a soft, friendly reproach. Again, it is interesting to know how the song started out, but I am glad that Bob did not stop there and expanded it to cataclysmic (at least, for Blood On The Tracks) proportions. On the other hand, one alternate version that does pretend to outdo the original is ʽIf Not For Youʼ, done here in an arrangement much closer to George Harrison's on All Things Must Pass: slower, more melodic, less hurried and fussy, more «caring». What probably happened is Bob thought, now that George did it so well on his own, there is no need doing the song the same way — and so he intentionally «fucked it up» for New Morning (where the sped-up, fussy version still worked well in the overall context of the album's «hangover» attitude).
Some of the other songs included here were ultimately reworked into slightly or significantly different entities. ʽCall Letter Bluesʼ, with just a slight lyrical shift, would become ʽMeet Me In The Morningʼ. Much more interesting was the fate of the lengthy epic ʽShe's Your Lover Nowʼ, dating back to the early 1966 bout of Blonde On Blonde sessions (pre-Nashville) with the Hawks — after several takes, it was ultimately dropped, but some of its chords and vocal moves eventually became ʽOne Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)ʼ. Its convoluted love triangle is intriguing, but I think I can see how Dylan could see that he could not quite see where it was all going, and besides, it was just a tad too fast for the deliberating, take-your-time spirit of Blonde On Blonde, so, once again, I do not quite share the widespread opinion of the song being a «lost classic» — in any case, he couldn't fit both songs on the same album, and the wintery epiphany of ʽOne Of Usʼ was much more profoundly and elaborately worked out anyway.
True «lost classics», in my personal recognition, are limited here to five tracks. Still from the early acoustic days, ʽSeven Cursesʼ is a haunting, somewhat creepy attempt at a pseudo-authentic «dark folk ballad» that would have fit like a glove one of Bob's later acoustic albums such as World Gone Wrong (but in 1963, it was probably deemed a bit too out of place on a «protest» album like The Times). ʽMama, You Been On My Mindʼ, which Bob used to do live in a rather awkward duet with Joan Baez and which is also one of my favorite Rod Stewart songs, is great to finally have in a clean-sounding, solo acoustic studio version — it is, after all, one of Bob's finest psychological digs, and should rank right up there with ʽDon't Think Twiceʼ and such. And ʽFarewell Angelinaʼ — okay, now there's a song that definitely should have made it onto Another Side Of Bob Dylan, at the obvious expense of ʽBallad In Plain Dʼ. Maybe Bob thought that it sounded too much like a traditional folk ballad (it does) and therefore did not fit in the overall concept of the album (where Bob was already playing the hip beatnik, even without the help of electric instruments). But it is such a beautiful «traditional folk ballad» that we'd hardly give a damn about the concept, right? Not to mention a great excuse for leaving poor Suze Rotolo and her protective sister out of the mess.
From the electric days, I'd single out the «test-stage» electric recording of ʽIf You Gotta Go, Go Nowʼ, a «comic» number formerly relegated to live acoustic performance and also one of those trademark Dylan hits for Manfred Mann — it is simply an excellent example of Bob's sarcastic skills, and, in a way, summarizes the still relatively new issue with groupies and rock stars to a tee (I don't actually see Dylan that much as a typical protagonist for the song's lyrics; now Keith Richards, that'd be a whole different story...). And much later on, ʽNobody 'Cept Youʼ, from the Planet Waves sessions, could have certainly livened up the spirit of that album a wee bit (what with ʽDirgeʼ and ʽWedding Songʼ and other tunes reflecting Dylan's failing human relationships at the time) — then again, maybe that is exactly why it was left off.
Regardless, though, of how many lost classics, found non-classics, or «songs that should have been there a long time ago» there are on Vol. 2, its structure naturally makes it one heck of a journey — acoustic folk, electric blues-rock, rambling roots-rock from the «Basement» era, and, finally, the somber singer-songwriting mood of the mid-1970s: Dylan's exclusive Odyssey given to you through a batch of hitherto unknown «subpar» material that still allows to witness all his transformations and evolutions as clearly as anything released in its own time. Thus, even though of all three volumes, this one has the smallest amount of «new songs», a thumbs up for it is still unavoidable, if only because it covers not one, but several of Dylan's «peak periods». Silver peaks, golden peaks, platinum peaks — they're all reflected here in shadow-mode.