BOB DYLAN: THE BOOTLEG SERIES VOL. 3: RARE & UNRELEASED (1975-1989; 1991)
1) If You See Her Say Hello; 2) Golden Loom; 3) Catfish; 4) Seven Days; 5) Ye Shall Be Changed; 6) Every Grain Of Sand; 7) You Changed My Life; 8) Need A Woman; 9) Angelina; 10) Someone's Got A Hold Of My Heart; 11) Tell Me; 12) Lord Protect My Child; 13) Foot Of Pride; 14) Blind Willie McTell; 15) When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky; 16) Series Of Dreams.
I think it helps to be religious in order to fully appreciate Vol. 3. In just a few moments, after a couple of outtakes from the Desire sessions have rolled by, history plunges us right in the center of Dylan's existential crisis and, consequently, the two stages of his religious experience — first, the Christian exuberance of 1979-80, and then, the Judaeic prophet avatar of 1981-83. If you still had any doubts as to whether these feelings were just a professional put-on after listening to Bob's official output from those years, Vol. 3 will do a good job of dissipating these. Apparently, some of the songs recorded in that period turned out to be so deeply personal that Bob simply did not dare release them — either fearing they would be misunderstood and undervalued, or because, as he confessed about ʽBlind Willie McTellʼ, he simply couldn't get them to sound just right.
To me, the «key» song and the true dark horse of the album, however, is not ʽWillieʼ, but ʽSeven Daysʼ, the one true missing link between the gypsy violin days of Desire and the dark depressed brooding of Street Legal. Bob did try it out in the studio and eventually donated the song to Ron Wood, but, thankfully, he left behind a few live performances from the last leg of the Rolling Thunder Revue, and the one included here completely blows away Ronnie's version, as well as Joe Cocker's and whoever else's. In Bob's original interpretation, ʽSeven Daysʼ is essentially a howl — an explosion of despair, the likes of which we'd never heard, as of yet, from the man up to that point. The way he extends that vocal note on the first line of each verse — "seven day-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-es!..." — is an outburst that, for Bob, probably worked the same way that Janov's primal scream worked for Lennon (ironically, this is the one part that was never replicated on any of the cover versions: Ronnie obviously lacked the vocal capacities for this, and Cocker either took off from Ronnie's version or rightly thought that his take on this trick would result in a completely different emotional impression).
Besides, ʽSeven Daysʼ is simply a perfect song for the Rolling Thunder band, all these musicians piling up the loosely structured layers, sometimes bordering on chaos, but with the ominous, storm-gathering flute and violin lines always cutting through to convey the emotional panic. And whatever Dylan really meant by those lyrics, they do sound panicky: "...seven more days, all I gotta do is survive" sounds almost like he really believes it, or, rather, that he is not really sure whether he can survive for seven more days. The mysterious "beautiful comrade from the North" that, he hopes, will be able to come and relieve him, may, of course, be identified with ʽGirl From The North Countryʼ, but, more likely, this is just a vague, figurative allusion to the idea of «salvation» from a dreary existence, which may be hoped for but is never guaranteed. Anyway, the tension of the performance simply burns through the speakers; nowhere else on this album, and, in fact, very little else anywhere, can you find Bob Dylan sounding so psychotic.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the antidote to the psychosis may seem a little disappointing — the very next song is ʽYe Shall Be Changedʼ, signalling the beginning of Bob's Christian period and proselytizing in general. The problem was stunningly laid out; the cure, in comparison, looks simplistic and clichéd, particularly since the most Christian songs on here (ʽYe Shall Be Changedʼ and ʽYou Changed My Lifeʼ) are all Saved-style rather than Slow Train-style stuff — upbeat, «boppy» anthems that hint at the achievement of happiness and content but seem more like a clumsily self-inflicted form of therapy («I will sing songs of finding happiness in the Lord! I have to! There is no other way!»), like homeopathy or something.
Fortunately, these happy anthems only form a minor slice of Vol. 3 (and, if the whole collection is to be taken as a brief history of Bob Dylan, you couldn't do without a couple of these for the sake of completeness, anyway). At the same time, he was also recording stuff like ʽAngelinaʼ, a lovely, tender ballad that also makes heavy use of Biblical imagery, but exclusively for the sake of lyrical mysticism — we never get to know who «Angelina» is any more than we knew about «Johanna» or «Queen Jane», but we do get to know that, even as he was still praising Jesus on the more explicit cuts of Shot Of Love, he was also doing this stuff at the same time: slow, piano-based, dreamy, subtly building up to a grandiose climax whose meaning still escapes you until the very end. Perhaps he thought that the song was way too obscure and esoteric for his Christian friends, and this is why we have ʽEvery Grain Of Sandʼ on Shot Of Love and not ʽAngelinaʼ, but in these days of borderless playlists, that technical compromise may be overlooked, right?
And then we finally get around to songs that were recorded in the days of Infidels, but then shelved to make way for ʽNeighborhoud Bullyʼ, ʽLicense To Killʼ, and all those other clearly inferior numbers. ʽFoot Of Prideʼ is one of the natural highlights here — like an even more advanced lyrical take on ʽSlow Trainʼ, Dylan machine-gunning subtly poisoned darts at sinners and hypocrites to an arrangement whose bassline almost borders on disco (and wouldn't it be fun to actually have a Dylan disco song condemning sinners to Hell?). Word-wise, it is really one of his most challenging oeuvres ("He looked straight into the sun and said revenge is mine / But he drinks, and drinks can be fixed" is one hell of a great passage, isn't it?), and it was a great choice for Lou Reed to pick up at the 30th anniversary concert (although, like most other guests at the celebration, he never bothered to memorize the lyrics and spent most of his time at the mike squinting like crazy at the rapidly moving teletext, tee hee hee).
As for ʽBlind Willie McTellʼ, the one thing that always «amused» me about the song was that it had nothing whatsoever to do with the real Blind Willie McTell, and if there actually was a Blind Willie to whom the Biblical flavor of the song could be connected, it was rather Blind Willie Johnson, the creepy howler of doom, death, and retribution — except «Willie Johnson» would never fit into the rhythmic-rhyming scheme of the song. It is not a great composition (the melody is completely unoriginal, dating back to the days of ʽSt. James Infirmaryʼ and probably way beyond that), and its acoustic-and-piano arrangement is formally unexceptional, but there is no denying the visionary grandness: there is an attempt here of a panoramic perspective that digs deep into American history and beyond, and ties it with the modern world, and I do agree with Bob that, perhaps, he did not manage to find quite the musical setting that the words demanded, although I cannot decide if the song would have benefitted from a denser arrangement, with more overdubs, or, on the contrary, from a completely stripped-down arrangement, with just an acoustic guitar. Come to think of it, it is also a song that might have benefitted from Bob's voice circa Tempest — all hoarse and rattled — so, as of 2014, it might not be too late to think of a re-recording (he does perform it in concert, but the jazzy reinvention is not too suitable, either, I think, since it strips the song of much of its eeriness).
These are only the highlights; the rest of the songs on Vol. 3 may not necessarily deserve extensive comments, but none of the tracks are annoying or useless, and the alternate takes of ʽSomeone's Got A Hold On My Heartʼ and particularly the dancebeat-free ʽWhen The Nightʼ will be especially comforting for all those who thought the biggest problem with Empire Burlesque was its ridiculously «modern» production. Finally, ʽSeries Of Dreamsʼ, an outtake from Oh Mercy, is not a masterpiece, but works very well as a conclusion to the whole package — an introspective, slightly optimistic (against all the apocalyptic preaching) jangly rocker that at the same time serves as a wrap-up summary of the road travelled, and an intriguing prelude to those heights that still remain to be conquered. Considering that, in six years' time, the man would bring us Time Out Of Mind, and then go on to produce a whole queue of albums that, might I say it, are quite useful for the needs of the 21st century, the message — "I'd already gone the distance / Just thinking of a series of dreams" — seems almost too modest for Mr. Zimmerman, but at least he'll probably accept this additional thumbs up for this particular «series of dreams».