Friday, January 15, 2016

Weighing In On Dylan Bootleg #12: The Cutting Edge

If I've learned anything after listening to new Dylan albums for half a century it's that I don't want to adopt an opinion until I've listened to it about ten times. Granted, some albums pierce the heart the very first listen, but some have taken a deeper listen to really grasp, or fall in love with. Bootleg #12, The Cutting Edge was one of these.

I have to explain why on this one. Yes, there were some songs that were immediate gems on the first listen. The first song on Disc 1 happened to be the song I walked my daughter down the aisle to at her wedding this past summer. Still get moist eyes thinking about it. A number of other songs, like "Farewell Angelina", are so warm and beautiful that they also stand out first time around.

But others jarred me. Most prominently was my first reaction to a faster-paced "Visions of Johanna." Why was this? Well, it's easy to explain. Fifty years of hearing "Visions of Johanna" have become embedded in a section of my brain as the near epitome of perfection. How respond to an entirely different interpretation of the song that has buried itself so deeply within my neuro-anatomy?

Over the course of time I have been asked on several occasions to name Dylan's greatest album. That, to me, is an impossible question. But on a couple occasions the inquirer was trying to impress on me that there is a "correct" answer. Or at least an answer that satisfies many who propose such a question. That answer is Blonde On Blonde. I myself would assent to the album being a candidate, but doesn't claiming that one album is "best" diminish the significance of that trilogy of albums that began with Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited? No doubt this was remarkable period.

Well, that's the period of history that Bootleg #12 covers. If you get the 6-CD Deluxe Edition or full, comprehensive limited edition set, you are getting into it deep.

So why purchase The Cutting Edge? I got mine because I have all the other bootlegs, and they've all given a measure of satisfaction. For some reason this time I was hesitant, but I've not been disappointed.

Let's turn to "Visions Of Johanna."

Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin' to be so quiet?
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it
And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin’ you to defy it
Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off
Just Louise and her lover so entwined
And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind

"Don't Look Back"
The laconic, melancholic version that you find on the original album cuts so near to the nerve that you can't imagine any other interpretation. And then when you hear the purposely fast-paced recording on Disc 2 of The Cutting Edge, one's first reaction might be to be totally dismissive, that it doesn't work.

Then, after you've heard it again, and again, you become almost dazed by how it vibrates, resonates, captures the lyrics in and spins them into a newly corkscrewed opening in your brain, heart, soul. It's unbelievable good. It dazzles.

That's how it is with so many of the songs on Dylan's bootlegs. Compare the original "It Ain't Me, Babe" with the visceral version on Bootleg Series #5, 1975

This has been one secret to Dylan's popularity amongst his loyal fans, the shape-shifting performances and re-interpretations that have marked his career. When you listen to the outtakes from his early albums, like many here, it's apparent that all this shape-shifting was happening at a very early stage in his career.

Not every song achieves this effect, and it's clear that the final decisions regarding what to leave in and what to leave out were usually good ones. But there are certainly some gems here.

And not every Dylan album requires ten listens to hit home. Modern Times and Together Through Life struck a chord with me on the first listen, as did Tempest, Oh Mercy and Time Out Of Mind. Some of the best material is subtle and requires a little chewing to get the best flavors out.

* * * *
To find various versions of this special release, visit

For what it's worth: word on the street is that things are coming together for Duluth Dylan Fest 2016. As many of you know, Bob will be 75 this spring, and some very special events are being planned. You can follow along at the Duluth Dylan Festival Facebook page

Dylan paintings and illustrations on this blog were created by ed newman unless otherwise noted.


Hans Altena said...

Though I agree and admire most of what you said here, especially the remarks about Visions of Johanna, I must admit that I stay underwhelmed by this release. Especially the fact that with the normal edition we get numerous takes of a song, does put me of, while the vinyl edition, which is always for me the way to go, with choices of the so called best takes makes some choices that are quite debatable, and the whole just does not work as an album, as for instance Tell Tale Signs most certainly does. I'll Keep it with Mine and Farewell Angelina work so much better on other samplers where they are embedded in a sequence of songs that have the same atmosphere, and why put on the unfinished version of She's Your Lover Now instead of the piano version? Also the choice for the acoustic Desolation Row, that does not add much instead of the one with Bloomfield baffles me. Okay, the last disc works, yet I would have preferred that they included Sad Eyed Lady instead of the many verslons of songs that don't differ that much, like Sooner or Later and Absolutely Sweet Marie. No I don' t listen much to this missed chance, because there is a treasures trove here, but it is presented in a way that has no charm for me.

Ed Newman said...

Thanks for taking time to write in such detail. I was going to reply immediately but wanted to weigh my thoughts a bit first. I, too, was underwhelmed in my first few listens. I like your comparison to Tell Tale Signs in terms of overall composition of the whole. Your point is well taken.
I still find myself listening and continue to get something out of it.
Thanks again.