Between January 1965 and February 1966, Bob Dylan wrote and recorded his first three electric albums, breaking from folk music and forever changing the course of his career and of rock itself. And as his exhaustive new studio-outtakes box set reveals, the journey toward the perfection of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde was just as fascinating as the final products. The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12, released November 6th, offers a definitive look at the development of Dylan's plugged-in sound, unveiling embryonic takes and alternate versions of some of his greatest songs, including "Subterranean Homesick Blues", "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Visions of Johanna".
"At the beginning, most songs were fairly shapeless," says organist Al Kooper, a key collaborator on Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. "Only little by little did they come together."
The collection reveals that six months before the Byrds turned "Mr. Tambourine Man" into a folk-rock smash, Dylan himself saw its possibilities, taking a clumsy, abortive stab at recording a drums-and-electric-guitar version. ("The drums are driving me mad," he says at the end.) It shows how Dylan attempted to record some Blonde on Blonde tracks with future members of the Band before opting for the subtler touch of Nashville musicians: Their "Visions of Johanna" is almost another song altogether (complete with lyric tweaks – "useless and small" instead of "useless and all"), rollicking where the released version is hushed. And it reveals how much fun Dylan was having in the studio, especially during Highway 61 Revisited – he improvises a shout-out to guitarist Michael Bloomfield during a version of "Sitting on a Barbed Wire Fence", and he cracks up uncontrollably at early attempts to deploy the police whistle in the title track.
Dylan recording an early take of "Like a Rolling Stone", June 1965. The song’s sessions fill an entire Cutting Edge disc.
The Cutting Edge is available in a six-disc and a two-disc version, as well as a monster limited-edition 18-disc set that includes every single take of every song from the three albums. In all, it documents a process that is, in its own way, as dramatic as Dylan's most public going-electric moment, at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. "A lot of people don't realise what an incredible risk he took," says a source close to the Dylan camp. "Why risk alienating his gigantic audience? But the burst of creativity was remarkable. The music goes to so many different places, and no two things are done the same way twice."
The complete "Like a Rolling Stone" sessions take up an entire CD, tracing the meandering path the epochal song took over two days, from an indifferent-sounding waltz to a ferocious, world-shaking rock hit. "People are going to get lost in that," says critic and Dylan scholar Greil Marcus.
Dylan approached each of the three albums differently. He had just three days to record the half-acoustic Bringing It All Back Home, and nailed songs including "Gates of Eden" in single takes. He spent considerably more time on Highway 61, and the process was nearly chaotic. "The recording of Highway 61 was unbelievably disorganised," says Kooper, who famously sneaked into the session and ended up playing organ, an instrument he barely knew, on "Like a Rolling Stone". "It was an unprofessional situation, exemplified by how I ended up playing on it! But Blonde on Blonde was a thoroughly professional situation. I knew all the songs before we went in. I could teach them to the band before Bob got them."
The Blonde on Blonde sessions are the richest vein tapped by the set, yielding far more outtakes than the other two LPs. There's a groovier "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again", with Dylan syncopating the vocals, and an unnervingly danceable "Just Like a Woman" that's missing the line about amphetamines and fog. By that point, Dylan had slowed his process so he could fine-tune lyrics and experiment with wildly different arrangements. In Nashville, says Kooper, "we'd show up at the studio at noon and go home around 6 a.m. But we were only recording a small percentage of that time. Some days, we'd sit there for six hours and play ping-pong while he worked on lyrics."
The Cutting Edge is the third Bootleg Series collection released in the past two years, following Another Self Portrait and The Basement Tapes Complete – and the Dylan camp is nowhere near done raiding the vaults. "We've always wanted to do one of pre-album stuff where Bob is just singing songs in Greenwich Village coffeehouses," says the Dylan source. "We'd also love to revisit Blood on the Tracks, Infidels, Oh Mercy and the gospel albums."
From issue #769 (December, 2015), available now. Photography credit: Michael Ochs Archive.
Topics: Bob Dylan