Bob Dylan.
Bob Dylan.

Bob Dylan’s back pages

A new compilation is the final word on the most creative phase of Bob Dylan's five-decade-long career

“CO 86446," calls out producer Tom Wilson, indicating the first take of one of Bob Dylan’s iconic songs—Like A Rolling Stone. It is smack dab in the middle of Dylan’s most creative period in a career that spans over five decades. Bob Dylan 1965-1966: The Cutting Edge gathers outtakes, rehearsals, demos, solo acoustic and piano versions of songs from a 14-month period that appeared on three albums: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde.

The release is volume 12 in Dylan’s ongoing archival The Bootleg Series, which started in 1991. Dylan rarely attracts casual listeners and depending on your budget and level of engagement, you can choose from three configurations: the 2-CD “Best of" version, a 6-CD version, and a humongous 18-CD collection that includes every existing note that Dylan recorded in the studio from 1965-66.

The heftier compilations even devote one entire CD to the aforementioned Like A Rolling Stone, offering countless takes that begin from Tom Wilson’s slate call on 15 June 1965 and includes the finished version that appears on Highway 61 Revisited, and other outtakes and unfinished versions that show Dylan trying to unsuccessfully improve upon the now famous album version.

“A drum beat like a pistol shot" is how writer Greil Marcus described the note that kick-starts Like A Rolling Stone. It is like the starter gun signalling the moment when pop became rock. In those days of radio airplay, nobody had ever heard the likes of it—six minutes long, which was thrice the duration of most singles. The song pointed towards the possibilities that awaited questing musicians.

Dylan is one of the most bootlegged artistes ever and The Great White Wonder (1969), featuring his songs, is possibly the first rock bootleg record. Some of the tracks on The Cutting Edge have appeared on bootlegs in some version or the other, over the years. But The Cutting Edge trumps all in terms of comprehensiveness and sound quality.

On The Cutting Edge, listeners are given as good an opportunity as they will ever get into the songwriting and music-making process of Dylan. While his well-documented flair for recording quickly is on show (he spent a total of 17 days recording all the three albums that form the basis of this compilation) as well as his penchant for improvisation in the studio, The Cutting Edge throws light on his meticulousness, which is often overlooked. Familiar tunes appear with different rhythms, words and melodies. Sometimes, there are extra verses which Dylan dispensed with on the released studio versions. Sometimes, he recycles words from songs that were left on the cutting room floor and reconfigured to fit into other tunes. A case in point being the raucous Sitting On A Barbed Wire Fence which featured lines that would reappear on Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.

But the most startling bits come when easily recognizable songs are given an entirely different treatment. It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry seems like a totally different track from the stately and majestic studio version on Highway 61 Revisited. Here it is a careening roller-coaster of a song that threatens at any moment to go off its rails. The wistful Just Like A Woman with its 3/4 waltz time was once tried out with a spunky Bo Diddley beat. With Like A Rolling Stone, it is the reverse: it started life with a waltz time, before Dylan changed it to 4/4 to facilitate easier singing. Then there is the mysterious and nocturnal Visions Of Johanna from Blonde On Blonde. Here on the take 5 rehearsal, Dylan and his band throw out its familiar deliberate pacing and just plain gallop through the song.

The songs on The Cutting Edge could be compared to say, the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. These outtakes do not add to the mystique of Dylan’s tunes. Nor do they answer some of the questions that Dylan’s songs raise. Rather, they are like road maps to a future that he charted for the rest of the music fraternity to follow.

Bob Dylan: The Best of The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 12, Columbia Records, 220, on iTunes India; The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 12 (Deluxe Edition), Columbia Records, 650, on iTunes India; The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 12, Collector’s Edition, Columbia Records, $599.99 (around 39,917), available only on www.bobdylan.com

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