CD Special: Bob Dylan, The Cutting Edge 1965–1966 | reviews, news & interviews
CD Special: Bob Dylan, The Cutting Edge 1965–1966
CD Special: Bob Dylan, The Cutting Edge 1965–1966
Got a few hours to spare? Listen as Dylan creates his masterpieces
Can you have too much of a good thing? I ponder this as I scroll through the 109 watermarked MP3s of Bob Dylan’s recording sessions spanning 13 January 1965 to 16 February 1966, for Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. This is the six-disc Deluxe edition I’m talking about; a collectors’ set three times the size is available for a small mortgage, in a limited edition of 5,000 copies, or you can choose the 2CD best-of set of 36 tracks, all alternate, unreleased takes (“I’ll Keep It With Mine” and “Farewell Angelina” excepted) of what many say is his greatest period of work.
The first thing that strikes you, however, is that only a few of the unissued takes match the officially released versions for arrangement, performance and lyric. While I may prefer, for instance, the more ponderous “Thin Man” and “Highway 61 Revisited” sans police whistle, the band version of “Tambourine Man” has a beat that nails it down rather than lifts it up. That’s in contrast to, say, late period outtakes from Tell Tale Signs (still for my money the best of all the Bootleg Series studio sets) where you discover better performances and better songs that were left off the final cut.
Rather than specific performances, 'The Cutting Edge' is more about the raw serial process of creation
Rather than specific performances, The Cutting Edge is more about the raw serial process of creation. Unprecedented creation, for sure, a record of discovery on the part of Dylan and his crew of that “thin wild mercury sound” the singer would eulogise in interviews a decade later. No one involved had to worry about being over 30 – en masse, you get the impression of the fearless young in virgin territory, doing what hadn’t been done, and sculpting a whole new culture into being, not out of marble or clay but out of sound and rhythm in thin air, getting it to the point where they made something solid and enduring enough to achieve a measure of immortality. Fifty years on that solid air is still fresh. The force that pushes all the way through these recordings is phenomenal, still. The question is, are you really going to sit down of an evening to listen to every fractured take of “Like a Rolling Stone” – including “stem tracks” isolating Mike Bloomfield’s guitar (fantastic, actually) or Al Kooper’s organ? For your PhD thesis, perhaps, but for me, one run-through of Disc Three is probably enough.
In fact, I’d rather that treatment had been meted out to “Visions of Johanna”, which I’d say is a better song, a stronger poetry, and a more beautiful music, and one that Dylan and the band don’t keep screwing up. Its gestation, from New York with The Band to Nashville with Charlie McCoy and co, is one of the most compelling journeys here – indeed, the 18-disc set’s fetishistic draw, for me, are the eight New York and four Nashville versions (you get five on the Deluxe). Not that the lyric changes much, but the musical journey takes some fascinating turns before finally reaching the released version, for me the greatest single recording of his career.
The Cutting Edge, I sometimes wonder if the managers of Dylan’s estate (it may only be in sound, but it covers many living acres) buy into the legend a little too much – the legend Dylan has been an escape artist from since that 1966 bike crash (of all these recordings, only “She Belongs to Me” remains in his 2015 set list). Nevertheless, received opinion has it that "Like a Rolling Stone" changed everything, a bit like the combustion engine, the atom bomb and computer coding. Well, maybe it did, but I’m not sure that’s the most important or interesting thing about it. After all, times change, rock is dead and popular music has too much sugar in its diet, and tends to obesity. Where does “Like A Rolling Stone” sit in all that? Apart from being utterly unique, and evergreen?
No, Dylan (pictured below by Daniel Kramer) is a singular event – you’re not going to get another – and it’s the singular nature of his muse and his process that draws and merits such close attention. So I’d say this is an indulgent, possibly unnecessary but hugely enjoyable set to pick and choose from. The closest cultural equivalent is owning facsimiles of Picasso’s working sketchbooks. It’s not so much about what might have been as how many steps it took to get it right.
I have in a drawer somewhere a C60 cassette of some of these outtakes, bought at Camden Lock in the early Eighties. What hit me then, and hits me now, is how great and strange “She’s Your Lover Now” is, and if there’s any one track that stands out from the 109, it’s the wonderful solo piano and voice version – the only one to make it all the way through – and it leads straight in to “One of Us Most Know”, the two songs sharing the same swelling chorus. One of them had to go, and it’s in these arcana, and the likes of “Lunatic Princess”, “Medicine Sunday”, or the early Blonde on Blonde instrumental that’s virtually an overture for the album’s musical themes, that The Cutting Edge earns its stripes.
The first disc, covering Bringing It All Back Home, has some lovely, light folk-rock arrangements, plus solo turns for “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, and I loved the alt. takes on “It Takes a Train to Laugh”, “Thin Man”, “Queen Jane” and many of the other Highway 61-period songs spread across discs two and four. The voice and music here is very sharp, very hard, very cutting edge – still. I first dropped the needle on the record back in 1978, when I was 15, fed on a diet of Glam, Prog and Punk, and the hard, skinny malevolence, and the slight but crucial atonal dissonance of the album was a shock, like plunging into clear icy water. With the final two discs, dedicated to Blonde on Blonde, there’s a warming of tone, a lowering of angles to something more personal, intimate, smoky and enclosed.
The Deluxe set comes boxed with two illustrated books featuring essays, reminiscences and track notes from Sean Wilentz, Bill Flanagan, Al Kooper, photographer Rowland Scherman, and backing singer Angeline Butler. The 18-disc set gets you nine mono singles in picture sleeves, and a CD of lo-fi, high-interest hotel room recordings from the Savoy, Glasgow and Denver made during the 1966 world tour, as well as a strip of film from Don't Look Back and a phial of studio air (one of those things is untrue).
But with all these multiple takes, it’s not so much sit down and listen as stand up and choose. Maybe a box is the wrong format for this, unless it contains hidden compartments. It strikes me that, given its colossal size, Sony could have brought an interactive, hands-on element to the 18-disc set – more stem tracks, perhaps, for obsessives to pick at and mix and augment to their heart’s content. (Given Dylan's recent IBM ad, they could have got IBM to do it, too.) As it is, it’s all there to make your own playlists from; you could get yourself together a half dozen alternate versions of those three epochal albums. They won’t be as quite as great as what was officially released, but they do benefit from being less familiar.
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