Rant ‘N’ Roll: The Best Dylan

Bob Dylan Studio Portraits Side Light: 1965-330-007-082 Manhattan, New York, USA 1965

The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Volume #12 (Columbia Legacy) is the Bob Dylan set I’ve been waiting for. Y’know how you want your favorite artists to remain fixed in their original incarnation for eternity so you can keep loving them your whole life and not be disappointed with weaker efforts later in their career? Well, this is the Dylan I first fell in love with when I was 14 and 15 before John Wesley Harding made me forget him when I was 16. Of course, as an adult, I went back and loved him anew but…

Once he used folk music to become the rock star he always wanted to be, the sky was the limit. Playing live in the studio with masters like Michael Bloomfield, Al Kooper and The Band (in ’85, he told journalist Bill Flanagan—whose essay graces this package—“I don’t think I knew you could do an overdub until 1978”), the six CDs in this box represent Dylan wildly free-associating, changing lyrics, changing time signatures, adding and subtracting instruments and, in many cases, creating such sublime surrealistic rock music that some of these alternate takes are better than the ones we’ve come to know and love. (There’s also a two-CD set for the Dylan dilettante which captures the magic eloquently for much less money. Completists with dough might want the 18-CD box with an epic 379 tracks.)

In expanding the rock vocabulary in revolutionary style and substance like no one before him, all in a matter of three albums in 18 months, he set precedents which only the most brilliant of baby boomer heroes like Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, John Prine and Paul Simon would later approach. The three albums in question—Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde are the fulcrum upon which an entire culture is based. (That’s why I have to laugh when pop- star-of-the-moment The Weeknd tells Rolling Stone, “people tell me I’m changing the culture.” Yeah right, dude.)

Five versions of “Visions Of Johanna” take up 33 minutes of bliss as the mesmerizing drone of his voice becomes hypnotic when juxtaposed against Nashville’s finest session players. I contend that unique vocal style of his, complete with idiosyncratic tics borrowed from the blues and folk guys of yesteryear, made his almost otherworldly difference totally likeable (especially if you discovered him before your friends did). It was a sandpaper voice, deeply eccentric and unique. His odd phrasing, timing, humor, bitterness, smarts (and smart-alecky) arrogance still resonate 49 years later. It’s a voice that is now long gone, etched in time, and beloved. Truth be told, I haven’t been able to listen to Dylan sing since 2009’s Together Through Life. It’s like comparing ‘50s Elvis with ‘70s Elvis. This ‘65/’66 Dylan is a mind orgasm.

So many songs crash and burn mid-groove, but the studio banter is also pretty damn priceless. To hear a song like the brilliant “She’s Your Lover Now,” discarded until Volume #1 of “The Bootleg Series” in 1991, is to hear a complex song done over and over wearing various dresses of sound from solo to full band to slow to fast to stop/start again and again. Endlessly fascinating, it’s a glimpse into a mild freak-out the singer experiences when he realizes his ex and her new boyfriend have arrived at a party. I could just see him rolling his eyes and lighting up a cigarette. Dylan never spit out lyrics again exactly like this.

If you think having to hear “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” even once is a chore (I’ll never forget how it took up the whole side #4 of Blonde On Blonde vinyl), here, you actually get to do it twice in a row. Some may run. They know not what they do. Believe it: this is the greatest Dylan era of all. Shakespeare in his prime, baby!