❉ Don’t you wonder sometimes about Bob Dylan?, writes Steve Pafford.
“Dylan’s art isn’t merely polarising, it’s also perverse: It’s hard to think of an artist who has worked harder, or more consistently over a span of decades, to alienate his own fan base… Nonetheless, over time people always catch up. Bob Dylan does what Bob Dylan wants. Period.”
Bob is not the colour of my room.
I don’t have an intimate relationship with Dylan. I am patently not a disciple of his work, but neither do I have the slightest problem with him, as some do. For me, he’s like a James Brown or a Miles Davis or a Joni Mitchell (the obvious comparison, if there has to be one): important, indelible artists in the history of music but the last time I found myself going out of my way to listen to them was, well… it can’t have been that long ago, could it?
Bob Dylan is self-evidently a keystone artist of the 1960s and his influence is unfathomable, unquestionable. Without him, folk may never have turned into rock music. And, like David Bowie, who wrote a song about him, his remarkable staying power and ability to change hats is not in doubt. He also has an amazing ability that so few other songwriters have, to create songs that are a signpost of the era they were made in, but are also timeless classics that still hold true (e.g. The Times They Are a-Changin’, the whole Freewheelin’ album).
In small doses, I even quite like that scratchy gravel noise that comes out of his mouth, you know, the one John Updike once called a “voice you could scour a skillet with.” The same one Bowie (him again) described as “a voice of sand and glue.” on said song on Hunky Dory, which must have pleased the former Robert Zimmerman no end.
But I don’t have a good answer to the question, “What’s the greatest Bob Dylan record?” or its woollier twin, “What’s your favourite Bob Dylan album?” (I have stock answers to the same question with the Beatles and the Stones substituted, but not Dylan.)
Dylan’s most important political act was to liberate radical perception and consciousness and put it into jukeboxes. But there’s something else he doesn’t get nearly enough credit for, way after the revolution had ended. 1985’s Biograph, a 5LP/3CD box set of key hits, album tracks, rarities and hard to find 45s, was a trailblazing overview of his prodigiously prolific career. A groundbreaking retrospective that was not only a major audio anthology almost without precedent, but also a reassuring, sometimes startling, overview of Dylan’s contributions to our culture.
But the most revolutionary feature was this: 18 of its 53 tracks had not been previously issued in any form. It was a flash of light illuminating the way forward for back catalogues ripe for plundering, and every heavily annotated super deluxe edition today owes a small debt to Biograph.
Reissue curators such as Rykodisc’s Jeff Rougvie had found their template and even made reference to it when the label pitched their proposal directly to Bowie for what became 1989’s Grammy award-winning Sound + Vision, suggesting the concept as “…similar to Bob Dylan’s Biograph.”
While catalogue releases have helped prop up an ailing industry in terminal decline, because of the commercial contraction there’s been a few odd curveballs on the way. And so it was seven years ago that Sony Music quietly put out a very odd release. Just 100 copies of a set of previously unreleased Bob Dylan tracks, plainly packaged to look like something you’ve grabbed surreptitiously from the top shelf of a back street video store.
Why so few? Well, the label sort of revealed the secret in the name of the title. See if you can spot it:
With zero fanfare, this surprise release had absolutely nothing to do with getting the works out to fans, in fact at first most of them assumed it was a bootleg release from one of those shady Italian types with a vineyard or six in Sicily. Nice with a couple of horse’s heads.
No, the Copyright Extension Collection Vol.1 was indeed kosher, even though this was an impossibly strange no-frills release driven by copyright issue rather than a genuine desire to make available for the public even more Dylan unreleased outtakes they were dying to hear.
You see, back in 2011, despite having absolutely no economic rationale for doing so, the European Union retroactively extended copyright on recorded music from 50 years to 70 years.
However, there was a tiny catch: there was a “use it or lose it” provision in the law, stipulating that the sound recordings had to have been “released” to qualify for that 20 year extension. Thus, Sony realised with Dylan that it had to “release” (and I use the term loosely) some of its old recordings that had never been officially released, or it would lose the copyright on them, and if they found their way into the public domain any enterprising bootlegger could do pretty much what they wanted with them.
The other majors have been doing the same. In 2013, there was a series of archive releases of rare 1963 music, including further vault dumps from Dylan, along with some previously unreleased Beatles tunes (at least those were somewhat more widely available across iTunes and the like), followed in 2014 by (yet again) a crop of barely released ’64 cuts, which meant even more from the Zimmerman, along with some vault rarities from the Beach Boys as well. In fact, Dylan’s team has been releasing compilations covering his Sixties golden years pretty much every year, some a whopping 10+ hours in running time.
This year, a new crop dropped. Costing upwards of a hundred bucks, the 50th Anniversary Collection 1969 is an ultra-limited 2-CD set of material based around the sessions for that year’s Nashville Skyline. Some sources suggest only 200 copies were pressed. Whatever the figures it sold out in a couple of minutes, with resellers offering copies — legit or hastily pressed homemade CD-Rs —for crazy money.
In what may be a taste of strategies to come, this is the first vault clearing set from the same time period covered by the concurrent official boot, in 2019’s case The Bootleg Series Vol. 15: Travelin’ Thru, 1967–1969. In all likelihood, Columbia probably assembled both at the same time. Whatever wasn’t on Travelin’ Thru went on this. It may indeed be the start of a trend, where the Bootleg Series is two or three discs and the rest goes on an extremely limited copyright collection. At least the prospect of an archive dump exists, but whether you class these offerings as audio riches for the rich or the sound of Bob’s barrels being scrapped to within an inch of their life is dependent on how much of a hardcore collector you are.
Revisiting Dylan’s pivotal musical journeys to Nashville, this particular set kicks off at Columbia’s Studio A on 13 February 1969* and ends less than three months later – 3 May – with various takes of To Be Alone With You and the swoonsome Lay, Lady, Lay.
1969 was a groundbreaking year in many ways, and not just because they put a man on the moon. Across the pond, a fledging little-known David Bowie was happy to assume the mantle of the English Dylan, becoming a curly haired folkie on his sophomore self-titled set (later rechristened Space Oddity), probably because the American one had moved on to other things, like crooning like a sleepy donkey as he recorded a raw and rootsy album in the country music capital of the world. He’s a rum bugger, isn’t he?
Recorded fast and haphazardly, the Nashville Skyline sessions saw His Royal Bobness teamed up with Johnny Cash to record over a dozen songs, though only one of these made it onto the original album (the lazy ragged-arsed campfire song Girl from the North Country). The pair run through easygoing, rockabilly-tinged versions of Dylan songs, Cash songs, a bit of country-gospel, and even old Sun rockabilly chestnuts like Elvis Presley’s That’s All Right Mama and Matchbox by additional sessioneer Carl Perkins, who’s a star on electric guitar.
The CD might even appeal more to Cash fans than Dylan disciples, especially as Bob’s singing is not quite up to scratch: his timing is off, he often sings on one note, and he even needs to be occasionally cued by Johnny for the right words. Besides, seven (count ‘em) versions of I Still Miss Someone may be too much for a fair-weather fan such as I, but hey, he’s Bob Dylan and I’m not.
Historically, the 1969 album was an evolution from 1967’s acoustic-leaning John Wesley Harding, also recorded in Nashville, and showcased a new, smoother crooning style of vocal from Dylan. Although it was a commercial success – a number one in the UK, no less – Nashville Skyline has divided his ardent followers ever since its release. That it is uncomfortably candid and unambiguous in its directness is its strength. Take the lead single I Threw It All Away for instance. Covered by everyone from Elvis Costello to Scott Walker, Dylan takes responsibility for self-destructive failure that’s so disarmingly honest it could almost be the story of his entire career.
But Dylan’s art isn’t merely polarising, it’s also perverse: It’s hard to think of an artist who has worked harder, or more consistently over a span of decades, to alienate his own fan base. Even Bowie would keep his hand in, usually hedging his bets by alternating between experimental and commercial. But everyone has read that Dylan ‘plugged in’ at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, to the immense consternation of the event’s organisers (Pete Seeger among them) and folk traditionalists everywhere. Where have all the folkies gone indeed.
Nonetheless, over time people always catch up. Bob Dylan does what Bob Dylan wants. Period.
When I worked at Q and MOJO magazines in the early 2000s and passed the big three-oh, I acted accordingly and opened myself up to all sorts of “classic” music.
The offices of EMAP publications were almost on top of the flagship HMV on London’s busy Oxford Street, so it was not uncommon to bump into colleagues over the plentiful racks of overpriced CDs during lunchtime. While colleagues were snapping up obscenely overblown box sets cataloguing Freddie Mercury and such like, I – finally in full-time music-related but woefully low-paid employment – I would often avail myself of the 3-for-2 offers on non-chart CDs. My intention was to fill the gaps in my record collection with ‘important’ albums with which I was not acquainted. The Clash, The Doors, even Andy Williams.
I also remember eyeing up a couple of Dylan standards during that consumer flurry – Freewheelin’, Blood On The Tracks, Blonde On Blonde – and gave them a few spins. But if I’m honest, I struggled to get beyond the hits, and even then some of the more aurally pleasing ones weren’t even sung by him… so hello, Bryan Ferry’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall** et al.
It wasn’t until I was asked to join EMAP’s Special Projects team, an evolving collective of creatives which floated between Q and MOJO’s adjoining open plan HQs (bypassing Alexis Petridis’s Select magazine on the way), bashing out one-off and quarterly music specials – a MOJO Collections here, a MOJO Lennon there – that I truly got Bob Dylan.
As I started listening to Dylan’s albums in a topsy-turvy order, I don’t hear them chronologically, but I shared an office with a man who not only did, he did so religiously. The passionate friend was John Harris, one of the UK’s foremost Dylanologists, former editor of Select and then-currently Q’s Chief Writer and, for six intense weeks in the autumn of 2000, editor of Q Dylan.
The permanent office CD collection at Q was motley. We had a battered CD single of Showgirl by the Auteurs (that went on a lot when the drinks came in), an album by Jackie Leven, something by Strangelove, Moby’s ubiquitous Go… and Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline.
So, Nashville Skyline will always remind me of working at Q, and working with the now feted broadcaster and cultural commentator Harris. I loved John, and my BowieStyle co-author Mark Paytress aside, the first magazine editor I felt a real kinship with. It was almost impossible not to feed off his energy, enthusiasm and total dedication to the task in hand. It probably helped that we were both as old as the Dylan album in question, having been born months apart in 1969. And although I wasn’t to discover this until much later, in the ‘70s and ‘80s John grew up in the affluent Cheshire town of Wilmslow, just around the corner from where my maternal grandfather Briggs (absentee father to mum and aunt Julia, who shared a birthday with Dylan) was seeing out his final years. They probably supped in the same local.
John’s bare-faced chutzpah was as brilliant as it was audacious. He’s the only man I know that could pick up a phone and have hard-faced PRs acquiesce his every demand. When we launched Q Dylan with a packed party at Helter Skelter bookshop John phoned up the press office at Grolsch and told them “We’re having a special bash to launch our magazine. Lots of celebrities are coming. What can you do for us?”
I’ll tell you what they did for us. On the night in question stood a large Grolsch branded refrigerator, stuffed to the masses with rather more than ten green bottles of that distinctive Dutch beer. Like I said, brilliant.
(Somewhere in the ether is a photo of Team QD beaming proudly displaying our camaraderie for assorted guests. If anyone has a copy don’t be a stranger.)
When I was tasked with compiling the Q contributors’ fave Dylan rave for the magazine’s masthead, I’d often voice my complete ignorance of the track in question.
“Tell you what Steve, you need to know the songs we’re talking about. I’ll call Carl Fysh at Sony and ask for a set of albums.”
Within minutes Fysh, the keyboardist for Eighties pop tarts Brother Beyond, had biked over the entire Dylan catalogue on CD from Sony HQ, which was nestled on Great Marlborough Street behind the flagship Marks and Spencer’s we would look down on from our lofty top floor windows.
Carl was also kind enough to furnish the entire Q Dylan posse – take a bow the fabulous Carol Briggs (yes, we may even be distantly related), Andy Fyfe, Luke Ponsford and Francesca Saraceno – with tickets to see the great man on his aptly named Never Ending Tour at Wembley Arena one chilly evening that October.
Wow, my first Bob Dylan concert. I felt slightly trepidatious. I’d heard numerous reports he could be erratic, unpredictable, temperamental even, often altering arrangements and vocal approaches night after night. But really the main complaint I had was that the sound wasn’t too great in the cavernous former Olympic swimming pool, with Dylan’s vocals even more indecipherable than usual. Still, I was struck by the rapturous reception he received, even if he didn’t speak a single word to the audience. Ever the curmudgeon, his only communication outside of the 19 songs (17 originals and a couple of obscure covers, and sadly nothing from Nashville Skyline) was a slightly wanky hand gesture in between encore numbers indicating he wanted more applause before he’d consider any more numbers. Talk about milking it.
Dylan looked like he would rather have been filing his limbs off with a blunt knife than be on the stage. And it took me until three years ago to realise that’s what Bob Dylan does. Dylan doesn’t look happy, doesn’t look animated, doesn’t look agreeable. He’s just Bob Dylan, and when our paths collided a second time at the historic Saenger Theatre in Mobile, Alabama, in November 2016, just a week after the orange ogre Donald Trump won the presidential election, that’s when it finally hit home.
Dylan did the same non-smiley non-talky thing, only being in his mid ‘70s he was rather more seated at the piano this time around, with a set list that was dominated by his two most recent albums celebrating the great American songbook of standards made famous by Frank Sinatra. More Hollywood Capitol than Nashville Skyline then. Make mine a ’69.
Future plans for the Bootleg Series are unclear, but a 1990s Time Out of Mind set and one that chronicles Dylan’s pre-fame folk period in Minnesota and New York are both in contention. But the steep decline in the market for physical product does put its future in some jeopardy. “We have to also see how long people keep buying these things,” says a Dylan source. “We’ll see what happens. Right now, there’s a certain amount of physical that still gets sold, so we’d like to keep doing them.”
*13 February was the day after my parents were married. The 50th Anniversary Collection 1969 takes you on a sideshow journey through to the Self Portrait sessions of 3 May 1969, the month before I was born. The 2CD was issued on 6 December 2019, my mum’s 71st birthday so basically the Pafford-Briggs rock.
**The first Dylan composition I owned, as featured on 1986’s Roxy Music dominated Street Life: 20 Great Hits, was indeed that exhilarating radical reworking of A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, which gave Bryan Ferry his first taste of solo success in October 1973 and the lead single from his covers opus These Foolish Things. Bringing things full circle, Dylan tackled the latter 1935 title track on his triple set of standards Triplicate in 2017. It’s only right that a Dylan-related tune should help us remember, and remember fondly.
❉ Author of the acclaimed book ‘BowieStyle’ with Mark Paytress, Steve Pafford has had his work featured in a wide variety of British, American and Australian media including the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and CNN, music magazines Q, Mojo and Record Collector, lifestyle publications F:S, Gay Times, GuySpy, QX and DNA, newspapers The New York Times, The Independent, The Sun, Daily Mirror and even the Victoria & Albert Museum’s record-breaking exhibition David Bowie Is. Steve says, “Support independent journalism. It’s less than the price of a coffee…”: https://www.patreon.com/stevepafford