Random thoughts on Bootleg Series 12
“I didn’t recognize most of the songs, why doesn’t he do them like the records?” is a common complaint of people who attend occasional Bob Dylan gigs. Listening to the three versions of ‘Just Like a Woman’ on the recently released The Cutting Edge: Bootleg Series vol. 12 might make such people think again. We hear Dylan and his band of Nashville studio musicians try three very different versions of the song: different tempos, different lyrics, until they get close to the version that was released on Blonde on Blonde. But was that the ‘definitive’ version? Some years after, when he went back on the road with The Band, he sang the song solo (available on the live album Before the Flood), a version more passionate and pointed in its delivery than the studio version.
It’s a similar story with ‘Visions of Johanna’, one of Dylan’s great songs of that or any era. For Dylan fans it is an article of faith that Levon & The Hawks, the group of four Canadians and one Arkansan (Levon Helm) that became The Band, were his best collaborators. Despite his rapport with them, so evident on The Basement Tapes: Bootleg Series vol. 11, he just can’t get them to give him what he wants here. It is ironic then that it was “the flawless musicality of Nashville’s session players”, to quote the liner notes (with the vital addition of Al Kooper on organ), that delivered the sound and dynamic he wanted for that quintessential New York song ‘Visions of Johanna’. He made at least 14 takes with the Hawks in New York, but, for whatever reason, they couldn’t nail it. Two months later in Nashville he had what he wanted, after a couple of false starts and just one full take.
But less than six months later, on the 1966 European tour, Dylan was singing ‘Visions of Johanna’, solo — just his voice, guitar, and harmonica. The version recorded at the Manchester Free Trade Hall (the same gig that has the infamous ‘Judas’ shout) is equally as strong as the Blonde on Blonde version, and allows us to digest and understand things we don’t get from the studio version with backing musicians.
Maybe it’s best to just listen to, and accept, whatever version Dylan is in the mood to give us?
With this release, as with many box sets, it could be said that it’s for people with more money than sense. And indeed in a throwaway culture why should anyone be buying music laid down almost five decades ago? Except that it is so wonderful to listen to, so wonderful to immerse yourself in. That a good enough reason?