In 1969, a mysterious double album began to crop up in Los Angeles record shops. Although it didn't say so on the cover or label -- it didn't say anything, in fact -- its 28 selections were clearly the work of Bob Dylan.
Even more obvious, however, was that this wasn't the new Dylan album. If anything, it was the opposite, a clandestine compilation of outtakes, demos and casual recordings that had been cobbled together without the singer's knowledge or consent. Dubbed "The Great White Wonder," it was an immediate success; and with that, the bootleg record business was born.
More than two decades later, Dylan has finally decided to answer the challenge with "The Bootleg Series" (Columbia 47399), which was released yesterday. This three-volume, 58 track collection -- 57 songs and one poem -- is offered in anticipation of the singer's 50th birthday (May 24, if you want to mark your calendar). It both legitimizes and enshrines these oft-stolen songs.
It also raises a host of questions, the most obvious of which being: "What took them so long?" Given the critical huzzahs that greeted the few rarities included in the 1985 retrospective "Biograph" -- not to mention the corporate fury that squelched "Ten of Swords," the 10-LP, studio-quality mega-bootleg that followed "Biograph" onto the scene -- it should have been obvious that there was massive interest in this material.
And no wonder. Although "The Bootleg Series" has its share of oddities and curios, it also carries the unmistakable scent of history in the making. Cue up the publisher's demo for "The Times They Are A-Changin' " and what you hear isn't anthemic passion but confident craftsmanship.
Then there's the acoustic version of "Subterranean Homesick Blues," which not only demonstrates the power Dylan gained by going electric, but shows how riding a rock beat shored up the eccentricities in his phrasing. As for the waltz-time, piano version of "Like a Rolling Stone," it's astonishing to think Dylan was able to arrive at the finished version from this starting point.
Rough edges are something of a constant here. A barking dog barges into "Every Grain of Sand," and studio chatter (including a sincere "What are we doing?") can be heard throughout "I'll Keep It With Mine." Bum notes and bad cues turn up throughout the '60s sessions.
Naturally, a lot of these performances will be of interest only to hard-core fans (most of whom doubtless bought the original bootlegs years ago). That's particularly true of "Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie," a lengthy recitation that's a must for Dylanites but easily skipped by less fanatic listeners. On the other hand, early recordings like "No More Auction Block" and "He Was a Friend of Mine" are fascinating for the light they shed on his use of traditional folk elements.
Some tracks, like "Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues" or "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues," possess a playfulness that has long ago passed out of Dylan's writing. Others, like "Talkin' Hava Negeilah Blues" or "Suze (the Cough Song)" are just plain silly.
Every so often, though, the set delivers a perfect gem, polished and brilliant and utterly astonishing. In fact, "Blind Willie McTell," from the "Infidels" sessions, so completely outstrips the rest of that album it's hard to believe it was ever consigned to the scrap heap.
Columbia promises more of "The Bootleg Series" in coming months, including (at long last) the 1966 Royal Albert Hall concert with the Band. Whether this will finally put an end to the demand for actual Dylan bootlegs remains to be seen, of course. But at least we'll know who's getting the money.