It's Alright, Ma

It's easy to confine Dylan's genius to these albums, if only because they are the most immaculate and perfectly executed of the 40 (counting live sets and compilations) he's issued since his eponymous debut in 1961. But during my years of discovery I've added considerably to that list: New Morning (home of the masterful Elvis Presley visitation homage "Went to See the Gypsy," the playful blues "One More Weekend," and the simply gorgeous "Time Passes Slowly"); Planet Waves (maligned upon its 1974 release despite such obvious gems as "Going, Going, Gone," "Something There Is About You," and "Tough Mama"); Desire (a flawed album to be sure, but better than you probably remember it); Hard Rain (a ragged live set from '76 during which Dylan tore into "Idiot Wind" with foaming-mouthed vengeance); Street-Legal (far from a great album, but worthwhile for the yearning "Where Are You Tonight?" and the propulsive "Changing of the Guard"); Shot of Love (full of lovely ballads, among them "Every Grain of Sand," which articulates what he was searching for in Christianity better than anything on Slow Train Coming and Saved).

And then there's the stuff available only through the countless bootlegs that have haunted, and more times than not loomed over, every Dylan album issued since New Morning -- stuff that could've made the weak albums good, the good albums great, and the great albums even better. If Dylan's catalogue demands countless returns and revisitations, it's because of his continuing inability to discern true keepers from obvious throwaways, quaint trifles from artistic epochs. There are dozens of essential items available only on the bootlegs; a few of them have since surfaced on the Biograph and The Bootleg Series boxed sets, but many more remain, for now at least, the sole province of tape traders and bootleggers.

For some clues as to why these treasures seldom make it to legitimate Dylan albums, consult Clinton Heylin's Bob Dylan: The Recording Sessions (1995, St. Martin's Griffin). Once you get past his stilted prose and often stuffy commentary, Heylin's book offers invaluable insight to the difficulties and struggles Dylan has had in the studio, from his infuriating habit of tinkering with perfect takes (like George Steinbrenner, Dylan very often can't appreciate what's in front of him) to his even more egregious habit of scrapping those takes altogether in favor of inferior, often execrable replacements. As much as "Blowin' in the Wind," "Like a Rolling Stone," or The Basement Tapes, Dylan's castoffs are a key part of his legacy. "Let Me Die in My Footsteps," "Eternal Circle," "Lay Down Your Weary Tune," "She's Your Lover Now," "I'm Not There," "Call Letter Blues," "Up to Me," "Abandoned Love," "Caribbean Wind," "Yonder Comes Sin," "Blind Willie McTell," "Tell Me," "New Danville Girl," "Broken Days," "Born in Time" -- these songs and dozens more just like them are crucial to understanding Dylan's art. They aren't merely interesting supplements to his issued body of work, but essential components. When you hear them, it's impossible not to wonder if Dylan has lost his mind, or at least the ability to tell the good stuff from the bad.

Of the myriad bootlegs produced during Dylan's nearly 40-year career, none is quite as throttling as the May 17, 1966, concert recorded in Manchester during his incendiary and tumultuous tour with the Hawks (later the Band), his first full-scale tour fronting a rock and roll band. It's been available since 1969 under many different titles (and erroneously credited for decades as being recorded at Royal Albert Hall) and in varying degrees of fidelity. In 1995 the tapes were remastered at Dylan's request to be released as volumes four and five in The Bootleg Series. It would have been the first live album issued by Dylan to function as anything more than a tour souvenir (Before the Flood, Hard Rain) or a piece of contract-obliging filler (Dylan at Budokan, Real Live, Dylan and the Dead). In typical Dylan fashion, he changed his mind and pulled the plug on the reissue.

Thankfully, some enterprising soul swiped the masters and bootlegged them under the unfortunate title Guitars Kissing and the Contemporary Fix, a two-CD collection that presents both the acoustic and electric portions of the Manchester show. It ain't cheap -- I found a copy at a local store for 50 bucks -- but it's worth whatever you have to pay, for in the world of diehard collector-rama, where the majority of so-called legendary albums are anything but, Guitars Kissing is the place where legend becomes fact.

You could argue that there are better live albums than Guitars Kissing, and I'd agree if the argument included James Brown's Live at the Apollo 1962, Otis Redding's Live in Europe, the Who's Live at Leeds, and Van Morrison's It's Too Late to Stop Now. Few of them, though, are suffused with the tension, drama, and raw-nerved desperation that define Guitars Kissing. Having performed for weeks before audiences enraged at Dylan's decision to go electric -- and thus sullying his pristine folk-based art with walloping drums, swirling keyboards, and the resounding crack of Robbie Robertson's bullwhip guitar -- the tension in Manchester is palpable from the first notes of "Tell Me, Momma," a searing blues. (In contrast, Dylan sounds at ease throughout most of the acoustic set, turning in contemplative, maybe definitive readings of "Visions of Johanna," "4th Time Around," and "Desolation Row.") The tension is there in the defensive introduction he offers for "I Don't Believe You," the second song of the set and an acoustic number in its previous version on Another Side:

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