It's Alright, Ma

Bob Dylan didn't die. Apparently the state of his condition following his May 25 hospitalization for histoplasmosis was greatly exaggerated by the news media. ("DYLAN COULD BE IN FIGHT FOR LIFE," wailed the headline from the May 29 edition of the New York Post.) Still, the news of that hospitalization rattled me to the bone, chilled my blood, stopped me in my tracks -- all the cliches used to describe a first response to bad news were applicable. Not just because I can't conceive of a world without Bob Dylan (though God knows I can't), but because I'd had a premonition of sorts on May 24, the day of his 56th birthday. It was an erroneous premonition, but a premonition nonetheless.

It arrived during the afternoon, while I was parking my car on the way back from the seafood market. I had been blasting a tape of a recently acquired Dylan bootleg, and popped it out of the deck before turning off the car. In the split second between those two actions, I heard a familiar song on WLRN's Folk and Acoustic Music. It was a Dylan song, 1962's "Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues," a much-bootlegged outtake from the sessions for The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan album that was finally made available legitimately on 1991's The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare and Unreleased). Anyone who tunes in regularly to FAAM knows that songs as good as "Talkin' Bear Mountain" are rarities on this smug, poorly programmed show.

Forgetting that it was Dylan's birthday, my immediate response to hearing this very funny, seldom-aired song was one of doom: "Dylan's dead," I said aloud to myself, certain it was the only explanation. Of course, I soon realized it was simply a birthday toast. The feeling in my gut, however, lingered, and it's lingering right now, unshakable even as the news has just arrived of Dylan's improved health. And though I've been trying ever since that day to figure out exactly why I can't shake it, I don't know that I'll ever have a definitive answer.

Part of the reason is Dylan's seeming immortality. Sure he's mortal, but he should always be around, whether he's making brilliant records or going through the motions of simply being Bob Dylan (hardly a simple task). Another reason is this: For the last two months I've listened to very little music other than Dylan's -- albums, singles, favorite tracks from assorted bootlegs of outtakes, leftovers, and live stuff culled from various tours.

Some people return time and time again to particular books or movies -- I have one friend who watches John Ford's The Searchers at least once a month, and another who every year cozies back up to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn -- but I find myself constantly turning back to Dylan. I do the same thing with Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and Duke Ellington. But with Dylan it's different. Although I've been a fairly intense fan since grade school, when my parents first introduced Blood on the Tracks and Desire to the living-room turntable in the mid-Seventies, I quickly found, and then stuck by, my favorite Dylan albums -- the ones that obliterated what my young mind thought were the boundaries of how far someone could take the art of singing, songwriting, and playing rock and roll. I stayed close to them over the years, seldom straying very far into the dark woods of what are generally accepted as his lesser efforts.

It was 1990's Under the Red Sky, however, that sent me digging deeper into Dylan's massive oeuvre. After deciding that album was the worst possible effort from the twentieth-century's greatest songwriter since his last worst possible effort (1970's Self-Portrait), I decided to go back and re-evaluate the albums that critics over the years have either dismissed or overlooked, the ones I had passed over through the years -- albums like Planet Waves and Shot of Love, Street-Legal and Hard Rain, and even fairly recent downers such as Knocked Out Loaded and Down in the Groove. (I should point out that there are limits to both my fanaticism and my revisionism: Try as I might, I've yet to find much good in the two albums issued by Dylan during his startlingly reactionary fundamentalist Christian period of the late-Seventies, Saved in particular. Apostasy I'm all for, just not with a far-right bent.)

What I found among those albums was jarring, for it overturned much of the criticism leveled at Dylan during the period separating John Wesley Harding and Blood on the Tracks, which is to say the period separating the last two acknowledged Dylan classics. With every repeat visit, I came away with something worth adding to the Dylan albums I consider to be his benchmarks -- namely, Freewheelin', Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, Blood on the Tracks, and the myriad 1967 tracks that make up the legendary Basement Tapes (of which the legitimate album of the same name, issued in 1975, rounds up a mere fraction). These were the records on which I based my own obsession with Dylan and his art.

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:

"This is called, 'I Don't Believe You.' It used to be like that, and now it goes like this." And how it went was a tangle of jagged riffs from Robertson, machine-gun drums from Mickey Jones (a fill-in for regular Hawks drummer Levon Helm), a bass line from Rick Danko that pokes curiously around the guitar figure, cascading keyboards from Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel, and a vocal from Dylan that's loaded with anger, surprise, disbelief, and indignation. "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down" comes in as a taut plaything, "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" is alternately unnerving (Dylan can't decide if he's playing with the lyrics or is outraged by the tale they tell) and creepy (thanks to Hudson's eerie organ wails), and "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" is a slashing blues stomp -- meaner, funnier, nastier than it sounded on Blonde on Blonde. In his new book, Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes, Greil Marcus masterfully defines the interplay within the group: "Listening to the way each musician seemingly plays off of every other's barely unfulfilled desire rather than whatever movement he has in fact made makes it impossible to believe that six people could ever know each other better."

After a chaotic, howling "One Too Many Mornings" (which begins only after Dylan pleads for the slow-clapping audience to hold it down a bit) Dylan takes the piano for "Ballad of a Thin Man," in which the outrage in his voice on "I Don't Believe You" becomes the shock and terror of the poor sap who stumbles into "Thin Man"'s funhouse of underbelly oddities and nightlife atrocities. By this point the heat and anger radiating from the audience becomes gasoline poured on the fire stoked throughout the night by the band. When "Thin Man" ends, someone in the crowd has had enough and lets loose the best insult he can summon: "Judas!" he yells to the beleaguered ex-folksinger, who responds with a seething: "I don't believe you" -- slight pause, then some faint guitar strumming -- "You're a liar!" Then, turning to the Hawks, he barks out an order -- "Get fucking loud!" And they do, tearing into "Like a Rolling Stone" with a ravenous drive and determination, like if they play the song hard enough and mean enough and fucking loud enough it will kill not just the animosity and righteousness and piety of the audience, but the audience itself.

I'm not exactly sure how recordings made more than 30 years ago pertain to the very recent reminder that Bob Dylan is indeed mortal, susceptible to the same medical maladies as you and I. All I know is that, in the nearly two weeks that separated his hospitalization and release, Guitars Kissing is where I've turned on a daily basis to help me grapple with the thought of a world without Bob Dylan. I didn't turn to it for solace: With the exception of the acoustic half of the set, Guitars Kissing is aggression incarnate -- frightening, hostile, sheer confrontation -- a fuck-you to anyone foolish enough to pigeonhole him and a statement of purpose for those who've signed up for the long ride. I don't know, maybe music so full of rage, commitment, and confusion is the only thing appropriate when faced with such unpleasant news.

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