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Positively Fourth-Rate

The latest Dylan release exposes the bootleg fallacy.

All forms of appreciation suffer from a tendency toward one-upmanship. There are theater buffs who will only recommend a play that has just closed. There are art lovers who rave about paintings locked in the basement of the Hermitage. But to my mind, there are no aficionados more annoying than music mavens who prattle on about bootlegs. What a coincidence that the really great records are the ones you can’t get.

The most obsessive bootleg hounds are those devoted to Bob Dylan. Week after week, the otherwise delightful Ron Rosenbaum fills his New York Observer columns with paeans to recordings you can’t hear, some of which even he hasn’t heard, recordings that may not, in fact, even exist. To professor of history Sean Wilentz, writing in Dissent, the best Dylan song of the 1980s was the unreleased (until 1991) “Blind Willie McTell.” The worst offender, bar none, is rock critic Greil Marcus, who recently wrote a whole book, Invisible Republic, in praise of the most famous of Dylan bootlegs, the Basement Tapes. These recordings, which Dylan made with The Band in 1967 in Woodstock, N.Y., circulated clandestinely until Columbia finally released a two LP selection in 1975.

Ihappen to think Marcus is right about the Basement Tapes–they’re the exception to the rule of overrated bootlegs. Where he is less persuasive is in his conviction that Columbia Records is still holding back Dylan’s best work. Marcus devotes seven pages of his book to the magnificence of a song titled “I’m Not There,” which is so underground it isn’t even on the illegal Basement Tapes bootlegs. “There is nothing like ‘I’m Not There’ … in the rest of the basement recordings or anywhere else in Bob Dylan’s career,” Marcus writes, comparing it to the last page of Moby Dick. The real point, of course, is that try as you might, you’ll never hear this song.

Why do these 50ish writers obsess like this about lost Dylan recordings? One reason is that Dylan is a genius whose output in the 1960s was so voluminous that no record company could keep up with it. Before he finished cutting an album, he’d have half a dozen new songs to try to squeeze in. On Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3, which Columbia released in 1991, you can hear the best of those that didn’t make it. These include the uplifting, Guthrie-esque anthem “Paths of Victory” and the Shakespearean ballad “Seven Curses” (a version of the story in Measure for Measure), both of which were bumped from The Times They Are A-Changin’. These are fine songs, well worth hearing. But Dylan left them off to make room for songs such as “When the Ship Comes In” and “One Too Many Mornings“–masterpieces of American popular music that I expect people will be singing and listening to in a hundred years. Dylan in the 1960s was writing at such a pitch of inspiration that even his second-rate material is pretty fine.

But the release of Dylan’s second-rate material has only caused his fans to bay louder for third-rate Bob Dylan. The hype is encouraged by Columbia, which profits by releasing more and more unfinished songs, rejected versions, live recordings–and before long, voice mail messages–from its vaults. Evidence that the law of diminishing returns has set in is provided by the latest archival release, the so-called 1966 “Royal Albert Hall Concert.” For years, collectors have paid good money for unreliable copies of this bootleg. Now the performance, which actually took place not at the Royal Albert Hall in London but in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall on May 17, 1966, is out on a two CD set, which is being sold as Volume 4 in the Dylan “bootleg series.”

Critics are legitimately fascinated with this concert, which occurred at a crucial moment both in Dylan’s career and in American cultural history. Dylan went from protest-folk to mod-rock around the same time the civil rights movement went from nonviolence to black power, soft drugs turned to hard drugs, and so on. The story begins nearly a year earlier, in July 1965, when Dylan turned up with an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival, enraging Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, and various followers of the folk revival, who were only interested in “authenticity” and political dissent. (A hilarious, chilling document is the Stalinist-sounding “open letter” published by folk music commissar Irwin Silber in Sing Out! magazine, in which Silber accused Dylan of abandoning protest music for songs that were “inner-directed … inner-probing, self-conscious.”)

Dylan, though shaken by the fury of his fans, pressed ahead, trading his work shirt and jeans for a velveteen Nehru jacket and playing amplified rock ’n’ roll. During the next year he was booed at nearly every stop in America and Europe. Levon Helm, the drummer for The Hawks, which was to become The Band, was driven off the tour by the abuse. Dylan dealt with the stress by ingesting huge quantities of drugs and generally acting like a bastard. At the end of the tour, he broke his neck in a motorcycle accident. He didn’t perform live again until 1974, by which point, of course, the ‘60s were over. A lot of Dylan worshippers seem to fixate on 1965-66 as the moment before the fall of the counterculture. Like Russian scholars obsessed with the mistakes of the Kerensky government, they keep going over the familiar story, wondering if things might somehow have turned out differently.

The problem is that especially after this buildup, the “Royal Albert Hall” bootleg is disappointing. It was a reasonably good concert, but hardly an outstanding one. As he did in every concert on that tour, Dylan soloed in the first half with his acoustic guitar and harmonica and played electric guitar with his band in the second half. The first half was a concession to his fans, but it bored him silly, and you can tell. The songs themselves are beautiful. His rendition of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” which some read as his farewell to the folkies, is affecting, in its drug-induced, nonsensical way. But Dylan’s performance adds little to the studio version, doing nothing to explicate the obscurities of the lyrics, such as why “Baby Blue” has reindeer armies, or where they’re going home to. He strums listlessly in this ponderous 11 ½ minute version of “Desolation Row.” The gibberish about Einstein sniffing drainpipes just reminds you that he was stoned senseless. A truly dreary nine minute rendition of “Mr. Tambourine Man” follows.

The second half of the concert begins with a rousing song called “Tell Me, Momma,” which Dylan never released on record, and which, after you’ve listened to the acoustic side, is like watching a black-and-white movie turn to color. The Band-to-be is tight and focused, and there’s less burden on Dylan’s quasinonsense lyrics when they have Garth Hudson’s organ behind them. It’s amazing to hear booing and loud slow clapping meant to prevent Dylan from playing an electric version of “One Too Many Mornings.” That’s Rick Danko, the bassist, singing harmony on the word “behind,” creating a perfect rock moment. Amazingly, half the audience hated it. At the end of the set, someone in the crowd yells out the word “Judas.” To which Dylan, after a pause, responds by sneering back the title of a song he just played: “I Don’t Believe You.” Then after another pause he bellows, “You’re a liar!” before cranking into “Like a Rolling Stone.” He played no encores.

T he hostility and weirdness surrounding this tour also come across in Eat the Document, a film that has been showing at the Museum of Radio and Television in New York City to coincide with the release of the record. This hourlong work, which was commissioned by ABC but never shown, is another famous bootleg–it has circulated in samizdat for years–and also an overrated one. Coming after Don’t Look Back, the superb cinema vérité documentary D.A. Pennebaker made about Dylan’s previous European tour in 1965, Eat the Document, which was edited by Dylan himself, is a pointless coda. Other than the snippets of concert footage and a few curious glimpses, it’s a mishmash of drug-addled camera confusion.

Overrating Bob Dylan’s unpublished fragments probably won’t do any damage to his real achievement. But it is oddly disrespectful–like arguing that the rough draft of The Great Gatsby was better than the novel F. Scott Fitzgerald published. The tendency to prefer obscure, unproduced recordings seems like the latest version of the old folkie quest for the grail of authenticity. And it’s equally wrongheaded. Dylan sang his best songs on records that came out and became instantly famous. Insisting otherwise makes him into a kind of idiot savant who could create but not choose. It elevates the critic and diminishes the artist.