On Wednesday, January 13, 1965, Bob Dylan recorded "Love Minus Zero/No Limit," destined to become the fourth track on the first side of the troubadour's fifth studio album, Bringing It All Back Home. The album, released on March 25, would effectively alter the course of both Dylan's career and of pop music itself, featuring one electric side and one acoustic side. When he "plugged in" at the Newport Folk Festival months later on July 25 to the sound of boos from the crowd, it was clear that there was little turning back. Indeed, the phrase "No Limit" described Dylan's hunger and drive to push the envelope of popular music during a remarkable 14-month period that yielded not just the folk-rock of Bringing It All Back Home but the furious Highway 61 Revisited and the magnum opus Blonde on Blonde. Now, those three albums have been celebrated by Columbia Records and Legacy Recordings in the most expansive fashion possible as the twelfth volume of Dylan's Bootleg Series.
The Cutting Edge is the apt title for this window onto Dylan's most innovative period, available in 2-CD, 6-CD and 18-CD configurations. Few albums and artists would warrant such an immersive treatment; the 18-CD version features roughly 19 hours of material, or nearly every note recorded in the studio by Dylan in 1965 and 1966. (There's a good amount of fascinating fly-on-the-wall chatter, too.) It goes without saying that this box set is historically significant, but moreover, it makes for richly rewarding listening. No matter which size package you choose, you will find a revelatory collection of session rehearsals, alternates and outtakes bursting with intensity, imagination and creativity from an artist who, indeed, knew no limit.
Bob Dylan was well-versed in the "rules" before breaking them with the trilogy of LPs that emerged on Columbia in 1965 and 1966. A musical polymath with an appreciation and knowledge of blues, folk, country, rock and roll and Broadway, it seems all too obvious in retrospect that he would move beyond the acoustic style and so-called "protest songs" of his earliest works. But if the '65-'66 albums seemingly emerged fully-formed to shock and captivate and shape the sound of what would soon be called "rock" (sans "and roll"), The Cutting Edge sheds light on the experimentation that went into their creation.
"Nobody sings Dylan like Dylan," the old slogan went - but perhaps that's because Dylan himself was - and is - incapable of singing a song the same way twice. That much is evident throughout The Cutting Edge, as his phrasing of a lyric varies from take to take, sometimes quite dramatically. Note, too, that Dylan was no fan of overdubs, preferring the organic sound arising from a group of musicians playing together. So this set - in any size - offers far more of a coherent listening experience than one might expect. (The first overdub on a Dylan record was Charlie McCoy's guitar on "Desolation Row" from Highway 61 Revisited.)
II. You Don't Need a Weatherman To Know Which Way the Wind Blows...
Working in New York City with producer Tom Wilson and a varied cast of musicians including guitarists Bruce Langhorne, Kenny Rankin and "Wild Thing" co-writer Al Gorgoni, drummer Bobby Gregg, pianists Frank Owens and Paul Griffin, and bassists Joseph Macho Jr., William B. Lee and The Lovin' Spoonful's John Sebastian, Dylan cut the 11 songs that would comprise Bringing It All Back Home over just two days, on January 14 and 15. (None of the versions recorded on January 13 made the cut for the final album.) Over those three days, Dylan tested various versions of his compositions, from solo to full band, rotating musicians and shifting feels. It's an exhilarating ride to hear the development of acknowledged classics such as "Subterranean Homesick Blues" which transformed from a fine solo acoustic showcase to a ferocious explosion with the addition of the band. Just the second completed take with band was the one. The singer-songwriter's relationship with Wilson is ripe for dissection, with instances of humor (as Dylan concocts ridiculous titles to announce his songs) and tension (when the singer snaps at the producer for interrupting a take of "On the Road Again" and Wilson responds with sarcastic ire.)
Amazingly, the first takes of the scorching "Maggie's Farm" and the solo "Gates of Eden" both made it to the finished album. After two stabs on the first day of recording, "She Belongs to Me" was nailed in just two attempts on the second day, Dylan having found the right tempo and key. "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream," first rendered acoustically by the solo Bob, was finished in its second take (the first was just a false start) with the full band. The more familiar one is with the album versions, the more illuminating these alternates become. Songs were cut during these sessions that didn't make the album, too - the brief, incomplete "You Don't Have to Do That," the stomping 12-bar blues "California" with lyrics adapted soon after for "Outlaw Blues," the humorous "If You Gotta Go, Go Now," and the adaptation of a traditional melody "Farewell, Angelina." The oft-covered "I'll Keep It with Mine" would be first attempted for Bringing It All Back Home, too. Versions of all five of these titles appear on the 2-CD edition.
In contrast to the three-day whirlwind of activity that yielded Bringing It All Back Home - covered on just two CDs and portion of a third on the massive 18-CD collection - sessions for Highway 61 Revisited began on June 15 and lasted until August 4; the album would be released on August 30. If its predecessor reconnected Dylan with the essence of the amplified, swaggering, muscular sound he loved as a teenager, Highway 61 crystallized Dylan's vision of where the electrified style could go. Highway 61 married his often impressionistic poetry to his most urgent music. In a marked departure, Dylan recorded the album with producer Bob Johnston - with one exception, of course: the little song he recorded with Tom Wilson called "Like a Rolling Stone."
Few songs have been chronicled and dissected as much as "Like a Rolling Stone," but here, over the course of 20 tracks - an entire disc - on both the 6 and 18-disc boxes, one can actually hear its dramatic transformation from a lyrically ambitious but musically tentative waltz (yes, a waltz!) to a defining track in rock history. (One rehearsal and one completed alternate version are included on the 2-CD iteration.) As with so many tracks on The Cutting Edge, Dylan was constantly refining the lyrics as he recorded "Rolling Stone," so there are subtle differences lyrically as well as musically as of the very first rehearsal. Dylan began the track with Mike Bloomfield on guitar plus Al Gorgoni, Paul Griffin, Frank Owens, Joseph Macho Jr. and Bobby Gregg. But once Al Kooper joined in to craft the now-famous organ part, the elements around it coalesced. All of a sudden, the song crackled with a natural, unforced energy.
The very first time the band played the song to its conclusion was the take eventually selected to open Highway 61 Revisited. But ten more takes were attempted (only one of which was completed and most of which feel rushed) before Dylan and Wilson realized they'd already gotten it. "Why can't we get that right, man?" the artist laments after yet another breakdown. As a special bonus, "Rolling Stone" is one of two songs also presented here as stems, or isolated tracks - one with just Bloomfield's chiming, evocative guitar, one with Dylan's gutsy vocals and guitar, one with Griffin's rollicking piano and Macho's anchoring bass, and one with Gregg's precision drums and Kooper's inspired, improvised organ.
"Like a Rolling Stone," of course, set the powerfully-charged tone and feel for Highway 61 despite the change of producer. Bloomfield and Kooper stayed on, and adding to what must have been a mighty frisson in the air, the sessions with Bob Johnston began just four days after Dylan's controversial Newport appearance. It might have been Newport that inspired the most famous song cut during the Highway sessions but not released on that album: the delightfully venomous "Positively 4th Street." By the released performance - Take 12 - Dylan the singer had caught up to Dylan the lyricist, adding the relish in his delivery missing in the earlier takes, and the musicians (Bloomfield, Kooper, Owens, Gregg and Russ Savakus on bass) had found the right groove for the unorthodox melody. It didn't hurt the song's commercial chances, either, that Kooper switched from celeste to organ after the initial takes to add just the right continuity to "Like a Rolling Stone."
"Tombstone Blues" has seen alternates previously released on past Bootleg volumes and even a box set dedicated to Mike Bloomfield. The guitarist's searing rockabilly-meets-the-blues lead contributed mightily to the gritty authenticity of Dylan's dark, oblique, story with its references to Ma Rainey, Beethoven and Cecil B. DeMille. Listen for Take 9 on the 6- and 18-CD sets where Dylan jokingly chides Bloomfield for his flashy playing, "I can't take it! You got to put a wall up over him!" (After all, there was no doubt who was calling the shots! Dylan's affection for Bloomfield is never more evident, though, than on the outtake "Sitting on a Barbed-Wire Fence." On one take, he improvises a lyric paying tribute to his friend and collaborator.
Another treat absent from the 2-CD version but present on the others is Take 4 of "From a Buick 6," erroneously included on the very first pressings of Highway 61, creating instant collectors' items. Here it is, at last, on CD. Similarly, Take 17 of "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window" (underlined emphasis is Bob's) was accidentally placed on the B-side of the first "Positively 4th Street" singles. Unhappy with it, Dylan continued honing the song and didn't record the final version until November's early Blonde on Blonde sessions. In contrast with the frequent tinkering, "Ballad of a Thin Man" - interestingly, Dylan's first song to employ the pop convention of a middle eight, or bridge - was a keeper in its first complete take, featuring the unusual instrumentation of Dylan on piano, Kooper on electric piano, and Griffin on organ - in other words, a Wall of Sound!
IV. Oh, Mama, Can This Really Be the End?
Just a couple of months after wrapping sessions for Highway 61 in August '65, Dylan and Johnston were back in the studio in New York to begin work on what would become the artist's epic, double-album fantasia Blonde on Blonde. (It's noted that the material on The Cutting Edge - more than eight discs' worth on the 18-CD set and over two discs on the 6-CD variation) was drawn from roughly 10 hours of tape.) This time, Dylan's cohorts were his touring band, The Hawks, a.k.a. the future Band -Robbie Robertson on guitar, Garth Hudson on organ, Richard Manuel on piano, Rick Danko on bass and Levon Helm on drums. The Hawks were - initially, at least - the perfect choice to add an earthy quality to Dylan's increasingly dreamlike compositions. As New York sessions continued through January, Bobby Gregg and Sandy Konikoff deputized on drums for Helm as tracks including "Visions of Johanna," "Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat" and "One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)" were attempted.
So prodigious was Dylan's output at this time that (as with the past two albums) he discarded material to which he never again returned, such as "She's Your Lover Now." Take 15 with the full band made it to the first volume of Bootleg Series; most revealing is a complete vocal-and-piano only take from Dylan that was the last time he ever attempted the tune. (You can hear it on the 6-CD and 18-CD; a band take is included on the 2-CD.) Other Blonde-related songs and fragments that have long circulated in collectors' circles are with this release given an official place in the Dylan canon, such as "Jet Pilot," "Medicine Sunday" (an early version of "Temporary Like Achilles"), "Lunatic Princess" (a working title) and an untitled instrumental very recognizably in the style of the album. Another cut song, the raucous "I Wanna Be Your Lover," was first aired on Biograph three decades ago. (All of these are from the New York sessions.)
Interesting as it is to hear, Dylan correctly intuited that The Hawks' fast-and-furious approach to the spellbinding "Visions of Johanna" was hardly sympathetic to the song. (The Take 5 rehearsal is on the 2-CD edition; further attempts are preserved on the larger editions.) Dylan wouldn't get to the heart of his composition until he tried it with a new band in a new city. Change was in the air.
On February 14, 1966, sessions commenced at Columbia's Nashville studios with a group of studio cats selected by producer Bob Johnston including multi-instrumentalist Charlie McCoy, pianist Hargus "Pig" Robbins, guitarists Wayne Moss and Jerry Kennedy, drummer Kenny Buttrey, bassist Henry Strzelecki, pianist Bill Aikins and guitarist/bassist (and songwriter!) Joe South. Old hands Al Kooper and Robbie Robertson were brought in, as well. The first song completed for Blonde on Blonde in Nashville was the "Norwegian Wood"-inspired "4th Time Around," finished on the 19th take. It was an appropriate tune to start, signifying the more intricate and complex songwriting Dylan was bringing to the table.
The Nashville players were able to conjure the right atmosphere for Blonde on Blonde - still often lyrically biting, but also with a strong romantic sensibility interjected with yearning, vulnerability and humor. Ultimately only one track remained from the New York sessions: "One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)." The 18-CD set presents, as with "Like a Rolling Stone," all of the "stems" for extra insight into the potent track. As always with Dylan, there are endlessly interesting variations, such as "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" taken at a tempo that Dylan soon realized was too slow, or "Just Like a Woman" with a chugging Bo Diddley rhythm. (Both are happily on all editions including the 2-CD.) Neither worked, but without those failed experiments, would Dylan have found the eventual "correct" grooves? The Nashville A-team was even able to record three complete versions of the 11+-minute "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," the first ever song to occupy the entire side of a vinyl LP. By March 10, Blonde on Blonde as we know it was in the can - and Dylan's experience in Nashville would inform the next stage in his musical evolution.
V. The Scene Was So Crazy, Wasn't It?
The Cutting Edge is exquisitely designed in every format. The two-disc version captures many of the highlights, though hardly all of them. The six-disc box is a sublime, curated tour through this material, and it indeed should sate the appetites of most fans and collectors. But for those who find the journey as rewarding as the destination (and admittedly have wallets large enough to accommodate) the 18-disc version is filled with even more pleasures. All three editions feature variations on the same book, featuring texts by Dylan scholars including Ben Rollins, Sean Wilentz and Bill Flanagan as well as the inimitable Al Kooper, background vocalist Angeline Butler (of "If You Gotta Go, Go Now") and photographer Rowland Scherman. The 18-CD box (with an exclusive compendium of live performances from the period as its final disc) is as mighty as one would expect, and a wonder to behold. It gains a 168-page hardcover, coffee table-style book of rare shots from various photographers as well as nine replica 45 RPM singles, an actual filmstrip from a 16mm release print of from D.A. Pennebaker's documentary Dont Look Back and more.
Another famous songwriter with ties to Columbia Records once put forth, "The art of making art is putting it together." And that's the beauty of this set. Rarely has an opportunity ever been given to explore the "putting it together" of a famous record in such tremendous depth. Though Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde are unified enough to be frequently perceived as a trilogy, in truth, the three albums represented a clear arc of development and growth. That's never been more apparent than on The Cutting Edge. These box sets are an artful journey through the still-beating heart of Highway 61 and beyond.
You can find complete track listings for all three versions here!
The Best of The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Volume 12
The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Volume 12: Collector's Edition (BobDylan.com Exclusive)