Señor, señor/Can you tell me where we're headin'?
Only Bob Dylan knew where he was headin'. In the fall of 1980, when Springtime in New York: The Bootleg Series Vol. 16 (1980-1985) opens, Dylan was two-thirds into his so-called "Christian trilogy" comprising Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980), and Shot of Love (1981). He had wrapped up a fiery tour on May 21, 1980 in which he only performed his gospel material. Audiences and critics alike were divided on Dylan's immersion into evangelical Christianity - some were angry, some were puzzled, some happily went along for the ride. Then something magical and mysterious happened. (Would Dylan have it any other way?) He began incorporating his "old stuff" into his live shows in November 1980, long before the August 12, 1981 release of Shot of Love. He made the case that all of his music was on the same continuum. Another new album wouldn't emerge until 1983 after a roughly two-year absence from the stage and the record racks. This "lost" period is explored on Springtime in New York in full, fascinating detail: from rehearsals in fall 1980 through the releases of Shot of Love, 1983's "return to form" Infidels, and its controversial 1984 successor, Empire Burlesque. Rather than a warts-and-all approach, the 5-CD set (Columbia/Legacy 19439865802, also available in smaller CD and vinyl configurations) is highly curated and filled with the beautiful contradictions that characterize Dylan.
The earliest tracks on Springtime in New York date to September 1980, making for some overlap with the thirteenth Bootleg Series volume. 2017's Trouble No More chronicled the gospel period of 1979-1981, but the story being told here is a very different one. Disc 1 primarily consists of rehearsals from September-October 1980 as Dylan warmed up to return to both the studio and the road. The song titles might be, at first blush, incongruous and heavy on soft rock: Dr. Hook's "A Couple More Years," Bill LaBounty's "This Night Won't Last Forever" (an AC hit for Michael Johnson), Dave Mason's "We Just Disagree," Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline." But in unironically exploring them, Dylan was opening himself up to new aspects of his own art. He embraces the waltz-time "A Couple More Years" in his own laconic country style and even gamely takes the climactic modulation on the soaring pop of "This Night Won't Last Forever." Diamond's anthem was wholly transformed into a slowly-burning Phil Spector drama in miniature. Dylan on piano and Tim Drummond on bass locked into a groove, with drummer Jim Keltner laying down the "Be My Baby" licks and the trio of Clydie King, Carolyn Dennis, and Regina McCrary deliciously subbing for Ronnie, Estelle, and Nedra. A blistering "Fever" and spare, sensitive "Abraham, Martin and John," the latter rendered as a duet with Clydie King, both harken back to earlier Dylan personas: the blues-rocker and the protest singer, respectively.
The muse hadn't escaped Dylan; far from it. He played the original "Let's Keep It Between Us" 19 times in concert between November 9 and December 4, 1980. Heard here in rehearsal form, it's a heartfelt plea to a partner to shut out the noise surrounding them ("These people meddlin' in our affairs/They're not our friends/Let's keep it between us/Before doors close and our togetherness comes to an end"). Dylan was rightly incensed over the prejudices and cruel gossip faced by an interracial couple, sneering "Let's just move to the back of the bus!" in case there was any question of his inspiration. (He married African-American backup singer Dennis in 1986 though the couple later split up.) Though no final studio version was ever committed to tape, the song was recorded by Bonnie Raitt in 1982.
After the bevy of cover versions from the fall of 1980 on the first disc, CD 2 of Springtime in New York fast-forwards to spring 1981 and an entire album's worth of outtakes from Shot of Love. Dylan was joined on the Los Angeles sessions mainly by co-producer Chuck Plotkin and a band including Steve Ripley, Fred Tackett, and Danny "Kootch" Kortchmar on guitar; Benmont Tench, Carl Pickhardt, and Willie Smith on keyboards; Tim Drummond on bass; and Jim Keltner on drums. While the album is accepted as having concluded Dylan's gospel trilogy, it appears that he was considering a broad range of material. Some of the songs could be interpreted as directed towards a higher power or a worldly love (in Contemporary Christian parlance, "God-as-my-girlfriend" songs) but others were more wholly secular in nature.
One previously unreleased song from Shot was unveiled on Trouble No More, the paean to Christ called "You Changed My Life." It's joined here by many more from Dylan's pen including the rip-roaring "Price of Love" (with a Bo Diddley beat and happily honking saxophone from Wrecking Crew veteran Steve Douglas), the wry country blues of "Fur Slippers" (in which the narrator's lady leaves him...and takes his fur slippers, too!), and the rollicking "Borrowed Time." The latter is clearly unfinished, as is the admonishing "Is It Worth It?" with its insistent piano and chugging, quasi-reggae rhythm. (Perhaps the artist felt "Is It Worth It?" was too close to "Dead Man, Dead Man" which did make the final Shot of Love sequence.) These fly-on-the-wall moments of artist and musicians in the act of creation are among the set's most fascinating. The most unusual and exciting is "Yes Sir, No Sir," with a heavy riff that's singular in the Dylan discography. He's furiously wailing his rough lyrics for all they're worth while Dennis, McCrary, and King's "Hallelujahs!" root the song as rock gospel. It's not quite 2-1/2 minutes long but leaves one wishing Dylan hadn't abandoned it after multiple unsuccessful takes.
Dylan may have weighed some covers for Shot of Love; Norman Whitfield, Barrett Strong, and Rodger Penzabene's "I Wish It Would Rain" inspires a raw, vulnerable reading. He takes the Temptations classic to church with prominent organ and the gospel-tinged backgrounds from Dennis, McCrary, and King. The same goes for his intimate duet with King on "Let It Be Me," the Pierre Delanoe/Gilbert Becaud/Manny Curtis ballad popularized in the U.S. by The Everly Brothers. Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart" yields a woozy, twangy treatment.
A version of "Angelina" that's earlier than the one introduced on Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 and a reprise of the tropically-tinged "Don't Ever Take Yourself Away" which snuck out on the 2011 soundtrack to CBS-TV's Hawaii Five-O flesh out the Shot of Love story. "Lenny Bruce," to which Dylan recently returned in concert pre-pandemic, is presented in an alternate mix with mournful strings and subtle saxophone.
Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell
A full two discs of Infidels-era material follows on CDs 3 and 4, and proves to be the beating heart and raison d'etre of this collection. The album was hotly anticipated after Dylan's retreat from the public eye, and he delivered the goods. Working with producer-guitarist Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits primarily at New York's Power Station in April-May 1983 (hence this volume's title), the singer-songwriter met the 1980s head-on with updated production and a collection of songs many felt to be his finest in years.
Dylan told author Paul Zollo in 1991 that "Lots of songs on that album [Infidels] got away from me. They just did...they hung around too long. They were better before they were tampered with. Of course, it was me tampering with them!" Springtime in New York lets the listener decide whether Dylan was right. One song he pointed to was the elaborate "Jokerman," an impressionistic possible-allegory rife with Biblical allusions about the mysterious titular character who could be God, the Devil, or someone in between. Dylan felt that "it probably didn't hold up for me because in my mind it had been written and rewritten and written again." Here's the original master track of "Jokerman," pre-overdub, with some earlier lyrics. Drummer Sly (Dunbar) and bassist Robbie (Shakespeare) provided the reggae lilt to the bouncy track, with Knopfler and Mick Taylor joining Dylan on guitars, Alan Clark on keyboards, and Sammy Figueroa on percussion. (This group, sans Figueroa, would comprise the core Infidels band.)
When "Blind Willie McTell" debuted on the original Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3, few believed that Dylan could have shelved such a hair-raising song. That version was an intimate affair with Dylan and Knopfler. Here in its place is a full-band version that sacrifices none of the power of the acoustic rendition. The singer offers a series of rueful observations, concluding each verse with "Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell." As he returns again and again to the ghost of the late bluesman who inspired Dylan, he makes an argument for the timelessness and sad necessity of the genre: "Well, God is in his Heaven/And we all want what's His/But power and greed and corruptible seed/Seem to be all there is/I'm gazing out the window/Of the St. James Hotel/And I can tell you one thing/Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell." The song melds past and present, and connects the "hellfire and brimstone" threads of Dylan's gospel years with his earliest, most starkly blues-influenced work. It was a masterpiece that didn't make the cut for Infidels.
Dylan touched on numerous styles during the sessions. "Don't Fall Apart on Me" is a typically idiosyncratic love song; it's heard in two dramatically different arrangements. The first, slower take in 6/8 is a poignant plea marked with vulnerability. The second, faster version reflects the final master track but with an alternate vocal. Dylan's interpretation in the latter take is more glib and less affecting. Long before his "Frank Sinatra Trilogy" of standards albums released between 2015 and 2017, he and the Infidels crew attempted the James Harbert standard "This Was My Love" which Sinatra released as a single in 1960.
"Neighborhood Bully," controversial at the time for its bitingly-delivered defense of Israel's security stance, is heard in a more freewheeling, loose take. (Shortly after the song's release, Dylan denied this interpretation to Rolling Stone's Kurt Loder. He insisted that "I'm not a political songwriter. 'Neighborhood Bully,' to me, is not a political song, because if it were, it would fall into a certain political party. If you're talkin' about it as an Israeli political song--in Israel alone, there's maybe 20 political parties. I don't know where that would fall, what party.") Political songwriter or no, Dylan didn't shy away from the big issues on his mind. The jagged, frenetic blues "Union Sundown" seems to advocate for American industry ("Well, it's sundown on the union/And what's made in the U.S.A./Sure was a good idea/'Til greed got in the way") while employing dry sarcasm worthy of Randy Newman to illustrate another crime of society: "All the furniture, it said 'Made in Brazil'/Where a woman, she slaved for sure/Bringing home thirty cents a day to a family of twelve/You know, that's a lot of money to her..." He's equally political (sorry, Bob) on "Julius and Ethel," a sympathetic rock-and-roll look back at the Rosenbergs, the American couple convicted of, and executed for, spying on behalf of the Soviet Union. This track doesn't have the overdubs present on the widely-bootlegged version.
Baby, what you want me to do?
The Infidels sessions encompassed every side of Dylan. The hypnotic "Death Is Not the End," recalled his Christian trilogy. Featuring R&B group Full Force on choir vocals, it wasn't completed until 1988's Down in the Groove. This version is longer and even more intense. "Too Late" (an early draft of "Foot of Pride," first issued on The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3) found Dylan back in longform, epic style. The liner notes inform us that this dense creation went through 47 takes including the acoustic and band versions here from April 23, 1983, culminating in a funkier, rougher, previously unheard "Foot of Pride" from April 26. The honing, reshaping, and reimagining of the song - music, lyrics, and the all-important feel - over this three-track sequence is one of this set's most compelling windows onto Dylan's process. An alternate of "Sweetheart Like You" is less revelatory, though no less enjoyable. The love ballad might be best-remembered for Dylan's misunderstood (?) proclamation that "a woman like you should be at home/That's where you belong/Taking care of somebody nice who don't know how to do you wrong." But if "Sweetheart Like You" was open to interpretation, "Lord, Protect My Child" couldn't have been more direct. This alternate take is more pained, more searing than the eventual version. Perhaps this take cut too close to the bone for Dylan, the parent?
The Infidels sessions unsurprisingly led to another batch of covers. Jimmy Reed's "Baby What You Want Me to Do" builds in intensity, in no small part due to Clydie King's raspy, passionate vocals. Almost as delicious is an ingratiating run through the country staple "Green, Green Grass of Home" with Alan Clark authoritatively pounding the keys. A different, solo version of the B-side cover of Willie Nelson's "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground" reiterates Dylan's on-the-fly willingness to try different arrangements on the spot.
Infidels was also the breeding ground for a couple of tracks that would end up on Empire Burlesque. "Someone's Got a Hold on My Heart" became "Tight Connection to My Heart." Another Infidels-era composition which wasn't completed in time was "Clean Cut Kid," a scathing indictment of Vietnam-era America set to a rollicking tune: "They took a clean-cut kid/And made a killer out of him/That's what they did." It's heard twice, the second time in the even more biting Empire version with guitar from Ronnie Wood.
Has anyone seen my love?
The fifth and final disc addresses Empire Burlesque, the third album represented in this collection. Dylan recorded the LP in New York and Los Angeles with various groupings of musicians including moonlighting Heartbreakers Mike Campbell, Mike Campbell, and Benmont Tench; David Letterman drummer Anton Fig; and E Street Bandmates Roy Bittan and Steven Van Zandt. Did he ever find the elusive sound for which he was searching? Empire Burlesque was greeted by some of the most damning reviews of Dylan's career, but unsurprisingly, his immersion into the big '80s has aged rather well in retrospect.
The ten Empire alternates/outtakes are preceded by two live tracks. Dylan played "Enough Is Enough" nine times on the road in June and July 1984, refining and rewriting its lyrics with each concert, but never returned to the chugging rock-and-roller in the studio. The live "License to Kill" is the only one of three songs from his Late Night with David Letterman appearance of March 22, 1984 included here. Sadly, the other scorching Letterman performances are absent. As backed for the television audience by three members of punk group The Plugz, Dylan channeled a primal energy far-removed from the album's polish, practically spitting the words over the ramshackle accompaniment. Unfortunately, the audio of "License to Kill" is not up to the standard of the rest of the box.
Six tracks then give a glimpse of the Empire Burlesque that might have been, stripped of the '80s production (synthesized horns and strings, gated drums, etc.) helmed by Dylan and mixed by dance maestro Arthur Baker. The original opening song, "Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love)," is perhaps the most maligned on the original album. In the much leaner, more intimate mix here, "Tight Connection" comes off as an enjoyable slice of soulful pop with nary a whiff of "Bob Dylan coming to terms with the 1980s." The turns of phrase are pure Dylan ("She lulled me to sleep in a town without pity where the water runs deep/She said, 'Be easy, baby, there ain't nothin' worth stealin' in here"), the Infidels band (Mark Knopfler, Mick Taylor, Alan Clark, Sly and Robbie) and background singers led by Carolyn Dennis are on fire, and the composition is solid. While "Seeing the Real You at Last" was positively scathing, Empire Burlesque also delivered the sweeter side of Dylan. The stripped-down versions of "I'll Remember You" and "Emotionally Yours" beautifully magnify the songs' emotions.
The Empire outtakes range from delightful throwaways ("Straight A's in Love," inspired by the 1959 Johnny Cash tune and in that Sun Records style) to lost classics (the Sam Shepard co-write "New Danville Girl," an embryonic version of the epic "Brownsville Girl" on 1986's Knocked Out Loaded). Two alternates of "When the Night Falls from the Sky" feature Steven Van Zandt and Roy Bittan, with the "fast version" particularly giving an idea as to what Dylan would sound like fronting the E Street Band. The two takes here differ from the one issued on The Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3 and (quite obviously) from the dance-styled version on the original album. (Note that this curated presentation doesn't include all of the previously bootlegged outtakes; that includes a persuasive stab at Allen Toussaint's "Freedom for the Stallion.")
This volume of The Bootleg Series concludes, just like Empire Burlesque did, with "Dark Eyes," here in an alternate take. Arthur Baker encouraged Dylan to record the evocative, acoustic track as a fitting, unexpected cap to the heavily electronic LP. It's an appropriately elegiac close to this set which dares listeners to reconsider one of the most maligned periods in Dylan's career. Conventional wisdom has it that the artist didn't fully recover from artistic malaise until 1997's stunning Time Out of Mind, with 1989's Oh Mercy a bright spot before that. It seems entirely possible that a future Bootleg volume could prove that thinking wrong, too.
Jokerman, dance to the nightingale tune...
In addition to the 5CD Deluxe Edition box, Springtime in New York is available in unique 2CD and 2LP highlights collections. (A 4LP distillation was available only through Third Man Records as part of that label's ongoing Vault subscription series.) All iterations have been produced by Jeff Rosen and Steve Berkowitz and mastered by Mark Wilder, Steve Addabbo, and Chris Shaw. The CD box, the most lavish of the sets, is packaged in a style similar to that of the previous such boxes. The heavyweight slipcase contains two hardcover books. The first, at 104 pages, is not only copiously illustrated with photos (Bob with Dinah Shore! Bob with Liberace!) and memorabilia (international picture sleeves, advertisements, album art, tape boxes, and much more) but boasts Damien Love's exemplary essay and detailed track-by-track liner notes. The second book contains the discs as well as the credits and personnel for each track.
Clearly, the well hasn't run dry for this long-running series. The music on Springtime in New York is among the most captivating to emerge from the seemingly endless Dylan vaults. Bob might agree: good times never seemed so good.
Springtime in New York: The Bootleg Series. Vol. 16 (1980-1985) is available now: