Dylan 'Cutting Edge' archives: More not necessarily better

BobDylan
Bob Dylan’s new collection offers a glimpse into his process. A disc is devoted entirely to rehearsing “Like a Rolling Stone.”

The Cutting Edge, 1965-1966 (Columbia/Legacy

***)

is a new Bob Dylan archival collection that focuses on the incandescent creative burst of the world-changing songwriter's early electric years. In these work tapes, Dylan and his producers often call out song titles that will be unfamiliar to even ardent fans.

Tom Wilson, the African American Harvard grad who helmed 1965's breakthrough album Bringing It All Back Home and who also produced "Like a Rolling Stone," from Highway 61 Revisited, might ask: "Bobby, what's the name of this one?"

Or Bob Johnston, Wilson's fellow Texan, who worked with Dylan on the remainder of Highway 61 and 1966's double-LP Blonde on Blonde, will announce they're about to record "Alcatraz to the Ninth Power."

Dylan quickly corrects him. "No, that's not the name of it!" The song he's about to sing, he says, is actually called "Bank Account Blues." Other titles he announces include "Black Dolly Rue," "Phantom Engineer Number Cloudy," "Worse Than Money," and "Bending Down on My Stomach Looking West."

What?! Has The Cutting Edge, subtitled The Bootleg Series, Vol. 12, succeeded in uncovering a clutch of heretofore unknown and unheard songs that have previously evaded even the most diligent of Dylan Dumpster divers?

Not quite. The songs called out by the mischievous auteur were actually alternative titles for tunes that became part of the Dylan canon, such as "Positively Fourth Street," "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry," "She Belongs to Me," and "I'll Keep It with Mine."

That's appropriate, because The Cutting Edge presents what is essentially an alternative Dylan universe. It's full not so much of unheard tunes - after 11 previous volumes of the Bootleg Series, there don't appear to be too many of those left - as of significantly different versions of songs written and recorded during the 14 months when Dylan, still in his early 20s, was at the most wildly imaginative stage in his prolific career.

It was the era when he broke cleanly with the folk music crowd that had set him up as a savior. He did so by going electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, hiring as his backup band the Hawks, the Levon Helm-led rock outfit that had been house band at Tony Mart's in Somers Point in South Jersey.

It was the era when the formerly austere protest singer remade himself as the poofy-haired, Ray Ban-wearing mystery man caught in D.A. Pennebaker's documentary Don't Look Back (and later portrayed by Cate Blanchett in a gender-bending twist in Todd Haynes' 2007 film I'm Not There). He's the inscrutable, supremely confident guy teaching the world to see in a new way, with a sense of wonder encapsulated in lyrics like these, from "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream": "A pay phone was ringing, it just about blew my mind / When I picked it up and said hello, this foot came though the line."

The Cutting Edge gathers alt-versions of songs - a rocked-out "Visions of Johanna"; a full-band "Mr. Tambourine Man" - created during one of the greatest sustained winning streaks in pop music history. (Competition, up for debate: Frank Sinatra at Capitol in the 1950s, the Beatles in the 1960s, the Rolling Stones from Beggars Banquet to Exile on Main St, Stevie Wonder in the 1970s, the Replacements from Let It Be to Pleased to Meet Me in the mid-1980s, Kanye West from The College Dropout in 2004 to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in 2010.)

Fifty years later, we live in a golden era of Bob Dylan archival projects. In 2013, the overproduced and underwhelming 1970 album Self Portrait was stripped of excesses and gloriously reborn. Last year, The Basement Tapes, recorded in Woodstock, N.Y., with the Band, got a full six-CD reissue treatment.

The pace is maintained with The Cutting Edge. A six-CD edition sells for $100 and will be more than enough for most big-time fans. It devotes one disc and 20 takes to "Like a Rolling Stone," showing how the revolutionary salvo - "It's six minutes long!" Dylan exclaims - moved from rehearsal to completion.

I'm happy to own the 111-cut, six-CD Cutting Edge. The Columbia/Legacy release gets only three stars, however, because it makes for uneasy reissue listening, with the same song often playing over and over, albeit, in this case, often taken at different tempos, with fascinating progress made.

Earning four stars is The Best of the Cutting Edge (****), a two-CD set in which only "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Desolation Row" appear in two versions, the latter first as a two-minute piano near-dirge and then a more familiar full-blown 11-minute form.

And then there's the real doozy: An 18-CD box set (unheard by me) that includes every note committed to tape in the recording of the three albums, as well as bonuses like nine mono 45 r.p.m. singles, with a leopard-skin-printed spindle for your turntable. It's $599.99 at bobdylan.com.

How much is too much? Eighteen CDs is obviously for true obsessives only. But hey, only 5,000 sets are being made, and, as for buyers who'd shell out, those people know who they are.

The impulse to examine the work tapes of the great artist - to peek inside Joyce or Dostoyevsky's notebooks, or read that novel J.D. Salinger never meant for publication - is difficult to resist. And it's not going to stop soon in pop music. Other reexaminations arriving this fall: The Velvet Underground's 1970 album Loaded box came out on Oct. 30, and a highly anticipated deep dive into Bruce Springsteen's The River is coming Dec. 4.

Not all unfinished genius business, however, is created equal. Which brings us to Kurt Cobain's Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings (Universal *1/2). The worship of Cobain as tragic rock god has been in full effect this year, thanks largely to Montage of Heck, Brett Morgen's excellent, heartbreaking documentary that brought the Nirvana singer to life on film.

Morgen was aided enormously by the discovery of homemade tapes, including pieces of songs, sound collages, and spoken-word confessionals, that the director then artfully repurposed, illustrating them with new animation or Cobain's own drawings. It all makes the late Cobain eerily present, his pain palpable.

The Montage home recordings mean to open a window onto Cobain's creative process, much as The Cutting Edge lets us hear Dylan shaping his art. But, sadly, except for moments such as The Beatles' "And I Love Her" tenderly rendered, the album is filled mostly with shapeless moaning, strumming, and, yes, yodeling. Even a potentially searing interlude like Cobain's tale of trying to lose his virginity and a suicide attempt loses power without visual accompaniment.

This month, the cardigan sweater Cobain wore on Nirvana's MTV Unplugged in a Nov. 1, 1994, New York performance sold at auction for $140,000. The appetite for ephemera is unabated. It's no shame on Cobain that half-baked song ideas he left in a drawer don't show his talents in the best light. The shame is that they're now out there for us all to hear, with him having no say in the matter. It's a reminder that when it comes to tossing away music that will turn out to stand the test of time, Bob Dylan is a special case.

ddeluca@phillynews.com

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