Since debuting in 1991, The Bootleg Series has become an essential archival library of previously unreleased Bob Dylan material. Some of the recordings have been widely bootlegged, but most have been unheard until their release as part of the series, and even those that die-hards knew about had never been presented in such pristine sound quality. Everything about the series has been top-notch in terms of quality control and presentation, from track selection, to sound, to packaging. The various releases have covered many periods from throughout Bob Dylan’s storied career, and while some are more vital than others, all are worthwhile. They add an important dimension and scope to understanding Dylan’s work that goes beyond just the officially released albums.
However, a collection covering Dylan’s golden age, the 14 months that produced three of the most widely influential and celebrated albums in rock history — Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and the double album Blonde on Blonde — had yet to be unveiled. Until now. The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965–1966 is the volume that Dylan fans have been eagerly awaiting, and they won’t be disappointed.
Fortunately for fans, the series’ producers don’t believe in half-measures. Fans can dive as deeply into these rarified waters as they want. There is a 36-track, two-CD edition that should be the go-to purchase for most fans (a beautifully packaged 3-LP version features the same tracklisting). It contains complete alternate takes and early recordings of many of the period’s most pivotal songs. There’s a six-CD version that includes multiple takes of many of the songs that will appeal the more serious Dylan fans who don’t quite cross the line into obsessive. Of course, if you want the whole enchilada, you can smack down a cool $599.99 for the 18-CD edition collector’s edition (only available at www.BobDylan.com, and limited to 5,000 copies) which covers all of these sessions in their entirety: every note that made it to tape that wasn’t officially released on the main albums themselves. It includes numerous takes, false starts and breakdowns, including studio chatter between Dylan, his band and producers. There are 20 different takes of “Like a Rolling Stone” alone. That creaking sound you hear is the door to the vault opening, and the insides have all been pulled out for examination, cobwebs and all. If there is a Holy Grail for Dylan fans, this is it.
We’re talking about some of the recordings that define rock ‘n’ roll: cornerstones of the genre. 1965 is the year that Bob Dylan transitioned from a folk singer to a rock ‘n’ roller. He plugged in with the opening track and iconic single from Bringing It All Back Home, “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, and, to paraphrase D.A. Pennebaker, didn’t look back. It was the first taste of an amazing creative run that produced many of Dylan’s most beloved songs and catapulted him to the iconic status that he’s never relinquished.
Obviously it will take even the most dedicated Dylanologists a long time to sort through the riches of the 18-disc version, so this review will focus on the two-CD edition. It will be enough for all but the heartiest Dylan fans, and it’s a wonder in itself. Most of the tracks are complete takes, and they sound amazing. It’s like an alternate “Best Of” from Dylan’s most important period. We get to peer through the lens of history from a slightly different angle, 50 years after these recordings took place. It’s a wonderful alternate reality in which all of these familiar songs are presented in various stages of completion, sometimes with startlingly different arrangements and variations in the lyrics.
An alternate take “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” starts the collection, and it’s a gem. It’s missing the electric guitar counter-melody from the official release, which allows more focus on a terrific vocal by Dylan. The stunning piano demo of “I’ll Keep it With Mine” is the same one that appears on the 1985 box set Biograph, but it’s a welcome inclusion nonetheless as it’s one of Dylan’s greatest lesser-known tracks. Judy Collins released a wonderfully sprightly pop take on it in 1965, and two years later Nico recorded an austere cover for her Chelsea Girl album that more closely resembles Dylan’s recording. The only other previously-released track on the two-CD edition is Dylan’s demo of “Farewell, Angelina”, a song made famous by Joan Baez (Dylan’s version had previously appeared on the first Bootleg Series release in 1991).
An early highlight is an alternate take of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. A solo acoustic recording of “She Belongs to Me” is the song freshly baked, take one. Dylan would give it a swinging full band arrangement on Bringing It All Back Home but has played it live solo acoustically over the years (as on The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Live 1966 – The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert) but here we get to experience the song fresh from Dylan’s pen, just as he was trying it out for the first time in the studio.
There are two version of “Like a Rolling Stone” included on the two-CD edition. First is Take five, in which Dylan and his band gamely try out a waltz version of the song that sputters out before reaching the two-minute mark. Thankfully Dylan didn’t pursue this direction, but it’s fascinating to hear nonetheless. Take 11 is complete, and it’s obvious that Dylan and his band are finally getting the song where it needs to be. Although it lacks the ferocity of the final recording used for the single, it’s getting closer.
At every turn, there’s a revelation — for instance, the two-minute piano demo of “Desolation Row”. Hearing this timeless epic in its early, embryonic form cuts through all the mythology and gives the listener access to Dylan’s creative process. A mellowish recording of “Positively 4th Street”, without the bright organ riffs of the single version, presents an interesting contrast, given the bite of the lyrics the sharpness of the final recording. One of the absolute highlights is take four of “Just Like a Woman”, in which the song is arranged as an uptempo countrified rock and roll shuffle. Thankfully Dylan veered far away from this direction in the end, but hearing it in this form is interesting to say the least. The version of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” presented is the shambolic take three, which finds Dylan and the band still trying to find the feel of the song. It’s relaxed and languid, and sounds like it should be rolling under a haze of marijuana smoke.
Much more focused is a fantastic recording of the Blonde on Blonde classic “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)”, with only bits of harmonica instead of the fat riffs that wheeze through the final product, and with a different melodic take on the chorus. Take three of “Highway 61 Revisited” is a ferocious performance with Dylan fully committed in his vocals — it’s worthy of having been released, and the absence of the shrill siren whistle on the final take is a bonus. The furiously hard-rocking “Visions of Johanna” with a much fuller band arrangement than the haunting, skeletal final recording is fantastic, a totally different vibe but one that works well. We get take six of “She’s Your Lover Now”, a song that frustrated Dylan as he tried without success to get it down. He’d eventually abandon it. The first edition of the Bootleg Series includes take 19, which is nearly a full version. The recording here is stilted and awkward — Dylan’s frustration with his inability to translate what he is hearing in his head for the song is so obvious it’s palpable. It breaks down before Dylan can finish it.
The recording of “Tombstone Blues” included has a markedly different vibe than what we’re used to hearing, especially with the vocals. The final version is so blistering and jagged, it’s interesting to hear the Dylan and his band working their way up to it. Not quite there yet, but they’re figuring things out. Take 13 of “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” is a slower, more relaxed reading of the song with an excellent vocal, but the delicate descending acoustic guitar and bass breakdown between verses breaks up the song awkwardly, sapping it of its drive and momentum. Again, it’s Dylan and his band noodling through it, finding their way to what ends up on the final album. We get the first take of “Absolutely Sweet Marie”, and it’s not too far off from the final version. Take four of “I Want You” is similarly close to the final recording.
Thus the collection goes: classic song after classic song, presented in a different state of completion and sometimes with a wholly different vision. The fact that these versions do not approach the greatness of the final recordings is exactly the point. These are works in progress. It’s a guided tour through the creative process that led to these landmark albums, with an excellent booklet containing essays, liner notes, details on the recordings, and beautiful photographs from the sessions.
Dylan’s archival releases are among the best in the industry, and the sound clarity is startlingly good. If any era defines what makes Bob Dylan the greatest songwriter in rock and roll history, it’s the three albums covered by these sessions. It’s an essential, thrilling collection that is an absolute must-have for Dylan fans. And if you’re not a Dylan fan, you should buy it anyway and hopefully become one. The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965–1966 is more than just music — it’s cultural history of colossal significance. This collection is a resource that fans and students of Dylan’s work will reference again and again as the years and decades pass and these classic albums are introduced to new generations of music fans.