While reading an interview with the filmmaker Jesse Dylan in the (London) Times last week, one quote caught my eye. The interviewer asked him about the continued productivity of his father, who is now in his ninth decade. Jesse replied that his dad wasn’t trying to outdo himself. “He’s just thinking, ‘Should I paint a picture today? Should I write a song?'”
It reminded me of of my own reaction to visiting the Musée Picasso in Paris a few years ago and realising how wonderful it must have been to be him, to get up in the morning and think, “Shall I paint a picture today? Shall I paint a few plates? Shall I make a bull’s head out of a pair of bicycle handlebars or a guitar out of a matchbox and some rubber bands?”
That’s not the only point of comparison between the two, for sure. But Dylan transforms farm implements into sculpture and photographs into paintings with the same unstoppable desire to make stuff. He’s not expecting everything he creates to be the equal of “Desolation Row”, just as Picasso didn’t think a painted soup dish needed to be a rival to the Demoiselles d’Avignon.
Jesse Dylan’s remark might have helped me to make a different kind of sense of the latest volume of the Bootleg Series, titled Springtime in New York and assembled from recordings made in the first half of the 1980s. This was a period that included Shot of Love, Infidels and Empire Burlesque, and most of the tracks on the deluxe five-CD version of the new release are outtakes from those sessions, in Los Angeles as well as New York, plus material from various tour rehearsals and a couple of live tracks (“Enough Is Enough” from Slane Castle in 1984 and “License to Kill” from the same year’s David Letterman show).
There are works of genius here, the two takes of “Too Late” and its eventual metamorphosis into “Foot of Pride” being the prime exhibit, showing Dylan functioning in 1983 at the peak of his powers, creating something that only his imagination could have produced, working away at its shape and structure and detail and angle of attack (and then still not being satisfied enough to put it on the relevant album). “New Danville Girl” has long been loved by bootleggers as a prototype of what would become, 18 months later, the epic “Brownsville Girl”, featuring a friendlier arrangement and more modest production but lacking some of the final version’s finer points. “Let’s Keep It Between Us” is a Dylan song recorded by Bonnie Raitt in 1982 and here performed two years earlier as a confiding southern soul ballad, with wonderful B3 interjections from Willie Smith.
By and large, however, this is an assembly of lesser material. Unlike The Cutting Edge or More Blood, More Tracks, it’s not the sort of compilation that enables the dedicated student to make a close scrutiny of Dylan’s working method over a tightly defined period of time. It’s a whole lot looser than that, and variable in quality. You don’t necessarily need Dylan’s versions of “Fever”, “I Wish It Would Rain”, “Green, Green Grass of Home”, “Abraham, Martin and John” or “Sweet Caroline” — or Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me To Do”, which isn’t noticeably better than those performed by a hundred young British R&B bands in the mid-’60s (including my own). You might, of course, need his gorgeous version of Willie Nelson’s “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground”. But what all of them do is remind us of what Dylan’s backing musicians often say, that he knows a very large number of songs — and if you’re in his band, you have to be ready to play them, at least in rehearsals.
Taken together with the outtakes of songs like “Blind Willie McTell”, “Jokerman”, “I and I”, “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight”, “Sweetheart Like You”, “Tight Connection to My Heart”, “Seeing the Real You at Last” and “Dark Eyes”, some of them pleasingly devoid of the production touches added to the versions released on the original albums, they made me think of what it might be like if Bob Dylan turned up in your village with his band, rented the parish hall and spent an evening entertaining the locals. It wouldn’t be a show. It wouldn’t be for posterity. Nobody would be taking notes or keeping score. There might be false starts and missteps and re-runs. There would certainly be some things that didn’t work quite as well as others. Playing these five discs end to end, flattening out the artistic highs and lows, allowing the kaleidoscope of Dylan’s approach to American music to form and disperse and reform, you get a sense of how much fun that would be.
* Bob Dylan’s Springtime in New York: The Bootleg Series 1980-85 is out now in various formats and configurations on the Columbia Legacy label. The photograph of Dylan in New York is from one of the booklets that come with the deluxe version and was taken by Lynn Goldsmith.