It took me several weeks to overcome a disinclination to buy the Bootleg Series version of Blood on the Tracks. I’d been invited to a playback session last summer, hosted by Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s manager, and I wasn’t keen on what I heard. Of course the series as a whole represents a priceless example of a great artist permitting access to his own archives, but Blood on the Tracks is a perfect album and I don’t really need it in any other less perfect form. “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”, for example, is so precious to me that I really hated listening to a truly horrible early version with an arrangement that robbed the song of all its lilting heartbreak poetry.
I suppose the real value of the new release is in its implicit suggestion of why Dylan rejected the first (mostly) solo version of the album, recorded in New York. What he didn’t like was its “down” mood. When he re-recorded half the songs in Minneapolis with a band, he dialled the mood up a notch, letting a bit more sunlight in. And he got it right.
Notwithstanding all that, eventually I cracked and bought the single CD version of More Blood, More Tracks. Now I’m glad I did, for one reason: a version of “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” that tells us something about Bob Dylan’s skills as a performer.
It’s a track I’ve always loved because it has so much of Bob in it: a wild story, full of characters and humour and unexplained ambiguities and bizarre incidents, a slapstick take on “Desolation Row” relocated in Tombstone, Arizona. Has he ever written anything more romantic than the line “She was with Big Jim but she was leaning to the Jack of Hearts”? Has he ever brought off another shift of mood as adroitly and blood-freezingly cinematic as “But then the crowd began to stamp their feet and the house lights did dim / And in the darkness of the room there was only Jim and him”?
The version we know from the released album was recorded in Minneapolis in December 1974 with a six-piece band (two guitars, organ, bass guitar and drums) plus Dylan himself on guitar and harmonica. One of its joys is its hurtling momentum: a tempo of 64 bars per minute, a fast shuffle propelled by the slap of wire brushes.
Now Volume 14 of the Bootleg Series gives us Dylan’s solo attempt at the song in New York three and a half month earlier. It’s slower — 56 bars per minute — and lacks the deadpan effervescence of the later version. What it has in recompense is a freedom for the singer to treat the song’s structure — AABA, in eight-bar sections — and metre in the way the standard 12-bar blues form was treated by John Lee Hooker or Jimmy Reed, in other words with absolute flexibility.
In place of the urgency that would be provided by the Minneapolis band, Dylan comes up with another way of providing that momentum: he shortens the eight-bar sections by clipping off a bar or half a bar and entering early with the first line of the next section. He can do this because he is alone with his guitar. And I don’t know many better examples of his command of phrasing, of his ability to manipulate asymmetry, making the bar-lines follow the melody, rather than the customary vice-versa. Here’s the man who honed his art alone on stages in the folk clubs and coffee houses of Greenwich Village, polishing devices that would hold an audience’s attention. Once you starting listening closely, it’s mesmerising.
* The photograph of Bob Dylan is from the booklet that comes with More Blood, More Tracks (CBS/Sony Legacy). It’s omitted from the otherwise comprehensive credits, but I think it’s by Barry Feinstein.