Veteran biographer Andy Muir spoke to us extensively about the master folk legend Bob Dylan, a man he’s scholarly studied for forty years. With an official Bootleg series soon-to-be released from the Dylan archives, there’s plenty to discuss with the expert himself. Read on for L4LM writer Bob Wilson’s interview with Muir.
L4LM: You are among the foremost experts on Bob Dylan ‘bootleg’ recordings. What was the quality of the new material being officially released on November 6th as underground samplings like? Is it really worth the upgrade for those who have this material already?
AM: Well I would not describe myself that way but keep it in because it will make Clinton Heylin’s head explode. Let’s just say that it is over 40 years since I got my first ‘65 bootleg and that I have been listening to unofficial material from the ‘Cutting Edge’ years ever since. Constantly upgrading, often studying them for articles or books but mainly just enjoying them and revelling in them.
The quality varies enormously, though this was due to copying and generational issues, in general, rather than variance in tape sources as with live bootlegs from the same period. That first bootleg I mention was really what we used to call “semi-legal”. These were a series of releases – Joker albums – that were legal in Italy but not in the United Kingdom, or almost any other country outside Italy (the same thing happened with releases in other countries in later years, Germany for example). My mum was at university as a mature student roughly speaking she was 40 years old and her fellow students half her age. One of those fellow students found out I was crazy about Dylan and gave her one of these Joker albums, called, “A Rare Batch of Little White Wonder Volume 3”, which he had just picked up on a trip to Italy, to lend to me so that I could tape it. It had Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited outtakes. I was in heaven!
Well, I am answering this before it is released. We have to hope that it is worth the upgrade. I dream of very much improved quality as, I’m sure, do we all. Most things could, maybe even should, be in very much improved quality – the Denver hotel tape aside – so I am hopeful. I especially have fingers crossed for the Glasgow hotel tape from 13th May 1966. It sounds magical already and I’m very curious as to whether improved quality will reveal more. That sounds strange as you’d automatically assume that it would, but that’s not always the case; sometimes the almost-graspable, by its very tantalising nature, is the more moving.
“Worth it”? Let’s put it this way, if news came out that there was a bootleg about to be released with all this stuff on it, produced using the latest and best technology available, we’d all be going mad for it. We would be ecstatically excited and so there is no reason not to be so just because it is official. “Worth” though brings up the issue of cost, and it is ludicrously expensive, especially for those outside the United States. If you order it from the UK you have to add approximately $90 for shipping and an import tax and VAT, all of which will add $100s to the total cost and making it hard to justify, especially when you are buying CDs containing much of what you already have, albeit in inferior quality.
L4LM: How many of the songs are out-takes that casual fans might not have heard yet? How do these numbers stand up in terms of quality to those that made the original albums?
AM: It’s interesting to think of the ‘Bootleg Series’ in that light – through the eyes of a ‘casual fan’. Imagine how exciting these releases must be for people who have never collected bootlegs. I love a lot of the outtakes but comparing the ones we know – wonderful though many are – tend to confirm that those released were the best versions. My very good friend David Bristow has an interesting stance on this. He is of the opinion that Bootleg Series releases such as Another Self Portrait are actually much more important. David doesn’t feel the need to hear other versions of songs that are perfect in the original albums as released. So, here he is not expecting anything to match what we’ve already got, whereas on the other releases David was referring to, there are undiscovered jewels and/or better versions to enhance our lives.
L4LM: Disc 3 seems to be all different versions of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, some with isolated tracks on bass or piano. Even for a song as classic as this one, do we need this sort of overkill?
AM: That depends on where you are coming to it from. You load the question with the word “overkill”. What is seen as ‘overkill’ and obsession when it is over rock tracks would be regarded very differently if applied to, let’s say, a novelist or a poet. Give me 25 different versions, fragments and drafts of the ‘Grand Inquisitor’ episode from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and I will happily spend the rest of my life poring over them. Would that be called ‘overkill’ or, instead be viewed as a worthwhile studious use of one’s time?
However, that aside, your use of the word “need” makes it very difficult to answer anything other than “no”. But that’s only because of that word, we may not need it– though many will feel that they do – but it is surely up to everyone individually as to whether they want it. Also, if you were writing about, or studying, the song, and these were available then you would very much have to listen to them, and listen to them repeatedly at that. And you would be very grateful to have such material. Or, if you are a fan who likes to explore everything about his work, how the songs came together; if you speculate on how the magic was created, in this case how it wasn’t even realised that perfection had already been achieved, then you’ll be very interested in that CD. Additionally, if you are a musician influenced by Dylan’s work – and nearly every musician seems to be – then it surely going to be a goldmine, don’t you think?
L4LM: Scuttlebutt has been that Dylan enjoys the VIP packages sold for his shows, which fans pay hefty amounts for. It seems they receive a seat, and a ‘bag of crap’ for a hefty admission fee, and do not even get a meet and greet. The deluxe edition of this release seems in a way to be on par with that. What say you, especially to Dylan’s attitude towards all of this?
AM: Hey, you’re loading the question again! Let’s take your opening and closing salvos together. I don’t care what the scuttlebutt says, and neither should you – don’t let ‘the dirt of gossip blow into his face nor the dust of rumors cover him.’ Give me information from sources who would know, or, as I usually look for, from two or three sources that had a history of being reliable, coming together in agreement and then I’d listen. But for now I don’t know what Dylan’s attitude is.
I can only imagine, though, that anyone would have a rueful smile and shake their head at people shelling out for those VIP rip-offs……and with all the more pleasure were you a beneficiary of such easy to generate cash. Yet, perhaps I am being unfair, if you have the money to spare and that’s what you want to spend it on, then why not? I shouldn’t really portray it as being risible, even though it seems that way to me, because perhaps if I were rich enough I would do the same. My days of hard NET travelling – on packed buses and sleeping on floors and queuing up for hours to be at the front when the doors open to rush to the front of the stage and wait in increasing discomfort for hours more – are probably over. I’m older, so perhaps the convenience and comfort would seem worth it if I had that amount of money to spare. I don’t think I’ll ever be in a position to find out what I would do, however! And you do still feel that those who are prepared to put in the effort for the best positions deserve them most; but, we live in a world where money doesn’t just swear, it reigns over everything.
I would add that I’m very glad he doesn’t do a ‘meet and greet’ as that would be undignified because they are such hollow gestures.
L4LM: Some fans have said that this basically is the end to really desirable material to see the light of day. It seems that live shows alone would leave this franchise with seemingly no end in sight. What in the vault would you like to see pried out in terms of shows, and studio material in these official releases?
AM: Really? I don’t know why they are saying that, I don’t believe that is true, quite the opposite in fact. Wouldn’t you like the Blood on the Tracks and Oh Mercy studio outtakes to come out, for example? Plus there are bound to be many we don’t know about yet -“Pretty Saro” type surprises from sessions for any album, in any year would be ‘really desirable’. As for what would I like to see come out – that’s easy, everything (laughs).
Let’s start with those that have already been mooted: the Blood on the Tracks ‘set’ or perhaps that will turn out to be a 1974 to 1976 compilation depending on which of the announcements you pounce upon with preference. As far as Blood on the Tracks goes I could never have enough and clearly there are more versions of at least some of the songs than we have currently circulating. Different arrangements, different lyrics, even if there’s not too many, wouldn’t that be enough for it to be “really desirable” on its own? It certainly would be for me and I can’t imagine why it wouldn’t be for any other Dylan fan. You know, long, long ago, Joan Baez after a concert in Scotland, was talking to my friend, Joe McShane, and she told him about “another Blood on the Tracks” that she thought was better than the released one. He presumed she meant the New York Sessions and said so, but she replied “No, another one.” It’s a comment that has haunted me for years! I took the ‘Shelter from the Storm’ on the Jerry Maguire film to be a kind of confirmation of this alternate album version. Then there was the teasing official release of a new ‘Meet Me in the Morning’ with an – inaccurate as it turned out – reference to it coming from the next ‘Bootleg Series’ take. All of this is very enticing, ok it may be there is not much else, but who really knows? It may all come to nothing – but it’s a nice thought, isn’t it, and the signs are good that there’s more Blood material that will be released one day.
As I say, I’d also like the Oh Mercy outtakes, and the evangelising Christian period surely deserves a live release with an accompanying official release of the stunning video from Toronto in 1980. Dylan was absolutely on fire on stage in 79 and 80; it is criminal that Dylan’s idea for a three LP live version of Saved didn’t come out at the time. There’s also been talk about a 1966 style DVD centered around The Rolling Thunder Revue which no doubt would have an accompanying double or triple CD. All I’m talking about here is stuff that has already been mooted, and you just need to go through the session books to imagine how other releases could be constructed and that’s without taking into consideration any material that we don’t even know about yet, which still keeps turning up, as you know. Things like the Bromberg Sessions, four songs of which, popped up one year to everyone’s surprise. And while I realize that many of the tracks from Shot of Love and Infidels’ out-takes have been officially released, an 81-84 set would still be ‘really desirable’ for me. So, an emphatic disagreement from me to the thought of there being nothing ‘really desirable’ still to come.
L4LM: Among the albums covered this time in Volume 12, we have Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde On Blonde. What is your feeling regarding this material, and has any artist come close to matching this trio of consecutive releases in such a short span? How do the Beatles compare in your eyes?
AM: No, I don’t think so. Actually, I don’t think any three releases by anyone else matches any single one of these. For me the Beatles best albums come either side of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band so they don’t have a similar trio in my eyes, nor, even if they had would it have ‘come close’. I grew up with The Beatles, I love them, and they were extremely creative of course and you could perm three very fine achievements in a row from almost any combination from Rubber Soul onwards, but comparable? No. The profundity and reach of Dylan – plus all the wonderful outtakes he gives us in addition to the actual releases – are things that the Beatles never had. Oddly enough, you ask me this questions just after Expecting Rain Discussions had a link to Lou Reed discussing something similar.
Others have been hugely creative; David Bowie in the 70s Hunky-Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, and Aladdin Sane is another creative breakthrough trio; though I feel the last one is a drop compared to the previous couple. Also, much like the Beatles in the 60s, you could make a case for quite a number of permutations of artistic peaks from Bowie in the 70s and you could do the same for Bruce Springsteen with his second third and fourth ,or third fourth and fifth albums creating other fabulous trilogies – plus Bruce was also writing large amount of out-takes of high quality that were the match and sometimes even superior to what made it onto the albums – but, still, no, no one has come close to this trio. Not even Dylan himself and he is the one who comes closest to doing so, actually.
Depending on which way you look at it the next album was either The Basement Tapes or John Wesley Harding. Even leaving The Basement Tapes out of things for now, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding is some trio. Thinking back to your question, I don’t think anyone has matched the preceding three Dylan albums to this fabled trio either, and you could make a trio up from 1974 to 1979 that I’d also find unmatchable from anyone else. So I would say Dylan is the one who is closest to matching his own ‘magical trio’.
L4LM: Rumor has it that Dylan recorded a full second album of Sinatra related tracks when he did Shadows in the Night? Will that be his next new studio release, or will that eventually be a possible bootleg release?
AM: You and your rumours. He did record enough tracks, we know that. Al Schmitt said that ‘they ran through 23 tracks in all’ and the session logs show that the ones on Shadows In The Night were amongst others recorded at the same time. It is reasonable to assume that they were all considered releasable of which the ten we have were chosen. However whether they are being considered for release seems to be just conjecture as far as I can see. I suppose by including some of these tracks in his live shows Dylan has furthered the rumours that it will happen and obviously it is a possibility, but I don’t know if there’s anything more in it than people putting forward that possibility as speculation. You could also argue that the care and passion with which he is is singing this material live and its dominance of the current set would indicate he may be thinking upon these lines. I’m beginning to convince myself here, which isn’t what I started out to say!
I think people are just guessing but I’m not saying it is a wrong guess; I’m just not sure there’s anything firm on which to base it. He’s had other sessions where more tracks were recorded than released, but it never meant in the past that these would be the next album. He is though, playing the material in a way that suggests this is what he wants to be heard singing at his moment in time. Yeah, if it doesn’t come out as an album in its own right perhaps as a future Bootleg Series. Why not? Volume 42 perhaps (laughing).
L4LM: Recently you have combined your passions for Dylan and Shakespeare. What have you been up to with the bards? Are we wrong to mention the two in the same breath with the same measure of importance?
AM: That’s two separate questions which I would answer differently. Firstly, we are not wrong to mention them in the same breath but on the other hand we are in error if we regard them as having the same level of importance. I would like to quickly point out that this is not to disparage Dylan, I would say the same of anyone in comparison to Shakespeare. Just to go back to the first question, I’ve written and spoken extensively on this in recent months. Here’s a web link to all that: http://www.a-muir.co.uk/csf/shdyl.pdf
For the second part, please let me give you context as to why I think it would be wrong. I want to compare one of the (if not the) artist who comes closest to matching Shakespeare in insight, profundity, revolutionizing of his form and so forth – and then show how far ahead the Bard of Bards is to even his nearest challengers.
In my opinion the closest thing to Shakespeare at his peak is Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, it’s pretty close to if not right up there with King Lear. And yet Shakespeare also wrote Hamlet and Macbeth and if you put them all together the balance quite obviously tips Shakespeare’s way. A Dostoyevsky defender – I usually am one – could then add that Dostoyevsky also wrote The Idiot and The Possessed but then the Shakespeare fan would chip in with ‘okay, but Shakespeare also wrote Othello, Twelfth Night, Henry IV parts One and Two, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. You can imagine the Dostoyevsky stalwart scrabbling desperately to mention, against this tidal wave of masterpieces, and blurting out: Crime And Punishment, Notes From The Underground and The House of the Dead. All magnificent achievements too, but he would still be lagging behind and running out of options as the Shakespeare fan rolled on with: The Winter’s Tale, Richard II and III, Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, Henry V and on and on the list goes. The breadth and range and depth of Shakespeare are simply unmatchable; he is not just the greatest writer but also the greatest dramatist (mind you could say that Dylan is the greatest singer as well as the greatest lyricist). I also firmly believe that Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky were tremendous minds. Their work reveals things about our existence as profound as the most brilliant philosophers, many of whom they have influenced. But, that’s taking us off track, back to your question…
It’s also a hard comparison to make given the length of their careers. As Dylan heads into his sixth decade we have to remember that Shakespeare’s work basically covered the twenty years from 1590 to 1610, approximately speaking. Of course, if you are to pick the first two decades of Dylan’s career to ‘match up with’ then you do have the ’60s and ’70s so he’d be fighting with his big guns as it were. Nonetheless, a more fruitful comparison for Dylan I think would be with the poet William Wordsworth. Both started out as firebrands attacking the establishment. Revolutionising the form they were writing in while becoming involved in their respective ‘revolutions in the air’, both survived and kept working for decades afterwards to eventually find themselves showered with awards invited to the very top tables and/or homes of the rulers of the countries. They were/are lauded by all and sundry, cuddled up to by the establishment and are serial award winners. On a more seemingly trivial, but perhaps not, point, a Scottish writer, Joanna Baillie, once said something about Wordsworth that always makes me think she could be speaking of Dylan: “He looks like a man that one must not speak to unless one has some sensible thing to say”.
L4LM: One of my favorite albums is Tempest (released in 2012), and I have found no studio out-takes from that at all. Some of the live tracks from recent shows are wonderful of these songs, and take some versions in different directions. Did Dylan tighten up on the studio ‘odds and ends’ purposefully? What are your favorite live versions among the songs released on Tempest?
AM: Yes definitely, he tightened up on studio out-takes a long time ago now. Outtakes probably dried up after under the red sky[i]. Certainly there is no comparison before and after this in my experience of collecting unofficial studio album outtakes.
I have a clear favourite but before that I want to mention “Pay in Blood”, which has been a very dramatic and very powerful part of the set. It was absolutely key when I saw him in 2013 and still is a major component in the current tour even with its much altered set-list. However, the highlight for me has to be my favourite track from the album anyway, which is “Long And Wasted Years”. That was the absolute centrepiece and peak of the wonderful 2013 shows that I saw in Glasgow and London.
L4LM: This upcoming release advertises that all of the songs included are studio tracks. Given the legendary status of the concerts from this period, an entire live set of these songs would not be unjustified. What are your thoughts regarding what such a release might include?
AM: Everything should be on it and it should cost $600 in the States and about a thousand dollars everywhere else. All joking aside, it’s all essential and it also gives the lie that the same set-list on consecutive nights with the same arrangements equals the same concert performance. It doesn’t, not with a live artist like Dylan. Dublin isn’t Leicester isn’t Manchester and so forth. Incidentally, how wonderful would it be to hear Bristol in good quality? I don’t know if that would happen, but again it is nice to dream. Also, for all the brilliance of the electric sets I find the acoustic ones scale even higher peaks and to have the acoustic set from, Dublin, say, in perfect quality is the stuff of dreams.
L4LM: I understand that you saw Dylan recently in London and Southampton. How did these shows compare to those you have seen over the years?
AM: I thought Dylan was in brilliant form and poured his soul into the Sinatra-related songs. It is interesting that mainstream media and fans alike are raving about the shows, even the papers who traditionally hate him for (their probably mistaken) views on his religion or politics.
He sounded very impassioned and then very nuanced, he sounded really good throughout. Although I confess that one verse of ‘Melancholy Mood’ was utterly indecipherable on my first hearing, so perhaps it still helps to know the words in advance! Anyway, the whole night was meticulously planned and perfectly paced. I even liked the lighting! It was, in those last elements, quite different to much of what I write about in One More Night.
Also it is nice to see Dylan so happy and he was connecting with the audience as much as I have ever seen. His vulnerable, hesitant walks are very endearing – though he does look alarmingly frail at times.
L4LM: Do you have any new works in progress that we can look forward to? What is your favorite from among the works you have produced on Dylan to date?
AM: I do have ideas for three books – one of them on Dylan for which I’ve taken a number of notes over the years but I’m not really sure. A lot depends on other things in life. I doubt I will be updating One More Night, though it still galls me that after I finished it I saw shows that I thought were the best in a decade at least and these were the very next shows that I saw, and that there is so much to write about the shows since then, and again all positive. Things like that are just the breaks. I think someone else should take up the mantle of continuing the story, somebody who goes to more shows than I now do and somebody who listens to them all as I used to do – any volunteers out there? There’s certainly a lot to write about. It would be a wonderful contrast to everything I wrote in One More Night to be talking about legs where the set-list rarely changes and when it does, there is not necessarily any significant change (with the obvious exceptions).
‘I don’t know’ is the truthful answer, but there is quite a lot of my writing around after Troubadour. From my website you can download nearly all of the Judas magazines some of which include articles by me including lengthy pieces on ‘Lies That Truth Is Black And White’, and Dylan’s connections with the Scottish folk tradition. I also wrote quite a number of columns for Isis magazine, including a sizeable review of Tell-Tale Signs, and a substantial article on Oh Mercy for the first issue of Montague Street.
[i] I always spell it that way (all lower case) as that’s what the album was in the original vinyl release (and so differentiated from the track itself) – and that album was very much thought of as a vinyl in track sequencing terms, a major part of Dylan’s art that digital music was eventually to obliterate ( and which may also have had an effect on the treatment of outtakes)…
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