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Bootlegged hits and misses

A new Bob Dylan compilation unearths an erratic mix


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Bootlegged hits and misses
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What makes the five-disc Springtime in New York: The Bootleg Series Vol. 16 1980-1985 the most arbitrary of Columbia/Legacy’s Bob Dylan Bootleg Series installments to date is that what Dylan was doing in 1980 and ’81 had little to do with what he was doing in ’83, ’84, and ’85.

In the late ‘70s, Dylan claimed to have converted from Judiasm to Christianity and released a trilogy of Christian albums. But by the early ‘80s he exhausted his ability or desire to sing exclusively about Jesus, and ended up singing about practically everything else. The result: a pile of recordings never meant to endure public scrutiny or fans’ searches for discarded gems.

But, Dylan being Dylan, they’ll find some.

How many they’ll find on Disc 1 depends on how much they enjoy Self Portrait. Like that odds-and-ends collection, these dozen tour-rehearsal recordings plus one Shot of Love outtake find Dylan revisiting songs from his own catalog and debuting the impressive forbidden-love original “Let’s Keep It Between Us” while trying traditional numbers and other people’s hits.

Some fit better than others. “To Ramona” blooms in a full-band context, “Mary of the Wild Moor” would’ve been at home on Good As I Been to You, and “Jesus Met the Woman at the Well” throws elbows. Songs made famous by Neil Diamond, Dion, Dave Mason, Little Willie John, and Michael Johnson don’t fit at all.

The highlight of Disc 2’s Shot of Love outtakes isn’t an outtake at all but an alternate mix of “Lenny Bruce,” raising the question of why more such mixes weren’t included. (Maybe Sony’s saving them for a copyright-extending 50th-anniversary Shot of Love bundle in 2031.)

Also not bad: the “Willie and the Hand Jive” rewrite “Price of Love,” the “Heart of Mine” B-side “Let It Be Me,” “Don’t Ever Take Yourself Away,” “Borrowed Time,” and “Is It Worth It?”

The pickings get slimmer on the last three discs as most of what they contain ended up on 1983’s Infidels and 1985’s Empire Burlesque with less arbitrary lyrics, better production, or both. Even the Shadows in the Night–anticipating cover of Frank Sinatra’s’ “This Was My Love” suffers from Dylan’s not yet having learned to sing with the necessary sensitivity.

Knowing how to sing his own material was an issue by 1985. Four years shy of the evocative lower register that he’d unveil on Oh Mercy, he often defaulted to the kind of braying that ruins both Disc 5 takes of “When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky.”

But sometimes he made the braying work. On both the alternate “Blind Willie McTell” and the full-length “Death Is Not the End,” his voice and harmonica generate calm in the face of doom that truly passes understanding.


Arsenio Orteza

Arsenio is a music reviewer for WORLD Magazine and one of its original contributors from 1986. Arsenio resides in China.

@ArsenioOrteza

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