Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Gospel

Father Bob Zimmy doesn’t so much enter the conference room as apparate there, black hoodie drawn Unabomber tight, opaque sunglasses banking the fire of his piercing blue eyes. He sits down at the long, mirror-polished mahogany table, conforming his lanky frame to the Italian leather ergonomics of the chair at the head. He flicks a lever somewhere underneath the seat with the confidence of a NASCAR driver shifting and accelerating into the winning position, the chair tilts back and in the same motion, Dylan’s immaculately worn cowboy boots rise up and find a home on the wooden surface. He sweeps off the hood, removes the sunglasses with a precise pincer grasp on the bridge, and looks up at the three people at the front of the room: “Whaddya got?” The question comes out more like a secret, but he’s got nothing more to say.

The first exec fiddles with his shirt collar and presses a button on the embedded console. A title slide appears on the screen to his left: “Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Vol 13: Proposal One.” He clears his throat but before the first word is emitted, there’s a creak from Dylan’s chair. He’s holding up his hand, sunglasses still within, like an extra appendage. “There’s no poetry in PowerPoint,” he rasps, “shut that thing off.” The exec flicks his eyes at his colleagues, complies without a word, and starts his pitch. 

“There’s a lot of social media buzz around performances from the Nineties, on YouTube and in various Facebook groups. There’s a consensus building that you had something special going on then, especially in the wake of Time Out Of Mind and all the new songs it put into the set.” Dylan moves his head almost imperceptibly, his way of telling the suit to continue. “So, here’s the cover art for Bootleg Series Vol. 13: Never Ending Nineties - The Baxter-Campbell-Jackson Years.” He slides a glossy printout down the table before resuming. It's a mock-up of a cover featuring photos of Dylan with Bucky Baxter, Larry Campbell and John Jackson. “We based it a little on this Duke Ellington package from a while ago, The Blanton-Webster Years. Won a Grammy, highly acclaimed, still mentioned as one of the best catalog releases of all time.”

Dylan contemplates the cover art for a few silent minutes before swinging his legs off the table and leaning in. “That might be good for the Duke,” he says, “having those other fellas names on the cover. But he was six feet under by that time, and I ain’t there yet. Nothing makes me happier than bootlegging those bootleggers on YouTube - that money doesn’t swear - it sings - but no.” He doesn’t even need to say “next” for the next victim to know she’s at the plate. 

“Thanks, Bob,” the woman says, looking a little overheated in expensive denim, and glancing at some bullet points in her binder, “Your Live at Budokan album is one of your most divisive, with some people claiming it was too glitzy, like Elvis in Vegas. What most people don’t know is that you rehearsed that band for over a month before going tour. It was one of your largest groups and you wanted them tight.” Dylan cocks his head, he’s interested. “You had them work up 150 songs in preparation, many of which were never performed outside of their original studio versions. And there are two previously unpublished songs that were only ever worked on during those rehearsals.” She stops talking, gets up, walks down to where Dylan is sitting and puts a piece of paper in front of him. 

The mock-up shows a photo of Dylan in a circle with all the Budokan musicians, standing in front of a stage dense with gear. The words on top say, Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13: Budokan Or Bust. Dylan picks up the sheet, giving it a hard stare. The exec hands him another document, which shows the potential track listing. “We’re thinking eight CDs and a DVD for the deluxe version, with a two CD standard issue. We -“ Dylan holds up a hand. 

“This could almost work,” Dylan says slowly, “but there’s one problem. Ian Wallace was perhaps the worst drummer I ever worked with. Every building needs a floor,” he adds cryptically, “Or you got nowhere to stand.” He puts the pages down, pushes them away on the slick wood, and speaks volumes with his eyebrows as he looks at the third A&R person, a balding man with stringy hair and an unkempt beard, typical aging hippie. 

The man reaches under the table, picks up a small musical instrument case and places it on the surface. Looking directly at Dylan, he flicks open the two clasps and lifts the lid, revealing a tambourine nestled in black foam. With his eyes still on Dylan, he picks up the tambourine, shakes it high above his head and brings it dramatically down onto his other hand. There’s a second of silence that he fills with a deliberate rhythm, getting up from his chair, and stalking towards Dylan, making full eye contact and singing, in a thick New York accent: “You may be an ambassador to England or France/You may like to gamble, you may like to dance/You may be the heavyweight champion of the world/You may be a socialite with a long (it sounds like “lawnnnng”) string of pearls/But you’re going to have to serve somebody/Yes, you are, you’re going to have to serve somebody/Well, it may be the devil or it may be the lord, but you’re going to have to serve somebody!”

He’s timed it perfectly, so on the last word he stops right in front of Dylan, slapping the tambourine one last time on his hip. Maintaining eye contact, Dylan waves one hand in the air, a wry grin starting on his lined face. The old hippie reaches into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulls out a wrinkled sheet of paper with his mock-up, unfolds it, and places it in front of Dylan. It shows the singer onstage in a shamanic pose, arms outstretched, wearing a guitar, in full electric preacher mode. Above the picture are the words “Bob Dylan - Bootleg Series Vol. 13: Gospel Train (1979-1981).”

Dylan indicates the chair closest to him and the man sits down, the other two execs forgotten by both of them. “This I like,” Zimmy says, “because everybody hated and misunderstood that whole time. It was as if I really was Judas - but I had murdered Bob Dylan.” He makes air quotes when saying his name. “So what are we talking here? Live stuff? Rehearsals, outtakes, demos? Hell if I can remember how all those records happened. I DO know for sure that I wanted Saved to be a live album but Columbia said no," He looks pointedly at the other two execs in the room, who pretend to check their phones. "Can we do that?”

“Absolutely,” his new best friend says, pulling another document out of his pocket, “and more, much more.” He unfolds the paper, smoothing it down on the table. It’s an 11x14 spreadsheet, with song names and  recording dates and locations, color-coded to show which songs appear multiple times. “We’ve got all of Saved, except for A Satisfied Mind, in brilliant performances, and all of Slow Train and most of Shot of Love, too! We even dug up 14 unreleased songs. Now listen to this..." He pulls a phone out of his pocket, unlocks it with his face, and makes of couple of gestures. The familiar "bloop" sound is heard as a Google Audio device picks up the signal. He presses play and Slow Train starts playing, but in a completely different version from the one on the studio album. It has a stomping beat and an aggressive edge, with two extraordinary guitar solos that push it into the stratosphere. By the time it ends, Dylan is pounding his hand on the table with the rhythm.

"Hot damn!" Zimmy exclaims, "That was some hot shit band, huh? You know, I got Jim Keltner, the ultimate studio rat drummer to come on the road with me. He told me he cried after every song on Slow Train Coming. Little did he know we'd be out for almost three years! And Fred Tackett on guitar, he was at loose ends after Lowell George died, and Little Feat was in flux. Then I had Tim Drummond, a gut-punching bass player if there ever was one. Spooner Oldham on keys - name someone better." He shakes his head slowly, marveling in the memory of it. "Then I had a little gospel choir to lend some sweetening, as the old record men used to say. Talking about Clydie King, Carolyn Dennis, Regina McCrary...couple others. These women could make the phone book sound like hallelujah. I even married one of them," he finishes slyly. "Good as they were, though, I think we should leave their solo sets off-a this thing. We want to focus people on my songs, do a little hard-sell. Same goes for my sermons - who knows what the heck I was going on about, anyhow. I was in the moment. That moment has past, but the songs' time is still to come."

The stringy-haired man utters a near-silent "Amen," and plays a few more songs. Everything sounds sizzling. Ballads burn with quiet fire, rockers are super-charged, even in rehearsal, and abandoned songs hint at new directions and further possibilities. One standout is a rehearsal of Slow Train that seems to come out of the mist, horns and percussion giving it sonic equivalence to Bob Marley & The Wailers circa 1979. Another rehearsal take, of Caribbean Wind featuring a weeping pedal steel, is finally, maybe, a definitive take of a most elusive song. Zimmy listens carefully, then remarks, almost to himself, "That one I couldn't quite grasp what it was about when I finished it."* There's also a very different, searing version of the same song, from its only concert outing in 1980, and a never-before-heard song called Making A Liar Out Of Me that's nearly the equivalent of Blind Willie McTell's surprise appearance on the first Bootleg Series release.

After a couple more live tracks, Dylan puts up a finger: "You hear how good this stuff sounds? We wanted to make a live album, remember, or albums - Shot Of Love could've been better, too - so we took extra care with our stage set-up. Look at the pictures - in many of them you'll see a four foot by 12 foot piece of Plexiglas, in between the drums and the choir. We put that baffle in there to keep the vocal bleed out of the drum mics. S'gonna make it a hell of a lot easier to master the tracks, since most of them are from cassette, right?" Everyone else in the room nods in unison. They know they've just had a brief audience with expert producer Jack Frost.

Dylan picks up the spreadsheet, starts running his finger down the columns, nodding once in a while. "I like this. You've got the cream of the live crop up top, looks like - that can be a standard release, two CDs or four LPs, and then you've got some rehearsals and outtakes, plus two more complete shows for the deluxe set. Sweet." He takes a last look at the document, puts a finger on the title and says, "We might have a problem with this Gospel Train business. What about Trouble In Mind?" Zimmy thinks for a minute. "No - Trouble No More, 'cause no one will have a problem with my "gospel era" (air quotes again) when they hear this big ol'box of goodness!" He pushes the spreadsheet back over to the old hippie, who returns with it to his seat and packs it away with the tambourine. "Good. Let's get this out by fall, right?" Everyone makes agreeable noises as Father Bob Zimmy stands up, corrals his frizzy hair with the hoodie, drawing it tight, and slips the sunglasses over his eyes. Before anyone can say a goodbye, he's in the wind. And they've got work to do.

*This is the only real Dylan quote, from an interview with Cameron Crowe referenced in the liner notes. The story about Jim Keltner's tears is also factual, as related by him to Mojo Magazine, December 2017.

Note: I haven't seen the documentary that comes with the Deluxe Edition yet. I'm sure the live footage is scintillating, but the sermons, written by Luc Santé and performed by Michael Shannon have proven divisive among viewers. Plus ća change...

Pick your version of Bob Dylan – Trouble No More – The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 / 1979-1981 - every home should have one. Still among the unconverted? Check out the sampler on Spotify.

You may also enjoy:

Dylan-Lamar-Misty: An American Trilogy
Off Your Radar Issue #21: Slow Train Coming
Sail On Bob 

This will be my last regular review of the year - time to get on with detailing the Best Of 2017!

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