In August, Bob Dylan and Columbia Records released, Another Self Portrait, the tenth in a series of official bootleg recordings. Collecting nearly forty tracks of unused takes, alternate versions, half-starts, and demos, the album provides a much clearer picture of one of the most divisive years in Dylan’s career. After a motorcycle crash in 1966, the details of which are still relatively unknown, Dylan remained in Woodstock to recharge and continue creating music on his own terms. The results were startling, which is saying a lot for an artist who at that time had successfully changed his musical persona so many times that it really shouldn’t have been a surprise. John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, the Basement Tapes—these albums from the late 1960s capture an artist finding a new voice, experimenting with his style, and in the case of the oft-bootlegged recording sessions in the basement of Big Pink that he did with the Band, plain just having fun and getting back to his roots.
Of course Dylan was always experimenting and getting back to his roots. Coming out of the “folk scare” of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Dylan had been called the spokesman for a generation—a moniker, mantle, and responsibility that he neither wanted nor agreed with. He’d “gone electric.” He dared to write some love songs instead of political songs on an album very clearly titled Another Side of Bob Dylan. By the late 1960s, he was given his chance to retreat, and he did so. That did not stop people from seeking him out, chasing him around Woodstock or rummaging through his garbage when he moved back to New York City, but he tried. The music that came out of this period remains a personal favorite of mine, including the usually maligned Self Portrait. In the original release, Dylan collected some songs that he loved from the contemporary scene, traditionals, as well as some tunes pulled straight from the pile of Sing Out! magazines he had next to him. This new version, which culls the best outtakes and alternate versions from Self Portrait as well as the underrated New Morning, expands our understanding of these sessions and just exactly what Dylan was trying to do. It is, quite simply, one of the best albums released this year—forty-three years after the fact.
Michael Simmons, is a journalist and musician who writes for Mojo, The Huffington Post, and many others, has written a great deal about Bob Dylan over the years, agreed to talk with me about his liner notes for the album as well as plenty of other topics. What I hoped would be a fifteen-minute conversation soon spread out over an hour, and we spoke not only of Another Self Portrait, but also about Dylan the live performer, his latest work, politics, and more. What follows is an unedited conversation, which we both thought captured our riffs much better than a condensed version. Many thanks to him for agreeing to talk with me.
How did you get involved with this project?
I’d written about Bob more than any single artist and in the June 2010 issue of Mojo I did a feature article about the year of 1970 in Bob Dylan’s life. And from what I understand the powers that be read it, and they dug it, and one thing led to another.
So they actually plan these out a couple years in advance then?
No, no. They just remembered it. I don’t think they were planning it. I don’t think that means anything. So when they were working on it they asked me to do this. It does partly have to do with that one article, but I’ve written so much about Bob over the years. So, they dug that piece about 1970 and here was a Bootleg Series that was devoted to that year, so they asked me if I would contribute a set of liners and I said, “I’d be honored.”
So you’ve written about this before—can you set the scene for us—Dylan post ‘66? We know there was a motorcycle accident, and a search for peace and quiet. Dylan away, out in Woodstock trying to just be with his family. But at the same time he’s always making music.
Dylan was obviously burned out, or evidently burned out. If you watch No Direction Home, the documentary Martin Scorsese did about the ‘66 European tour with the Hawks, there’s a scene with a very crispy Bob sitting with his head in his hands going, “I just want to go home. I just want to go home.” He went home and apparently got his act together. Settled down. Woodstock with Sara. You know, had a passel of kids. He brought the Band up, they continued to play in the basement at Big Pink as well as Bob on his own, but privately. It was a very mysterious time for Dylan fans. There was all kind of conjecture, etc. But Bob was always creating. Bob has never stopped creating. In fact, I know he was painting at that time, of course, I mean, the cover of Big Pink was painted by Bob. And he was hanging out with a painter, maybe others in Woodstock.
You know, there’s this part in my liner notes to Another Self Portrait where I actually quoted something Bob said to Jon Pareles in the New York Times. He’s talking about traditional music, traditional songs. He says, “Those old songs are my lexicon and my prayer book. All my beliefs come out of those old songs, literally, anything from “Let Me Rest on That Peaceful Mountain” to “Keep on the Sunny Side.” You can find all my philosophy in those old songs. I believe in a God of time and space, but if people ask me about that, my impulse is to point them back toward those songs.” Now, obviously Dylan came up through the “Folk Scare” as we used to call it in the early Sixties, late Fifties and early Sixties, and then he took that music and revolutionized it. When he—post crispy Bob in Woodstock—trying to get his shit together reached back to those songs. You can hear that on The Basement Tapes. He’s always done that, he’s always reached back into that song book. You know he did it later in the early nineties with the two acoustic solo albums Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong. He told—when he began recording Self Portrait—in addition to the originals, Al Kooper told me that he had stacks of Sing Out! magazines. Do you know what Sing Out! is?
Oh sure, yeah.
You know, the folk magazine that—
Yeah, he’d just pick songs, pick through it and find the songs.
Yeah. Literally they’d sit around and with Al and David Bromberg on guitar, Kooper on piano, and Bob would have these stacks of Sing Out! magazines and he’d go through them and say, “Oh, let’s do this one.” And he was going back to, apparently, going back to his roots. And he finds some kind of…it works as some kind of a muse for him.
There seems to be an obvious parallel here between these years and the mid-90s acoustic albums, Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, like Dylan recharging by revisiting his roots. Do you think that that is similar to 1970—a moment to recharge by reaching back?
Oh absolutely that’s what it is. I mean also, just purely and simply, aside from anyone trying to read into what Bob Dylan was thinking, or is thinking, which is kind of a loser’s game, you know we never really know. And ultimately it’s none of our business although it’s fun to conjecture about it. You know he was having fun. He loves that music, and he’s a musician, and it’s fun for him to play music he loves. Sometimes it boils down to something as simple as that. In addition to that he may have been looking for inspiration. You know I say all this stuff in the liner notes about him looking for his voice and I think he was, but you can hear by the way he was experimenting with his singing voice there in 1970. And you know, most famously, in that Nashville Skyline voice that took everyone by surprise. I remember when Nashville Skyline came out people were like, Huh? Although they didn’t knock it for some reason. I mean, I love the album. I loved Self Portrait too.
You bring up the idea of him trying to find his voice. You can think of that in a few different ways, but just thinking of the most literal way of him singing differently there are some really beautiful standout tracks—for me “Pretty Saro”…I wish that had been around for the past forty years, but it’s nice to get a listen now.
“Pretty Saro” is extraordinary. It was also, for the older material, the one cut that really stood out when I first heard Another Self Portrait. It’s great singing no matter how you look at it, no matter who’s singing it. It’s great singing. You know, there’s that old adage that Bob Dylan can’t sing. Well that’s bullshit. Bob Dylan’s an incredible singer, even when he was singing the cliché, the corny cliché of Dylan, that hee-haw rasp or whatever you want to call it of Highway 61, “Positively 4th Street,” I mean, some of that singing is incredible. It’s just not what people were used to hearing. But in “Pretty Saro” he sings in a classically beautiful voice. And he is wailing man, he is wailing.
One thing that I love about this set is that you can see on the original logs that it’s written as “Pretty Saro/a.” So obviously, Sara.
Yeah, that occurred to me when I heard it. Saro…Sara. It’s not a stretch.
It’s like finding a love story that is much older than your own and bringing it to your own moment.
So “Saro” is a standout track. What else was surprising to you when you were listening to all this unheard material?
Well, the other track that I instantly fell in love with was “New Morning” with Al’s horns. You know, his old Stax Memphis horns. I love those horns. In fact I had hoped that they would release “New Morning” as a single now, with the horns. In other words, for Bob Dylan’s new single to be a song that was recorded 43 years ago with a horn section on it, a new horn section on it. Although it’s not new it was recorded back then, but all that stuff was discussed way before I got involved. Not that I have any say what gets released, I’m just a writer, but I love that track, man. I love Al’s horn arrangement on “New Morning.” It’s just fun. It brings a smile to my face. It’s gleeful.
Yeah, there’s a video out there where he’s saying it was nice or smart of Dylan not to erase that. Somehow I don’t think there’s a lot of erasing going on as he’s in the studio. I mean they keep finding new things to put out and every time they put one of these out—outtakes—and this is probably one of the best albums of the year.
It’s kind of extraordinary when you realize that what is, possibly for American popular music, the best album for 2013 was recorded for the most part in 1970. That’s an amazing fact that has all kinds of implications and tangents that we can get into, but we don’t have time to, it says something about Dylan, Dylan’s music. It says something about the music of that period. It says something about the music of this period. It’s really quite an achievement and quite a statement.
Getting back to the original series of albums, it does seem bold at first glance to revisit such a polarizing album—what do you think warranted a second look other than outtakes?
Well I think that the outtakes were the initial motivation to the album but then everything fell into place afterwards. They evidently found a mix tape of stripped-down songs that were to be sent to Nashville to be overdubbed with strings and horns, singers, whatever. And the powers that be were blown away by the quality of the recordings of the songs and Bob’s singing. In addition to the stuff where the arrangements are stripped down from Self Portrait, beyond that, some of the stuff like “This Evening So Soon,” “Thirsty Boots,” which is an Eric Andersen song, “Bring Me a Little Water Sylvie”—these are great songs, and these are great performances. And Bob is singing his ass off, and its again, like “Pretty Saro,” you think, These are sitting on a shelf for forty three years. It’s like “Blind Willie McTell,” do you know the story of Bob bringing “Ratso” [Larry Sloman] in to hear—
So Bob invited him and Bill Graham to go and hear Infidels when it was finished in the early eighties and I guess Ratso had heard some of the recordings, and had been in some of the sessions or whatever, and so he hears the finished album and Ratso goes, “What happened to “Blind Willie McTell?” Where is “Blind Willie McTell?” Because, you know, it’s an incredible song and Bob didn’t put it on the album. And Bob said, “Ratso, calm down. It’s only a song, it’s only an album. There will be other songs, other albums.” And Ratso was ferklempt. I don’t know, I honestly don’t know why some of these decisions are made. I think some of the stuff on Another Self Portrait is as good as the stuff that was released on Self Portrait. Some of it is even better. But at the same time, I still maintain that Self Portrait was a great album. The problem with Self Portrait was that everybody, young people, particularly the so-called spokespeople—the press, Rock cognoscenti and the politically correct hippies. A lot of this stuff was music that was generally made by the so-called enemy, i.e. red necks, people perceived to dabble in easy listening music. There were strings on the album, there were singers. It befuddled people. It was a very polarized era. You know, it was tough for them to understand. I am from New York, but I always loved Nashville country, what is sometimes referred to as countrypolitan music. Even in the Sixties when I was a kid. I loved that stuff, and so to me Self Portrait, I wasn’t shocked by it or surprised by it. I knew where Bob was coming from. And I knew that he wanted to experiment and to try things. And I dug, I think Self Portrait is great. I mean there’s a couple of tracks that I can do without, but that goes without saying for almost anything—though not usually Dylan. I think it’s a fine album.
Griel Marcus’ oft-repeated first line from his original review of Self Portrait—“What’s this shit?”—seems to be an obligatory note for any review now. Can you talk a little bit more about the original reactions and then the act of revisiting, both as a fan and a journalist?
I’m not sure what you mean by revisiting. I mean, I think the album is great. In fact I think it’s one of the best Bootleg Series yet.
I guess maybe I mean—there are people who almost take a thrill at saying that if you are a Dylan fan you are a cultist, that you devour all this stuff that if it were someone else you wouldn’t think it’s that meaningful.
That’s subjectivity. And that boils down to an argument over taste. Partly an argument over taste, and partly an argument over assholes who have nothing better to do than criticize. My response to those people is: Go fuck yourself. Period. The thing is with Bob is that the level of quality—he’s made some less than great albums—but overall, the level of consistency and quality is unparalleled in American popular music rooted in folk and through Rock and Roll. Say, American popular music of the last fifty years. There is no one who equals him, no one, in terms of quality and consistency. So people can say whatever the hell they want. And they will. And I’ll tell you something else. With the advent of the Internet you hear more of that, what I call “the noise” from what I also call the geek G-E-E-K chorus. You know, people just blabbing away and arguing, and they have opinions about this and opinions about that. And it’s like, “Shut up and go make your own fucking album. See if you can do better than Bob Dylan.” I hope that answers your question.
It does. I guess it’s different knowing that you enjoyed the album originally. So it’s not like walking into an archive and finding something you’ve forgotten about or has been disregarded and is later deemed a hidden gem, although there is some truth to that because for years the album, the original album, has been deemed a lesser work. But now, paired with the Bootleg releases, you see not just a fuller picture, but you can appreciate it even more.
Well you see a fuller picture of what he actually was doing at the time as opposed to—you know there was one bootleg in 1970. It was called the Great White…
Right. You know there weren’t bootlegs. There was no Internet. There were no people trading endless Bob Dylan bootlegs. He’d only been recording for ten years or whatever it was. There wasn’t that much. And people thought about what did he did in 1970. Well all they knew was Self Portrait and New Morning, but in terms of, again, what amazed me was how good some of these songs were and how great the singing was. And not just the covers like ‘This Evening So Soon’ or “Thirsty Boots,” but also the variations of the originals. The version of ‘If Not For You’ that kicks off the second disc, I think it has just Bob on piano and a violinist, and it’s beautiful. ‘If Not For You’ has always been this kind of jaunty—I love it, it’s a great song—but it’s always been this kind of jaunty love song. The version on disc two here is a beautiful, aching, pleading ballad. It sounds like he’s down on one knee begging for the woman’s love, telling her he’d be nothing without her. These performances are revelatory. Nobody knew this existed except maybe some of the more assiduous bootleggers. I wasn’t aware of it and I’m a pretty big Bob fan. But all told, Another Self Portrait is extraordinary for that reason. They’re each little revelations, each track. Is that closer to what you’re looking for?
Sure, yeah… yes. Yes.
Don’t say it just to make me feel good. [Laughs].
One thing that I find really fascinating is not just grabbing the old copies of Sing Out!, but what songs Dylan thought worthy of covering from his contemporaries—such as “The Boxer.” There are some mixed results with those—
That’s probably my least favorites from Self Portrait.
But it is interesting to think about who he deemed worthwhile to cover, for example Paul Simon, as someone he might think is a worthy songwriter alongside what he’s doing or the older songs he’s looking at.
Yeah. You know, may I say one thing with some reference to what you just said? One of the cuts from the original Self Portrait that I love and for some reason that often gets slammed is his cover of “Early Morning Rain.” Now, Gordon Lightfoot, even though he was an incredibly commercially successful artist was often looked down on as a kind of a pop-folky—
Not a serious or authentic folk artist, and yet Gordon Lightfoot may be, after Dylan, maybe the best folk, post-folk, whatever you want to call it, songwriter. He’s one of the most—he’s truly an overlooked genius in many respects. But Dylan is hip to Gordon Lightfoot. You know there’s interesting stuff in Chronicles, where he says stuff like, “I always dug Kingston Trio.” And that was kind of heresy because the Kingston Trio, in certain circles, not for me because I loved the Kingston Trio, they were deemed three corny, square, clean-cut folkies. But Bob never cared about what people, what the so-called, self-professed hip people thought. He liked what he liked, and he didn’t care what other people thought. And also he could appreciate genius that would last, like he could appreciate Gordon Lightfoot. Gordon Lightfoot has really stood the test of time, in terms of quality. And yet if you ask some asshole who only listens to Captain Beefheart, nothing against Van Vliet, I’m a fan, but some of these rock snobs, they wouldn’t give Gordon Lightfoot the time of day, but Bob Dylan would. He never cared what other people thought. And that is one of the marks of a great artist and one of the marks of a genius. He shares that with other geniuses like Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker and probably Mozart, though I don’t know enough about Amadeus to tell you that, but I do know enough about the jazz crowd to know that they felt that way too. You know Charlie Parker used to say something to the effect of, “Never dismiss a great melody.”
I mean sure, even just tackling the American Songbook in an instrumental way—
Well that was part of the jazz tradition, but Bird loved certain music that some of the so-called “hipper” cats wouldn’t give the time of day to. And he’d say, “No no, listen to the melody, it’s a gorgeous.” because the record was too corny, or they didn’t like the singer or something. He’d go, “No no, there’s something there.” He looked beyond categories and these false walls of genre. He didn’t care what people thought about him. And Bob never cared about what people thought about him. And I think that that is freeing for an artist. It’s the difference between an artist and a hack.
I mean, a hack will give you what you want every time.
I was thinking about how Dylan even revisits himself here. “Only a Hobo” is a song found all the way back—I say all the way back on the Witmark demos when that’s only a few years earlier. Some of these songs have a longer personal history with him, Dylan working with them over time. Can you talk a little bit about how some of these songs have drifted for a few years. That didn’t even appear on Self Portrait at all and now we have this version.
There’s Bob the recording artist and then there’s Bob the artist. So we are talking about Bob’s records, but I can’t speak for Bob Dylan. But you know, Bob Dylan is always taking his songs and retooling them. He’s done it his entire career and continues to do it. What’s interesting about Another Self Portrait is that you can hear him do it within a very short period of time in 1970. But over the years people have even complained that they go to see Bob and they don’t recognize “The Times They Are a-Changin’” or something. He’s always played with his songs. You know, a friend of mine who played with Bob once said to me it’s like playing with Bird. It’s like playing with an improvisational artist.
Sure, one would also think that it would become very boring for Dylan to repeat himself, especially coming from his immediate crowning as the king of all protest and obviously trying to get away from all that. I’ve seen him a couple of times live, and sometimes it’s a challenge—
[Laughs]. Uh huh.
I guess I mean that in the best way, where sometimes you’re a couple of minutes into the song and you’re like, “That’s what he’s playing…” and I like that. I’ve enjoyed that, but I think that’s apt, that it’s like playing with a jazz improvisator. But even going back to our conversation earlier, at this point by 1970 he’s changed as an artist a few times. Thinking about not just being the “folk artist” and “spokesman of a generation” and all that crap—
Well we’re talking within eight or nine years approximately he’s already had nine lives or ten lives. And that was just in less than a decade up until Self Portrait and New Morning. He’d already been the folkie and the leather-bedecked rocker, and the biblical parable teller, the country singer, and then Lawrence Welk or whatever. He does everything by then, not everything because he’d go on to do even more things. The man has had more lives than anyone. It’s incredible. He’s so mutable. He’s so curious about things. You know, obviously the Christian period is so intriguing about why some Jewish cat would go off for a few years and be this fire and brimstone fundamentalist. But he wrote some great songs in that period.
Yeah, that would be an interesting Bootleg Series release—collecting that near decade of music.
Well some of that live stuff was incredible because he had a great band. He’s always had great bands. But he had a particularly interesting band back then with Jim Keltner and Tim Drummond and Al Kooper played with him for a while live back then. Fred Tackett of Little Feat. A really killer band, killer live band. So they were really cooking. I’ve heard a bunch of stuff from those shows.
Is there anything you’d like to hear from this era that is not here? There’s just so much. The idea of taking 1970 and a little bit before and a little bit after—there’s just still so much there. The Dylan/Cash sessions, more of the Dylan/Harrison stuff I would have like to have heard.
You know, somebody once said you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you might find you get what you need. You know, one of the things I’d like to hear is—I was interviewing D.A. Pennebaker who directed Don’t Look Back and shot much of Eat the Document, and he says he sat and filmed Bob and Robbie Robertson in a hotel room during the ’66 tour making up songs all night long one night. And I think there are snippets of them in Eat the Document but he said they were just making things up. You know, maybe there’s a Hank Williams song in there, but he says there’s all kinds of things they made up. I’d love to see that footage. Stuff like that. There was supposedly a bunch of songs that Bob wrote after Rolling Thunder that he played for some of the musicians and he said you know, “I’ve got an albums worth of material.” And they were supposedly very bleak songs. This has been spoken about before, more than one person has talked about this batch of songs. And they said they were incredible, and then they just disappeared. I mean, we think they disappeared. But they haven’t appeared, so I don’t know. I don’t know if they were properly recorded, or even recorded at all, but he wrote them evidently because people heard them. So I’m curious about that period—the late Seventies after Rolling Thunder before he became a Christian was apparently a difficult period for him so I’m curious what kind of art he didn’t release that he had on the shelf that reflected that period. Nobody does bleak as good as Bob. He’s the king of bleak. He’s the king of everything else, but he does bleak great. “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” being an obvious example. But even an album like Tempest, a more recent album.
I was going to ask you about that—how do you feel about the new albums? It’s actually really interesting to go back to something like Together Through Life where it didn’t hit me right away, I’ve listened to so many times now. The last couple of albums are just incredible. I’m just waiting to see what comes next because he’s—
Aren’t we all?
I mean he’s hit a groove with, I don’t want to say this style of music, but obviously these last few have been drenched in a little more blues. I don’t know where he’s going next, but I want to take the journey.
Well obviously you are taking the journey. You know, I think Together Through Life is one of the most underrated albums he’s ever done. I love Together Through Life and nobody ever points to it as anything more than, at best, OK. And I love it. It’s got some sad love songs and some poignant love songs, but there’s also some really sly and funny stuff on there. And pointed, sarcastic humor like, “My Wife’s Home Town” and “It’s All Good,” which to me is incredibly biting and sarcastic. I’m a sucker for mean humor. “It’s all Good.” It’s really mean.
Yeah, very bleak in a very different way.
A different way than Tempest, yeah, or anything else. It’s gallows humor.
I’d like to talk a little bit about the stuff with George Harrison. It seems so loose in the studio.
Obviously they had a relationship before, but I wonder if that did anything for him going forward, almost absorbing another artist’s style a bit.
Well if you listen to “Time Passes Slowly” they do these Beatles la la la’s and it’s so cool. It gives you a glimpse of what it might have sounded like if Bob Dylan had recorded with the Beatles. I don’t know the story about how that session came about but my guess is that George called up Bob and said, “I’m going to be in New York for the day what are you doing?” and I imagine Bob said, “Why don’t you join me in the studio, and we’ll have some fun?” I know they did some shit like they recorded “Yesterday” with Bob singing it, some crazy stuff. But “Working on a Guru” is just fun, he’s obviously just making it up as he goes along. Working on a Guru? What the hell is that all about? They’re pranking, you know? And I just love George’s guitar playing on it. He’s just rippin’ and it’s a chance to hear George where he’s not just worked out a pristine solo and he’s just jamming.
I think that’s one of the things that I really appreciate about this kind of release where it’s not polished all the time, so if it’s just Dylan working out a song there’s spontaneity there. One of the things that I really enjoyed about Tell Tale Signs is that there are three versions of “Mississippi” in there. “Mississippi” is one of my favorite Dylan songs. The first version on that set is so completely different, a polished version that could be the best song on any other album, but that just wasn’t the one. Looking at these releases, they don’t seem like demos.
Well I don’t know that they are demos. I don’t know if they’re demos of if they’re not demos—what’s interesting is that they weren’t chosen for the first release, that another take was chosen for some reason unknown to us. And yet there are these other takes of the same song that are equally as good and in some cases even better. And that’s fascinating. Again, back to the jazz comparison: if you listen to Thelonious Monk it’s so interesting to hear him do his own compositions over the period of his career, how they started in the late forties and when he started recording for Blue Note and then Riverside and then Prestige and later for Columbia. And you hear the same songs or you hear live concerts where he’s doing the same song—how the song changes a little bit or how he starts to have fun with songs and doesn’t stick to the original arrangement. He throws in some musical jokes. And Dylan does the same thing in his own way. He doesn’t do the exact same thing that Monk does. They remind me of each other very much, Dylan and Monk.
Thinking about politics—it’s one of the things people maybe misunderstand is that his music after the original couple of albums is still very political but it’s more personal, so there are human stories, there’s the humanistic aspect of what he’s doing. And I think that on this release you can see that too, so it’s not just “The Days of ’49”—that can be a very political song too if you think of it in that respect.
“Only a Hobo.”
Yeah, that’s one of the most fascinating aspects of his career, even today, thinking of the last couple of albums finding more than what’s just on the top layer.
Well this bullshit about he stopped being political in 1963 or something is just that, it’s bullshit. First of all, starting with Another Side of Bob Dylan and then the first so-called electric album Bringing It All Back Home are full of politics. They’re just, they’re not broadsides, no pun intended there, they are not political manifestos, they are more personal. But there are plenty of political songs. What’s “It’s Alright Ma” but a political song, among other things? What’s “Everything is Broken” from Oh Mercy but a political song? What’s “It’s All Good” from Together Through Life but a political song? Half the songs on Tempest are political, can be construed as political. Bob’s always been political. Bob reflects the world as we all do, it’s just he chose to talk about politics in a different way than what he had early on. I’m not so sure he was always so ripped-from-the-headlines as people think he was. “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” is very poetic. There’s a message there, but there’s also poetry, and “Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” of course. But Bob’s always been political. I can go through his catalog and give you song after song. I mean talk about ripped from the headlines, what was “Hurricane” to be obvious about it? Or “George Jackson” for that matter. There’s stuff on Infidels that’s political. Even his Christian period had political content. Bob never stopped being political in 1963, ‘64. He’s a man of the world, like any great artist, and yet he’s apart from it at the same time, like any great artist. He’s certainly not dictated or ruled by the world, although as he did once point out, we all, you gotta serve somebody. Anyway, I don’t mean to preach at you.
You know, like everybody else, I’d love to get the full Basement Tapes, all fifteen CDs or whatever that would be.
I feel like one day that will wind up being like those old—when people used to buy CDs they’d have those big Mozart complete briefcases—maybe it’ll wind up like that.
Yeah, I love the Basement Tapes. I have some of the bootlegs, enough to fill up about 11 CDs. I don’t know. I just love ‘em. I love hearing the flubs, I love hearing the mistakes. I love the fact that it’s not slick. I love the fact that we were never meant to hear them. I love the loose, borderline drunk feeling of some of the stuff. It’s a joy, this music, even when it’s bleak.
That’s one of the fascinating things, I mean, obviously these songs on Another Self Portrait were originally meant to be heard even though they weren’t chosen for official release. But the idea of what do you do when you think nobody is listening? Obviously that frees you up a little bit more.
Well one day, maybe.
I read an interview with Robbie Robertson where he said he’d love to do them.
Yeah, just a couple of weeks ago he said that, I read that too. Well, exciting times ahead perhaps.
Well there will always be something interesting around Bob for years to come. He’s Bob.
What was your first bootleg experience? Was Great White Wonder your first?
It was the first bootleg I ever heard. But the first bootleg I ever had was Get Back by the Beatles. It was the album they were supposed to release and it ended up being Let it Be with the Phil Spector production on it. But they actually finished the Get Back album, what was called the Get Back album and didn’t release it. They sat on it and did Abbey Road, and it got out. I had a copy, and I remember going with a friend of mine—we were teenagers—and we went to WNEW in New York and Jonathan Schwartz the DJ was on the air, and we tried to get up to the station because we wanted to play it for the world. Schwartz actually came down to the lobby to see us, and here are two teenage hippies standing in the lobby with this bootleg Beatles album. I don’t remember what he said, something about “We can’t because we’d have legal problems.” So the first bootleg I had was Get Back, and what fascinated me about it was the fact that it hadn’t been sanctioned by the Beatles, that it was an illicit recording. It was the closest a hippie teenager in New York could get to being invited into the recording studio because it wasn’t the finished product. And maybe that, in some small part, is the lure of the Dylan bootlegs, is that you’re getting a glimpse of Bob—it’s literally yet another side of Bob Dylan, to play on the title of his fourth album. That’s what this bootleg series is, it’s yet another side of Bob Dylan part twelve. And I hope we get a lot more, and we will, of course.
Well I really appreciate your talking to me.
Well thank you for asking me, it was a lot of fun.