Sunday, January 17, 2016
DIY Playlist Corner: The Cutting Edge
Good morning/afternoon/evening folks,
In the spirit of keeping the blog alive between posts during these cold winter months (people in the Southern Hemisphere can use their imagination), I've decided to start up a new section called DIY Playlist Corner. DIY, of course, is short for "Do It Yourself," and that spirit is necessary here since what we'll be covering are officially released recordings. I'll do my best to supply links to popular retailers where these tracks can be bought, though there may be some obscurities as the series continues.
For the first iteration, however, I will only be concerned with a single release - the mammoth Cutting Edge: Bootleg Series Volume 12. Be aware that some of the tracks may only exist on certain editions of the set; if you got the 6 CD version, you'll have the vast majority of these. In the notes below, I'll recommend alternatives for the handful that only exist on the 18 CD Collector's Edition (which feature an asterisk in the tracklist).
It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry - Take 3 Incomplete (July 29, 1965)
I'll Keep It With Mine - Take 1
I Wanna Be Your Lover - Take 6 (Mis-Slate) *
Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues - Take 3 Complete
On The Road Again - Take 1 Complete
Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window - Take 17
Sitting On A Barbed-Wire Fence - Take 2
Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again - Take 13 Breakdown
Visions Of Johanna - Take 5 Complete
Bob Dylan's 115th Dream - Take 2 Complete (Solo Acoustic Complete)
Absolutely Sweet Marie - Take 1 Complete
She's Your Lover Now - Take 6 Complete
Tombstone Blues - Take 2 Complete (Vocal Overdub) *
Positively 4th Street - Take 4 Complete
Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat - Take 8 Complete
Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands - Take 1 Complete
Instrumental - Take 2 Complete
Visions Of Johanna - Take 14 Complete
Outlaw Blues - Take 2 Remake Complete
Queen Jane Approximately - Take 5 Complete
If You Gotta Go, Go Now - Take 2 Complete
Pledging My Time - Take 1 Breakdown
She Belongs To Me - Take 1
I Wanna Be Your Lover - Take 1
Just Like A Woman - Take 4 Complete
Temporary Like Achilles - Take 3 Complete
Love Minus Zero/No Limit - Take 3 Remake Complete
It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry - Take 8 Complete
She's Your Lover Now - Take 16 Complete
One Of Us Must Now (Sooner Or Later) - Take 19 Complete
Highway 61 Revisited - Take 3 Complete
Desolation Row - Take 5 Remake Complete
Since I won't be providing links or artwork for this one, I'd like to elaborate a bit more on the tracks, one by one:
1. It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry - Take 3 Incomplete
This is a version of the song in transition, recorded just four days after the live debut of the song at the Newport Folk Festival. As such, the atmosphere is fairly jubilant. Mike Bloomfield gets some hot guitar licks in, and Dylan comments "Rockefeller Center calling!" The track breaks down after Dylan mistakenly (?) repeats a verse he's already sung before commenting "I'll sing it again, I don't care." This is an appropriately playful way to begin our behind-the-scenes look at Bob Dylan's 1965 - 1966 studio sessions.
2. I'll Keep It With Mine - Take 1
Sadly, this is the only extant recording of this song from the Bringing It All Back Home sessions. It would also be recorded in a less effective arrangement for Blonde On Blonde, but most of those recordings are instrumental. There is some playful studio banter with Tom Wilson at the start of the track, which was sliced off for its earlier appearance on Biograph, that shows what may be a growing (if low-key) tension between the producer and the artist.
3. I Wanna Be Your Lover - Take 6 (Mis-slate)
While this rendition of the song does not appear on the 6 CD version of The Cutting Edge, you can find it on Biograph and Side Tracks, though the mix is truly excellent on its 2015 release. It's very similar to Take 6, so you could happily substitute that version; the mis-slated cut is just a touch more intense. This is perhaps the most surprising outtake to me, since the song was clearly worked up very well in the studio. The singer's comments in the Biograph liner notes confirm this assessment, as he himself wonders why it never made it onto a studio record before the 1985 career overview.
4. Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues - Take 3
I'm not sure this one rises above the version released on Highway 61 Revisited, but if not, it's very close. As was typical in that album's sessions, the piano player pulls the track together. In this case, he adds some delightful Southwestern flourishes, appropriate for the Mexican context. The song would go on to grow outrageously on the road, being played excellently in almost every one of Dylan's live outfits, but this version is a laid back rough blueprint for what was to come.
5. On The Road Again - Take 1
No other performance on the 6 CD was more unjustly culled from the 2 CD Best-Of edition. While the full-band version of this song released on that collection is still interesting, this solo rendition is really something else. From the background audio of Dylan playing around at the piano before he's interrupted by Tom Wilson to the foot-stomp rhythm, this performance is one of my favorites from the sessions.
6. Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window - Take 17
In much the same way as "On The Road Again," this version is a bit superior to the one picked for the 2 CD edition. Unlike that, though, this performance is very similar to the one on the reduced set. Take 17 had circulated for years on bootlegs - it was actually found on this very website before the release of a much-improved mix on The Cutting Edge - so perhaps Sony/Columbia wanted to include an unheard version for the most affordable version of the collection. Whatever the reason, I would recommend using Take 17 for your playlist, since it's one of the singer's most effective vocal performances from the 1965 recordings. His pronunciation of each line, particularly "come on out, the dark is beginning," could send chills down your spine. Again, Paul Griffin's piano playing is gorgeous. The song would re-appear as something of a more jocular take in the earliest Blonde On Blonde sessions, one performance of which you can find on Biograph, but it was strongest in its earlier arrangement.
7. Sitting On A Barbed-Wire Fence - Take 2
This song is present in two different edits on the 18 CD set, but the one found on the 6 CD edition is perfect. I'd originally heard this as a promotion for the new Bootleg Series release, and was underwhelmed, but it really grows on you. For whatever reason, positioning it directly after the epic "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window" enhances its power, as it is something of a sigh of relief after that emotional ride. This take includes the delightful riffing on a "woman in LA" not being as good as "this guitar player I got right now," leading Mike Bloomfield into a hilarious shout and solo. Clearly the most realized version of this song, which I assume evolved into "It Takes A Lot To Laugh," given their proximity in studio sessions.
8. Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again - Take 13
Take 13 was one of the songs chosen to represent The Cutting Edge in pre-release material, and you can hear why. It's groovy, has a unique inter-verse classical-sounding guitar fill, and is very different from take released on Blonde On Blonde. It is still in transition from the earlier chorus, "I just need a friend," to the chorus we've all come to know and love. In one chorus, Dylan even describes himself as "stuck inside of Nashville with the Memphis blues again"! The cut breaks down at the end, but the song is basically complete.
9. Visions Of Johanna - Take 5
This is described as "Complete" in the 18 CD notes and "Rehearsal" in the 6 CD notes, but whichever way you describe it, it's one of the finest performances of this song that was recorded. I like this one and Take 14 a bit more than the one picked for Blonde On Blonde, but can see why that one was chosen for the 1966 release; it clearly came much easier in the studio, as only a brief period of time was needed to record the song with the session players assembled for that record. Dylan struggled quite a bit more when recording it in New York ahead of the Nashville sessions, so it likely left a bitter memory. In fact, it presents one of the most interesting experiences on The Cutting Edge - Collector's Edition, as he tries to get the band to slow it down and present a more mellow atmosphere; this is largely unsuccessful, but the listener has luckily been left with a few very different variations on the theme. Take 5 presents the song as an up-tempo rocker, a vibe it would shed entirely until a live one-off performance in 1988, after which the rocking version of the song would be permanently retired.
10. Bob Dylan's 115th Dream - Take 2 (Solo Acoustic)
The version of this released on Bringing It All Back Home was also a Take 2, but the one on my playlist is the one performed solo. This one's got a couple of flubbed lines, but otherwise would have been fit for release on the acoustic half of the album for which it was recorded. It's chief advantage over the one that was eventually chosen for the 1965 record is the emphasis placed on the surreal narrative. It wouldn't have been out of place in one of Dylan's 1964 or 1965 live sets, though it was never performed in that setting.
11. Absolutely Sweet Marie - Take 1
"Absolutely Sweet Marie," like many of the later tracks on Blonde On Blonde, only had one complete outtake. The lyrics are still in flux here, and would pass through one more revision before the final take. Perhaps the chief improvement on this alternate performance is the band's playing the chorus.
12. She's Your Lover Now - Take 6
Though the solo piano performance and an uptempo rendition of this lost masterpiece had surfaced previously, on a bootleg and on The Bootleg Series, respectively, Take 6 had not been heard by the public before 2015. Like the two other (mostly) complete takes, this one presents only one angle of the story. The lyrics vary in specifics from performance to performance, but this take has one of the more amusing aspects, as Dylan asks one of the two targets of his derision "what are you, some kind of moose?" Much ink has been spilled on this song, and I won't be able to do it justice here, but I recommend seeking out the writings of Paul Williams, Clinton Heylin and Michael Gray. I'll write a bit more about it later in these notes, but for the moment it's worth noting how much the band struggles to transition in this take from the verse to the pseudo-chorus. They would improve dramatically on the road, but the session for "She's Your Lover Now" make it plain to see why the singer chose to work primarily with Nashville session players for the remainder of the Blonde On Blonde sessions.
13. Tombstone Blues - Take 2 (Vocal Overdub)
I could be wrong, but this version sounds to me like the album version with an overdub on the chorus. It is not present on the 6 CD version, but you could pretty well just substitute in the excellent Take 1 from that edition. Take 2 preserves the scathing guitar and tempo from the one selected for Highway 61 Revisited, but also includes a group of backing singers on the chorus that complement the song marvelously. Humorously, they miss their cue on one chorus and you can hear the smiles creep into their voices! Take 1, which appears on the 2 CD edition of The Cutting Edge, is a more laid-back performance that lacks the intensity of the final take but makes up for it with some cool lyrical variants, including "John the blacksmith" instead of "John the Baptist." Weird, huh? For an extra treat, I recommend seeking out the live acoustic performance from the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, finally having seen the light of day as bonus material on The Cutting Edge Collector's Edition. It sounds almost like "It's Alright Ma," and lacks the chorus that would come to define the song. Without the band and Mike Bloomfield's guitar, it is a plainly inferior version, but it remains a captivating curiosity nonetheless.
14. Positively 4th Street - Take 4
Here is one of the gems of The Cutting Edge, a performance that is (in my opinion) superior to the one chosen for official release in 1965. It lacks some of the artificiality that necessarily edges into a song through repeated performances, and instead gives the song a gentler quality. The mournfulness that would later appear in live performances is present in this version, and enhances it dramatically. On a related note, the session for "Positively 4th Street" is one of the highlights from the Collector's Edition, as the song breaks down a few takes from its conclusion; there's even a brief, tense confrontation between Dylan and Bob Johnston over whether the singer needs a lyric sheet. Luckily, the song had already been cut in several releasable takes by that point anyway.
15. Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat - Take 8
This could be something of a love-it-or-hate-it affair, but I've eventually come down on the side of loving it. The call/response opening and the car horn chorus are certainly oddities, but they represent some of the freewheeling nature of the sessions. More importantly, the verses have a hard-driving quality that was not felt elsewhere in the recording of this song. Perhaps most interesting is the fact that the heavy groove of the verses resembles rather closely the song "Tell Me, Momma," which would open each one of Dylan's fabled 1966 concerts; this may be the closest we'll ever be to hearing a studio performance of that song.
16. Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands - Take 1
Commentators have written quite a bit about this performance since the release of The Cutting Edge, and rightly so. The close listener, depending upon his or her inclination, may hear the singer say "Sara" a couple of times throughout the song, drawing an even closer connection between this track and the 1975 recording that references it, Desire's "Sara". I'm not completely sold, since it sounds like an accidentally uttered slurring of "sad-eyed," but to each his/her own. Regardless, I find this take to be, like "Positively 4th Street," an improvement upon the one that was originally released. It evokes more perfectly the dreamlike nature of the song, and benefits from a lack of repetition.
1. Instrumental - Take 2
Some of you may find the inclusion of an instrumental track a bit questionable, but I think you'll find it pretty compelling in the context of the full CD. It manages to subtly evoke "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" and "One Of Us Must Know" through its four minute run-time. It settles the listener in for what will be a somewhat more evocative and strange experience than the first volume. It also represents something of a prophetic indicator of how cohesive Dylan and The Band would sound over the next few years.
2. Visions Of Johanna - Take 14
This rendition of "Visions Of Johanna" had circulated on bootlegs over the years, but as is usually the case, the version released by Sony/Columbia is vastly improved in terms of its mix. Dylan's voice cuts you to the core on this one, nowhere more than the final imprecise moaning at the end of the track. This may be the most fully realized studio performance of the song, though of course you may feel differently.
3. Outlaw Blues - Take 2 Remake
Bob Dylan's studio band provides its best Bo Diddley backing for this performance. After attempting the song in a different guise as "California" and in an unsatisfactory acoustic arrangement, Dylan and the assembled players tried a variety of electric arrangement. This one is my favorite, though a drummer would have enhanced it further. Interestingly, the vocals are not quite in line with the rhythm during the first verse, but they and the band all come together for the remainder of the track. This is also one of the rare occasions when someone besides Bob Dylan plays harmonica on one of his recordings!
4. Queen Jane Approximately - Take 5
The piano playing at the start of this may be Paul Griffin's finest contribution to the Highway 61 Revisited sessions, though we happily now have a vast group of recordings to debate that point over. Otherwise, this hews pretty closely to the model established for this song - it is not significantly different from the one selected for the final record.
5. If You Gotta Go, Go Now - Take 2
Here is one of the lost gems of Bob Dylan's 1964 - 1965 era, as it never managed to make it onto a released record at the time it was recorded, much like "Mama You Been On My Mind" or "Farewell Angelina." It ended up being fully worked out, but was left off of Bringing It All Back Home for one reason or another. While several of the versions recorded are very nice, the backing vocals by Angelina Butler send this one over the top; one of the best aspects of the liner notes for The Cutting Edge is a brief behind-the-scenes look by Butler at the recording session for this track. It was never performed live with a band, but it was played quite frequently from 1964 to 1965, and seems to have been something of a fan favorite. You can find live performances on The Cutting Edge bonus live content or on The Bootleg Series Volume 6.
6. Pledging My Time - Take 1
This is said to be a breakdown recording, but it captures the entirety of the song, including a previously unheard verse about playing wigwam. Wacky! That aside, the jaunty tempo of this is in stark contrast to the slower groove found on its Blonde On Blonde iteration. Bob Dylan's harmonica playing is one of his best efforts at that instrument during these sessions. I'm very glad that this performance finally got released, since it's been rumored for years.
7. She Belongs To Me - Take 1
While I generally prefer Dylan's band-backed recordings, this is an excellent example of what the singer can pull off when playing on his own. He puts on the warmest voice possible and tells the evergreen tale of an artist who's clearly on something of a higher plane than the narrator. Given that this song has been played effectively in so many arrangements over the following decades, it's impressive to hear that it could work so well with just a man and his guitar. On a side note, I had originally had a different take for this song, realizing only shortly before posting this that my chosen version was the one that made it onto Bringing It All Back Home.
8. I Wanna Be Your Lover - Take 1
Two versions of this exist on The Cutting Edge Collector's Edition, though only one is present on the 6 CD edition; you can take your pick, though I prefer the longer edit for obvious reasons. Though others may see "She's Your Lover Now" as the lost masterpiece of these years, I might make the case for this early arrangement of "I Wanna Be Your Lover." It lacks the fully formed chorus that would later anchor the song, and features the alternate lyrics "I wanna be your partner,"but the primary difference is in its musical environment. This is probably the hottest, coolest groove that Dylan and The Band played in 1965, and it's disappointing that it got lost along the way to the (also great) final recordings of the song. Still, I'm grateful that this fragment exists. It would be cool to hear remixed into a full length song by some ambitious DJ, that's for sure.
9. Just Like A Woman - Take 4
Here again is one of the highlights of The Cutting Edge. Bob Dylan and his Nashville studio players play one of his most popular 1960s song to "one hell of a beat," as Bob Johnston described it at the end of the recording. It's hard to imagine this having been the version released on Blonde On Blonde, and while they made the right decision in the end, this functions as a window into a much funkier parallel universe. While the lyrics haven't been quite set down as they would be in later takes, the hesitance in Dylan's voice actually contributes to the vulnerability of this songs narrator. We are quite lucky that the tape was running for this one.
10. Temporary Like Achilles - Take 3
We've finally reached another of the songs that may have been more fully realized in a previously unreleased performance. For one reason or another, I felt like I hadn't really gotten to the essence of this song until hearing this take. The album version is a bit too harsh, and Take 3 preserves the darkness of the outcast narrator more effectively. The harmonica remains a bit piercing, but the mix is otherwise immaculate.
11. Love Minus Zero/No Limit - Take 3 Remake
I'm not sure if this is the version of the song that had circulated on bootlegs, but it's a pretty nice alternative to the one featured on Bringing It All Back Home. After the songs had been played acoustically and then with a full band, Dylan played a few of the album's songs with a small backing combo, resulting in some of the finest takes of the sessions. The bass, in particular, stands out as a beautiful complement to the guitar-oriented arrangement; it reminds this listener of the sound that Dylan would later achieve on some of the Blood On The Tracks recordings. The vocals are not as effective as the one chosen for the album, but it's a cool alternative rendition nonetheless.
12. It Takes A Lot To Laugh, it Takes A Train To Cry - Take 8
This performance of the song actually predates the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and the version found on the first volume of this playlist, so it would more accurately be called "Phantom Engineer." It also likewise preserves a notable verse about the engineer and the compasses that would be excised from later recordings. While I almost selected one of the alternative slow versions of the song that resemble the album version, I found that this uptempo performance provided a more unique vision. Similarly, it lacks the somewhat disruptive harmonica found on the slower recordings.
13. She's Your Lover Now - Take 16
Take 16 of "She's Your Lover Now" is one of Bob Dylan's greatest studio achievements, and I'm glad it's finally been properly mixed and released by Sony/Columbia. From the melancholy humming over its introduction to the scathing final verse, this is the most fully realized of the song's three complete recordings. It was also the final one recorded, after the singer had gotten burned out trying to record it with his backing band. Listening to the full session, it's unclear why the song never quite came together, but we should be grateful that the three complete takes present three rather different perspectives on the central theme of a man's complex relationship with his ex-lover and her new flame. The song is one of the writer's most fascinating tales, and is eminently understandable to anyone who has been in a similar situation. It also includes one of Dylan's most beautifully scathing and melancholy passages: "Your mouth used to be so naked, your eyes used to be so blue, your hurts used to be so nameless, your tears used to be so few; now your eyes cry wolf while your mouth cries 'I'm not scared of animals like you.'"
14. One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later) - Take 19
Their juxtaposition on The Cutting Edge makes the similarities of "She's Your Lover Now" and "One Of Us Most Know" more evident than ever before, and I've sought to preserve that with the playlist here. One can speculate that the former evolved into the latter, losing some of its complexity in the transition but gaining a much stronger musical structure. Paul Griffin remains something of an MVP, as he provides lovely piano flourishes between the verses of this Blonde On Blonde outtake. Given the time and effort dedicated to this song in the studio, it's a shame that it never achieved a greater position in the singer's catalog; it went on to be played live only a handful of times outside of 1978, though it was at least realized beautifully on that year's World Tour.
15. Highway 61 Revisited - Take 3
Many listeners love the police whistle on the performance of this song found on Highway 61 Revisited, but I don't count myself among their number. Happily for malcontents like me, this take of the song was recorded before Al Kooper introduced that instrument to the session. A later take also included some excellent harmonica, but this one had the finest vocal performance. You can hear Dylan being rather amused at the surrealist masterpiece he'd painted.
16. Desolation Row - Take 5 Remake
This song seems to have proven a bit difficult to record, though the lyrics are fairly uniform throughout. A number of complete recordings are extant on The Cutting Edge, so it seems that it was a matter of getting several arrangements down on tape, from which the best could be chosen. This has luckily resulted in us having five distinct versions to pick from for a playlist - the fragmentary solo piano version, the solo guitar version, the somewhat baroque classical guitar version (Highway 61 Revisited), the strangely dark electrical guitar version (No Direction Home), and the full-band version I've picked for this playlist. It was something of a toss-up between this and the one originally released on No Direction Home, but this one's uniqueness and the dynamism provided by the keyboard backing made the decision a bit easier. It's also nice that this one appears on the 6 CD edition, while the alternative appears only on the 18 CD version, and of course No Direction Home. This performance, while not quite up to the standard of the one selected for Highway 61 Revisited, is still quite effective at demonstrating the central narrative's mysterious beauty.
So there you have it. Assemble these yourselves and I'm sure you won't be disappointed. As for what's not included, the most conspicuous tracks missing are:
(A) The fragmentary songs, including "You Don't Have To Do That," "Medicine Sunday," "Jet Pilot," and "Lunatic Princess." Given their incomplete nature, I don't think you'd be missing out much by losing these.
(B) "Mr. Tambourine Man" backed by a band. This is a curiosity, but is ultimately significantly less effective than the solo version released on Bringing It All Back Home. It's worth hearing for Dylan's commentary, but is sadly incomplete.
(C) "Like A Rolling Stone". This song ended up so perfected on Highway 61 Revisited that none of the alternate recordings felt very strong. If you really wanted it included, I'd remove the instrumental track from Volume Two and find a place for its solo piano rendition (Take 4 Rehearsal) on there.
(D) The solo piano "Desolation Row." While this is one of the more fascinating revelations of The Cutting Edge, it ends up feeling a bit fragmentary. Additionally, the harmonica is too piercing, and goes some way to reducing the ethereal quality of the recording.
(E) A bunch of Blonde On Blonde songs, including "Obviously 5 Believers," "Most Likely You'll Go Your Way," "4th Time Around," and "I Want You." While outtakes were present for all of these songs, they were nothing notable. The version of "Obviously 5 Believers" that appears on Blonde seems to have been something of a minor miracle, as the session demonstrates that the band struggled with its tempo. The versions of "4 Time Around" hew very closely to the album version, while the outtakes of "Most Likely You'll Go Your Way" simply feel unfinished. Finally, there is a reasonably attractive and harmonica-less performance of "I Want You" on The Cutting Edge, but it's similar enough to to the album version to feel a bit superfluous. Like (C) above, if you'd like it included, I suggest swapping it with "Instrumental - Take 2" on Volume Two.
I hope you enjoy the playlist. It was originally designed around Volume One as a daytime experience and Volume Two as a nighttime experience, but I don't think either volume must be listened to in such a rigid fashion. Enjoy it however you'd like, and post you thoughts in the space below. I've listened to the whole 18 CD set, and found that these stand out as the best recordings on there - hopefully you'll feel the same.
Future iterations of this playlist feature will include The Basement Tapes, live performances from the 1970s, live performances from the 1990s, studio recordings from the 1980s, studio recordings from the 1990s, and more! You all seem to enjoy my curation, so this seems like a nice way to incorporate the artist's vast body of officially released content into the context of this playlist website. Until next time, keep yourself healthy and listen to some good tunes.