The Making of a Holy Grail – «More Blood, More Tracks – Bootleg Series, Volume 14»

Between his album debut «Bob Dylan» in 1962 and his 18th studio album «Slow Train Coming» in 1979, Bob Dylan spent less than 100 days in a recording studio. In the same period of time he forever changed the course of popular music, in more than one genre, in more than one way. Not just as a songwriter. Maybe even more as a singer. Spontaneity was the name of the game, as recording live in studio was the same. «Another Side of Bob Dylan» (1964) was recorded in one long day, leaving left-overs like Mr Tambourine Man for archive and later releases.

The timing, the phrasing and the emotional weight behind the delivery is, for me, the real magic behind the strongest body of his work, both in this period and until the highlights on last year´s «Triplicate». The same ingredients is what makes watching Dylan live an eternal source of excitement, joy and musical happiness, us waiting for the golden moments of magic in the new twist of delivery of familiar songs, the new arrangements and colors of a song sung 1000 times, the surprise of a new song. As this fall in US, where Dylan´s exquisitely chosen set list includes both classic songs, partly with new lyrics, partly in new arrangements, far from the recorded versions, and new songs from the later years of his career. Bob Dylan is an artist where motion and change is the rule, not the exception. He is always hunting for something new in the old, borrowed and blue. Forever young. This is not about him being always at the top of his game, or always being better than ever. This is about an artist that never stops being an artist.

“More Blood, More Tracks” is therefore not really an exception in this artist´s catalogue. This is how he works and has worked from the start. What makes this release unique is that it uncovers the making of one of his strongest collections of songs, and that it invites us into the room where it all happened, those days in New York. What´s more is that it tells the story of the other side of “Blood On The Tracks”, actually the darkest, bluest and most heartbreaking versions of the songs, where just a few have been released to a wide audience before. When Dylan himself chose the title of this set, “More Blood, More Tracks” it´s of course not without irony, considering the fans’ lust for even more of these heartbreaking songs, but also a confirmation of the depth of this songs and the blood that runs through them all. The collection doesn´t just offer an alternative or better version of the album released 20th of January 1975, it offers an unique insight in how the songs came about. We´re inside the painter´s studio, watching him use all colors in his palette, layer on layer of both blood and blue.

As most readers will know, there was an early version of “Blood On The Tracks” based on the New York Sessions (here called the test pressing), then half of the songs were transformed at Christmas in Minneapolis, making a drastic change in the mood of the album that was released in January 1975. It might have been the choice and solution that secured Dylan one of his greatest successes, but it also was a choice that kept some of the finest works as a holy grail until this release in 2018. This box set is the story of this holy grail.

16th of September, 1974.

When Dylan shows up in the classic «Columbia Studio» (in 1974 owned by Phil Ramone) in New York, 16th of September in 1974, he is a man with a mission. He is loaded with twelve finished songs, determined and focused on emptying the magazine fast and effectively on tape. The songs are stained with blood and are marinated in life itself. It´s not just a divorce or break-up album, it´s as much an album about the story of love, one of the strongest powers known to mankind, and one of the most complicated powers to control. Dylan´s ability to describe all sides of it in words, has been one of his greatest strengths, from «Don´t Think Twice», «Tomorrow Is A Long Time», «It Ain´t Me, Babe», «Love Minus Zero/No Limit», «Visions of Johanna», «I Want You» and «Sad-Eyed Lady of The Lowlands» in the sixties to «Love Sick», «Make You Feel My Love», «Nettie More», «This Dream of You», «Life is Hard» and «Long and Wasted Years» in the latest blooming of his unstoppable career of integrity and stubbornness, and of the never-ending-tour that has to end sometimes, as Dylan himself has reminded us.

The band is on their way, but Dylan hasn´t the time to wait for them. He starts alone. He aims for and from the heart: “If You See Her, Say Hello”. It´s a twist on the classic George Jones hit, “She Thinks I Still Care” – this is “I Still Care, But Don´t Tell Her”. It´s heartbreaking as a song, and it´s heartbreakingly sung already in it´s first version this night, just Dylan and his guitar.

After a second take, later released on Bootleg Series, 1-3, the restless singer moves forward to “You´re A Big Girl Now”, what might have been one of the first of this suite of songs written. The phone is hung up, and the I takes in the implication of distance of all kind. You can almost both hear and feel the pain of the corkscrew to the singer´s heart. He´s back in the rain. This time he feels pain.

Then it´s “Simple Twist of Fate”. Storytelling par excellence, tripping down memory lane. If anyone should wonder about the cinematic and visual quality of the album when the rumors of the film director, Luca Guadagnino´s project of making a film of “Blood On The Tracks” is making the rounds, this is one of the songs that should remove all doubt. The album is one of Dylan´s most visual, both through the stage directions in many of the songs, the striking images and clearly the inspiration from Dylan´s painting lessons with Norman Raeben, just months before these recordings. Dylan himself has told us that time is a focus, this time. “Time is a jet plane, it moves too fast.” “Time is an enemy”. He is trying to eclipse both present, future and past in the room and in the song at the same time. And he succeeds. Thoughts, dreams, experience, metaphors, it is all in the inspired songwriter´s melting pot. Bob Dylan´s voice, which can be a rough tool, is in the first takes of “Simple Twist of Fate” pure silk. He tries a little tenderness. The new release is mixed without the ramonesque use of reverb, and it gives a refreshing effect all through the tour-de-force that makes the New York Sessions. The second take of “Simple Twist of Fate” starts with a guitar out of tune, but Dylan is in the mood to increase the pathos from the first take, and moves on beautifully.

The third take of”You´re A Big Girl Now” is fine, but Dylan is moving a bit away from the sorrow that makes the second take magical. Still, the harmonica solo on this one is just magnificent.

After a short rehearsal, Dylan moves to one of the most complex and ambitious songs of the sessions, “Up To Me”. The first complete take is rushed and uptempo, a run-through. As we now know, the song never made it for the release, neither the test pressing nor the official album, but was introduced as one of the breathtaking jewels of “Biograph” in 1985. Not this take, though.

Next up is “Lily, Rosemary & The Jack of Hearts”, another complete movie – just shut your eyes and listen. The first take collapses after about three minutes, Dylan sighing “Oh, I won´t get through this one.” He was wrong, in the next take he nails the complete fascinating western story,  filled with flashing images and the nuanced psychology of the participants in the story. It´s a low key and tender version, and this is the first recording that makes it to the planned release, later known as the test pressing, distributed to the chosen and impressed few, later bootlegged. It is more than impressive that all layers in such a complete song can be taken care of in the first complete take of it. Dylan is still alone with his guitar in the studio, working fast and purposefully.

Then the band makes its entrance. Dylan is warmed up, but they are not. He was used to The Band, who knew him well, as they did when his last album was cut, “Planet Waves”. A restless Dylan was eager to get on with the process going on in his own head, and hadn´t time to give much instructions. They didn´t even get his guitar tuning. In the second take of “Simple Twist of Fate” he stops and points out that the drummer doesn´t have the right tempo. Nevertheless, Dylan´s vocal shines like gold, and the third take is just gorgeous, the band blending in beautifully behind, Dylan ends it with a tough harmonica solo. Before the band is really warmed up, Dylan moves on to a new song, as if he thinks that the band at least should know how to play the blues. They do. The first version of “Call Letter Blues” shows a more aggressive and intense tone in Dylan´s vocal delivery. Everyone in the room expects another take to improve the song, but an inspired Dylan brings at the flick of his wrist up another great blues song, “Meet Me In The Morning”. The version is near perfect, even if Dylan has given up any attempt of perfection. I always think of Skip James when I listen to this, even if Dylan is far from singing falsetto. Still I think the ghost of Skip is in the vibe of the song. Buddy Cage´s phenomenal pedal steel solo at the end is added later, and the version is the one chosen for both the test pressing and for the final “Blood On The Tracks”. Then, back to “Call Letter Blues” and they really nail it this time, not enough to make the album, but enough to meet the requirements for Bootleg Series, Volume 1-3 in 1991. The song might be too personal, inviting us to the complicated crossroads between being husband and wife and being father and mother. As Dylan himself later told us, the first became a failure, the second a success. A great song for the archives. And, of course, the other one, “Meet Me In The Morning”, is a classic.

At this time Dylan seems so satisfied with the result, that he is inviting the bassist, Tony Brown, to a far more challenging place, “Idiot Wind”, one of the absolute key songs of the suite. The nervous Brown sits close to Dylan, following his every move. Dylan owns the song from the first, when it comes to the beautiful delivery, even if some of the words aren´t quite in place. The first take contains a magnificent vocal, but it ends before it´s complete, the next is very focused, but the vocal a bit harder, it also ends before it´s complete. Then lightning strikes and you get a fabulous Take 3: “I threw the I-Ching yesterday, it said there’d be some thunder at the well.” It ends without the harmonica at the end. Dylan is not satisfied, and continues with a very tender version. The bassist understands more and more of the dreamlike epos of a song, and in Take 6 they get a great complete version, after a short false start in the take before. The I in the song moves through an odyssey of relations and frustrations, with himself, with the world, with love.

Then the band is called back for a country shuffle version of “You´re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”. We can hear Dylan give the band  a quick thirty second musical description, before he, too optimistically, decides that they are ready to go. They´re not, the drummer is out of time. Take 3 is a disaster, but Dylan continues on pure force before it collapses. Dylan sings great, but the bassist isn´t helping him at all on Take 4. To help the band he makes a really beautiful slow version out of Take 5. It works, but wasn´t really what Dylan had in mind. The result is that the band understand the song a little better, before they increase the tempo again. In Take 8 they almost get it together. At least a complete take. The band is dismissed for the evening. It might have been in the work with this song that Dylan decides that he´ll just call the bassist back for the next day´s session. He also concludes the 16th with just Tony Brown, trying out just one more song, one more odyssey, one more movie – “Tangled Up In Blue”. A low-key and complete version. Let´s call it a day. Dylan has recorded 10 of the 12 songs in one day and 31 takes. A good start and a radically different way of making a record than the people present in the studio was used to, both the band and the technicians. (John Hammond, the one who in 1961 made the first Columbia contract with Dylan, and who was invited into the sessions, describes in a new video clip the mountain between Dylan and others recording for Columbia at the same time.)

 

bobsitter

17th of September 1974.

Tony Brown, the bassist, is the only one from the band invited back the next day. Buddy Cage, the eminent steel guitarist from the New Riders of the Purple Sage, is requested for some pedal steel magic on some of the songs, and Dylan reaches back to Paul Griffin, a keyboard player used on “Blonde on Blonde” eight years earlier, to try, once more, to get the sound he got in his head onto tape.

The session starts with a fabulous take of “You´re A Big Girl Now”, this time with bass and organ. The song lifts to the sky in what´s the warm-up of the day. You can almost feel how Dylan enjoys the company combo of Brown and Griffin. The next take of the song is pure gold, the I in the song begging for mercy, like a bird on a wire. The take, with Buddy Cage´s added pedal steel, will for sure be on the test pressing, and also appears on “Biograph” in 1985.

Obviously satisfied, Dylan continues his work with maybe the most important song of the album, “Tangled Up In Blue”, both for him and for history. It´s the song from the album he, by far, has played the most live, integrated in his setlist also in 2018, of course in a new arrangement, also with some new words here and there. On the 17th session it is picking up speed, backed with bass and organ.

“He was always in a hurry
Too busy or too stoned
And everything that she ever planned
Just had to be postponed
He thought they were successful
She thought they were blessed
With objects and material things
But I never was impressed
And when it all came crashin’ down
I became withdrawn
The only thing I knew how to do
Was keep on keepin’ on like a bird that flew
Tangled up in blue”

Then we´re up for the big surprise of “More Blood, More Tracks”, a heartfelt rendition of a song Dylan has covered many times already, the heartbreakingly wonderful “Spanish Is The Loving Tongue”. It´s like he is using is a lucky charm, or maybe the opposite, a unlucky charm, to get into the right mood: “Haven´t seen her since the night, I can´t cross the line, you know.” “Left her heart, lost my own, adios mi corazón.” Setting the record straight.

A tougher and harder bluesy version of  “Call Letter Blues” follows, almost rocking with Griffin´s heavy treatment of the piano. Next is the, so far, most satisfying take on “You´re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”, Dylan is almost joyful in his delivery.

At this time there are just two of the songs in Dylan´s notebooks that have not been recorded. The time has come, and he gives “Shelter From The Storm” and “Buckets of Rain” a shot, introducing them for his now two favorite musicians, Tony and Paul.

“Shelter” has a beautiful extra verse from the one we know by heart:

“Now the bonds are broken, but they can be re-tied
One more journey to the woods, to the holes where spirits hide
It’s a never ending battle for a peace thats always torn
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”

A great version, later released on the “Jerry Maguire” Soundtrack in 1996.

“Buckets of Rain” has, in every take, the ghost of Mississippi John Hurt painted all over it, both the singing and the playing. A really great first take, but with some minor flaws. It´s already obvious that this will be a great contribution. “I can do that better”, Dylan comments at the end, before he continues the work with “Tangled Up In Blue”, more and more confident of what in the end will be the prologue of “Blood On The Tracks”. Another beautiful take of “Buckets of Rain”, and it shows what a great guitar player Dylan is at his best. He loses the concentration a bit at the end, but yeah, this will be great. In the three next takes, he hunts for the definitive version of “Shelter From The Storm”, and he nails it in Take 4. This is the version that makes if for “Blood on the tracks”, making it the second song, so far, for official release in January 1975.

This is really going great. Two more takes of “You´re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” and he nails it. One more for “Blood On The Tracks”.

18th of September 1974.

Short day in studio. Dylan alone tries out “Buckets of Rain” four more times, refining his guitar playing, owning the whole song more and more. The playing collapses at the end of the first take. Next time Dylan softens his voice to silk, but this version will neither be a keeper. The third stops quickly and the fourth has another beautiful vocal, still this isn´t really it, it collapses in the end. This is a song where absolutely everything just must fit, or else it falls apart. Nowhere to hide. Maybe tomorrow, then.

19th of September 1974.

Just Tony and Bob today. Warming up with “Up To Me”. Take two this day is powerful, emotional and a real beauty. “Life is a pantomime.” The work on “Buckets of Rain” continues, an after a collapsing third take Dylan makes a laconic comment: “It´s hard makin´records like this, you got to have three or four things going at the same time, just like in life.”  He didn´t know it, but he was very close. He nails it in the fourth take this day, guitar and vocal, and this take makes it to the finished album. Still, he will try the song one more time later the same day.

Movin´on. The next song to finish is “If You See Her, Say Hello”, and first time with bass it is one the most tender, blue and touching pieces of the whole box set. This version makes it deservedly to the test pressing of the album. My guess is that Dylan knew this was a diamond. That doesn´t always mean that he wants to release it, of course.

“Up To Me” gets three more takes, the two first a bit rushed, one of them stops quick. The third is a complete and sublime rendition, surely one of the best of this song, but a little mix-up with some words might be the reason it was shelved.

Two more takes of “Meet Me In The Morning” are really great. The first is both a softer and at the same time more desperate vocal than the keeper, but a really sweet version. This version also was deservedly released as a B-side to “Duquesne Whistle” from “Tempest” in 2012.

The second take is great, too, but doesn´t have the same nuances in the vocal as the first.

Dylan gives “Buckets of Rain” a last shot. A really nice version, but I guess he knows that he’s already got this corner covered between the existing takes.

Then it´s the finishing of “Tangled Up In Blue” in three takes. He blows the second by singing “He was married…”, commenting: “Oh, f…, “SHE was married…” He is nailing it the third time, a great rendition, a lot softer than the one that finally was released, but beautiful in it´s own right. The version will appear on the test pressing, and will later be released on “Bootleg Series, Volume 1-3”

Two more beautiful remakes of “Simple Twist of Fate”. It´s difficult for me to choose the one I treasure the most. The second made it for “Blood On The Tracks” and became an instant classic.

Two more takes of “Up To Me” leave us with the great version that was released on “Biograph” in 1985. Some would call the song a masterpiece, but it didn´t fit in with Dylan´s plans this time, even if he worked really hard with the song in studio, obviously also with the lyrics. Was it the tempo, the lyrics, the similarity to “Shelter From The Storm”, the length of the album or something completely different that made it possible to leave it on the studio floor? We´ll probably never know.

Then it´s back to the magnum opus, “Idiot Wind”. After all these years, Dylan´s vocal on the last of the takes this day is one of my all time favorite vocal performances of his. It might also be on this version we best can measure the distance between September and December, between New York and Minneapolis, and maybe between the I and the You in the song. With the “spooky” organ overdub this is the version that makes it to the test pressing, but not to the final release. Was it too naked, too blue, too dark, too personal, too private? I really don´t want to go into a discussion of what version is “the best” – the difference is too big to even start it. It´s two different stories. What´s obvious for me, also considering my love for the released album, this one is the one that hits me hardest. The compassion, the sorrow, the colors are like a full rainbow in this version. The more aggressive and more raging version from the original album is something completely else. A masterpiece, that one, too. The key to understanding the answer behind the two versions of the albums might be possible to find. Or maybe we’ll never know for sure.

There seems to be a understanding that this version, with the organ overdub, is the version released on “Bootleg Series, Volume 1-3”. It clearly is the same vocal take, but in my ears I can´t find other than this is without the organ. Of course, it´s a version beautiful beyond words, also without it.

Several more takes of “You´re A Big Girl Now”, “Meet Me In The Morning” and “Tangled Up In Blue” close the last day, but it doesn´t make Dylan come closer to his vision for the songs.

The last take of “Meet Me In The Morning” is really cool, but breaks up. A visiting Mick Jagger gives advice over the speaker: “Bob, you wanna play slide on this one, cause it sounds great?” Dylan answers: “Who can play slide?” Mick: “You!” Dylan: “I can’t play slide.” Nevertheless, he tries out a few slided chords before concluding: “Not me. ” Mick´s answer is short and funny: “Ok, I agree”. Dylan laughs.

With the last take of “You´re A Big Girl Now”, he in the end concludes: “No, we ain´t gonna do it better, I just keep hearing that organ”, and laughs, satisfied.

There is something he is searching for with “Tangled Up In Blue” that he really doesn´t find, not before he is in Minnesota two months later, with another set-up of musicians, maybe also more relaxed.

Nevertheless, the New York Sessions are over and the songs for the test pressing are picked out.

Fall &  Christmas 1974.

Everything is fine. Everyone that was in the studio or that got to hear the test pressing was overwhelmed both over the creativity, the lyrics, the emotional outbursts and tenderness in Dylan´s delivery of maybe the richest collection of songs he ever included on one single album.

The cover is finished and printed, mentioning the musicians from New York. Peter Hamill´s Liner Notes are made after listening to the test pressing, and they are great.

Columbia Records are just dancing happily over what´s going to be the strongest release in years by Bob Dylan. They are doubly happy because he also with this exact album has makes his comeback to Columbia Records, after two years with Asylum Records, with the releases of “Planet Waves” and the live album “Before The Flood”.

All is good, then?! Except for one thing, Dylan isn´t really sure about the album. Something is bothering him. He eventually plays the test pressing for his brother, David, that suggests re-recording some of the songs with local musicians in Minneapolis. The sessions are set up 27th and 30th of December. Five of the songs gets the Minnesota treatment and ends up at the album.

From being a complete New York album, ready for sale, the end result is like this:

Tangled Up In Blue – from Minneapolis
Simple Twist of Fate – from New York
You´re A Big Girl Now – from Minneapolis
Idiot Wind – from Minneapolis
You´re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go – from New York
Meet Me In The Morning – from New York
Lily, Rosemary And The Jack of Hearts – from Minneapolis
If You See Her, Say Hello – from Minneapolis
Shelter From The Storm – from New York
Buckets of Rain – from New York

The five Minneapolis recordings from the original release have been remastered, remixed and included at the end of the sixth cd of the box. Alternate takes, which weren´t many, reportedly are sadly lost in the wind.

Because of the already printed album covers, no information is given about the musicians from Minneapolis, something that makes them disappointed through the years. In the same way, the NY crew is disappointed about Dylan just scrapping half of the songs they contributed to. With “More Blood, More Tracks” both parties gets a thumbs up, as both deserve.

As we´ve been promised the box set also includes photos from Dylan´s work in his little note books, giving us further insight in his method of working and writing. This is just a little taste of what lies in the promise of the Dylan Archive growing in Tulsa, Oklahoma. There is more to come.

About Love.

“Blood On The Tracks” is more than anything the album where Dylan holds the prism of love up to the light, capturing all its facets in one powerful grip. The result becomes a rainbow of songs that demonstrate the full range of feelings related to the unbearable gravity of love. Poetically conveyed along the full scale of the meteorology, from the sunshine in the opening of “Tangled Up In Blue”, to buckets of rain in the final song, through the thunder and lightning of “Idiot Wind” and the storm of “Shelter From The Storm “. It is about falling in love, meetings, ecstasy, joy and poetry; it is memories, adversity, longing, jealousy, anger, deep love and eternal loneliness. It all lives side by side, as past, present and future does. The perspectives shift and overlap as within a cubic painting, and many faces, not just one, flutter past in a visual mosaic tangled up in blue. It really is blue, and the pain that stops and starts is never far away, once because she is gone, another time because she will once go away, a third because fate and gravity work in opposite directions. Life is sad, life is a bust, all you can do, is do what you must. And love is a lonely thing.

Why? And why not?

Why did he do it? Why did he change horses in the middle of the stream? Was it too naked, too dark, too blue, too personal, too private or too slow? Was it the music or was it the singing? Was it his own life and only that, was it the inspiration from Chekhov? Maybe we´ll never know. The results are two very different approaches to the task, but both are masterpieces. What´s fascinating now is that we, at last, can follow the whole process, take by take, day by day, like we´re in the studio with the master himself.

“More Blood, More Tracks” shows us Bob Dylan at his best, both as a singer and as a songwriter. That means that it isn´t getting any better than this.

Johnny Borgan

 

 

9 thoughts on “The Making of a Holy Grail – «More Blood, More Tracks – Bootleg Series, Volume 14»

  1. Sir, you are a wordsmith. I would not have expected to read something new & interesting about this boxed set that I didn’t already feel expression for. Your expression – i.e. your writing – knocks me out. Kudos to you on a fine piece of work.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Johnny, top review. Your words re Bob’s singing are especially potent, he truly is a fantastic vocalist. You are correct of course that it’s always the lyrics that lay claim to the kudos on this album (well, probably all the albums actually) while his vocals are often passed over as weak, irritating or just plain rubbish😳. Such a shame, still, the more writers such as yourself and Peter Stone Brown can highlight his singing, the more people might catch on.
    “Keep on keeping on” Johnny.

    Liked by 1 person

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