Tue October 22, 2013
Do We Really Need Bob Dylan And Van Morrison Box Sets?
Originally published on Tue October 22, 2013 4:09 pm
How much does any musician's outtakes, sanctioned for release years after the fact, enlarge our understanding of their canonical work? Depends on the artist; depends on the work. Sometimes they serve a shadow function — unissued songs that, had they come out the first time around, would have fundamentally rewritten the artist's story. Sometimes they simply present alternate routes to the same basic end-point. And sometimes they should have stayed in the damn vault.
Each of the above applies, one way or another, to the fall's two big-ticket cutting-room sweep-ups: Bob Dylan's Another Self Portrait (1969-1971): The Bootleg Series, Vol. 10 and Van Morrison's Moondance (Deluxe Edition). That's not all they have in common: they cover the same era — Morrison's original Moondance was issued in 1970, also the year of Dylan's Self Portrait and New Morning, which his new set mines. And both were audibly shaking off the psychic weight of the '60s in favor of simpler, tighter writing. The results were, of course, very different. Moondance is Morrison's most widely beloved album (Astral Weeks, from 1968, is loved more fiercely, but by fewer people), while Self Portrait was considered self-parody at best, an outright betrayal at worst.
Of course, Dylan had a lot more to shake off. Whatever mystical connection Morrison's fans felt with Astral Weeks, no one had anointed him a generational spokesman the way they had with Dylan. Morrison could live in Woodstock, New York, in relative peace, and Dylan couldn't — he was hounded by fans and, to a lesser degree, the press. It was just as bad once Dylan moved back to the city — one crackpot began rooting around the musician's trash in order to understand what his songs "actually" meant.
That's one reason Dylan's unofficial record sparked frenzy among fans to begin with: What's he keeping from us? It's not a coincidence that The Great White Wonder, the first Dylan bootleg (widely considered rock's first as well) came out in 1969. Yes, Dylan was recording regularly again — he issued Nashville Skyline that year — but he'd also been moving decisively away from the layered-ramalama lyrics that had invited so much (over) interpretation in the first place. The rabid fans wanted more of the old stuff that they weren't likely to be getting again — Dylan had moved on even if they hadn't — and they wanted it forever, even if that meant paying twice as much money for pressings whose sound quality was typically half as good as the actual albums.
Dylan is nothing if not shrewd — or, at least, he got tired of watching the people selling his outtakes get paid for work he wasn't seeing dime one from. Six years after The Great White Wonder, he sanctioned some of its contents, the demos he'd taped in a Woodstock basement in 1967 with his first serious backing group, soon named the Band, as The Basement Tapes. The Village Voice named it the year's best album, eight years after most of it was recorded. (The Band recut some of the material.) Ten years later came the three-CD Biograph, the blueprint for the multi-disc box set overview that sprouted in the '90s like store-shelf kudzu, increasingly unwieldy and unkillable; one-third of its tracks were previously unissued. It laid the groundwork for 1991's The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3, a three-disc vault-sweep that made flesh the diehards' trumpeting that Dylan had acres more where his classics came from.
Van Morrison is a different story altogether. Aside from a series of f--- you demos he wrote to get out of a publishing contract in 1967 (titles included "Ring Worm" and "You Say France and I Whistle"), which were later issued on disc two of The Complete Bang Sessions, among other places, Morrison has long been fiercely protective of his music. Outtakes aren't all he's cautious about: The bulk of his classic '70s catalog — including Tupelo Honey (1971), Saint Dominic's Preview (1972), the ferocious live It's Too Late to Stop Now (1974) and Veedon Fleece (1975) — has been out of print for years, though plans are apparently afoot to reissue them in deluxe editions next year. (They can't come soon enough; I'm sick of going to YouTube to hear Tupelo Honey's "Straight to Your Heart" or Saint Dominic's Preview's title cut, the best song ever written about the '70s.) Unlike Dylan, who has turned The Bootleg Series into a canny franchise, new volumes alternating with new albums, Morrison has permitted exactly one outtakes collection: The Philosopher's Stone, a double-CD from 1994 that concentrates heavily on the early-'70s.
For years Rhino, Warner's reissue imprint, approached Morrison about a deluxe Moondance, and for years Van told them no. He still does: "I did not endorse this, it is unauthorized and it has happened behind my back," he wrote on his official website shortly after the box was announced. (The message has disappeared from the site.) Morrison is notoriously cagey about discussing his life and work — he once literally got up and ran out of an interview with Rolling Stone's David Wild, who chased him down, and delayed Clinton Heylin's biography, Can You Hear the Silence, from publication for two years by unsuccessfully suing for libel.
Dylan is the kind of artist who keeps moving till everything feels right, and to hell with what's left behind. Only an artist of his caliber could let go of a song like "She's Your Lover Now," a 1966 outtake on the first Bootleg Series box with a missing final verse, because, hey, he had Blonde on Blonde to finish. Morrison, by contrast, gives the impression that he's chasing the noise in his head. Maybe he regards the process of creation as private, and feels that lifting the veil will spoil the illusion; maybe he just doesn't want anyone to see him sweat except on his own terms.
You can't really spoil Moondance, though; it's Morrison's crown jewel, ten perfectly rendered songs, impeccably sequenced. If anything, the best of the false starts and early arrangements on the new set hint not at the album Morrison eventually dropped, but rangier later albums like Saint Dominic's Preview, loose in form and tight in groove at once.
But Moondance wasn't leaner than Astral Weeks just because Morrison was looking for a hit; even when things get woolly on the Deluxe Edition, which is frequently, the music is far more pared down. One song that didn't make the final album in any guise is the Ray Charles-like "I've Been Working," which eventually made it onto His Band and the Street Choir. That version was a polite rhythm exercise, later blown to bits by the version from It's Too Late to Stop Now. The Moondance box's two takes, longer than ten minutes apiece, make the It's Too Late version sound like afternoon tea. "Here we go / Edgar Allen Poe / And Leadbelly / Walking down the line," grunts Van, as the saxophone picks up and the guitars and drums grind like prime James Brown — there's as much joy here as anything with Morrison's name on it (though "There goes Hiawatha / King of the Injuns" makes me wince).
What gives the track its charge isn't length, it's simplicity — the elements are far more direct than Astral Weeks' orchestration and elliptical verses. "I Shall Sing," previously unissued, is tantalizing for much the same reason; its upbeat lyric and bopping Caribbean horns could have fit onto Moondance if the takes didn't keep trailing off. But even that gem gets too many airings here. Can anyone be surprised that "Glad Tidings" sounded more or less the same on every take? Frankly, this should have been a single CD of highlights — the world is full enough of half-steps and useless chatter as it is.
About the same time that Moondance offered a more plainspoken variation of the mystical, harrowed tone of Astral Weeks, Dylan, too, was journeying into ordinariness. Dylan writes vividly in Chronicles Vol. One about attempting to lead an ordinary life — and failing, having become an icon whose fans held severe expectations of him. From running away from home to dropping out of college after one year to go east and busk, from the six-minute single to dropping John Wesley Harding with almost no fanfare to a world which had been holding its breath on him for over a year, nobody told Dylan what to do — at all. He did not want to deal with it.
Self Portrait was received as a slap in the face because its title and double-LP heft seemed to offer a state of the nation address and its contents sounded so ground out — the strings and choirs of tracks like "All the Tired Horses" were pure syrup to the era's rock and rollers. (Dylan, in his 1983 Rolling Stone interview with Kurt Loder, admitted that he deliberately piled on the dross, a point reiterated, more elliptically, in Chronicles Vol. One.) Today the strings sound more like a shrug and less like a slap — an effective way to deconstruct the Dylan Myth, albeit not particularly resonant, musically.
Going by Another Self Portrait, there was something more to those sessions than the original Self Portrait lets on — but it isn't that much more. Much of the music Dylan was making in this period slips from the ear permanently when it's not playing — including New Morning, the album he followed Self Portrait with a scant four months later, and whose sessions provide the bulk of Another Self Portrait's second disc. New Morning is OK Dylan — enough of a relief for Rolling Stone to trumpet at the time, "We've got Dylan back again," a judgment far hastier (and less pungent) than Greil Marcus' infamous lead to his Self Portrait review in the same magazine ("What is this s---?"), but not one that's held particularly well.
The singing that Another Self Portrait unearths is careworn more than wayward or sloppy. (For that, spring for the upcoming Complete Album Collection, Vol. 1, which features the only U.S. CD issue in the U.S. of 1973's infamous Dylan, which — speaking of memorable leads — Robert Christgau once referred to as "outtakes from what used to be Dylan's worst album.") Much of the time on Another Self Portrait Dylan sounds ragged but still committed. The care is easier to hear when songs like "In Search of Little Sadie" are stripped of the overdubbed instrumentation that bogs much of Self Portrait down. It helps, too, that the pair of performances taken from Dylan's performance with The Band at the Isle of Wight in 1969 — "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" and "Highway 61 Revisited" — are far livelier than the ones picked for Self Portrait.
Still, there's an uncertainty that pervades this material — a Dylan who doesn't quite know what to do with himself — which you don't have to dig through the man's trash to hear. Yes, these performances enhance our understanding of a transitional portion of a monumental career. That doesn't make them essential, though — any more than it's essential to know precisely how many times Van Morrison had to re-sing "Caravan" till he got it just right.