Reclaiming the forgotten decade: Bob Dylan's Springtime in New York: The Bootleg Series Vol. 16 (1980-1985) by Harold Lepidus
What follows is my review of the newest installment of Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series -Volume 16 - Springtime in New York … out September 17.
It’s a five disc set covering the first half of the 1980s, and it’s basically divided into three sections related to three albums. The first two discs (from 1980-81) begin with the end of the SAVED era but focuses on the sessions for the 1981 album SHOT OF LOVE. Discs three and four document the sessions for his 1983 album INFIDELS, and the final disc takes us on a journey from the unfairly neglected Real Live to 1985’s EMPIRE BURLESQUE.
First I’d like to place this set in perspective. It’s been 30 years since the first Bootleg Series was released. The1991 box set was jointly presented as volumes 1, 2 and 3. It was a massive collection of tracks which was released to compete with Dylan’s legacy, and his own commercial currency, which was at a low point at the time. Unsure what to do with a living legend, the powers that be also decided to give him a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award - 30 years ago. The following year, the 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration was another attempt to remind people - and possibly Dylan himself - of his artistry. Artistically, and modestly, Dylan responded by releasing a couple of albums of traditional folk and blues numbers, This was not unlike his less inspired - but still better than you remember - albums which followed the first Bob Dylan box set - 1985’s BIOGRAPH. Warning: Repackage Dylan at your own peril. At least until his so-called “come back” album, 1997’s TIME OUT OF MIND.
Now, it's let the good times roll!
So if the first Bootleg Series was released 30 years ago at about the time of the 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration, that means Springtime in New York was released about 60 years after Dylan’s debut album, And how about this for heavy symbolism - the cover photographs on both releases are reversed! Additionally, the Bootleg Series has gone so far down the Dylan rabbit hole that this collection, in a way, includes outtakes of outtakes from previous sets.
If I had to summarize my interpretation of what Dylan might have been going through artistically at the time on these discs, it would be that he was “searching.” Searching for what? Well, let’s set the way back machine to 1980. Jimmy Carter was in the White House. There were hostages in Iran. There had been an oil crisis - gasoline was up to 34 cents a gallon! Heavy progressive rock was about to be viewed only in the rear view mirror, being usurped by punk, new wave, and disco, at least in the press. Classic rock would live on as CDs with bonus tracks. All four Beatles were still alive.
Soon, John Lennon would be dead and Reagan would be president, popular with America’s youth, and the dismantling of the 60s had begun. Everything felt as artificial as Reagan’s dyed hair and faux folksy demeanor. Soon there was eMpTyVee and Compact Discs, everything shiny, pretty, muscular, spiky, tattooed, shoulder padded, and big-haired. CDs would replace cassettes, which replaced LPs. Albums submitted by such legends as George Harrison, Neil Young, and future Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan, were being rejected by the soulless musical venture capitalists in charge, all looking for the big, quick score.
At the dawn of the 80s, no one knew what to make of Bob Dylan, probably including Mr. Dylan himself. In the mid-70s, he appeared to have it all, but by the turn of the decade, it seemed he had thrown it away. Not for the first time, nor the last, writers and critics erroneously thought he had lost it. As Dylan sang in “Tight Connection To My Heart,” the lead single from 1985’s Empire Burlesque, “I’ll go along with this charade until I can think my way out.” (An alternate mix is included here.)
Let’s not forget Dylan's somewhat tattered reputation as he was about to enter the third decade of his career. After the restored critical acclaim of his mid-70s albums and tours, Dylan ditched a potentially financially rewarding career to follow his muse. A large chunk of his fan base was baffled by everything from Renaldo & Clara, to his fire and brimstone sermons during his embrace of fundamentalist Christianity, to his return to Judaism via the orthodox Hasidic Lubovich movement. Not your typical no-brown-m&m’s rock star nonsense. Lines like “A woman like you should be at home/That’s where you belong” weren’t exactly woke. Maybe these were not the best commercial decisions, but Dylan thrives when he’s focused and in the zone, and if everybody else just leaves him alone, he’ll come through with the goods (See The Supper Club vs MTV Unplugged), even though you might not get it at the time.
Springtime in New York dispels a lot of myths about Dylan, as these collections are prone to do, and I’ll get to that in a moment. In some ways, this edition of the Bootleg Series is the most bootleggy of all. In fact, some of this material has been available to collectors for decades, although plenty of it is new, at least to me. Lots of unexpected covers, some tracks with different lyrics or arrangements, some embryonic sketches that were soon abandoned.
As usual, when I was able to listen to an advanced copy, I devoured it in two days, and also as usual, it was too much to take in at once. I immediately wanted to rearrange it all in exact chronological order (or as close as possible) to see how the story unfolded. Next was to incorporate ten songs from this period included on The Bootleg Series Vol.3, a couple from Biograph, and some stray tracks (The Third Man 7” version of “Blind Willie McTell,” the 1983 b-side “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground”), unreleased songs given away to other artists (“Clean Cut Kid” by Carla Olson and the Textones, “Need A Woman” by Ry Cooder,” ”Let’s Keep It Between Us” by Bonnie Raitt, “Straight A’s in Love” by the Williams Brothers, “Fur Slippers” by B.B. King”. ) I even created a separate playlist of only the duplicate songs together, so that I could track their development.
(Side note: Just listened to Bonnie Raitt’s “Let’s Keep It Between Us.” Kind of sounds like a blueprint for her hit song, “Something to Talk About.” Probably just a coincidence, but interesting.)
What follows are some of my thoughts, interpretations, and observations:
Bob Dylan’s reputation at the beginning of the 1980s was one of a man out of time, a curmudgeon, a contrarian, a depressed man in his 40s (!), someone drifting and unfocused, in some ways a relic of a bygone era (or two.) However, as I hinted at earlier, my interpretation of Dylan’s state of mind, if I may be so presumptuous, is that he was searching. On one hand, he was (and is) an artist. On the other hand, he wants people to hear the art he is creating. By the early 80s, things had changed. He was standing at the crossroads, not for the first - or final - time. Anyone who thinks Dylan was washed up or uninspired in the 80s will be pleasantly surprised by Springtime in New York.
(I can just imagine Dylan - or one of his representatives - talking with the Columbia Records marketing team, and wondering what could be done to increase sales? “How about a really explosive cover to go with the title, Shot of Love?” Bob: “I’ve got just the thing!”)
One of the joys of listening to this material is hearing old songs anew, and either reconnecting to forgotten lyrics, or finding new interpretations, with the familiar songs now re-contextualized. For decades, I’ve reversed the lyrical content of “Tight Connection” in my head, while singing the words correctly, as “Never did learn to drink that wine, and call it blood,” as a possible distancing statement from his previous Christian proclamations. Now, in 2021, I can also connect the phrase to lines in both “Memphis Blues Again” and “All Along the Watchtower.” (Probably not the first person, but it was a revelation to me.) “Angelina” is hilarious, an exercise to see how many words rhyme with that name (hyena, concertina, subpoena). "Clean Cut Kid” has some really clever wordplay, turning a boxing reference inside out: “He was wearing boxing gloves/took a dive one day/Off the Golden Gate Bridge into China Bay.”
One of the early surprising highlights of Springtime in New York is how much fun this supposed curmudgeon is having while covering music from all corners of the musical globe - Hank Williams, Neil Diamond (“Sweet Caroline”), Dave Mason (“We Just Disagree”), the 1979 MOR hit “This Night Won’t Last Forever” by Michael Johnson, Dr. Hook’s “A Couple More Years” (written by Shel Silverstein, and later included in the 1987 not-so-guilty-pleasure film, Hearts of Fire), and a really impassioned take on the Temptations’ “I Wish It Would Rain.” He's also having fun on "Fur Slippers," which appears to be his humorous take on "Blue Suede Shoes." The selections alternate between pleasure and pain, as you'd expect from any respectful Gemini, and it’s mixed in with the rehearsals of songs from his own catalogue - “To Ramona” and “Senor” (the opening track, hopefully a hint that a Street (Finally) Legal box set is on deck). Dylan here is still playing with a gospel rock band, and he even tackles a couple of traditional Christian songs, having not yet reconnected with his Jewish roots. The recordings for Shot of Love ends with a cool, loose “Heart of Mine” (Sun) session outtake with Ringo Starr on Elvis’ “Mystery Train.”
Interestingly, there’s only one different version of a song actually included on the Shot of Love album, an alternate mix of “Lenny Bruce.” With the overdubbed backing vocals, it transforms a challenging and disturbing song into a thing of beauty, which may be why it was not included on the album. Lenny told the truth, so there’s no need to make it pretty. Dylan included an updated version on his last tour, possibly a comment on the fake news polluting the political discourse of the day. However, this version stands alone as a glorious tribute to a man gone too soon, who died from “an overdose of police,” as Phil Spector observed. There was a theory (not originally mine), that this song may have begun as a tribute to Lennon, who was murdered the previous December - Lenny/Lennon, the taxi ride, a reference to the Beatles’ notorious “Butcher Cover.” Dylan’s official tribute to Lennon would not be released until 2012’s Tempest album.
When Dylan released Infidels in 1983, it was heralded as a return to form, one of the many albums declared to be his “best since Blood on the Tracks.” By this time, Dylan embraced his Jewish roots, and his reconnection can be heard in the sparse arrangements, and pro-Israel and anti-anti-Semitism sentiments, only some of which made it to the final album. (“Julius and Ethel” didn't, but it’s available here.) It had one of Dylan’s more eclectic and interesting mix of collaborators, up there with 1975’s Desire crew: Reggae rhythm section Sly & Robbie, Alan Clark and (co-producer and Slow Train alumnus) Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits, and Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor.
I loved Infidels, as most people did. “Jokerman” is still one of his more impressive (if enigmatic) songs, and it sounded gorgeous. Dylan was back! Again! And he was Jewish! Again! Many of us, of course, didn’t know he’d never really been away. Dylan was quoted as saying he preferred Shot of Love over Infidels, which sounded preposterous at the time, but it got me to thinkin'. It reminded me of John Lennon’s quote that he thought that his signature album, Imagine, was just Plastic Ono Band with sugar on top. Maybe Dylan was thinking the same thing.
Then came the bootlegs! Mine was called Outfidels, apparently an early album mix with many alternative lyrics, without “Union Sundown,” but with two untitled tracks, which we soon found out were “Blind Willie McTell” and “Foot of Pride.” Later, both Dylan and Knopfler expressed regret about what was left off the album, which Dylan changed after Knopfler had to leave to go on tour. (At least Dylan took responsibility, and we get to officially enjoy it in all its glory now.) The idea that some of these tracks being orphaned was mind boggling. Can you imagine, for example, a Side Two with “Tell Me,” “Blind Willie McTell,” “Foot of Pride” and as a closer, “Lord Protect My Child”? Throughout these sessions (and the box set in general), Dylan is exploring all sorts of musical styles, from Caribbean to Gospel, from Soul to R&B, and from country to Rolling Stones-influenced rockers (not surprising with Mick Taylor in the studio.)
With the release of Springtime In New York, you can follow the evolution of “Foot of Pride” from an acoustic demo titled “Too Late” (an edited version was included in an Uncut Magazine preview, probably as a reward for critic Damien Love’s excellent liner notes) to a band version (see video) to two different and equally astounding performances. One of the highlights of the set is the really sinister version of “Foot of Pride,” quite different from the Bootleg Series Vol. 3 take.
Another highlight is an early version of “Clean Cut Kid,” later re-recorded for Empire Burlesque. (An alternate version from 1984 is also included.) Here it’s more of a swampy rocker, and it was donated to Carla Olson (for her band the Textones) after she appeared miming Taylor’s guitar solo in the “Sweetheart Like You” promotional video, Dylan’s first foray into the world of MTV. (A “Jokerman” video followed.)
And then there's “Blind Willie McTell.” We now have three official studio takes (and one live b-side) of not only one of the greatest songs left off any Dylan album, but one of his greatest all-time creations. All three are glorious, all have something special. There’s the stripped down version from Bootleg Series Vol. 3, the electric version included here (Yes it’s edited, get over it), and the first take, available only from Third Man Records. All are different, all essential. Love the church-y organ on take one, the energy and synergy of the band version, and the majestic simplicity of the stripped down take. As I mentioned earlier, it sounds like Dylan is searching for something. Nothing appears to be definitive. Listening to the outtakes, I can imagine Dylan throwing up his hands and thinking, “Which one should I include?” Same with “Foot of Pride.” Maybe Infidels was getting too heavy for the Thatcher/Reagan/MTV-era? When Dylan sang on 1997’s “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven,” “I close my eyes and I wonder/If everything is as hollow as it seems,” he could have been singing about the 80s. Just speculation on my part, or course. Who knows? (Special thanks to Jack White for making Take One available as a single, and not as part of some expensive format.)
The final disc starts with the only two live tracks. The first is “Enough is Enough,” a previously unreleased very cool rocker (“Rather be lucky than be rich!”), and he’s clearly having a blast. If you ask me, it’s time for a reevaluation of the Real Live LP, the unfortunately truncated live album which doesn’t do the 1984 tour justice. However, if I told you this was early NET, you’d believe it: Mick Taylor on guitar, the Faces’ Ian McLagen on keyboards, bassist/songwriter Gregg (with two Gs) Sutton, and Stone the Crows drummer Colin Allen. Dig it out while you're waiting for this box set. It cooks!
Next up is ”License To Kill” from Dylan’s legendary Letterman appearance with the Plugz. Of course you can find the entire performance online. This was a blueprint for the 1984 tour.
I assume the material from the Empire Burlesque - era is included to give you an idea what these sessions would sound like without Arthur Baker’s 1980’s gloss. Again, Dylan wasn’t sure of himself, or where he was bound. The outtakes of the ballads often sound tender and tentative. Highlights: “Straight A’s in Love” - a Dylan original which appears to be a rewrite of a Johnny Cash composition from the Sun years, a song with the same title. I’m not sure how it would have gone over, but in a perfect world, it could have been a smash hit 60's surf-rock special opening track single (which he would never play live, of course), leading to a rocking track list for Empire Burlesque, with “Clean Cut Kid,” “Seeing the Real You At Last,” the faster February 19 take of “When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky,” the legendary Sam Shepard epic co-write “New Danville Girl” (later updated on Knocked Out Loaded as “Brownsville Girl” - which, contrary to popular opinion, I think has some superior lines), and “Dark Eyes” as a closing benediction.
After this, it was Live Aid, Farm Aid, tours with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and the Grateful Dead, Knocked Out Loaded, Hearts of Fire, Down in the Groove, the Traveling Wilburys, the NET, and culminating with 1989's Oh Mercy. Looking forward to that box set. Or at least a worthwhile trip to Tulsa.
Well, one thing this collection shows, despite criticisms that Dylan left his best songs off his albums, especially in the 80s, it’s also clear that in many cases, the final versions are valid, and often have at least something superior to offer. Much like Pokeman, you gotta catch ‘em all. I feel so fortunate that this material is being made public, and I’m here to experience it. And that you are here as well.
And lastly, you might be wondering why volume 16 of the Bootleg Series is titled Springtime in New York when some of the album was recorded in California, and some in the winter? Beats me … Is that snow on the booklet cover?
(Thanks to Sony for their assistance.)
Springtime in New York
The Bootleg Series Vol. 16
2CD / 2LP / 5CD DeLuxe Box
2CD: amazon.com - .co.uk - .de.
2LP: amazon.com - .co.uk - .de.
5CD Box: amazon.com - .co.uk - .de.
4LP (subscription): Third Man Records
Bonnie Raitt- Let's Keep It Between us (1982)
B.B. King - Fur Slippers
(c) 2021 Harold Lepidus