Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Dylan Dilemma: Deciphering the "Tell Tale Signs"

Of course it's overpriced. Of course I bought it. Of course it's great.

When the newest installment of Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series was announced, I immediately clicked on http://www.bobdylan.com/ and was amazed at the various treasures being offered, and the different configurations from which to could choose . There was an old-fashioned vinyl box set. Then there was the "normal" double CD, which would have been eagerly welcomed by Bobcats around the globe. Another choice was a downloadable 2 CD set from iTunes with an extra live song. You could also buy a single CD version, which is just the first disc already included in all other versions. And if that wasn't enough, there was yet ANOTHER Tell Tale Sign to consider: A mysterious "deluxe" triple disc version, with twelve extra tracks, as well as a couple of books (one exclusive to this set). For added enticement, if you ordered early, you would get an exclusive seven inch 45 r.p.m. picture sleeve single (with both songs already on TTS), as well as a poster (for the first 5000 orders of any version). The catch? The "deluxe" version cost over $100 more than the 2 CD version.

Like many others, my first reaction was: Are they kidding ? What were they thinking? Is it really worth all that extra money? I can just get someone to burn the third disc for me. The "extras", while nice to have, are things I could easily live without.

Yet without much prodding, I decided to go for the "deluxe" version. I figured if any artist was worth paying extra for, it was Dylan. I remember hearing Elvis Costello speak at SXSW in 2005, and saying that if we paid every CD it's aesthetic worth, a copy of Joni Mitchell's Blue CD would be $50. Luckily, Mr. Costello doesn't run a major record label, but his words did ring true when I gave Sony my credit card number. Ironically, while Sony is trying to make a huge profit in these dark times by raking Dylan fans over the coals with this exorbitant gimmick, it end up punishing the fans, and rewarding those that burn and download illegally. I would not feel at all guilty burning disc three for any friends of mine that did not want to pay that kind of money.

When all was said and done, it was difficult to assess exactly what I getting. The track listing was meandering and confusing, with very few specific details. It was the usual mix of demos, unreleased songs, alternate takes, live tracks, and songs from movies. This time it even had alternate versions of unreleased songs found elsewhere on other discs. Some of the tracks, however, seemed like things that were already available to fans in one form or another. Dozens of live recordings, often captured with hidden recorded devices, used to be posted on Dylan's official website. I wondered if these performances will be regurgitated here ? Are the songs from soundtracks going to be different versions from the ones I already own? In my more obsessive days, I would have researched it all to find out for sure. Nowadays I just try to relax and enjoy music, and try not to worry too much about the package getting lost in the mail.

On the morning of October 7, I found my copy of Tell Tale Signs at my door. I opened the envelope, and examined the contents. The "deluxe" packaging was pretty impressive: Two hardcover books housed in a glossy box, with some cool, if somewhat familiar, pix of Bob. The notes were written by "Ratso" Sloman, who chronicled 1975's Rolling Thunder tour. Lots of great photos, track-by-track analysis, and a list of who allegedly played on which song. So far, so good.

Over the next few days, I listened to all three discs. As usual, it takes a few listens to get a handle on any unfamiliar Dylan material. Just experiencing the early stripped-down trilogy that starts the set is breathtaking. Dylan seems like a vessel to another era, channeling an ancient, forgotten time. This was before music was an industry, when people played and listened to songs because they discovered, loved, shared, and cherished them, not because they had to appease their stockholders to meet fourth quarter goals. Hearing the legendary Time Out Of Mind version of "Mississippi", later redone for "Love & Theft", in a sparse, acoustic setting, makes the hair on your neck stand on end. There were many other highlights as well, especially the 1992 David Bromberg sessions; the subsequent outtakes from World Gone Wrong; an early, haunting, version of "Can't Wait"; as well as exquisite live versions of "Ring Them Bells", from the legendary Supper Club shows of 1993, and "Girl From The Greenbriar Shore", set in 1892, sung a century later, which seems to be the blueprint of another great outtake, "Red River Girl". It's also fascinating to hear Dylan embellish the second version of "Marchin' To The City" with a military snare, and the additional ethnic flavor of an accordion on "Red River Girl" . For more information of these sessions, you must check out the twelve interviews with those that worked with Bob during this period in Uncut magazine.(http://www.uncut.co.uk/music/bob_dylan/special_features/12361)

When I got to the end of the last track, however, I felt unsatisfied. The songs were all over the place, some carefully selected, some seemingly arbitrary. So I changed my name to Sherlock Holmes and used my detective bag to decipher what the tell tale signs were trying to say to me.

The first step was to sift through the songs and figure out what I actually had here. All three discs were not even close to being filled to capacity--the total amount of audio content included added up to about 200 minutes, or roughly two and a half CDs worth of material. There easily could have been close to another 40 minutes of music added. To add insult to injury, the $100 rare third disc was only 61 minutes long- with room for 19 more minutes of Dylan's unreleased recordings. Disc three also started and ended with essential rarities. The rest of the selections were either live performances, or different takes of material that appeared on previous discs.

Sloman's liner notes were written from a fan's perspective, as opposed to a scholarly one, so it fits the "Bootleg" motif, even if everything else about the package seems to beg you to take it as a serious work of Art. There were a few mistakes, from typos (down In The Groove was not capitalized), to factual errors (Camden Town is part of London, and in 1999, Dylan did previously perform a Robert Johnson song - "Crossroads" -- -with Eric Clapton and Sheryl Crow - and it was released on DVD.), to erroneous session information, with at least two piano-based tracks ("Can't Wait" <#1> and "Dignity" <#2>) not listing any pianist (probably Dylan himself).

After sorting through the track listing, I decided to put it in a proper, chronological order, to get a better feel for what material was included. Here's the list broken down by category:

STUDIO
(Oh Mercy)
Most Of The Time 1
Most Of The Time 2
Dignity 1 *
Dignity 2
Born In Time 1
Born In Time 2
Everything Is Broken *
Series Of Dreams
God Knows
Ring Them Bells (Studio)
Ring Them Bells (Live, Supper Club)

(1992-1993)
Miss The Mississippi And You
Duncan & Brady
32-20 Blues
Mary And The Soldier

(Time Out Of Mind)
Mississippi 1
Mississippi 2
Mississippi 3
Can't Wait 1
Can't Wait 2
Red River Shore 1
Red River Shore 2
Dreamin' Of You
Marchin' To The City 1
Marchin' To The City 2

(Recent Recordings)
Tell Ol' Bill 6/17/05
Can't Escape From You 11/05
Someday Baby
Ain't Talkin'

(Previously Released) :
Lonesome River 5/98 *
'Cross The Green Mountain 7/02 *
Huck's Tune 5/06 *

LIVE:
Girl From The Greenbriar Shore 1992
Cocaine Blues 1997
Things Have Changed 2000
Tryin' To Get To Heaven 2000 *
Lonesome Day Blues 2002
High Water 2003 *
Cold Irons Bound 2004

Most things about Dylan are shrouded in secrecy, and the story behind the decisions that lead to this set are no different. What I have heard is that Jeff Rosen gave Sony a selection of material to choose from for the eighth installment of the Bootleg Series. What has interested me is not just what Dylan was offering for his fans to hear. I was fascinated by what must have been Sony's motivations, besides greed, when deciding what to include in the 2 CD, and what to save for the deluxe version.

Some observations:

At first glance, it seems that one-third of the tracks were previously available to fans, either on compact discs, as downloads, or on Dylan's now-defunct official "Performances" web-page. On closer inspection, thanks to Alan Frasier's exhaustive website , only a handful of these specific performances (marked above with *) had been made available to Dylan collectors, although the other live performances are not exactly unfamiliar to most fans. (For disambiguation, see http://www.searchingforagem.com/2000s/International052.htm ).

Secondly, while the set covers 1989 to 2006, more that half of the material comes from two album sessions featuring U2's producer Daniel Lanois: 1989's Oh Mercy and 1997's Time Out Of Mind, although some of the songs included ended up on unrepresented albums like 1990's Under The Red Sky and 2001's "Love & Theft". Lanois produced those two albums during crucial times in Bob's recording career. On one hand, having Lanois in the studio inspired Dylan to focus and try to make inspired albums. On the other hand, this lead to much friction in the studio, and the resulting album seemed more like a collaboration between Dylan and Lanois than Bob's own artistic vision. The confrontations between Lanois and Dylan are well documented (especially in Dylan's book, Chronicles Volume One) , and one wonders if Bob is getting his revenge by releasing his vision of what he originally wanted with these mostly sparse productions.

It's also interesting to reinterpret how the original album would have altered our perceptions if they had included some of the tracks included here. One example is "Someday Baby", one of two songs from Modern Times based on classic Muddy Waters records. (Even though others had done versions of these songs before Muddy , the above mentioned Uncut interviews confirm that Dylan indeed was using the original Chess recordings as the basis for his own. ) While not as rocking as the released version, the Tell Tale version feels more like a Dylan song, and less like a cover version. If this had been included on the original album, I think I would have warmed to it quicker. Of course, if the Muddy-inspired version appeared for the first time here, it probably would have blown me away. But then what would Dylan have lip-synced to in his iPod TV ad?

The order of the songs seemed to serve no real purpose - it seemed like an iPod set on "shuffle". While it is not unusual for a Dylan compilation to eschew chronological order, those collections usually feature previously released material. Here, due to the unfamiliarity of the music and the breathtaking scope, the seemingly random order made it difficult to get a handle on the material. Luckily, I had a solution.

Before going through the set a second time, I decided to reorganize the music into a more digestible order. My goal was to see if I could get the essential material on two discs, and then use the third "bonus" disc for the rest of the material, and add my own "bonus" tracks.

My personal edition of Tell Tale Signs featured :

Disc One: Sixteen tracks: Seven songs from 1989, the live version of "Greenbriar Shore" (the blueprint for "Red River Shore"), five from 1997, and three recent tracks: "Tell Ol' Bill", and the two outtakes from Modern Times.

Disc Two: Sixteen more tracks: Three more different version of songs from the Oh Mercy sessions, the Supper Club version of "Ring Them Bells", the sessions from 1992-93, the remaining Time Out Of Mind alternative tracks, the unreleased "Can't Escape From You", plus the previously available "Lonesome River" and "Huck's Tune".

Disc Three: I started with the epic "'Cross The Green Mountain" (already on a CD soundtrack), then added the remaining live tracks- some obviously recorded surreptitiously by concert attendees - here arranged chronologically from 1997 to 2004. Due to all the extra time available, I was able to add nine rare tracks from various compilations, also bringing the total number of songs on this disc to sixteen.

Listening to THIS version was much more rewarding, with the songs flowing easily, the selections making sense, and even the fairly familiar live tracks on the last disc working well as a listening experience. Here, the concert material gets to be the center of attention, as opposed to an uninvited guest. What made the set successful, I felt, was that all the material anyone would want was included on the first two discs, with almost no filler. Why didn't Sony think of that ? The only reason that I could fathom was that eight of the sixteen tracks already appeared on disc one. This matters little to Dylan fans. I, myself, own seven copies of Blonde and Blonde. How many times have outtakes of the same songs appeared as bonus tracks on a CD? When it comes to Dylan's creative process, any and all versions shed light onto Bob's art, while still keeping his genius in the shadows.

What else could Sony have done to make the "Deluxe" version something that didn't seem like a rip-off ? How about a 2 hour DVD of the legendary 1993 acoustic sets at New York's Supper Club? One video clip was used to promote the set on the USA Today website (http://www.usatoday.com/life/music/news/2008-07-28-dylan-telltale-signs_N.htm ). Maybe it isn't well lit, and not worthy of a separate release, but it would certainly be of better value than a book I'll look at a couple of times, and 7" single I'll never play, and a poster I'll never display. If not that, maybe a 2 CD audio version of the shows would suffice. How about a disc of mid-1980s outtakes, like "Important Words" and "Got Love If You Want It", that would appeal to Dylan's hard core fanbase? A DVD with a selection of promotional videos, or even a documentary of the process of putting together a set like this, is another choice. Or how about a real "bootleg" DVD of audience-shot concert footage (without permission) found on Youtube ? With a seemingly endless supply of unreleased Dylan material, the added content chosen for the "Deluxe" version seems insulting.

While doing some fact checking for this blog entry, I went back onto http://www.bobdylan.com/ . I discovered that Sony is no longer distributing any version of the set. There's a link to Amazon.com, which indicates that the "Deluxe" version is already out-of-print. Now I'm REALLY glad I purchased the set. The original track listing suddenly looks pretty interesting. Now that I've been through my own version a few times, maybe I'll take the "deluxe" version off the shelf, and give the original, rare version a spin. The way it was supposed to be. I could even browse through that book of picture sleeves from around the world while listening to it. After all, you can't have too much Dylan.

3 comments:

matthew said...

Has anyone compiled tracklistings for the 'real' Time out of Mind or Oh Mercy using Tell Tale Signs yet? (a la the Blood on the Outtakes bootleg of Blood on the Tracks...)

seanmurd said...

Great post. I've had a similar experience with Tell Tale Signs, ranging from indignant outrage to resigned acceptance to puzzled confusion. I vowed never to buy the deluxe set, and then folded less than a week after the release date and bought it -- although if I hadn't had $50 in Amazon gift certificates, I surely would have stuck with the illicit MP3s of disc 3 I already had.

Once I got over the ethical hijacking of the pricing, the first thing I did was load the whole thing onto my iPod and put it into chronological order. The set made much more sense to me when listened to chronologically. I have no doubt that if they had just made the "deluxe" set the "regular" set, different tracks would have been chosen (fewer duplicates) and it would have been chronological -- but apparently they had a multi-level marketing plan all along, and disc 1 was purposely loaded with the absolute essentials, leaving disc 2 with secondary stuff, and disc 3 with live tracks and duplicates (or, in the case of "Mississippi," triplicates).

What I ended up doing was taking the under-represented 1980s stuff on the original Bootleg Series (vol. 3) and combining it with the Oh Mercy stuff on TTS to make one full CD's worth of great 1980s material. Then I took the 1992-2006 stuff and made one great CD's worth of music, as if it were the missing 4th disc of the original Bootleg Series. I've played it in this form constantly for a month, and probably won't ever go back to the original TTS CDs.

And yes, to answer matthew, I've already made a "deluxe" Oh Mercy (one of my favorite Bob albums) with the new tracks. Here's the tracklist:

01. Political World (album version)
02. Where Teardrops Fall (album version)
03. Born In Time (TTS disc 1)
04. Everything Is Broken (album version)
05. Ring Them Bells (album version)
06. The Man In The Long Black Coat (album version)
07. Series Of Dreams (TTS)
08. Most Of The Time (album version)
09. What Good Am I? (album version)
10. Dignity (Touched by An Angel soundtrack)
11. Disease of Conceit (album version)
12. What Was It You Wanted? (album version)
13. Shooting Star (album version)

BONUS TRACKS
14. Dignity (TTS demo)
15. Born In Time (TTS disc 3)
16. Everything Is Broken (TTS)
17. Ring Them Bells (TTS disc 3)
18. Most Of The Time (TTS disc 3)
19. Series Of Dreams (Bootleg Series vol. 3 promo)

Brock said...

What a terrific resource!

Just made my own chrono mixes with out repetition of songs. The third disc is the repeats, running backwards with the extra two Mississippi's as bookends.

Can't wait to drive and listen.

Thanks, man!

B