(As published in Brian Q. Newcomb's Harvest Rock Syndicate in 1991)
Columbia's 1985 Bob Dylan box, Biograph, emphasized greatest hits and other career high points, with even its outtakes and live versions sounding fine. The Bootleg Series, on the other hand, is less careful, offering both completed, masterly songs that were left off official LPs and tentative, half-finished or half-hearted songs that were never intended for release.
In terms of the trajectory of Dylan's career, therefore, The Bootleg Series tells us mainly what we already know: that he began as an interpreter of folk protest, developed into a writer of the same, went electric (and surreal), went Woodstock, got great songs out of a failing marriage, got saved, and intermittently wandered the wilderness in search of God knows what.
In terms of Dylan the artist, though, Bootleg punctures one very persistent myth: that Dylan (or his record company) has routinely left revelatory masterpieces off his official albums and that only with a thorough familiarity with the "underground Dylan" can we get the naked truth.
It turns out that the truth wears clothes. The early versions of "Tangled Up in Blue," "Idiot Wind," and "If You See Her, Say Hello," for instance, included here from the original (never released) Blood on the Tracks sessions, are notably inferior to their official counterparts in everything from musicianship and execution to imagery and phrasing, and at a combined length of nineteen-and-a-half minutes, they're too much of nothing.
The same goes for the "Tight Connection to My Heart" prototype "Someone's Got a Hold iof My Heart" and the publishing demos or botched takes of such Dylan warhorses as "The Times They Are A-Changin'," "Subterranean Homesick Blues," "Like a Rolling Stone," "When the Ship Comes In," and "Every Grain of Sand," the last of which, if not quite a warhorse, is hardly a new pony (and certainly not a dog, although during it one barks in full digital clarity).
Which still leaves over forty songs known until now only to obscurantists, and many of them do deserve to see the light. "Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues" (1962) and "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues" (1963) are funny and, in some ways, still relevant ("Talkin' Don Wildmon Paranoid Blues," anyone?). And "Worried Blues," "No More Auction Block," and "Moonshiner" (1962-'63) are among Dylan's richest interpretations of folk standards. From the classic electric period, we get the magnificent "Sitting on a Barbed Wire Fence," a truncated but exuberant "She's Your Lover Now," and the Europe-only single version of "If You Gotta Go, Go Now" (which, it turns out, is not the version that's been circulating semi-legitimately on those cheap Italian White Wonder cassettes for over a decade).
But perhaps the most pleasant surprise is how the dozen-or-so good-to-great performances on Disc Three, covering the Slow Train years to the present, argue persuasively that neither Jesus nor age has taken the edge off Dylan's blade. If "Ye Shall Be Changed" (1979) and "You Changed My Life" (1981) are almost glib in their new-believer zeal, "Need a Woman" (1981), "Lord, Protect My Child," and "Foot of Pride" (both 1983) are raw and tough-minded in their biblical resolve. Furthermore, the much-acclaimed "Blind Willie McTell" is as strong as it's been rumored to be, and the lone Oh Mercy outtake, "Series of Dreams," magnificently updates the apocalyptic imagery of "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" amid Daniel Lanois's maelstrom of echo-laden drums and guitars.
Of course, with chronological order the only organizing factor, it's unlikely that anyone will enjoy these discs all the way through or in their original sequence as much as he would with a finger on the programming button. Or, to put it another way, composed asit is of cutting-room clippings, The Bootleg Series isn't so much a self-portrait as it is a series of long looks behind the curtain of a most beguiling wizard.