Two different portraits of Bob Dylan have emerged from the series of Dylan “bootleg” recordings released by Columbia Records during the last seventeen years. One is a confident live performer for whom the stage is the ideal setting for raising his incendiary blend of folk, blues, and rock and roll to a fever pitch. The other is the man behind the curtain, a studio-ensconced singer-songwriter who frequently struggles to capture on tape what he hears in his head.
It’s the latter Dylan who emerges from the twenty-seven tracks comprising the just-released Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8, Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006. Consisting mainly of trial-run versions of songs intended for the albums Oh Mercy, World Gone Wrong, Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times, Tell Tale Signs calls to mind something that Dylan himself once sang: “What looks large from a distance / close up ain’t never that big.”
He has, in other words, gotten by with a little--and in some cases a lot--of help from his friends. The skeletal versions of “Most of the Time,” “Dignity,” “Can’t Wait,” “Everything Is Broken,” and “Series of Dreams” included on Tell Tale Signs’ standard two-disc edition reveal how large a role the producer Daniel Lanois played in turning those songs into haunting and powerful highlights of Dylan’s latter-day canon. And Don and David Was, whom many (Dylan included) have disparaged for their production on Under the Red Sky, would seem to deserve praise as well. Both “Born in Time” and “God Knows” sounded richer after the Wases got through with them. Then there are the filmmakers whose requests for a soundtrack song have spurred Dylan to creativity. Curtis Hanson, Ronald F. Maxwell, and Niki Caro elicited from him “Huck’s Tune” (Lucky You), “’Cross the Green Mountain” (Gods and Generals), and “Tell Ol’ Bill” (North Country) respectively, each of which Tell Tale Signs includes in its original or alternate rendition.
Perhaps foreshadowing future Bootleg Series volumes, there is one song apiece--“Miss the Missippi” and a live “Ring Them Bells”--from two completed but never-released Dylan projects: an album of standards recorded with the producer David Bromberg in 1992 and a series of concerts taped at New York’s Supper Club in 1993. Ironically, the “finished” quality of these songs points up both the unfinished quality of many of the others herein and the extent to which Tell Tale Signs’ appeal will probably be limited to hardcore, arcana-mongering Dylan enthusiasts.
At least one Time Out of Mind outtake, however, “Red River Shore,” seems as finished as any of that album’s intakes. A moving, country-folk recollection of lost love, it was probably disqualified because at nearly eight minutes it wouldn’t have fit on what was already a seventy-three-minute album. Then again, maybe the faith and hope implicit in its last verse simply seemed out of place among what Dylan has called the “skepticism” and concern with “dread realities” conjured by the other songs. “Now, I’ve heard of a guy who lived a long time ago,” he sings, “a man full of sorrow and strife. Then if someone around him died and was dead, / he knew how to bring ’em back to life.”
For a songwriter whose “gospel phase” had supposedly ended over a decade earlier, those lines may be the most tell-tale sign of all.