Every Dylan fan loves the Bootleg series. So many curiosities there in the songs, different arrangements, altered lyrics. I think like most people I've favored some more than others. 4 is the incredible and infamous Manchester performance, the first half acoustic, the second electric, and Dylan accused of being "Judas." 7 is the soundtrack to Scorcese's No Direction Home. (Despite Allmusic staff critic Stephen Erlewine's muted praise—"there are no great revelations here, apart from the realization that the best takes really did make the finished records"—there are incredible alternate recordings here, including perhaps the finest cut of "Desolation Row" with a soul-searing electric guitar.) Finally, Bootleg 8, packed with more of his recent material, is simply genius.
But I'm focusing this week on Bootleg 5, a compilation of his 1975 tour, "The Rolling Thunder Revue."
We can begin with the obvious; this man knows how to wear a hat. And then there's the music. Dylan may not have been rocking so hard in the mid 70s as he was in Blonde On Blonde, but he tears up the stage on a few of these tracks. There's an unbridled, reckless energy in a lot of these performances: "Isis," "Hurricane," and a madly paced, brilliant, almost unrecognizable "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." Killer stuff.
The recording of "Tangled Up In Blue" deserves mention for its lyrical rarity (though musically it is rather a substandard performance). As most people know, one of Dylan's mercurial habits is to alter his use of pronouns and verb tense in any given arrangement of "Tangled." This brings, I suppose, another layer of intentionality to the ambiguity of the love story being told between three (or more) characters in the song. Still, in many if not most versions, including the recording most of us know from Blood On the Tracks, the first person narrator takes on a significance that diminishes the whole "love triangle" aspect of the story by its conclusion. The origins of who's involved with whom at the start may change depending on the rendition: "early one morning I was laying in bed"; other times "he was laying in bed"). But in most versions there is a convergence of the characters in the sixth verse when "'I lived with them on Montague street." It's in that same verse we learn that "he started in to dealing with slaves, and something inside of him died." A ruthless lyric. From a listener's perspective, it's hard not to give up on that third person character as the relationship between the narrator and the girl becomes the only lasting bond. There is something Homeric and, well, traditional in that last lyric: "So now I'm going back again, I've got to get to her somehow." Boy loves girl; boy tries to find girl. We know that story.
"Tangled" on Bootleg 5 is quite different. First, it begins with the introduction of possibly two women: "Early one morning the sun was shining, she was lying in bed, wondering if she'd changed it all, if her hair was still red." (She could be thinking about herself there, but that seems weird to me.) The other man is introduced a few lines later with "He was standing by the side of the road...." Meanwhile the first time the narrator is introduced comes at the start of the third verse—"We had a job in Santa Fe, working at an old hotel"—and the "we" refers to the narrator and the other guy, not either of the women. (Then, perhaps mistakenly, the usual fifth verse beginning with "She lit a burner on the stove...." is skipped.) The next verse begins with "I lived with him on Montague St," not "them." The cast of characters seems wider and scattered, but disaster still strikes all of them "when finally the bottom falls out." The touching part, I think, is how Dylan begins the seventh verse: "So now I'm going on back again, I got to get to them somehow." Unlike other versions where the relationships between everyone just fall away leaving only the narrator and the girl, the purpose here is to rediscover the past with all its people and all its complexity. The narrator may want them all to be together, though it is unclear (in this telling) that they ever were at any point before.