One of the most exhilarating artworks is all about working in art. In 1949, a Belgian filmmaker named Paul Haesaerts asked Pablo Picasso if he could shoot footage of the artist in the process of constructing a painting. He had a wonderful idea to have the master paint upon panes of glass, so that the viewer could see through the canvas to witness the miracle of creation. When Haesaerts showed the result, entitled Visit to Picasso, at Cannes the next summer, its subject was so enthralled that he called for the projectionist to show it three times in a row, to the evident delight of the audience viewing.
Pop music’s Picasso, Bob Dylan, has authorized the release of music this week that serves his artistic process much as Visit to Picasso did that artist’s. Spanning 18 CDs, the complete version of The Cutting Edge is the marvelous equivalent of watching Bob Dylan paint on glass.
The Cutting Edge is comprised of every track Dylan recorded throughout 22 different sessions in New York and Nashville studios during his creative apogee in 1965 and 1966, the years during which the albums Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, arguably his greatest, were released. The listener gets to hear those songs and others that didn’t make the cut emerge from the singer’s subconscious and take shape, take after take, with the aid of some truly accomplished studio musicians.
This set is the 12th volume of what Dylan’s record company calls “The Bootleg Series.” Ironically, perhaps, the series began in 1991 as a response to superfans illegally distributing rarities and live performances on unauthorized records and CDs. The Cutting Edge raises the irony quotient substantially.
Three years ago, Sony Records in Europe issued a box set of 4 CD-Rs called The 50th Anniversary Collection, simply to extend its copyright on Dylan’s unreleased 1962 and 1963 recordings, which otherwise might have become part of the public domain and thus available for anyone to sell. Only 100 copies of this set were made, because Sony was not particularly interested in making these recordings widely available.
Perhaps it is only a coincidence that this current trove of Dylan recordings was also about to become public domain in Europe, but Sony has decided to take this release worldwide, and to make a few extra dollars in the process. The Cutting Edge is available in a two-disc “best of” format for $14.99, a six-disc set for completists at $103.58, and, for the truly obsessed with $600 to spend, the 18-disc cornucopia, limited to 5,000 numbered units. (In an ultimate irony, it is likely that bootleggers will have all 18 discs online somewhere by the time you read this.)
Sony authorized the streaming of the 18-disc set before its release this week. Having listened to a goodly portion, I can assure you that if you are not already a Dylan fan, this set isn’t for you. However, if you were ever taken aback by the myriad charms of any of the three albums constructed herein, you will want to hear how that alchemy came to be. As Salon’s Erik Nelson put it, “Each of these 22 sessions plays like a short movie with its own unique structure, twists, turns, dead ends, heroes, villains and, ultimately, a completely satisfying ending.”
Dylan was in his early 20s then, a peak age for poets. Unlike most bards laboring in obscurity, this kid was becoming one of the most famous performing artists in the country. He had made his bones with traditional folk music, but he was backing out of that cultural cul-de-sac, writing songs with hooks rooted in American pop as well as folk, imbuing them with lyrics far more ambitious than pop had known. By early 1965, he was writing a lot of songs.
When Dylan came into Columbia’s Manhattan recording studio in January, he had already written “Mr. Tambourine Man,” but the songs he chose to work on the most were less consequential; “Outlaw Blues” and “On the Road Again.” As you listen to take after take of these two, you hear Dylan employing a variety of approaches and attitudes to make these songs more than filler. You never know where the lightning will strike. He goes through 13 takes on “Road,” yet he nails “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and “Gates of Eden” back-to-back, one take each.
Working with producer Tom Wilson and session players including Bruce Langhorne on guitar and John Sebastian on harmonica, Dylan does not lead the band as much as accompany them. The ensuing album, Bringing It All Back Home, would have one side acoustic and one side “electric,” manifesting an odd diffidence toward rock and roll.
That diffidence vanished in June, 1965, when he returned to the studio with a set of new players, anchored by Mike Bloomfield on guitar, Al Kooper on organ, Paul Griffin on piano and Bobby Gregg on drums. Tired of himself and all of his creations, Dylan sought to overturn the protocols of rock, and did so in his most famous single, “Like A Rolling Stone.” One whole disc in The Cutting Edge traces the evolution of the six-minute track from piano waltz to keening accusation, and the process is, well, electrifying.
After that session, Wilson was replaced as producer with Bob Johnston, who supervised the rest of the recordings, including the title track (wait till you hear how the police whistle was incorporated), “Ballad of a Thin Man” and the epic “Desolation Row.”
Nashville’s Charlie McCoy played evocative guitar on the latter, and when Dylan was ready to record the tracks for what would become Blonde on Blonde, Johnston persuaded him to try his luck in a Nashville studio. You can hear a tangible difference in the tracks he started in autumn in New York for that album with members of The Band, and those cut with the “Nashville Cats” starting in February, 1966.
We wrote earlier this year of the cultural implications of Dylan in Nashville, but The Cutting Edge is only about the music. The session-hardened studio players were up for any musical challenge Dylan could concoct, from a Salvation Army-style brass band for “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” (one rehearsal, one take) to a 12-minute tone poem called “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” (three complete takes, no overdubs). They bore up under lyrical challenges as well, for the songs were coming so thick and fast that Dylan would often change the words from take to take as the muse commanded.
Adele is going to sell a few million more units of her new release than Bob will his, but will the album it took her three years to record affect pop history more than the three albums he cut in just fourteen months 50 years ago? Perhaps we’ll check back when Adele releases her own bootleg series 50 years from now.