This issue, I’m focusing on a single release, Bob Dylan’s Springtime in New York: The Bootleg Series Vol. 16/1980-1985, a new five-disc box that covers Dylan’s return to form following his late-Seventies evangelical Christian period. The main thrust of the box consists of demos, outtakes, alternate takes, and live tracks focused on Dylan’s three albums from the period, Shot Of Love (1981), Infidels (1983), and Empire Burlesque (1985). With the exception of a live recording of Dylan’s 1984 appearance on Late Night With David Letterman, all the performances here are previously unreleased, and Dylan completists and collectors will find there’s a lot to love about Springtime in New York.
The unreleased material from Infidels is actually the real star here; Infidels is one of my all-time favorite Bob Dylan albums, although I have to admit that way back in the day I was a bit bummed when I found out that it wasn’t the blonde in the “Sweetheart Like You” video who was actually playing the guitar. Of course, who could be upset with both Mark Knopfler and Mick Taylor providing the actual guitar licks throughout? Robert Baird used to write a column for Stereophile called “Aural Robert,” where each month he featured an album that he really loved, or frequently lambasted one that he hated. In one particular issue, he chose Infidels as the target of his ire. I was so incensed by his remarks that I immediately fired off a terse letter to then-editor John Atkinson. They didn’t publish it, but for years I dreamed about getting in Robert Baird’s face concerning his obvious bad taste in music!
When Bob Dylan announced in 1978 that he’d become a born-again Christian, fans and critics alike were baffled not only by the sudden overt religiosity of his music, but also by his refusal to play any of his classic songs on tour. Also, his insistence on delivering heavy-handed, pious messages onstage alienated many of his fans. The three albums from that period, Slow Train Comin’ (1979), Saved (1980), and Shot of Love (1981) were all met with lukewarm critical receptions. Regardless, Slow Train Comin’ actually had a pretty good mix of songs, though veteran producer Jerry Wexler said that Dylan even tried to evangelize him during the recording sessions. Wexler’s response was, “Bob, you’re dealing with a 62-year-old Jewish atheist. Let’s just make an album.”
Slow Train Comin’ wasn’t hurt by the presence of Mark Knopfler on guitar, and won Dylan a Grammy award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance for “Gotta Serve Somebody.” It went Platinum in the process, but fans cooled to both of the follow ups, neither of which even reached Gold sales status. Those albums suffered the worst reviews of Dylan’s career, and Rolling Stone declared that they were done with him. Dylan took this reception harshly, and basically dropped out of sight for two years; he hadn’t been absent from the music scene since the infamous motorcycle accident in 1966. In Dylan’s 2004 memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, he even commented about his disdain for his music of the “Born Again” period, saying that he was “pretty whitewashed and wasted out professionally.”
About that same time, Dylan had bought part-ownership in a sailboat that was anchored in the Caribbean, and spent as much time as he possibly could sailing about, trying to remain as faceless and nameless as possible. And writing a lot of new songs all the while; songs that would form the foundation for his next album, 1983’s Infidels, which would find Mark Knopfler again onboard, except this time, as producer as well as guitarist. The sessions also featured Dire Straits keyboardist Alan Clark, as well as luminaries including former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor on guitar, and the Jamaican rhythm section of Robbie Shakespeare on bass and Sly Dunbar on drums, which gave the album even more of a Caribbean feel.
Infidels was a triumph on every level, going Gold very quickly, and Rolling Stone’s review called it “his best since Blood On The Tracks.” The album’s sales got a boost from the exposure several of its videos received on the then-fledgling MTV.
Bob Dylan had become close friends with Tom Petty, and on several tracks of 1985’s Empire Burlesque, he employed Heartbreakers’ guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench, and bassist Howie Epstein. Sly and Robbie also appeared on a number of tunes, giving the album something of a carryover feel from Infidels. In actuality, the genesis of many of the songs on Empire Burlesque stems from the same period as its predecessor. While the album didn’t sell as well as Infidels, it debuted to a generally positive critical reception, again helped by MTV placing several of the album’s videos in regular rotation, especially the song “Tight Connection to My Heart,” which featured some nifty guitar work by Mick Taylor.
Springtime in New York: The Bootleg Series Vol. 16/1980-1985
This latest issue in Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series mainly focuses on the importance of 1983’s Infidels and the part played by the two albums that bookended it, 1981’s Shot of Love and 1985’s Empire Burlesque. The various entries in the Bootleg Series haven’t always been chronological in nature: Volume 13, Trouble No More, covered the “born again” albums that mostly precede the albums in this collection. And by all reports, that set managed to cast them in a somewhat more sympathetic light than most would previously have thought. Springtime in New York opens with two discs that revisit the period of the third “evangelical” album, Shot of Love.
Following the lambasting he got from the critics with its predecessor, Saved, Dylan apparently had already started rethinking his stance towards playing anything other than Christian music. In mid-1980, he began rehearsals for a tour dubbed “The Musical Retrospective Tour,” where his song selection made it clearly obvious that the shift had already begun. Disc One consists almost entirely of rehearsal recordings of material that was planned for that tour, and opens with a tune from Dylan’s back catalog, a poignant but powerful version of “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)” from 1978’s Street Legal. Fred Tackett’s guitar work really shines here, and Dylan is in excellent voice – this track can easily stand alongside the album version. He then launches into a spirited version of 1964’s “Ramona,” where Willie Smith’s organ and Fred Tackett’s mandolin work give the song a waltz-like quality. Dylan then shows that he hasn’t completely abandoned his Christian leanings with “Jesus Met the Woman at the Well,” but things start to get really strange when he launches into a series of totally unlikely cover tunes…like Dave Mason’s “We Just Disagree,” Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” “Fever” (popularized by Peggy Lee, and check out Fred Tackett’s awesome guitar solo), and Dion’s Sixties staple, “Abraham, Martin and John.” The disc’s lone song that’s an unreleased outtake from Shot of Love is also a cover, an authentically-steeped-in-the-blues take on Junior Parker’s classic “Mystery Train.”
Disc Two is comprised entirely of unreleased outtakes from Shot of Love, and opens with a stirring “Angelina,” which has only the vaguest references to religion. In fact, that album was about a 50/50 mix of the sacred and the profane, and as this disc rolls along, you really begin to get the idea that Dylan was on the cusp of abandoning the religion that had been his stock and trade for the previous several years. “Price of Love” follows, and features a really driving beat, some excellent organ work from Benmont Tench, and the dueling guitars of Steve Ripley and Fred Tackett. Dylan offers really great covers of the Everly Brothers’ “Let It Be Me” (featuring a duet with Clydie King) and the Hank Williams’ classic “Cold, Cold Heart.” “Fur Slippers” is a superb blues number; “Yes Sir, No Sir” is a tune that Dylan apparently recut several times but was never satisfied with – it’s unlike anything else in his recorded canon and shocking that it’s only now hearing the light of day. These mostly-secular songs are of immeasurable importance here, because they paved the way for the greatness that would unfold fully-formed in Infidels.
Discs Three and Four consist entirely of unreleased outtakes and alternate takes of songs from 1983’s Infidels, and those outtakes have sparked a great deal of debate among Dylan fans over the years. Apparently, tapes managed to get out of the studio for some of the songs that didn’t end up on the album, with fans bemoaning that the Bard delivered what is merely a good album that could have been a great one if recut with some of the missing material. Foremost among these is “Blind Willie McTell,” which was the first song recorded at the album sessions, and the very last to be worked on before ultimately being discarded. A different version of “Blind Willie McTell” was one of five songs from Infidels that made it onto the first Dylan bootleg collection in 1991 – that’s how highly Dylan thought of the tune. There’s an urban legend of sorts that Dylan always leaves his very best songs off the album; there are definitely a number of tunes here that lend credence to that myth.
Dylan generally worked very quickly in the studio, and he was never one to engage in a lot of studio trickery in the mixing stage of most of his albums. That changed with Infidels, where the actual recording process went on for months, then, after Mark Knopfler signed off on the final tapes, Dylan had a change of heart and spent a couple of more months re-recording and remixing parts of the album. He added a liberal dose of digital reverb to many of the songs, wanting to give the album a sound that would appeal to the then-prevailing tastes in popular music. History was basically repeating itself here: Dylan pulled the tapes for Blood On The Tracks literally as the record presses were running, and re-recorded most of the album, which still went on to become the stuff of legend. So, most of the alternate takes and outtakes from Infidels heard here are presented unvarnished, without any of the additional mixing and (sometimes) excessive reverb that was applied to the finished product.
Another aspect of this box that makes it so valuable to true fans and collectors is that it gives you a lot of insight into Dylan’s creative process. There are two alternate takes of “Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight”; one of them is almost laboriously slow, the other much closer in tempo to Dylan’s final version, but both are enjoyable on their own merits. Three outtakes that play back-to-back are a great study in that same process: “Too Late (acoustic version),” “Too Late (band version),” and “Foot of Pride” are all essentially the same song, a crime story. They were recorded within days of each other, but by the time Dylan made it to the “Foot of Pride” variation, it became a much harder-edged tune that bears very little resemblance to the other two, and very worthy of inclusion on the album. Then, there’s “Someone’s Got A Hold Of My Heart,” which would be reworked on Empire Burlesque as the album’s big hit, “Tight Connection To My Heart.” “Baby What Do You Want Me To Do” is another great blues with some superb slide work by Mick Taylor and a seductive harmony vocal from Clydie King. “Julius and Ethel” rocks the Rosenbergs like never before, and the full, seven-minute version of “Death Is Not The End” with Clydie King and the Full Force gospel choir is absolutely sublime. There was definitely enough great unissued material here to easily make Infidels into a double album at the time of its original release. An alternate Infidels to be sure, but certainly just as viable.
Disc Five opens with two Infidels-era live tunes, a blistering “Enough is Enough,” featuring Mick Taylor on guitar and Ian McLagan on keys, and a really terrific version of “License to Kill” that was recorded on Late Night with David Letterman, backed by the L.A. punk band the Plugz. The remainder of the songs on this disc are outtakes and alternate takes from the Empire Burlesque sessions, and are a most welcome addition to this set because they’ve been stripped of the awful Eighties production values that made the album such an unpleasant listen. In Damien Love’s liner notes, he mentions that he had the opportunity to interview Benmont Tench, who told him that while he enjoyed working with Dylan, he hated the sound of Empire Burlesque, because it was so “Eighties” by Dylan’s design, and for Tench, the “Eighties” sound was a horror show. That sound colored his impression of the songs on the album – it would be really interesting to hear how Tench feels about the unvarnished tracks as presented in this collection.
The real highlight of Disc Five is the twelve-minute outtake “New Danville Girl,” which was eventually reworked as “Brownsville Girl” on 1986’s Knocked Out Loaded. It’s an epic song with a magisterial power that hearkens back to Dylan’s greatest songs of yore, and ranks in this collection alongside such gems as “Blind Willie McTell.” It’s that good!
A Beautifully-Done Box Set
My review copy is the deluxe five-compact disc box set; Sony/Legacy is also offering a highlights box that features two 180-gram LPs and two CDs. In partnership with Jack White’s Third Man Records, a four-LP deluxe limited edition set (with each LP pressed from different color vinyl) is also being made available. And there’s no overlap of material between the Third Man and Sony/Legacy sets, greatly enhancing the collectibility aspect of the vinyl editions.
Collectors will absolutely gush over the CD box set, and having worked for the last thirty years in high-end commercial print, it’s easily among the most perfectly realized collections I’ve seen. The slipcase-style box contains two casebound books, and the overall dimensions of the box are about two-thirds that of a standard LP. The construction of the box and the casebound books is pretty much immaculate; all the surfaces and book pages are satin varnished, with high-gloss varnished type and art elements adorning the outer surfaces of both the box and books that add some really bold visual contrast. The appearance of the set is off-the-charts great, and the satin varnish adds a much-appreciated functional improvement to both box and books, because you can liberally handle each of them without getting fingerprints on any of the surfaces. How many times have you opened a beautiful book or booklet and on first touch, immediately, permanently added your indelible fingerprints to the artwork? Yeah, it’s maddening, but that will never happen with this consummately-constructed collection.
The first casebound book contains 104 pages printed on heavyweight coated stock, and opens with an educational and entertaining essay from Scottish writer (and Dylan fanatic) Damien Love, who chronicles Dylan’s ever-changing ethos and activities during the first half of the Eighties. Each facing page of the essay’s 36 pages contains classic and rare images of Dylan, his bandmates in the studio, and handwritten lyric sheets for some of the collection’s songs. Love’s essay is then supplemented with another 30 pages of detailed song notes, where he expounds on each of the collection’s 57 tracks. Completing the book is a section entitled Flotsam and Jetsam, which adds another 38 pages of rare photos, album images, concert posters, Dylan’s own artwork, postage stamps (yes, postage stamps!), magazine covers, and excerpts from reviews and interviews. It’s quite the assemblage of rare and fascinating memorabilia.
The second casebound book opens with sixteen pages (also on heavyweight coated stock) of technical notes about the individual recordings, and contains lists of all the individual artists who performed on each of the tracks. That information is supplemented with more rare photos, lyric sheets, and graphically stylized images of studio tape reel legends. But the book most importantly serves to hold the five compact discs, which are placed into glued, die-cut pockets built from cover-weight coated stock. The placement of the CDs within the pockets is pretty ingenious, and unlike that of any box set I’ve seen, which often use foam dots to secure the discs. Those never seem to work well for very long, and your discs aren’t going anywhere in this configuration. That’s not to imply that this setup is absolutely perfect, regardless of how functionally well designed it seems. Recent Sony/Legacy boxes I’ve seen have included the various digital discs (CDs, Blu-rays, DVDs) encased in scratch-free fiber sleeves that are placed within the disc pockets. That’s not the case here: the CDs all come in contact with the heavyweight stock the sleeves are built from. Although not an ideal situation, once the discs are removed, there’s generally no problem getting them in and out of the sleeves.
But as I’ve often found with discs that are only encased in paper or paperboard sleeves, it’s very easy for the discs to get scuffed either during the initial insertion into the pocket, or during the first removal. Three of the five discs showed quite visible scuffs, and in the case of Disc Two, it took an almost Herculean effort on my part to remove the disc. Upon removal, it became evident that the disc had inadvertently been glued into the pocket upon assembly at the factory – I found this rather shocking, to say the least. Having worked extensively with the assembly of casebound books, these die-cut pockets are usually glued days, if not weeks in advance of the final perfect-bound assembly of the books. So, the glue should have been completely dry by the time of the insertion of the compact disc. Upon removal of the disc, the glue was clearly in evidence on the playing surface of the CD, and I was quite alarmed as to whether the disc would even play. Fortunately, a generous amount of distilled water applied with a very soft cleaning cloth eventually removed enough of the residue to allow the disc to play properly. But this is clearly one of those instances where the whole “form over function” idea in the book’s design phase needed a little more fine tuning.
Springtime in New York: The Bootleg Series Vol. 16/1980-1985 offers a stunning exploration of a period of surprising musical riches from Bob Dylan. It’s a period that many fans and critics alike might have pretty much written off, even though Dylan surrounded himself with a stellar cast of musicians. And the Infidels period songs are still remarkably relevant, especially in today’s increasingly dysfunctional world. This deluxe edition comes very highly recommended.
Sony/Legacy Recordings, 5 CDs (download/streaming from, Amazon, Tidal, Qobuz, Spotify, Deezer).
Header image of Bob Dylan by Ken Regan, courtesy of Sony/Legacy.