In 1969, Beacon Books released a collection of essays called Rock and Roll Will Stand, edited by Greil Marcus. It’s mostly interesting or not scribblings by Marcus, America’s unmatched culture critic on the topic of Bob Dylan, and his Berkeley friends. I still have the book here somewhere, temporarily misplaced, but the gist of one of the chapters is: “Will Jay and the Americans Beat Bob Dylan in the KYA Battle of the Bands.”
It was meaningful because it posed a sincere question, the answer not obvious. In the early and mid-1960s, KYA (1260 AM) had a record review contest in which it would play five new songs five nights a week, listeners would phone in and vote their favorite, and presumably, the five winners faced-off on Saturday night to choose the KYA “Ace of the Week.”
What KYA called the nightly “Battle of the New Sounds,” Murray the K on WINS (1010 AM) in New York called his “Champ Record of the Night”; on Saturday night, teens would phone-in to select from the five “Champs” the “Boss Record of the Week.” Upsets were frequent, especially when local favorites went up against Elvis Presley, then in his post-Army popularity resurgence. The Earls, featuring singer Larry Chance, had already topped Elvis with their Boss Record of the Week, “Life is but a Dream”, in 1961. And Jay and the Americans beat Elvis one week in 1963, with a song that never even charted called “Strangers Tomorrow.”
I will tell the story of my cousin, Jay Black, who changed his name from David Blatt and joined the Americans after Jay Traynor, who sang “She Cried,” left the group, some other time. If Jay and the Americans could beat a resurgent post-Army Elvis Presley in a battle of the bands-type contest, what chance would Bob Dylan have against the ground troops of a local favorite with a ferociously loyal fan base from Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island?
Figuring if he couldn’t beat them, he would join them, Bob Dylan sings Jay and the Americans’ hit “Come a Little Bit Closer” on Bob Dylan – 1970. It’s a pretty good version. You can see why Dylan might have liked the record: It has that pop-Latin twist (“in a little cafe on the other side of the border”) that Dylan would put to dramatic effect on the Desire album (“Romance in Durango,” “One More Cup of Coffee”). The women singing backup are into it; Al Kooper, playing organ as he did on “Like a Rolling Stone,” sounds seriously ready. Bob seems to be enjoying it through the opening verse, singing from memory, but bending the phrases effectively. But it’s over in 77 seconds, his attention does not hold, and they’re on to something else.
A lot of the album is like that. This is not The Basement Tapes; it’s more like the Kitchen Sink tapes, in which Dylan’s omnivorous musical interests and influences, his encyclopedic knowledge of folk and pop and rock songs, are played informally and sometimes in fragments. Dylan’s multiple releases of pop standards, including the Sinatra-themed Shadows in the Night (2015), Fallen Angels (2016) and Triplicate (2017), are behind him. What Dylan 1970 offers are odd, random, guitar-pull versions of the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do is Dream,” Sam Cooke’s “Cupid,” Harry Belafonte’s “Jamaica Farewell,” and a silly but amusing medley of the Shirelles’ “I Met Him on a Sunday” and the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron.”
This three-CD set was originally released in a limited edition on December 4, 2020, as part of a series of releases going back to 2012 whose primary purpose was to extend copyright protection on Dylan performances. This package was released commercially in the United States on February 26, 2021. There’s both a lot here, and not much here, as there often is when the function of business meets the perpetration of art.
If there is a selling point, it is that the set contains the nine tracks Dylan recorded with George Harrison on May 1, 1970. Harrison included his version of Dylan’s “If Not for You” on his debut post-Beatles three-album set, All Things Must Pass, later in 1970, but neither Dylan’s New Morning version nor Harrison’s feature the two together. And they don’t do it here, either.
Though the set is presented chronologically, from March 3 to August 13, 1970, something seems off about the way the Dylan/Harrison songs are offered. If they performed nine songs on May Day 1970, why aren’t they bunched together, in a series, one through nine, as natural as a baseball lineup? Why do the credits read: “George Harrison, guitar, vocals (Disc 1, Tracks 20 & 24 and Disc 2, Tracks 2-3, 6-7, 10-11, & 16.”)? Oddly, their rehearsal take on “Time Passes Slowly” is sandwiched between versions of “If Not for You.”
The good stuff with Harrison is, not surprisingly, two Carl Perkins songs, “Matchbox” and “Your True Love.” Harrison could play Perkins in his sleep, and sometimes it seems it may as well be. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that for these nine tracks together, neither Dylan nor Harrison brought their “A” game. It’s just the way it seems to be. Their best version of a Dylan song is “It Ain’t Me Babe,” and it’s not something anyone other than an archivist would return to.
There are multiple takes of a number of songs, more than you want to count: At least five takes of “Sign on the Window,” seven takes of “If Not for You,” five, that I can count, of “Went to See the Gypsy.” Now “Gypsy” is the cornerstone of my Dylan belief system, my Dylan ethos. New Morning, one of the first reviews I wrote when I was the music editor for the alt-newspaper Boulder magazine (formerly Boulder Express) when I returned to college after an involuntary gap year, in 1970. Please don’t call it sophomoric: I was a college junior, but unlike my hippie cohort at the University of Colorado, I valued Elvis Presley.
I was moved by Presley’s 1968 comeback TV special; I was cognizant of Elvis’ return to performance at the International Hotel in Las Vegas in the summer of 1969, after a long hiatus and period of isolation. Dylan was going through a similar, shorter period of avoidance of personal appearances, after his motorcycle accident on July 29, 1966, after Blonde on Blonde was released and consolidated his position in the rock pantheon. By 1970, the Beatles had broken up, Elvis was making a comeback after years of terrible records and movies, and Dylan was likely ruminating on the damage that fame had done, which is why “Went to See the Gypsy” is about Elvis Presley.
You can argue this all you want, but I consider this stare decisis, settled law.
“It’s about Dylan, dreaming of young Dylan, dreaming of Elvis,” I wrote in the November 18, 1970 issue of Boulder magazine. It’s not about Dylan actually meeting Elvis: the photos on the internet appear fake. It’s about the “now he’s here, now he’s gone” spectral presence that Presley had mastered in performing. (“Elvis has left the building.”) “He did it in Las Vegas and he can do it here” gave faith to Dylan that he too would get back on the stage again, on his own terms.
Jimmy Webb, by the way, has a 1993 song called “Elvis and Me,” based on a true story, that sounds much like what “Went to See the Gypsy” suggests. In an interview, Webb told me his song is about seeing Elvis in Las Vegas, being given a slip of paper to the after-show party in Presley’s penthouse. After some chit-chat, Webb turned his back and Presley was gone. Colonel Parker, Elvis’ manager, walked Webb to the door, and told the songwriter something like: “The next time I see you better be at the Brentwood Farmer’s Market.” In other words, you are not going to write songs for Elvis because I don’t have a stake in the publishing, you will not make plans to get together with Elvis, and if I see you, it will be a chance meeting, like at the farmer’s market. It’s been my “blow-off” line ever since.
On this record, Dylan performs two versions of the one song he wrote that Elvis Presley recorded commercially: “Tomorrow is a Long Time.” (There’s a home recording of Elvis singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” on the web.) With typical Presley mismanagement, “Tomorrow” was not a breakout single for Elvis when he recorded it in 1966: the timing would have been perfect. Instead, “Tomorrow is a Long Time” was buried on the soundtrack to the Presley movie Spinout. It’s a beautiful version, by the way, as close to a secular spiritual as Presley had ever sung.
Dylan also covers two Presley songs here: Two versions of “I Forgot to Remember to Forget,” one side of Presley’s final Sun single and later released in 1959 on A Date With Elvis; Dylan also sings one of Presley’s trademark hits, “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”
There are some nice folk songs here: “Universal Soldier ” by Buffy Saint-Marie, for example, though I am more familiar with the Donovan version, the same Donovan who an irascible Dylan taunts in a London hotel in the documentary Don’t Look Back. There are respectable versions of Eric Andersen’s “Thirsty Boots,” and Tom Paxton’s “I Can’t Wonder Where I’m Bound.” There are a bunch of traditional folk songs, some really useless space fillers (“Untitled Instrumental #1,” and #2), and a take of “Woogie Boogie,” the dregs of the otherwise estimable (in my revisionist opinion) Self-Portrait. “Long Black Veil” is a very sturdy alternative to the version made famous by Dylan’s former sidekicks The Band, but three takes of colorful swamp rock tune “Alligator Man” is, like much of this record, two and a half versions too many.
I wrote about 4,000 words about this for the academic journal Rock Music Studies, Volume 2, Issue 2, (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) published online 13 January 2015, about how the 2013 release Another Self-Portrait reflected Dylan’s channeling Presley on issues of fame, creativity, and privacy. https://doi.org/10.1080/19401159.2014.994306