The name of the set is an embarrassing cliché, especially for a production that allows you to follow the adventures of collective imaginations: the flickers that flare up like the Northern Lights in Bob Dylan’s first albums made as rock ‘n’ roll — three albums that rewrote what those three words meant. There are many books in the nearly 400 tracks on Bob Dylan’s The Cutting Edge 1965−1966 Collectors Edition: The Bootleg Series Volume 12 (Columbia) — 18 CDs comprising the complete recording sessions for Bringing It All Back Home (March 1965), Highway 61 Revisited (September 1965), and Blonde on Blonde (May 1966), plus a final disc of hotel room composing. There is the complete recording session, over two days, with different musicians, for “Like a Rolling Stone.” There are the 11 versions of “Desolation Row.” Blonde on Blonde especially looms up as a huge, spouting whale, cresting again and again with the 13 takes of the discarded “She’s Your Lover Now”; 24 takes of “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” plus the master take broken down into separate tracks for vocal, piano and drums, and guitar and bass (the sound, perhaps the only attempt to reinhabit the terrain opened up with “Like a Rolling Stone,” is so rich you almost can’t hear the whole song at once); the 15 takes of “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” (but what was wrong with the title the song first carried, the simple, elegant “Memphis Blues Again”?); and the 18 of “Just Like a Woman.” But for glamour, uncertainty, doubt, and more than once a seeming completeness, a moment when the song, like a hare outrunning the people trying to catch it, is brought to ground — and then gets up and disappears again — there may be nothing to match what happens in the 21 takes — rehearsals, breakdowns, false starts, and, six times, to the end — of “Visions of Johanna,” an epic of bohemian gloom, convulsion, and silence, all caught in a measured tone of hipster disdain trying to escape from itself: “We still here stranded, we all doing our best to deny it.” It was recorded first in New York, on November 11, 1965, with Dylan on guitar and harmonica; Robbie Robertson, guitar; Garth Hudson, organ; Richard Manuel, piano and electric piano; Rick Danko, bass; and Bobby Gregg, drums, and in Nashville on February 14, 1966, with Dylan on acoustic guitar and harmonica; Robertson again on guitar; on two tracks, with Charlie McCoy on guitar; Wayne Moss, guitar; Al Kooper, organ; Joe South, bass; and Kenneth Buttrey, drums — the session that, in its fourth and last take, made the version that was released on Blonde on Blonde. To scramble these performances into a set of ten is the most patent absurdity this column has perpetrated in all of its thirty years.
1 & 5. New York, take 4 and take 3. The song was different from so many others: Dylan brought it in written, from first line to last, and except for the slightest slips the words never changed. Unlike almost any of Dylan’s songs, “Visions of Johanna” scans on the page not as a footnote to a recording but as a thing in itself; it communicates in its own black-and-white. The lines are fierce and balanced. The song is an explosion waiting to happen; the question is how close the musicians can take the song to the point of no return. Here, with three first tries, none of which gets past three minutes — well short of the more than seven minutes the song is written for — they start off fast, with a syncopation that everyone seems to be trying to keep up with, as if the pace is being set by some invisible whip. The band comes together instantly; what’s striking is how plainly Dylan can’t find the song. His singing slides from one wrong rhythm to another, mannerism to mannerism, reaching for words with a smeared melodrama. Dylan repeatedly stops the music, at one point calling for cowbell from Bobby Gregg, complaining that they’re going too fast. At the end of the second take Dylan forces the pace down, singing word for word, the meaningless elisions he’d been trying out before abandoned, and something like realism is filling out the voice. You can hear these words (“Louise holds a handful of rain”) and actually imagine that someone might say them. With the third take, lasting 2 minutes 53 seconds, Dylan again tries to pull back: “It’s not hard rock — the only thing is, that’s hard, is Robbie.” Hudson’s organ comes in loud. “No, no, no,” Dylan says, hitting on the key to the music: “This way: instead of bomp bomp, dis baaaaahhhh. Dis BAAAAAHHHH.” He’s written the song, it’s finished, but that means the song stands apart from him, with its own desires, its own brain. The song has more power to say how it needs to be sung than the singer has to tell the song what to do, and the singer is listening to the song, trying to learn its language, and here he catches the grammar. It’s the first moment when he gets a purchase on the tune. He arrives again at “Louise holds a handful of rain, tempting you to defy it,” and you realize that these are the lines on which the song turns, when suddenly everything is in jeopardy, nothing is for sure, the floorboards could drop right off your feet — not the “handful of rain,” a play on the 1957 film about a junkie, A Hatful of Rain, a phrase already part of the common frame of reference, a borrowing so blatant it would feel fake if the singer didn’t sound as if he were naming an idea, not something so factual as heroin, but the “you to defy it,” everything invested in defy, so that the bomb of the song almost goes off right here. And then Dylan turns away from the line, defusing it. You can almost hear him physically turn away, to look out the window of the loft where the song is playing out to the loft across the way, to watch the lights flicker — and the story is free to go on. Then the singing sags, and the take is lost.
With charismatic guitar, the next, fourth take starts up, and within the fast tempo all sorts of slow, delicate negotiations are taking place. There’s room in the song. No gestures are blocked. Dylan’s singing is deliberate, still emotionally off but pushing forward as if the song will explain itself before it’s made a fool of him. Then the musicians throw the engineer out of the locomotive and bet a runaway train will take them where they need to go. The music comes together in a single thrill — a waft of harmonica from Dylan has more singularity, more personality, than any words he sings. The band begins to crash down on the ends of words, doubling down, and the shock in the sound seems to break Dylan free. “The ghost of electricity breathes in the bones of her face” — as the song goes on, as it finishes months later in Nashville, it will be the famous “howls in the bones of her face,” but isn’t the word Dylan uses now less a poetic effect, more disturbing, an image you can’t fix, that won’t hold still for its close-up, that carries through to the end of the song? As sound, it’s a first step: now the tension is doubled again, Dylan’s singing achieves its true shape, and he’s gone. From this point on the most indelible moments won’t come with the lines that would, with Blonde on Blonde, burn the song into any listener’s mind, but when, three times, Dylan comes off a line with a long, long “AAAAAWWWWWWWWW,” not as if words can’t say what he wants to say, but as if he’s shocked at what he’s just said. It’s “Hound Dog” with all the kidding pulled out of it like a tooth.
2. New York, take 5. Compared to what has just happened, this is monolithic, all values boiled down to momentum. But halfway through, odd things begin to happen. Again, the song seems to slow down inside of its own rush. “Inside the museum” — and, in a displacement that feels like a suspension, you really are in a museum. It’s specific. It’s the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and you’re looking at the jelly-faced women, the demoiselles of Avignon. It makes perfect sense one of them can’t find her knees; you can’t either. Then you turn your head and you’re in the Louvre. You come up with a good line for the Mona Lisa, but she’s not really giving anything up. This is a dream inside a maelstrom, and the maelstrom comes back. When it ends you can’t see the musicians merely going back to another take — as it happens, after an attempt that ends after less than two minutes, a deadly slow nine minutes during which nothing connects. You see them passing out from exhaustion and being carted off to the hospital.
3. Nashville, take 4. As it appeared on Blonde on Blonde. The pattern of notes on the harmonica open the song as if they’ve always been there, as if this is the full voice of the song, passing by from beginning to end in seconds; from beginning to end the performance feels less made than fated. The drums begin late, absolutely on the pulse of the song but rickety, offhand, as if the drummer walked into the studio and said, “Oh, right. This one.”
4, 6 & 7. Nashville, takes 1, 2, and 3. A false start at just over half a minute, a breakdown at 2 minutes 45 seconds, another false start at just under half a minute, but a single drama: a folk song.
8. New York, take 13. A breakdown at 1 minute 13 seconds, but there’s a lift in the music that hints at an undiscovered song. The guitarist and the organist walk around the singer, each circle they make wider than the next, but the harmonica says it all. The singing is stiff and false, with words missed and even mispronounced; it’s a botch. But almost imperceptibly the ground has been cleared.
9. New York, take 14. From the first half second, the song lifts off the ground and stays there. The sound is so gorgeous you can barely register the words the singer is singing, but the singer is now less a person with a text than pure body, a body subsumed wholly into the voice, which is clear, forceful, determined to get the story told.
10. New York, takes 9−12. Two minutes 17 seconds, slotted as a single track. After the nine minutes in which the song seemed to have wandered off to die, a new approach: the song taken even more slowly, but without any pretense that it has anywhere to go or anything to prove. There’s a hint of country music; then of a western ballad. Takes 4 and 5 had been so inflamed — this is elegiac, its motive regret. The next take barely sets the stage: you can see people putting props down here and there, with the feeling that one false move would break not only the mood but the song. “No, no, no,” Dylan says, then again, and then the song is edging away from the Sons of the Pioneers toward something richer, fuller, closer to My Darling Clementine — the movie, not the song.