Since Sony’s official Bob Dylan Bootleg Series began in the early ’90s, fans have hoped and prayed for one set in particular: the fabled “New York sessions.” Dylan intended them to become Blood On The Tracks, before shelving half the record at the last minute and replacing it with songs recorded three months later in Minneapolis.
Many well-traveled bootlegs surfaced over the years. Some alternate takes were also released officially, but You’re A Big Girl Now from 1985’s Biograph is the only version originally slated for Blood On the Tracks to get a proper release. The rest were outtakes from New York.
Dreams came true when More Blood, More Tracks was released this month as a six-disc set. Aficionados got more than they bargained for, though. This isn’t simply the original album as intended or a handful of alternates. Sony unearthed every extant note from the four-day New York stint, along with the Minnesota remakes. With the collection laid out chronologically, it feels more like a documentary than an album.
“Blood On The Tracks is his only flawless album and his best produced,” former NPR and Salon editor Bill Wyman wrote back in 2001, continuing, “the songs, each of them, are constructed in disciplined fashion, written and rewritten, formed in a way his songs almost never are.” Volume 14 in the Bootleg Series illustrates this more perfectly than Wyman — or likely any of us — could’ve imagined.
Throughout 87 tracks, you witness Dylan build the airplane as it flies. He fully inhabits takes as he searches for the song, with vulnerability and restraint held in equal tension. At times, it’s clear he doesn’t know what comes next, until the exact moment he’s found it. That’s when certitude sets in; not a moment before.
This is clearest throughout the 12-take journey to arrive at You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go, which has an outsize presence in the sessions. Dylan begins wrestling with it two-thirds through day one at A&R Recording, after putting the ultimately-replaced version of Idiot Wind to bed. It plays out roughly in five stages.
Rehearsal And Take 1; Take 2; Take 3
Through the rehearsal and first three quickly-abandoned takes (which run around three and a half minutes total), Dylan and country rockers Deliverance settle into a rolicking groove replete with tidy organ and guitar flourishes. The band kicks in almost immediately each time. His vocals weave around the landscape, inspecting a narrow bandwidth of rhythmic and percussive modes.
In Take 4, he explores a different sound. The band steps back a bit, as if Dylan is saying, “OK gang, let me get this right first.” He lays down a guitar-and-bass arrangement that seems to be about vocal refinement as much as anything. At points, you can hear him thinking through the delivery while simultaneously committing to it completely. The way he embodies confidence within uncertainty here exemplifies Dylan’s inscrutable vulnerability.
However, it’s Take 5 that pushes his mercurial tendencies to another level. Everyone comes back for a sprawling jam that enjoins vitality with languidity to great effect. As the band pulses, the vocals seesaw between balmy and piercing. It’s as though Deliverance is the clouds, and Dylan is the sun occasionally penetrating them — while always shining above and around the billows. When Gram Parsons talked about “cosmic American music,” this must’ve been what he meant. Take 5 might fit on Planet Waves or Desire, but the overall vibe presages hazy, relaxed tunes from Dylan’s late-career resurgence like Most Of The Time and Not Dark Yet.
Take 6; Take 6, Remake; Take 7; Take 8
Things are quickly reined back in, synthesizing the sparse intro of Take 4 with the country rock that got the song started. After a few aborted takes, Dylan and the band make it through the boisterous and tight rendition for what seemed like the last time. During the these sessions, the final take ended up being the official “New York” album version for each song but one. After Take 8, they did a single runthrough of Tangled Up In Blue before calling it a day. It appeared as though Lonesome was finished.
Take 1, Remake; Take 1, Remake 2; Take 2, Remake 2
Take 8 had a lot going for it: The track was taut, interesting, and fun. That said, there’s one thing this variation of You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go was not: lonesome. The instrumentation wages war with Dylan’s voice and words. His punctuation dukes it out with the percussion. And while that exuberance doesn’t obliterate the lyrics’ meaning, it greatly dilutes their potency. Whether this was Dylan’s rationale or not, he does return to Lonesome early on day two.
After running through four other songs in six takes, he gravitates back to the stripped-down style of Take 4. Over three takes and two days, Dylan hones the tempo. Take 1, Remake is still too spritely, belying the anticipated betrayal of the narrator’s lover. If the first pass is disconnected from the subject matter, the slower Take 1, Remake 2 may be too spot-on.
Its creeping pace imbues so much emotion that we’re reminded Dylan is the narrator waiting to be devastated. There’s a reason he says “lonesome” instead of “devastated,” after all. A slight remove seems necessary in all of his songs, whether that’s in performance or songwriting.
On the final go-round, Dylan achieves the perfect balance. The tempo doesn’t blow past the poignancy of the song, but it’s also brisk enough that he escapes the prison cell he’s fashioned for himself. In this final version, you can hear him winking — always winking — as he prepares for his heart to be ripped from its chest. However, you might not recognize the wink without those 11 other takes. As always with Bob Dylan, it’s what you don’t hear that makes all the difference.