Despite his difficult relationship with the recording process and his focus on live performance, Bob Dylan has always conceived his albums as expressive units – groups of songs arranged in a particular order for specific effects. This is obvious in the case of albums as diverse as Blood On The Tracks, Nashville Skyline or Slow Train Coming, each of which has a clear thematic unity. But even in his early acoustic days Dylan’s albums were also arranged, to some extent, as continuous narratives. The Times They Are A-Changin’, for example, is a kind of Whitmanesque socio-political manifesto, beginning with the poet fervidly extolling the virtues and power of youth (in the title track) and ending with the defiant exhaustion of a much older narrator in Restless Farewell. During this period of his life Dylan was outpouring large numbers of songs, many of which never found his way onto their records. Listening to the Times They Are A-Changin’ outtakes on the first part of The Bootleg Series (and the earlier Biograph), one is struck by the difference in tone of those ‘rejected’ songs. Pieces like Eternal Circle, Percy’s Song, Lay Down Your Weary Tune, Seven Curses and Moonshiner present a more relaxed artist, whose singing is less harsh and who seems to be seeking a kind of elusive lyrical vision of beauty which, on the official album, is sublimated to the harsh irony of the politicised individual stories of Hattie Carroll, Hollis Brown and Medgar Evars. In 1967 Dylan threw away an entire collection of the wildly brilliant songs of The Basement Tapes because none of them would have fit in with the surreal quasi-Biblical moralism of John Wesley Harding. Throughout his career he has rejected many songs which – however good they might be on their own terms – have not seemed to him to fit in with the tone of a particular album. Thus Blind Willie McTell was omitted from Infidels and Caribbean Wind from Shot Of Love, even though their ‘replacements’ were arguably vastly inferior.
The Bootleg Series has scooped up much of this material, along with many widely differing alternate takes of the songs from the original albums. Since its first volumes were released in 1993, it built up into an impressive corpus, presenting an alternative picture of Dylan’s work which is often looser, softer and more expressively emotional – more ‘musical’ – than the harsher, less uncompromising tone of much of his ‘official canon’. Tell Tale Signs – which concentrates heavily on the outtakes from Oh Mercy and Time Out Of Mind – breaks from the pattern of previous releases by abandoning a chronological approach and thus takes on the challenge of becoming a ‘proper’ Bob Dylan album – one with its own story, its own approach to the way it presents the material. As one familiar with Dylan’s more obscure work of the last few years I could bemoan the exclusion of a number of brilliant cover versions such as the lip smacking precision of his version of A Red Cadillac And A Black Mustache (from a Sun Records tribute) or the taut irony of his reading of I Can’t Get You Off My Mind from a Hank Williams tribute album or his extravagantly tongue in cheek updating of Dean Martin’s Return To Me from the Sopranos soundtrack . There are also only brief tasters here of the hundreds of live covers of folk and blues material he performed throughout the earlier periods of the ‘Never Ending Tour. And of course the many widely different variants on Dylan’s own songs performed during this period. But Tell Tale Signs has its own agenda – an exploration of Dylan’s creative journey to bring his songs to realisation. And the three album set certainly has a story (in fact, a number of ‘parallel’ stories) to tell – that of Dylan’s creative renaissance from Oh Mercy onwards, of his newly intense immersion in and fascination with the blues in all its diverse forms, and of the way he treats each song as a malleable, ever-changing entity.
Without prelude, we are launched into the heart of this creative process. The stunning, heart-stopping version of Mississippi (a Time Out Of Mind outtake) that kicks off the album is one of Dylan’s greatest performances, ranking with the 1983 rendition of Blind Willie McTell as perhaps his most moving and captivating expression of the transformative power of the blues. The accompaniment is similarly spartan – just a lone, echoey guitar – as Dylan uses shifting geographical and historical metaphors to express what appears to be regret over a lost love while simultaneously tracing an exploration of the artist’s struggles with his own creative processes. This struggle is itself the story that Tell Tale Signs relates. Dylan’s vocal modulates between pained harshness and whispered transcendence. The recording is so intimate that you can hear the singer’s breath between the lines, catch his moments of hesitation. The combination of all this produces spine-tingling moments of great intensity as Dylan takes us on a roller coaster ride through different emotional states. It’s a near-perfect fulfillment of Dylan’s long-stated ambition to be able to use the form of the blues to uplift both himself and the listener from despair towards joy, just as the old blues masters he so admires were able to do. Many commentators have been puzzled as to why Mississippi was omitted from Time Out Of Mind when lesser songs (like Million Miles or Dirt Road Blues) were included. But Time Out Of Mind is conceived as – to use an earlier Dylan phrase – a ‘journey through dark heat’, an artist confronting both his own mortality and the darkest depths of his psyche. It is an album which begins with the burnt out cynicism of Love Sick, progresses through the hellish despair of songs like Cold Irons Bound and Can’t Wait, toys with a kind of surrender of spiritual struggle in Standing In The Doorway, Tryin’ To Get To Heaven and Not Dark Yet until it ends in the bizarre moment of existential release that concludes the extraordinary closer Highlands. Time Out Of Mind tells the story of an artist’s struggle to release his own inner creative energies after years of under-achievement. Mississippi does not belong on that album, because in terms of spiritual and creative freedom (which, for Dylan, are very much the same thing), it’s already there.
In many ways Tell Tale Signs presents an alternative picture of Time Out Of Mind, including as it does various outtakes from the album, alternate versions and live performances of its songs. It tells a similar story on a broader canvas, dipping into and out of Dylan’s history of the past two decades, hinting at some of the major influences on his latter 9and, of course, earlier) years – Ralph Stanley, Robert Johnson, Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family – pioneers of the distinctively pre-rock and roll American art that Dylan has come to embrace as his ‘prayer book’. There are a few alternate versions of the spiritually wracked Oh Mercy songs, a couple of very different variants of the recent Modern Times tracks and some of his diverse work for film soundtracks. Then there are three quite different Time Out Of Mind versions of Mississippi holding the whole thing together, each one taking the song to a different place with variations in instrumentation, phrasing and expression. There have been complaints about the album repeating itself with so many versions of the songs being present, but the purpose of the presence of the variants is to show how, in Dylan’s hands, a song is forever malleable; that no two performances are exactly the same, as anyone who has been to more than one Bob Dylan concert will testify. In the fullness of time it may emerge that this need for endless variation has been Dylan’s most profound contribution to song craft and performance art. Through this method of presentation of his songs, which relies on spontenaiety, on filtering the emotion of a song through how the artist is feeling at that precise instant – in giving the illusion of ‘stopping time’, if only for a fleeting ‘stolen moment’ – Dylan ensures that his work can never become mere ‘background music’, the stuff of empty nostalgia.
At an age where many artists of his generation are content to bask in the reflected glory of their youth in hugely lucrative ‘comeback tours’, Dylan continues to reinvent his song catalogue every time he opens his mouth to sing. Sometimes the results are a long way from ‘perfection’ – the sound that comes out of his mouth may be an ugly croak, a disgusted wheeze. Sometimes a completely new arrangement of a song will meander into a dissatisfyingly discordant mess. At other times he will suddenly throw up a way of expressing a line which gives a song he may have sung thousands of times an entirely new slant. Such moments are those which his most devoted fans treasure. They may occur in concert, in the studio or in rehearsal – in front of tens of thousands of listeners or just a handful. Sadly, they rarely find their way onto official releases. Tell Tale Signs goes a little way towards redressing the balance.
Volume One features Mississippi as a stark country blues, while Volume Two uses a slow back beat and some swirling keyboard passages to build the song towards several crescendos. This is the take that most resembles the version finally released on Love And Theft in 2001. Volume Three features a completely different first verse and a number of lyrical variations. Though the lyrics are less poetic than the released track, its more personal and ‘confessional’ focus takes it close to the overall tone of Time Out Of Mind. One line in particular …Winter goes into summer/Summer goes into fall/I look into the mirror/ Don’t see anything at all… recalls the spiritual ‘hollowness’ of songs like Not Dark Yet and Standing In The Doorway. I would venture a guess that this version of the song was recorded later than those on Volumes One and Two in an abortive attempt to mould the song’s emotional textures to bring it more into line with the emotional resonances of the album.
Ultimately, though, Dylan shelved the song and it found a more appropriate home on the zestfully energetic and playful Love and Theft. The version on that album features a full band and indulges in the musical virtuosity and intensity that characterises the album’s ‘freewheeling’ sensibility. But on Tell Tale Signs Volume One we are privileged to witness a performance that, though one could regard it as a basic run through of the song, is incredibly rich with nuance, subtle shades of feeling and – most powerfully of all – a sense of personal liberation. It is a performance that at times makes you want to cry and at others to weep. Sometimes it makes you want to do both at the same time. In its sense of spontaneity, its complete immersion in its subject matter and with Dylan’s mastery of vocal phrasing, it captures the absolute essence of what the blues can be made into as a medium for the most heartfelt, playful and meaningful poetic expression.
It is not surprising that – if my earlier assumption is correct – Dylan returned to the original lyric of Mississippi. The words of the song are already fine tuned to near perfection, each line rich in signification, combining richly suggestive poetic intensity with colloquial aphorism in a mysterious alchemy that Dylan has made his own. The song concerns a typical ‘lost love’ situation and the lyrics focus on the singer’s regretfulness regarding his own ‘bad timing’ in ‘blowing his chances’ with the woman he is addressing. Yet, as in so many other Dylan songs, this scenario merely sets up a structure for wider observations and concerns, both personal and universal. Central to the whole piece is the use of American geography as a metaphor for both the failed relationship and – on a deeper level – for the artist’s personal struggle to achieve a new kind of creative freedom. In using the Mississippi river as a motif, Dylan grounds the geographical elements of the song in the mythology of the blues, just as he did with Highway 61 in Highway 61 Revisited and East Texas in Blind Willie McTell. In American literature, film and popular song the ‘sense of place’ has always been a dominant motif, from the Long Island of The Great Gatsby to the highways of On The Road to the dustbowl of The Grapes Of Wrath to the landscapes of Monument Valley in John Ford’s westerns to the delicious roll call of American place names in Bobby Troup’s joyous anthem Route 66 and Dylan’s own wonderfully tongue-in-cheek Wanted Man. The Mississippi is the largest river in the United States, running from Dylan’s home state of Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, literally ‘dividing the country in two’. It naturally figures large in American history, culture and mythology. Mark Twain’s brilliantly mischievous Huckleberry Finn, echoes of which permeate Dylan’s song, features a contrary journey downriver by its boy hero and a runaway slave, so turning the river itself into a metaphor for America itself, in all its mad variety, extreme prejudice and rich colour. The Mississippi Delta is also famously the ‘home of the blues’ and its relevant place names feature heavily in the expansive canon of blues material on which Dylan so often draws.
What makes Mississippi so especially effective is its use of a kind of language in which natural speech patterns slide with apparently effortless ease into poetic metaphor and alliteration. Throughout his career Dylan’s work has attempted to fuse the vernacular – especially the characteristic patterns of certain forms of colloquial American speech – with the consciously poetic. Certain songs like Gates Of Eden or Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands or Changing Of The Guards seem to inhabit the deliberately ‘poetic’ mode whereas others (like Lay Lady Lay, Is Your Love In Vain or I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight) use a deliberate kind of ‘plainspeak’. But Mississippi belongs to the group of songs such as Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright or You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere or You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go which seem to utilise both modes simultaneously. When Dylan is working like this, even the simplest lines can take on a considerable wealth of potential meanings. Mississippi is full of poetic imagery, but its most effective moments occur when Dylan slips into a more conversational tone. This is especially fitting as Mississippi is in some ways a song about songwriting, about how the process of inspiration itself occurs, about the artist’s troubles in ‘loving’ his poetic muse. In another sense Mississippi is addressed to Dylan’s audience, a ‘lover’ to whom he declares his undying devotion. Here Dylan addresses the crisis of inspiration – which, to him, was a spiritual crisis – which bedevilled him in his post-‘conversion’ years. To Dylan, the ‘state’ of Mississippi (to use a Whitmanesque metaphor) represents a state of immersion in the imagery and mentality of the blues itself. Dylan has always drawn on this as a source of inspiration but here his over reliance on it is seen a kind of prison for him (although ironically the song, like most of Dylan’s work, is clearly focused through the form of the blues). So it is surely not accidental that Mississippi begins Tell Tale Signs and that we find a version of it on each of the three albums, as the story it relates is the story of the album itself, and by implication of the last two decades of Dylan’s creative life – the story of personal reinvention and re-engagement with his original muse, the ‘Tambourine Man’ himself.
A different version of this text appears in DETERMINED TO STAND: THE REINVENTION OF BOB DYLAN
DAILY DYLAN NEWS at the wonderful EXPECTING RAIN