A new Bob Dylan bootleg CD (and vinyl) box set puts the spotlight on the recording sessions for Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blond
by Harvey Kubernik
The latest chapter in Columbia/Legacy’s highly acclaimed Bob Dylan Bootleg Series focuses on the legendary studio sessions that produced Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde, the trilogy of album masterpieces which secured Dylan’s reputation as a songwriter and performer of unprecedented depth, power and originality while significantly impacting the course of popular music and culture. All recordings included in The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12 are pristine transfers and mixed from the original studio tracking tapes.
Released this past November, this 2015 Dylan product provides a rare exploration into his creative process in the studio, allowing hardcore fans and consumers to truly experience another side of Bob Dylan through the evolution of his songs from this groundbreaking period.
This latest retail collection brings together for the first time many of the most sought-after recordings of the entire Dylan canon. Here, across six CDs, are previously unheard Dylan songs, studio outtakes, rehearsal tracks, alternate working versions of familiar hits — including the complete “Like A Rolling Stone” session — and more.
An 18-CD Collector’s Edition of the package has been issued and available exclusively on bobdylan.com.
Limited to a worldwide pressing of only 5,000 copies, this 18-CD edition incorporates every note recorded during the 1965–1966 sessions, every alternate take and alternate lyric. All previously unreleased recordings have been mixed, utilizing the original studio tracking tapes as the source, eliminating unwanted 1960s-era studio processing and artifice.
The 18-CD edition includes Dylan’s original nine mono 45 RPM singles released during the time period, packaged in newly created picture sleeves featuring global images from the era. The limited edition houses rare hotel room recordings from the Savoy Hotel in London (May 4, 1965), the North British Station Hotel in Glasgow (May 13, 1966) and a Denver, Colorado hotel (March 12, 1966) as well as a strip of original film cell from director D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back.
It also comes with an annotated book featuring hundreds of rare and never-before-seen photographs and memorabilia and new essays penned especially for the collection by Bill Flanagan and Sean Wilentz.
In 2014, Dylan’s The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11, a six-disc chronicle of his 1967 sessions with the Band, earned a 2015 Grammy nomination in the Best Historical Album category.
Generally regarded as three of the most important and influential albums of the golden era of ’60s rock, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde (a double album) were written and recorded across a span of merely 14 months (from January 1965 through March 1966) with producers Tom Wilson (Bringing It All Back Home, “Like A Rolling Stone”) in New York and Bob Johnston in New York (Highway 61 Revisited) and Nashville (Blonde On Blonde).
“On the day Dylan stepped into the studio to begin the sessions documented, he had spent less than three weeks (20 days) working in a recording studio during his 24 years on earth,” reinforces filmmaker Michael Hacker.
“Every generation falls in love with itself — their fashion, their politics (or lack thereof), their drugs, their movies – but nothing defines its sense and sensibility like their music,” declares author Kenneth Kubernik. “And, like the ‘never ending tour,’ the never-ending debate over which decade can lay claim to having the hippest sounds marches on like a May Day parade, lockstep, impervious to reason, impassioned and ultimately irreconcilable. But I’ll be goddamned if anyone is ever going to convince me that was or will ever be a more transcendent moment in music than the whip crack downbeat introducing ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ to a cohort of anxious ears fine-tuned to their AM radios in the summer of ’65.
In 2001 and 2013 I talked to Al Kooper about his 1965 and ’66 recordings with Dylan.
Q: Talk to me about guitarist Michael Bloomfield.
A: Well, Michael [Bloomfield] and I met on the ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ session. I had read about him in Sing Out Magazine, and saw a picture of him where he looked a little more rotund then he was when I met him. His brother says he was a fat kid growing up. So we met on the ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ session and really hit it off. So we played together on that.
“I was supposed to play guitar on that record. I packed up my guitar when I heard him warming up. It never occurred to me that somebody my age, and my religion could play the guitar like that. That was only reserved for other people. It never even occurred to me that that was an option for someone my age and my color. I had never seen that, or heard that up to that day.
Q. And you brought bassist Harvey Brooks into that session as well.
A. That’s right. So, that pretty much ended my guitar playing by and large. I said, ‘well OK, he’s as old as me and he can play like that. I’m never gonna be able to play like that. Thank you, goodbye.’ And, you know, I ended up playing organ on that record, and then I became a keyboard player really that day. So, it was a damn good thing because, you know, that was competition I couldn’t deal with.
Q: I think the star, or the secret sauce of the Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde sessions was Paul Griffin. I know he was on some records by Garnet Mimms and on Chuck Jackson’s “Any Day Now.”
A: A big influence on me as well! Paul Griffin came from the Baptist church. On Highway 61 we did the tracks to ‘Tombstone Blues’ and ‘Queen Jane Approximately’ in one day.
“The best thing I can say about Paul Griffin is take five minutes out of your busy day and get a time where you have nothing to bother you at all. Find a real nice stereo system and sit back and put on ‘One Of Us Must Know’ from Blonde On Blonde. And just listen to the piano…And tell me if you can find on a rock ‘n’ roll record anybody playing better than that. And I would really like to hear what your decision is. To me it is the greatest piano achievement in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t hear anything than him playing the piano when I hear that record. And I’m thrilled that I’m playing organ but I’m embarrassed. And I think that Dylan should be embarrassed too. ‘Cause Paul just steals that fuckin’ record. It’s the most incredible piano playing I’ve heard in my life. If you’re a piano player try playing that note for note. It’s just incredible.
I played the organ on ‘Like A Rolling Stone.’ Paul Griffin on piano was so brilliant. He plays amazing things. And the thing that is really eye-opening about it, are the drums. Bobby Gregg, who had a hit record with ‘The Jam.’ Besides Michael’s playing, you can really hear the drums of Bobby.
Q: What is so unique about Bob Dylan’s piano playing?
A: No one talks about his piano playing because they don’t know. Bob had a very unusual way of playing in that he didn’t use his pinkies. So both his pinkies were up in the air when he played the piano. And very interesting to me. It was very interesting looking to watch that. I used to really kick a kick of that.
“The other thing was, by then, we were friends. We had spent a lot of time together. Off hour time together. Just sitting around bars and shit like that. Going to the movies and all this kind of stuff, so it was a much more comfortable situation and Robbie Robertson came to. Robbie and I split a room together. So Bob brought Robbie and I for his comfort level, rather than just go in there cold. You know what I mean?
For a March 1976 Crawdaddy! magazine cover story, I interviewed the Band’s Robbie Robertson. I asked him about his playing guitar with the group and recording and touring with Bob Dylan.
“It was an unusual time which caused all those songs to be written. We know the technique very well. We’ve been playing with Bob for years. There’s no surprises involved.
There was a thing that happened between Bob and the Band that when we played together that we would just go into a certain gear automatically. It was instinctual, like you smelled something in the air, you know, and it made you hungry. (laughs). It was that instinctual. And the way we played together was very much that way.
“I play as much as I want to play. No one is telling me, ‘Listen, you’re playing too much.’ That’s my own decision. That’s how much I prefer to do. When I hear other people play a lot more than required I find it really drivel and there’s nothing in this fuckin’ wide world that’s going to do anything for the song. I don’t care. I like a good guitar part where it adds something, has a nice place and is a nice solo. Not too much, not too little. But I think as times goes on it just takes different proportions, and too much is unnecessary.”
Robertson’s guitar theory seems to simply extend his basic life philosophy of unhurried discipline.
Or, as Bob Dylan said, when he called to talk about Robbie: “Listen to his guitar playing. That’s all you have to know about him.”
Jerry Schatzberg’s cover photograph for Blonde on Blonde must have worried a lot of squares at Columbia Records. I’m pretty sure it was the first “rock” album not to have the artist’s name or the album’s name printed anywhere on the front or back — the cover has virtually no printing at all. Dylan’s face became the “word” on the cover. If you know the word, you’re in…
Furthermore, this was the first time to my knowledge that an album cover photo was deliberately out of focus.
Photographer and multi-media artist Jerry Schatzberg was born in New York and attended the University of Miami. His fashion photo portraits were published in Vogue, Esquire, Glamour, McCalls and LIFE magazine.
In the late 50s and during the 60s, Schatzberg would photograph LaVerne Baker, Eric Dolphy, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Andy Warhol, Roman Polanski, Fidel Castro, Jimi Hendrix, Mama Cass Elliot, Wilson Pickett, Faye Dunaway, Andrew Loog Oldham, Steve McQueen, Arlo Guthrie, Aretha Franklin, Chico Hamilton, Francis Copploa and Frank Zappa.
He directed some television commercials before he made his debut as a movie director in 1970 with Puzzle of a Downfall Child. His second directorial job was The Panic in Needle Park, starring Al Pacino followed by Scarecrow, co-starring Pacino and Gene Hackman. His storied film career is well documented.
In 2006, Genesis Publications published Thin Wild Mercury Touching Dylan’s Edge.
Jerry Schatzberg and Harvey Kubernik Interview
Q: Comments people have given you over the years about the front cover of Blonde On Blonde.
A: Everybody was trying to figure out what kind of drug trip we were trying to portray since it was out of focus. Nothing to do with that. It was January. Dylan had on a light jacket and I just had on a light jacket and a number of the images while we were moving around were moving, you know. So they were blurred a little bit. I must say Dylan chose that one and I was delighted. I knew there are a number of other good images from that shoot that were quite good which I use now. For a while I used just the Blonde On Blonde cover. But now, at shows and different places, I show them. They are quite good and absolutely sharp. But people thought we were trying to say something more than what we were.
I think any photographer that photographs another person tries to capture that person as best he can. By this time I knew Dylan quite well. I’d been photographing him for about a year. We’d hang out together and go places. When you’re in that kind of a relationship you are getting into somebody’s soul.
That is one thing. A lot of people want to know where it was photographed. To the best of my recollection it was a meat packing district in Manhattan which I had gone over a number of times to find out exactly where and it just doesn’t exist anymore. So it was either a building that was torn down or totally surfaced and I have no idea. Sony is now in the process of doing a search on a number of albums and where they were shot in New York. Two weeks ago we went down to the meat packing district with a camera crew and Sony looking for it. But we found a couple of places they might have. I liked the meat-packing district in contrast to Dylan. I felt that would be a good place to shoot.
Q: Did Dylan translate differently in your black and white photographs as opposed to color sessions?
A: It’s the same guy. It’s me photographing Bob Dylan. The first set of photographs I took of him were in 1965 in the recording studio with a Nikon. In color I used a Hasselblad camera.
“I had asked Al Aronowitz who was in my studio who was talking to a disc jockey that I knew and I was probably photographing somebody. My ear heard them say, ‘Dylan, I saw him yesterday. I’m quite friendly with him.’
“I said, ‘Hey. The next time you see him tell him I’d like to photograph him.’ The next day I got a call from his wife Sara. Who I knew before she even knew him. She was the one who kept telling me about Bob Dylan. Sara said to Bobby that I would like to photograph you’ and he said ‘OK.’ And I replied, ‘I’d love too.’ She gave me the address where they were recording ‘Highway 61 Revisited’
“Next day I went over and was welcomed. He even let me hear some of the sides they were doing and comment on it. I must say I was a little intimidated at first but they really made me quite at home.
Q: Was the work presented that potent to you at the time of the sessions? You had shot a lot of people for Vogue and LIFE previously.
A: I think it was Dylan. I had photographed a lot of people. The Duke of Windsor when he was once the King of England. I don’t have to be intimated by anybody.
“But, you know, when you come across a talent like Dylan…I didn’t catch on to him at the beginning. I was listening to him and it was Sara and Nico from the Velvet Underground they kept yelling, ‘Genius.’ I was very impressed what I heard and what he was doing. He was funny. We used to go to my club, Ondine’s. I was a stock holder, sit at the bar and hang out.
Q: It seems Dylan really knew the power of imagery and photographs in the media.
A: You’re right. Because the first shoot was during the Highway 61 recording studio and, of course, that’s his kingdom. He could do anything he wants because he’s comfortable there. He was also comfortable around me because of Sara and Al.
I got the photographs in and wanted them to like them and they did. And that’s when I wanted to get him into my studio where I had more control. And once he came to my studio, there was nothing he’d say no to, basically.
I’d find a prop that I might have used in a previous photograph, I’d give it to him and he’d do something with it. He was just very cooperative and he felt at home too.
My studios and film sets are always that way. I want people to feel comfortable and I want them to do something usually a little bit different from what they do in real life. I make them comfortable and they do it.
Harvey Kubernik has been a music journalist for over 44 years and is the author of eight books, including: Turn Up the Radio! Rock, Pop, and Roll in Los Angeles 1956–1972, Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows and Neil Young, Heart of Gold.. Harvey and Kenneth Kubernik wrote the text for photographer Guy Webster’s first book for Insight Editions published in November 2014. Big Shots: Rock Legends & Hollywood Icons: Through the Lens of Guy Webster. (Introduction by Brian Wilson).