The title is a misnomer, of course. Bob Dylan has been releasing lost treasures for so long now — his Bootleg Series, which dates back to 1991, is up to Volume 12 — that you can find official versions with ease these days.
Still, it’s worth examining the times when an extra song from the old master, left off often for inexplicable reasons, might have saved an only-OK album — or, as in the case of Time Out of Mind and Oh Mercy, made a great one even greater.
That’s the conundrum that is Bob Dylan, however. With other bands of his era, most notably through the Beatles’ Anthology series, a deep dive into outtakes, leftovers and demos only serves to underscore just how perfect the final product typically was. With Dylan, there seem to be literally endless variations, and many of them are just as resonant.
That leads, inevitably, to conversations about how the addition of just one more song might have changed the fate of Bob Dylan’s finished releases …
“BLIND WILLIE McTELL,” (INFIDELS, 1983): There may not be a more head-scratchingly strange omission than this track, which wouldn’t see the light of day until its release as part of the initial Bootleg Series project years later. Infidels was certainly poorer for it. But the song, a kind of “St James Infimary”-esque eulogy not just for the musical craft of Blind Willie McTell but for a nation’s innocence in the era of slavery, clearly vexed Dylan during these Mark Knopfler-helmed sessions, which saw him try several approaches. In fact, Dylan didn’t seem to get a handle on it until hearing the Band’s take from 1993’s Jericho, after which he began performing “Blind Willie McTell” regularly, using a very similar arrangement.
“DREAMIN’ OF YOU,” (TIME OUT OF MIND, 1997): Finding much fault at all with this late-period gem seems ungracious, but even masterpieces — think the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with the addition of stand-alone 1967 singles “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields” — can sometimes be improved. “Dreamin’ of You,” eventually issued on Bootleg Series Vol. 8, would have similarly framed and perhaps even extended the central themes of Time Out of Mind, which dealt so gutsily with the idea of lingering passions and looming departures. In fact, a line like “even if the flesh falls off my face, it won’t matter if you’re there” really works as a flinty summation.
[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: For all of the off-handed menace found in Bob Dylan’s ‘Tempest,’ for its many betrayals, the album offers commiserate moments of community, of gritty determination, of desire, of grace.]
“CARIBBEAN WIND,” (SHOT OF LOVE, 1981): A prompt release of this six-minute epic not only would have enlivened one of Dylan’s also-ran albums, it would have revealed perhaps the exact moment in which Bob Dylan began to turn away from the deflating fundamentalism of the late-1970s — no small thing. A kind of 1980s update of “Visions of Johanna,” the track was unsuccessfully worked and re-worked for Shot of Love before Dylan finally seemed to find the center of the song during a 1980 tour. Five years later, “Caribbean Wind” showed up on Biograph, somehow revealing yet another tossed-aside rewrite.
“WHEN THE NIGHT COMES FALLING FROM THE SKY,” (EMPIRE BURLESQUE, 1985): An apocalyptically scarifying rocker, “When the Night” was wrecked by the disco-sheened version that finally showed up on the official release — one of the worst decisions in a decade stuffed with them. About the only thing worth noting was background vocalist Madelyn Quebec’s dusky asides. Contrast that with the scorching original take, recorded at the Power Station with Steven Van Zandt and Roy Bittan of the E Street Band. Dylan apparently came to grips with his misstep later, offering a series of tough live updates through his 1986 tour with Tom Petty, beginning with a simmering vocal showcase before exploding forward with the Heartbreakers.
“SERIES OF DREAMS,” (OH MERCY, 1989): As celebrated as this album no doubt was, there’s little question that the inclusion of “Series of Dreams” would have made it better — as, perhaps, would have “Dignity.” But with this track, Bob Dylan left behind something that (like the subsequent “Dreamin’ of You”) could have provided a sharp outline for his entire New Orleans fever-dream of an album. The struggles over this song, like much of Oh Mercy, were legend — with producer Daniel Lanois pushing for an extended passage in the style of the bridge. By the end, Dylan had clearly come to question whether the song was worth all the trouble. Remixes and demos from the Bootleg Series illustrated once more than it most certainly had been.
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