Bob Dylan’s The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1-3 is simply one of the greatest albums ever released. It’s an odd thing to state because the album is essentially a compilation, but the amount of brilliant material on those three discs is staggering.
Released in 1991 during the low point of Dylan’s career, it was a nice reminder of how great the man was, and with the inclusion of “Series of Dreams” from 1989’s Oh Mercy, still is. It was meant to be sold to both new fans who were looking for a place to start (after all, The Essential Bob Dylan wouldn’t be released for another decade or so) and for the hardcore fans who were begging for outtakes since The Great White Wonder was released. And, amazingly, it did a pretty job with both.
Of course, once The Genuine Bootleg Series was released, fans were left wondering how, for instance, “Sign of the Cross” or the great version of “Spanish is the Loving Tongue” or so much from Blood on the Tracks wasn’t put on Bootleg, but you can’t fault Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s manager and the person who selected the tracks, too much; the end result it still fantastic.
Take a look at some selected tracks from the first disc, which is arguably the weakest of the three, in the form of a Five Best list:
#5. “Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues”
Much of Dylan’s eponymous first album and The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is about the dark side of death, but “Bear Mountain” shows that violence and chaos can be humorous too. Based on a true story of a cruise ship being overbooked, Dylan picked this song right out of the newspaper, much like “Who Killed Davey Moore?” It’s good that Dylan didn’t put this on Freewheelin’ because it’s a little too light to be taken seriously, but it’s a funny song with one great line: “I hate bears.”
#4. “When the Ship Comes In”
This version isn’t as fantastic as the one on The Times They Are A-Changin’, mostly because that one is pretty much perfect. The biblical allusion would make perfect sense when John Wesley Harding and, later, Saved come along. But as for “Ship,” this version was done as a Witmark demo on the piano and sounds lighter than the borderline-apocalyptic one on Times. The song is good though that even if it were done on the ukulele, I’d still listen to it.
#3. “Only a Hobo”
The first of Dylan’s hobo songs (the other being “I Am a Lonesome Hobo”), it makes perfect sense that he can see himself in a person without a home, especially early in his career. “Only a Hobo” is pretty simple lyrically (“As I was out walking on the corner one day/ I spied an old hobo, in a doorway he lay) but the vocal delivery is understated and Dylan actually sounds like he cares about the message he’s singing.
#2. “Let Me Die in My Footsteps”
So, remember the mention of death in Bob Dylan and Freewheelin’? Well, here’s a glaring example of it. It’s a great song that sadly got left off of Freewheelin’ in favor of junk like “Oxford Town.” The fact that 21-year-old Jew from Minnesota could sound so ancient and have such a great understanding of death is impeccable. Take a look at this line:
Maybe Dylan’s softest voice. But it’s perfectly soft and full of emotion.
On to Disc 2:
#5. “Call Letter Blues”
Why, oh, why couldn’t this have taken the place of “Meet Me in the Morning” on Blood? They’re pretty much the same song in melody, but the lyrics are so much better on “Letter” and it sounds a little fuzzier—in a good way, that is. This song is, to put it not very academically, kick ass.
#4. “Idiot Wind”
I’ll never be able to determine which version of “Idiot Wind” is better: this one, the officially released or the one from The Genuine Bootleg Series. But the great thing is that it doesn’t matter, they’re all pretty much perfect. Hell, even the one from Hard Rain is great. The main difference between this “Idiot Wind” and the others is that it sounds like Dylan is going to completely break down by the end of the track.
#3. “Farewell Angelina”
The lyrics are a little goofy (it seems as if Dylan is about to laugh during the next to last verse) but the tone of this song is haunting. One of two Dylan songs with Angelina in the title (the other being, simply, “Angelina”), this one is far superior and seems to be a more contemporary-sounding counterpart to a song like “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”
#2. “Santa Fe”
The Basement Tapes is an album full of odd songs, but this might be the weirdest. Dylan sounds like he’s crooning the song out rather than singing. Or maybe he’s about to turn into Jimmie Rodgers and start to yodel-sing? Either way, it’s hilarious and features some great piano work by The Band’s Richard Manuel.
#1. “She’s Your Lover Now”
Possibly my favorite Dylan track. It's everything a good track should be: hilarious, catchy, thought provoking, good lyrics, great musical accompaniment. You gotta love this song.
#5. “If You See Her, Say Hello”
Much better than the version of “Tangled” on Bootleg, but not as great as “You’re a Big Girl Now” from Biograph. The song pretty much sounds the same and it’s the lyrical difference (especially when talking about their kid) that makes this song so touching.
#4. “Series of Dreams”
As the last track of the 3-disc set, it’s a great add. Oh Mercy is a pretty good album that could have been better with adding “Series,” but, alas, it wasn’t meant to be. I like how this song ties in with…
#3. “When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky”
…this one. The version of “Night” from Empire Burlesque is about as close to disco as one can get without actually calling it disco, but this version is actually pretty good. I mean, it’s 80’s pop with overblown guitar solos, but it’s one of those great songs to listen to while you’re driving.
#2. “Foot of Pride”
Better known as, The Song Lou Reed Did at Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert. It’s a better lament at the state of the world—but in a more successful than most anything on Saved. Another track that would have made Infidels a stronger album. But it’s nothing compared to…
#1. “Blind Willie McTell”
The best Dylan track of the 80’s and one of his greatest songs. Everything about it is perfect: the lyrics, the vocals, the playing of both Dylan on piano and Knopfler on acoustic guitar, and the airiness of the recording is fitting. And it got left off of Infidels…