Tomorrow may be a long time, as Bob Dylan once sang, but listening through The Cutting Edge it’s hard to remember that the brash, aggressive, thin wild mercury sound of the music it captures is half a century old.
The Cutting Edge, the 12th Bob Dylan release in the Bootleg Series, is comprised of studio outtakes from the three albums—Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde—that Dylan recorded during an unprecedented creative spree in 1965 and 1966. Following on the heels of his first four critically acclaimed solo acoustic albums that featured such enduring songs as “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Blowing in the Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” this newest full-band electric music driven by Dylan’s surrealistic amphetamine-charged lyrics left many of his earlier fans scratching their heads—if not completely in the dust. This abrupt stylistic change that was most famously exemplified by the violent reaction to his performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 had far more to do with Dylan’s abandonment of traditional song and lyrical structure than his decision to use electric instruments. The expansive, heartfelt anthems like “Masters of War” and “With God On Our Side” that his earlier fans loved had been replaced by stream-of-consciousness rants like “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Visions Of Johanna,” an opus from Blonde on Blonde.
In the 14 months between March 1965 and May 1966 with the release of three hastily recorded albums, Dylan successfully kicked the shit out of every pop paradigm that existed at the time. By performing material with vocals that were often cutting and abrasive and lyrics that were indirect and suggestive rather than direct and cloying, and composing musical scores that sounded as if they were played by a Salvation Army Band on acid, it often appeared as if Dylan was daring his fans to try and keep up with him.
The level of intensity that Dylan built during this time could not last indefinitely. The constant recording and seemingly endless touring schedule he had taken on began to take their toll, and when a motorcycle accident sidelined the artist in the summer of 1966, many people came to see this misfortune as an indirect blessing that may have saved his life. In any case, it was a full two years before Dylan returned to the recording studio in 1968 to record John Wesley Harding, a more acoustic album that some saw as a welcome return to form.
Whatever divine intervention may have been involved in pulling the young Bob Dylan back from the precipice in 1966, and however great and profound his work in the intervening years may have been (I personally think a lot of his best recordings date from the past 15 years), it’s still difficult to assimilate—even from the distance of a half century—just how important and culturally significant his three albums from 1965 and 1966 were. This newest Bootleg Series release goes a long way towards explicating this.
One of the difficulties in putting together a collection like The Cutting Edge is that for people of a certain generation, many of the songs are very familiar, which undoubtedly made it challenging for the compilers to showcase them in a way that is fresh and engaging. This is especially true with a compilation like this one that presents multiple versions of the same song in consecutive order. With this in mind and realizing that there are varying levels of appetite and obsession when it comes to Bob Dylan’s music, three distinct versions of The Cutting Edge are available. The first, a “best of,” selects the most interesting and fully realized demos and rehearsals to give an abbreviated insight into the creative journey that resulted in Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde. On the other side of the spectrum, there’s an 18-disc Collector’s Edition that includes every note (copious warts and all) that Dylan recorded in the studio in 1965 and 1966. It is an amazing document and reference material, and as a chronicle of artistic process, it is absolutely unrivaled. But, for most people’s needs and tastes, and in terms of an enjoyable listening experience, the six-CD Deluxe Edition is probably the best way to go. As with the Collector’s Edition, it features multiple versions of the same songs, studio one-offs, jams, rehearsals and instrumentals. The entire fourth disc is dedicated to chronicling the recording of “Like A Rolling Stone” with a staggering 20 versions of the song presented that trace its development from a 3/4 time solo piano waltz to the six-minute full band single that changed the face of rock music. For the most part, the other five discs in this edition offer representative versions of different songs with just enough depth to satisfy and enlighten all but the most dedicated Dylan completist.
The chronological flow of songs from the original sessions has been maintained, which establishes a fascinating story arc that is helped along by all of the conversations between Dylan and his producers, Tom Wilson and Bob Johnson, that precede many of the tracks. Dylan’s speaking voice reminds the listener how young he was when he recorded these songs. It is sometimes an uncomfortable, almost voyeuristic experience to listen to him bounce between arrogance and frailty as he complains about wanting to go home or not wanting to sing, often before completely nailing the arrangement of a song. The whining, straining character the tapes present often seems completely at odds with the beauty and intensity of the art he’s created and his obvious commitment to the material. Indeed, the most revealing thing about the songs on The Cutting Edge is that for a guy whose musical skills were often discounted, Dylan was unyielding in his search for innovative sounds and novel arrangements for his lyrics. This can be most clearly heard by listening through the four versions of “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” that open the first disc. Though the changes the song went through were far less drastic than those he subjected “Like A Rolling Stone” to, it is wonderful to hear how the first solo acoustic demo version existed briefly as a duo guitar track before evolving into a restrained, almost elegiac full-band song. The overall effect of presenting the progressions that Dylan’s music went through before its release is that it makes these songs we’ve heard a thousand times on the radio sound engaging and new. The other realization we form when listening is that, despite many arguments to the contrary, Dylan has usually known when he’s “gotten it right.” No matter how much people enjoy listening to, say, the five versions of “Visions of Johanna” recorded with different instrumentation and tempos, the final recording that was chosen to go on Blonde On Blonde was the best one.
As is true of every one of these archival Bob Dylan releases, the photographs, commentary and essays—this time from Dylan scholars Bill Flanagan and Sal Wilentz—that accompany The Cutting Edge are worthwhile and informative.
If you’ve never heard Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and/or Blonde On Blonde, try them out first before venturing into The Cutting Edge. If you have heard them so many times that every note and word is already emblazoned into your soul, listen to these outtakes and rehearsals to remind yourself of that brief moment so many years ago when the influence of Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie gave way to the new ideas proposed by Allen Ginsberg and the Beatles. It’ll take you back to that time when Bob Dylan burned the candle at both ends and right down the middle to blur the lines between pop, art and poetry to produce some of the most amazing music ever heard. Fifty years on, and we’re just catching up. The songs on The Cutting Edge are just as brash, bristling and amazing to hear as they were when they were first unleashed half a century ago.