BOB DYLAN – ” Springtime In New York: The Bootleg Series Vol. 16 (1980-1985) “

Posted: October 7, 2021 in MUSIC

The period of the Eighties widely regarded as the low point of Dylan’s musical career, a time when he struggled to find relevance in the MTV era and released a series of tacky, rudderless albums that were savaged by fans and critics. Even Dylan himself refuses to defend his output from the time. “[I was] pretty whitewashed and wasted out professionally,” he recalled in his 2004 memoir Chronicles: Volume One. “I’m in the bottomless pit of cultural oblivion. You name it. I can’t shake it.” 

But the newest chapter of the bootleg series, Springtime In New York (1980-1985), forces us to re-evaluate this notion completely. The overwhelming amount of material in this set 54 unreleased songs total — proves that even at Dylan’s lowest point, he was still capable of writing great music, even if the best songs often didn’t wind up on his albums.

The five-disc collection focuses on 1983’s “Infidels”, while also shedding light on the records that bookend it: “Shot of Love”, the last of his born-again Christian albums, and the glitzy “Empire Burlesque“. The former showed Dylan continuing his divisive streak of born-again Christian albums while the latter is an excessive, shimmery affair that has more in common with She’s So Unusual than Highway 61 Revisited

After the high bar he had set for himself in the ‘70s, courtesy of such albums as “Blood on the Tracks” and “Desire”, not to mention his groundbreaking Rolling Thunder Review tour, Bob Dylan had clearly raised expectations when it came time to embark into the ‘80s. That said, his initial outing of the decade, “Shot of Love”, didn’t bode well for what might follow. Another of his so-called “Christian albums,” its songs were generally weak, and with the exception of “Lenny Bruce,” “Heart of Mine” and “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” (a rocker relegated to B side status), it was best forgotten.

Fortunately, Dylan quickly rebounded with his next two studio efforts, “Infidels“, produced a bonafide Dylan disciple Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, and “Empire Burlesque”, which featured various members of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, Mick Taylor and Ron Wood offering support. Neither album was hailed as a triumph, but they did show Dylan was still capable of writing great songs even when nobody seemed to notice.

“Springtime In New York” takes a narrow focus on the first half of that otherwise obscured decade and manages to cull enough gems to justify a full five-disc box set. Of course, the Bootleg series has excelled and even accumulated honours for unearthing outtakes, live material, and other unreleased offerings, but this particular volume actually exceeds expectations, especially given that the basis for this compilation seemed rather slim, to begin with. Nevertheless, it manages to gather together some prime offerings, most of which outshines the initial work. For example, two tracks originally intended for “Empire Burlesque”—“New Danville Girl” and “Dark Eye”—offer reason to wonder why they weren’t included in that album originally. Each of them is that good. Alternate takes of “Jokerman” and “Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight,” all songs that first appeared on “Infidels”, suggest Dylan had plenty of quality music to choose from. So too, “Angelina,” “Price of Love” and “I Wish It Would Rain,” recorded during the “Shot of Love” sessions, are actually far better than anything on the finished release.

There are curiosities of course—unlikely attempts at “Let It Be Me,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Abraham, Martin and John,” “Sweet Caroline,” and “Angels Flying Too Close to the Ground” reflect that fact that Dylan hadn’t tired of covering classics long after Self Portrait had again given way to original work. A live version of “License To Kill,” culled from an appearance on “Late Night With David Letterman” sounds frayed around the edges, but makes for an interesting entry regardless. Likewise, disc one is comprised almost entirely of rehearsals, giving a glimpse of Dylan’s creative process in motion.

Like the various Bootleg boxes that preceded it, “Springtime In New York” boasts an impressive hardcover book that provides essential facts about each album’s origins, rare photos, and extensive studio notes that detail the sessions in thorough detail. A new video for Bob Dylan’s “License to Kill” has been released, featuring a new remix version of the 1983 original along with previously unseen footage from the “Infidels” sessions. It’s tied to “Springtime in New York: The Bootleg Series Vol. 16 (1980-1985)“, a five-disc set that includes material recorded from 1981’s “Shot of Love”, 1983’s Infidels, and 1985’s “Empire Burlesque”.

The video was shot on April 30th, 1983 at the Power Station in New York City. This was near the end of the six-week Infidels sessions and footage includes the entire band, including guitarist/producer Mark Knopfler, guitarist Mick Taylor, keyboardist Alan Clark, bassist Robbie Shakespeare, and drummer Sly Dunbar. “License to Kill” contains one of the most baffling lines in Dylan’s Eighties catalogue: “Man has invented his doom/First step was touching the moon.” Dylan attempted to explain it. “What’s the purpose of going to the moon?” he asked. “To me, it doesn’t make any sense. Now they’re gonna put a space station up there, and it’s gonna cost, what — $600 billion, $700 billion? And who’s gonna benefit from it? Drug companies who are gonna be able to make better drugs. Does that make sense? Is that supposed to be something that a person is supposed to get excited about? Is that progress? I don’t think they’re gonna get better drugs. I think they’re gonna get more expensive drugs.”

Naturally, Dylan aficionados will likely view this once again as part of a holy grail, but even the casual collector may see the need to add this to their collection. “Springtime In New York” could be considered one of the richest seasons of all. Two weeks ago, a video for “Don’t Fell Apart on Me Tonight (Version 2)” was released that was shot around the same exact time as the “License to Kill” Video.

Springtime opens with rehearsals for Dylan’s Musical Retrospective Tour in the fall of 1980, where he was backed by the under-appreciated singer Clydie King. The shows were billed as a return to some of his older songs, following his strict gospel-only setlists, but instead of “Simple Twist of Fate” we get several wildcards: covers of hit songs at the time, like Bill LaBounty’s “This Night Won’t Last Forever” and Dave Mason’s “We Just Disagree” (he also reportedly covered “The Rainbow Connection,” but unfortunately it didn’t make the cut). Perhaps because Dylan never intended the public to hear them, these renditions are intimate, raw, and even joyous. Close your eyes to his take on “Sweet Caroline,” and you’ll forget someone else wrote it.

While the original “Infidels” demonstrated Dylan’s genius ability to assemble a band — Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler (who produced the album) and Alan Clark, the Stones’ Mick Taylor, and the reggae duo Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare — he left many of the best songs off the album in favour of duds like “Union Sundown.” Gems like “Foot of Pride” and “Someone’s Got a Hold of My Heart,” later reworked as “Tight Connection to My Heart” on Empire Burlesque, would have made the album infinitely better.

And then there’s “Blind Willie McTell,” one of his finest songs of his career. A great version was released on the first chapter of the Bootleg Series back in 1991, but this one is even better, as Dylan wails “There’s a chain gang on the highway/I can hear them rebels yell” with sparkling clarity. There are two takes of “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight,” and the first, a desperate, slow-burning plea, arrives like a gust of wind to the throat. How is it that we’ve gone nearly 40 years without hearing this? 

On a different version of “Sweetheart Like You,” the sweetheart in question is no longer wearing a cute hat, but a pair of boots. This doesn’t change the misogynistic tone of the tune, where Dylan points out, “You know a woman like you should be at home, that’s where you belong.” (Reflecting on the ballad in an interview, he admitted, “That line didn’t come out exactly the way I wanted it to.”)

The “Empire Burlesque” material has been stripped of producer Arthur Baker’s synths and gated drums. What remains are the tracks in their purest form — like a sprawling “New Danville Girl” that clocks in at nearly 12 minutes. But the highlight is undoubtedly Dylan’s legendary 1984 performance on Late Night With David Letterman. In the same way that Neil Young grew fascinated with New Wave and linked up with Devo, Dylan recruited punk band the Plugz for his appearance. The energy he fed off the young musicians was so palpable that Letterman asked, “Is there any chance you guys can be here every Thursday night?”’

If Dylan had gone on tour with these guys, would he have had a more successful decade? If he had kept his best songs on the albums, would they now be regarded classics? It’s these kinds of what-ifs that make “Springtime” so gripping — and so essential.

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