Bring back bootleg albums

By Jonathan Rubin

A bootleg album is an album made up of recordings previously unreleased by the artist. Rock ‘n’ roll bootlegs began back in the 1970s while Bob Dylan was essentially living in hiding in Woodstock, N.Y. after he was in a bad motorcycle accident—though some suspect the hiatus was to kick a heroin addiction. He would record original songs and covers in the basement of his rented house, called “Big Pink,” with The Band. More recently, Dylan has been releasing albums he calls bootlegs that are really just unreleased recordings. I think it would be interesting if other artists started releasing “bootlegs” so that we could have insight into their artistic processes.

Dylan just released his new not-really-a-bootleg bootleg album, “The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Volume 12.” The album is filled with unreleased songs, studio banter and alternate versions of some of Dylan’s best songs. The recordings are taken from the studio sessions for Dylan’s first three electric studio albums: “Bringing It All Back Home,” “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde On Blonde.”

I haven’t been able to listen to the whole six-CD set yet, as I am waiting for my father to buy the $100 deluxe edition, but what I have heard is beautiful. Listening to Dylan’s bootleg CDs is both enjoyable as music and as a history lesson. Listening to one of the greatest recording artists of all time go through their artistic process is an unbelievable opportunity. Not only do you get to listen to his song-writing process, but you also get to listen to Dylan craft some of his most famous songs as he is doing it. Dylan did not know that “Like a Rolling Stone” would be a timeless hit while he was recording it, but you get to listen as he calibrates it into a perfect song. Listening to these albums almost makes you feel as if you are sitting in the booth with his producer, listening as Dylan makes music history.

I also loved Dylan’s last bootleg, “The Complete Basement Tapes,” because the original “Basement Tapes” is one of my favorite albums. “The Basement Tapes” is the name of that first bootleg from Woodstock. Originally when the album first started being circulated by fans, it was called “The Great White Wonder.” While Dylan continues to release bootleg albums, it seems like fewer and fewer other artists release them. Do not get me wrong, there are hundreds of other bootlegs easily available thanks to the Internet and there are plenty that are great albums. I love the Beach Boys’ bootleg album, “Smile,” as well as the live David Bowie bootleg, “Santa Monica 1972.” These albums show us a new dimension of seminal artists that we may have not gotten to see in their previous, more polished work.

Each bootleg album that comes out gives us insight into who Dylan is as an artist, man and icon. These albums also allow us to see a new side of his songs that we would not have the chance to see otherwise. If other artists were to release bootleg albums in the way Dylan has, we would be able to learn things about them, too. Can you imagine a bootleg album from extra studio recordings from Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly?” Surely hearing Lamar’s artistic process would give us insight into his work.

As long as Dylan continues to pump out these amazing bootlegs, I will continue buy and listening to them. I just wish that some other artists would take note that they can release their unheard recordings and people would buy them. Maybe if these kinds of albums catch on, a new culture of music listening will emerge. Who wouldn’t want to hear what their favorite artist sounds like as they work?