Bob Dylan – 1970 is an exclusive reissue of previously unheard recordings. The three-disc collection includes dozens of alternate versions of songs that ultimately found their place on Dylan’s two albums from that year, Self Portrait and New Morning, as well as nine tracks recorded with George Harrison.
The release comes as the latest installment of Dylan’s “Copyright Collection series,” a practice he began in 2012 to avoid the legal tangles that often arise when material hits its copyright expiration and lands in the hands of third-party bootleg sellers. For the last eight years, Dylan has put forth hours of unreleased sessions and songs from his vault, starting with tapes from 1962 and working up through the years.
Which brings Dylan to 1970, a year that could have gone in a million different directions. “It’s a long and dusty road, it’s a hot and heavy load, folks I meet, they aren’t always kind,” he sings on “I Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound,” the first song of the 1970 collection, a quite literal reminder of those personal and professional crossroads Dylan found himself at the beginning of the new decade. “Some are bad, some are good, some just do the best they could, some have tried to ease my troubled mind.”
Dylan’s troubled mind was, no doubt, justified. After becoming one of the world’s biggest musical stars in just a handful of years, the intense pressure from his adoring but insatiable fans took its toll. In 1970, determined to catch a break, Dylan went back into the studio to intentionally make an album, Self Portrait, he knew people would dislike.
“There’d be crowds outside my house,” he told Rolling Stone in 1984. “And I said, ‘Well, fuck it. I wish these people would just forget about me. I wanna do something they can’t possibly like, they can’t relate to. They’ll see it, and they’ll listen, and they’ll say, ‘Well, let’s get on to the next person. He ain’t sayin’ it no more. He ain’t given’ us what we want,’ you know? They’ll go on to somebody else. But the whole idea backfired. Because the album went out there, and the people said, ‘This ain’t what we want,’ and they got more resentful.”
Dylan followed it up just a few months later with another, considerably more likable, album, New Morning, which received a much warmer reception. But the tapes now being released for Bob Dylan – 1970 reveal the inner workings of songs on both Self Portrait and New Morning, which were recorded at the same time and, for all their differences, both feature an artist standing at a fork in the road. In some ways, Dylan, who was famous in the Greenwich Village scene of the early 60s for fibbing about where he came from, is still willing to acknowledge his roots: “So I watched the sun come rising from that little Minnesota town.” In other ways, ever the nomad, he’s moving full steam ahead: “We’ll go someplace unknown, leave all the children home.”
Of course, George Harrison knew a thing or two about breaking away from past versions of one’s self. When he stepped into the studio with Dylan on May 1, 1970, The Beatles had been officially broken up for a mere three weeks, but Harrison had been eagerly awaiting the freedom — freedom that Bob Dylan seemed to personify.
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“Even his stuff which people loathe, I like,” Harrison said to Melody Maker in 1975. His own version of Dylan’s “If Not For You” appeared on All Things Must Pass, his first post-Beatles solo album. “Every single thing he does represents something that’s him. He may write better songs tomorrow, sing high on this album and low on another, go electric or acoustic, go weird or whatever, but the basic thing that causes all this change is an incredible character named Bob Dylan.”
Harrison is credited with guitar and vocals on a handful of Dylan originals, but the pair also revisited their earlier days, playing covers of the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have To Do Is Dream” and Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox” — even a rendition of The Beatles’ “Yesterday.” The future was important to Harrison and Dylan in 1970, but so was the past.
The team Dylan assembled for these 1970 sessions included many usual faces — Charlie Daniels, David Bromberg, Al Kooper — and as the takes rolled and the kinks got worked out, Dylan’s multiple versions of songs like “Alberta,” “Sign On The Window” and “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” began to take form. Even his vocals are steady. Dylan, as many have pointed out, often sounds his best when he thinks no one is really listening or paying too much attention.
The reality of the songs on Bob Dylan – 1970 is that they are not Dylan’s best, most poetic, or most insightful work — nor are they Harrison’s best work either — but it’s a treat to listen to the process as it unfolds. On one take of “If Not For You,” you can hear Dylan singing out loud how he wants the rhythm to go. “Yeah, that’s right,” he says when the band follows his pattern, eventually catching up to the idea in Dylan’s head.
Those who have seen him in concert or who have listened to him for many years will recognize the approach present on the 1970 sessions right away: Bob Dylan never sings a song the same way twice. He contains multitudes.
Photo: Bob Dylan (Public Domain)