A person could be forgiven for wondering how much is still hidden away in Bob Dylan’s vaults that is worth hearing, and even more to the point, what’s left to say about Dylan’s music that hasn’t been said a thousand times already.
Surely, there’s no contemporary artist — with the possible exception of the Grateful Dead — who has released as much archival material to the public as Dylan has. The steady stream of “official bootlegs” that began with Biograph, a 5-LP box set of rarities that came out in 1985, has illuminated every phase and aspect of Dylan’s career with an attention to detail that could only be described as obsessive. Some of these releases, like The Complete Basement Tapes and The Rolling Thunder Revue, presented high-quality versions of much bootlegged material that had taken on a legendary aspect. Others, like The Cutting Edge, provided new insights into Dylan’s songwriting and studio process as he shifted his emphasis from acoustic folk to a more edgy sound he described as “thin white mercury” music. Still others, such as Trouble No More, a stunning compendium of his Christian recordings, and Another Self-Portrait, cast often maligned and misunderstood material in a new light.
So, what’s up with Bob Dylan 1970? As the songs on these three discs cover much of the same territory — minus his recording sessions with George Harrison — as Another Self-Portrait did, their inclusion in the official Bootleg series seemed a little superfluous at first glance. As it turns out, the primary motivation for this collection was precipitated by external pressures that had little to do with music. A few months before Bob Dylan 1970 was announced, a high-quality unofficial version of the Dylan-Harrison recordings was pressed and distributed in England, taking advantage of European copyright laws that put recordings more than 50 years old into the public domain.
The officially released Bob Dylan 1970 ups the ante and includes dozens more songs than the European version. Drawing from 11 different recording sessions held between March and August 1970, this chronologically arranged musician’s diary gives listeners fascinating insights into Dylan’s creative process at a transitional stage of his career. Covering the ground between Self-Portrait and New Morning, albums that it turns out he was working on at virtually the same time, Bob Dylan 1970 offers an intimate portrait of an artist revisiting his musical roots while searching for new sounds to explore.
The history is well known. Self-Portrait was his first bomb. Critics and listeners almost universally hated it. When asked about the album years later, Dylan offered that he had purposely made a record that would alienate his fans and give him a break from the pressure their expectations imposed on both his creative and personal life. Somehow this explanation has never rung true. Every song on Bob Dylan 1970 communicates a loose and spontaneous sense of joy. Dylan was clearly having a good time, and if fans that had cut their teeth on “Desolation Row” and “Visions of Johanna” couldn’t adjust their expectations, they were sorely missing out.
Very few of the performances on Bob Dylan 1970 are polished. Rather, he seemed to pull these songs out of his hat and sing them from memory. His versions of “Universal Soldier,” “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” and “Long Black Veil” sound like one-offs, designed to shake off the dust as he made space for new material to emerge. Whatever faults these performances may have in terms of fumbled chords and missed lyrics are more than made up for by the joy and enthusiasm they communicate.
The same levity of spirit comes across in the featured recordings Dylan made with George Harrison on May 1, 1970. Viewed critically, not much of any substance came from this session, but the opportunity to hear the pair toss off songs with sitting-around-the-campfire enthusiasm is not to be missed. The songs they played range from old rock chestnuts like “All I have to Do is Dream,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” and “Matchbox” to a selection of Dylan originals. “One Too Many Mornings,” “It Ain’t Me Babe,” and “Time Passes Slowly” are given intimate and enjoyable readings, with the highlight of the session being a version “Gates of Eden” that features one of the most beautiful guitar solos Harrison ever played.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if the reasons for releasing the music on Bob Dylan 1970 were more practical than artistic. Listening to these songs so many years later, it’s impossible not to be thankful, not just for the fact that Bob Dylan is still with us, but also for the mutability of time that allows for the beauty of this often overlooked and misunderstood music to come shining through.