Third Man Records vinyl exclusives, Part 49: Bob Dylan “Springtime In New York: The Bootleg Series Vol. 16 (1980-1985)” (2021)

The 49th set of exclusive vinyl items offered to members of Third Man Records’ Vault service was mailed out to the members in September of 2021. For those who are unaware, Third Man Records is the label owned by Jack White, who is the leader of the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, and the Dead Weather, and is now a solo artist. The Vault service promises to deliver exclusive vinyl-only records (usually one full-length album and one 7” single) to its members every three months.

The 49th Vault package featured a 4-LP vinyl edition of Bob Dylan’s box set titled Springtime In New York: The Bootleg Series Vol. 16 (1980-1985). This edition contained 42 songs recorded by Dylan in the early-to-mid-‘80’s, 40 of which were previously unreleased. This edition is slightly condensed from the commercially released 5-CD edition, which contained 57 tracks. However, it should not be confused with the 2-LP vinyl highlights version which was released commercially. That 2-LP set contains 11 of the 57 tracks from the CD box set; the Third Man edition contains 42 of the other tracks, and it is the only vinyl edition that contains these 42 tracks. The four LP’s in the Third Man edition were respectively pressed in gold, violet, orange, and purple vinyl. The full set is packaged in a hardcover slipcase, while the individual LP’s each have their own cardboard sleeves with collaged cover art related to the time period. The set also includes a 16-page booklet with liner notes. As the booklet points out, the alternate takes selected for this set are different than the ones utilized on previous volumes of Dylan's Bootleg Series releases.

First, to provide some perspective on this particular period of Dylan’s career, here's a quick rundown on the three proper Dylan studio albums recorded during those years. 1981's Shot Of Love is regarded by historians as the last of three Christian albums -- following Slow Train Coming (1979) and Saved (1980) -- which Dylan recorded after he was converted to Fundamentalist Protestantism. But, in truth, Shot Of Love is less preachy and more secular in nature than the two albums which came before it. With a few exceptions ("Property Of Jesus", the classic "Every Grain Of Sand"), Shot Of Love mainly consists of Dylan’s characteristic folk-rock with only occasional uses of religious symbolism. The 1983 album Infidels is the one which the historians tell us was Dylan's actual return to secular music. But, although Infidels comes across more like the work of Dylan the protest singer, the album uses religious symbolism at least as much as -- if not more than -- Shot Of Love did. By the time of this recording, Dylan had changed his religious denomination to Fundamentalist Judaism, and the lyrics on Infidels do reflect a difference in the Bard’s outlook. Personally, I like to think of Infidels as Dylan's Dire Straits album; it was co-produced by Dylan and Mark Knopfler, and bears some musical resemblance to the Dire Straits album Making Movies. Dylan's third album from this time frame, 1985's Empire Burlesque, was one of Dylan's most commercial-sounding albums. The self-produced album had radio-ready arrangements which now sound somewhat dated, and less introspective lyrics with fewer religious references.

This period is widely considered to be one of the weakest periods of Dylan’s 60-year career. But Springtime In New York may well change that perception. The set does not merely spotlight Dylan’s work from the mid-to-late ‘80’s; rather, it shows whole new sides of those works which tend to cast them in a more admirable light.

Nine of the eleven tracks on the first LP in the Springtime In New York set are rehearsal recordings from the fall of 1980, done in a private studio space. On most of them, Dylan was backed by Jim Keltner (drums), Tim Drummond (bass), Willie Smith (keyboards), Fred Tackett (guitar), and up to four female back-up singers. These rehearsals are surprisingly good and lively, with unexpected choices of cover songs. Although the traditional “Jesus Met The Woman At The Well” is the type of song that one expected Dylan to perform at that time, he gives it an unpredictably rocking treatment, with a ’50’s rockabilly-like guitar rumble. The Old English folk tune “Mary Of The Wild Moor” – which is not about Jesus’ mother – gets an effectively stark low-key treatment, using autoharp and mandolin. Dylan seemingly has a bit of fun with Dr. Hook’s “A Couple More Years”, while he lends real emotion to the mushy Michael Johnson radio ballad “This Night Won’t Last Forever”. He makes Dave Mason’s “We Just Disagree” sound like one of his own compositions. Dylan lays down some soul on his cover of Little Willie John’s “Fever” and on his own previously unreleased composition “Let’s Keep It Between Us” – best known as an obscure Bonnie Raitt song. The other two tracks on this LP are outtakes from the 1981 Shot Of Love album. One is a cover of Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train”, which is rendered in a way The Band might have done it. The other is the epic “Angelina”, which might have needed a better rerecording to make it onto the album, but it is full of fascinating poetic imagery suggesting that it had the potential to be a classic.

Eight of the 11 tracks on the second disc are more outtakes from Shot Of Love. Combined with the two outtakes from that album which appear on the first LP, there are enough outtakes here for a whole additional album. Such an album would not have been one of Dylan’s best, but it certainly would have been a lively one. This point in Dylan’s career is regarded as the late part of his Protestant period, but these tracks are not religious in nature, although Clydie King’s vocal accompaniments do add some Gospel feeling. A few more cover songs are here, namely Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart”, the Temptations’ “I Wish It Would Rain”, and the Everly Brothers’ “Let It Be Me”. These covers allow Dylan to explore his emotionally vulnerable side, as he sings them with touching notes of tenderness. Despite its title, “Price Of Love” is not an Everly Brothers cover; instead, it is an energetic Dylan original with a rousing rock and roll beat. “Don’t Ever Take Yourself Away”, “Is It Worth It?”, and “Borrowed Time” have hints of reggae rhythms, and could have been quite good with more polish. The clearly unfinished “Yes Sir, No Sir” has an unexpected hard rock sound, female back-up singers singing “Hallelujah”, and no intelligible words from Dylan himself…I wonder where he was going with that one? The piano-based Sinatra cover “This Was My Love” is an Infidels outtake which would have sounded out of place on that album, but which in hindsight is of a piece with Dylan’s 2015 Sinatra covers album Shadows In The Night. The last two songs on this LP are alternate takes of songs from Infidels. This set’s take of “Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight” has a less anguished Dylan vocal; in fact, this alternate vocal track – along with the less diluted bits of harmonica – make the song more reminiscent of Dylan’s ‘60’s and ‘70’s work than the album’s take. The alternate take of “Neighborhood Bully” – a stirring pro-Israel protest song that may not sit well with modern liberal Democrats – packs a more bare-fisted punch than the album take.

The 3rd LP in the set contains nine tracks from the Infidels sessions, seven of them outtakes, two of them alternate takes. Dylan had recently been converted to Fundamentalist Judaism at this point, and when he mentions religion on these outtake tracks (except when he petitions the Lord directly on “Lord Protect My Child”), he does so from the point of view of a former Christian. Although it is clear that Mark Knopfler played guitar on these tracks, and Alan Clark played keyboards, these recordings have more of a classic Dylan sound than the more Dire Straits-like sound of Infidels, suggesting that post-production mixing played a large role in the finished album’s sound. We hear vintage examples of both the acoustic and the electric Dylan in two different versions of the same grim tale of murder: one an acoustic track called “Too Late”, the other a further developed electric track called “Foot Of Pride”. Slight currents of electricity are applied to the country sounds of “Tell Me” and the classic “Green, Green Grass Of Home”, and to the old-fashioned blues of Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me To Do”. This version of “Clean Cut Kid”, a tale of a suicidal Vietnam vet, sounds much more traditionally Dylan-esque than the strangely jazzed-up version which turned up on Empire Burlesque. The LP’s two alternate takes of Infidels tracks also have a less Knopfler-ized sound. On this take of “I And I”, there is a bit less pain apparent in Dylan’s voice as he sings about talking to God. This take of the anti-sweatshop “Union Sundown” has the same driving rock riff, but has many different lyrics than the album version, including one verse that describes capitalism as a religion.

The 4th LP contains two more Infidels outtakes. One of them is a gentle cover of Willie Nelson’s “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground”, but it is different from the version which appeared on B-sides of Infidels-related singles. This version is sung by Dylan alone instead of as a duet with Clydie King, and this version is preferable to my ears. The other Infidels outtake is “Julius and Ethel”, an angry song which questioned the guilt of the Cold War spies who were executed in 1953. The song is exciting, but time has proven that the decision to leave it off the album was a wise decision. The LP also contains two decent live tracks from 1984: one of them, “Enough Is Enough”, is an energetic rocker that was apparently only performed during that tour and was never studio-recorded; the other is a TV performance of “License To Kill” from David Letterman's show, on which Dylan was backed by the Latino punk band Plugz, resulting in a rough-around-the-edges performance that sounds very different from the Dire Straits-like studio version.

The other seven tracks on the 4th LP are Empire Burlesque album extras, including six alternate takes, one alternate mix, and one outtake. “When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky”, the album’s would-be hit single, actually gets two alternate takes, one of them a slow version, the other a fast version – although it sounds to me like the versions were mixed up with each other in the track sequencing. The alternate takes have just slightly less digital-age studio polish than their album versions. Except for the anti-war “Clean Cut Kid” – the one with the most difference in sound – these tracks still show Dylan at his poppiest, with just a bit less saccharine than the Empire Burlesque versions. The same goes for the alternate mix of “Tight Connection To My Heart”, which strips away just one or two production layers to bring more attention to Dylan’s lyrics and to the song’s reggae rhythms. However, the outtake “Straight A’s In Love” is surprising; this cover of a 1959 Johnny Cash rockabilly tune comes on like an Elvis Costello new wave song that would have sounded out of step with the rest of the Empire album.

Of the 15 tracks from the 5-CD version of Springtime In New York which are omitted from this vinyl Third Man Vault version, at least six are worthwhile for supplemental streaming or downloading: a rehearsal recording of “Need A Woman”; the Shot Of Love outtake “Fur Slippers”; the Infidels outtake “Blind Willie McTell”; the band version of “Too Late”, the alternate take of “Seeing The Real You At Last” from Empire Burlesque; and the 12-minute Empire Burlesque outtake “New Danville Girl”. If you wish to supplement the Third Man edition with the 2-LP highlights edition, all six of those tracks are included on that commercially released vinyl edition.

Another note for fellow vinyl aficionados: the practice of engraving text in the dead wax, or the runout grooves between the sticker and the last track’s grooves, is present on the LP’s in this package. The discs have “Well, God is in His Heaven” carved in Side A, “And we all want what’s His” carved in Side B, “But power and greed and corruptible seed” carved in Side C, “Seem to be all that there is” carved in Side D, “I’m gazing out the window” carved in Side E, “Of the St James Hotel” carved in Side F, “And I can tell you one thing” carved in Side G, and “Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell” carved in Side H. As you may know, these etchings are lyrics from the song “Blind Willie McTell” – which, ironically, is not included in this edition of the set.

Bob Dylan “Springtime In New York: The Bootleg Series Vol. 16 (1980-1985)” (Third Man Records TMR-738) 2021

Track Listing:

Disc 1, Side A:

1. Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power) – rehearsal
2. Jesus Met The Woman At The Well – rehearsal
3. Mary Of The Wild Moor – rehearsal
4. A Couple More Years – rehearsal
5. This Night Won’t Last Forever – rehearsal
6. Mystery Train – Shot Of Love outtake

Disc 1, Side B:

1. We Just Disagree – rehearsal
2. Let’s Keep It Between Us – rehearsal
3. Fever – rehearsal
4. Abraham, Martin and John – rehearsal
5. Angelina – Shot Of Love outtake

Disc 2, Side C:

1. Price Of Love – Shot Of Love outtake
2. I Wish It Would Rain – Shot Of Love outtake
3. Let It Be Me – Shot Of Love outtake
4. Don’t Ever Take Yourself Away – Shot Of Love outtake
5. Cold, Cold Heart – Shot Of Love outtake
6. Is It Worth It? – Shot Of Love outtake

Disc 2, Side D:

1. Borrowed Time – Shot Of Love outtake
2. Yes Sir, No Sir – Shot Of Love outtake
3. This Was My Love – Infidels outtake
4. Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight [Version 2] – Infidels alternate take
5. Neighborhood Bully – Infidels alternate take

Disc 3, Side E:

1. Too Late [Acoustic Version] – Infidels outtake
2. Clean Cut Kid – Infidels outtake
3. Baby What You Want Me To Do – Infidels outtake
4. Foot Of Pride – Infidels outtake

Disc 3, Side F:

1. I And I – Infidels alternate take
2. Green, Green Grass Of Home – Infidels outtake
3. Union Sundown – Infidels alternate take
4. Lord Protect My Child – Infidels outtake
5. Tell Me – Infidels outtake

Disc 4, Side G:

1. Enough Is Enough [Live] – Slane Castle, Ireland
2. License To Kill [Live] – Late Night With David Letterman, March 22, 1984
3. Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground – Infidels outtake
4. Julius and Ethel – Infidels outtake
5. I’ll Remember You – Empire Burlesque alternate take
6. When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky [Slow Version] – Empire Burlesque alternate take

Disc 4, Side H:

1. Tight Connection To My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love) – Empire Burlesque alternate mix
2. Emotionally Yours – Empire Burlesque alternate take
3. Clean Cut Kid – Empire Burlesque alternate take
4. Straight A’s In Love – Empire Burlesque outtake
5. When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky [Fast Version] – Empire Burlesque alternate take

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