if you can’t beat ’em…

The strange evolution of Bob Dylan continues. I’m not sure what to make of this latest development.

Dylan has gone from gleefully making fun of people who dig through his detritus to benign neglect to being their patron saint.

It started, of course, with 1985’s Biograph, the career-saving retrospective Columbia released when Dylan’s stock was at its lowest. Biograph suggested Dylan had done far better work than he released during his long fallow period, and the best of his weak stuff was improved by being situated next to rare and unreleased material and “classic” Dylan.

A little after that came the flood, the Bootleg Series, of which an entry is now reliably released once a year, just in time for holiday shopping, 11 volumes so far. Along the way, we got some very high highs; the Basement Tapes as complete as they’ll ever be and sounding as good as possible;  by careful picking and choosing, Self Portrait was rescued; and most of all, for me, we got the great gift of Tell Tale Signs. which expanded on Dylan’s 1990s-early 2000s renaissance.

And like Biograph, the Bootleg albums have helped burnish the reputation of the new music Dylan continues to release. They say, implicitly, “It’s all one thing, one long career.” So if you’re skeptical about, say, Tempest, you may be a little more generous.

Like a lot of Dylan fans, I have dutifully bought each Bootleg release. In fact, I’ve bought every version of each release – yes, I own the one, two and three disc versions of TTS. But I think I’m about to get off this particular train.

The newest Bootleg release is The Cutting Edge. It drops November 6, and is an exhaustive examination of what Dylan did in the studio while making his three 1965-66 albums, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde. Basically, the new album is out-takes, rehearsals, alternate versions, unreleased songs. You get to hear how he got to the final version.

Obviously, these are some of the greatest Dylan albums – most people would say they are, along with Blood On The Tracks, the greatest Dylan and among the greatest albums of the 20th century, period. So if anything deserves detailed examination, these albums do.

Also, there’s a long tradition of artists charging more – often a lot more – for the handful of rich patrons who can afford to go deep on the artist’s work.

So I don’t dispute Dylan’s right to get what he can for The Cutting Edge. It will be available as a $20 two CD best-of, as have most of the Bootleg sets; and a pricey $150 six CD set with substantially more – much, much more – in the way of microscopic examination of how the songs evolved.

What catches my breath is the third option, a “collector’s edition” with every note recorded for the three albums, over 18 CDs, for $600. $600. That’s $600 for false starts, backing tracks, first thoughts, some unreleased songs, the entire archeology of Dylan in this most fevered period. Plus a CD of genuine, exquisite rarities, hotel room recordings from the same years – these are what everyone will want to hear, but unless I’m missing something, only the very well-heeled will get to.

As much as I’d like to afford it, I can’t. More to the point, I won’t. That’s even though I’m better off than most people are. It’s hard to say exactly where the line is – I’d spend $600 on a laptop, for instance – but I know this, for me, crosses it. $600 for 18 CDs, even 18 rare Dylan CDs, just feels morally off; at that price, it competes with other values – that’s car payment/utility bill/college loan money, with some left over for the local food bank or United Way.

And even though Dylan is well within his rights to do this, I wish he wouldn’t. I think he’s decided that the people who hang on his every scrap are there for the plucking, and I think I liked him better when he cared less about us rubes – or our money.


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