Dylan Jones is the author of The Biographical Dictionary of Popular Music, an incredible and opinionated collection of his thoughts on more than 350 of the most important artists around the world—alive and dead, big and small, at length and in brief.
Bob Dylan has always been a master of the perverse, and the man they call Alias has often paid scant regard to the treasures his obsessive fans hold dear. Live versions of his songs often bear no resemblance to the original recordings, largely because Dylan doesn’t regard the original recordings as gospel, just the way it all went down in the studio when he did them. However if Dylan has a particular idea of how a song should sound, he’ll bash away at it for years until he gets it right. Or simply leaves it to rot. This was the fate of one of his best songs, one he thought he would never finish.
The Bootleg Series Volume 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991 (Columbia) is a synopsis of a parallel Dylan career, a shadow career spanning thirty years and fifty-eight performances. “Blind Willie McTell” is generally regarded as the best song from this shadow career – and from this record – a piano-led performance that is now considered to be a classic, a landmark song of the decade, dark and deep and all-consuming. It was an outtake from the 1983 album Infidels, a country blues protest song, a song of the South, and the failure of humanity writ large (driven by a melody borrowed rather too easily from the blues standard, “St James Infirmary”). “The singer finds not evil in the world but that the world is evil,” wrote Greil Marcus. “The whole world is an auction block; all are bidders, all are for sale.” There is no redemption here, and while Dylan played McTell’s songs when he was young (McTell’s style was called a cross between Mississippi Delta blues and East Coast blues), like pretty much everything he did, this is masterpiece metaphor all the way.
From the window of a New Orleans hotel room, the narrator contemplates the history of slavery, and the murder among the magnolias. He sings of damaged, condemned lands, “All the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem,” traversing “appalling sights and sounds” (according to Sean Wilentz, author of Bob Dylan In America). And what does the singer know from these sights and travels? That “no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell,” the images conjured up by Dylan here have more resonance than usual. “The song is exquisitely concrete from start to finish,” said Paul Williams. “You can see, hear and smell everything – but it is also, and in a truer sense, the window of memory, of awareness, of feeling, where everything one has heard and seen in relation to one particular subject is suddenly conjured up in a moment of pure feeling, like Proust’s sweet cake epiphany.”
Mark Knopfler played guitar on Infidels, and when he lobbied too hard to have it included on the album after Dylan junked it (like many of the songs he left behind, he couldn’t realise what he had in his head), Dylan finished the record without him. The writer Larry Sloman recalls Dylan saying, “Aw Ratso, don’t get so excited. It’s just an album. I’ve made thirty of them.”