10/08/2008 02:01 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bob Dylan's new 'Bootleg' CDs: More Range Than a Prius

Someday Bob Dylan's going to die -- probably in a hotel room in a two-bit city, after playing his 300th concert of the year on his endless "I don't wanna go home" tour -- and then everybody will suddenly realize he was America's Picasso. (Or is it Shakespeare?)

For days afterward, we'll be subjected to the Great Man for Dummies lecture. Dylan, the protest singer. Dylan goes electric. Dylan the cryptic recluse. The born-again Christian. And then the astonishing mid-life -- well, for a musician, late-life -- revival.

Somewhere in there will be a mention of the Bootleg recordings, as if they're footnotes to the real records. You know: outtakes. Which got released only because this guy inspired reverence and his devotees couldn't get enough.


Tell Tale Signs: the Bootleg Series Vol. 8 is some of the best Dylan I have ever heard. And there's a lot of it: 27 songs, weighing in at around 135 minutes. As I write, is selling the two-CD set for $13.99, which makes this beyond a bargain.

The songs were recorded between 1989 and 2006. It's a fascinating period -- in these years, Dylan streamlined his music, rediscovered his love of the blues, and made CDs that are shockingly accessible. And he was prolific; music poured out of him, he couldn't keep away from it. Although his voice is a disaster now -- my wife and I worship at his shrine, but we don't feel we ever need to see him in concert again -- between 1989 and 2006 he still had it. The result: CDs that shine.

This may not be apparent to you the first few times you hear it. What you hear may make you think this is a white man imitating a Southern blues master, with an occasional break for stripped-down rock and a bit of folk. True, but nothing here is an imitation -- Dylan dearly loves American roots music, and he's taken it into his DNA.

Just look at his picture on the cover of the unusually helpful booklet that accompanies these CDs. White jacket, black collar. White shirt, black Kentucky Colonel tie. His face is a portrait of bright lights and late nights and beds that are not his own. His hair is an uncombed mass of ringlets. He has a circus master's mustache. All he needs is a cape and a cane.

If these visual cues fairly scream 19th century, you've got your first clue. Dylan's up on what's happening now -- some phrasing suggests he's gone to school on rap -- but he's really working a more ancient vein. That's another reason you'll have trouble really hearing the brilliance; the surface is so familiar you don't think to look for depth.

There's a junior Dylanologist in our family, and he's been listening harder and longer to some of these songs than I have. In an excited e-mail, he wrote me: "His lyrics are so rhythmic. He'll have a simple walking baseline and then do all the syncopation with verse. And he'll repeat the same line over and over again. But it's not repetitive, because he changes the meter of the phrase subtly each time."

Okay, so the junior Dylanologist knows far too much. But he got that knowledge because repeated listening to Dylan is so rewarding.

These two CDs? Very rewarding. The music has more range than a Prius. You can play it as pleasant background -- music to cook by. It's fun in the car. And at the deepest levels, I think, Dylan offers us an alternate vision of America, the whole man-woman thing and even Life itself.

I remember how, after Andy Warhol died, Julian Schnabel was asked to name some exciting new artists. "Andy," he said sadly. Thinking about exciting new musicians, I'd say: Bob Dylan, born in 1941.

Don't wait until he's gone to find out.

[cross-posted from]