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Brad Morgan writesClean Cut Kid: An Appreciation of Bob Dylan’s Midlife Crisis

The Bootleg Series Vol. 16 Springtime in New York 1980–1985by Bradley Morgan

The times they had a-changed when Bob Dylan had entered the MTV era.

Approaching 40, the legendary singer-songwriter’s mark on music and popular culture was already defined and well-documented. Since his early days shuffling between coffee houses and nightclubs around Greenwich Village during the waning days of the American folk music revival during the early 1960s, Dylan had, in the words of his former lover Joan Baez, burst on the scene already a legend.

He very quickly gained prominence providing an integral voice during the Civil Rights movement before almost as swiftly tuning out and plugging in, shocking audiences with an electrically masterful run of generation-defining albums until rampant amphetamine use evaporated his thin, wild mercury sound and he sought peace through marriage and domesticity before losing it all and finding Jesus.

The chameleon-like Dylan had already lived several lifetimes during his two-decade long career so far, and the promise of economic grandiosity and technological innovation within Reagan’s America during the dawn of the 1980s would prove to be an interesting backdrop for the man previously dubbed the voice of his generation to find himself once again.

Documenting Dylan’s journey into this new phase of his life is The Bootleg Series Vol. 16: Springtime in New York 1980–1985, the latest release in the critically-acclaimed award-winning Bootleg Series, an ongoing compilation series documenting key periods in Dylan’s eclectic and varied career since the first three volumes’ release in 1991.

Springtime in New York chronicles Dylan’s experience and creative output during the years in which the music industry struggled to adapt with the impact new technological and digital recording trends had on the recording, distribution, and promotion of new music, including the advent of music videos and CDs.

With Dylan entering uncharted territory in how music was created and sold, his creative output reflected the stumbling lows and unexpected highs of relearning his craft in the digital age.

Springtime in New York presents an interesting and intimate look into an often misunderstood and maligned period of Dylan’s storied career specifically focusing on the recording and production of three albums: the rocking conclusion of Dylan’s trilogy of evangelical Christian albums Shot of Love; the personally and geopolitically introspective return to secularism with the island-infused Infidels; and the background singer-rich and synthesized stylings of Empire Burlesque.

All three distinctly unique in their style, but all three united by the common thread of an icon attempting to traverse a new musical landscape that had already moved on without him.

Released in multiple editions, including a five-disc package and a two-disc highlights set, Springtime in New York seeks to instill a new perspective into Dylan’s foray into popular music in the early 1980s and provide cultural context that showcases the singer’s constant musical evolution.

Including outtakes, alternate versions, rehearsals, and live performances, the curated track selections of Springtime in New York prove Dylan always sought to challenge himself creatively. While he could’ve rested on his laurels and attempt to recreate and relive past glories, Dylan’s stumbling to find his creative footing resulted in some truly great and memorable material. Not just for this set, but within the context of his overall career.

Springtime in New York highlights:

  • “Price of Love” (Shot of Love outtake): This track kicks off with a chug-a-lug Bo Diddley-esque rhythm with Dylan proving he can still rock the house accompanied with a gospel organ flair.
  • “Fur Slippers” (Shot of Love outtake): A jamming blues lament about love long lost, this track brings elements of Black southern gospel that honors the tradition without losing an essential energy.
  • “Blind Willie McTell” (Infidels outtake): While the outtake of this song from The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991 is the quintessential version and one of the great songs of Dylan’s catalog, this recording featuring a full band shine as a document to how varied the recording sessions during this period of Dylan’s career was.
  • “Too Late [Band version]” (Infidels outtake): An early version of a song that would eventually evolve into “Foot of Pride,” another outtake from the Infidels sessions, Dylan struggled with singing it and it became one of the most challenging songs Dylan ever recorded, according to Terry Gans’ book Surviving in a Ruthless World: Bob Dylan’s Voyage to Infidels. Though resulting in several false starts and incomplete takes, this is one of the few complete tracks to come from the sessions and is a fascinating document of the challenges Dylan creatively endured during this time.
  • “Foot of Pride” (Infidels outtake): While a version of this song had been released previously on 1991’s The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991, this track’s inclusion on Springtime in New York is essential in understanding that this period was not just merely Dylan phoning it in but rather representative of the effort he made to break new ground in a career constantly compared to his groundbreaking creative output during the mid-1960s. For Dylan to struggle with a song nearly two decades after his critical peak, “Foot of Pride” reveals the journey he was on to create a newly distinct personal style and identity.
  • "Someone's Got a Hold of My Heart” (Infidels outtake): An early version of what would eventually become "Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love)" from 1985’s Empire Burlesque, this track illustrates Dylan’s process for songwriting and his consistently working on ideas.
  • “Tell Me” (Infidels outtake): Dylan by way of Margaritaville, this track is a yearning of desperation for love that really illustrates the scope of ideas Dylan was pursuing with Mark Knopfler helming the production. While not as strong as the material that would ultimately make it on the studio version of Infidels, Dylan is testing the (Caribbean) waters and finding comfort in the sonic waves.
  • "Enough is Enough” (Live from Slane Castle, Ireland) – Though Dylan released a live album documenting this era with 1984’s Real Live, this set is surprisingly lite on live material and therefore is a missed opportunity to showcase how Dylan’s studio recordings translated to the stage during the age when video killed the radio star. There’s an infectious bluesy energy that is engaging and shows that Dylan is still a world-class entertainer twenty years plus into his career.

While Dylan’s creative output during the early 1980s does not achieve the same critical recognition as his early protest songs, electric albums, Rolling Thunder Revue, or even the late career renaissance since earning the Grammy for Album of the Year, the material on Springtime for New York is a wonderfully curated experience of an icon finding himself.

With a journey like Dylan’s, there’s going to be ups and downs. This set does a wonderful job proving spring flowers can grow through New York sidewalks.

 

Bradley's new book U2’s The Joshua Tree: Planting Roots in Mythic America is avalable for purchase this December 1st!

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