Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Bob Dylan - Medicine Sunday

Bob Dylan – Medicine Sunday

(soniclovenoize reconstruction)

Side A:
1.  Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?
2.  I Wanna Be Your Lover
3.  Freeze Out
4.  One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)
5.  New York Instrumental #1

Side B:
6.  Positively 4th Street
7.  Brand New Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
8.  I’ll Keep It With Mine
9.  She’s Your Lover Now

This is a reconstruction of a theoretical album consisting of the early sessions for Bob Dylan’s seminal 1966 album Blonde On Blonde.   Abandoning most of these New York-based recording sessions with The Band in favor of rerecording with session musicians in Nashville, these early sessions represent a different sound that would emerge on Blonde On Blonde -- looser but more energetic, closer to a studio capture of Bob Dylan’s live sound in 1965 and 1966.   Using the best sources possible, most tracks feature unique edits and mixes I have created to offer a more finished album with a modern stereophonic soundstage. 

After his ascension from folk hero to rock star with his groundbreaking “Like a Rolling Stone” and its accompanying album Highway 61 Revisited, Bob Dylan buckled down and rode the wave, intending to continue pushing the boundaries of rock music with symbolic, obtuse and intertextual lyrics, juxtaposed with a driving rock rhythm section and the twin chime of electric guitar and Hammond organ.  For that, he would need a band.  His ad hoc assemblage of players for his infamously electric July 1965 Newport Folk Festival performance, including Al Kooper and members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, were not available to continue.  After recommendations from a few associates, Dylan recruited a group of Canadian rockers--Levon and The Hawks--to back him for the national concerts in support of Highway 61 Revisited, who would later rebrand themselves as The Band. 

Meanwhile, Dylan’s management and label continued to feed the machine and keep this new “electric Dylan” product flowing.  Just two months after the release of “Like a Rolling Stone”, “Positively 4th Street” was released as its follow-up single in September 1965.  Despite being simply an outtake from the Highway 61 Revisited sessions from July, the song was a Top 10 hit and is considered one of Dylan’s most cherished tracks.  With fear of losing momentum, Dylan was whisked back into the studio to pump out his next single.  This time Dylan brought with him The Hawks, attempting to capture the electricity from his current live shows.

Unfortunately, Dylan had blown through all of his good material.  Bob and his band gathered on October 5th to woodshed new material at Columbia Studios in New York, but with dismal results: two song fragments, “Jet Pilot” and “Medicine Sunday” (the later evolving into “Temporary Like Achilles”); a merely semi-interesting Robby Robertson-led instrumental; and a scant jam of another Highway 61 Revisited leftover “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?”.  The only cut of real value tracked on this day was “I Wanna Be Your Lover”, an electrifying and rollicking tribute (or parody?) of the Fab Four, who allegedly influenced Dylan to form a backing band in the first place.  Sometime after the session, drummer Levon Helm left The Hawks, fed up with being a sidesman, as well as the confrontational audiences on Dylan’s tour.

Returning to the studio on November 30th with session drummer Bobby Gregg (whom had already backed Dylan on both Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited) and a brand new composition he believed to be one of his best, Dylan was revitalized to create a follow-up single.  Dylan had a special feeling about his latest epic poem “Freeze Out”—later retitled to “Visions of Johanna”—and special care was given to find the perfect arrangement.  Dylan struggled to find the right sound for the song with The Hawks, and the group plowed through a number of completely different arrangements: Take 4 was a slow, uncertain romp that began quietly with just Dylan on electric guitar, adding instruments as the song built to a rocking end; Take 5 was a more organized version of the previous take, but lacked the suspense, danger and dynamic; Take 7 slowed the tempo but succumbed to typical bar rock trope; Take 8 was an icy, electric march with bursts of celeste; Take 14 was slowed down to ballad territory, the closest to its finial incarnation on Blonde On Blonde.  Despite having several great takes—all sounding completely different (especially 4, 8 and 14)—Dylan was not satisfied with “Freeze Out” and set it aside… temporarily.  Instead, the band focused on a new uptempo arrangement of “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?”, nailing Take 10, which was rush released as a single in December.  It was a flop, stalling at #58 on the charts.

Refocusing his attention from a single to an album, Dylan reconvened with The Hawks (this time with fill-in drummer Sandy Konikoff) on January 21st, 1966, armed with new material intended to populate this follow-up LP.  Beginning with another heartbreak-themed long-form poem, Dylan searched for the thin, wild mercury sound to accompany it.  “Just Another Glass Of Water”—later published as “She’s Your Lover Now”—could have been one of Dylan’s masterpieces on Blonde On Blonde, on par with “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”.  But Dylan could not find the sound he was looking for, struggling not only to communicate his ideas but for The Hawks to interpret him.  Take 15 came very close, before breaking down halfway through the fourth verse.  Exasperated, Dylan called off the session, the song lost forever.  Before leaving the studio, Dylan recorded a demo of the complete 8-minute composition alone at a piano, at the very least immortalizing his idea before it was abandoned forever. 

The next session on January 21st was more productive.  With Bobby Gregg back behind the kit, the group hammered out another new Dylan composition, this time a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the Memphis Blues.  Nailed in presumably one take, “Brand New Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” seemed to fit The Hawks as this steady yet bombastic recording tops the eventual Nashville version released on Blonde on Blonde, in this listener’s humble opinion.  Moving on to a dynamic breakup ballad driven by Paul Griffin’s exquisite piano, “One Of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” was eventually perfected by Take 24.  Again rush-released as a single in February, the song did moderately well, charting at #33. 

It was now obvious that the fruits of these New York sessions with the Hawks were few and far between and Dylan grew weary of only stumbling across the right arrangements.  An additional session on January 27th proved mostly uneventful, resulting in yet another song fragment, “Lunatic Princess”.   Despite the previous week’s results, a remake of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” was attempted as well, but Dylan was not even bothered to see it through completion.  Finally, Dylan takes his band through a mere rehearsal of a magnificent song dating back to the initial acoustic Bringing It All Back Home sessions almost exactly a year earlier.  “I’ll Keep It With Mine” is loose, beginning with Dylan solo at a piano, with The Hawks individually coming in as they figured out the changes.  With only this single run-through, Dylan was done with the band—and this city—for recording his follow-up. 

At producer Bob Johnston’s suggestion, Dylan relocated to Nashville in February and March to finish the album that was barely begun, only bringing Robby Robertson and Al Kooper along.  Re-recording both “Visions of Johanna” and “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”—as well as a sudden wealth of brand new compositions—Dylan completed Blonde On Blonde.  Released to universal acclaim as Dylan’s masterpiece, the only New York recording to make the cut was “One Of Us Must Know”, a tombstone to the album Blonde On Blonde could have been under different conditions.  Is it possible to reconstruct what a New York Blonde On Blonde would have sounded like?

For this reconstruction—which I have named Medicine Sunday, after the song fragment which isn’t actually featured here—we will try to create a single-LP follow-up to Highway 61 Revisited from these late ‘65/early ’66 sessions.  Since the sessions were obviously never completed, it will be difficult to make a complete-sounding album.  The only rule we will implement is to include material with some sort of precedent on other Dylan albums.  Hence, all of the one-minute  song fragments (“Jet Pilot”, “Medicine Sunday” and “Lunatic Princess”) will be excluded, as not only is there no precedent, but their inclusion would make Medicine Sunday sound less complete.  With a lack of finished material, we will have to look at two filler-tracks: the untitled instrumental (here I appropriately titled “New York Instrumental #1”) and “Positively 4th Street”.  While it is true Dylan is known for his distinctive voice and lyric, Dylan would go on to release instrumentals on both Nashville Skyline and Self Portrait.  Just as well, “Positively 4th Street”, while not a part of the New York sessions proper, was the current single at the time.  It is conceivable the label might have included it on the LP anyways as a cash cow, as previous singles like “Like a Rolling Stone” was included on Highway 61 Revisited and “One of Us Must Know” was included on Blonde On Blonde. 

Side A begins with the lead single from these sessions, “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?”.  Using the complete semi-stereo version found on The Bootleg Series Vol 12: The Cutting Edge, here I have widened the stereo spectrum to further separate the instruments to an ideal nine and three o’clock.  It is followed by “I Wanna Be Your Lover”, again taken from The Cutting Edge with the stereo spectrum widened.  Take 8 of “Visions of Johanna” (here we use its original working title “Freeze Out”) from The Bootleg Series Vol 8: No Direction Home follows, a version that tops the Blonde On Blonde recording in my humble opinion.  Next is my own personal remix of “One of Us Must Know” from the multitrack stems, as provided on The Cutting Edge.  My mix attempts to replicate the balance of the original mono mix, while retaining a modern stereophonic image with a centered drum track.  Likewise, I have replicated the edit before the third verse, only ever heard on the rare mono single mix; thus, this is the first time that original edit has ever appeared in stereo!  Side B concludes with “New York Instrumental #1” as a sort of intermission, again taken from The Cutting Edge with a widened stereophonic spectrum.

Much like many album from the 60s, Side B begins with the previously-released single “Positively 4th Street”, the original stereo mix taken from Side Tracks but with its stereo spectrum narrowed to match the rest of the album.  Next is “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”, taken from No Direction Home, a personal favorite as aforementioned.  Next is “I’ll Keep It With Mine”, taken from The Cutting Edge; in order to make this recording more complete, I have edited out Dylan’s vocal flub in the intro, as well as extracted and patched Bob Johnston’s talk-back interruption during verse one.  Despite being a mere rehearsal and probably meant to have a more thorough and defined arrangement, this recording works as a loose arrangement precursor, as we would soon hear similarly-relaxed Dylan arrangements on The Basement Tapes and New Morning.  Medicine Sunday appropriately concludes with the epic that never was, “She’s Your Lover Now”.  Using pieces of Takes 15 and 16 on The Cutting Edge, I was able to create a complete performance of the song by editing a proper intro onto take 15 and crossfading into take 16 at the point where the band trails off, hopefully giving the illusion that The Hawks intentionally stopped playing and Dylan finished the song solo.  A further edit was made at the outro so that Dylan concludes with the tonic of the song, giving it a resolve and a remorseful vocal improvisation to end the album.  

Sources used:
Bootleg Series Vol 8: No Direction Home (2005)
Bootleg Series Vol 12: The Cutting Edge (2015 Collector’s Edition)
Side Tracks (2013)

Flac --> wav --> mixing & editing in SONAR Pro & Goldwave --> flac encoding via TLH lv8
*md5, artwork and tracknotes included