Thursday, November 23, 2023

Bob Dylan - New York Skyline


Bob Dylan - New York Skyline

(New Morning double-album re-imagining)


Side A:

  1. The Man in Me

  2. Winterlude

  3. Mary Anne

  4. One More Weekend

  5. Mr. Bojangles

Side B:

  1. Tomorrow is a Long Time

  2. Three Angels

  3. The Ballad of Ira Hayes

  4. If Dogs Run Free

Side C:

  1. New Morning

  2. Lily of The West

  3. Alligator Man

  4. I Went To See The Gypsy

  5. Sign On The Window

Side D:

  1. Time Passes Slowly

  2. Father of Night

  3. If Not For You

  4. Long Black Veil

  5. Spanish is The Living Tongue 

Happy Thanksgiving!  This re-imagining was voted by my top-tier Patreons to be the November 2023 release on Albums That Never Were, so here it is!  I call this New York Skyline, which is a double-album re-imagining of Bob Dylan’s 1970 classic album New Morning.  The first disc is a reconstruction of Al Kooper’s original cut of the New Morning album, as he envisioned it near the conclusion of the sessions; the second disc was constructed by myself, comprising the best of the rest of the material not featured on Al Kooper’s cut, assembled as the second half of a theoretical double album which compliments the first half.  

As the curtain closed on the 1960s, one of its founding fathers, Bob Dylan, attempted to close the curtain on his own legacy.  After reinventing his songwriting during his legendary Basement Tapes “sessions” throughout 1967, Dylan returned with a more concise and direct approach, abandoning the “thin, wild, mercury sound” for influences derived from The Great American Songbook.  This was immediately seen in 1968’s John Wesley Harding, which replaced his epic, surreal poetics for more concise Americana with a stately, sparse instrumentation.  1969’s Nashville Skyline took the progression even farther, embracing commercial Country and Western music, recorded in said city and featuring a new “Dylan voice” that seemed to be reminiscent of the classic crooners of a bygone era, if not Kermit The Frog.  

But the real trip began with the release of Self Portrait in June, 1970.  A double album that contained a seemingly random mix of more Nashville standards, classic Americana traditionals embellished by studio musicians, confusingly scant originals like “Wigwam” or “All The Tired Horses” and live recordings with The Band from their 1969 Isle of Wight performance.  Divisive to this day, with Rolling Stone’s Greil Marcus famously prefacing his review of the album with “What is this shit?”, Dylan seemed to be intentionally dismantling the legend he had built for himself throughout the 1960s, either out of frustration, boredom, or even his own amusement.  While this is a fair assessment, it also misses a key nuance: New Morning.

In the spring of 1970, Dylan was drafted to compose the music for a new Archibold MacLeish play called Scratch, based upon Stephen Vincent Benet’s short story The Devil and Daniel Webster.  Although Dylan eventually bowed out of the production due to creative differences with the producers, he had salvaged three new key compositions that created the momentum for a new album: “New Morning”, “Father of Night” and “Time Passes Slowly”.  

Dylan returned to the studio a month before the release of the intentionally divisive Self Portrait,  demoing material for an album to harbor the Scratch leftovers.  Armed with Nashville veterans Russ Kunkle on drums, Charlie Daniels on bass, Al Kooper on keyboards, and an old-pal guitarist named George Harrison, Dylan breezed through a few of his new compositions, including  “Sign On The Window”, “Time Passes Slowly”, “I Went To See The Gypsy”, and a song he had co-written with Harrison, “If Not For You.”  The session also included a jam of a number of 50s Rock n Roll standards and Bob Dylan classics, to varying degrees of success.  

A literal week before the release of Self Portrait, Dylan began the sessions proper, assembling a backing band with Kooper, Daniels and Krunkle, and the addition of Dave Bromberg on guitar and a set of female backing vocalists.  A tad looser than the previous year’s Nashville Skyline sessions, the vibe was distinct from Dylan’s previous work and continued the laid back, yet nuanced instrumentation from the final Self Portrait sessions.  Featured heavily are a trio of female backing vocalists, a sound that would re-emerge later in Dylan’s career.  Dylan’s voice had a more natural and less forced inflection, sounding both road-weary yet optimistic–a surviving pop-philosopher of the turbulent decade that had just concluded.  Although he was still in his “Nashville-era”, these recordings seemed to be decidedly “New York”.  Although intending to record his new originals, he put just as much work into even more Country covers and American standards.  Knowing this, these sessions–which would form the basis of his 1970 album New Morning–were more a direct continuation of Self Portrait, rather than a reevaluation.  

The first day of the week’s recording yielded the traditional songs “Mary Anne” and “Sarah Jane”, Jimmy Newman’s “Alligator Man” and Peter la Farge’s “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”.  The second day of recording yielded Dylan’s own “If Not For You” and “Time Passes Slowly”, a cover of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” and the traditional “Spanish is the Living Tongue”, a song Dylan seemed to have a vast affinity for.   Day three saw the recording of Dylan’s own “One More Weekend”, as well as the traditionals “Jamaica Goodbye” and “Lily of The West”, the classic Elvis Presely ballad “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You” and Lefty Frizell’s “Long Black Veil.”  Day four of recording saw Dylan’s own “Three Angels”, “Tomorrow is a Long Time” and “New Morning”, as well as Ledbelly’s “Bring Me A Little Water, Sylvie” and Joni Mitchel’s “Big Yellow Taxi.”  The fifth and final marathon recording session yielded a number of masters: Dylan originals “If Dogs Run Free”, “I Went To See The Gypsy”, “Sign On The Window”, “Winterlude”, “The Man In Me” and “Father Of Night”, as well as Elvis Presley’s “I Forgot To Remember To Forget” and a new, sparser version of “Lily of The West.”  

With approximately 25 finished songs recorded over five days, New Morning Was basically a wrap three days before Self Portrait was even released.  At this time, Dylan’s current musical compatriot Al Kooper assembled a rough acetate of how he envisioned the album, which included: “The Man In Me”, “Winterlude”, “Mary Anne”, “One More Weekend”, “Mr Bojangles”, “Tomorrow is a Long Time”, “Three Angels”, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” and “If Dogs Run Free.”  

After experiencing (or relishing?) the blow-back from Self Portrait, it was decided that New Morning still needed more work and producer Bob Johnson oversaw a pair of sweetening sessions in July which saw horn overdubs on “New Morning”, string overdubs on “Sign On The Window” and Bluegrass instrumentation to “If Not For You.”  One final recording session in August with a hastily-assembled band of Dylan, Kooper, Harvey Brooks and Buzzy Feiten yielded new versions of “If Not For You” and “Time Passes Slowly”, as well as a newly-written original concerning Dylan’s honorary Princeton doctorate “Day of The Locusts.”  Refining the tracklist to include only the twelve Dylan originals, New Morning was released in October, and fans were assured that Dylan hadn’t “lost it”--even if New Morning wasn’t anything near the intimacy of John Wesley Harding or the power of Blonde On Blonde.  Seven of the covers from the New Morning sessions appeared in the slightly-unauthorized 1973 album Dylan (which was also marketed as A Fool Such As I), and the remandiner stayed in the vault until Dylan’s recent Bootleg Series and COpyright Extension collections.  Has the sun set on this new morning, or is it time for a reappraisal?  

This re-imagination attempts to offer a reassessment of this “lesser” Dylan album that holds a very specific place in my heart; although not his best work of the period, the sound was unique and its vibe is very comfy–not to mention harnessing my favorite “Dylan voice” which he would not precisely repeat.  I offer this revised, double album New Morning to counter the narrative that the album was meant to silence the critics that hated Self Portrait, and suggest it as a literal continuation, for better or for worse.  The first disc is a reconstruction of Al Kooper’s master of the album, with a second disc assembled from the remaining sessions, to complement Kooper’s master.  We are also presuming the album was completely finished in July, and thus the August 1970 session was not needed.  

Reconstructing Al Kooper’s master, Side A opens with Jeffery Lebowski’s theme, “The Man In Me”, followed by “Winterlude”, both from New Morning.  This is followed by “Mary Anne” taken from Dylan (A Fool Such As I), EQd to match the rest of this reconstruction.  Next is “One More Weekend”, again from New Morning, and the side concluding with “Mr Bojangles”, again re-EQd from Dylan.  Side B opens with “Tomorrow Is A Long Time”, sourced from a 2007 leak of the pre-mastered reels, the best source for the song.  This is followed by “Three Angels” from New Morning and “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” re-EQd from Dylan.  Disc one ends with the far superior version of “If Dogs Run Free”, taken from The Bootleg Series Volume 10, which suggests angelic longing rather than crappy scatty jazz-pop.  Bob, what were you even thinking?  

With a ton of material leftover from Kooper’s cut, my goal was to make a second disc that matches and compliments his selections (much like my reconstruction of Hendrix’s First Rays of The New Rising Sun); it is not intended to be a complete retrospective of these sessions.  Side C opens with the brass overdubbed version of “New Morning” from The Bootleg Series Volume 10, followed by the more atmospheric, alternate take of “Lily of The West” from The 50th Anniversary Collection.  Although one could consider it a blemish, here in the tracklist “Alligator Man” becomes a good-time uplift, also taken from The 50th Anniversary Collection.  My personal favorite take 1 of “Went To See The Gypsy” from the June 5th session follows, also from The 50th Anniversary Collection.  Closing the side is the orchestral version of “Sign on The Window” from The Bootleg Series Volume 10.

Side D opens with one of the best recordings of these sessions, which was so surprisingly ignored by Dylan: the hard rock version of “Time Passes Slowly” from The Bootleg Series Volume 10.  Here a deep-cut rather than an album closer, “Father of Night” from New Morning is next.  Mid-side we have “If Not For You”, but I am using what take I felt fit the best in this context: take 2 from the June 2nd session, taken from the 50th Anniversary Collection.  “Long Black Veil”, also from the 50th Anniversary collection, follows, and the album closes with a serene end of “Spanish is The Living Tongue”, also taken from the 2007 premaster leak.  

Sources used:

The 50th Anniversary Collection: 1970 (2020 CD release)

A Few Files From a Data DVD Disc (bootleg, 2007)

The Bootleg Series Volume 10 (2013 CD release)

Dylan (A Fool Such As I) (2013 CD Remaster)

New Morning (2009 CD remaster)