Back in 1991, Bob Dylan issued the first three volumes of The Bootleg Series in one fell swoop. The three-disc box set Rare & Unreleased 1961-1991 offered a feast of previously unheard gems. Who knew that nearly a quarter-century later, the series would still be going strong? The dozenth release is The Cutting Edge 1965-1966, offering unreleased material from the most celebrated string of album’s in Dylan’s career: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde On Blonde. There are three configurations of this treasure trove, the most basic being the one reviewed here: a two-disc set of the cream of the cop. This “best of” package will be fine for most casual fans, offering 36 cuts (all but two of them unreleased).
The more dedicated Dylan buffs (and those with larger music budgets) can chose between the expansive six-disc deluxe edition (which includes an ENTIRE 65-minute disc devoted solely to the recording of “Like a Rolling Stone”) and the downright exhaustive 18-disc “Collector’s Edition” (containing literally every single note recorded by Dylan during the ’65-’66 sessions; available exclusively on Dylan’s official site, it’ll run you $599.99). The “Collector’s Edition,” it should be noted, is strictly limited to 5,000 copies worldwide. The website’s listing definitively states: “These will be the only copies of the ‘Collector’s Edition’ ever manufactured.”
Highlights on the two-disc edition are plentiful. Many of the songs are featured here in drastically different arrangements, like an up-tempo rehearsal take of “Visions of Johanna.” Variations on lyrics abound as well, sure to fascinate Dylanites as they comb through the different wordings. Some arrangement anomalies are more subtle: there’s no distinctive siren whistle on the alternate take of “Highway 61 Revisited.” While most of these tracks aren’t likely to strike listeners as improvements on the released takes, that sort of thinking is beside the point. The Bootleg Series allows us to eavesdrop on Dylan’s creative process. The Cutting Edge is almost certainly the most “commercial” of the series, simply because so many of its tunes are instantly recognizable—at least by title, if not always by sound. The alternate take of “Just Like a Woman” jumps and kicks, with a snaky electric lead guitar that renders it miles away from the album master. The curtain is pulled back somewhat on Dylan’s process. We see that his approach was sometimes more like a jazz musician than a pop musician, freely experimenting with different arrangements—allowing his band to try different things as the tape rolled.
“Mr. Tambourine Man” (an incomplete take three, with band), sounds and feels entirely different with a shuffling drumbeat pushing it forward. While we don’t get the full disc-long exploration of “Like a Rolling Stone” as found on the deluxe edition, we are treated to two alternate versions: a short rehearsal (take 5) and a full-length alternate (take 11) that sounds closer to the famous version. A more relaxed “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” (take 13) lacks the urgency of the album take, while the first take of “Tombstone Blues” reveals that Dylan hadn’t settled on the phrasing of the verses (or the lyrics of the chorus) prior to recording. Kudos to the “best of” compilers for giving just over 13 minutes of disc one to “Desolation Row” (a two-minute piano demo and the spellbinding 11:15 first take).
If all this sounds tantalizing, and I can’t imagine how it couldn’t for anyone who holds Dylan’s mid-’60s classics near and dear, The Best of The Cutting Edge 1965–1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12 is a must-hear.