Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Mrs Rochester in Bob Dylan's Attic

In days gone by, it was common for the mad or retarded (a non-PC word these days) to be hidden away in shame, out of sight of the world.  In the recent BBC series Upstairs Downstairs, the main protagonist Sir Hallam Holland discovers that his Down's Syndrome sister Pamela is not dead, as he's been led to believe, but has been secretly shut away in an asylum.  And of course there is the famous case in Jane Eyre of the mad Mrs Rochester, detested by her husband and locked up under guard in his attic.

The Dylan album from 1973 (called A Fool Such As I in some releases) has always seemed like the Mrs Rochester in Bob Dylan's attic.  Compiled without input from Bob after he left Columbia for Asylum (!) Records (only to return later with full artistic control), it is the only one of his studio albums not currently available on CD, though it was briefly released in that format in Holland many years ago.  Nor is it available on iTunes, I believe, though it made a brief appearance there as part of a larger Dylan collection.  In fact it was until recently only available on cassette (probably clearing old stocks), though Amazon UK now sells a nicely packaged but overpriced CD version of dubious legality [click on the picture for details] which also includes bonus tracks from the Bob Dylan/Johnny Cash sessions (surely a candidate for a future Bootleg Series release).  Indeed, so neglected is the album that Columbia even reused its title for a later hits collection in 2007.

Yet just as Hallam Holland brings his sister back into the family circle, and Jean Rhys gives Bertha Mason (Mrs Rochester) a voice of her own in her novel Wide Sargasso Sea, perhaps now is the perfect time to bring this abandoned child out of the attic and take another look at it.  After all, we are currently in the middle of a media blitz for the forthcoming Bootleg Series number 10, Another Self Portrait.  This consists largely of out-takes from the Self Portrait and New Morning sessions - the exact same sources as Dylan.  The simple fact is, while it is far from Dylan at his best, it has (like Self Portrait, which is now undergoing critical reappraisal) never been as bad as its reputation.  Take it for what it is - Dylan running casually through some old folk songs and a few contemporary songs he likes by other writers - and it becomes a pleasant if unremarkable footnote to his more celebrated albums.

Now there are rumours - via an apparently premature story later withdrawn - of a career-spanning box set of all Dylan's albums (some newly remastered) plus a double CD of other previously released material, much of it currently unavailable.  Details are sketchy at this stage - it is not even certain it will appear at all - but if so, it will be interesting to see whether Dylan gets included as part of the official canon, and if so, whether it will finally get a standalone CD reissue as well.  I hope the rarities set comes out separately, because I have all Bob's albums already - some in multiple editions including the Original Mono Recordings box set - so it would take a lot to make me fork out US$300, the rumoured price, to get them all again.  As with many things Dylan, however, everything at the moment is mixed-up confusion, all tangled up in blue.

Disclaimer - I get a small commission from Amazon UK if you buy the CD through the picture link here.


Spike said...

You might want to know that the Dylan album cover picture only appears in your RSS feed and not on the web site for some reason. In the RSS feed, the link is just to a larger version of the image.

I spent part of this evening trying to listen to the first two discs of Another Self Portrait, the two discs with all of the unreleased stuff. Mostly very painful and something I'm unlikely to repeat.

Private Beach said...

Thanks - I have no idea why the picture doesn't appear. I've just started using Amazon Associates links and I'm not familiar with them yet - I'll have to investigate. As for the CD, I've only heard excerpts so far so I won't comment yet.