Bob Dylan. Bootleg Series Vol. 16: Springtime in New York. Columbia Records, 2021.
REVIEW BY Nicholas Birns, New York University
This review will largely refer to the two-disc standard version of The Bootleg Series, Vol. 16: Springtime in New York, but it will also reference three cover songs that appear on the deluxe five-disc version.
The years between 1980 and 1985 saw the emergence of what one might term the sustainable Bob Dylan, the Dylan who evolved the model of live performance that he would continue for the remainder of his career, the Dylan no longer part of a period style or even of the history of rock ’n’ roll, but someone continuously and dynamically building on his own oeuvre, “keeping on keepin’ on,” as he himself would put it. This period also marks the peak and end of his overtly Christian phase and the beginning of the cultural affect that would mark the rest of his career: almost but not quite post-Christian, post-hippie, post-radical, and articulated in a mode at once personal, magisterial, and abstract.
“Angelina,” the first song on the two-disk album, uses rhyme both in a bravura and in a provocative way. We marvel at “concertina” and “subpoena,” but “Argentina” creates far darker reverberations, considering the political repression there which, in the early 1980s, was at its height. The song combines prophecy (conjured by sundry Biblical tropes), love-lyrical stateliness, and intense yearning for the inaccessible beloved. What makes “Angelina” a great Dylan song is how it samples so many of his idioms and how one cannot quite know whether its mode is rapture, tribute, elegy, or rage. Had it been included on the original Shot of Love, it would have fundamentally changed the character of the album, having a less strictly religious tone.
The far more upbeat “Need A Woman” addresses some of the themes of yearning and discontent found in “Angelina.” Though searching for a love that “doesn’t have to be condemned,” the song is more optimistic about reaching that goal than “Angelina.” It also engages the listener much more in the search for community and understanding. “Let’s Keep It Between Us,” a song left off Shot of Love to the consternation of many, strikes a middle note between the fundamental introversion of “Angelina” and the honky-tonk community of “Need A Woman,” demonstrating Dylan’s ability to allow for upshifts and downshifts in the intensity of conviction and ferocity of address within the song. The fundamental irony—that of the speaker urging his beloved to keep their love between them, while in fact bringing it to the attention of a large audience—is inherent in the mode of lyric address. Though it has been speculated that the secret teased in the title references anything from interracial love to a Christian allegory, fundamentally it is a secret no less hidden for being, in its articulation, an open secret.
“Price of Love,” also left off Shot of Love, is another more upbeat song. That the price of love is going up might normally be a cause for lamentation, or at least annoyance, but the song finds a mode of rejoicing. “Don’t Ever Take Yourself Away,” another outtake, is more lyrically and musically intense. One of the joys of listening to this music sequentially as an album is the contrasting and complementary levels in which the singer either emotionally pours himself into the lyrics or jauntily and playfully steps back from them. The Caribbean, reggae-like inflection of “Don’t Ever Take Yourself Away,” and the lyrics’ combination of exhortation, warning, and plea, gives the song a relaxing lilt that yet requires a listener’s rigorous attention. “Fur Slippers” is another outtake and another love song, though focusing on a person not an object. “You can keep my girlfriend,” the song ends, but “bring back my fur slippers today.” The down-and-out, vernacular posture of this song is and would have been familiar to longtime aficionados of Dylan, leading into the explicit proletarian protest of “Yes Sir, No Sir.” This song, which could easily have been a Woody Guthrie or, in Dylan’s era, a Bruce Springsteen song, is a ruthless and searing denunciation of the exploitation of factory work; if it had originally appeared on Shot of Love, it would have sounded a strongly anti-authoritarian note. In general, the outtakes from Shot of Love would have ramified and even questioned the album’s identity as a declaratively Christian work. Similarly, “Lord Protect My Child,” an Infidels outtake in its heartfelt soulful invocation of prayer and apocalypse, would have been easily at home on any of the three evangelical albums.
With “Jokerman,” on the Infidels album, and “Blind Willie McTell,” an Infidels outtake, we move towards the mid-1980s and the post-Christian Dylan. “Blind Willie McTell” recounts the life of a Black musician from the Delta who is a renowned figure in the history of the blues. This tribute by one musician to another is an instance of Dylan sounding his adoptive musical roots but is also, in its own way, a cry against racial injustice in the idiom of “Hurricane” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” It is a song that makes the listener slow down and take stock, and that pulses with both empathy and lamentation.
“Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight” appears here in a grainier, less heavily orchestrated and produced version than on Infidels, and Dylan articulates the lyrics in a much blurrier way than on the album. Though less streamlined, the bootleg version sounds more levels of anguish and uncertainty as it traces the course of a relationship across the detritus of spiritual and pop-cultural upheaval.
I now want to depart from the track-by-track discussion of the songs on the two-disc version and go to three covers included on the five-disk version: “We Just Disagree,” “Sweet Caroline,” and “Abraham, Martin and John.” Without putting too much interpretive weight on the lyrics, the first two songs are very secular, even though their content can be allegorized as figuratively spiritual. “We Just Disagree,” originally recorded by Dave Mason in 1977, is a breakup song, perhaps one might say almost the Platonic form of breakup songs. As such it is totally about a relationship between two human beings, really nothing beyond that relationship, and its break-up. “Sweet Caroline,” originally recorded by Neil Diamond in 1969, on the other hand, is not just about a love that is mutual and successful but that involves a larger vision of human community. This is why it has become as much of a community song as a song to one woman possibly can. Even if one sees Dylan’s performance of the song as a tacit tribute to his relationship with Carolyn Dennis, a possible personal valentine in the mode of “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” the performance was a collective offering and involved its audience in an emotional conjuring of community. But “Sweet Caroline” conjures community in a very “this world” picture (especially as “Caroline” is not a Biblical name), and does not involve calling a people to a spiritual awareness beyond an earthly condition of empathy and affection. Both songs thus link Dylan not only to segments of musical pop culture that might have been thought too trivial or too commercial to be aligned with the kind of work we associate with him. But these songs provide a bridge between his born-again Christian work and his secular, or at least post- born-again work.
Only those alive and active at the time can appreciate what a gap there would have been between the audience associated with “We Just Disagree” and “Sweet Caroline,” and the audience for the music that had made Dylan famous. This gap is as wide as the one between the implied ideology of pre-Christian Dylan and the implied ideology of the three Christian albums. One can imagine, for instance, an eleven-year-old at the time liking pop songs of the day and a sixteen-year-old sibling, a Dylan aficionado, looking down snobbishly at the younger kid, only to find Dylan himself celebrating and even learning from that which many of his avowed fans wound disdain.
This has been our familiar trope in Dylan studies: ending up far cornier and middle of the road in affect and less stereotypically hip than categorizers would deem, the Dylan who (as depicted in Chronicles, Vol. 1) would rather go to the Rainbow Room to hear Frank Sinatra, Jr. than the Fillmore East to hear the Doors or the Who.
The larger problem here is one familiar to students of literary and cultural history, that differences between high and popular in a given period always tend to iron out with time if read from the vantage point of later history. It is hard for people in the twenty-first century to distinguish between court and religious painting from the Renaissance, or between learned and popular histories from the early Middle Ages. The period style envelops all. Dylan’s covers of the two popular songs actually acknowledge this and frame himself and cultural history in a way that others would wind up doing much later—that is, what Dylan was doing was going to eventually happen anyway.
A third cover, “Abraham, Martin, and John,” written by Dick Holler and recorded by several artists, including Dion and Smokey Robinson in the late 1960s, raises a different set of questions. The song is a tribute to three martyred American leaders, Abraham Lincoln, John. F. Kennedy, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Written just after King’s assassination, it recognizes his stature; even though King was the only one of the three martyrs who was never President, the song anticipates King’s own holiday and place as a central figure in American civil religion. Dylan’s cover puts him more directly within the context of “the long 60s” than do most of his songs after “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin’” and also looks forward to Dylan’s direct engagement with the martyrology of President Kennedy in 2020’s “Murder Most Foul.” The presence of the late Clydie King on the cover of “Abraham, Martin, and John” not only makes the song’s response to the tragedies of American history an interracial one, but makes a central point about Dylan’s engagement with Christianity as such. Given the influence of gospel idioms on the three Christian albums, and the presence of Regina McCrary and (Dylan’s eventual wife) Carolyn Dennis as backup singers, this period is not just one of engagement with Christian spirituality for Dylan, but of a crossing of racial boundaries.
Dylan’s born-again Christian phase tallies in a peculiar way with broader cultural history because it begins in 1979 and ends by 1983. If, for instance, it had begun in 1981, Dylan’s born-again Christianity would have been very directly linked with the election of Ronald Reagan, the rising power of the evangelical Christian right, and would have been understood as in more direct political alignment with these larger trends. That this phase developed in the era of the rise of Reaganism but in the end perhaps had a motion contrary to that rise makes it very different in terms of how we interpret Dylan’s evangelical period historically.
It is also pertinent that Dylan’s born-again Christian songs do not seem to have any continuing influence in the evangelical Christian community today, although I am not in a position to assess this comprehensively. It is always a struggle to remember that these three songs are in fact not on any of the three Christian albums but in fact on the post-Christian album Infidels. Thus Dylan may have gone through a born-again Christian period, and he may have written a song advocating or defending Israel. But he did not write a song advocating or defending Israel on a record in which he appeared to be an avowedly born-again Christian. This fact introduces at least a minimal level of discursive irony or anomaly in the situation. It alters the context in which we read the song. Equally, it has to be acknowledged that the song came out after Israel’s June 1982 invasion of Lebanon and, despite Israel’s post-1967 military occupation of Palestinian territories, it would have sounded very different had it been written just a year before that. It is clear that Dylan, for lack of a better phrase, alternates in the lyrics between direct advocacy, when the neighborhood bully, who plays by the rules, is outnumbered—and direct irony, when he is called a neighborhood bully even as the song itself does not agree. Obviously, the song criticizes the idea of Israel as a neighborhood bully. But both the discursive stance of the lyrics and Dylan’s own articulation of them—even more so on this album’s outtake than in the original cut on Infidels—are ambiguous. In the outtake, there is more spring in his singing of the lyrics, and they resound a little more ambivalently than authorial intention might have desired, particularly because the neighborhood bully is personified and given he/him pronouns. Whatever one might think of the politics of the song, Dylan’s vocal rendition of the lyrics’ ironic posture is compelling, and involves both the manifestation of emotion and also its restraint.
Rob Sean Wilson, in his book Be Always Converting, Be Always Converted, has understood Dylan’s poetics as one of conversion, but not as a determinate conversion to Christianity. Instead there is a continual self-reinvention, in which every turn has some spiritual potential, whether hidden or manifest. The first track on the second disk of the bootleg, “Foot of Pride,” exemplifies these quick, propulsive, and contrary motions and is replete with religious and apocalyptic imagery: days of wrath, days of judgment, lions tearing the flesh of people. That there “ain’t no coming back” when the foot of pride comes down would seem to make outcomes less alterable than both Wilson’s analysis and previous lyrics of Dylan’s, such as “the loser now / will be later to win,” would have it.
The most obvious way to interpret “when the foot of pride comes down ain’t no coming back” is that once pride is overthrown, it cannot come back in a merely cyclical or thermostatic way, that a pride rising too high will be thrown down irrevocably. Some of the song’s many case-study examples—which, like those of “Tangled Up in Blue,” seem at once many different stories and different avatars of only one story—are straightforward parables of humbled pride, such as the businessman named Red who, like Samson, is brought down by the luscious temptations of a Delilah.
The situation is complicated here by the fact that in “Too Late,” a song late on the first disc of the album, Dylan uses much of the imagery and even the exact language of “Foot of Pride,” there linking them not to a spiritual humbling but simply to lost opportunities, it being too late to bring these possibilities back. But the expression of these lyrics on “Foot of Pride” involves not simply a missed destiny or a humbled pride but a misappropriated faith. In the lines, “In these times of compassion when conformity is in fashion / Say one more stupid thing to me before the final nail is driven in,” “times of compassion” is clearly sardonic, as there is only so much compassion conformity will permit. In “They like to take all this money from sin / Build big universities to study in / Sing ‘Amazing Grace’ all the way to the Swiss banks,” it is not just the hypocrisy and the hidden greed of those who misappropriate faith that Dylan satirizes, but their sense of their own sublimity, their own perfection. This is what the foot of pride epitomizes, and also what makes the downfall so definitive: it is not just an outer fall, a coming down in the world, but an inner fall, a fall of belief into corruption. The song expresses at least as much of a conversion from Christianity, or a critique of the self-arrogated superiority of those who call themselves Christians, as a conversion to Christianity from a more worldly perspective. It reminds me, to at least some degree, of two of Robert Lowell’s deconversion poems, “Beyond the Alps” and “After the Surprising Conversions.”
The way Dylan enunciates the words in “Foot of Pride”—almost monotonal, lacking any prophetic urgency, but nonetheless ominous and insistent—is similar to the vocal style of “Jokerman,” which started off Infidels and, in a more jaunty way, is a critique of posturers and hypocrites. “Sweetheart Like You,” which follows “Jokerman” on Infidels and “Foot of Pride” on Springtime in New York, seems also to have applicability to these themes of social critique even though ostensibly it is a romantic lyric address to a woman. That the refrain quotes a cliché—“What’s a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this?”—makes the song, however, far less personal. I’ve even heard one theory that the figure addressed is the Virgin Mary. More personal is the subsequent “Someone’s Got a Hold on My Heart.” This latter song seems to address a personal involvement even though the lyrics, with mentions of Babylon and voices in the wilderness, take elements of prophetic critique present in Dylan’s songs of conversion—and deconversion. “I and I,” with its reggae Rastafarian influences, conjures an intimate association between self and God, a sense that the self might be God or be close to God, that is surely outside any traditional Christian anthropology, especially an evangelical one. Again, Dylan’s off-kilter enunciation does not totally commit him to any doctrine and makes the phrase “I and I” more a question about the inner and outer self than a wholesale identification of the self with God. “I and I” can also be read as a self-doubling, self-dissociation, or self-scrutiny; or conversely as a variation on Charles Taylor’s idea in Sources of the Self—namely that the personal “I” or identity can only be secured through the existence of a higher power. The presence in the lyrics of the Biblical “eye for an eye” also at once highlights the more peaceable nature of “I and I” and suggests its practical impossibility in a world where revenge and retaliation still reign. The version on Springtime in New York is described as an “alternate take” from the one on Infidels, and Dylan’s articulation of “I and I” in which the words are more slurred together indicates a tangled relation between selves and their different levels of magnitude and awareness, as opposed to the more mellow personal/spiritual quest of the “standard” Infidels version.
“Tell Me” is a straightforward love song, even one of courtship, though the lyrics’ ostensible position is that of a lover seeking reassurance he has not been abandoned by his beloved. “Enough Is Enough” is set away from any spiritual landscape and instead takes place in the joyous yet sinister old-timey honky-tonk world in which so many of Dylan’s lyrics find their residence. The backup singing by Dennis, Debra Boyd, and Queen Esther Marrow on “Tight Connection to My Heart” adds racial and gender diversity to what might not be Dylan’s most bravura song, but which is a pleasant and pace-changing listen. It begins the final group of songs, those which either were included in or were cut from 1985’s Empire Burlesque. On this album, the entire question of conversion or critique has faded and the internal evolution and quest for sustainability takes the foreground. “Seeing The Real You At last” is a title as ominous as it is tantalizing. The lyrics point to a reality somewhere in-between: the person’s “real you” is perceived as not evil, but is nevertheless not unambiguous. And there is a sense in which the singer himself is encountering his own “real you” and thus the subject of the song is as much self as other. As has been frequently noted, the lyrics from the Empire Burlesque period have a determined ambiguity and even literariness to them, something found even in the most heart-baring “Emotionally Yours.” This song, potentially a bit too sweet in tenor, is made rougher by Dylan’s weird pronunciation of “Emotionally” to rhyme with “Sally” (more so than is true on the album version), foregrounding the word in a more detached way as language as much as a state of feeling. “Emotionally Yours” is both a love song and a breakup song, and this is where the sweetness turns sour. The song is addressed to a woman who has broken up with the singer, but is also suggesting on one level they will always be together. This connection, though, will only be manifested as an enduring emotional attachment, not as a couple. The bootleg version sounds less plaintive and melancholy than that released on Empire Burlesque; the tenderness of the Empire Burlesque version is replaced by a more fine-grained sincerity. “Clean Cut Kid,” a song originally slated for Infidels but not used until Empire Burlesque, is a stark parable of social maladjustment, a tale of somebody who tries to play by the rules but finds that society forces him to break those same rules—which society hypocritically itself observes on the surface but not in fact. The Springtime In New York version of “Clean Cut Kid” is also described as an alternate take on the remixed version in Empire Burlesque, and one would say that while the album version was more a political editorial on the state of America, and specifically connected to the Vietnam War experience, the bootleg version is a more generally pertinent cultural diagnosis.
“New Danville Girl” follows this song about the ravaging of American masculinity with a portrait of a tortured masculine soul wandering around Texas seeking for the new Danville Girl as an inaccessible ideal. It is a song much more about loneliness than any possible connection, and the celebration of the woman’s beauty only serves to underscore the singer’s despair. The songs from the Empire Burlesque era delineate the way that, up until that album, Dylan was defining himself; from that album onward, he was probing further into a self he has in his songs already begun to know and understand.
The songs on Springtime in New York mark the transition of Bob Dylan from a rock star to a genre-transcending artist who has developed one of the most sustained and influential careers of our time. It takes him through conversion and critique in a complex dynamic in which neither term gains definitive mastery. More specifically, Springtime in New York spotlights the early 1980s as a pivotal period to examine in Dylan studies, and it foregrounds Dylan as an intriguing cultural actor in the early 1980s—an era whose meaning and legacy is still taking shape today.