Bob Dylan Bootleg Series: definitive photos, exquisite packaging

The Bob Dylan Bootleg Series is a superlative collection of music. Its studio and live recordings underline Dylan’s status as the benchmark musician of the rock age.

The Bob Dylan Bootleg Series also has definitive photos and exquisite packaging.  Beautifully designed slipcases, jewel case inserts and booklets turn all ten releases into cherishable artefacts.  The Bootleg Series is a visual feast.

Bob Dylan Bootleg Series volumes 1-3 Rare & Unreleased 1961-1991

Bob Dylan Bootleg Series volumes 1-3 Rare & Unreleased 1961-1991 is an astonishing collection of great music. On release in 1991, it was welcomed by most Dylan fans as the Holy Grail.  Many of its tracks were greeted as equals of those which had been released on the first thirty years of Dylan albums.

Bob Dylan Bootleg Series album covers

Bob Dylan Bootleg Series volumes 1-3

Michael Gray, the highly regarded Dylan commentator, waxed lyrical about it: “… 58 recordings, almost every one of which is of numinous excellence… could, of itself, establish Bob Dylan’s place as the pre-eminent songwriter and performer of the age and as one of the great artists of the 20th century.” (The Bob Dylan Encyclopaedia).

I’m with Gray: he wasn’t exaggerating.  For once, I can’t accept Greil Marcus‘s view: “A lot of it is dross… ” – Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010.

The artwork and packaging of volumes 1-3 are almost as impressive as its music. The 3CD set, originally released in an LP-sized box, has a front cover monochrome portrait by Don Hunstein which is one of the most recognisable, most intimate Dylan images ever released.

The long-form 72-page booklet is outstanding. A detailed track-by-track analysis by pioneering Dylanologist John Bauldie fills out a fabulous collection of photos by many of the big names who documented Dylan’s first thirty years of performing, including Joe Alper, Don Hunstein, John Cohen, and Ken Regan, as well as Howard Alk, Joel Bernstein, and some uncredited Columbia staff photographers.

Later versions of Bob Dylan Bootleg Series volumes 1-3 Rare & Unreleased 1961-1991 have different formats. As Alan Fraser shows in his commendably exhaustive Searching for a Gem  website documenting Dylan rarities, even the UK releases have at least three formats:

  • the original 1991 12″ x 12″ box, with 12″ x 6″ 72-page book and three CDs in separate jewel cases
  • a 1997 remastered version, housed in what became the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series standard format of CD-sized card slipcase with matching booklet, and
  • (least desirable from the perspective of this article) the 2010 version, housed in a 3CD jewel case, without a slipcase and with a shortened booklet, which has John Bauldie’s text, but only a single photograph.

Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Vol. 4 Live 1966: The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert

Bob Dylan’s performance captured on The Bootleg Series Vol. 4 Live 1966: The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert is one of the high points of rock music – rock’s ne plus ultra – It simply doesn’t get any better than this.  You could even argue that Vol. 4 is one of the high points of all music, sitting comfortably alongside the other high peaks of the musical canon like Bach’s B Minor Mass or Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew.

Bob Dylan Bootleg Series album covers

Bob Dylan Bootleg Series vol. 4

So the artwork and packaging had to be special.  It is.

Jerry Schatzberg‘s Dylan portrait on the slipcase front cover is appropriately ethereal – one of the defining images of the singer’s career.  And Schatzberg’s portrait is complemented by telling images by Don Hunstein, Barry Feinstein and several other, slightly less familiar, photographers.

The package design for Vol. 4 established the template for future releases in the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series: two CDs in a jewel case, plus a substantial booklet with expert text and a cornucopia of photographs, both housed in a striking CD-size card slipcase.

Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Vol. 5 Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Revue

The packaging artwork of Vol. 5 Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Revue is remarkable, even by the high standards of the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series. It’s the work of only two hands: liner notes are by Larry “Ratso” Sloman, and his text is as entertaining as you’d hope from the author of the wonderful On The Road with Bob Dylan. Uniquely in the series, all the marvellous photos are by a single photographer, Ken Regan.

Bob Dylan Bootleg Series vol. 5

Portrait by Ken Regan – Bob Dylan Bootleg Series vol. 5

Regan had a very photogenic subject – creative adults at play. He certainly made the most of his opportunity. Many of his shots are magnificent. The definitive close-up of Dylan in face paint and cowboy hat, cropped for use on the inside of the jewel case front insert, is among the best-liked of all Bob Dylan photos. It’s a breathtaking image.

Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Vol. 6 Live 1964: Concert at Philharmonic Hall

Vol. 6 Live 1964: Concert at Philharmonic Hall’s haunting slipcase cover photograph of a vulnerable, callow Dylan is the work of  Hank Parker. The bulk of the photographs in the package are by Daniel Kramer and Douglas Gilbert, with contributions by Barry Feinstein and Slinky Speiser.

Long-form liner notes, by Sean Wilentz, combine the passion and insights of a long-term fan with the analytical skills of a leading academic historian. Wilentz actually attended the Philharmonic Hall gig, aged 13! He is, of course, “Historian-in-Residence” of the official Dylan website, so is also privy to insider information. His text and the super photos make the Vol. 6 56-page booklet into a fine snapshot of early Dylan, an appropriate complement to the precocious music.

Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Vol. 7 No Direction Home: The Soundtrack

Like the revelatory Martin Scorsese film it accompanied, the artwork of the No Direction Home CD package is a telling document of crucial early-to-peak-period Bob Dylan.

The slipcase, like the DVD box, has Barry Feinstein’s shot of listless traveller Dylan in front of his car and film-maker Howard Alk, waiting for the Aust Ferry to take them across the River Severn to the next gig, in Cardiff.

The jewel case front cover has an intriguing variant of Daniel Kramer’s cryptic set-up used on the front cover of Bringing It All Back Home. The inside cover reproduces  Jerry Schatzberg’s era-defining Blonde on Blonde cover shoot.

Reinforcing the scope of the Scorsese project, the 60-page booklet’s front cover is an out-take by Don Hunstein from his Freewheelin’ shoot, Suze Rotolo on Dylan’s arm. The booklet is a near-perfect photographic sketch of Bob Dylan, from Hibbing High School to the 1966 European tour, including work by many of the key Dylan photographers of the era – Joe Alper, John Cohen, Barry Feinstein, David Gahr, Jerry Schatzberg, Daniel Kramer and John Launais, as well as the unnamed staffers of Sony Archives (including work recognisably by Don Hunstein).

The liner notes are a personal memoir of the period by sometime Rolling Stones manager Andrew Oldham and a track-by-track analysis by Dylan associate Eddie Gorodetsky. The highlight is the entertaining insider essay by the ever-reliable Al Kooper.

Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Vol. 8 Tell Tale Signs: Rare & Unreleased 1989-2006

Bob Dylan photos from the 1960s are very familiar – some readers will have been seeing them for over half a century!  But photos of the later Dylan – since his mid-1980s fall from grace (surely you remember albums like Knocked Out Loaded and Down In The Groove!) are less well-known.

Bob Dylan Bootleg Series album covers

Bob Dylan Bootleg Series vol. 8

The packaging of Tell Tale Signs fills a gap, with its definitive collection of late Dylan photos, not least the dignified William Caxton portrait of Bob as middle aged-going-on-old man on the slipcase front cover. This wonderful portrait says to me: “listen very carefully to this wise man… for he has many things to teach you.”

The 64-page booklet also has many highlights, not least the trio of shots by Ana Maria Valez, portraying Bob Dylan in top hat and coat on a publicity walk around London’s Camden Town.

Liner notes by Larry “Ratso” Sloman, both the essay and the track-by-track analysis, are entertaining bonuses in this key volume of the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series.

Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Vol. 9 The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964

The artwork of Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Vol. 9 The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 stands as an impressive photo album of Bob the folkie. Photographers John Cohen, Ted Russell, Don Hunstein, Daniel Kramer, Barry Feinstein and Douglas Gilbert make up a virtual Who’s Who of early Dylan chroniclers.

The most striking photo in the package is the 60-page booklet’s front cover shot of Dylan playing in a smokey folk club in The Pindar of Wakefield pub in Gray’s Inn Road, King’s Cross, London on 22 December 1962. It was his first visit to England, and the native folkies, who reportedly gave him a less-than-ecstatic welcome, seem slightly perplexed. Dylan seems hesitant but defiant. You can almost smell the beer and cigarette smoke. If the original photo hadn’t been cropped for Vol. 9, you might also detect the whiff of sweaty, smug purism rising from the self-regarding audience.

It was shot by Brian Shuel (“Schuel” in the Vol. 9 credits), a photographer who produced fine portraits of Shirley Collins, doyenne of the English folk revival, and contemporaries like Bert Jansch and Anne Briggs, as well as showbiz celebs. London’s National Portrait Gallery has over 50 of Shuel’s portraits.

The expert liner notes, by Colin Escott, explain the music, its derivation and commercial context.

Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Vol. 10 Another Self Portrait (1969-1971)

Bob Dylan Bootleg Series album covers

Bob Dylan Bootleg Series vol. 10

The striking slipcase front cover of Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Vol. 10 Another Self Portrait (1969-1971) is, appropriately, a recent self-portrait painted by Dylan.

His original self-portrait, on the cover of Self Portrait (1970), attracted derision, much like the music it introduced. The 2013 self-portrait, like the reworked music within, was received far more favourably. It’s a commendably painterly painting which will cement Bob Dylan’s reputation as an artist deserving serious attention.

Most of the photographs in the 56-page booklet are by folk singer/photographer John Cohen. Freezing Dylan in home surroundings, both in upstate New York and in the city, Cohen’s series captures the Zeitgeist. His masterful shots are complemented by some fine work by Elliott Landy.

Liner notes by Greil Marcus place both the 1970 and 2013 releases in their historical context. Michael Simmons’ notes are a more straightforward critique of the new collection.

Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Vol. 11 The Basement Tapes Raw

The Basement Tapes Raw booklet includes two early examples of (unrelated) Bob Dylan’s faux-naïf Woodstock-era paintings – the album cover for Music From Big Pink by The Band and the cover of Sing Out! magazine.

Nearly all the photographs are by Elliott Landy. His work is particularly evocative, especially the familiar shot used on the slipcase front cover, a portrait of country boy Dylan in white hat and matching shirt and the booklet’s striking shot from the same session which has Dylan leaning on a car, framed by the vibrant reds of maple trees in autumn.

The booklet also reproduces the inventive narrative cover shot used for the 1974 LP release by Reid Miles (best known as the creative force behind the famed covers of Blue Note jazz albums).

Bob Dylan Bootleg Series album covers

Bob Dylan Bootleg Series vol. 11

The 56-page booklet’s liner notes has an instructive context essay by writer/musician Sid Griffin, track-by-track notes by Ben Rollins and data on the technical production of the restored Basement Tapes by Jan Haust.

Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Vol. 12 The Best of the Cutting Edge 1965-1966

The music of the most recent release, Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Vol. 12 The Best of the Cutting Edge 1965-1966, is probably the most talked about since the release of volumes 1-3.

Understandably, as it documents in detail the creative process of peak Dylan. Hence, it illuminates one of the key periods in twentieth century culture.

The photography and packaging of Vol. 12 is appropriately impressive. My favourites photos include shots by Jerry Schatzberg, especially the slipcase front cover; work by Columbia staffer Don Hunstein, including the iconic photograph of Dylan at the piano, on the back cover of the jewel case; and lesser-known shots by French photographer Jean-Marie Périer.

The 60-page booklet’s liner notes include a long essay by renowned historian of contemporary USA Sean Wilentz, an insider muso’s view from the irrepressible Al Kooper, plus short pieces by Ben Rollins, Rowland Scherman and Angeline Butler.

Bob Dylan Bootleg Series: many versions

The albums described above are the original UK CD releases. Other territories and later re-releases have different artwork and packaging. The 2010 Europe re-releases, for example, present the great music in its entirety, often at a very low price, but their photos and packaging are inferior to the originals: they come without slipcases and include cut-down versions of the booklets, often without photos, making them less attractive to anyone buying the collection for its visual art.

And, starting with Vol. 8, Sony have also released enhanced versions of most new volumes, targeting hardcore fans and collectors with deep pockets. Thus Bootleg Series Vol. 8 Tell Tale Signs was issued as a Deluxe Edition, with an extended hardback book, plus a second hardback of the sleeves of Dylan vinyl singles (as well as a third CD). Vols 10, 11 and 12 were also released in Deluxe versions, with attractive additional packaging and artwork, as well as extra music.

Catering for the recent re-emergence of a significant market for vinyl, several of the Bootleg Series volumes are also available in boxed collections of LPs.

Bob Dylan Bootleg Series: overview

Reviewing The Cutting Edge, Bootleg Series vol. 12, in The Guardian newspaper, top writer Richard Williams praised the package’s “meticulous assembly and handsome design”.

You could say the same of every release in the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series: it’s outstanding visual art. While the different releases vary in musical value – vols 1-3 and 8 are the key releases, but even the weaker volumes, such as 6 and 9, are indispensable – the packaging and artwork of all the volumes is uniformly desirable.

The slipcases, jewel case inserts and especially the ten booklets, running to almost 600 pages, are key Bob Dylan collectables. Their rich array of photographs, insightful prose from a galaxy of expert writers, and level of technical detail could keep the Dylan nut happy for weeks.  Even in the unloved CD format, the Bootleg Series offers the tactile pleasures that many music lovers get from vinyl LPs.

Bob Dylan’s management, notably Producer Jeff Rosen – presumably the driving force behind The Bootleg Series since its inception – and record label Columbia/Legacy Recordings/Sony Music Entertainment‘s Steve Berkowitz, are diligent, often inspired, curators of the Dylan legacy; the Bootleg Series must be one of their finest achievements. It’s an exemplary blend of fine rock art and smart commerce.

If you haven’t explored The Bootleg Series recently, you might consider setting aside some quality time to dig into its photos and packaging while you listen to the peerless music.

Copyright: text © Gerald Smith, ROCK ART EDITIONS Ltd 2016; record artwork © Columbia/Legacy Recordings/Sony Music Entertainment 1991-2015. Unauthorised reproduction prohibited.

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