Mister Stick… On the keyboard… Mister Stick…
A few weeks ago here at Pop Survivor, we started yapping about the overwhelming amount of new releases in the typical record industry calendar. Specifically, we threw a little light on the high tide of massive box sets floating in this autumn, mostly those shelf-crushers that celebrate particular albums, as opposed to a full career. The point was that the overloaded schedule shows that record companies can not only afford to push barrels of new stuff, but also hours of also-rans with enclosed ‘collectible’ trinkets. Big-box reissues might be worthwhile (sometimes… maybe), but there are too many of them, selling for too much. All the while the labels still claim to be bleeding heavily, decrying ‘piracy’ (ask victims of Somalian attackers if that is the right word to use) and YouTube uploaders as loudly as those kids squatting on Wall Street right now are screaming about more tangible injustices.
Fans of reissues are wise to add two blogs to their bookmarks: The Second Disc and the aptly named arbiter-of-overkill, Super Deluxe Edition. Both of these sites, TSD in particular, seem to be tapped into the reissue scene on an almost moment-by-moment basis. A quick spin through either will give you all the dope (and nothing but the dope) on box sets arriving any minute now from U2, The Who, The Smiths, and so on, as well as nerd-level dossiers on simpler reissues and deluxes, like the upcoming compilation from Gorillaz, and something or another from Mumford and Sons. Second Disc dedicates far more time to revived soundtracks from long-forgotten Hollywood movies than anybody with any sort of romantic life should care about, but hey, what did you pay to get in, right?
In the mid-90s, many Dylan fans (Stick included) saw Bob slipping away from the marketplace entirely, particularly when he rather quietly released, back-to-back, two cover records of obscure folk and blues songs. Coincidentally, this was about the same time that people started using that ‘Americana’ term, which some of us still find little reason for. Many found it distressing that Dylan didn’t seem to be writing anymore. Others found it a relief, because if he wasn’t writing anymore, then he couldn’t deliver room-temperature-cheese throwaways like “Ugliest Girl In The World” anymore, neither.
Of course, in ’97, without much warning, Time Out Of Mind would arrive. With that, the sun rose on a whole new era for Dylan. The nearly 15 years since have established the word ‘Dylan’ as a juggernaut brand, with entries into the publishing, film, Christmas, and satellite radio markets, validated by a run of darn-good (Modern Times) to nearly-perfect (Love And Theft) albums of new material that put a satisfied look on the faces of Dylan freaks the world over, while assuring everyone else that Dylan was someone who cannot be counted out as a great record-maker until at least a few months after he dies… Something that seemed impossible to say 20 years ago (the record-making part, not the dying).
Keeping this period thick with releases has been a series of reissue projects unparalleled by any artist of the rock era (whatever that means). Dylan’s ‘Bootleg Series’ was launched in 1991 with a great box set of previously unofficially released winners labeled volumes 1 through 3. But without a follow up some 5 or 6 years later, most of us just figured that Bob couldn’t be bothered with scrounging up another batch. 1998 fixed our wagons, though, when Vol. 4: “Royal Albert Hall” appeared, and five volumes later, we’re still salivating for more. Sony managed to squeeze out a few other archival live releases in the last 10 years, too, and plenty of compilations, if that’s your thing. Yeah, they pushed their luck with the sucker-bait three-disc version of Vol. 8 – Tell Tale Signs, alright, but the ridiculous expense of that title aside, the bootleg series has been almost universally applauded, and in some cases (like volume 7, the soundtrack to No Direction Home) genuinely thrilling. Last year, Brand Bob really zeroed in on our wallets releasing both the giant Original Mono Recordings and the less-than-essential ninth ‘bootleg’, The Whitmark Demos, at the same time.
Looking back, it seems like there’s been at least one Dylan release every year for over a decade. But right now, when the Amazon robots are getting ready for overtime, Bob’s name isn’t on the shopping list. As far as the radar screen shows, no Dylan release is on the horizon right now from any of the aforementioned categories. That’s right: This Christmas will come and go without any new Dylan record for you to request from, or supply to, others afflicted with the costly disease of gift-giving. And, as much as I relish new Dylan releases, let me be the first to say “Thank you, Zimmy!” It’s clear to anybody with warm blood that there’s too much music to digest right now. Reissues are worthwhile if you can find new appreciation for the original record within them, or relieve yourself that you have finally heard a favorite with better sound. And, for the committed music junkie, there’s no sin in that indulgence as long as you can keep your lights on, and still manage to sift your way toward a great new release (I mentioned Wild Flag before, right? So why ain’t you got it, you hillbilly?).
But as Steven Wright said, you can’t have everything… Where would you put it? The markets are packed to the ceiling with stuff you don’t have room for. And if Dylan’s team demonstrated brilliant marketing acumen in the last decade, then they’re showing off their advanced degrees now by keeping Bob on the shelf this year. Oh sure, there’s his contribution to that new Hank Williams archaeology project or whatever it is, and the should-be-too-weird-but-ain’t-anymore inclusion of a leftover Dylan song on the new Hawaii Five-O soundtrack. But that stuff doesn’t even make it to placeholder status, let alone fanboy obsession. Certainly there’s not enough investment in those releases for the Dylan stratagem to worry about them getting crowded out this season.
The word is that, sometime, The Bootleg Series will continue, maybe with a box that collects everything related to Blonde On Blonde. Other hints say that we should look forward to a collection of his Supper Club performances from ’93, or an emphasis on DVDs. Most fans still seem to want the alternates of Blood On The Tracks to be officially released, and we’ve all been expecting the full truckload of The Basement Tapes for as long as I can remember. No doubt one of these fat mothers is coming up before too much more time goes by. But right now, while Bob’s team might have more valid back pages (pardon me for that one, really) to offer than most any other ‘market participant’, they’ve chosen to let the other guys duke it out for the holiday money, which, according to the news, nobody has anyway.
Not having to worry about saving up for a new Dylan release in a time when other stuff, good or bad, is falling like acid rain is the best early Christmas present that Bob could give us.
Over and out (of metaphors). For now.
Last Album: Captain Beefheart – Clear Spot