Monday, February 22, 1999

Remote Control

"It will lead you into some strange pursuits, lead you to the land of forbidden fruits. It will scramble up your head and drag your brain about. Sometimes you gotta do like Elvis did and shoot the damn thing out."

In 1990, Columbia opened up its vaults and released 58 previously unreleased or alternate takes of Bob Dylan songs. Because Dylan is the most widely bootlegged artist in history the set was appropriately named The Bootleg Series. What was stunning about the set was that if these 58 songs were the only Dylan songs ever heard, an argument could still be made that he would deserve our respect as one of the finest songwriters and performers ever. Songs like Blind Willie McTell, Mama You've Been on My Mind, Foot of Pride, and Series of Dreams, are among Dylan's greatest songs, and thus some of rock's all time greats.

For Dylan collectors the boxset was appreciated but there was also a sense of disappointment knowing all that wasn't included. Soon after, some entrepreneurial fans compiled an entirely different collection of songs and called it The Genuine Bootleg Series. Again, what's startling is the quality of material Dylan has determined wasn't good enough for official release. Songs like Trouble In Mind (one of the most effective songs from his Born Again phase), and Hero Blues, are vital pieces to the Dylan catalog.

A second set of alternative and unreleased songs was "unofficially" released a couple years back and now a third set, The Genuine Bootleg Series Vol. 3 has found its way onto the market. Again, the quality of songs included is quite impressive, none more so than an alternative take of TV Talkin' Song a song that was originally included on 1990'sunderrated and under appreciated CD, Under the Red Sky (I know one person who believes every line on the CD has a direct Biblical reference- to which I point: Wiggle wiggle wiggle like a bowl of soup...).

"TV judges and TV clerks, TV repairman to fix it so it works. TV daddies and TV moms, and on the TV cities under bombs."

TV Talkin' Song is a rant against the pervasive influence television has on our society. The officially released take of the song doesn't make a dent as far as the impact compared to other Dylan sermons. But this glorious and previously unheard take is among Dylan's spookiest efforts. The song uses a skillful pullback narration technique where in the end the point of view spans out, and the events the narrator is so vividly describing turns out to be happening on TV.

TV Talkin Song is a song that Don Was, the producer of the sessions, has been quoted as saying was lost somewhere in the attempts to rewrite and rerecord it. Initially the most striking difference between the released take and the unreleased version is the quality of Dylan's vocals. In the Under the Red Sky version, Dylan's voice is raspy and hoarse and adds little to the performance. In the Genuine Bootleg version, Dylan sings the song in his lowest register, and the growl of his voice delivers the lyrics in a haunting and frightening way. The other notable difference is Randy Jackson's rambling bass which is insignificant in the official take and invaluable in the unreleased version. The melodic bassline counters Dylan's rumble through an angry tirade against how TV robs people's desire to think and feel.

"The news of the day is on all the time, All the latest gossip, all the latest rhyme, Puts your brain inside your eye and penetrates your skull, lays an egg inside your head and makes you dull."

The structure of the song is such that we don't know if the narrator is a believer in the sermon he is hearing. We do know however, mostly from the conviction of the vocals, how the songwriter feels about the issue. Unlike other high haunt Dylan songs like Ballad of Hollis Brown (political poverty), or Man in the Long Black Coat (personal poverty), TV Talkin Song is the type of doomsday rap that makes you question whether or not the writer has gone off the deep end. But just as you are about to make that judgment, events like from the past few weeks happen and you realize the paranoia of the song might be more grounded in reality than you originally thought. How far is it from the preacher in Hyde Park's sermon to the news of Jerry Falwell outing one of the Teletubbies? Maybe all those dollars spent in therapy talking about bunnies does have something to do with the many hours of Captain Kangaroo my mom let me watch as a child.

One wonders if Dylan truly believes the message of the song, why he rerecorded a version of Chimes of Freedom (with Joan Osborne) for the awful four hour NBC TV movie, The 60's, that recently aired. Having endured the entire dreadful scrubbed up summary of a decade just to hear the new version of a wonderful song, I must admit it was almost worth it to be able to hear the by-play between a voice joyfully singing a song he rarely sings anymore, and the familiar swirling organ sound from Al Kooper. In the end I figure the egg laid was more on the screen than in my mind.

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