the contingency of collaborative art

Big day for me yesterday: More Blood, More Tracks arrived. It’s extraordinary — could be the best of the bootleg series, but then I might well think that, since I believe Blood on the Tracks to be Dylan’s masterpiece, and one of the great achievements of American music.

On the first disc — the six of them closely follow the order of recording — Dylan plays solo, and there are some harrowing moments there. At one point Dylan is playing “You’re a Big Girl Now” solo, and it’s a totally devastating performance. But you keep hearing the buttons of his vest clicking against the back of his guitar as he plays. Somebody later asked the engineers why they didn’t stop him, and the chief engineer said that they just couldn’t. “We were awed and freaking out and scared. It was intense.”

But then on the second disc he brings in Eric Weissberg and his band (called Deliverance, in those days, because they had played in the great film of that name). At one point you hear the engineer ask what Dylan wants to play next, does he want to continue with what they’ve been working on? Dylan replies, “No, the one we’re gonna do is,” and he starts strumming and wordlessly singing the tune to “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.” Suddenly the band kicks in: drums and bass, then, quickly, an organ fill, a little electric guitar — and it’s magic. They’re in a perfect groove. It’s butter. But of course they have to stop, because they’re not recording yet. Dylan says, “Okay, we’re about ready,” and the engineer starts the tape, and the band tries to get right back into that groove they were in, and for about thirty seconds they’ve got it — and then it falls apart. They do another take, but this time it’s too fast. On every take someone messes up. Finally, Dylan gives up in frustration.

And that’s it for Eric Weissberg and Deliverance. From then on Dylan plays basically with a string band (guitars, acoustic bass, mandolin, with a few occasional additions). The recorded version of “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome” is a great song, but I really think that the full-band version could’ve been even better — if they had been able to get that groove back. But it didn’t happen. And then Dylan took the whole recording session in another direction, which was surely for the best — I can’t think of any other songs on the album that would have benefitted from adding drums and electric instruments, and I can think of several that would have been greatly compromised by that kind of sound.

But the whole sequence is a reminder of just how contingent recording music is — of the number of elements that need to come together to create a certain vibe and mood; of the constant danger of those elements not coalescing, which might leave the whole project teetering on the brink of failure; of how that failure might be the fortuitous opening to something new and better; of layers and layers of possibilities lost and new possibilities gained. To a guy who does most of his creative work alone, it’s scary and fascinating.