Streaming from our site today, a week before its release, is Bob Dylan's new The Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8. It strikes me as nothing short of remarkable that previously unreleased recordings (and sometimes incomplete recordings released by a major label) are streaming live on the Web, but maybe that's because I remember the scandal of the first Dylan bootleg.
There was a time when you had to whisper to the guy behind the counter at a record store, "Do you carry bootlegs?" By definition, bootlegs were illegal, and Bob Dylan bootlegs were the first hot property.
In 1968, word got out that there was new music by Dylan, recorded with The Band in a basement in upstate New York. What came out in the spring of 1969, however, was Nashville Skyline — a good record, but not the one we'd heard about. Then, in the summer of 1969, FM radio began playing pirated Dylan recordings.
The Great White Wonder was the first bootleg I'd ever heard from anyone. On the cheaply packaged double LP, you could hear Dylan singing with The Band on songs such as "I Shall Be Released," "Open the Door Richard," "Too Much of Nothing" and "Tears of Rage." There were also recordings on the LP rumored to be made in a Minneapolis hotel room in 1961. It was all so underground, and it was all so exciting. I still have my copy of The Great White Wonder. Want to hear a cut?
Columbia Records and the record industry as a whole were in a tizzy when the bootlegs surfaced. It was the first cracks we could see in an industry that was consolidating and controlling. Don't get me wrong; I bought all of Dylan's records on Columbia. They did a great job, but as a fan, I wanted more.
Here are two quotes from the day that are enlightening. First, from Columbia, regarding the two guys who were distributing The Great White Wonder:
"They are at one time defaming the artist and defrauding his admirers. For these reasons, Columbia Records, in cooperation with Bob Dylan's attorneys, intends to take all legal steps to stop the distribution and sale of this album."
Then there is this, from one of the two men who were distributing the records around Los Angeles:
"Bob Dylan is a heavy talent," he said, "and he's got all those songs nobody's ever heard. We thought we'd take it upon ourselves to make this music available.
"Do you know what will happen if you get away with it?" he added. "Why, if John Mayall or anybody opens at the Whisky tonight, there'll be a live recording of it on the stands by the middle of next week."
That last quote was prophetic. It wasn't long before someone stole tapes of The Beatles from the Let It Be sessions. Live recordings of bands began to fill the bins, not just in mom-and-pop record shops, but in chain stores. A cottage industry built around music-hungry fans grew. Columbia couldn't stop it; no one could.
These days, there are legal bootlegs, illegal bit torrents and podcasts filled with professionally recorded music. What fans want is access to the musicians they love. They've been saying it for so long and so loud. Sometimes, someone listens. Thanks to Bob Dylan and Columbia, for releasing Tell Tale Signs, and for making it available here first.