LOS ANGELES - More then 2,300 copies of a "bootleg" Bob Dylan album are now being sold in Los Angeles in what may be the entertainment industry's first truly hip situation comedy.
The simply-produced package - 26 cuts on two plain unmarked discs, called "Great White Wonder" - was made from tapes never before released by Dylan or by his now rather miffed record label, Columbia.
Rather, it was collected, pressed and currently is being marketed by two young Los Angeles residents both of whom have long hair, a moderate case of the shakes (prompted by paranoia) and an amusing story to tell.
Before getting into the trials and tribulations of the city's only visible "Bootleggers," some statistics:
Nine of the songs are apparently from the "basement tape" made in the cellar of Dylan's upstate New York home more than 18 months ago, shortly before he went to Nashville to record "John Wesley Harding". On these, Dylan performs with what later became known as the Band from Big Pink.
Another 16 cuts - 12 of them songs, four of them brief rap sessions - are allegedly from a tape made December 22nd, 1961, in a Minneapolis hotel room. All these feature Dylan alone, with an acoustic guitar and harmonica, and if the date is correct, the tape was made before Dylan signed with Columbia.
The final cut, "Living the Blues," was taken direct from the television set when Dylan appeared on the Johnny Cash Show earlier this summer.
Effect of the album's "release" on the local record scene has been phenomenal. Five radio stations - KCBS in Santa Barbara, KNAC in Long Beach, KRLA in Pasadena and KMET-FM and KPPC-FM in Los Angeles - immediately began playing the LP, thereby creating a demand that often far exceeded a shop's limited supply.
The supply line was ragged at best, largely because the two men behind the scheme (a third put up the initial money, they say) are the "exclusive distributors."
Not only that, "We don't have a car of our own," they say. "We have to borrow cars to take the records around."
Distribution has been further hamperered by the fact that they will not give their names, addresses or a telephone where they might be reached. This, for what they term "all the obvious reasons."
As a result, shops are charging whatever they think the traffic will bear. The two producers say they are wholesaling the package at $4.50 each ($4.25 apiece after the first 50), and shops are asking from $6.50 up. One store, The Psychedelic Supermarket in Hollywood - its name tells where its owner is at - is even asking, and getting, $12.50 for the two-record set.
Amused and displeased spokesmen at Columbia (it depended who you spoke to), were aware copies of the basement tape were in circulation, had even been played on the air, but they did not have any warning that an LP like this would be marketed.
Columbia Records, contacted by phone, made this statement: "We consider the release of this record as an abuse of the integrity of a great artist. By releasing material without the knowledge or approval of Bob Dylan or Columbia Records, the sellers of this record are crassly depriving a great artist of the opportunity to perfect his performance to the point where he believes in their integrity and validity. 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."
The two youthful bootlegger/entrepreneurs, meanwhile, continue to troop from shop to shop, wondering what will happen next. Several stores, described by one of the bootleggers as "stone chicken," have refused to carry the LP.
Some objected to the simple packaging - a white double sleeve with "Great White Wonder" rubber stamped in the upper righthand corner - they said, while others indicated they were afraid of how Columbia might react.
Those shops carrying the LP seem happy, though, with many reporting the album's arrival has had the same effect on business as a new Beatles or Stones LP might have: business generally has picked up.
Of all the songs offered in the package, only three had previously been released by Dylan, and all were then in a different form. They are "See That My Grave is Swept Clean" and "Man of Constant Sorrow," both from his first album for Columbia, "Bob Dylan", and "Only a Hobo Talkin' Devil," from a broadside album, "Broadside Ballads, Volume 1, A Handful of Songs About Our Time," when Dylan was recording as Blind Boy Grunt.
Several other of the songs had been recorded by others, notably the Band, while still others are folk classics, but until this recorded collection appeared in all its unmarked splendor, Dylan versions of the material existed only on "secret" tapes.
Unfortunately, much of the recording quality is poor. (Although it is questionable whether comparisons of this sort can be made fairly when talking about "bootleg" material.) The tracks made with the Band, for example, sound as if run through a paper cup and string.
On other songs, however, the sound reproduction is quite good, and in most of the early material, Dylan even seems to be playing a freer, more imaginative acoustic guitar than he's been heard to pick any time recently.
Getting into specifics, and using the producers' numbering choice (which seems to be arbitrary at best), Side No. 1 contains six songs and two raps, all from the "hotel" or "Minneapolis" tape.
Songs are "Candy Man," "Ramblin' Around," "Hezekiah," "No Home In This World Any More," "Abner Till" and "Lazarus." Some of the titles are, like the numbering of the sides, arbitrary; Dylan was in Europe and not available for assistance in identification.
In the first of the talking cuts on this side, Dylan offers some comment about photographs that had been taken recently - said they made him look like James Dean. They're both informal, but not very informative.
Side No. 2, the second made from the Minneapolis tape, begins with "Baby, Please Don't Go," then goes into a rap during which Pete Seeger asks Dylan how he writes his songs (the response is representative Dylan put-on), then into "Dink's Blues" and "See That My Grave Is Swept Clean." Next is a longer rap, titled "East Orange, New Jersey," all about how Dylan once didn't get paid in money, but chess men; it's a variation of a story told by Lee Hays of the Weavers (in which Lee said he got paid in furs) and probably several others as well. The final song on the side is "Man of Constant Sorrow."
Side No. 3 begins with an unfinished solo blues which might be called just that - "Unfinished Blues" - because it ends as abruptly as a San Francisco freeway, in mid-air. Next is "I Think I'll Stay All Night," recorded rather shabbily with the Band and "Only a Hobo Talkin' Devil," recorded alone. The last three cuts on the side also were recorded with the Band - "Kill Me Alive," "The Mighty Quinn" and "Wheels on Fire."
The first five songs on Side No. 4 are from the basement tape made with the Band - "I Shall Be Released," "Open the Door, Richard," "Too Much of Nothin'," "Take Care of Yourself" and "Tears of Rage." Again, the fidelity is weak. And the final cut is "Livin' the Blues," the song lifted from the Cash show and the song which, ironically, it is reported Columbia will release as Dylan's next "official" single.
The bootleggers, of course, plan no single releases. They do hint at producing more albums, though - however indefinite their plans may be, "due to existing circumstances." Since issuing this one, they say, they've been approached by a number of people with other "secret" tapes.
In the meantime, they're still struggling with their little "company's" first release and protecting their anonymity.
"What're your names?" I asked.
"Call me Patrick," said the one with the longest hair.
"Call me Vladimir," said the one with the bushiest sideburns.
"How do you spell Vladimir?"
"I don't know, man. Make it Merlin."
Why did they do it?
"Bob Dylan is a heavy talent," Patrick 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?" I said. "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."
Patrick and Vladimir/Merlin just grinned.
For the history of the resulting bootleg industry, get this book:
Bootleg: The Secret History of the Other Recording Industry
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Last updated: 3/20/99