Somewhere, deep in the vaults, it exists.
A recording, overlooked and maybe forgotten, unheard since the day it was cut and rejected. Selfishly or thoughtlessly or both, the musician responsible—an artist we adore—has kept it from us. But if we could only hear that music, all would be illuminated, our understanding of our idol would be deepened and reconfigured and fully realized. We would know what it all meant.
Rock stars are a paradox. We’re drawn to their mystique, thrilled by our inability to ever truly know them. But to be a fan is to demand the private, the ordinary, the hidden, to uncover the supposedly real person beneath the performance, to understand what our hero was thinking in the studio. And if we can never know for sure, we’ll settle for clues: the alternate take, the unreleased track, the work in progress.
Not only do Minnesota’s two greatest musicians both epitomize the inscrutability of stardom, but Bob Dylan and Prince also each recorded classic albums that can feel like glorious accidents. The enforced spontaneity of Dylan’s sessions make his official recordings seem like snapshots of a chaotic spree that would appear wildly different if taken from another angle. And Prince’s impatient studio dexterity led him to whip through tracks so ferociously that, as the critic Brad Nelson has noted, even some of his masterworks sound like blueprints for future live performances. No wonder we thirst so slavishly after their unreleased music—which, in Dylan’s case, has been officially issued in trickles and gushes for 27 years now, and, in Prince’s, is just now becoming available.
The 14th volume of the Dylan bootleg series, More Blood, More Tracks, covers a special moment in his career—not just because Blood on the Tracks is his last consensus masterpiece, but because a shadow version has always haunted the official release. Dylan famously scrapped an initial pressing of the album (itself the result of several abortive sessions) to start over with Minneapolis session players. And ever since, some Dylan faithful have wondered whether this lost (yet highly bootlegged) album might be the “real” version, while some imitation had been foisted off on us.
Truth is, Dylan strums with a cowboy campfire stiffness on the acoustic versions he initially planned to release. They not only sound as unfinished as demos, but they’re performed with a hesitant air of forced significance, so the words have to do too much of the work. Hearing him waver over which pronouns to use on “Tangled Up in Blue” is instructive, even casual Dylan fans should know the eventually omitted “Up to Me,” and the slickness of the New York sessions makes for at least one engagingly disorienting listen. But if you find yourself repeatedly playing nine consecutive versions of “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” please consult a physician immediately.
I last listened to Blood on the Tracks six years ago, after a hard breakup, expecting to undergo some middle-aged male rite of passage and emerge sadder but wiser. What I learned instead was that its songs offer neither salt nor balm for a fresh wound; this is an album for picking at scabs, or contemplating scars, a document of lived-in heartbreak and endurance. (Taylor Swift’s Red turned out to be what I needed for catharsis.) Swooping in here for a close-up, veering back for the wide lens, traveling through time, Blood on the Tracks is a cubist portrait of heartbreak. “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” imagines future pain, “Tangled Up in Blue” revisits it from the past. But the moment that stuck with me was the climax of “Simple Twist of Fate,” where a discarded man feels an “emptiness inside” but “just could not relate” to that emotion. What could be a greater example of alienation than struggling to empathize with your own sense of loss?
I can’t listen to More Blood, More Tracks without hearing Blood on the Tracks in my memory. The tiniest of details—a different guitar fill, a change in syllabic emphasis in the pronunciation of “separation”—sounds like a monumental divergence in this context. Would these takes sound different to us if we’d never heard the official version? Well, maybe, but they’d also sound different this way if we’d never landed on the moon or if the South had won the Civil War. Like fantasy football, Dylanology is a harmless if occasionally annoying hobby, but its pleasures are something distinct from the actual experience of Blood on the Tracks. And, I’d say, something less.
Prince’s vaults are said to contain material so precious he couldn’t bear to let us hear it. For decades, we’re told, he perversely nested upon his hidden hoard of jewels and gold like a well-coiffed purple dragon while force-feeding us Gwen Stefani duets and funk jams about Calhoun Square. A 34-minute solo in-studio practice tape, Piano & a Microphone 1983 isn’t quite what we were promised, but it’s a remarkable display of just how deep Prince’s mystique runs.
The first-time visitor to Paisley Park expects to enter an inner sanctum but discovers a display case disguised as a home. Listening to Piano & a Microphone 1983 can be a lot like that, suggesting intimacy but delivering opulence. Even in the practice room, Prince imagines himself as an entertainer. Whether adopting a different persona on the playful “Cold Coffee & Cocaine,” or toying with alternate pronunciations of “purple” on you-know-what anthem before wandering into a minute of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” he’s not expressing himself so much as finding new ways to dazzle, experimenting with various methods for commanding our emotional response.
Though Prince could slacken into glibness once he became a star, in the ’80s, we—his fans, foes, and undecided listeners—were still an opponent for him to overcome, and you can hear that here. A pass at an old spiritual, “Mary Don’t You Weep,” and an extended “17 Days” showcase a bluesy side of Prince he’d not yet fully revealed at the time; these performances are less revelatory now than they’d have sounded in 1983 or even 1993. But the more we peek behind the curtain, the more guarded Prince seems—which, paradoxically, makes this music more exciting.
What true fans always slightly resent about popular music is that everything you need to fully experience it is right there on the surface. Whether they’re boomers scouring bootlegs or tweens scrutinizing tweets, fans are protective of their special relationship with the star, and they always try to undermine pop’s democratic nature. Yet they never fully succeed. Sure, biographical detail can add shades of meaning. You betcha historical context is important. But what makes Blood on the Tracks and Piano & a Microphone great art is that their pleasures are available to all.