Diamonds From the Deepest Ocean is a new series exploring classic Bob Dylan bootlegs from the CD era. Before broadband internet, YouTube, and bottomless hard drives overflowing with FLACs, many Dylan fans relied on the grey market to gain entry into the world of unreleased Dylan. This series celebrates those tangible treasures and wonders: “What’s lost when you can have it all?”
Chet Flippo was there on assignment from Rolling Stone. Just describing the scene around him made for exciting copy: January 1973, Mexico City after midnight, CBS Discos Studios, Bob Dylan sipping vodka straight, big tables of snacks and sandwiches, Kris Kristofferson growing increasingly confused and impatient, James Coburn pulling on a massive joint and a glass of red wine, and two Mexican trumpet players standing in the corner, waiting patiently for their turn to play.
It was the night before the Miami Dolphins finished a perfect undefeated season by winning Super Bowl VII. Sometime after 3 AM, Kristofferson and others ducked out to sleep before the big game, which back then was played on Sunday afternoon. Dylan stayed behind, called for more tape, and kept recording.
Bob Dylan was in Mexico City to record soundtrack songs for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, a Sam Peckinpah film released later in 1973. Dylan also appears in the film, playing an enigma named “Alias,” who says little but knows how to throw a blade. The making of the film was tumultuous and Peckinpah ultimately lost the right to edit his own picture. Multiple versions of the film exist today, each with different scenes and soundtrack selections. The soundtrack LP, released on Columbia Records, is different still, and doesn’t parallel any single version of the film. It’s a complicated web.
Recording in Mexico City was mostly unproductive. Everyone was stressed from filming and Dylan didn’t gel with the assembled musicians—mostly Kris Kristofferson’s band—flown down special for the session. Kristofferson tried to help but it didn’t go well, as he told Bill Flanagan in an interview:
Bob doesn’t speak Spanish so I asked him if he wanted me to talk to the trumpet players. I figured he wanted border trumpets. So I went over to talk to them and he said something real curt like, “You can do that on your own song!” That really pissed me off, so I left him well alone … I didn’t understand what he was going through. I didn’t really understand how he records. My band would come up to me and say he was barely showing them something, they would almost learn it, and he’d move on to the next one. And they were trying to be perfect for Dylan! But he wanted their first impressions. He’s like a certain kind of painter. But I didn’t understand that at all. I thought he was just fuckin’ with my band.
Most of the soundtrack LP was recorded a month later, in February 1973, at two sessions on a soundstage in Burbank, California. By then, Dylan was finished with filming and had the opportunity to gather a more simpatico group of musicians, including Jim Keltner and Bruce Langhorne, Roger McGuinn and Byron Berline. Terry Paul, a holdover from Kristofferson’s band, played bass. The recording was backdropped by projected scenes from the film.
Peco’s Blues surveys Dylan’s work in the studio recording the soundtrack for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. It includes songs recorded in both Mexico City and Burbank. The bootleg appeared in 1994 on Spank Records, a subsidiary of the Vigotone II label, an American operation.Two years later, Peco’s Blues was duplicated under the title Lucky Luke by another bootleg label, the Vagabound Wilbury Record Company. Peco’s Blues and Lucky Luke are identical and a revelation.
You can hear the drama and unease described by Chet Flippo. There’s plenty of studio chatter, revealing and inane. Best of all, you’re in the room while Dylan conjures new songs—including two hits—out of the chaos.
The first, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” was a compromise song. Dylan wrote it after Mexico City, on the suggestion of Jerry Fielding, Peckinpah’s usual soundtrack arranger. Dylan and Fielding bickered throughout the entire process of making music for the film, and Fielding did little to hide his view that Dylan’s music was “a lot of nonsense which is strictly for teenyboppers.” Fielding ultimately quit the project, but not before suggesting that Dylan write more songs for the film.
“He brought to the dubbing session another piece of music—knock-knock-knocking on heaven’s door,” Fielding told Peckinpah’s biographer. “Everybody loved it. It was shit. That was the end for me.”
Despite Fielding’s appraisal, the song is easily the most memorable piece of music from the film. It reached the top 20 for Dylan in 1973 and for Guns N’ Roses in 1990.
“Wagon Wheel,” was the second hit, although thirty years passed before Dylan learned that he helped write it. The song has a fascinating origin story. Christopher “Critter” Fuqua, later of the band Old Crow Medicine Show, picked up a Dylan bootleg CD in London sometime in the middle 1990s. Surely it was Peco’s Blues or Lucky Luke or another clone because those boots feature a catchy song fragment from Burbank under the title “Rock Me Mama.” Critter passed the disc to his friend and bandmate Ketch Secor, who added verses to the tune, used the Dylan fragment as a chorus, and called it “Wagon Wheel.” Secor also took the careful legal step of adding Dylan as a co-author on the hybrid song.
But the genesis of the tune is even more complicated than that. After the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid sessions, some sessionographers credited Dylan’s “Rock Me Mama,” to Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, who released a song with that name in 1945. Personally, I don’t hear the connection. Regardless, Crudup attributed the song, or at least the phrase, to Big Bill Broonzy’s 1941 cut “Rockin’ Chair Blues.” Or maybe Curtis Jones’ “Roll Me Mama,” was the inspiration. “Roll me over, just like I’m a wagon wheel,” Jones sings in that song from 1939.
First released by Old Crow Medicine Show in 2004, “Wagon Wheel” slowly grew in popularity until 2013, when Darius Rucker made it ubiquitous. Out in the world, or at least here in the southern United States, where I live, it can sometimes feel like the song is following you. It’s pervasive and relentless.
No matter your opinion of “Wagon Wheel,” it’s hard to think of a more representative folk song. Folk in the biggest sense of the word—volk—people—a people’s song. Right now, somewhere in your town, there’s a kid strumming an Alvarez acoustic guitar, practicing “Wagon Wheel,” and daydreaming about autumn nights, campfires, and a teenage crush. Probably that kid doesn’t know about Big Bill Broonzy or Big Boy Crudup or Ketch Secor or Bob Dylan and Peco’s Blues. But the song is alive for them and still changing. If time runs in both directions—simultaneously forwards and backwards—than surely so does music.
Since Peco’s Blues and Lucky Luke first appeared, other bootleg CDs and fan project digital releases repackaged the outtakes from Dylan’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Those same unused recordings will probably get an official but very limited release before year-end, to preserve the 50-year copyright that expires at the end of 2023 in some European countries. Ironically, those “copyright dump” releases tend to have less reach than the 1990s CD bootlegs. Their narrow release creates a situation where the official product, instantly “collectable,” is harder to find than the shady version.
For bootleg freaks, that’s just another terrain feature on an adventurous landscape, a different road to Mexico City and Burbank, a half-century ago. In the best collection, old bootlegs play beside new bootlegs, and official releases. Together they create alternative worlds, space and options between then and now, illicit and official, curated and comprehensive. They’re additions to the story, not replacements for Peco’s Blues and Lucky Luke, the thrill of hearing Dylan in the studio, and the beautiful surprise that comes when you find inspiration where you least expect it. | j adams