Diamonds From the Deepest Ocean :: Bob Dylan | Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte

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?”

Bob Dylan played 114 shows in 1978. His world tour traveled to Japan, New Zealand, Australia, England, The Netherlands, West Germany, France, Sweden, Canada, and from one end of the United States to the other, from Portland Maine to Portland Oregon, with stops at every reasonable city in between.

1978 was a tumultuous year in the life of Bob Dylan. His film Renaldo and Clara was a critical and commercial disaster. His personal life wasn’t any better. Newspapers and magazines speculated that his long worldwide tour was driven by financial necessity and meant to pay off growing debts resulting from the film and Dylan’s recent, ugly divorce. When asked directly, Dylan didn’t deny the rumors, telling Matt Damsker in a September interview: “It’s true to a certain extent … I’ve lost a lot of money.” Everything seemed fraught. The year’s drama culminated in a Tucson hotel room and a mystical religious experience that upended Dylan’s entire worldview.

Given the year’s challenges, it’s no surprise that the commercial recordings documenting 1978 are uneven. They’re not wholly representative of what was, in retrospect, a clear inflection point. Street Legal is a personal favorite but overshadowed by the stellar studio albums that preceded it. Bob Dylan at Budokan is the primary source for opinions on Dylan’s 1978 live show. It’s an acquired taste and polarizing, even among hardcore Bobcats. Budokan gets an expanded release later this month, but it’s hard to see how that deluxe presentation will change anyone’s opinion regarding the relative merits of the original live album. A fundamental reevaluation usually requires a more robust and revealing survey, which for Bob Dylan usually comes in the form of a Bootleg Series release. But Dylan’s archival series hasn’t yet tackled 1978, maybe because many of the tour’s soundboard recordings were erased.

The primary and oft-repeated criticism of Bob Dylan at Budokan is that it captures Dylan and his big band too early in the touring year. The double LP features songs recorded during the eighth and ninth shows of the marathon tour. Your local Dylan freak knows the party line on this issue and will recite it by heart: “The band wasn’t gelling yet,” they’ll say. “The tour got better and better as the year went on,” they’ll continue. “Budokan is a poor document of that tour, that year, that sound, those arrangements,” they’ll conclude.

Maybe you are one of those Budokan deniers, or maybe you agree with them. Sometimes I do, when the flute on Budokan hits a little too hard, or when I feel like I need to venture out into less familiar waters. I did that earlier this year, trying to see what the “late ’78” fuss was all about.

During that reevaluation I came to realize that, when you trace the argument back to its root—back to the central idea that late 1978 was better than early—that so much of that understanding is shaped by a single piece of evidence: a bootleg of Dylan’s show in Charlotte, North Carolina on 10 December, during the last week of the tour. Late ‘78 truthers consistently point to Charlotte as the best show of the year, the most consistent and lively and energetic. The bootleg is best known under the title Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte.

The consensus fan understanding of live 1978, the conventional wisdom, is built around those two poles—Budokan at the beginning and Charlotte at the end. There are other data points, sure. Full or partial tapes circulate for all but 2 of the year’s shows and many of them are convincing showcases for the merits of the high-energy big band sound Dylan took on the road that year. But Charlotte is the keystone that holds the “later is better” position together. It is the rare instance of a bootleg recording—an audience tape, no less—shaping the common understanding of what is good and what is not, what is a proper representation and what falls short.

To be fair, Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte is worthy of its conversation-shaping reputation. The sound quality is quite good for a 1978 cassette capture, but it’s the performance and voice that makes you take notice. It’s a tape that compels you to turn up the sound as loud as your stereo or your neighbors will tolerate. Dylan is fully committed, animated, and talkative. His singing ranges from tender (“Girl From The North Country”) to plaintive (“Tangled Up In Blue”), shouty (“It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding”) to manic (“Changing of the Guards”). The arrangements are dynamic and interesting. They’re still challenging, all these years later. The band is loud and full. Dylan is all in. The show is more than two hours long and by the end you feel you’ve experienced something serious and important.

“I put in an eight-hour day in two hours on stage,” Dylan said in a different 1978 interview. Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte proves that point.

It’s a bootleg with a meandering history. It first surfaced on vinyl, the primary consumer platform for illicit Dylan recordings through the 1970s and into the early 1980s. It circulated on tape and made the jump to CD in 1999. It arrived on the Dandelion label, a subsidiary of Yellow Dog Records, a bootleg outfit based in Luxembourg with a prestige reputation derived from a large catalogue of Beatles titles.

That 1999 Dandelion disc was supplanted just six years later by a fan-organized remaster CD-R that used the original taper’s better-sounding master tapes but retained Dandelion’s title and artwork. Yet another version circulates on YouTube, with additional adjustments to tape speed and pitch.

All those variants and variations are derived from the same three audio cassettes, recorded by a taper calling themselves “RS” and using a rig consisting of “a 3-head portable cassette recorder and electret condenser mic which was possibly above-average equipment for the typical audience stealth taper in those days.”

Listening back, you wonder what was going on in RS’s mind that night in Charlotte, after parking the car and loading up a hefty tape deck and extra cassettes.

Probably they were wondering if they had enough batteries and what to do if security got wise. It’s doubtful that they realized they were helping shape the public understanding of an important transition year in Bob Dylan’s life and performance history. There’s just no way they could have known they were settling an argument that hadn’t even started yet. | j adams

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