From Neil Young to Prince: the lure of the “lost” album

Some great lost pop albums are great because they’re lost. But once they’re found, can they retain their power?

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One late summer afternoon in 1971, the Youth International Party activist AJ Weberman walked along Manhattan’s Elizabeth Street, not far from the NYPD’s decrepit but still impressive 5th Precinct station house. He was lost in thought. That morning, he had done something dumb ­– one of many dumb things he had done and would continue to do ­– on the private property of Bob Dylan. 

Weberman, a self-styled Dylanologist, was a proponent of a practice he called “garbology”: the theft of his hero’s rubbish sacks, supposedly for the purpose of scholarly research. As Peter Doggett recounts in his 2007 book There’s a Riot Going On, Weberman had begun the day deep in the singer’s trash; Sarah Dylan, Bob’s wife, had seen him at it and, disturbed by his invasion of their privacy, had shooed him away. He had been in this kind of situation several times before but, for some reason, he felt embarrassed about it now. A few hours later, he was going down the road feeling bad, when he heard the screech of bike tyres somewhere close behind him. Fists began to fly. He realised, to his horror, that he was getting his butt kicked by Dylan himself.

No fan of sound mind wants to be AJ Weberman, whose obsession with his idol turned dark fast and only went darker. After attempting to “free Bob Dylan” from his capitalist rock-star status in the 1970s by harassing him, mobilising like-minded bozos to picket the Dylan family home and rooting through sacks of dirty nappies in its bins, Weberman went on to publish books and pamphlets falsely suggesting that the singer was an HIV-positive Holocaust-denier whose progressive anthem “Blowin’ in the Wind” was an ode to Southern lynching – discoveries all apparently based on his close study of Dylan’s music. Sometimes, love goes bad.

Stars are media constructions that affect some ill-defined authenticity to elicit desire in their audiences. To paraphrase the film theorist Richard Dyer, they must be set apart from ordinary people while being ordinary enough to be relatable; they have to be there in plain view, and in your ears, and on your mind, and not in any of those places, too. Or, at least, that was how they did it in the 20th century, before social media came along to “prevent people from dreaming any more about stars”, as Catherine Deneuve lamented in 2015. Remoteness heightened the sense of intimacy, which we knew was one-sided and illusory but felt as somehow real anyway. Movies, music, books – all have a direct line to the heart of a fan, and the human heart is greedy. An extreme manifestation of this greed, I suppose, was Weberman’s exercise in garbology that afternoon in 1971. A new Dylan album every year or two just wasn’t enough. He needed those bin bags as well.

Back in the 1990s, when I was 16, I became obsessed with the Sam Peckinpah Western Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, a 1973 picture that gave the outlaw myth a fatalistic, vaguely counter-cultural undertone. After watching and rewatching it until the video wore out, I figured out why I liked it so much. It was the music, written and performed by Bob Dylan, who I’d never heard of before. In those Britpop days, when no one I knew had the internet at home, it was hard to find out anything about an out-of-fashion star on demand – ours was a Queen and Japanese folk music household, so even my baby boomer parents were no help. I walked down to the local Our Price and bought Dylan’s 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited, simply because I liked the cover, then sat down in my bedroom in front of the stereo. I hit play. 

The first song on that record is “Like a Rolling Stone”. Six minutes and 13 seconds after its opening smack of the snare drum, I reached for the stereo to start it over again. The force of the music, the toughness, the sound of the words – all of it hit me with a thud. I became a fan and a collector. Over the next few years, I bought every Dylan album and single I could find, every video, every book. And when the official material ran out, I discovered that the market next to Swiss Cottage Central Library in north London had a stand crammed with even more stuff: bootlegs, unreleased music that had been purloined from its makers. I was too addicted to think twice about the moral implications of getting high on this tainted supply, and so I handed my money to the dealer whenever I had enough saved up.

Was I a lower-order Weberman? This was music that Dylan had discarded – and there I was, rooting through the bargain bins. YouTube has since normalised the dissemination and consumption of the studio outtake, and a few taps of the keyboard will take you to, say, a fan-made compilation of Dylan’s mid-1980s studio offcuts, or the wondrous yet never-issued Beach Boys record Adult/Child. But there’s no getting away from the reality that it’s intellectual copyright theft we’re talking about. The singer has compared the trade of his unofficial recordings to shoplifting from a supermarket. Few would deny the shadiness of the whole enterprise: an early Dylan bootleg that hit the black market in 1969 was titled Stealin’

I thought about this a few weeks ago as I listened to “Try”, a loping ballad by Neil Young taken from his lost 1975 album Homegrown, finally released yesterday after spending almost half a century in the Canadian singer’s archives. It’s typical of Young’s best work in many ways – spare in arrangement, with a searching melody that resolves like a deep sigh over a four-four beat – and I liked it instantly. 

But I wonder whether I like it too much. It’s a slight song, an unlikely lead single. As I listen to the complete album now, the same thought occurs to me: the opening track, “Separate Ways”, is a chordally inventive minor-key rumination of a failed relationship and the affection that lingers even after the end; “Love Is a Rose” bounces along like a 2am hoedown in a stoner’s kitchen, a sparse precursor to the rich country pop Young perfected on 1985’s Old Ways; “White Line”, which appeared as a rock stomper in 1990, is here a contemplative mood piece, with Robbie Robertson’s tasteful licks emphasising a previously obscured prettiness. Indeed, the entire collection is thrilling. There’s a quality to Homegrown that elevates it far above, say, any perfectly good Mark Kozelek or Conor Oberst record, up to the Everest heights occupied by the work of Dylan, Lucinda Williams and only a few others. Yet it’s difficult to be specific about just where that thrill originates. 

Perhaps some of it comes from the 45-year build-up of hype that began when Young cancelled plans to put out Homegrown, instead releasing Tonight’s the Night, a bewildering car wreck of an album that is as sordid and incompetent as it is moving. Homegrown, he told Rolling Stone that year, was “the darker side to Harvest”, Young’s best-selling album. “A lot of people would probably say it’s better” than Tonight’s the Night, but it was “too personal” and it scared him – all statements that he must have known would inflame the hunger of the greedy fan. Then he locked it away.

Some great lost pop albums are great because they’re lost. Once they’re found and become available to everyone, they stop being great. Prince’s widely bootlegged The Black Album, scrapped in 1987 for being too sexy after the artist was born again, was reputed to be his masterpiece until it was half-heartedly ejaculated by his label three months after Come, a career low, in 1994. Once it entered the mainstream, it became apparent that the hip who had hyped this largely inconsequential album of party bangers had just been hipsters. A case of: “You like his early work? I like the cuts that were never even released!”

Like Dylan, Young has spent years releasing archival records of lost songs in between new work – surely the result of record companies realising that fans wanted this material and were willing to pay hard cash for it. (Dylan’s line of outtakes, initiated in 1991, is even branded The Bootleg Series.) Official though these extensively annotated, often expensively priced artefacts may be, the best of them still derive an aura of specialness from having been inaccessible the first time round. That aura isn’t strong enough to dull the disappointment of rediscovered records that just don’t measure up to the fantasies of the fan ­– the shelved 1999 album Last Words by the grunge band Screaming Trees, for example, was met with a shrug of the shoulders after finally surfacing a decade after its completion. Yet if there’s even a glimmer of genius there – as is the case with Homegrown – it spikes the high, transforming what you hear into a wet-dream-come-true after a long period of ruin lust.

The love of lost music is a Romantic impulse. Byron’s The Giaour and Coleridge’s Kubla Khan were presented as the remnant stumps of even more resplendent works that would never be seen in their entirety. This was just a genre convention, of course, fetishising the fragment, but it drew real power from the lure of impossible longing. Those of us who trawled through the market shelves and came across an unfinished or unreleased possible masterpiece found greatness in this dream of foiled greatness, the big what-if, which can be as intoxicating as the real thing.

Maybe that was the main point, not whether the music itself delivered. Just as importantly, I think, the archival album’s dredging of the muddy swamps of the creative process allows fans to feel closer to their heroes, without the need to trash-dive on their property and fight them on the street, or flip out and accuse them of Holocaust denial. We all win.

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. Yo Zushi’s latest album, “Unconditional Love” (TWGDOYP Records), is out now

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