It’s what I love most about my work as a music historian, collector and dealer. Nothing matches the rush of discovering something previously unknown and historically significant, which adds to the collective understanding of a great musical artist. And three months ago I made one of the great finds in a lifetime of looking. 149 unknown Bob Dylan acetate records, discs that Dylan himself used during the making of Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait and New Morning.
It started with a referral from a friend. For everyone’s privacy, I won’t use names, but I was put in touch with a gentleman from the Northwest. His sister had recently died and he was the executor of her estate. She owned a building at 124 W.Houston Street in Greenwich Village and while selling off her personal items so the building could be put up for sale, he discovered two boxes labeled “Old Records” in a closet. The boxes were filled with 10″ and 12″ acetates; he had never seen an acetate before and while he recognized them as some sort of records, he didn’t really know what they were. Most had labels with Bob Dylan’s name, the address of Columbia Records, and a song title. He knew Dylan had rented the ground floor of the building in the late 60’s and early 70’s as a studio space, and theorized Dylan had either left them when he’d moved out, or thrown them away and his sister had rescued them from the trash (at the time Dylan rented the space, he lived two blocks away at 94 McDougal St.) In either case, they had been sitting, boxed up in the closet, for more than forty years. He took two home with him, and eventually discovered what they were, and we were put in touch.
After some discussion, I flew to New York to inspect and hopefully buy the collection. The executor didn’t have an inventory and wasn’t even sure that all the acetates were by Dylan, but I’m a fanatic Dylan collector and love rare records, so I made the trip. When I opened the boxes and took a quick look at the contents, I was blown away. They were indeed all by Dylan, all were in excellent condition, and many had handwritten notes on the sleeves. They all dated from the sessions for Dylan’s albums Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait and New Morning, about equally split between 10″ discs with a single song and 12″ discs with multiple songs. Though I couldn’t listen to them on site, I knew this was a major discovery, and made an offer for the collection more than double what I had expected to pay. The executor was thrilled and we quickly made a deal. He told me he’d found the boxes on his fourth (and final) pass through the building, in a small closet in a loft above the bedroom, which he hadn’t noticed before. We took a moment to contemplate what might have happened if he hadn’t found them. The building would have sold, the new owners would have hired a crew to gut and renovate the place, and the boxes tossed into a dumpster from a third floor window. Phew.
I hand-carried the most interesting looking ones home, and had a friend ship the rest. Acetates are individually cut on a lathe in real time, in a process that is basically the reverse of playing a record. A blank aluminum disc coated in lacquer is put on a turntable, and the master tape of a recording is played, the signal of which is sent to a heated needle which cuts a groove into into the revolving disc. Acetates are made so an artist or producer can listen to a recording that is a work-in-progress; they can be played on a regular turntable, but after 20 or 30 plays the sound quality begins to deteriorate. But the sound on a carefully preserved acetate can be incredible–it’s a first generation record made in real time directly from the master tape. And that was the case here.
Since these acetates were remarkably well preserved, it was important we document what was on them. After auditioning everything, my friend Zach Cowie made a high quality digital transfer of the most interesting discs. We photographed each disc to have a complete visual record, and inventoried everything. Then, with the help of friend and noted Dylan collector Arie De Reus, Zach and I began the exacting process of comparing the music on the acetates to the released versions of each song. We discovered many of the acetates were unreleased versions of songs, in some cases with different overdubs, sometimes without any overdubs, many with different mixes, different edits and in a few cases completely unreleased and unknown versions. There are outtakes too, including electric versions of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and “Folsom Prison Blues” recorded during the Self Portrait sessions, and a gospel tinged version of “Tomorrow is Such a Long Time” recorded during the New Morning sessions.
These 149 acetates provide a remarkable look into Dylan’s working process at the time. Dylan recorded Nashville Skyline in Nashville; Self Portrait in Nashville and New York and New Morning almost entirely in New York. Dylan’s producer at the time, Bob Johnston, worked out of Columbia Records’ Nashville studios. These acetates were for the most part cut in Nashville and sent by Johnston to Dylan in New York for his comments and approval. This kind of collection is very unusual; usually an artist and producer would make decisions about takes, mixes and overdubs while together in the studio. But Dylan was living in New York and Johnston headquartered in Nashville–so acetates were a simple way for Dylan to monitor what Johnston was doing.
On a number of sleeves, Bob Johnston has written sequences, timings and in a few cases instructions for remixes (Johnston confirmed for us that he’d had these acetates cut for Dylan, and which handwriting was his.) Dylan himself has made a number of notations about which versions he liked, which he didn’t and what he wanted changed. It’s clear these discs were the result of many discussions Dylan had with Johnston; he’d ask for changes, Johnston would have acetates of new mixes, versions or sequences made and send them to Dylan. While Dylan once claimed he made Self Portrait as an album his fans “couldn’t possibly like” he clearly spent a great deal of time refining and perfecting it. The Houston Street Studios acetates include probably ten different sequences of that album, and many different sequences for New Morning as well (including one version with only 10 songs.) These acetates were Dylan’s working tools, and it’s easy to understand why he didn’t keep them–they were used to get the albums to the point where he felt they were finished and ready to release, but once the albums had been released, these became redundant.
The music on these acetates covers much of the same time period as last year’s exceptional Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait (I’ve always loved Self Portrait and New Morning and it’s great to see these albums get their due as a result of the release of this great box set. Go buy it if you haven’t already.) We’ve provided transfers of all the music on these discs to Dylan’s office; the multi-track master tapes of these songs likely still exist in the Columbia Records tape library, but Bob Johnston’s original unused mixes may not exist elsewhere.
I’m keeping many of the acetates, but am offering some of these truly unique discs via Recordmecca. It’s been a remarkable experience to work with these discs, previously owned and used by Dylan himself, to create three of his classic albums.
June 30, 2014