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It's Alright, Ma

Bob Dylan didn't die. Apparently, his condition following his May 25 hospitalization for histoplasmosis was greatly exaggerated by the media. ("DYLAN COULD BE IN FIGHT FOR LIFE," wailed the headline from the May 29 edition of the New York Post.) Still, the news of that hospitalization rattled me to the bone, chilled my blood, stopped me in my tracks -- all the cliches used to describe a first response to bad news were applicable. Not just because I can't conceive of a world without Bob Dylan (though God knows I can't), but because I'd had a premonition of sorts on May 24, the day of his 56th birthday. It was an erroneous premonition, but a premonition nonetheless.

It arrived during the afternoon, while I was parking my car. I had been blasting a tape of a recently acquired Dylan bootleg, and popped it out of the tape deck. The second my radio cut in, I heard a familiar song issue out of the speakers; it was Dylan's 1962 tune "Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues," a much-bootlegged outtake from the sessions for The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan that was finally made available legitimately on 1991's The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare and Unreleased).

Forgetting that it was Dylan's birthday, my immediate response to hearing this very funny, seldom-aired song was one of doom: "Dylan's dead," I said aloud to myself, certain it was the only explanation. Of course, I soon realized it was simply a birthday toast. The feeling in my gut, however, lingered, and it's lingering right now, unshakable even after the news arrived a few weeks back of Dylan's improved health. And though I've been trying ever since that day to figure out exactly why I can't shake it, I don't know that I'll ever have a definitive answer.

Part of the reason is Dylan's seeming immortality. Sure, he's mortal, but he should always be around, whether he's making brilliant records or going through the motions of simply being Bob Dylan (hardly a simple task). Another reason is this: For the last two months, I've listened to very little music other than Dylan's -- albums, singles, favorite tracks from assorted bootlegs of outtakes, leftovers and live stuff culled from various tours.

Some people return time and time again to particular books or movies, but I find myself constantly turning back to Dylan. Although I've been a fairly intense fan since grade school, when my parents first introduced Blood on the Tracks and Desire to the living-room turntable, I quickly found, and then stuck by, my favorite Dylan albums -- the ones that obliterated what my young mind thought were the boundaries of how far someone could take the art of singing, songwriting and playing rock and roll. I stayed close to them over the years, seldom straying very far into the dark woods of what are generally accepted as Dylan's lesser efforts.

It was 1990's Under the Red Sky that sent me digging deeper into Dylan's massive oeuvre. After deciding the CD was the worst possible effort from the 20th century's greatest songwriter since his last worst possible effort (1970's Self-Portrait), I decided to go back and re-evaluate the albums that critics have either dismissed or overlooked, the ones I myself had passed over -- albums such as Planet Waves and Shot of Love, Street Legal and Hard Rain and even fairly recent downers such as Knocked out Loaded and Down in the Groove.

What I found among those albums was jarring, for it overturned much of the criticism leveled at Dylan during the period separating John Wesley Harding and Blood on the Tracks, which is to say the period separating Dylan's last two acknowledged classics. With every repeat visit, I came away with something worth adding to the Dylan albums I consider to be his benchmarks -- namely, Freewheelin', Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, Blood on the Tracks and the myriad 1967 tracks that make up the legendary Basement Tapes (of which the legitimate album of the same name, issued in 1975, rounds up a mere fraction).

It's easy to confine Dylan's genius to these albums, if only because they are the most immaculate and perfectly executed of the ones he's issued since his eponymous debut in 1961. But during my time of discovery I've added considerably to that list: New Morning (home of the masterful Elvis Presley visitation homage "Went to See the Gypsy"); Planet Waves (maligned upon its 1974 release despite such gems as "Going, Going, Gone," "Something There Is About You" and "Tough Mama"); Hard Rain (a ragged live set during which Dylan tore into "Idiot Wind" with foaming-mouthed vengeance); Street Legal (worthwhile for the yearning "Where Are You Tonight?" and the propulsive "Changing of the Guard"); Shot of Love (full of lovely ballads, among them "Every Grain of Sand," which articulates what he was searching for in Christianity better than anything on Slow Train Coming or Saved).

And then there's the stuff available only through the countless bootlegs that have haunted, and more times than not loomed over, every Dylan album issued since New Morning -- stuff that could've made the weak albums good, the good albums great and the great albums even better. If Dylan's catalog demands countless revisitations, it's because of his continuing inability to discern true keepers from obvious throwaways, quaint trifles from artistic epics. There are dozens of essential items available only on the bootlegs; a few of them have since surfaced on the Biograph and Bootleg Series boxed sets, but many more remain, for now at least, the sole province of tape traders and bootleggers.

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