Bootleg Series Vol. 16 – Neighborhood Bully

A few days ago I was listening to the version of Neighborhood Bully on Vol. 16. I wondered why they felt it was necessary to release it. There’s not a big difference with the Infidels version.

The Infidels version contains a new verse:

Now his holiest books have been trampled upon

No contract he signed was worth what it was written on

He took the crumbs of the world and he turned it into wealth

Took sickness and disease and he turned it into health

He’s the neighborhood bully

And Dylan removed the “in a computerized world, he makes his last stand” line from the Vol. 16 version. The sound is similar, although I do like the urgency of the Vol. 16 version a bit better. But whatever. It’s sort of cherry pie vs. blueberry pie – they are both good and not a hell-of-a-lot different.

It did get me thinking – not always a good thing – about why I’ve always liked this song.

Dylan has taken a lot of heat for the song’s decidedly pro-Israeli point-of-view. But that’s not a great way to judge a song’s goodness. In my admittedly somewhat uneducated opinion, it seems to me there’s plenty of blame for those sides.

The song is good because the writing is some of the best on the album. He says a lot in an inventive, concise, powerful way. Kudos, regardless of political opinion.

But the sound, to me, is the most interesting aspect of the song. Simply put, the song almost hast that “thin, white, mercury sound” that last appeared in his work with The Band.

If somebody held me hostage and forced me to be critical of Dylan’s choices, I’d have to say that I think it’s been a mistake to corral his various session mates. Or perhaps the problem is more the choice of session mates. Either way, there’s certain tameness to Dylan’s sound since, I don’t know, Hard Rain (although the restrained style fits the older Dylan). Although it’s not fully unleashed, Bully on Vol. 16 hints at what could have been if Dylan had made some bolder choices.

I don’t think it’s an accident that Infidels was released when punk rock was,  if not at its zenith, still the most potent force in pop music. I wonder if Dylan – like Springsteen – grabbed up handfuls of punk records and took them home to listen. Or maybe Jacob let him borrow some from his collection. Whatever it was, Bully is one of the more punk songs in the Dylan catalog. Maybe the only one.

Not long after the release of Infidels, Dylan played the Letterman Show with members of the punk band The Plugz. To me, that performance was one of the great Dylan moments. Totally unleashed, unpolished, unprofessional, and completely awesomely awesome.

Like the unforgettably distinctive sound of Hard Rain, Dylan as a punk didn’t last. Sadly, his next move was to tour with a string of more-than-competent but decidedly leashed sidemen such as Mick Taylor, Carlos Santana, Tom Petty, the Grateful Fucking Dead, and so on. There’s nothing wrong with any of those folks, I like them all to some degree, but I wonder what could have been. Sigh.

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