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Culture Club: Lost and Found
  • August 22, 2013 : 15:08
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Perhaps not surprisingly, Dylan is now difficult to find. It’s never been issued on CD in the U.S.; it’s not commercially available anymore; and tellingly, none of its songs show up on Another Self Portrait. (Dylan’s comprehensive website dutifully lists Dylan in his discography but doesn’t include any song snippets or purchasing information.) Yet you still can track down Dylan on vinyl through eBay or hear some songs on YouTube. What was once a money-grab for Columbia is now an online scavenger hunt for Dylan’s most voracious supporters.

Nowadays, no folly escapes the ether. Have you always wanted to check out Song of the South, Disney’s racially insensitive 1946 film starring singing, happy African Americans in a post–Civil War tale? Well, don’t let the fact that it’s never been on VHS or DVD stop you: You can watch parts of it on YouTube or bid on a rare 16mm print online. Similarly, we all know someone who boasts of owning the incredibly awkward late-1970s Star Wars Holiday Special, even though it has never been available for purchase. And just this month some footage from The Day the Clown Cried leaked, bolstering hopes that one day Jerry Lewis’s long-vaulted, never-released World War II movie about a clown forced to entertain kids on their way to the Nazi gas chambers will eventually be unearthed for mass consumption.

For as much as we like being familiar with the world’s greatest art—all those best-of lists exist for a reason—we’re also seduced by the dregs, especially when they’re kept from us. Being curious about the detritus of legends stems from a mixture of fascination and reassurance that even the most talented among us can screw up. Plus, because we’ve become used to obtaining just about anything we want online, it’s genuinely exciting to think that there are still some long-lost artifacts out there we can’t yet possess. Rather than discouraging us, that reality makes those artifacts more precious. After all, it can often be more satisfying to imagine what something sounds or looks like than to actually hear or see it. (In some ways, these objects are better—more perfect—because we can’t readily get our hands on them.)

But that ravenous craving carries with it some consequences. When a musician dies, his heirs (and label) will make a few bucks churning out posthumous discs that are often inferior to the work he did during his life. Not that rabid fans mind: For a while there, Biggie, Tupac and Jimi Hendrix seemed more popular on the album charts dead than when they were alive. But even when the artist is alive, the label (usually with the artist’s consent) will try to bilk fans with remastered “deluxe” editions of old records and greatest-hits albums that contain a few new tracks as bait. Rarely are these “bonus” tracks worthy of standing side-by-side with the performer’s finest moments. (And in the case of those remastered old albums, the extras are often rough demos or clearly mediocre unfinished offerings.) And yet there’s enough of an audience out there to keep justifying the industry practice, which happily dilutes an artist’s recorded legacy to satiate the public’s need for completeness.

In a sense, this battle between label greed and proactive consumer curiosity has always gone on in pop music. When Dylan sat down with the Band in 1967 to record some songs on a lark for what would eventually be packaged as The Basement Tapes in 1975, an illegal boot of some of those sessions came out as Great White Wonder in 1969. Ironically, at the time Columbia sent out a statement decrying the bootleg, saying, “We consider the release of this record as an abuse of the integrity of a great artist. By releasing material without the knowledge or approval of Bob Dylan or Columbia Records, the sellers of this record are crassly depriving a great artist of the opportunity to perfect his performance to the point where he believes in their integrity and validity.” Today we see that labels don’t mind infringing on an artist’s integrity just so long as they can cash in on it, too.

Nevertheless, whether through a label or more illicit means, we live in a culture that’s just as interested in the scraps as the main course. But if we’re not discerning, the blood, sweat and tears of artistic expression will just become digital stuff we’re all feverishly chasing down without thinking about its actual creative merits. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in figuring out how we can get our hands on something that we don’t stop to wonder if we really need it.

Tim Grierson is Playboy for iPhone’s critic-at-large. You can follow him on Twitter.

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