Diary of an online bootleg trade

Rule one in this flea-market atmosphere: caveat emptor.

Oct. 14: There’s a longstanding contention among Bob Dylan fans that his oeuvre of underground recordings–his shadow career, if you will–has at least as much validity as his legitimate collected works. I can’t say I disagree, and so I’m forever on the lookout for interesting Dylan bootlegs. My most recent quarry is a live recording made in Berkeley, Calif., in December 1965. On it, he’s backed by The Hawks, that brilliant quintet later known as The Band, and he actually plays to a receptive audience, not the packs of purist boo-birds that plagued so many of his early electric shows. Every Dylan nut I’ve ever talked to has told me my life isn’t complete as long as it lacks this recording. After years of searching via more conventional channels, I decide to bite the bullet and get it via an Internet trade.

Oct. 25: Some cursory searches turn up dozens of bootleg trading pages, and they’re as varied as the people who run them. Many offer only scant selection, with the promise that they’ll swap two blank CD-Rs for every recording of mine. Others have a staggering array of recordings, and an array of trading rules to match: No recordings from cassette or MP3 sources; TDK discs only; no overburning; when burning, use disc-at-once mode only; etc., etc. Still others keep a step ahead of the gendarmes by filling their sites with text that rigorously avoids use of the word bootleg. My favorite euphemism is ROIO: recording of indeterminate origin.

Nov. 2: I find my Berkeley concert on the text-only Web page of someone called Kreskin. His trading rules don’t seem too draconian, so I e-mail him to propose a swap, attaching a list of what I have to trade. It takes two weeks and three more queries before he responds, and he apologizes for the delay, saying the e-mail address on his site is one of seven he has, and it’s the one he checks the least frequently. I ask about the Berkeley show, and I get raves about the sterling quality of the recording in his possession. Only problem: His copy is on a cassette, and he doesn’t have a working CD burner. Would he mind mailing it to me so I can just make my own copy? No way. Doesn’t he know someone else with a burner? Maybe, probably. Once we get that straightened away, I try to get him to choose something to take from my collection. After much hemming and hawing, he picks something only a true Dylan trainspotter could love: a copy of the elusive mono pressing of Blonde on Blonde, which differs from the widely available stereo version by only the teensiest degrees.

Dec. 4: Kreskin has had his mono Blonde on Blonde for three weeks now. I try his seventh-favorite e-mail address a few more times, and Christmas comes and goes before he gets back to me with a full measure of contrition and promises about my CD.

Jan. 11: My treasure came in the mail today. I sit down with a beer and my precious new recording, ready to have my life changed. An absolutely distinctive version of “It Ain’t Me, Babe” is a revelation, and overall, the merit of the performance is beyond reproach; the merit of the recording isn’t. It was made from the audience, and Dylan’s singing is more or less swallowed up by the cavernous acoustics of the Berkeley Community Center. What’s more, the hiss and flutter tell me that my copy is several generations removed from its original source. It’s a keeper, but one tinged with disappointment considering the trouble it took to acquire it.

March 14: My morning troll of the Internet leads me to a Web page of a Dylan fanatic named Doug. His page has the usual accoutrements of music fan sites: photos, tablature, lyrics, a discography. I note a link at the bottom that says “rare recordings.” Usually this is one or two bad streaming-audio segments, but I check it out anyway. You guessed it: There’s my Berkeley show as a high-quality MP3 file, free for the downloading. Fifteen minutes later, I stick my newly-burned Bob Dylan disc in my bag and get back to work.

(Note: All identifying characteristics of collectors and Web pages have been changed.)

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