I speak and write often about flow, the state people and organizations are in when they’re focusing passionate energy, together, every day, on purpose-driven activities. The architect of flow is Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a top researcher in positive psychology. In his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi writes: “. . . the best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times. . . The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we can make happen.”
Most people have experienced “being in the Zone,” or having a “hot hand”, or being on a winning streak. That’s flow. You feel unbeatable. In control of your actions. Extraordinarily talented and certain. As Csikszentnihalyi describes it, flow is mastering your own destiny—the feeling we have when we are fully alive.
This week on CD, vinyl, and MP3 we can hear what flow sounds like. I’m talking about Columbia Records’ release of Bob Dylan’s “The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 12,” which comes in three formats to fit every Dylan fanatic. There’s a two-CD highlights set; a 6-CD set deluxe edition, which includes all 16 studio takes of “Like A Rolling Stone”; and a 5,000-pressed, limited edition, 379-track Collector’s Edition that features every single note Dylan recorded in the studio in 1965/66. (Diehard Dylanists only need apply for the last one, investment of $599.99 needed).
“The Cutting Edge” covers the singer-songwriter’s “most intense period of wild inspiration and creativity,” writes New Yorker editor-in-chief David Remnick. During that fifteen-month period from the beginning of 1965 through the summer of 1966, “when the songs came two and three a day, as if from heaven, and he seemed as filled with wonder as the rest of us,” Dylan graced us with three records—“Bringing It All Back Home,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” and “Blonde On Blonde”—that redefined popular music.
I’m a firm believer that great business organizations trying lots of ideas, constantly, and that failing fast, learning fast, and fixing fast is a key recipe for success. That’s what we see the singer-songwriter doing during this explosive period. Dylan was famous for working fast in the studio and recording “live” (that is, with few if any pre-recorded overdubs). What one is witness to on the bootleg collection of unreleased tracks, outtakes, rehearsals, and alternate versions of canonized songs is a great artist figuring things out. “He’s inventing all the time in the studio, improvising lyrics, dropping lyrics, making up bogus titles,” Remnick writes. “You hear him discarding his Okie folk voice and working out the right timbre of his rock-and-roll voice.” You hear “Like A Rolling Stone” arranged as a waltz; “Visions of Johanna” played like a hard rock number.
Listening to this historic archive, you feel Dylan’s genius, his intuitiveness, his leadership abilities as bandleader, and his impatience to fulfill popular music’s deeper ambitions. You learn, reading the album’s liner notes, that in a single astonishing day—January 15, 1965—Dylan recorded the final versions of “Maggie’s Farm,” “On the Road Again,” “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” “Gates of Eden,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” (Hold close that example of just another average day at the office the next time you have an uninspired, lackluster day at work.)
“Those early songs were almost magically written,” Dylan told 60 Minutes’ Ed Bradley decades later. “Try to sit down and write something like that. There’s a magic to that, and it’s not Siegfried and Roy kind of magic, you know? It’s a different kind of a penetrating magic. And, you know, I did it. I did it at one time. . . You can’t do something forever. I did it once, and I can do other things now. But I can’t do that.”
Flow can happen in all kinds of environments: in homes and offices; stages and screens; fields and arenas; a Woodstock, NY basement or Tin Pan Alley and Nashville recording studios. This newest bootleg is a glorious testament to Dylan’s hottest ever musical streak and America’s greatest and most abundant living artist working at peak flow.