Let’s Talk Us Some Bob Dylan

 

“How Bob intended it from the start”: contemplating The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 (The
Bootleg Series Vol. 9) and The
Original Mono Recordings box, both
recently issued by Columbia.

 

By A.D. Amorosi

It’s Dylan. Cut to the
chase. The forty seven songs on Bootleg
Series, Vol. 9
come from his initial publishing contracts with Leeds Music
and M. Witmark & Sons. Fifteen of those songs have never been heard
anywhere within the Dylan canon while the rest are either impressive rough
takes on later heard classics (some more abbreviated than others) or alternate
versions of songs sung blue. There’s a lot to be said of the poetry behind
Dylan’s poetry or how these were the beginnings of Dylan’s own bible in
opposition to the folk classicism he headed to New York City to be a greater part of. Oddly
enough, for a set of publishing houses, no one said much regarding the fact
that many of Dylan’s earliest cataloged works were merely his words atop of old
folkies. Maybe no cared. It’s hard to dis someone who by the age of 24 was
coming up with prophetic ironic works like “Long Time Gone”:

If I can’t help somebody
With a word or song,
If I can’t show somebody
That they’re travellin’ wrong
But I know I ain’t no prophet,
An’ I ain’t no prophet’s son,
I’m just a long time a comin,
An’ I’ll be a long time gone.

 

The highlights amongst the
more familiar tunes are numerous and unforgettable: a fuzzy piano-only version
of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” the spare but playful take on “Talkin’
John Birch Paranoid Blues,” the hurt recitation of “Mama, You’ve Been
on My Mind” – to start with – are so blindingly bold and different from
the studio versions we’ve come to know that they seem alien save for their
lyrics.

 

 

The songs we’ve not known
of? Other than the biting “Long Time Gone,” the giddy “I’d Hate to Be You
on That Dreadful Day” is but a bit more clowny than the relationship blues
of “All Over You.” While “The Death of Emmett Till” makes
no bones about its cursed subject or its character study in a way that makes
its menace unforgettable, the song behind the words of “Farewell” is one of Dylan’s
most refined and memorable – then and now. Then again, even fragments such as “Man
On The Street” or the ice dry demo of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” have
the ability to haunt – so there’s a lot of intense and lingering memorable
stuff going on in The Witmark Demos.

 

 

The nine discs of Dylan’s Mono are way more fun that the
monophonic box that was last year’s Beatles collection. There are cardboard and
inside paper sleeves copies of the original album jacket art that reproduces everything
from lyrics to the (now) kitschy advertising of its initial release (“The
Sound of Songs… Stereo… Bands… Jazz… Dancing… Fun… on Columbia
Records”). There’s an overly serious Greil Marcus piece, lots of data and
never-before seen photos and, the bonus disc, a copy of Bob Dylan In Concert Brandeis University 1963 – a solid gig marked
mostly by the open air echo on Dylan’s reedy voice.

 

Mostly though, this box
offers the simple un-compressed, non-stereo sound of how Dylan records sounded
upon release, a sound probably forgotten in comparison to the audiophiles
dedicated to mixing twitches of a George Martin. Without left/right channels
and voice/instrument splitting, Bringing
It All Back Home
is more shambling and densely rockist than its stereo
version, with The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan more nuanced and rich. The latter in particular – for some of us, those first albums
were nearly a sonic tossoff, a prelude to the rustic bumptious Bringing It. But the Mono forces us to reconsider the luster
of The Times They Are A-Changin’ and
the twitchiness of cuts such as “With God on Our Side” “Boots of Spanish
Leather” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” While little things like
Dylan’s Bob’s clicks and asides are winning, it’s the musicianship of Mono that means the most – the clarity
and warmth of the guitars on “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Leopard
Skin Pillbox Hat;” the kick of the rhythm section in “You Go Your Way
and I’ll Go Mine.” Another Side might
seem a bit reedy and some of the harmonica throughout seems to have been pushed
to the fore. But if that’s how Bob intended it from the start, at the very
least the Mono box brings it all back
home – happily.

 

[Ed. note: the live Brandeis disc is also available with the Witmark Demos for an extremely limited time at Amazon.com. Get it while you can.]

 

 

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