First Look: New Dylan “Brandeis” LP

 

Issued next week on
Columbia/Legacy (and previously available only as a bonus disc w/
The
Original Mono Recordings last year, this
live recording takes you back all the way to the beginning via a
recently-discovered tape.

 

By Steven Rosen

 

While libraries are filled with books about what’s been
gained from Dylan going electric, it’s worth taking a couple minutes – maybe
while listening to “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” on Dylan’s just-released
In Concert: Brandeis University 1963 – to consider what today might be like had he not changed into the great
hipster rock poet/roots-Americana progenitor that he became in 1965. Had he
stayed the incisive, shrewdly literate, sometimes-outraged, sometimes-amused
protest singer he very much was during his two short sets at the multi-artist
Brandeis’ First Annual Folk Festival. Just as he humorously but thoroughly
deflates the right-wing extremism (and just-below-the-surface racism) of the
John Birch Society, a pressure group of the day, could he have done it today
for the similar Tea Party Republicans? Or, had he continued to write topical
songs like this, might he have had such cultural impact this way that right-wing extremists could never be able to achieve
the power they now have? We’d be without “Like a Rolling Stone,” but we might
also be without the likes of Paul Ryan and Scott Walker (and Fox News)  trying to undo a century’s worth of social
justice and political progress – and getting away with it.

 

Anyway, the music on this short album was recently
discovered, as a reel-to-reel tape, in the archives of Ralph Gleason, the
influential San Francisco
music writer and Rolling Stone co-founder who died in 1975. After his wife passed, their son, Toby, discovered
this while clearing the house. (One hopes he saved everything else, too.)
Columbia/Legacy last year allowed Amazon to give it away to people who
ordered  Bootleg Series Vol. 9 or The
Original Mono Recordings.
Now it’s being released properly, with liner
notes by Dylan authority Michael Gray, for just $8.98 list because of its
under-40-minute running time. That makes it a good buy.

 

Dylan, in fine voice and assured attitude with acoustic
guitar and harmonica, already was on the cusp of stardom. As Peter N. Kirstein
has pointed out on his blog, Dylan’s “John Birch” song was performed at
Brandeis on May 10th (a Friday, not a Saturday as the back-cover art
would have it), just two days before he was scheduled to do it on The Ed Sullivan Show. A CBS censor
stopped him in rehearsal; he walked off in protest and never got to be seen. So
he was honing this then-unreleased song, which pretty specifically calls out
Birchers as fascists and Nazi sympathizers, at Brandeis – a Jewish-founded,
secular liberal-arts school in Waltham, Mass. – before taking it to all America
on its most important weekly variety show. In retrospect, it seems at least as
gutsy a plan as going electric at Newport.

 

Other songs on the album include a partial version of
“Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance,” “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” “Masters of
War,” “Talkin’ World War III Blues,” “Bob Dylan’s Dream,” and “Talking Bear
Mountain Blues.” Basically, the audience is spellbound – applause is especially
extensive after “Masters of War.” The students laugh during “Bear Mountain,”
which actually is a problem. Written in 1961, it was one of Dylan’s first
topical songs, according to the book Keys
to the Rain,
and shows he wasn’t yet master of the appropriate tone for his
songs. He’s unsure whether it should be serious or comic, and leans to the
latter. But it’s based on a 1961 incident in which panic broke out on an
overcrowded New York charter boat, resulting in injuries and not a funny
matter.

 

By the way, the two sets are divided by a break, at which a
host – speaking with a somewhat superior tone – asks the audience to move “in
front of the curtain” to improve sound in the gymnasium. Ah, college days!

 

 

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