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Sound Off | New Dylan bootlegs for diehards only

Guest Columnist

Published: Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Updated: Wednesday, November 10, 2010 15:11

Last summer, police in Long Neck, N.J. picked up a suspicious looking man after receiving a call about someone snooping around the backs of houses. When an officer arrived and questioned the man, who was dressed in two raincoats and black sweatpants tucked into rain boots, he was unable to produce identification. He also claimed that he was Bob Dylan.

The dubious police officer escorted the man to his hotel where they found a large tour bus parked out front and an incredulous employee who confirmed that it was indeed Bob Dylan. The officer shrugged and sheepishly admitted that he had only seen pictures of the troubadour from years and years ago. The police officer might have had better luck identifying Dylan as he appears on the cover of the most recent release from the seemingly timeless bard, The Witmark Demos, Bootleg Series Vol. 9. The songs too are familiar—they are the demos from his first recording sessions—though many feature an alternative singing style or strumming pattern. They are loitering versions of the songs, demos with their sweatpants tucked into the rain boots of the final cuts, and have a distinct, if sometimes odd feel.

The discussion about how commercially palatable these bootlegs are is moot: They are not for the faint of heart, or the casual listener. When The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3 was released in 1991, the sprawling three disc tome spanning 30 years of Dylan's career firmly separated the casual from the obsessed. The minute-and-a-half take of "Like a Rolling Stone" with a more chipper Dylan on the piano was either fascinating or shrug inducing. But that was never the point—The Bootleg Series aren't released for the casual listener. The subsequent issues have been smaller in scope, encapsulating smaller eras, as in Vol. 8, which catalogues his latter-day resurgence from 1989-2006, or the infamous Royal Albert Hall concert from 1966 (Vol. 6) which captures Dylan's watershed switch to playing with electric instruments; a decision for which he was vilified. Vol. 9 is 47 songs over two discs, all featuring only Dylan at either the guitar or piano, sketching the songs that would rocket Dylan to the farthest reaches of the folk community.

Like all releases in the series, the Witmark Demos are as intriguing as you make them. The novelty of Dylan doing "The Times They Are-a Changin'" on the piano might wear off after one listen, and so it is the more nuanced differences in the renditions of the classics that give this collection its mileage.

Take, for example, "Boots of Spanish Leather," the heartbreaking epistolary song from the album The Times they are a Changin'. The demo that is included in this collection has the same lyrics, the same finger picked pattern—on paper it is same song. What makes it worth it and what rewards attentive ears is the subtle change in his voice. Perhaps it is supreme irony that an artist revolutionized pop music with such a nasally, gruff voice, but one can sense a more emotive push in his singing. He is not the restrained, reticent singer that he is on the album version. He is pushing the limits of his howl, providing an audible compliment to the tender lyrics. Undoubtedly the one that made the record works better but the back story of the two together is fascinating. It gives listeners the opportunity to see the alternative, the implied debate as to how emotive to be, the work that he put into being so inscrutable.

Certainly not every song on the album offers such a back story. Switching to the piano for "Mr. Tambourine Man" hampers Dylan from reaching the zenith that he builds on the guitar on the official cut from Bringing it All Back Home. One standout from the first disc, however, is "Farewell," a plaintive goodbye that is the counterpart to "Boots of Spanish Leather" and, until this release, only appeared in the lyrics book of Dylan's discography. Sharing the refrain "my own true love," the singer promises to write letters to his beloved "who's bound to stay behind."

The song is not especially striking. There are no shimmering lines in "Farewell" that might top the "If I had the stars of the darkness night/and the diamonds from the deepest ocean/I'd forsake them all for your sweet kiss/For that's all I'm a'wishin to be ownin'" from the original. So maybe the collection does privilege the collectors, the Dylan-heads who ravenously feast on any new or bootlegged material, dissecting all the minutiae. And that is the most fascinating part of the series in general. It is not in a particular song but what the collection, and our consumption of it reveals about our desire to leave no stone unturned in the scrutiny of genius.

This is particular to Dylan, however, who just after 1964 had "abandoned" his folk tendencies and opted for electric guitars and organs. From that initial shift he has shook off any definition of his sound that sought to pin him down completely. These demos, and the larger interest in Dylan's rare material is a way to give one era in his career a feeling of permanence, for him to linger in one style for longer.

A photograph from the first studio recording session he did for Witmark shows the young, floppy haired head of Dylan peeking up above the piano. His head is reflected in the shine of the instrument and he wears an affronted expression, staring directly into the camera, almost daring the photographer to shoot. This photograph, in a way, is the idea behind this compilation. We know the classics inside and out just as we know that shrewd face. But the reflection, though it is sometimes glossy, sometimes more faint, can be just as interesting.

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Thu Nov 11 2010 20:12
it is hard to say or speculate why a review like the above would even be written; it is so full of generalizations and triteness that it is just an empty vessel floating aimlessly on an unknown sea.

the witmark demos are not for people "obsessed" with dylan; they are for people who love american music, who are intrigued and fascinated by the american history of racism and violence and hope and love, who are enthralled by the power and passion of simple heartfelt writing and singing and performing.

the so called review mostly mentions the well known dylan songs and leaves out many songs that simply pull at your heart and spirit if you simply listen to them from your heart rather than from a position that will allow you to write a foolish article about them:

It is depressing that such an insensitive review may end up preventing people from hearing some heartbreakingly fine songs, like: Man on the Street, Hard Times in New York Town, Long Ago Far Away, Let Me Die in my Footsteps, I'd Hate to be you on that Dreadful Day, etc. etc.

Just a few of the lyrics from Hard Times in New York Town from the young early-twenties years old Bob Dylan:

So all you newsy people, spread the news around,
You c'n listen to m' story, listen to m' song.
You c'n step on my name, you c'n try 'n' get me beat,
When I leave New York, I'll be standin' on my feet.
And it's hard times in the city,
Livin' down in New York town.

Mr Reviewer Person, do you not know how many people can be renewed and encouraged by lines like that from a young Bob Dylan; do you not know that New York Town becomes a metaphor for all of the tough times we've all gone through and that Bob Dylan's singing of the song could motivate some person, young or old, to keep on keeping on regardless of the overwhelming odds against him or her?

The album is filled with hope, outrage, anger, befuddlement, love, loss, strength.

Thanks for taking the time to read my alternate take on The Witmark Demos.

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