BOB DYLAN: THE BOOTLEG SERIES VOL. 7: NO DIRECTION HOME (1959-1966; 2005)
1) When I Got Troubles (home recording); 2) Rambler, Gambler; 3) This Land Is Your Land (live); 4) Dink's Song (home recording); 5) I Was Young When I Left Home (home recording); 6) Sally Gal; 7) Don't Think Twice, It's All Right (demo); 8) Man Of Constant Sorrow; 9) Blowin' In The Wind (live); 10) Masters Of War (live); 11) A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall (live); 12) When The Ship Comes In (live); 13) Mr. Tambourine Man (alt. take); 14) Chimes Of Freedom (live); 15) It's All Over Now, Baby Blue (alt. take); 16) She Belongs To Me (alt. take); 17) Maggie's Farm (live); 18) It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry (alt. take); 19) Tombstone Blues (alt. take); 20) Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues (alt. take); 21) Desolation Row (alt. take); 22) Highway 61 Revisited (alt. take); 23) Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat (alt. take); 24) Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again (alt. take); 25) Visions Of Johanna (alt. take); 26) Ballad Of A Thin Man (live); 27) Like A Rolling Stone (live).
Nothing lasts forever, and even «The Golden Age of The Bootleg Series» had to pass sooner or later. The first 3-volume set could rival at least a good half of Bob's officially released LPs, and the next three packages, in between them, offered a phenomenal retrospective of live performances, each one covering a completely distinct and autonomous Face of Bob Dylan. Alas, Vol. 7, nice as it is to have it on its own merits, shows that... well, we are not exactly scraping the bottom of the barrel, seeing as how there is seemingly no end to The Bootleg Series in sight, but we have definitely lifted off all the real juicy, creamy layers. The Bootleg Series Vols. 1-6 were for everybody; here begins the hardcore stuff for the truly inquisitive fan.
Actually, this album did not even begin its proper life as part of The Bootleg Series. It just so happened that Bob's old admirer Martin Scorsese finally got around to shooting a documentary on the man's rise to fame and his early, glorious years, with special focus on the «acoustic to electric» transition. The documentary had to have a soundtrack, but since it was deemed too boring to simply reuse the already available recordings from the movie, it was decided that the soundtrack would be a «pseudo-soundtrack», offering alternate cuts to much, if not most, of the music that was actually used in the movie or previously released on audio. And if so — hey, why not count the soundtrack as one more part of The Bootleg Series? Happy coincidence.
No Direction Home is the first Dylan album to be very similar, in principle, to the Beatles' Anthology: a few outtakes of songs that we have not previously heard from the man at all, interspersed with a boatload of alternate takes and live versions of stuff we do know pretty well. And, just like the Anthologies, it shares the same problem — there are good reasons why none of these alternate takes made the final cut. Live performances aside, there is a huge deal of «work in progress» here, and for myself at least, these takes hold only historical interest. They might be seriously different from the final version — but in most cases, «being different» means «does not really work all that well».
One myth that the availability of these outtakes does ruin, or, at least, shatter a little bit, is the myth of «total spontaneity», according to which the usual process was as follows: Bob just threw some lyrics together, got some guys together, gave them the key to play in, and then they'd record everything in one, at max two or three takes. Very rarely, it was like that indeed, but in reality most of the tunes did go through a gestation period, and the second disc here, covering the early electric years (1965-66), proves that all too well. We already knew about ʽIt Takes A Lot To Laughʼ and how it started out fast and raunchy and then only started making real sense when they slowed it down (there is yet another fast version here, and it works no better than the one on Vol. 2). But we may not have known that there was a take on ʽDesolation Rowʼ with Al Kooper on electric rather than Charlie McCoy on acoustic guitar — it sure sounds different, with Al's raga-like, proto-Velvet Underground improvisation a far cry from Charlie's quasi-baroque flourishes, but fact is, Charlie knew what the song needs here much better than Al did, and thank you very much, Bob, for understanding that.
Or take the two early outtakes from the New York sessions for Blonde On Blonde, recorded without the aid of the Nashville session people. ʽLeopard-Skin Pill-Box Hatʼ is slower and lazier than the finalized Nashville take, and has more of that uncomfortable «white boys play the blues» aura to it than the almost punkish punch of the final version. But the worst offender is ʽVisions Of Johannaʼ, which is seriously the only song on this album that I cannot listen to without cringing — the only excuse I can find for The Hawks' complete lack of understanding of how to play that song is that Bob, at this point, does not seem to understand it himself, screaming out the lyrics in «battle cry mode» as if this were ʽTombstone Bluesʼ. Horrible. And fascinating — that he did work it out, and eventually turned the disaster into an atmospheric masterpiece.
Even in the acoustic era, some outtakes sucked: the version of ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ, included here, for some reason features Ramblin' Jack Elliott on rather out-of-tune background vocals, adding a semi-drunk echo to Bob's main part. Worth one listen out of general amusement, I guess, but believe me, these harmonies sure ain't Byrds quality. (For that matter, the liner notes state that this might have been the version that was actually sent to the Byrds — if it was the «duet» that prompted them to try out group harmonies on the chorus, then, okay, this take has much more historical significance than I'd generally award it).
Curious, but inferior alternate takes aside, there is still about 70 minutes of excellent live performances here. Real early stuff like an honest-to-goodness, but somewhat bumblin' cover of ʽThis Land Is Your Landʼ, is not all that great, but then we get to hear some peak-level acoustic-era numbers from 1963, which already show him experimenting with the tempos and modulations, and a very spirited rip through ʽChimes Of Freedomʼ from the 1964 Newport Festival (so spirited, in fact, that some might probably suggest he was quite high at the time). Of course, the cake is taken by that one bit from the 1965 Newport Festival — that very performance of ʽMaggie's Farmʼ, cleaned up and remastered here in pristine sound (now we can hear what was actually played!), that started off the entire «heroic Dylan goes electric in the face of overwhelming odds» legend. Legend aside, it is one hell of a punk rock performance indeed, where Mike Bloomfield and his crazy electric guitar hystrionics rule the day more than Bob Dylan himself — naturally, the one crown jewel of this collection that should be present on any Dylan anthology.
Boosted by a few biographical oddities, like the low quality home recordings from 1959-1961 (ʽI Was Young When I Left Homeʼ is kind of a fun song to hear from a 20-year old, don't you think?), No Direction Home: The Soundtrack will boost your understanding of Bob Dylan and give you a few pointers about the nature and functioning of his genius. But unless you have worn out your copies of the «regular» albums no less than three times, I doubt that you will have strong «affection» for the seventh issue in The Bootleg Series. And to uphold that doubt, and also to stress the significant drop in quality, no thumbs up for you this time. As great as these songs are, we cannot give away thumbs up to any album that has any version of ʽDesolation Rowʼ or ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ on it, can we? That'd be debasing the currency in too cruel a fashion.