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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series Vol. 9 (The Witmark Demos)


CD I: 1) Man On The Street (fragment); 2) Hard Times In New York Town; 3) Poor Boy Blues; 4) Ballad For A Friend; 5) Rambling, Gambling Willie; 6) Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues; 7) Standing On The Highway; 8) Man On The Street; 9) Blowin' In The Wind; 10) Long Ago, Far Away; 11) A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall; 12) Tomorrow Is A Long Time; 13) The Death Of Emmett Till; 14) Let Me Die In My Footsteps; 15) Ballad Of Hollis Brown; 16) Quit Your Low Down Ways; 17) Baby, I'm In The Mood For You; 18) Bound To Lose, Bound To Win; 19) All Over You; 20) I'd Hate To Be You On That Dreadful Day; 21) Long Time Gone; 22) Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues; 23) Masters Of War; 24) Oxford Town; 25) Farewell;
CD II: 1) Don't Think Twice, It's All Right; 2) Walkin' Down The Line; 3) I Shall Be Free; 4) Bob Dylan's Blues; 5) Bob Dylan's Dream; 6) Boots Of Spanish Leather; 7) Girl From The North Country; 8) Seven Curses; 9) Hero Blues; 10) Whatcha Gonna Do?; 11) Gypsy Lou; 12) Ain't Gonna Grieve; 13) John Brown; 14) Only A Hobo; 15) When The Ship Comes In; 16) The Times They Are A-Changin'; 17) Paths Of Victory; 18) Guess I'm Doing Fine; 19) Baby Let Me Follow You Down; 20) Mama, You Been On My Mind; 21) Mr. Tambourine Man; 22) I'll Keep It With Mine.

So I suppose it was only a matter of time, after all, before the complete set of the Witmark demos (only a brief «teaser» glimpse of which was offered on the original Bootleg Series) made it onto the public market. But almost inevitably, here is where we pass completely into the realm of special interest; the potential audience of this package is probably even smaller than the one for No Direction Home, which at least had the advantage of covering both the acoustic and the early electric periods and thus, featured considerably more diversity.

These recordings are not rejected outtakes and were originally meant to be heard by other people, but not by any people — they were recorded by Bob for two publishing companies (Leeds, and later the more prestigious Witmark that bought out Bob's contract) that would offer Bob's raw demos for other artists to cover. So, on one hand, there is some incentive here to get the basic point of the song through to the listener — on the other hand, there is no pretending that these aren't essentially «scratch» versions, ranging from half-finished drafts to completed recordings that still lack the care and meticulousness of finished studio productions.

More than half of the songs that the Bobster recorded in those «childhood days» we already know well enough from the official studio albums, and the cream of the crop for the unknown ones was already made available on The Bootleg Series Vol. 1. ʽDon't Think Twice, It's Alrightʼ is the only version here that can fully compete with the official original — most of the others will have you cringe a bit in terms of occasional flubbed lines, bum notes, or wrong intonations. For some reason, his latest sessions for Witmark were mostly piano-based, yet I doubt that anybody will get more kicks out of piano-driven versions of ʽMama You Been On My Mindʼ or ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ, since Bob's piano skills were quite rudimentary.

As for previously unavailable or rare / bootlegged material, don't hold your breath: most of it consists of short, highly derivative snippets that may only disappoint when set next to classic material. Their main flaw is almost always the same — Bob is trying to sound like somebody else rather than himself. ʽStanding On The Highwayʼ, for instance, is an attempt at re-writing Robert Johnson's ʽCrossroadsʼ that fails because Bob is not Robert Johnson. A whole bunch sounds like Bob attempting to be Woody Guthrie (ʽGypsy Louʼ, ʽGuess I'm Doing Fineʼ, etc.). And it also features what might arguably be the man's worst ever attempt at a protest song: ʽThe Death Of Emmett Tillʼ. Which is really just ʽThe House Of The Rising Sunʼ with a new set of extremely crude lyrics that couldn't even be called «manipulative» because they're so ham-fisted. It did not take him too long to come up with better, sharper angles for Hollis Brown and Hattie Carroll, but poor Emmett Till, as tragic and disgusting as his story is, never really got his due here.

That said, there is hardly any sense in severely criticizing this album. For historiographers and «deep fans», this collection, grafted together in chronological order, is priceless anyway, because the lack of selectiveness shows, first and foremost, the learning process — the album lets us in, stage by stage, on the complicated job of becoming a successful singer-songwriter. In the process, we gradually see Dylan «coming into his own» — moving away from imitations and tributes and closer to finding his own voice. The big breakthrough, of course, comes with ʽBlowin' In The Windʼ and ʽHard Rainʼ — the great leap in quality that, amazingly enough, was yet nowhere near in sight when John Hammond signed Bob to Columbia — but it's not as if everything after that is a winner: inspiration still comes and goes, and it is only by the time of the second CD that Bob begins putting down masterpieces on a steady basis.

If seen from that point of view, The Witmark Demos is quite a unique archival release, because not even Anthology 1 included such a big share of early rejected or donated material, and it is quite bold of Bob to give the world easy access to his early jottings on such a large scale — al­though, at this point, it probably wouldn't have hurt his reputation if the next Bootleg Series were an entire album of Presley covers with his high school band. But the uniqueness comes with a price: I could only recommend this collection to people seriously obsessed with the question of «what is Bob Dylan's genius and where did it come from?». Additionally, young aspiring song­writers in need of some sort of «textbook» might certainly have an interest here. Not that Dylan himself had any «textbook» when learning to become a songwriter, but... well, let's just admit that «the waters around us have grown», and way too many aspiring songwriters seem to think that all it takes in this business is to write your own ʽDeath Of Emmett Tillʼ, without even bothering to upgrade it to the level of ʽBallad Of Hollis Brownʼ. So it doesn't hurt, every now and then, to refresh one's memory of what it is that separates «craft» from «awesomeness».

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