Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Bob Dylan: The Witmark Demos (1962-1963/2010)

Paul Simon sang, "Somebody says what's a better thing to do? / Well it's not just me and it's not just you." Here's a better thing to do.

I must say, I wasn't expecting this. As a card-carrying Sick Dylan Fan, I've had the Witmark and Leeds demos for many years: they're a cornerstone of any collection of Dylan's folk/protest period. Absolutely indispensable. Sony/Columbia knew this, and had been slowly and steadily poaching from them for years for archival releases, bonus tracks, what-have-you. See the list here of what's been released where.

And I figured that's what they'd go on doing for the foreseeable future. They knew what a marvelous cache of recordings these are, and so did the hardcore fans - but we weren't clamoring for their release, and the unconverted didn't know about them.

But here they are. And I have to hand it to Sony: they did it right. The right thing to do was to release all the Witmark demos, including the fragments, the ones in lousy sound quality, the ones where Dylan's performance is indifferent. The righter thing to do, since there was room, was to release the Leeds demos as well, including the duplicate. And, lo and behold, I think they did it. Alan Fraser (linked to above: Searching for a Gem), who is pretty authoritative, says that there's one Leeds demo missing, "He Was A Friend Of Mine," but Olof, who's a little more authoritative, says that this is actually the Columbia studio recording from the first album sessions, submitted as a demo, in which case it's already been released, and doesn't properly belong here. Fraser also mentions a promo acetate that surfaced in 2004 of "Bob Dylan's New Orleans Rag," but seems to be suggesting that this recording, too, was a Columbia recording that was simply submitted as a demo.

Thus, it appears to me that everything that should be here - everything we know about (and there could be more we don't know about) - is here. That's something, for Sony. They don't seem to have held anything in reserve to tempt/taunt us with later. They did right by us.

Everything else is just gravy. An informative and insightful essay by Colin Escott that contextualizes the recordings not only in Dylan's career but in the mid-century music business. An excellent selection of photos (God, sez the wife: Dylan was cute when he was young). And great sound. That is, there are still a number of tracks that sound kind of awful, but that's because that's how the tapes sound; they've done wonders with what they had to work with.

(The only odd thing is that there are no recording dates beyond the "1962-1964" of the title. We know approximately when each one was recorded, sometimes to the month, sometimes only to the season; even that much information would have helped the listener chart Dylan's growth, and figure out how these fit in with things on other volumes of the Bootleg Series. Oh well, there's always Olof.)

The music? As I say, this is indispensable stuff. Don't be fooled by reviews saying a lot of these tracks are minor. There are a dozen or so compositions on here that have simply never been released before, in any form, and one or two more that only the most avid of collectors will have heard - dig, an entire album's worth of new Dylan songs from his first great rush of songwriting genius. How can that not be essential listening? Even the minor compositions have that solid sense of melody, that nascent-rocker's sense of rhythm, that poet's gift for language that marks Dylan in this period. And some of them are decidely unminor. "The Death Of Emmett Till," "Farewell," "Long Time Gone," "All Over You" - I'd put these up against almost anything else Dylan did at the time.

It helps that most of the previously-unreleased compositions fall either in or near the protest-song category. For fans too young to have experience the era, Dylan's protest phase has always seemed a little elusive. Even his most protest-y albums have their share of personal-sounding songs, so it's always a little hard to grasp why people had such a one-dimensional view of him that they could be surprised when he abandoned protest for poetry. This collection helps, by showing just how many protest songs he was writing and rejecting. Anybody who knew him, or saw him at the folk festivals, or hung out in the Village coffee shops, would have been aware of many of these songs, and they would have helped
cement his image as a hardcore protest songwriter.

Listen to these discs in order. Even if you're going to disperse the songs into your work-in-progress Complete Dylan In Chronological Order, listen to these discs as-is first. It's an amazing experience, one mad rush of genius, delivered with disarming casualness (these were never meant to be heard by the public).

No comments: