This is the soundtrack to the new Martin Scorsese film, just shown on PBS, that focuses on Dylan's rise to fame. With some slight adjustments, Columbia has turned it into Volume 7 of its Bootleg Series of Dylan rarities; which it fits well since all but two of its tracks are previously unreleased (at least officially; bootleg collectors will be familiar with much -- although not all -- of what's here).
Disc one is acoustic performances, mostly solo, including recordings made before Dylan moved to New York. It reaches all the way back to 1959 for what's called -- most likely the first original song recorded by Dylan, "When I Got Troubles," fascinating for the way Dylan sings in a sweeter, less cutting voice. From a trove of a dozen 1960 Minnesota recordings we get only the traditional "Rambler, Gambler" (dare we hope for more eventually?); Dylan's vocal tone is still not quite what it would become. That song and a contemplative 1961 Carnegie Hall performance of his idol Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" reflect the repertoire Dylan cut his teeth on. From the so-called Minnesota Hotel tapes at the end of 1961 come more reworkings of traditional material, "Dink's Song" and "I Was Young When I Left Home," the latter showing Dylan molding lines from various folk songs into a new, personal expression, a technique he often used in his early songwriting.
As we hit 1963-64, familiar songs are heard in unfamiliar incarnations. A fine cover of "Man of Constant Sorrow" is taken from a TV performance. "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" appears as a demo made in March 1963 for Dylan's publisher. The first studio take of "Mr. Tambourine Man," with Ramblin' Jack Elliott on backing vocal, is used in place of the documentary's 1964 Newport Folk Festival version. But most come from concerts; the rousing vehemence of "Masters of War" (with clever intro) and "Chimes of Freedom" (Newport '64) is especially impressive -- it's dead-on protest songs and spine-tingling solo performances such as these that made Dylan a star.
The disc closes with the first take of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue;" disc two opens with a drum-less version of what came to be titled "She Belongs to Me." They're from Dylan's controversial transition from acoustic folker to electric rocker, Bringing It All Back Home; the tumult over this shift is epitomized in the legendary 1964 Newport performance of "Maggie's Farm" with Dylan backed by most of the electrified Butterfield Blues Band. It's a performance that's been criticized as sloppy and unrehearsed (bassist Jerome Arnold makes almost no attempt to follow the chord progression), but as true as that might be, this is also (especially in improved sound) a positively exhilarating performance.
Many of the set's photos come from shoots that produced iconic album images -- but the ones here are not those icons. They look at once familiar yet shockingly different. The alternate takes from Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde that dominate disc two have a similar effect as we hear some of the most important and thrilling songs in rock history from different angles, so to speak. "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" is faster and more driving, and consequently guitarist Mike Bloomfield's soloing is that much more frenzied. He's absolutely scorching on a "Tombstone Blues" that also has fuzz bass (almost sounding like a baritone sax), some different organ licks, evocatively scruffy backing vocals from, apparently, the band, and what sounds like an unexpected alternate lyric (John the Blacksmith, not John the Baptist!). Noticeably different lyrics also crop up in "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" and "Desolation Row." In the booklet, organist Al Kooper's first-hand account of the 1965-66 sessions for these two albums (he was the music director for the later Nashville session) reveals the stripped-down, late-night first-take context of the latter song, with Dylan accompanied only by bassist Harvey Brooks and Kooper on electric guitar in a compellingly loose rendition of this epic song. (Too bad they didn't cut out Andrew Loog Oldham's blow-hard introductory essay to make room for more of Kooper's priceless insights -- including a few specific instrumental credits not listed on the albums -- and amusing stories.) Also heard in its first take, "Leopard-skin Pill-box Hat" is much slower and bluesier. "Visions of Johanna" is burlier, with a more emphatic beat.
The set finishes with two tracks where Dylan's backed by The Band for his 1966 U.K. tour; Garth Hudson's swirling organ sound dramatically transforms "Ballad of a Thin Man" (the other Band track is the previously released "Like a Rolling Stone," -- so notorious for Dylan's confrontational performance that it had to be included in the film). This collection is definitely not just for Dylanologists to puzzle over. These songs are so ingrained in most music-lovers, and these alternative versions so much more than scraps, that anyone can appreciate them. Also, note that if you buy both the album and the new book The Bob Dylan Scrapbook, 1959-1966 at bobdylan.com, an exclusive disc with six tracks from Dylan's 1963 Carnegie Hall concert is included.
This review is dedicated to Puck, a good little kitty, and to Catharine and Tristan, who now must carry on without him. Pucker, it was an honor to be licked by you. We'll always remember you.