Dylan's Diamonds in the Rough


Bob Dylan: The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 (Columbia)

The ninth volume (available as two CDs or four LPs) in Columbia's never-miss Bootleg Series of Dylan rarities is the first one where the historical value sometimes outweighs the musical pleasure, since he coughs between verses of "Blowin’ in the Wind," forgets everything after verse one of "Man on the Street," and so on. Nonetheless, this set of 47 lo-fi singer-with-guitar (or piano) tracks recorded for his music publisher is absolutely riveting listening for anyone with more than a casual interest in Dylan, not least because there are 15 songs here not on any other official Dylan album (there have been bootlegs). Only four of the recordings here have been released before, and while as just noted, some are not great performances, some are, even given the restrictions of the format and the sonic fidelity. Colin Escott’s wonderful booklet essay is an amusing, eloquent, and informative balance of matter-of-fact Dylan (and John Hammond) worship -- neither gushy nor hyperbolic -- and music-biz cynicism. At one point he writes, "Bob Dylan had songs spilling out of him." The songs in this collection were recorded in the versions heard here for a variety of reasons, but as Escott astutely theorizes, the prolific songwriter’s desire to get them on tape faster than Columbia's recording schedule for him would allow must have had something to do with how many Dylan recorded in the space of two-and-a-half years. So yes, these were demos for his publisher, functionally designed to interest other artists in recording them (which they did -- it can be easily overlooked, now that Dylan's been a star for decades, that it was Peter, Paul & Mary’s version of "Blowin’ in the Wind" that made him famous). But Dylan invests, for instance, "Quit Your Low Down Ways" with such a dramatic and virtuoso reading that the artist seemingly had a lot more invested psychologically in these recordings, at least sometimes, than just outlining songs for somebody to transcribe and to provide acetates for other artists to learn the songs from. (He occasionally adds harmonica, certainly not a requisite in the circumstances.) One imagines that on some level, "Long Time Gone" must be autobiographical. Even a straightforward rendition of "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues" yields one amusing change: "I investigated all the people that I knowed / Ninety-eight percent of them gotta go / The other two percent are fellow Birchers . . . just like me" has "and Al Grossman" appended with a chuckle as Dylan drags his manager’s name into it. Other differences in the lyrics are a bit more significant, but I’m not going to give them away, since listening for them is part of the fun here. And there’s a welcome freshness in listening to these renditions after hearing their more polished versions hundreds of times. Why did he switch to piano (somewhat fumblingly played) for four later songs? I don’t know, but it gives "The Times They Are A-Changin'" a solemn dignity, and the patterns the instrument abets give "I'll Keep It with Mine" (first and famously recorded by Nico) a more tender flavor than guitar would have. That something this wonderful mostly waited four-and-a-half decades to be officially released (probably due to the occasionally rough sonics, and Dylan having moved on from this period and naturally giving priority to newer material) might suggest that it’s scraps and leftovers. On one level that's irrefutable, but Dylan's leftovers are the high points of other singers' careers. So yes, I say at the beginning of this review that the historical value sometimes outweighs the musical pleasure, but nonetheless I know I'll be listening to this set often.