"I didn't go into folk music to make any money, but because it was easy, you could be by yourself, you didn't need anybody. All you needed was a guitar, you didn't need anybody else at all. I don't know what's happened to it now. I don't think it's as good as it used to be. Most of the folk singers have gone on, they're doing other things. Although there are still a lot of good ones around." Bob Dylan, Chicago 1965.
As we wait patiently (or perhaps impatiently) for an album of new Bob Dylan material, and hope against hope that it will be as good as the previous two, there has been an avalanche of vintage material being issued as interest in the man reaches almost unprecedented heights. In the print media we have seen the publication of Greil Marcus's "Bob Dylan at the Crossroads," an in depth examination of "Like A Rolling Stone," an updated and revised edition of Sam Shepard's "Rolling Thunder Logbook," a paperback version of Dylan's own superb memoir "Chronicles," an interesting if very seriously priced scrapbook, and several editions of photographic retrospectives, some more essential than others. In Britain the BBC recently celebrated Dylan and his work during a week which saw the screening of such gems as "The Last Waltz," "Don't Look Back," "Masked And Anonymous" and a fascinating documentary on the making of the play "Madhouse on Castle Street" (now apparently lost forever). The highlight of the week however, was the broadcast of Martin Scorsese's long awaited and justifiably acclaimed "No Direction Home," which examines in microscopic detail the first five years of Dylan's career. As an accompaniment to Scorsese's film, Sony/CBS have released a 2 CD collection (oddly called "The Soundtrack") that uses outtakes, alternates and live performances from the same period, although the first three tracks predate Dylan's official recording career. All but two of the twenty-eight tracks are previously unreleased, and although serious collectors will have the bulk of what is on offer here, the album offers a compelling insight into what must be the most astonishing musical journey ever. The inclusion of two previously released tracks on a "Bootlegs" series album seemed strange at first, but on reflection both belong here. The first, "Song to Woody" sees Dylan wearing his heart on his sleeve as he pays homage to one of his early mentors, and the second, the live version of "Like A Rolling Stone" sees him a mere four years later baring his teeth at his unappreciative audience as he (probably unknowingly) brought down the curtain on the first stage of his career. "No Direction Home," is not an album for the casual listener, if there is such a thing, but more for those who want a deeper insight into Dylan's most exciting half decade. As such it shows that in most cases the studio takes that were chosen for official release were the right ones, while the live tracks illustrate that from very early on, Dylan was comfortable in front of an audience.
The opening track, "When I Got Troubles" is little more than a snippet. Less than a minute and a half long, it was recorded by high school friend Ric Kangas and showcases an eighteen year old Dylan trying to sound like an ancient bluesman. This may well have been the first time that Dylan committed his voice to tape, and he sounds a little nervous as one would expect, but the voice is high and pleasant, if a little hesitant. He acquits himself well, but the voice and the delivery of the song are light years away from what we would soon be hearing. Similarly, the second track is also a home recording, but here Dylan sounds more self assured and confident as he swaggers his way through the traditional "Rambler, Gambler." Recorded by fellow student Cleve Petterson, Dylan performs a sweet, clear rendition of the song in a voice that is too youthful to convince. Interestingly, Dylan would record another version of this song (under the title "Moonshiner") for 1963's "The Times They Are A'Changin'" but it did not make the cut - it can be found on the first "Bootlegs" album. Several Dylan contemporaries (Odetta and Ian & Sylvia among them) have recorded versions of "Rambler, Gambler." Dylan's version ends with the prophetic "There's changes in the ocean/There's changes in the sea/There's changes in my true love/Ain't no change in me."
Although it begins with a little nervous hesitation, "This Land Is Your Land" is, for me, one of the highlights of this album. Dylan performs this Woody Guthrie song with unashamed pride and grows in confidence as he progresses. It never ceases to amaze me when I hear early Dylan performances how much passion he was able to inject into his singing, his description of America "From California to the New York island/From the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters" is enough to bring a lump to your throat, and the defiance of "Nobody living can ever stop me..." is something to behold in a twenty-year old. The song was recorded at the Carnegie Chapter Hall in November 1961, some three weeks before the New York sessions that would produce his first album, and Dylan gave a hesitant and somewhat stilted performance, but this song stands out as an early live classic. The strict chronology of the album is established with "Song To Woody," one of only two self-penned songs on the debut album. There is a touching innocence about this song as Dylan pays tribute to a man he obviously held in high esteem and he almost deifies as one of those that "...come with the dust and are gone with the wind."
Both of the next two tracks come from the famous and much bootlegged Minneapolis party tape, (sometimes known as the Minnesota Hotel Tape). It was recorded by Tony Glover at Dave Whittaker's home in Minneapolis on December 22nd 1961, a month after Dylan had recorded his first album in New York and several of the songs that appear on that album are featured on this tape. "Dink's Song" and "I Was Young When I Left Home" are steeped in pathos and are in keeping with the material that Dylan was performing and recording in late 1961, indeed, neither would have been out of place on the debut album. The former with its typical folk song content and theme has what Paul Cable describes as an "...aggressive guitar rhythm," and Dylan's increasingly robust chorus of "Fare thee well my honey, fare thee well" makes this compelling listening. The latter, which Dylan introduces to his audience with "I sorta made it up on a train..." is no less so. Based loosely on the song "900 Miles" (or "500 Miles") this is also typical folk song material with the central character describing his reluctance to return to his needy family because he is ashamed of his lack of progress in the world. He is fighting an inner conflict, on the one hand he tells himself "I can't go home this a'way" while conceding that when he has paid his debts "I will pawn my watch and chain and go home." We never know which path he chooses. Both of these performances illustrate how quickly Dylan was growing and gaining confidence. "I Was Young When I Left Home" was included as a bonus disc with a limited edition of 2001's "Love And Theft" and two other songs from this tape have also been given official release, "Hard Times In New York" on the first "Bootlegs" album, and "Wade In The Water" on the Japanese release "Live 1961 - 2000" (2001).
"Sally Gal" is an outtake from the first "Freewheelin'" session which took place in New York on April 24th 1962. This is a far more exuberant piece than the two predecessors, but pretty inconsequential. After a fairly lengthy guitar and harmonica introduction during which Dylan seems to be enjoying himself too much to embark on any vocals, we are eventually treated to a song that is over almost before it begins. Perhaps significantly, nothing that was recorded at this session made the cut of the officially released "Freewheelin'." By contrast, "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" is a Dylan classic. This version was recorded as a Witmark demo for copyright purposes in March 1963 and differs very little from the official album version which had been recorded some four months earlier (14th November 1962). This is one of my favourite songs from this period because of the way Dylan manages to get the feelings and emotions across with such an economy of language - he is bitter and he is hurt, but he still manages to keep the melody line jaunty. Most of the lines however do have a sting in the tail, "Look out your window and I'll be gone/You're the reason I'm trav'lin on," "I once loved a woman, a child I am told/I give her my heart but she wanted my soul" and "You coulda done better but I don't mind/You just kinda wasted my precious time." Brilliant!
"Man Of Constant Sorrow" is another song from Dylan's debut album, but this version was recorded at the Westinghouse Studios in March 1963 for the television programme "Folk Songs and More Folk Songs," although only the audio track is in existence. Having seen some of the performances from this show, I think it is fair to say that "Folk Songs and More Folk Songs," was a programme that took folk music very seriously - stripped down, minimalist sets, stark camera work and lots of dour close-ups, consequently Dylan's performance remains faithful to his officially recorded version, in fact it is slightly better. This is a song that I like very much (I was particularly fond of a version that country singer George Hamilton IV recorded), and in the sixteen months or so between the recording of the album version and this one, Dylan had mellowed considerably with the result that this version lacks the frenetic pace of the original - no bad thing.
Both "Blowin' In The Wind" and "Masters Of War" come from Dylan's concert at the New York City Town Hall on April 12th 1963, some songs from which were destined for half of a live album (though neither of these two were being considered). Both of these songs would be on Dylan's second album ("Freewheelin'") but this concert took place some six weeks before that album was released. Dylan was already being hailed as a new force in folk music circles and "Blowin' In The Wind" was recognised as a major achievement - it is one of the most recorded songs in music history (to date it has been recorded by everyone from established folk, rock and country artists to the likes of Trini Lopez and Lena Horne!). As Dylan introduces the song he seems genuinely embarrassed by the amount of attention it has received "...but the words are the same" he says "...and that's what matters." He goes on to perform what is possibly the definitive live version of the song - slow, precise and deeply moving - a classic performance. His introduction to "Masters Of War" is less humble, "I believe in the Ten Commandments" he announces "The first one is I am the Lord thy God. It's a great commandment if it's not said by the wrong people." This is a wonderful sentiment, but this is not a song that I have ever taken much pleasure in listening to. Like the similar themed "God On Our Side," the point is made early and in repetition it becomes laboured, but it is obviously a song that means a lot to Dylan, after over forty years it is still performed fairly regularly. This performance deviates little from the album version.
By the time of Dylan's second major concert of that year at Carnegie Hall (October 26th), his public profile was much higher. He had appeared at several events (often with Joan Baez), he had performed at the prestigious Newport Folk Festival and recorded all but one of the tracks for his next album. "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" and "When The Ship Comes In" are both from that evening, and what strikes one is how much more relaxed and confident Dylan is in front of his audience. "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall means something's gonna happen..." he says before being drowned out by the applause and he launches into a thoughtful, almost meditative rendition of the song. As was the custom then, the audience maintained a respectful silence during the performance before showing their appreciation at the end. "Freewheelin'" had been in the public domain for some five months at the time of this concert, and this song that closes that album was rapidly earning Dylan the reputation of being a major new talent. It is one of the most powerful and thought-provoking pieces from this early period, and was apparently the inspiration behind both Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell becoming songwriters. Selections from this concert were also earmarked for the planned live album and among them was "When The Ship Comes In," a song that would perhaps have not as been so well known at the time (it had only been recorded three days earlier), and Dylan introduces it with a strange preface about old and new goliaths that may have meant something at the time but sounds like gibberish today, unless it has something to do with the song's final line "...and like goliath they'll be conquered." Whatever the case, this is a great song, well performed to an admiring and enthusiastic audience. It was destined to be one of the better songs on Dylan's third and rather sombre album "The Times They Are A-Changin'."
It is fairly common knowledge that the entire "Another Side Of Bob Dylan" album was recorded in one session (June 9th 1964), and as the saying goes, alcohol was taken. By the end of the session, Dylan and his band of hangers on were pretty relaxed "Jack, sing on this one" invites Dylan to "Ramblin'" Jack Elliott, as a very "tired" sounding Tom Wilson introduces #CO82221 "Mr. Tambourine take one" "Tambourine Man" corrects Dylan as Wilson instructs Elliot to sing over Dylan's shoulder - so take one becomes take two. It matters little, this was never going to be a classic no matter how many takes there were. Dylan gives it his best shot under the circumstances, but even he with his amazing timing and monumental memory for lyrics almost loses it more than once - at one point we get "...shouted trees?" Elliott brings little or nothing to the party and it was a wise decision to discard it and leave it for another occasion. Imagine if one of Dylan's most significant and quintessential songs had been buried with the lightweight material on "Another Side."
I have long considered "Chimes Of Freedom" to be one of Dylan's greatly underrated songs, it rarely features in lists of such, but to me it contains some of his best and most powerful lyrical images. His performance of it at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival however, did him few favours. The performance is included here, and Dylan, clearly under the influence of something other than adrenaline seems to be taking little pleasure in the experience. From the opening line where "...sundown's finish" becomes "...finished sundown" his performance is sloppy and raucous, and at times it sounds as if he is about to throw in the towel, a long way from the album's liner notes description of "...the loose limbed enthusiasm of an artist at the top of his powers. The sound of a man with lightning in his pocket." John Hammond was angry with Dylan and said that he ought to be "...spanked for putting in such a performance," and biographer Robert Shelton pointed out that "Being stoned had rarely prevented his giving winning performances, but he was clearly out of control." I maintain my opinion of the song, but not this performance of it. Disc one closes with an alternative version of another classic, "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," the song that would close "Bringing It All Back Home," as well as being used to partly placate the hostile crowds of the following years Newport Folk Festival. Apart from a few minor lyrical changes, there is no discernable difference from the officially released version.
Disc two opens with an alternate version of "She Belongs To Me," and I for one would be hard pressed to choose between this and the officially released version. The lack of drums here helps bring Bruce Langhorne's guitar to the forefront, "...so sublime is his contribution revealed here," says Mark Edwards in London's Sunday Times, ...that you might imagine him saying "Ah, but you should have heard what I did on take two." Dylan's vocal too is slower, smokier - closer to what we are used to hearing in live versions, compare it to the version on the "Live 1966" album. Sublime indeed.
So much has been written about the events at Newport on July 25th 1965 and the year that followed, that it is almost impossible to add anything. Suffice to say that when you hear Peter Yarrow's introduction "The person who's coming up now is a person who has in sense changed the face of folk music..." it still creates a feeling of excitement, even after forty years. Dylan's 1965 performance at Newport was as pivotal and ground breaking as it was possible to be - the recording of "Maggie's Farm" included here bears testament to that. It is hard to imagine that Dylan is able to breathe new life into it these days (great song though it still is), but back in July 1965 when it was still fresh and totally unconventional and he was still experimenting with the likes of Paul Butterfield, Michael Bloomfield and the mercurial Al Kooper, this was heady stuff. A great performance and everything that everybody has always claimed it was. The audience that evening would have also heard a song called "Phantom Engineer," the song that became the album version of "It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry" Here we can witness it in the original format, before Dylan rearranged it into the slower, bluesier number that we now know so well. The lyric change in the third and final verse is more in keeping with the slower version, but if we had never heard it, one has to wonder how the faster version would have fitted into the "Highway 61 Revisited" album. Also from the "Highway 61 Revisited" sessions comes an alternate of "Tombstone Blues," that Dylan doesn't manage to finish. The lyrics of "Tombstone Blues," are typical of the chaotic, surreal poetry that Dylan was writing in the mid-sixties. This is a long song with six complex and convoluted verses, and there were eleven attempts at it the day that it was recorded, this is take 9, take 11 was the one that eventually made the album. Bloomfield's soaring guitar is much in evidence here and there are muted, barely audible background vocals. Everyone seems to be having a great deal of fun, but at the end of verse three Dylan breaks into laughter, "I can't sing no more," he splutters, "...you gotta put a wall up over here man," and the whole thing grinds to a halt.
"Highway 61 Revisited" is an album that does not have a bad track on it; it is an album where the whole is far more than just the sum of the parts. That said, I always consider "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" to be one of the finest tracks on that album. Seldom has even Dylan, master craftsman that he is, been able to create an atmosphere as well as he does with the officially released version of this song. The smoky, claustrophobic almost hallucinogenic atmosphere that he creates so well in say, "Visions Of Johanna" or the later "One More Cup Of Coffee" pale by comparison. Consequently, as much as I like this alternative version (it was take 5 out of sixteen on the day) it cannot compare with the version on the album. It is not without merit, the vocal is clearer, more distinct and focused, but the album version is still the definitive one.
The version of "Desolation Row" included here has long been available on a semi-official album entitled "Highway 61 Revisited Again" and with all due respect to Al Kooper, it is a pale shadow of the officially released version, even though Clinton Heylin suggests that the vocal is better. Sometimes referred to as the "...boiled guts of birds" version (a reference to one of the few lyric changes) it was recorded before Charlie McCoy was invited up from Nashville by Bob Johnston to play second guitar. Legend has it that McCoy didn't know what was required of him, and winged it - the results are there for all to hear, his acoustic guitar work on the released version is nothing short of transcendent; it makes the song. This version with Kooper on electric guitar and Harvey Brooks on bass doesn't quite cut it when compared with the McCoy version. Incidentally, the other lyric changes include Ophelia's twentieth birthday not her twenty-second, the heart-attack machine is "...strapped across their bosoms" not their shoulders (that one really sounds awful), and in the final verse we get "Right now I don't feel too good" instead of "Right now I can't read too good." A bit pedantic but there you are. According to Kooper, this version was "...cut quite early in the ayem when most musicians had packed it in for the night." It would have been the end of the session that began on the evening of August 2nd - a particularly prolific day that produced the album versions of the title track as well as "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," "Queen Jane, Approximately" and "Ballad Of A Thin Man." The McCoy session took place on the afternoon of August 4th.
The version of "Highway 61 Revisited" that is included here suggests that the August 2nd session was a great deal of fun, as well as being extremely productive. This version does not have the distinctive police siren sound (Kooper maintains that he gave it to Dylan "A little variety for your album...") and is the sixth take of ten that were taped. Lyrically, this is identical to the released version, but the musicians seem a little looser. Dylan in particular seems to be enjoying himself, almost breaking into laughter a couple of times and crooning "oooh oooh" right at the end of the take.
The next three tracks are all "Blonde On Blonde" outtakes. The first of these is a much funkier version of "Brand New Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat" than the one that appears on the album. This was recorded at the January 25th 1966 session in New York, before everybody moved down to Nashville. This song has never been a personal favourite and I have never understood why it has been performed so often in concert - it was a staple of the electric section of the contentious 1966 world tour, though sounding very different to the way it does here. This is quite clearly a work in progress, and I have to say that if Dylan had stuck with this blues arrangement the song might have been more palatable (to me anyway). At this stage of its gestation, the song sounds as if it is being made up on the spot. This is particularly true of the last two verses where Dylan really sounds as if he is clutching at straws, these were thankfully dropped from the final album version that was recorded in Nashville during a mammoth session that began at 6pm on March 9th and ended at 7am the next day. Six of the album's fourteen tracks come from that session. "One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)" was the only New York recording to make the cut of "Blonde On Blonde," it comes from the same session that produced this version of "Brand New Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat."
Much has been said and written about Dylan's writing and recording methods in the mid-sixties, particularly in relation to "Blonde On Blonde," and listening to this outtake of "Stuck Inside Of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again" indicates how true those stories are. Three of the nine verses are little more than ideas and Dylan stumbles over each of them as he tries to form them into words and lyrical images. He sounds as if the song is just about nailed, and one or two more takes ought to do it, but amazingly this was take five and there were a total of twenty before Dylan got what he wanted. When one considers that two other epic tracks "Visions Of Johanna" and "Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands" had both been recorded in the preceding two days during lengthy nocturnal sessions, it is no wonder that the Nashville session men regarded Dylan and his compatriots with something approaching awe. Lyrically, "Visions Of Johanna" (aka "Seems Like A Freeze Out") was just about complete before the move to Nashville, as this version from New York on November 30th shows, but the arrangement is very different to the album track that we have become used to. The only noticeable change in the lyrics is the dropping of the "...nightingale's code" from the final verse, otherwise it is as we know and love it. As the album version of this song is about as near to perfection that it is possible to get, it would have taken something really special to upstage it, so hearing this version is interesting only from an academic point of view.
Which brings us to the last two tracks, both live selections, three days apart. The version of "Ballad Of A Thin Man" taken from the Edinburgh, Scotland concert three days after the famous events at Manchester seems somehow more visceral, but that could be my imagination. The format of the live section of these concerts varied little, and this was usually the penultimate song, with Dylan taking over the piano stool from Richard Manuel before retaining his guitar for what would be the climactic "Like A Rolling Stone." That "Ballad Of A Thin Man" was written as a taunt and a put-down there can be little doubt, but whether it was used as such during these concerts as most of us speculate, only one man really knows, and he's not telling. Whatever the case, these were high octane events with much electricity (no pun intended) in the air, the like of which we will probably never see again. The only question I have is why this performance is included here when it is really not that different from the already officially released version. As for "Like A Rolling Stone," like the Newport version of "Maggie's Farm," there is not really much that one can add to what was without doubt an era defining moment. On a personal note, when I first bought a bootleg copy of the "Albert Hall" concert from the mail order section of a dubious magazine in London many years ago and heard the amazing renditions of these songs, I never dreamed that after the turn of the century we would actually see these events captured on film. The footage that Scorsese uses in his film is a visual and aural reminder of the potent and dynamic figure that Dylan portrayed on stage in 1966. He created an era, he defined the era that he created and at that moment he brought that era to an end.
"No Direction Home" is a truly staggering account of a musical journey. "How on earth, in only half a dozen years" asks John Harris in Mojo magazine "did he get from there to here?" Even Dylan himself could probably not answer that one. But get here he did and along the way he wrote and performed songs the like of which we had never heard before, he influenced singers, songwriters, musical groups, fashion and the film industry, in short an entire culture. Andy Gill writing in the Independent called Dylan "...a kind of socio-political barometer of his era." Mark Edwards in The Sunday Times wondered how hard it must have been for Dylan's producers to choose which takes to put on the albums, "...most of (the alternate takes) are as magical as the versions we know and worship" he wrote. And in the Boston Herald Larry Katz observed "...if "No Direction Home" is indicative of what's to come, Dylan fans can only smile and say, "Bring it on."" Dylan himself, while collaborating (indirectly) with Martin Scorsese has been typically silent on all of this, which takes us back to something he said a couple of years ago - "My ideal performances are scattered on stages throughout the world. Very few can be found on my records."