The growth of a legend
How Bob Dylan became Mr. Tambourine Man: Witmark Demos offers insights, notsurprises
For an artist who’s been bootlegged more than any other, it’s quite amazing how much surprisingly fresh material has emerged from Bob Dylan’s official Bootleg series, which began back in 1991. We’ve been treated to unreleased classics that put the best work of other musicians to shame, live performances that reinvent evergreen songs in often violently different ways, and outtakes that offer fascinating glimpses into the creative process of the most analyzed mind in rock music history.
The newest edition to this monumental undertaking, Bootleg Volume 9 if you’re counting, may be the first that doesn’t offer any breathtaking surprises. Most of these songs are well-known Dylan songs; the ones that haven’t been released on any official album to this point aren’t exactly revelatory. In other words, don’t pick up Volume 9 and expect to hear the next “Blind Willie McTell” or “Girl From The Red River Shore.”
What The Witmark Demos does provide is a splendid opportunity to see how much Dylan grew as a songwriter in three short years, from a rough-hewn folkie full of bluesy grit, to an elegant balladeer to the masses, to a poetic visionary operating on a plane no rock musician has ever even approached. While there may not be anything here that jumps out at the listener as a must-have, there are enough fine performances by the young Dylan to make this a worthy edition to the series.
Hardcore fans will probably get a kick out of Dylan’s struggles to get acceptable takes at times, either forgetting the words or coughing to ruin them. At other times, he seems downright bored with the prospect of running through these songs that he had likely played at countless live shows around the time. He even calls the somber “Let Me Die In My Footsteps” “a drag.”
Other times though, he gives truly tender performances of songs that we’ve come to know and love. He takes a lovely run through the poignant “Tomorrow Is A Long Time,” and turns to a higher register for “Rambling, Gambling Willie” to make it an edge-of-your-seat thriller. Best of all is the slowed down, world-weary take on the “Boots Of Spanish Leather,” his masterful he-said, she-said portrait of a dissolving relationship.
Of the more unfamiliar songs, the humorous ones tend to fare the best, especially the lascivious “All Over You” and “Gypsy Lou,” a clever tale of a wayward gal. Dylan tended to keep these lighthearted songs off the original albums, choosing to keep, probably at the behest of his record company, the more sober numbers. But the off-the-cuff tracks, as well as the improvisatory" talking” blues included here are just as big a part of the overall picture as the classics.
The Witmark Demos certainly gives you your money’s worth: 47 songs over two discs. The hits are there (“Blowin’ In The Wind,” The Times They Are A-Changin’,” among many others) as well as the obscurities. If nothing else, it’s an excellent primer for the casual fan who may not know too much about Dylan's early career.
Of course, by the end of the compilation, Dylan’s growth starts to overwhelm the songs’ acoustic settings. The last several tracks feature Bob on rudimentary piano, and as he bangs out the simple chords, the basic instrumental accompaniment sheds increased light on the sophistication of his lyrics. Songs like “Mr. Tambourine Man” pointed the way out of the era that The Witmark Demos document.
Yes, we may have heard most of what’s here before, but it’s certainly a treat to hear it again.
Adobe Flash Required for flash player. "Tomorrow is a Long Time"
Adobe Flash Required for flash player. "Boots of Spanish Leather"
Adobe Flash Required for flash player. "Gypsy Lou"
Adobe Flash Required for flash player. "Mr. Tambourine Man"