Like so many of the archival albums issued as part of Bob Dylan’s ongoing Bootleg Series, The Witmark Demos 1962 – 1964 isn’t something that’s going to appeal to everybody.
Indeed, for those casual, or even semi-devoted Dylan fans with that dog-eared copy of Blood On The Tracks or Highway 61 gathering dust in the closet, this may warrant just a single listen (if even that) at best.
On the other hand, for those looking to delve ever deeper into the early development and legend of the man who in just a few short years went from being simply another in a long line of Woody Guthrie wannabes, to the iconic “voice of a generation” back in those formative early sixties years, this is truly essential stuff.
Once again, be forewarned though.
This is a collection that truly separates the men from the boys when it comes to being any sort of serious, would-be Dylanologist.
Even if your own Bob collection draws from such disparate eras as Dylan’s early folkie days, his shocking jump from folk to rock in the mid-sixties, the late seventies “born again” years, or even his more recent, latter-day artistic rejuvenation with albums like Love & Theft and Modern Times — this still may not be for you.
Although the pristine quality of these restored recordings is pretty remarkable when both their age and somewhat dusty vintage are taken into account, listening to them in a single sitting often requires nothing less than the patience of Job. But after all, one Dylan fans joy is another ones pain, right?
Repeated listens are likewise going to be unlikely — at least, unless you count yourself among the sort of fanatics who pour over each line of Dylan’s songs as though you were deciphering Shakespeare. The good news here is that for those who fall into that latter category, this is definitely your kind of album. So, by all means, jump in with both feet. You’ll be diving overboard before you know it.
As with all of the other collections in Dylan’s Bootleg Series, the loving care taken in restoring these rare recordings and bringing them to market for mass consumption, appears to have been both painstaking and meticulous.
The 47 songs included here — demos a young and naked Dylan recorded for his earliest music publishers accompanied only by his acoustic guitar, harmonica and occasional piano — reveal an artist who, although certainly raw at the time, was clearly something special even then.
The stops and starts occasionally heard during these recordings — which are more like auditions never meant for public consumption anyway — clearly show that Dylan was a diamond in the rough not even halfway into his twenties. Dylan’s rapid and remarkable development as a songwriter is clearly evident in the embryonic two year period covered here, as is his uncanny gift for turning a vocal phrase.
On early versions of songs we all know and love like “Masters Of War,” “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “The Times They Are A Changin’,” you can hear some of the earliest examples of why Bob Dylan — all popular notions aside — is such a great singer. Yes, you heard me right. Because nobody, but nobody matches lyric to vocal delivery and bites off phrases for the sake of emphasis quite like Dylan does.
I could devote an entire article to this subject alone, and perhaps one day I will. In the meantime, the recordings on The Witmark Demos display this uncanny talent in its earliest stages to often quite stunning effect. Say, what you will about Dylan’s vocal range — and many have. But nobody outside of maybe Sinatra puts an exclamation point on a song lyric quite like him, and The Witmark Demos 1962 – 1964 offers convincing evidence it’s a gift that he had very early on.
In addition to early demos of familiar Dylan songs (“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna’-Fall”) and those which have become such a part of the American fabric that even non-fans will recognize them (“Blowin’ In The Wind”), The Witmark Demos also includes a number of previously unreleased (officially speaking, anyway) songs that display his amazing depth as a songwriter, even at such an early stage. These range from the righteous indignation shown in early protest songs like “The Death Of Emmett Till” to the more down-to-earth emotional sentiments of “Ballad For A Friend.”
One of the things that has made Dylan’s Bootleg Series such an excellent archival sampling of his work, has been the way the albums have criss-crossed their way through the various periods of his legendary career. These have ranged from such truly iconic snapshots in time as Dylan’s 1966 Royal Albert Hall Concert, to the soundtrack of Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home documentary to 2008’s Tell Tale Signs — a collection which in documenting Dylan’s artistic renaissance in the past decade or so, almost functions as an entirely new album.
The common thread with all these albums is that there really isn’t one, at least not in a chronological sense. Unlike Neil Young’s Archives series for example, the albums jump around from period-to-period with all of the same sort of wild abandon as Dylan’s music and career itself does.
What unites the entries in The Bootleg Series however, is the reverence and loving care involved in each. The Witmark Demos 1962 – 1964 is no exception. The deluxe booklet accompanying The Witmark Demos 1962 – 1964 features rare photos from the period covered and an essay by music historian Colin Escott (the more expansive and likewise just released Original Mono Recordings boxed set features a more expansive piece by noted music critic Griel Marcus).
Again, for casual fans this collection is not something you’ll likely be returning to the same way you would that worn and weathered old copy of Blonde On Blonde. The fact is, even the most devoted will find it something more appropriate for study and research then in humming a tune or even reliving a moment in time.
But for serious students of the bard, prepare yourselves to spend hours, if not days pouring over every word.