Not every release from an artist needs to be polished and refined to the nth degree; The Witmark Demos feature songs, cut from the gut performed with gusto and innocence providing the listener a time machine back to a time when even Bob Dylan was a struggling musician hoping someone would record his songs. Some songs are cutoff; we hear Dylan cough and even side comments from Dylan before and after. However, if one could see a scratched up and non-refined cut of the original and complete The Magnificent Ambersons you would do it without question. Each performance on this new set was cut before Bob Dylan turned 24. Even if this was all he ever contributed to the world, it would be a mouth gaping achievement. Its one thing to step up to a microphone with history behind you to cut a song and it's another to just let it fly. He had nothing to lose and everything to gain. Even though most of these songs have been widely bootlegged for decades, this is an integral and important release not just for Dylan fans but music fans as well. Listening to an artist find and discover their voice is something one can't put a price on. This is possibly one of the greatest relics in the history of American music and its here for your listening pleasure.
Some of this material went on to become classics for not just Dylan but other acts as well. "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall", "Masters of War", "The Times They Are a-Changin'" and "Mr. Tambourine Man" are all here. Captured with wide-eyed innocence, these songs are stunning to behold in their infant stage. "Blowin' in the Wind" is in demo form, but isn't all that radically different from the infamous cut we all know (aside from Dylan coughing here). However, there's a sense of witnessing the birth of a song that would possibly change everything. I've always been a firm believer that even though the album cut should be definitive, it's heartening to see Dylan document the many phases of his career with live and alternate cuts. It takes us down roads less traveled. The package's standout track is "Tomorrow Is a Long Time". Originally released in a live version on Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits Vol. II, it's been a track covered by dozens of artists over the last fifty years, but here the song takes on a new life. The emotions flow, in his shrill voice you hear distress and crawl inside Dylan's headspace. With only Dylan's voice and his acoustic guitar, the simplicity suits the song well and this bare bones recording of the song is definitive.
The 60-page booklet, like all installments of the Dylan Bootleg series, is filled with informative liner notes and help put the recordings in perspective. It does more than merely recap the songs Dylan wrote and recorded, but gives a fascinating glimpse into the world of music publishing and how, at the time, Dylan shattered the mold when he began to go on and write and record his own material. It's easy to dismiss the set, but you'd be wrong to do so. It may not have as many stand alone masterworks as previous Bootleg installments, but this is a cohesive collection. However, what keeps the The Witmark Demos from being a random outtakes collection is the breadth of the material. It holds together exceptionally well and gives us a peek back to a very specific time before Bob Dylan became Bob Dylan.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
CD Info and Links
Bob Dylan - The Bootleg Series Vol. 9: The Witmark Demos