Review: Bob Dylan’s ‘The Witmark Demos’

Nov. 5, 2010, 12:43 a.m.

Review: Bob Dylan's 'The Witmark Demos'I way-hey-heeted for you,” crooned Bob Dylan with his trademark phrasing in “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” from the album “Blonde on Blonde.” Indeed, Dylan acolytes have themselves waited the last few years for something like “The Witmark Demos 1962-1964 (Bootleg Series Vol. 9).” Although the collection doesn’t feature the energetic and enigmatic hits like “Obviously Five Believers,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” etc., it will please Dylan fans longing for the younger, cooler version…the version worthy enough to be rendered in modern cinema by the venerable Christian Bale; the skinny, serious man in a trench coat, singing boldly on the stage but rarely speaking off it lest it release the cigarette dangling from his lip.

Because the songs in this collection are demos, the arrangements are sparse – just Dylan, his guitar and harmonica and occasionally an accompanying piano – allowing for the eccentricities and originality of his vocal style to emerge unfettered. Fiascoes such as Dylan on MTV’s “Unplugged” concert have shown that this freedom can occasionally lead to a rambling, semi-yodeling train wreck of vocals, but this isn’t the case in “The Witmark Demos” – the opposite in fact, with a free but nonetheless careful Dylan. This style lends itself to tracks like “Guess I’m Doing Fine,” a previously unreleased record that is at once both casual and traditionally folksy while also poised and poignant: more rough diamond than diamond in the rough. As we learned from interviews such as his one with “Time Magazine,” Dylan has a skeptical view toward music inspiring lofty social movements (“I don’t know why I write what I write. I just write it”), and here the lyrics are less ambitious and more meaningful in their message: “Trouble o truuuuuuuble, trouble on my mind/Trouble o truuuuuuuble, trouble on my mind/ But the trouble in the word is much more bigger than mine, hey heyyyy…so I guess I’mmm doing fine.”

On rare occasions, such as in “When the Ship Comes In,” Dylan even foregoes the guitar completely and sings along with just the piano accompanying in a way that is confident but simple, almost saloon-style, unobtrusive to the vocals. Dylan seizes the chance to sing a little firmer, and strangely, this makes the track all the more beautiful: “And the sea will split and the ships will hit and the shoreline sands will be shaking…And the tide will sound and the waves will pound and the morning will be braaaaaaaaayking” – invoking the softness of sunrise as well as the force of the sea as it crashes onto the land.

At first glance, the 47-track list may seem a little dizzying, and you might try to make sense of it by simply highlighting the immortal tracks, “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Tambourine Man.” Although the renditions of these favorites, slower and more measured, are interesting in their hypnotic effect and mournfulness, they don’t quite reach the brilliancy of the more familiar, heavily-produced versions. The plodding pace of “Tambourine Man” makes the request seem more of a suggestion than a command, and we know that if you’re not forceful with buskers you won’t get anywhere.

And what of the most coveted of Dylans? The relentlessly mean Dylan who, in “Positively 4th Street,” barking at someone who had crossed him, described devilishly how “when I was down, you just stood there grinnnnning.” He lurks here, too, in tracks like “Hero Blues,” where he lashes out at (presumably, as always) a past lover by telling us “She reads too many books/She’s got nails inside her head/She will not be satisfied until I wind up dead.

We listeners won’t even be satisfied after he’s dead: I urge the people who dug out these old bootlegs to keep doing so with Palin-like vigor and replenish our thirst until we ourselves head toward death, when half-remembered lines and bad imitations of Dylan are the only croaks we can muster up.

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