How Bob Dylan Sounded Before He Was a Star



Enigmatic artists spawn their fair share of gossipy anecdotes, which is probably one reason why pop culture critics are so drawn to them. Bob Dylan is about as enigmatic—and chameleonic—as modern artists get, so I've had occasions of my own to chuckle over a few Dylan stories from time to time. My current favorite dovetails with the release this week of The Bootleg Series Volume 9—The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964. It's an unlikely scene: a very young Dylan sits in a Madison Avenue office room in 1962, cutting demos in the hopes that assorted folk-niks will be enticed to record his music, earning him royalty revenue in the off-chance that the whole performing career thing didn't work out. And why was that a concern? Dylan haters will love one possible answer: because of his voice. The story goes that the music arrangers in the surrounding offices had to ask that Mr. Dylan's door be pressed firmly shut, lest his braying vocals disrupt their work.

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I find this absurd, and I don't doubt that you might as well, after you listen to these demonstration discs.

We're met head-on by his voice in these demos. It's rugged, brittle, and churlish on "Masters Of War" and "The Death of Emmett Till." But that wispy, smoky voice of the seer—the one who will find a home on a future classic like Blonde On Blonde—wafts through the plangent, coarse soundscapes of "Mama, You've Been On My Mind" and "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." The latter out-emotes the official studio version, and still retains the dignity of solid demo singing, creating the effect of a performer doing his damnedest to hold himself together, before excusing himself to go off and fall apart in private.

There are also plenty of jokey asides, with Dylan commenting on his own wry songs, or the occasional production gaffe. But for every instance when Dylan cracks himself up with a lyric, there's a cut like "Girl From The North Country," delivered with the kind of epic solemnity prized by the great Delta bluesmen, but with a levity-inducing, spry sense of rhythm. The Dylan that inhabits these demos has a knack for sounding not of his time, or any time, really. You start to wonder just where the hell this man in a Madison Avenue office was coming from.

The hardcore Dylan brigade has had most of these recordings for a long time, thanks to the bountiful Dylan bootleg business. Understandably, the overall demo concept is a bit at odds with our iPod age, so it may take listeners some time to grow into a release like this new two-disc set. Demos aren't intended, at any point, as a finished, releasable work. They're not alternate takes—that is, an attempt to get a part of a song or a complete song right. They're guides, a performance as instructional manual. There are some scattered Beatles examples, and a host of Pete Townshend Who demos, with Townshend playing all the instruments so his bandmates could later come along and learn their parts. And there are some Sex Pistols' demos with the lovely handle Spunk, which has an unfinished ring to me, like only one party got what they were looking for. Lively demos all the same. And that's notable, as demos are often more wooden than their official-version counterparts, with exaggerated enunciation and a prevailing formality that tends to be in contrast to their often lo-fi recording circumstances.

I've often wondered what Dylan's fellow folkies would've thought when they heard some samples of his wares. Everything here was cut before Dylan turned 24. The man was positively armed with songs, and he was primed to use them. Dylan, as anyone who has seen Don't Look Back will attest, had no issues of conscience when it came to intimidating other artists. If you're ever feeling low because you've been shown up by someone, watch what happens to Donovan in that film when he's granted his request to play a song for Dylan, only to have Dylan reciprocate with one of his own.

Some might see the Witmark demos as an admission that, maybe, a long-term performing career wasn't a certainty in Dylan's mind. Pop singers—remember, this is the era before rock and roll became rock, and got, like, out there, man—were expected to hew to traditional pop singer lines. Even folkie pop singers. If you couldn't, you wouldn't be unwise to have a back-up plan. Personally, I don't hear anything vaguely resembling a back-up plan here. I hear a guy with a different kind of talent finding another way to flaunt it. The music biz outsider, with the crazy voice, was, lo and behold, a music biz insider as well, the guy who delivered the publishing goods. And then, of course, there's the allure of someone having a hit record with one of your compositions, just so you can cut a version that surpasses it. Not that it ever came to that—but Dylan must have been grateful for the motivation in those shakier, pre-superstar times.

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Colin Fleming is the author of the forthcoming book The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories From the Abyss. He has written for Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, and Vanity Fair, and is a regular contributor to NPR's Weekend Edition.

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