No Direction Home: The Soundtrack – The Bootleg Series Volume 7 / Live at the Gaslight 1962
B / A-
ob Dylan’s music is complex in such a way that no slightly altered studio jam, no autobiography is going to lend any true insight to how a human being writes “Like a Rolling Stone.” Too readily listening to history and not music, Dylan supporters turn blue with lost gems and lyrical dogma. It is this type of revisionism that tempts listeners as new material surfaces, and it’s admittedly difficult not to go blowhard when listening to No Direction Home: The Soundtrack and Live at the Gaslight 1962. The former is the seventh volume of the laudable Bootleg series, as well as the official soundtrack for an upcoming Martin Scorsese Dylan documentary, the latter a Starbucks-only live show, culled from two tapes of debatable history. As it becomes increasingly difficult to find meaningful unreleased material from Dylan’s glory period in the early to mid 1960’s, it is more than ever the music, and not the academia, that makes these releases worthwhile.
The tracks on No Direction Home were chosen to complement the documentary, and not just to entice longtime fans, and it means that several of these songs offer nothing new, no matter how previously unreleased they are. Takes of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “Tombstone Blues”—among many others—don’t differ materially from the originals. And with the exception of the Band dropping hot lava all over “Ballad of a Thin Man,” No Direction’s live material just reinforces what thousands of overpriced bootlegs have proven for decades: There is no shortage of strong, though unremarkable, Dylan live material.
The real treasures are unreleased takes and some early home recordings. “When I Got Troubles,” a 1959 fuzz-fest, is likely the first Dylan original ever laid to tape, and two songs from the long-bootlegged “Hotel Tapes” show up here, with Dylan sounding surprisingly inspired. It will take a dozen listens or more before your brain accepts Al Kooper’s electric squiggles on “Desolation Row,” replacing the original’s meandering nylon. Also gone is “Leopard-skin Pill-box Hat”’s cat-scratch humor, here eaten up by a bricklaying blues vamp. We get “Highway 61 Revisited,” one take before Al Kooper hands Dylan his siren whistle and things get goofy and “Mr. Tambourine Man” with an uninspired Ramblin’ Jack Elliot on backing vocals. “Visions of Johanna” changes the most, as Dylan and company hang a standard rock arrangement on the world’s most famous coughing heat pipes.
Without delving too deep into the banal, “A good song is a good song” blather, it should at least be noted that Dylan, especially in the mid-60’s, had a biblically large margin for error. One day things will probably get dire in Dylan-land and we’ll be subjected to some truly horrid “lost” takes, but Dylan’s still rolling the ball downhill here.
Live at the Gaslight 1962 shoots a hole through the oft-ignored pre-Freewheelin’ era; rarely has the line between Dylan: Folksinger and Dylan: Artist been so visible. The whine heard ‘round the world is still in its pre-natal days, and you can practically see Dylan learning the power of repetition, as the room eerily chants along to an early version of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”
But we’ve all tracked Dylan’s artistic climb before, and his surprisingly confident folk readings are the real butter here. Dylan expertly mixes the weird and sad, as a boastful “The Cuckoo” segues into old-world weepers like “Moonshiner” and “Cocaine.” On the eight-minute “Barbara Allen” Dylan’s voice, here smoothed into a low hum, bleeds into his mildew picking, the sonic equivalent of sepia. Dylan never sounds out of his league, even with a half-century of hindsight telling us this smallish Minnesotan had no right singing these songs. (Let’s just say if New York folksingers had been passing off diss-tracks, Dylan would basically have been Ja Rule.) Reverent but not too much so, this would be as good as Dylan ever was at singing the classics, mere months before he took some old Carter Family melodies and ambiguous metaphors and uprooted an entire counter-culture.
We’re well past the days where you could blindly reach into Dylan’s unreleased catalog and pull out five stars, and since No Direction is essentially a soundtrack, it forfeits any true surprises and goes for slightly skewed familiarity. Which isn’t bad, it’s just that Gaslight, like the best of the prior Bootleg releases, puts you in a place: MacDougal Street, 1962, in a grimy basement with crappy coffee and crappier sound, but shit, the kid onstage can play a little… And for the first time in a long time, you can forget reading lyrical tea leaves and project the path of a vibrant young folksinger.