Sunday, June 10, 2007

Dylan for Dollars

In 1961-62 I was a sophomore at Northwestern University in Evanston, just north of Chicago. Sometime that year I discovered a terrific folk music radio program, on WLS I think, that was regularly playing this amazing song by an unknown new folksinger... yes, Bob Dylan and his "Song to Woody."

A few hearings convinced me I had to find this guy's album and add it to my meager array. I bought it, a bit puzzled by the young-punk picture on the jacket, but reassured by the rave review of a Dylan club appearance reprinted on the back. I spun the platter (people still talked like that) and discovered... whoa, a reedy, nasally voice packed with attitude, backed by some excellent guitar--blues and folky stuff but no other piece as compelling as Dylan's original, his tribute "Song to Woody."

But the album grew on me almost immediately, and I went home at spring break, back to Tacoma, eager to play it for friends and girl friend. Well, everybody hated it--ex-high school pals, my girl, my parents and sisters. They all dismissed him as some wiseass who couldn't sing. I refused to back down, arguing his case to anyone who would listen (but secretly doubting my own taste too).

Bob in hand, I returned to Northwestern for a few more months, until summer break and my official transfer to the University of Washington in Seattle. I kept playing his album, people kept shutting their doors... but I'd fallen for his trickster air, his seemingly amateurish performing style. So I kept watching for a new album to show up. And when Columbia announced the date of release, posted I guess at the record store I was frequenting, I was determined to be one of the first to buy Dylan Redux.

On release day, I scooped up a copy of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and took it straight to the turntable. Sitting there, trying to absorb, trying to dig his new songs, and also reading the liner notes, I gradually realized that the list of titles on the jacket and labels and the music in the grooves just didn't match up...

Maybe you can see where this is leading. Yes, I had in my possession one of the early, mistakenly released, tried-to-be-corrected copies of his second album, resulting when constraints applied by the Ed Sullivan Show, or complaints by Columbia's sales force, or Dylan's own last-minute second thoughts caused a new version of the album to be rushed into production; various reasons were given later.

Although the jacket list of titles and even the labels (in some cases) got changed, a few copies of the original disc still got shipped to the West Coast in the rush to meet the release date, creating copies like the one I bought that had four songs not matching. I had "Let Me Die in My Footsteps," "John Birch Society Blues" (the one rejected by Sullivan), "Rocks and Gravel," and "Gamblin' Willie" in the grooves instead of the four last-minute and available-ever-since substitutions.

So what did I do? Of course. I returned it to the store as defective and got a copy that did have the correct titles and tracks. If we jump ahead 40 years, collectors everywhere would definitely die in their footsteps to find a copy like the one I gave back, fool that I was, back in the days when rock 'n roll or folk records were just stuff to play rather than cultural artifacts to preserve and collect. A copy as pristine as mine was would fetch around $15,000 now, it seems...

Oh well, easy come, easy go.

Back in the Sixties, I kept listening to Bob, even when he stopped writing protest songs and started with the personal and increasingly obscure stuff, and then--horrors--went electric. There was just something about the guy's whole gestalt that was amazing and magical. I was lucky enough to see him live for the first time when Joan Baez brought him out from the wings to sing a couple of songs with her--black leather gear, goofy cap, Charlie Chaplin insouciance, cocky grin and all. And over the years since, a few more times with The Band and other backing musicians... and rarely (did it happen or is it just wishful thinking on my part?) just Bob and his guitar.

I'd pay a lot to see/hear Dylan lay down his weary tune once more, even if, as he sang in that perfect take he recorded but refused to issue for years, "no one can play the blues like Blind Willie McTell." Hit or miss, many misses in fact, once in a while Bob can still knock the fractured and fractious competition right into his old cocked cap.


Glen Michael Wilson said...

Hey I witness,

I know what you mean when you talk about the pre-electric Bob as opposed to the plugged in version.

It took some getting used to, for sure.

But there were times later on, when he went back down that acoustic road.

On his release; "Blood on the tracks." There were many fine forays into the acoustical forest.

Idiot wind;
Lily,Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts;
Buckets of rain;
If you see her;
Tangled up in blue;

Decidedly different from his early works but damn! He was still drawing from the same mystical/musical connection that set him apart from the vast majority of his contemporaries.

Except for that record though, I would have to say that 95 percent of his lyrics, and for me, it was always the lyrics, that grabbed me, and have hold of me to this very day are from his early, folk era.

Nice write.

I Witness said...

thanks for the addendum and the reminder about Blood. but i also think Bob sorta came around in the last decade with a trio of more folkish albums which were excellent compared to many (most?) of his post-Sixties releases. many more music posts will appear over the months ahead.