Friday, October 22, 2010

Learning to listen again

Reflections on ‘The Bootleg Series Volume 9 - The Witmark Demos 1962-1964’ and ‘The Original Mono Recordings’

Posted by doug heselgrave on October 18, 2010 at 11:00am

Thank God for the wind and rain and stormy weather. Sometime around the middle of last week, summer came to a hard and fast end in Vancouver, and we west coasters were finally driven indoors. And, while I still look ruefully out the window and see the deck I didn’t finish fixing and the trees I never got around to pruning, the change in weather has given me the perfect opportunity to turn inwards and indoors with both the pounding rain and the newly released ‘Bootleg Series Volume 9 : The Witmark Demos’ as constant companions.

Spending time with these songs has been a wonderful way of rediscovering music that I had long ago taken for granted. I have listened to Bob Dylan’s music for nearly forty years, but I’ve never been one of those completists who searches out every known version of a song, so for me experiencing these rough and ready demo versions of early Bob Dylan standards has primarily been about my own personal enjoyment of songs I had all but forgotten. Those looking for a musicological or historical dissection of where these versions fit into Dylan’s overall oeuvre should search for another article written by a more scholarly writer than I am. What’s surprised me as I’ve played the ‘Witmark Demos’ over and over is that even the songs like ‘Blowing in the Wind’ and ‘Masters of War’ that I’ve heard more times than I can remember have been wonderful to experience in the unvarnished form that they’re offered here. Originally recorded between 1962 - 1964 in the office of M. Witmark and Sons, a New York based music publisher these performances were never meant for the general public’s ears. Perhaps because of this, these flawed renditions – full of coughs, false starts and flubbed chords – are vital, revealing and essential for those trying to understand Dylan’s enduring appeal and significance.

The problem of course with writing about Bob Dylan in 2010 is that there’s little left to express about his music that hasn’t been said better by others over the years. One often gets the sense that anything written about these songs does little more than thicken the brush and brambles that obfuscate and separate the listener from the music itself. Almost everything one reads about Dylan’s early work is marred by the legendary framework writers have felt compelled to weave around it with the reverence one would expect to accompany the discovery of a new Dead Sea Scroll. Even though nearly fifty years have passed since these songs were recorded, it seems as if it’s still very difficult to separate them from the myths that have grown around them so that they can be heard in a fresh way, unclouded by prejudice and preconception.

To compound and confound this problem, a box set of Mr. Dylan’s first eight studio albums restored to their original mono mixes arrived along with ‘The Witmark Demos’ in the mail. These records – many of which I hadn’t really given a good listen to in years – glared at me from the corner of my desk with an ominous kind of insistence. I wished there was an easy way to encompass or dismiss them in a few well chosen words. But, that would kind of feel like delivering a thirty second eulogy at a good friend’s funeral. There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since I first heard these records so many years ago, and going through them again, I’ve been surprised by how many memories, heartbreaks and experiences they’ve brought back while playing in the background.

As I obsessed over finding a perspective from which to write about this music, I kept thinking about an experience I had when I was teaching in India more than twenty years ago. While I was living there, I met a young American woman who was doing research into how people who had been blind but recently restored to sight perceived colour. She gave art supplies to her subjects and asked each of them to go home and paint what they saw in front of them. Some of them were so overwhelmed that they wished they were blind again. The visual world was simply too intense. Almost without exception, those who attempted to record what they saw asked for more colours because – from their perspectives - the palettes they were given were too limited. My friend was confused at first. She asked them what was wrong with the paints she had provided. She was told things such as, ‘I’m trying to paint that house over there. I see five colours of red in the clay and there’s only one red here on my paint set to work with.’ My friend – like anyone who is accustomed to the visual world and long ago learned to filter out much of the perceptual information our senses pick up – was flabbergasted because when she looked at the house, she could only see one shade of red.

I’ve been thinking of this experiment for years, and what I’ve taken away from it is that the clarity of our perception diminishes quickly with exposure. In the same way that when you first walk in a house where something’s cooking and it smells delicious, but ten minutes later you don’t notice the aromas that first drew you in, you can never go back and recapture something in the same way you first experienced it. I remember an old interview with Jerry Garcia in which he described how during his first gig with the Grateful Dead after returning back from a diabetic coma he heard the band clearly for the first time in years. That was the experience I was hoping to have with these old Bob Dylan records. But, like a spouse or friend you started taking for granted years ago, it didn’t seem possible. While teaching Tibetan refugees in India, I thought I’d teach my students to sing ‘Blowing in the Wind’ and ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ in music class, but with few exceptions they already knew the songs. Writing about this music was clearly going to be a task of monumental proportions.

Or not.

I stopped thinking about how to hear these songs anew after waking up one morning and thinking that I could simply dig a hole in the back yard and drop the albums into a time capsule that I’d instruct my grandchildren to open after I was dead. Then writing about them would be someone else’s problem. Or, I could simply play the records and listen to them and trust that the person hearing them now might enjoy them just as much or more than the younger version of myself who first bought the records did.

So, it’s a week later and I’ve listened to the ‘Witmark Demos’ and all eight albums more times than I can say, and after some uncomfortable adjustments, I’ve learned to turn the volume of background chatter in my head off and just take it all in. It’s been damned hard as each of these records is so close, so tied to many of our personal and cultural histories. So, how do you write about that? How do you walk the line where you just write about the songs when they’re so bloody good that they exist in our lives as more than songs? Every culture has its griots, its balladeers and oral historians. And, whether Mr. Dylan likes it or not, he hit the nail right smack on the head so many times when writing about the world we experienced as we came of age, that it’s often easier to hold onto them as our own experiences rather than conjure words of our own.

As I remarked at the outset, many of these songs are nearly 50 years old, but in terms of what the world has passed through in that time, maybe some of the hyperbole that’s washed over this work has been correct. In the years since a very young Bob Dylan passed through the door of M. Witmark and Sons to record tentative demos, our ideas of what a record is and what constitutes a song have changed so much that his lyrics may as well have been penned on papyrus reed and sang by the banks of that Jordanian River.

Maybe it’s the clear, strong and direct sound of the mono which engenders these feelings. I’ve always been a sound junkie and there’s nothing I love better than the timbre of an old analogue record blasting through a good stereo system, but playing these single channel tracks on a dilapidated ghetto blaster or a flip top record player (depending whether you’re using vinyl or CDs on this outing) is a surprising powerful experience. There’s nothing coming between the listener and the songs, and one finally realizes that this is how these records were conceived and meant to be heard.

Is there any point in all of this to mention the music itself? It’s an overwhelming body of work and it’s hard to know where to start. During this frantic period, Dylan had so many ideas tumbling out of him that it’s as if the Muse had nothing else to do but sit on Dylan’s lap and whisper in his ear between 1962 and 1968.

If you’re considering taking or retaking this journey, I envy your travels through the Woody Guthrie influenced first album, the still breathtaking ‘Freewheelin’ ( it’s hard to wrap my head around the fact that ‘Blowin’, ‘Masters of War’, ‘Girl from the North country, and ‘Don’t think twice’ are all on one album) and all that comes after that. Of all of these records, as brilliant as they are, some of the recordings from Dylan’s psychedelic period don’t resonate with me like they used to. I appreciate the artistic explosion of language, sound and form that they represent, but like the best of Dylan’s work since then, I’ve looked for truth beyond surrealism and was happy to reach less slippery ground with the Biblical poetics of ‘John Wesley Harding’.

In the end, I’m no closer to expressing the effect and experience of this music than I was at the beginning of this piece. So ubiquitous as to be invisible, this music dances around me without landing. Perhaps my first impulse to bury the records in the back yard for future generations to figure out wasn’t such a bad idea. Because, really, how can one rate music like this? It’s like grading the sunrise.

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