Saturday, September 03, 2005

Bob Served Raw: Early Thoughts on No Direction Home

Besides serving as a kind of loose soundtrack to Martin Scorsese's forthcoming documentary -- to be aired over PBS September 26 and 27 -- Bob Dylan: No Direction Home is the latest chapter of rock and roll's reigning hypnotist collector and walking antique.

Like all previous releases, this two-disc set abounds with treasures both strange and fascinating. It also tells a story, detailing the early part of a huge American life that defies scope. Scorsese -- wisely, I suspect -- focuses his documentary on the early years, from Dylan's debut as a purely acoustic folk singer his watershed performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1966, when he famously startled his audience by "going electric," losing the folk purists in the process. It's a story that has been told countless times, either in print or on record.

The new disc -- which typically pulls together rare, alternate and concert versions of new and unreleased materials from an exhaustive catalogue -- tells it again and tells it pretty well.Given Scorsese's history with Dylan by way of The Band, and the passionate affection for music he shows in all of his films -- including his production of the PBS series on The Blues last year -- I suspect the documentary will do the same.

What's always interesting about these private tapes is that they give a picture of Dylan before he was a legend (hard to fathom, but there was such a time) ranging from concert performances to deeply intimate private recordings made in motels and offices, and they recall the deep power of his first record, when Dylan seemed to be directly addressing himself as much as the listener.

Some sound still wet and undeveloped, and some -- especially in his concert performances -- are interspersed with that goofy boyish innocence of his early years, before he realized he was the Voice of a Generation and adopted a moody and mysterious persona to match.

The material is all very familiar, of course, but Dylan never sings a song the same way twice, or not exactly, and even when the various alternate versions included here sound extremely close to the recorded versions, they're just different enough -- either in phrasing or in word choice -- to be fascinating.

Rather than the big, sing-along versions of Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land," Dylan's concert version is calmly defiant, emphasizing the sense of fairness at the heart of the song; the accent isn't on the subject, but the possessive verbs, as if he's stating a simple but unacknowledged fact.

We see, too, the emergence of Dylan the Old Testament prophet, the Greenwich Village folkie delivering thunderous pronouncements, and the songs still sound eerily prescient. His powerful 1964 read of "Masters of War" even begins with a pronouncement that sounds as timely today as ever:

"I don't mind the Ten Commandments. I believe in the Ten Commandments. The first one, `I am the Lord thy God' -- it's a great commandment if it's not said by the wrong people."

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