[My grandma] told me once that happiness isn’t on the road to anything. That happiness is the road.
—Bob Dylan, Chronicles
Although Bob Dylan has been on his infamous “Never Ending Tour” since 1988, continually redefining and reinterpreting his vast back catalogue as he travels worldwide, performing in any city that’ll have him, the man has certainly been in a reflective mood as of late. Obviously still getting a huge kick out of playing the role of the enigmatic troubadour, the first volume of his autobiography, Chronicles, was an immensely entertaining collection of anecdotes from various phases of his life and music career. It was like hearing a favorite relative reminisce on a lazy evening; there were times where we weren’t quite sure if Bob was remembering things correctly, if he was exaggerating a bit too much, or if he was completely full of shit, but the playful lyricism of his prose, so much like his song lyrics, and so vastly different from Tarantula, his pretentious attempt at Kerouac-style spontaneous poetry from nearly four decades ago, made it impossible for us not to just sit back and enjoy the tales, tall or not.
It turns out Dylan is far from finished. With the help of none other than the venerable director Martin Scorsese, Dylan’s massive film and tape archives have been mined to piece together the upcoming feature length documentary No Direction Home, which focuses on the artist’s early years, from his high school days in 1959, to his journey from Minnesota to Greenwich Village in early 1961, to his reign atop the rock ‘n’ roll world in 1966. Loaded with never before seen archival footage, it’s sure to be an absolute treat for fans, but even better, such a film project gives Columbia records an excuse to release a new entry in the ongoing Bootleg Series.
Easily the best musical archive project contemporary popular music has ever seen, the first six volumes of Dylan’s Bootleg Series has unearthed much sought-after rare tracks and studio outtakes, as well as documenting the man at various key stages of his career, including his important 1964 concert at New York’s Philharmonic Hall, his legendary, confrontational 1966 concert in Manchester, England, and his ambitious, eventful Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1975. More of a companion piece than a true soundtrack to the film, Volume Seven, titled No Direction Home: The Soundtrack, serves as a sort of addendum to Volumes One and Two of the series. Like the film, it takes a look at Dylan’s rise from 1959-66, and several tracks from the film are included here, but producers Jeff Rosen, Steve Berkowitz, Bruce Dickinson, and Scorsese have decided to center more on alternate takes of key tracks from Dylan’s early years. The two-disc set might look like a hodge-podge, but what a fascinating, treasure-filled one it is.
Kicking off with what is believed to be the earliest known recording of an original Dylan composition, the blues-inspired “When I Got Troubles” is a snapshot of a tentative, 18-year-old Robert Zimmerman still in search of his voice, the primitive quality of the audio making the recording sound more ancient than it actually is, as if it came from an old 78 RPM record from the 1920s. “Rambler, Gambler”, from 1960, has Dylan, now attending the University of Minnesota, offering his own striking variation of the traditional folk tune “Wagoner’s Lad”. The quickness with which the young Dylan developed as a performer is astonishing, proven on his heartwrenching rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”, recorded live, barely a year after the university recording. Two songs have been culled from the well-known bootleg Minneapolis Hotel Tapes, recorded in late December of 1961: the traditional “I Was Young When I Left Home” is tweaked just enough to come across as a powerful autobiographical song, while “Dink’s Song”, named after the woman who taught him the song, is a lively performance of a melancholy tale about an abandoned woman.
A well-known remnant from the 1962 sessions for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, “Sally Gal” is a exuberant burst of energy, thanks to Dylan’s chugging chords and his lively huffing and puffing on his harmonica, while the demo version of “Don’t Think Twice”, performed in his music publisher’s office (where it would be recorded and transcribed), is as strikingly intimate as the album version. Dylan’s rapid ascent in the folk world is chronicled on four live tracks recorded in 1963: a beautiful, tender performance of “Blowin’ in the Wind” (which was just becoming a major hit), a venomous “Masters of War”, and flawless renditions of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “When the Ship Comes In”. “Mr. Tambourine Man”, the song that marked Dylan’s shift from impassioned folk prodigy to surrealist genius, is present here, in the form of the first complete take ever recorded, with Ramblin’ Jack Elliot singing background, preceded by fun studio chatter between Dylan and producer Tom Wilson. The performance of “Chimes of Freedom” at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival showcases Dylan at the height of his folk period, but unbeknownst to the massive crowd listening, things would change greatly in a year’s time.
Disc Two is where the real fun begins. After a wonderful, drums-free studio out-take of “She Belongs to Me”, we’re transported to that epochal afternoon in July of 1965, when Dylan infuriated the folk establishment by going electric, changing popular music forever. Cynics have always stated that Dylan’s amplified performance with the Butterfield Blues Band is overrated, sounding sloppy and rushed, but despite the fact that the band’s blues pop accompaniment is admittedly run-of-the-mill, the overall performance of “Maggie’s Farm” is remarkably tight, and downright spine-tingling. You can sense Dylan and the band feeding off their collective nervous energy, and to have such a good recording for people to hear makes it an essential slice of rock history.
Much of the rest of the second disc consists of alternate studio recordings from the Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde sessions. Although, we were already treated to the fiery alternate take of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” on Volume Two of the series, we get another take on Volume Seven, one that is just a touch less lively than the raucous Volume Two version, more befitting of the song’s original title, “Phantom Engineer”. The alternate take of “Tombstone Blues” is fantastic, made unique by the heightened presence of guitar virtuoso Mike Bloomfield and the unusual use of background vocals, before the song disintegrates, Dylan unable to hold in his laughter. Lyrical changes abound on “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “Desolation Row”, which will enthrall Dylanphiles worldwide, but it’s the three Blonde on Blonde out-takes that prove to be biggest treats. “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat” is transformed from the uproarious stomper on the album, to a stunningly slow blues tune, in the same mold as “Pledging My Time”. The version of “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” we all know is a fun, upbeat tune, but the version included here has a more lackadaisical pace, which works very well with Dylan’s slyly humorous lyrics. It’s the recording of “Visions of Johanna”, performed with Al Kooper and The Band, that steals the entire collection, as Dylan and his six pals hammer away at the normally somber tune, Robbie Robertson’s lead fills right up front, and Levon Helm’s insistent snare beats giving it a much more anthemic quality.
For the first time in the series, two previously released tracks have been included, but while some fans may grumble, it’s impossible not to feel the emotion of the album version of “Song to Woody” right after the performance of “This Land Is Your Land”, nor can anyone dispute the inclusion of the immortal Manchester ‘66 performance of “Like a Rolling Stone” (preceded by the famous “Judas” exchange), which is the perfect way to conclude both the film and this collection.
Accompanied, as usual, by a wonderful, 60-page booklet, containing an essay by Andrew Loog Oldham, a lighthearted look back by Al Kooper, and excellent track notes by Eddie Gorodetsky (not to mention the photo of Dylan on his motorcycle on the back cover which eerily hints at what lay ahead for him on July 29, 1966), No Direction Home lives up to the lofty standard set by the first six volumes. Like the Volumes 1-3 box set, though, Volume Seven is best enjoyed by those already familiar with Dylan’s albums, and although new listeners will find plenty of music here to enjoy, it’s best to become familiar with the original versions of the songs first. The Bootleg Series has now become so enjoyable, so revelatory with each new release, that the first thought that enters our heads when the current volume ends is, “What will Volume Eight have in store?” Considering the absolute wealth of material that has not seen the light of day, the mind boggles at the thought.