Counter-culture prophet, or corporate shill? Aww, who cares, as long as the music still reflects the passion and power that made the man famous?
These days it seems there's been an angry wind a-blowin' through the corridors of the Bob Dylan Nerd Society (to whose newsletter I both subscribe and occasionally contribute), and this time it's not on account of that damned Conor Oberst getting another "He's the new Bob Dylan!" headline in the front pages of New Musical Express. Nope, the thing that's got the locals all riled up nowadays is far touchier, and far more harmful to this "cred" business that everyone is always talking about. What I'm talking about is that old time-honored tradition of Selling Out.
No doubt, Dylan has a long-running hobby of making his fans cry "Judas!" They cried it when he gone electric, they cried it when he gone country, they cried it when he gone Christian, and they're crying it now in 2005, as "DYLAN IS A SELL OUT!" replaces "LAST NIGHT WAS THE BEST SHOW EVER!" as the most popular subject header on the Bob Dylan Nerd Society message board.
What to cause all this ruckus, you ask? Well, after selling "Not Dark Yet" to Audi for a car commercial, and appearing in person to leer at an undies model in a Victoria's Secret ad, Dylan has journeyed even further into corporate limbo with the release of Live at the Gaslight 1962, a Columbia-endorsed collection of recordings from Dylan's oft-bootlegged 1962 Greenwich Village residency, available exclusively at participating Starbucks retailers. Live at the Gaslight is a curious item indeed, particularly since it compiles only ten of the seventeen songs that have been fitting comfortably on single-disc bootlegs for years. But bizarre tracklisting decisions notwithstanding, Gaslight is as authentic of a document as exists of young Bobby, and a series of fine performances by a blossoming artist on the verge of something huge.
The best material here is not Dylan's own. By 1962, Dylan was beginning to find his niche as a songwriter, but it's evident in these recordings that he hadn't yet learned how to translate the vocal personalities of influences like Woody Guthrie and Robert Johnson into his own songs, and as such the Gaslight performances reveal only a fraction of how monumental Dylan's songs would become in the years to follow. "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" both sound like rough drafts of the intimate ballads that appear on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. "Don't Think Twice" in particular is sung with a rather uninspiring talkin'-blues urgency that suggests Dylan was fighting to be heard over the din of the coffeehouse, and several obnoxious lyrical flubs early on kill the momentum of the track before it really begins. Elsewhere, "John Brown" is a hackneyed variant of the tale of the proud soldier who goes off to war only to learn that his enemy looks just like him, both melodically unchanging and lyrically plodding with predictability. It's to Dylan's credit that the song never appeared on a proper studio album.
The real meat of Gaslight is Dylan's readings of old folk and blues songs like "Handsome Molly" and "Moonshiner", either of which would be fine additions to a mix CD titled "Screw You, Bob Dylan *Can* Sing". It's here where the young Dylan really explores the subtleties and nuances of his voice, his ability to stretch single vowel sounds across entire melodic phrases, and the colossal power to give words personalities that has all but defined his career as a vocalist. "Cocaine" resonates with authenticity -- it's delivered with an initial sensitivity that suggests lifetimes behind Dylan's twenty-two years, but soon descends into a manic frenzy, appropriate given the song's subject matter. Listening to "Barbara Allen", one can hear how Dylan was moved to write songs like "Boots of Spanish Leather" and "Girl from the North Country". A heartfelt saga of love and death, you can practically hear Dylan living inside the song, the ideas brewing inside his head as he purrs the words with the emotional poignancy of someone who was there to see it.
One can only speculate on the logic behind making the disc solely available at Starbucks for 18 months. Maybe the idea is to spread Dylan's music to a younger, more diverse audience. Or maybe Columbia knows that they're not losing anything by not making Live at the Gaslight available at more prominent music retailers, as its primary audience will likely consist of Nerd Society members who would travel across states to buy it regardless of where it was sold, even though they've owned the recordings for years and are only buying the official release so that they can complain about: A) how inferior it is to the bootleg; and B) how horrible it is that Dylan has whored off his art to The Man. Down with the naysayers, I say! I heartily recommend any adventurous Starbucks patron to pick up Live at the Gaslight with your next cup of chai. It's only $14.95 at the register, and it might fool your friends into thinking you're cultured!