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Sunday
Nov212010

BOB DYLAN - The Bootleg Series Vol. 9 -The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 / BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN - The Promise

Unreleased demos and shelved recordings aren't supposed to be essential. That's the reason they weren't released in the first place, right? Sure, a golden moment may lurk here and there—an orphaned chestnut of a track that simply made its parent recording too long or didn't match the pacing or theme of a proposed full-length. But we've seen enough lame-duck double-album collections of kitchen scraps and cutting-room floor casualties to know that, in the end, these are just thinly veiled cash grabs.  

Well, The Witmark Demos and The Promise—two such releases from Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, respectively—aim to challenge that notion with collections of songs that offer more than just insight and education: they're also damn enjoyable to hear, regardless of the context of historical significance.

Both sets examine a formative time for each artist: Dylan being in the throes of finding his own voice beyond being a simple mimic of Guthrie and folk/blues songwriting; Springsteen working to further his also Guthrie-informed (but far more populist and anthemic) rock music with a more personal and direct eye. The full-lengths that came from these time periods—Dylan's first four LPs and The Boss' landmark Darkness At The Edge Of Town—speak volumes about the successful end results. As it turns out, the process itself wasn't so bad either.

Of the two releases, The Promise is the one that contains the more complete 'lost' album. With bonafide hits (and live staples) "Because The Night" and "Fire" leading the singles charge, a solid core of tracks such as "One Way Street", the Phil Spector swoon of "Someday (We'll Be Together)", "Gotta Get That Feeling" and "Ain't Good Enough For You" form the heart of what would've been a very good record. But what is immediately noticeable about these songs is how they differ from the overall timbre of Darkness. In this context, as good as they are, it's easy to see why Springsteen either gave them to other artists (Patti Smith, The Pointer Sisters), or left them behind completely.

The rest of The Promise consists of songs that would either have worked well on Darkness—closer "City Of Night", in particular—or would actually grow and evolve into some of the new album's tracks. What makes these latter songs really worthwhile though, is the fact that they're not just poorer recordings of the eventual final cut. They show genuine experimentation on the part of Bruce and The E Street Band. Here, "Racing In The Street '78" has a very different verse chord progression and prominent fiddle solos. In contrast, Darkness' version boasts a more sombre progression and leaner arrangement. "Candy's Boy" is a mellow jaunt of a prequel to the later album's firecracker, "Candy's Room". And what turns into Darkness' eloquent working man's tale, "Factory", is here seen as a plea for a night on the town, "Come On (Let's Go Out Tonight)". An attentive ear will even catch hints that look further into Springsteen's future—"Spanish Eyes" has a first couplet identical to "I'm On Fire" off of Born In The U.S.A

Even better, all of these songs sound full, rich, and completely realized—it is only the presence of Darkness that makes them in any way incomplete or transitory. (Even if The Boss did cheat a bit by polishing a few of these songs up just before this release, the result is still stunning.)

The Witmark Demos, as the title suggests, is not nearly as refined. It's rough, scratchy and loose. And at 47 songs, it is frankly easy to get a little lost in. But its pleasures, while different, are many. For starters, it's startling to hear Dylan on the edge of what would soon be. Throughout the many tracks, he pushes and pulls at the folk form like Play-Doh, searching for and imploring his own unique voice to emerge. Early tune "Hard Times In New York Town" is purely a reflection of what Seeger and Guthrie have molded for him. That the same young kid would also soon write "Blowin' In The Wind" and "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" (both of which appear here) clearly shows how far Dylan came in a very short period.

This fact isn't really a shock, though. We all know the guy started out somewhere. But there's a far greater pleasure to be had here than that. Dylan as we have come to know him for the past five decades is a brilliant but cantankerous, willfully obscure artist—basically too smart for and distrusting of the rest of us to ever let us in too far. But the demo nature of these recordings allows us to see a part of the man long lost to time. This Bob Dylan chuckles, coughs, jokes and sings with a casual air that is almost unrecognizable as the same man. 

And really, I guess, that's because he isn't the same man. In the wake of these demos and the subsequent albums, Dylan changed—both from within and without—to become the 'Judas' of the very forms he'd come to perfect and champion. If you look closely, there are hints of that inevitable betrayal all over The Witmark Demos—hints that this style will only satisfy his mind for so long before he seeks to burn down the temple and rebuild it again and again in new forms. But for this moment, Dylan is still a student. Take a look while you can. The moment doesn't last. 

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