Box sets a must for die-hard Dylan fans

Photo: William Claxton

By Daniel Durchholz, Special to the Light

Bob Dylan blew through town last week, playing a concert at Chaifetz Arena. I didn’t go to the show, which marks the first time in years that I can recall taking a pass on seeing him when he was performing within a hundred miles of me.

 At the time, I rationalized it the same way as many of his fans who no longer go to Dylan concerts: 1) His concerts these days are largely greatest-hits sets with just a few recent songs and rarities thrown in to keep the hardcore faithful coming through the turnstiles; and 2) his voice – famously unwieldy to begin with – has degenerated into an unrecognizable croak that renders many of his songs unrecognizable. You can actually turn around at his shows and watch the audience play “name that tune” until he enunciates a key phrase that elicits a shock of recognition: “Oh, he’s playing ‘Maggie’s Farm!'”

That said, I don’t think I’ve ever come away from a Dylan show empty handed – or more accurately, empty headed. Even at this late date, there’s always something worthwhile to see and hear. So now, a week later, you could say I have a touch of non-buyer’s remorse. I’ll get over it, though, because recently I’ve been investing plenty of time and money in Bob Dylan, Inc. It’s just that the work I’ve been examining has more to do with his past than his present.

Two days before the Chaifetz show, two important archival releases hit the store shelves: “Bob Dylan: The Original Mono Recordings” and “The Bootleg Series Vol. 9 – The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964.”

Both are essential purchases for serious Dylanologists – it’s up to you to determine your own level of that pursuit – but offer plenty for casual listeners as well.

“The Original Mono Recordings” is a nine-CD box set that includes his first eight albums – 1962’s “Bob Dylan” through 1968’s “John Wesley Harding” (1966’s “Blonde on Blonde” was a double album, thus the extra CD). As the title indicates, the recordings are in mono, meaning all of the instruments, the vocals – everything – comes out of each speaker. That is the way everything was mixed before the advent of stereo, when music was most often listened to on a car radio or through a record player sporting just a single speaker. Importantly, it’s the way that artists understood their work would be heard. When stereo came in, it was regarded at first as a fad, which is why stereo mixes were often done as an afterthought, long after the artists themselves had left the building.

But once stereo took hold, the mono releases fell by the wayside and were never reissued, though they were still highly prized by collectors and purists who insisted on hearing the work as intended. Last year, the Beatles’ original albums were reissued in both stereo and mono and both versions caused a sensation. The remastered sound of both versions was a far enough leap forward to cause many fans to replace their entire Beatles collection once again. But it was the mono versions that were a real revelation, especially for younger fans who’d never heard the band’s classic material in its original format.

 Your mileage may vary when it comes to the Dylan mono box. The first four albums – “Bob Dylan,” “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are A-Changin'” and “Another Side of Bob Dylan” – are solo recordings, after all, so there’s not that dramatic a sonic shift from the versions we already know. But the latter four, which feature Dylan leading a band – “Bringing It All Back Home,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Blonde on Blonde” and “John Wesley Harding” – sound raw, primal and alive in their mono versions. All eight albums, though, are cultural signposts of the 1960s that have also managed to stand the test of time. If you haven’t heard them in a while, or haven’t heard them at all, the set may be a hefty purchase but is well worthwhile.

“The Witmark Demos” are even more intriguing. Offering 47 songs, many of them previously unreleased, the two-CD set is a collection of early recordings made for Dylan’s publishing house, with the purpose of licensing the songs and soliciting cover versions. The takes are predictably spare and informal. On occasion, Dylan coughs or even talks mid-song, and you can hear a door close here and there. 

Their raw quality is what draws you in, though. At the time, Dylan was a young, aspiring singer/songwriter who, with songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Masters of War,” “Mr. Tambourine Man” and many others, was not merely on the verge of conquering the world of music, but knocking the world at large off its axis.

Listening to him as he stands on that particular precipice couldn’t be more compelling.