Last week, Columbia Records announced that it will be releasing the ninth volume of Bob Dylan’s long-running Bootleg Series on October 19. Titled “The Witmark Demos, 1962 – 1964,” the new collection will consist of 47 demo recordings Dylan made for his music publisher, the eponymous M. Witmark & Sons. In addition, Columbia will release Dylan’s first eight albums in their original mono format.
Critics have greeted the news enthusiastically. Writing for The Daily Beast, Sean Wilentz argued that these recordings represent a seminal moment in American music history, when the old Tin Pan Alley model of commercial songwriting gave way to a more individualist ethos. Whatever larger cultural phenomenon these recordings might be said to exemplify, however, taken on their own merits, they are not that exciting.
I remember trading for the Witmark Demos during my high school bubble-mailer-and-blank-CD bootleg phase. The idea was incredible — a treasure trove of well-recorded early Dylan singing unheard versions of some great songs, as well as many I’d never even heard of. Unlike some bootlegs, where you have to e-mail the right people in the right way or offer the right things in return, they were not hard to get. These were out there.
But right from the start, there was something underwhelming about the Witmark bootlegs. Maybe because they were just demos and Dylan was setting a framework instead of performing. In any event, they never grabbed me — I had them, and that was that. Then they sat there, pretty much unlistened to. Now they’re getting an official release, and that’s what’s puzzling.
The main question is, why this? There are certainly better bootlegs to spend record company money on. How about a comprehensive, cleaned up release of cutting room floor tracks from the “Bringing It All Back Home” sessions, or “The Freewheelin’” sessions, or that alternate version of “Blood on the Tracks” that’s been widely bootlegged but only officially released piecemeal? Then there are the 1978 Rundown Rehearsals, which one online poll favors 73 percent to 27 percent over the Witmark Demos. There are plenty of obscure Dylan recordings that people are itching to hear over this.
Playing armchair record company executive is a useless game, but I can only imagine that the Witmark Demos have been chosen because they are high quality recordings already, so it’s not going to break the bank to remaster them. More important, they play right into the shallow cultural meme of a young scrappy Dylan singing his brilliant little poor folky heart out for the good of his generation. Granted, there are a few gems in there. But the people at Columbia knew that a long time ago — in fact, they’ve already put them out on previous releases, like the mind blowing “Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3,” which hasn’t been close to equaled since. Now that is what an official bootleg release should be. It made you want more.
If anything, the reissue of a huge chunk of Dylan’s back catalog in mono is the really exciting news. It’s not as tantalizing as unreleased material, and you don’t get that spelunking sense of discovering something new and uncharted, but at least it will deliver what it’s promising — a new way to hear some stellar recordings. The difference between the stereo and mono versions of “Blonde on Blonde,” for example, isn’t trivial at all, at least if you’ve got the right audio equipment. I listened to the mono version on some special heavy vinyl about half a year ago, and it was a whole new ballgame. Now that is something worth hearing.