Unlike the previous three installments of the Bootleg Series, which captured complete live performances, No Direction Home is a collection of demos, alternate takes, and live recordings, ranging from a barely audible "When I Got Trouble", recorded in 1959 by one of Dylan's high school classmates (making it, in all probability, the first original song Dylan ever laid to tape, all strummy guitar and dim, somersaulting blues-vocals) to the raucous, full-band explosion of "Like a Rolling Stone" (the infamous "Judas!" version, which also appeared on the fourth volume of the Bootleg Series, Live 1966). The songs are laid out chronologically, designed to let listeners see exactly how far Bob Dylan came in six years. 2005 has seen a new glut of Dylan insight, and Chronicles, No Direction Home, and Live at the Gaslight 1962 (a companion piece to No Direction Home, presently available only at your local Starbucks, and sadly worth the stench of burned milk and spilled espresso) are impossibly telling when swallowed together: the end result is a comprehensive glimpse into Dylan-at-21, an oddly detailed examination of a perpetually misunderstood artist.
"This Land Is Your Land", recorded in 1961 at New York's Carnegie Chapter Hall (little sister to the famed concert space) is an earnest homage to Dylan's beloved muse Woody Guthrie, growled with endearing conviction. "This Land" is followed by a wobbly-voiced "Song to Woody" ("I'm singing you this song, but I can't sing enough/ 'Cause there's not many men who've done the things that you've done"); Dylan's unfettered admiration for Guthrie's work is perfectly (and prominently) posed, captured six years before Dylan perched himself on Guthrie's deathbed. Both feature Dylan's early caw and watchful strums, his veneration for Guthrie's politics and practices heartbreakingly rendered.
Dylan has always been an especially convincing protest singer, and given the post-Katrina events of the last week, his heartfelt rendition of "This Land is Your Land" is almost too much to take: it may be every Kindergarten class' premier singalong, but "This Land" is still one of the most elegant and subversive folk songs ever written. Guthrie's anthem was scribbled in terse response to Irving Berlin's comparably one-sided "God Bless America," and the song's telling fourth verse (typically censored in service of patriotism) seems just as apt now as it did in 1940: "One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple/ By the Relief Office I saw my people/ As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering/ If God Blessed America for me." Appropriately, "Song to Woody" features Dylan's response: "It's sick and it's hungry/ It's tired and it's torn/ It looks like it's dying and its hardly been born/ But hey Woody Guthrie, I know that you know." Guthrie and Dylan's distress is palpable, thick: Nudge your dial, put CNN on mute, and sob yourself to sleep. (Don't stop when you get to "Masters of War", or, worst of all, "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall").
An early demo of "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" (sometimes circulated as a part of the Witmark Demos) sees Dylan cawing with atypical prettiness, his guitar nimble and soft. Recorded in Lou Levy's office at Columbia ("I opened my guitar case, took the guitar out and began fingering the strings. Lou had put a microphone on the desk in front of me and plugged the cord into one of the tape recorders, all the while chomping on a big, exotic stogie," Dylan writes), "Don't Think Twice" justifies the purchase price of No Direction Home all on its own: Levy had Dylan recording original songs, which would eventually be transposed into sheet music and offered around to other artists, Brill Building-style. Accordingly, Dylan seems less concerned with perpetuating his own mythology than with capturing the grim soul of the song, and we're rewarded with three and a half minutes of pure, un-smirking, alarmingly honest Dylan (read: three minutes more than usual).
Disc Two features some outstandingly weird studio outtakes, including Take 9 of Highway 61 Revisited's "Tombstone Blues", complete with loping fuzztone bass, backing vocals, noodling by guitarist Mike Bloomfield of the Butterfield Band, and Dylan's own giggles. Largely electric, Disc Two also offers a source-tape recording of Dylan's infamous 1965 Newport Folk Festival performance of "Maggie's Farm", where he plugged-in, brazenly defaming the acoustic-only preservationists present, most of whom had comprised much of his fanbase (supposedly, Pete Seeger was hovering nervous backstage, muttering to himself and threatening to cut the power lines.) The Newport Folk Festival had long admitted a thorny relationship with amplifiers, even when the music demanded magnification-- festival organizers often stuck howling blues musicians with tiny, whispering stacks, smugly denying their right to wail. Even though Dylan had released the largely electric Bringing It All Back Home earlier that year, "Maggie's Farm" was ultimately received with a mixture of limp, knee-jerk applause and wildly dissatisfied boos-- and folk music changed.
No Direction Home is fairly essential listening for Dylan enthusiasts and an interesting history lesson for everyone else. Not only is American politics skewered and forked apart, but one songwriter's artistic evolution is laid out bare. As ever, Dylan reminds us that there is plenty left to learn.
-Amanda Petrusich, September 06, 2005