The Gaslight Tapes
These tapes, recorded in the Gaslight Cafe in Greenwich Village in 1962, are interesting mainly because they comprise the only available recorded versions of three fine songs. The tape seems to have been made with an on-stage recorder — a semi-formal session, so to speak.
"There Was An Old Man" is a radically different version of that staple of Dylan collectors, "Only A Hobo." It's a dramatic, sensitive portrait of the tramp dead on the curb, the cop poking him into the gutter; not a shouting eulogy, but a story that is part of the city.
"He Was a Friend of Mine" is a beautiful soft song to a friend who "died on the road."It seems to have a sense of the dues one has to pay simply to live: "He never had enough money/ To pay his fine . . . and he was a friend of mine." The Byrds kept the title and the tune for the song about the Kennedy assassination.
Then comes 'Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Disaster Blues," all about an excursion boat that's oversold and sinks from the crush of bodies, baskets, kids, and fried chicken. Dylan used to crack his audiences up with this one back in 1963 and 1964, but the humor's not nearly as sharp as "Talking World War III" or "Talking John Birch."
The tape ends with Dylan and Dave Van Ronk combining for "Car Car," the gay little automobile song Woody Guthrie wrote to sing to his kids, and a short "Pretty Polly" by Rob. All in all, the tape is a nice memory of the days when Fourth Street wasn't "such a drag."
" . . . Unlike most of the songs nowadays being written up in Tin Pan Alley . . . " — the Witmark Demos
Dylan's first songs were published by Duchess Music (BMI), but by the time of the Freewheelin' album Bob had affiliated with M. Witmark & Sons, one of the first music publishers in American history — a founder of Tin Pan Alley and a house of the most eminent prestige. It was virtually unprecedented for a "folk singer" to publish through such an agency, and this stroke of financial and PR genius set Dylan apart from the rest of the Village crowd as much as his songs did. Dylan wrote a large number of songs from 1962 and 1964 that he did not release on his albums, and these were cut as demos for Witmark. Many of these were eventually recorded by other artists, while some eventually reached the general public only through songbooks (Bob Dylan, The Original, Warner Bros.-7 Arts Music, and Bob Dylan, A Collection, Warner Bros7 Arts Music; Warner Bros-7 Arts purchased M. Witmark some time ago). Some of the tapes discussed below may not in fact be Witmark demos — it's hard to tell — but they fall more readily into that category than any other.
Piano songs. In 1963 or 1964 Dylan recorded a number of songs, accompanying himself on piano, featuring what Al Kooper has called Bob's "beautifully untutored" keyboard work. Others, perhaps with more accuracy, have referred to the "ultimate flowering of the whorehouse piano." Whatever one calls it, the music brings to mind a strange amalgam of Jerry Lee Lewis, Skip James, Mose Allison, Memphis Slim and Nicky Hopkins — a wilder, free style than on, say, "Dear Landlord" or "Ballad of a Thin Man." The vocals and the composition of a couple of these numbers represent a maturity and a grasp of the finest subtleties of American popular music that is simply not to be found in any of the recordings Dylan had released up to the time. A spare sense of restraint and an effortless timing characterize the singing — a feel, again, of age beyond years.
"I'll Keep It With Mine" is a song written for, of all people, Nico, who was a European groupie when Dylan and Grossman met her on a visit to the Continent. Nico eventually did come to the US, as they had urged, and recorded the song on her first album for Verve, Chelsea Girl. A. E. Mac. Denny of the Fairport Convention has also recorded the song, magnificently, for the Fairport Convention's album on A&M. None of these versions, though, give a hint of Dylan's performance. His piano accompaniment is a succession of quarter-note triplets, with the first heavily accented and reinforced by his tapping foot. The lyrics — reminiscent of Another Side — tell a train story, the singer softly pleading for a girl to remain. The melody is one of his best up to that point, with a fine understated verse and a gradual build-up in the chorus: "Everybody will help you/ Discover what you set out to find/ But if I/ Can save you any time/ Come one, give it to me/ I'll keep it with mine." The performance is a tour-de-force that really should have been released.
"California" is a little ditty in the vein of "Outlaw Blues," with a line that later found its way into that song: "I got my dark sunglasses/ I got for good luck my black tooth . . . " It's title comes from the verse, "San Francisco is fine/ It sure gets lotsa sun [just like "warm San Francisco nights"?]/ But I'm used to four seasons/ California's got but one." The piano here is much like that on "Black Crow Blues."
"Hmmmm, says Bob, and hits his rinky-tink piano for Arthur Crudup's "That's Alright Mama," also Elvis' first record. The piano work is the finest example of Dylan's keyboard action extant; for three minutes he performs some finger-breaking pyrotechnics that must be heard to be believed. Near the end, he abruptly changes tempo, riffs, changes tempo again — and then the tape is out. The listener is invariably left breathless.
"Denise, Denise" is a pounding rocker with an infectious rhythm, the singer casting a cold eye at a girl who just won't cop out to being real. Maracas, piano and harp drive the best version of this number until Bob is ready for a line that would have entered our common language had the song ever been released: "I'm looking deep in your eyes, babe/ I But all I see is myself."
There are three versions of "Bob Dylan's New Orleans Rag" — an incomplete take, a live cut from from an unreleased LP (see "Live Performances") and a full, rocking performance with harp and piano. We find Bob sitting on a stump in New Orleans: "I was feeling kinda lowdown, dirty and mean/ When along came a stranger and he didn't even ask/ He said I know 'bouta woman who can fix you up fast." He leads the singer to a door marked "103" and then the fun starts. All sorts of layout, wiped-out, freaked-out fellows stumble out the door, moaning, crawling, unable to speak; Bob sees one that "looked like he'd been through a monkey wrench." The kid splits fast: "I musta run a mile in a minute or less." The piano pushes this remarkably fluid number to crazy heights of rhythm, until Bob wheezes: "Man, you're better off/ In year misery/ Than to tackle that woman/ At one-oh . . . three!"
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