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Bobbin' Along

Dylan fans get a big fix of enigmatic rock icon

By Greg Cahill

'I see nothing to be gained by any explanation," Bob Dylan sang on "Standing in the Doorway" from 1997's Time Out of Mind. "There are no words that need to be said."

Of course, this enigmatic rock icon is a walking paradox. Sometimes his soul is laid bare in his songs; other times he cloaks his meaning in layers of allusion. But curiosity about the "real" Bob has persisted for decades.

In recent months, he's said plenty about his past, though in characteristically paradoxical style, publishing his frustrating autobiographical Chronicles, Vol. 1 and prepping for a positively torrential flood of media attention.

That onslaught started a couple of weeks ago with the release of newly remastered versions of Dylan's first and third LPs. It continues this week with the Aug. 30 release of Bob Dylan: Live at the Gaslight, a set of 10 live performances recorded in 1962 at the Gaslight Cafe in New York City and available only at Starbucks stores (more evidence of Dylan's paradoxical nature; the antiestablishment firebrand now markets through a controversial corporate outlet).

Oh, and don't forget the newly published slipcover The Bob Dylan Scrapbook, 1956-1966, a collection of rare photographs and facsimiles of Dylan memorabilia.

But the centerpiece of this Dylan deluge is No Direction Home, the two-part documentary directed by Martin Scorsese. It is scheduled for a Sept. 20 DVD release and will air Sept. 26-27 on PBS (it also airs Sept. 26 and Oct. 1 on BBC's Arena series). For this feature-length film, which focuses on the singer-songwriter's life and music from 1961 to 1966, Dylan has opened his archive of previously unreleased film footage of live concerts, studio recording sessions, outtakes and interviews.

As anyone who has downloaded free live bootlegs from his official website knows, Dylan is quite generous with his music. In the documentary, he talks candidly, as he did in the first few chapters of his autobiography, about his teenage sojourn from the small mining town of Hibbing, Minn., to Greenwich Village, where he quickly became a key figure on the then-burgeoning folk-revival scene.

Scorsese explores Dylan's roots through combining rare footage of his appearances at the 1963, 1964 and 1965 Newport Folk Festivals and outtakes from D. A. Pennebaker's acclaimed 1967 film documentary Don't Look Back, as well as interviews with Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Maria Muldaur and other musicians who were acquainted with him during this formative period. At that time, Dylan became closely identified with the protest movement and ultimately became the lead spokesman for his generation, a role he has both rejected and embraced.

The two-CD documentary soundtrack, also released Aug. 30 on the Sony/BMG/Legacy label, is filled with Dylan rarities (it's the latest in his series of authorized bootlegs). It includes a 60-page booklet with liner notes written by former Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham and Al Kooper, who played keyboards on several of Dylan's albums. Twenty-six of the 28 tracks are previously unreleased. Several are home demos made before Dylan's celebrated exodus from the heartland.

The 12 alternate album takes bristle with electricity: there's an emotionally charged version of "She Belongs to Me," an eerily stripped-down rendition of "Desolation Row," a fresh take on "Tombstone Blues" that captures Dylan bursting into laughter as he is overwhelmed by Mike Bloomfield's barrage of steely electric guitar licks, and a powerful version of "Ballad of a Thin Man," on which Dylan struggles to spit his venomous sentiments over Garth Hudson's funereal organ trills.

Indeed, the appearance of Dylan's longtime backup group the Band on these vintage recordings reminds that Scorsese, who filmed the Band's 1978 swan song The Last Waltz, is especially qualified to attempt to shed light on this most enigmatic of rock icons. "They're a fascinating pair of geniuses," Rob Sheffield wrote recently in Rolling Stone, "two of America's most fanatic hearts, both lonely men obsessed with immigrant culture, old-world religion, Elvis, doo-wop, the Depression, New York and the Sixties.

"They're both visionaries who connect what critic Greil Marcus calls 'the old weird America' to the new one in discomforting ways."

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From the August 31-September 6, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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