Shoulders hunched, jaw locked tight, face framed by a wiry mop of electrified curls, staring through a pair of dark sunglasses, Bob Dylan stands, cold and wet, waiting for the camera to click. The previous evening Dylan and his new electric band The Hawks had opened their 1966 UK tour at Bristol's Colston Hall. They were greeted by a steady stream of jeers from fans who already felt their folk-purist had, in bringing in electric instruments to record what would become the sacred triumvirate of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde, committed at least three acts of long-playing blasphemy. The image that adorns the cover of No Direction Home – the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese's mammoth Dylan documentary – is of a man understandably rattled, weary and probably wondering what the hell's going to happen next. (Incidentally, why do rock musicians always look their coolest at their worst?) Yet if this shot shows an exhausted character, branded as a traitor by some whilst being heralded as the true harbinger of modern rock 'n' roll by others, the twenty six previously unreleased tracks on this carefully packaged two-cd set show us a man harnessing creative and emotional impulses, the like of which will never be heard again.
The selection of home recordings that open cd one, including an impossibly early tape recording of 'Rambler Gambler' from 1960 and a liltingly affecting 'I Was Young When I Left Home', are the sound of a musician who is already singing in a voice that belies his teenage years. From a perfect demo take of 'Don't Think Twice, It's Alright', through the three songs ('Blowin' In The Wind', 'Masters of War' and 'A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall') that sealed his fate as the 'voice of a generation', the artist we hear in this first brace of recordings develops his folk narratives at such velocity the amphetamine strained star, booed at through the English summer of 1966, can be seen beckoning the twenty-two year-old Dylan to come push things forward. "A hard rain's a-gonna fall means something's gonna happen" he says as way of an introduction. Shit, you better believe him – by the time we hear the man searing his way through an astonishing live version of ‘Chimes Of Freedom’ the path has been cleared.
The move through the dark clouds that hang over 1964's 'The Times They Are A Changin'_, to the ferocious beatnik flourishes of the following year's _'Bringing It All Back Home' is one of the most astonishing advancements in popular music history. With a gloriously snarling 'Maggie's Farm’ and a percussionless 'She Belongs To Me', he moves on, on and on. Speeding up the groove on a clattering 'It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry' – a song that was later slowed down to a snakey barrelhouse-blues for 'Highway 61 Revisited' – we are soon treated to a revelatory 'Desolation Row'. With the shuffling drums and bell-tolling guitar refrain of the chosen album take not yet in place, we eavesdrop on a late night three-piece jam session with Harvey Brooks on bass and Al Kooper – Dylan's organ man extraordinaire – using his trebly guitar sound to add a slew of embellishments to this mournful epic.
After a fascinating trek through the shuddering lyrical brilliance of some of 'Blonde On Blonde''s psychedelic blues, namely 'Leopard Skin Pill-box Hat' and 'Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again', we come to cd two's finale of 'Ballad Of a Thin Man' and 'Like A Rolling Stone'. Two songs – presented here in all their live valedictory glory – that perhaps more than any other tracks on this album spotlight a Dylan flying way above the constraints of traditional blues and folk music. Even the questionable recording quality of '...Thin Man' doesn't detract from the beauty of its hazy, soulful piano descents - and listen out for Garth Hudson's organ flourishes; they are truly sublime. Finally, the infamous cry of "Judas!" before '...Rolling Stone's' quaking intro, is flung back in the face of the audience with a fatigued but defiant Dylan drawing out "I don't believe you... you're a liar!" The statement to the band that follows is one of vicious intent – "Play it f**king loud!" Both of these are glaring examples of a songwriter and performer swept along in the biggest creative thunderstorm modern rock 'n' roll has ever witnessed. 'No Direction Home' is a towering collection of material that belongs on the stereos of anyone who has listened to music and gone away feeling richer in heart, mind and soul.
9Ross Bennett's Score