Bob Dylan: Live at the Gaslight 1962

Starbucks released Bob Dylan: Live at the Gaslight 1962 on August 30, 2005. Starbucks has been criticised for entering the CD business and having a monopoly of a release for say eighteen months. I do not share that criticism. Yes there is a picture of Dylan drinking coffee but it is sedate and historically archival in nature. I don’t drink coffee and went into a Starbucks and bought it. If capitalist enterprises wish to sell items that contain antiwar, antinuclear messages, who am I to complain?

The CD is a major release despite its being overshadowed by the pre-PBS CD soundtrack of the Scorsese movie. Gaslight is a release that is a significant remastering of perhaps two performances that Dylan gave at the Gaslight. It was a café in Greenwich Village, in Manhattan, the mecca of beats, folk singers, poets, cultural pioneers breaking away from traditional pop culture. I had heard about this performance due to a semi-bootleg that came out in Italy on a record but I had never heard it before and its provenance is still murky. Yet the great Starbucks’s CD release are selections from these October gigs at the Gaslight on 116 MacDougal Street.

For Dylanologists, Gaslight is very significant.

This album contains the earliest known recorded version of “John Brown,” an antiwar song about a soldier who is seriously injured and disfigured who returns to his mother who had sent him off to war to fight for the red, white and blue. This antiwar song is quite relevant today as the death count gets higher. Not until his MTV Unplugged release in 1995 had “John Brown” been recorded. Now one can hear Dylan’s music at the time of its creation!

It proves that “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” was written just prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, despite the error in the liner notes of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. This suggests Dylan’s prescience was part of his burgeoning genius. Antiwar songs before a peace movement; anti-nuclear songs prior to the Cuban madness but admittedly during a time of growing fears of radiation poisoning from atmospheric nuclear testing.

Dylan was in transition here both instrumentally and lyrically. When was he not? He is moving from merely covering songs to developing his own lyrics: rarely done at this time with demos filling the discography of singers from Tin Pan Alley. Also his guitar playing was now embracing a fingerpicking style which is dramatic in its impact. Dylan’s reputation as an average guitarist is belied by his oeuvre and he was already in the front line of finger-picking stylists. Yet alas, he abandons this style even before Newport. Dylan also is transitioning away from imitating blues singers to a more personalized style of folk music. One can discern in some tracks, such as “Going to West Texas,” that first album, Bob Dylan, blues style but in the magnificent cover of “Barbara Allen,” Dylan’s developing a more versatile style of performing. Also his guitar work in “Barbara Allen” is beautiful if not virtuoso.

“Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right:” For years this performance was rumoured to be an incomplete version. Several sources including the Starbucks’s liner notes say that. But when I heard it I found the lyrics fairly conforming to its final release on Freewheelin’. There is some integrating of verses that he would later separate but this is natural. Yes there is some stammering or pausing, but the song is hardly in a rough draft at that point. Dylan sometimes would forget his lyrics in his early days as a performer and he probably forgot the first few lines of the last verse. At Philharmonic Hall in 1964, he had to ask the audience and Joan Baez at one time for lyrics that he had forgotten from his own songs. By Gaslight, he was quite aware of the contours of that song of an introspective non-judgmental breakup with a woman. What is surprising is he eschews fingerpicking for a strumming style. Yet he adopts the former in its album release.

One can also purchase the CD for the Scorsese movie, “No Direction Home,” at Starbucks and elsewhere but only at Starbucks can one purchase “Live at the Gaslight.”

I wish the times of the tracks on the album cover were consistent with the actual times and there had been no abbreviation of song titles on the album! The latter is inexcusable and frankly demeans the songs and the production. Exactness is artistically demanded when releasing an album by the greatest songwriter and perhaps folk singer in the history of music. “Cocaine” is “Cocaine Blues.” “The Cuckoo” is “The Cuckoo is a Pretty Bird.” “West Texas” is “Going Down to West Texas.”

See two-part review of the epic film documentary on Bob Dylan:

Part One:
Scorsese, No Direction Home

Part Two:
Scorsese, No Direction Home

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