In early 1963, Bob Dylan was at the threshold of a career that would skyrocket him to previously unimaginable heights, in part, aided by his Freewheelin’ LP, released in May ’63. Although an implied ‘live’ recording, Live NYC 1963, is actually, more accurately, part of a radio broadcast from WBAI’s Radio Unnameable hosted by Bob Fass, featuring a genuinely unexpected visit from Dylan, who’d arrived with the intention of self-plugging his forthcoming release. Not only was this visit unscripted, but it was also completely unbeknownst to Columbia Records who had already earmarked a release date for the album with which Dylan had come armed; “Don’t worry Bob,” Fass jokingly tells his unexpected guest “nobody listens.”
From the early acetate, Fass selects ‘Oxford Town’, ‘I Shall Be Free’, ‘Corrina, Corrina’ and ‘Down the Highway’ for airplay; a retrospectively strange selection, considering the album would also boast ‘Blowing in the Wind’, ‘Don’t Think Twice…’, ‘…Hard Rain’ and an unfortunate one, seeing as these early pressings featured (among other abandoned songs) ‘Let Me Die In My Footsteps’ and the controversial ‘Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues’, deleted from the official release two months later.
With this in mind, as a Dylan album, Live NYC 1963 is not exactly ground breaking, furthermore, Dylan appears on just over half of the show, yet that is not to say it is a recording without any sort of saving grace.
Firstly, with, or without Dylan, this recording is an undeniable artefact of countercultural history; it is one of the original episodes of Radio Unnameable, which began in early ‘63 and has continued to air over the last fifty-odd years. Secondly, we are offered a glimpse into (yet another side of) the young Dylan; and one not always apparent on record, as he banters away with his host and gets involved in a handful of comedy skits – adopting characters like ‘Rory Grossman’ and ‘Rumple Billy Burp’ for good measure. Thirdly, Dylan is accompanied on air by Suze Rotolo; his then-girlfriend (and the lady nestled into his arm on the front cover of the aforementioned Freewheelin’) and this recording, may actually be one of the only existing, audio fragments of the couple together.
Yes, in a musical sense, it is a shame that we do not uncover more buried treasure with this album, but what we do have is a very remarkable time capsule, and for the fact it has been liberated from the circles of bootleggers and tape-traders, and made more easily accessible, I think it is a release which should be commended.
Christopher James Sheridan
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‘Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues’ – live: