The Basement Tapes have never before been heard in their entirety. Now, with the official release of all 138 songs, Dylan expert Clinton Heylin examines the myth and the reality of one of rock’s seminal long-lost masterpieces
In June 1975, between Blood on the Tracks and Desire, Bob Dylan approved the release of the most famous publishing demos in pop. The Basement Tapes, recorded off the radar in the summer of 1967, in the garage of the Band’s rented house in West Saugerties in upstate New York (which a previous owner had painted a gaudy pink), are seen as the missing link between the expansive Blonde on Blonde and the pared-down simplicity of John Wesley Harding. They were also the first music Dylan made as he recovered from a serious motorcycle accident on 29 July 1966, even as the dust of rumour conspired to cover him.
For six months after the accident Dylan, recuperated by cutting himself off from music, as he had done once before, after the Kennedy assassination, just jotting down lyrics. The rest of the time Dylan spent “poring over books by people you never heard of, thinking about where I’m going, and why am I running and am I mixed up too much and what am I knowing and what am I giving and what am I taking”. Or so he told the one journalist he spoke to on the record at the time, Michael Iachetta of the New York Daily News.
But according to Al Aronowitz, the one writer he spoke to regularly, off the record, throughout 1967: “That was just a contribution to the Dylan mystery. Actually, Dylan was writing 10 new songs a week, rehearsing them in his living room with [Robbie] Robertson’s group, the Hawks [AKA the Band].” And it turned out Aronowitz was right – the aural evidence began dribbling out in late 1967 as other groups started releasing their recordings of the songs Dylan had been writing, beginning with Peter, Paul and Mary’s version of Too Much of Nothing that November
Why had Dylan and his friends been working so hard? To what purpose? According to Robertson, the reason “we would play music every day” was “to keep one of us from going crazy”. He may not have meant Dylan, who was slowly wending his way back from the brink, but rather the Band’s Richard Manuel, who was heading unsteadily towards the cliff. (He would finally take his own life in 1986.)
What began as a form of musical therapy, initially in Dylan’s own Red Room at his home in nearby Byrdcliffe, soon evolved into so much more. In late spring 1967, when proceedings transferred to the Hawks’ colourful home, dubbed “Big Pink”, organist Garth Hudson set up a simple soundscape: three mikes into an Altech mixer, with instruments panned left or right, on to a Nagra reel-to-reel – what Robertson later called “this shitty little recorder” – that had already seen service on their dramatic 1966 world tour with Dylan. And the tapes kept a-rollin’.
For when it comes to “the basements”, evolution is the key. The Basement Tapes were, and are, a musical process; a journey away from the edge via the rich traditions of Anglo-American song. Such is the attention to detail and sheer intensity in Dylan’s delivery on songs such as Young But Daily Growing or The Banks of the Royal Canal, both steeped in a tradition that was to him “the only true valid death you can feel today”, that they often seem like the meat of the matter.
But by the middle of 1967 the secret sessions had a more immediate purpose: they had become a way for Dylan to show the Band how to make their own statement in song. The razor-sharp Robertson realised what was going on quickly enough: “Bob was educating us a little. The whole folkie thing was still very questionable to us … but he remembered too much, remembered too many songs too well. He’d come over to Big Pink … and pull out some old song – he’d prepped for this.” Yet it was Manuel and Rick Danko whom Dylan was trying to teach to release their demons in song, not Robertson, who had yet to pen a single song he could call his own.
Dylan even gave Manuel and Danko a lyric apiece to put to song. And what lyrics – Tears of Rage and This Wheel’s on Fire. By then, he had started using the sessions as a way for him to fulfil the demand for new songs his manager and co-publisher Albert Grossman was making, albeit at arm’s length. (Dylan had spent much of his recuperation poring over the 10-year management contract he signed in 1962, and he was not amused.)
Starting in June or July 1967, Dylan began laying down songs with enough pop sensibility, a surfeit of madcap lyricism and even a chorus or 12, to be copyrighted and distributed to any artist keen to record one or more unreleased Bob Dylan songs. These songs, with titles such as Yea Heavy And a Bottle of Bread, Tiny Montgomery and Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood) seemed to have been mined direct from some ancient realm of poesy, so rich was the wordplay and many-humoured the worldview. It was like “Phaedra with her looking glass” had made a secret tryst with “Einstein disguised as Robin Hood”, and this was their progeny.
Whether characters such as Quinn the Eskimo, Skinny Moo and T-Bone Frank were laughing at or with their listeners Dylan refused to resolve, but it mattered not. What came across most was a joie de vivre that suggested he couldn’t believe he was still alive, literally, let alone creatively. And if the five musicians seem at times as if they are teetering on the brink of insanity (The Spanish Song, Next Time on the Highway, All You Have To Do Is Dream can all now take a bow), it is because they were.
Indeed, this joyous musical brinkmanship seems most evident on those occasions when the musicians sound wholly pie-eyed. Because anyone who thinks Dylan had cleaned up his act after his fall simply ain’t been listenin’. These guys are flying low over the mountains, pilled to the gills, low as Hamlet, high as kites. Take one listen to Teenage Prayer, which puts the I in innuendo. Or Please Mrs Henry, as scatalogical as a Carry On film. Or Sign on the Cross, in which the keys to the kingdom come wrapped in silver foil. These songs have Mystery written all over them, but beware of licking the label lest a white rabbit appear.
By January 1968, when the first 14 songs were collected on to publishing demo acetates, just about anyone with a stake in the future of rock wanted to hear – and indeed own – copies of Dylan’s own versions. As such, for the next seven years, the 14 (later, 18) songs Dylan copyrighted would circulate first on reel-to-reel and then, from 1969, on the bootleg albums this hallowed set of acetates spawned.
At the same time, these seminal songs enjoyed a parallel life as chart fodder for the likes of Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger and the Trinity (This Wheel’s on Fire – a UK No 1), Manfred Mann (The Mighty Quinn – a Top 5 single), the Band (I Shall Be Released and Tears of Rage), the Byrds (Nothing Was Delivered) and Fairport Convention (Million Dollar Bash). McGuinness Flint went as far as recording seven basement tracks for their 1972 all-Dylan album, Lo and Behold.
In those years The Basement Tapes grew in the public imagination to constitute a body of songs as famous as the reclusive folk-rock bard himself. Soon enough, no charity gig was complete without a rousingly righteous I Shall Be Released, while The Mighty Quinn became the basis for any number of football chants. The real music from Big Pink – almost despite Dylan – was everywhere.
Yet the circumstances of these remarkable recordings remained steadfastly vague, despite Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner pressing Dylan during his second major post-accident interview to spill the beans, asking him for “the origin of that collection of songs, of that tape”. When Dylan pretended not to know what he meant, Wenner asked flat-out: “Where was that done?” Dylan, attempting to dismiss the subject with an offhand, “Out in somebody’s basement – just a basement tape,” unwittingly christened the tape for all eternity.
The subject seemed to continue bothering Dylan even as he finally approved an official release, largely to help fund the Band’s relocation to California. He hardly proved forthcoming when asked about the tapes by Mary Travers, the former singer in Peter, Paul and Mary, on her own radio show.
Travers had been among the first to hear the Big Pink fare, Peter, Paul and Mary’s recording of Too Much of Nothing predating even that song’s copyright registration. And Travers was simply trying to do Dylan a favour by previewing the imminent release of the official CBS Basement Tapes set, a set Dylan told Travers was being released “so people could hear it in its entirety and know just exactly what we were doing up there in those years”.
The release, now, of a further 122 songs as part of The Basement Tapes Complete (Bootleg Series Vol 11) rather suggests Dylan was blowing smoke signals the day he sold his message to Mary. He must have known that Band guitarist Robbie Robertson and producer Rob Fraboni had compiled an extensive set of “reference” tapes from the 17 or so reels. Even with recourse to just three of the dozens of cover versions they had recorded, it comprised 45 Dylan performances and 10 Band performances (mostly studio takes), from which that 1975 set was ultimately compiled.
Back in 1975, no one knew the 16 Dylan songs on said CBS set were the tip of an enormous iceberg. However, even then, just about every critic worth his truckload of salt knew that the set was missing at least half a dozen important Dylan originals. Hence the tears of outrage that greeted the omission of I Shall Be Released, Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn), the hymnal Sign on the Cross (one of the most exquisite Dylan vocals in his entire lexicon) and the elliptical I’m Not There, while the “correct” demos of Too Much of Nothing and Tears of Rage were sacrificed for first runthroughs. (All of the above were already circulating in collector circles.)
And there was more: specifically five more Basement originals copyrighted in 1973, the lyrics of which suggested even more tantalising treasure lay outside collectors’ reach. None of these songs – Silent Weekend, Santa Fe, Bourbon Street, All American Boy and Wild Wolf – would circulate until the early 90s, by which time the whole of Wild Wolf and two-thirds of the completely mad Bourbon Street had disappeared from the upstate locker of Band archivist Garth Hudson.
It turns out that all these tracks, with the exception of All American Boy, were part of a 50-minute composite reel that had been loaned by Hudson to Dylan’s office in the early 1990s, and never seemingly returned. And because they were not in Hudson’s lockup, they were not accessible to the Band roadie who helped himself to direct dubs of most of the other reels at the time Dylan’s first Bootleg Series was appearing, in 1991.
Relocated by Sony archivist Glenn Korman, that reel appears on the new Basement Tapes edition in its entirety, revealing not only all five 1973 copyrights but four more gems only previously whispered of in Dylan circles: My Woman, She’s a-Leavin; Mary Lou, I Love You Too; Dress It Up; Better Have It All; and What’s It Gonna Be When It Comes Up.
What makes the contents of this reel particularly intriguing is the suspicion, confirmed by the reel number assigned by Hudson back then, that this is probably the last Basement reel, save for a three-song Anthology of American Folk Music jam session. Indeed, we appear to have crept into 1968 with these recordings. John Wesley Harding has certainly been recorded already, and we are witnessing how the Hawks plan to reintegrate Levon Helm – who had missed the Basement sessions – into their new sound while continuing to experiment with an inspired Dylan, even after he returned from three trips to Nashville with his new album and, seemingly, a new direction home.
This, it seems, was the direction Dylan was heading in when those inspirational “lights went out”, as he put it in 1978. Wild Wolf may well be the last time he went “half-stepping” before his muse pulled the switch. Five long years of creative darkness would follow.
For once, such a “for completists only” trawl through the vaults serves to fill in the blanks and connect the dots in such a way that one’s appreciation of Dylan and the Band’s achievement is actually heightened. These backwoods boys rehearsed off tape and rarely recorded more than two takes of anything, originals included. Listening to all their extensive forays, one finally understands what Robertson meant when he suggested that they were trying to “stop time”.
And for those who think this is a case of “feel the width”, somewhere in among the haunted leaves of this mighty tree is a 24-track collection of all the songs copyrighted between 1967 and 1975, which would rank alongside any Dylan collection. Sadly, Sony wasted an opportunity to release such a companion CD. Instead, they went with a 2-CD version that is neither fish nor fowl, as much mish as mash.
Nevertheless, this banquet really needs to be savoured entire. After all, seeing the stack of reels that sat in a Toronto studio awaiting transfer to digital, one can’t help but be reminded the boys at Big Pink took their time. The Basement Tapes, which for years were seen as the work of a few summer days, turn out to be nine months in the life of a former boy wonder and a family man, at a time when he could still make music in the most idyllic of settings and count his blessings.
Even Dylan allowed himself to wax lyrical about those times when prompted to remember them by a young Wenner: “You know, that’s really the way to do a recording – in a peaceful, relaxed setting, in somebody’s basement, with the windows open and a dog lying on the floor.” No expectations, no commitments. Just for the love of it. Expect to spend a lifetime unravelling the mystery that is Big Pink. Dylan has.
Bob Dylan and the Band: The Basement Tapes Complete review – rickety, strange and utterly timeless
Whether or not the 138 songs on this uber-bootleg six-CD box set really did change the course of rock music, the best bits are as good as it gets
There’s something winningly quaint about the security measures surrounding The Complete Basement Tapes. In order to combat piracy, there are no promotional CDs: those who wish to cast a critical ear over the 138 tracks are required to listen to them via a stream, or visit the record company’s offices, taking the precaution to first pack a sleeping bag and a change of clothes. No one must bootleg The Basement Tapes; that seems to be the message.
Given that someone first bootlegged The Basement Tapes 45 years ago– indeed, someone went to the trouble of inventing the entire bootleg industry specifically in order to bootleg The Basement Tapes – and that the intervening five decades have been packed with people bootlegging them in a variety of formats, culminating in the appearance of not one but two multi-CD sets of Basement Tapes bootlegs, this does feel a trifle like shutting the proverbial stable door. Still, the preponderance of Basement Tapes bootlegs tells you something about the importance heaped on the music they contain.
The rough recordings Dylan made in Woodstock in the spring and summer of 1967 had a profound effect, widely held to represent the third time in as many years that he altered the course of music. The accepted wisdom is that when some of the lo-fi songs he’d taped leaked via a publishing acetate, his peers took it as a sign that Dylan was calling time on the experimentation of the psychedelic era, directing them to an earthier hue: he and the Band had cleared the path that led the Beatles from Sergeant Pepper to the Get Back sessions, the Rolling Stones from We Love You to Beggars’ Banquet and the Byrds from Artificial Energy and Dolphin’s Smile to Sweetheart of the Rodeo – an album that included not one, but two songs from The Basement Tapes.
Certainly the music was radically different from anything any other major artist was attempting at the time – tellingly, when Julie Driscoll and Manfred Mann covered two of Dylan’s new songs, they felt obliged to dress them up in the era’s sonic finery – and Certainly the singer-songwriter had earned a position as an avatar of taste: on the disc of outtakes that came with Let It Be… Naked, you can hear George Harrison blithely informing his Beatles that Dylan and The Band thought the best song on The White Album was Ringo’s countrified Don’t Pass Me By, although the audible skepticism of Paul McCartney’s response is something to behold. There’s so much diversity on The Basement Tapes Complete – stoned jokes, old folk ballads, covers of Hank Williams, Frank Sinatra, Bo Diddley and the Impressions – that it’s daft to try and make definitive statements about it. But listening to it almost 50 years on, one striking thing is how much they sound like the songs Dylan wrote before The Basement Tapes, how little they resemble a game-changing stylistic rupture destined to jolt any musician who heard them. Sign on the Cross and I Shall Be Released do tap into a vein of Americana forgotten during pop’s headlong rush into the future in the mid-60s, but tapping into veins of Americana forgotten by others was pretty much what Dylan had been doing before he relocated to Woodstock: while the Beatles were playing tape loops backwards and inviting sitar players into Abbey Road, he was ensconced in Nashville, making Blonde on Blonde with country and western session men so deeply uncool that when the singer meaningfully enquired about recreational activities, one of them suggested a game of golf. It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to picture those same session musicians fleshing out You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere or Don’t Ya Tell Henry and the results slotting onto Dylan’s previous album, just as it’s easy to envisage Odds And Ends or Yea! Heavy And A Bottle Of Bread being reworked in the torrential style of Tombstone Blues.
But there’s one sense in which the music on The Basement Tapes feels utterly different to what came before. Had Dylan recorded You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere a year or two previously, it’s hard not to imagine the vocals would have been delivered with his patent, bug-eyed derision, the words elongated until every syllable felt like a sneer. That was the sound of a man pouring scorn from a great height, and it’s entirely absent on these six CDs: the albums that preceded The Basement Tapes sound like works of supreme confidence, but these recordings sound rickety and strange. That’s partly due to the fact that these were effectively rehearsals: the rough sound quality, the musicians fluffing notes, the absence, for the most part, of drummer Levon Helm. But it’s also a mood that seems to be emanating from Dylan himself. Sometimes he sounds like a man who thought the guy who shouted “Judas!” might have had a point after all, returning to the kind of songs he would have sung in folk clubs six years previously as if hoping to tunnel his way out of the mid-60s and back to a less chaotic, complicated time: Nine Hundred Miles, Young But Daily Growing, Johnny Todd (the latter, distractingly for the British listener of a certain age, set to the same tune as the theme from Z Cars).. Sometimes he sounds shattered and rueful, like a man reeling from the experience of being Bob Dylan. The most beautiful songs here are shot through with an affecting world-weariness: Too Much of Nothing, Edge of the Ocean (a gorgeous ballad that previously escaped the bootleggers), the astonishing I’m Not There (1956), a song as good as anything Dylan ever wrote. There’s a remarkable cover of Ian and Sylvia’s 1964 hit Four Strong Winds. The original is sung in the kind of slightly pompous folkie voice so expertly parodied in A Mighty Wind, but in Dylan’s hands it becomes a kind of defeated sigh.
By the time some of the music here began to circulate, Dylan wasn’t the only one feeling that way. The beatific idealism of the Summer of Love had begun to curdle, the appeal of the sonic experimentation Dylan never countenanced in the first place was wearing off: evidence of the havoc LSD could wreak on artists who used it to blast their music into the unknown began washing up. Perhaps that, as much as the rootsy file-under-Americana sound or the sheer quality of the songs, accounts for The Basement Tapes’ impact on rock music in the years that followed. In spring 1967, Dylan and the Band were out of step, but ahead of the curve. Now, 47 years on, even the listener overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of what’s on offer here – who doesn’t want to hear the false starts and fragments and gags – might conclude that the highlights are as timeless as rock music in the 60s got.