1967: Jimi Hendrix asks, “Are You Experienced?” The Beatles plead, “Let me take you down” to “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Brian Wilson spins a yarn of “Heroes and Villains.” The Summer of Love is in full swing, and psychedelia is in the air. Fast forward one year. In July, The Band releases Music from Big Pink. Reportedly, hearing the album convinces Eric Clapton to leave Cream. The ripples of its influence would be felt in the ranks of The Beatles and Pink Floyd. The next month, in August, The Byrds unveil Sweetheart of the Rodeo, arguably the first major country-rock album by an established band. There’s nary a whiff of patchouli. But neither Big Pink and Sweetheart – nor countless albums that followed in their footsteps – would likely have existed, at least as they’re now known, if not for The Basement Tapes.
Big Pink introduced the world to “I Shall Be Released” and “Tears of Rage,” and included “This Wheel’s on Fire.” Rodeo began with “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and ended with “Nothing Was Delivered.” All of those songs were composed and first recorded by Bob Dylan and the group that would become The Band in a fertile period of recording from March 1967 to February 1968 (with some breaks in that period). Yet, The Basement Tapes – en toto, the whole enchilada – have remained largely unreleased, until now. Just how these recordings became more influential than most platinum-selling hit records is one of music’s enduring mysteries. Would a full commercial release of this “cosmic American music” (to steal from Gram Parsons) diminish its mystique? The answer, happily, is no. The new Columbia/Legacy release of The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes: Complete, over six CDs, should quickly become the cornerstone of many a musical library and the key to a deeper understanding of not only its artists – who pushed the envelope by looking back as well as forward – but of an entire period of popular music and culture.
Dive into The Basement Tapes cache after the jump!
II. I’m in the Mood
Between March and September 1967, Bob Dylan, recovering from a much-publicized motorcycle accident, joined with musicians Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson – formerly The Hawks, soon to be not just a band, but The Band. (For expediency’s sake, we’ll refer to them from this point on as The Band.) Free of interference from outsiders or record companies, this group recorded some nine reels of tape in various locations around West Saugerties, New York, and these tapes would collectively become known as The Basement Tapes. (The basement refers to the basement of famous Band house Big Pink, but these loose, informal sessions began in the Red Room of Dylan’s home. Robbie Robertson recalled sessions “here and there,” including in Rick Danko’s house.) Levon Helm would rejoin his bandmates in October, the same month Dylan traveled to Nashville to record the album called John Wesley Harding. Upon Dylan’s return, recording continued through, it’s believed, February 1968. These loose, informal and freewheeling sessions were a musical potpourri of folk songs, classic country-and-western, R&B, rock-and-roll, gospel, sea shanties, spirituals, tossed-off ditties, sly parodies, and some of the most stunningly original songs Bob Dylan had ever penned. What was the raison d’etre behind these recordings? Some were clearly made for copyright purposes, to be included on a publishing demo and sent to other artists. Some seem to have been recorded on a lark, some to keep the creative juices flowing.
For Dylan, the music made at Big Pink and environs represented a rejection not just of the prevailing sounds of the day, but of the aggressive “rock” direction his own work had been taking, most recently on the searing Blonde on Blonde. The Basement Tapes were an embrace of his roots, of the important music that still ran through his veins even as he once made it seem rather passé. Genres would be coined to describe the organic music recorded by Dylan and co. in the basement of Big Pink and elsewhere: lo-fi, alt-country, Americana, roots-rock. It’s important to note that these sessions didn’t happen in a vacuum; a response to the rise of psychedelia was likely inevitable, anyway. The music that informed Dylan, Robertson, Danko, Manuel, Hudson and Helm informed that of many of their contemporaries, as well. But these sessions transcended any single motivation.
Shockingly yet completely characteristically, Dylan didn’t release any of the 139 songs from the Basement Tapes at first. Fourteen tracks were circulated on a publishing demo in fall 1967, destined for Peter, Paul and Mary, Manfred Mann, Ian and Sylvia, Julie Driscoll, Brian Augur and the Trinity, and The Byrds. Two years later, seven songs were included on Great White Wonder, acknowledged by many as the first rock bootleg. In 1975, Dylan finally consented to a release, and Robbie Robertson curated a 2-LP set of 24 tracks. For the official release The Basement Tapes, Robertson included 16 true Basement selections, many with overdubs, and added eight Band tracks sans Dylan. It’s only taken almost 40 more years for Dylan and Columbia Records to unveil this staggering new presentation of 6 CDs (a 2-CD highlights version is also available), containing virtually every note recorded in those heady months of 1967 and early 1968, all in unadulterated form. (Sound quality varies as sharply as the performances; the sixth disc of the set collates the poorest-sounding recordings in one place.)
By the numbers, Dylan and The Band recorded roughly 50 “cover” songs and over 60 original compositions, with the remaining tracks filled out by multiple takes and three re-recordings of past Dylan works. You’ll find music in this exhaustive box set that that has eluded mention even on sites dedicated to the legend of The Basement Tapes, including one reel described in the generous liner notes as wholly uncirculated until now. Tracks are arranged chronologically based on Garth Hudson’s own numbering system, with the tracks in the poorest fidelity relegated to the final disc.
III. I Can’t Make It Alone – The Covers
Dylan and his merry troupe mined the classic country-and-western songbooks of Hank Williams, Hank Snow, Johnny Cash, The Carter Family, and even Elvis Presley. In fact, Columbia could have assembled one hell of a “Dylan Sings Country Classics” set just from the material on the first disc of the 6-CD box! Hank Snow’s “I Don’t Hurt Anymore” benefits from the musicians’ happy camaraderie, while the second take of Cash’s “Big River” has that famous Dylan drawl of a sneer. The early Presley hit “I Forgot to Remember to Forget” and Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard’s “Still in Town” are both rendered with sublime emotion and truth in spite of their ragged, offhand feel. Dylan even lets out a positively uninhibited scream on Clarence Williams’ “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It,” a Hank Williams hit.
Folk artists’ catalogues were tapped, too – Ian and Sylvia, Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers, and of course, Woody Guthrie. The blues came via John Lee Hooker. Numerous time-worn traditional tunes were part of the mix. Somewhat more surprisingly, so were more contemporary songs by Tim Hardin and Curtis Mayfield, and ’50s oldies by Bobby Bare and Sonny Knight. All contributed to the singular musical melting pot. Dylan and co. stripped these familiar songs to their cores, and in doing so, seeped up the very essence of Cash, Hanks Williams, Cochran and Snow, Cowboy Copas, The Sons of the Pioneers, Patsy Cline and The Rays…of country, R&B, rockabilly, and rock and roll. Inspiration could emerge from anywhere; witness the 19th century drinking song and waltz, “Ol’ Roison the Beau” or the rollicking rendition of sea shanty “Johnny Todd.” Though every song manages to feel of a piece in this collection, there are surprises a-plenty. There’s a bizarre, if altogether delightful, thrill in hearing Dylan singing a folksy version of The Fleetwoods’ “Mr. Blue” in his sweetest voice, or raggedly running through Bob Crewe and Frank Slay’s “Silhouettes.”
Seeing as how Dylan’s own songs had, in a short period of time, already become part of the popular culture, it was appropriate that he and The Band revisited a handful of those, too – a bluesy, gone-to-church extended romp through “Blowin’ in the Wind,” a fine “One Too Many Mornings” with Richard Manuel on lead, and a loose, country-fried “It Ain’t Me Babe.”
IV. Million Dollar Bash – The Originals
The amount of original Dylan material here is still staggering, nearly fifty years later – 60-odd “new” songs. Some of these are mere snippets; “Big Dog” and “Lock Your Door” are barely twenty seconds in length. Others are clearly riffs on familiar melodies or lyrics, like “Open the Door, Homer,” a spin on Count Basie’s 1947 chart-topper “Open the Door, Richard,” or “One for the Road,” which lyrically takes its cue from the Johnny Mercer/Harold Arlen barroom ballad but otherwise bears little resemblance. Unsurprisingly, many of these new songs are underdeveloped, or sloppy if spirited.
Yet others remain among the strongest material he’s ever composed. Though most of the “important” songs have surfaced in the years since 1967-1968, there’s still much to discover, like the raucously rocking “Under Control” and “Any Time” (the latter of which only exists in truncated form), the loping, music box-esque “I’m a Fool for You,” the breezy, Caribbean-esque “Mary Lou, I Love You Too,” the moody “Wild Wolf,” and the atmospheric “Edge of the Ocean,” just to name a few. Though the majority of these all-but-unknown compositions were never fully developed, they nonetheless have the power to fascinate.
In the liner notes, Garth Hudson recalls Dylan’s ability to compose enduring lyrics on the spot and run them downstairs to be recorded, citing “Million Dollar Bash,” the epic spiritual “Sign on the Cross” among the songs composed in this manner. Whereas those songs don’t seem improvised, others are much rougher. The doo-wop pastiche “I’m Your Teenage Prayer” boasts humorous backing vocals and interjections from The Band, and the track reaches almost Zappa-esque levels of absurdity as it descends into cacophony. The goofy “See You Later, Allen Ginsberg” lives up (down?) to Robbie Robertson’s description of “reefer run amok,” as does the traditional “Kickin’ My Dog Around” on which Dylan is deadpan, offering The Band priceless instructions on the harmony parts. This isn’t the only humor heard here. The bard of Hibbing’s lighter side also comes out on “Mrs. Henry, Please.” There are two takes of the droll “Lo and Behold” (Take 2 was heard on the ’75 album), and the first finds Dylan breaking down in laughter as he tries to complete the take. “Don’t Ya Tell Henry” was included on the ’75 release, too, but in a recording with Levon Helm on lead vocals. Here you’ll hear not just Bob in place of Levon, but a trombone (!) likely played by Rick Danko, adding a somewhat woozy N’awlins vibe. Appropriately, the trombone reappears on the very next track on this set, a stroll down “Bourbon Street” with Bob’s laconic vocal sounding like the final hurrah at last call of someone who’s had far too much to drink!
Dylan tries on various voices throughout the sessions including a bizarre half-blues, half-croon on “What’s It Gonna Be When It Comes Up.” He previews his Nashville Skyline style on “One Kind Favor,” and warbles “Try Me Little Girl” in an odd falsetto. (Another seemingly impromptu song implores the opposite – “Don’t You Try Me Now.”) Clearly no style or sound was off-limits. Though the material recorded was diverse, The Band intuitively knew how to accompany Dylan’s idiosyncratic vocals. They shine on the joyous gospel rave-up of “Apple Suckling Tree” and the lengthy instrumental section of the driving, bluesy “I Can’t Make It Alone.” Hudson’s swirling, churchy organ may be the most prominent instrument here other than Dylan’s voice.
Even the familiar songs resonate anew when placed in context. The beguiling “I’m Not There” would be a major revelation here if it hadn’t already been released in 2007 as the title track of a Dylan-inspired film; it’s one of the fully-formed “important” songs. The two takes of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” open a window onto Dylan’s process as he alters lyrics from one take to the next; he further refined them for his subsequent Greatest Hits Volume 2 recording. Both his vocal delivery and The Band’s arrangement also vary substantially from take to take. There are two moving takes of the gorgeously elegiac “I Shall Be Released” here, begging the question: how was this song, a true standard to emerge from The Basement Tapes, overlooked for the 1975 release? Dylan sounds particularly weary as he inhabits his lyric on Take 2, even though the falsetto harmony vocals don’t quite gel. He tries “Nothing Was Delivered” three times, experimenting with tempo, interpretation and feel. Take 1 has a soulful, gospel feel, while the second adds a backbeat and country piano. He would return in 1969 to “A Fool Such As I” and twice more down the road to “Spanish is the Loving Tongue” whereas many other songs would remain unfinished.
Was it perverse of Dylan to have withheld the release of songs like “Quinn the Eskimo,” “This Wheel’s on Fire” and “I Shall Be Released”? Wouldn’t any other songwriter who had just penned songs of that quality have rushed to record them for his next LP? (How many any other songwriters could have penned songs of that quality?) Dylan shrugged off the thought: “They were just songs we had done for the publishing company…for other artists to record those songs. I wouldn’t have put them out.”
V. Lo and Behold!
Now that these songs have all been put out by Columbia Records and Legacy Recordings, a major piece of the Bob Dylan puzzle finally exists for all to hear, enjoy and, yes, study. Following the high standard set by previous Bootleg Series releases, this package is a stunning and lavish one in every respect. The sturdily slipcased deluxe edition has two hardcover books, one of photos and memorabilia and one with copious liner notes and essays. The former has a number of truly striking photos by Elliott Landy and John Scheele, as well as a fun gallery of picture sleeves from cover recordings of Basement-era songs. Images of bootlegs, newspaper clippings, tape boxes and more round out this vivid collection. In the latter book, Sid Griffin sheds welcome light onto “The Importance of the Basement Tapes.” Clinton Heylin addresses “What’s Reel and What is Not” as he traces the various official and unofficial releases of the music over the years. Jan Haust, who co-produced the set with Jeff Rosen and Steve Berkowitz, adds “Notes from the Studio” to elaborate on Garth Hudson’s original recording process. Hudson, of course, is to be commended for having preserved the music of The Basement Tapes, most of which sounds better than ever in this presentation mastered by Peter J. Moore in Canada with an assist from Battery Studios’ Mark Wilder. A 2-CD edition, subtitled Raw, is also available with 38 selected highlights.
Per the liner notes, “One Kind Favor” (included on Disc 5) was reportedly the final song to be recorded as part of The Basement Tapes. Legacy has done fans and collectors more than one kind favor, however, with this long-anticipated, wholly essential release. The Basement Tapes – Complete improves on all of the unofficial releases of this material, and boasts surprise after surprise. If Bob Dylan and The Band were seeking purity and simplicity in a dark, politically-charged time, they succeeded mightily, with joy and beauty and harmony. One might ask, “Who is the real Bob Dylan?” Surely the answer lies in this music.