Bob Dylan’s ‘Basement Tapes’
March 16, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 26
In the mid-1960s the most celebrated folk musician of his era bought a house for his growing family at the southern edge of the Catskills, in the nineteenth-century painters’ retreat of Woodstock. He was a “protest singer,” to use a term that was then new. His lyrics—profound, tender, garrulous—sounded like they were indicting the country for racism (“where black is the color where none is the number”), or prophesying civil war (“you don’t need a weatherman to know the way the wind blows”), or inviting young people to smoke dope (“everybody must get stoned”). Fans and would-be acolytes were soon roaming the town on weekends, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. Eccentric-looking by the standards of the day, they infuriated local residents. Nothing good was going to come of it. One of the town’s more heavily armed reactionaries would later recall:
[A] friend of mine had given me a couple of Colt single-shot repeater pistols, and I also had a clip-fed Winchester blasting rifle around, but it was awful to think about what could be done with those things. . . . Creeps thumping their boots across our roof could even take me to court if any of them fell off. . . . I wanted to set fire to these people. These gate-crashers, spooks, trespassers, demagogues were all disrupting my home life and the fact that I was not to piss them off or they could press charges really didn’t appeal to me.
The folk singer was Bob Dylan. The reactionary old coot with all the guns . . . well, that was Bob Dylan, too. At age 25, he was growing uncomfortable with the role conferred on him by the music he’d written at age 20. “I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of,” he would later write in his memoir Chronicles.
There is certainly an element of baloney in this. No one writes a song like “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” without a certain oracular ambition. And, on the evidence of his music, Dylan’s ambition was overpowering. Listen to “Positively Fourth Street,” “Just Like a Woman,” or “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine),” in all of which the passions are expressed through a narrative about social standing—who’s on the way up and who’s on the way down. Beautiful as they are, the fire in these songs comes not from political injustice or unrequited love but from the warning: You are really going to regret having been mean to me, once I’m famous.
And yet, Dylan’s unease with his listeners’ expectations rings true. Born in 1941, he was not a baby boomer, as all high-school and almost all college students were by the time he moved to Woodstock. Nor was he a suburbanite. Hibbing, Minnesota, where he grew up, is in the Iron Range, 200 miles north of Minneapolis. And he chose not to join the great mass migration of the middle class into America’s universities. Maybe the new world that was on its way didn’t mean as much to him as everyone thought it did. It was just something folk singers sang about, in the same way they sang about floods, freight trains, and the woman who shot down that no-good man of hers who done her wrong.
By July 1966, Dylan was a hot ticket—too hot. He had just finished a grueling four-month world tour during which fans alternately swooned and shouted abuse, accusing him of having “betrayed” folk music by playing it on loud electric instruments. An even more demanding American tour was scheduled to begin in early August, and by then Dylan was supposed to have met deadlines for a television special, a movie about the last tour, and a not-quite-finished novel.
Dylan’s manager then announced he had been in a near-fatal motorcycle crash. While Dylan’s record label Columbia issued a press release speaking of fractures and a concussion, there was no police report, and Dylan was never treated in any hospital. Rock historian Sid Griffin—whose authoritative book about Dylan’s Woodstock recordings, Million-Dollar Bash, has just been reissued in expanded form—believes some kind of accident happened, but that Dylan almost certainly exploited it as a pretext for desperately needed rest and recuperation. He would not tour again for eight years.
Dylan’s fourth album had been called Another Side of Bob Dylan. At Woodstock he withdrew from the public eye to pursue another other side: that of a bookish, strikingly apolitical family man who was even then beginning his turn to the born-again Christianity he would embrace with an evangelist’s zeal a decade later. Organizers of the 1969 Woodstock music festival had hoped to stage it in the town largely because that was where Dylan lived. But Dylan never showed an interest in taking part. And because of local opposition, partly aroused by the earlier invasion of Dylan’s fans, the concert wound up being held not in Woodstock at all but on a dairy farm in Bethel, New York, an hour’s drive west.
The first bootleg
The convalescent Dylan summoned four Canadian musicians from his touring band. The idea was that they would help Dylan with his movie as a way of earning their retainer from the delayed (and eventually canceled) nationwide tour. They had time to kill. They were killing it by helping the long-haired falsetto and left-handed ukulele-player Tiny Tim make a psychedelic documentary film of his own called You Are What You Eat. (“If you ever see this movie you’ll understand what ‘freaks’ are,” said one of the dancers who worked on it.)
The musicians were guitarist Robbie Robertson, bassist Rick Danko, drummer-pianist Richard Manuel, and organist Garth Hudson, who was also an accomplished sound technician. This was a crucial talent, for within a few weeks Dylan began recording with the group. Working mostly in the garage of a big, pink-asbestos-shingled split-level house that Danko had rented in the woods of West Saugerties, Dylan recorded at least 10 dozen songs in just a few months around the middle of 1967. All sorts of songs: blues standards, sea shanties, gunslinger ballads, Welsh folk songs, some reworked pop hits from the 1950s, some reworked hits of Dylan’s own. But most of the recordings were newly written Dylan songs of astonishing originality and wit. And the musicians backing him up coalesced in ways they hadn’t before.
Towards the end of the sessions they were rejoined by the Arkansan drummer-singer Levon Helm, who had left Dylan’s 1966 tour in a huff. The band would become The Band. Building on the tracks recorded with Dylan and even releasing their own versions of some of them, they would produce two or three of the most original albums of the rock era, starting, the following year, with Music from Big Pink.
The summer of 1967 was the Summer of Love. People going to San Francisco were sure to wear flowers in their hair. The country had got itself in a terrible jam, way down yonder in Vietnam. But aside from one mumbled aside about burning draft cards, nowhere in the hours of recordings Dylan made with The Band is there the slightest mention of the concerns of the 1960s—peace, race, revolution, psychedelia. Their collective secession from the fuss of the sixties astonished the English guitarist Eric Clapton when he went to visit them: “It became quite obvious to me I was on a different planet to these guys,” Clapton recalled in a 2004 interview. “I had an Afghan jacket and curly hair and pink trousers. They looked like The Hole in the Wall Gang.”
Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman seems to have made him a tacit deal. As long as Dylan wrote songs that his music company could sell to other artists, Grossman would keep at bay any Columbia executives inclined to ask whether his injuries were really serious enough to merit canceling a lucrative national tour. This arrangement—in which a celebrated musician was in essence living off sales of sheet music—was an anachronism even at the time. It may have rested on an underestimation of Dylan by the squares in suits. Although Columbia had begun to advertise that “No One Sings Dylan Like Dylan!” it is not clear they fully understood that Dylan’s gravelly and erratic voice, far from being a liability, was a gauge of authenticity and a cash cow. The arrangement may also have recommended itself to Grossman because the music company he had set up gave him half the publishing rights to the songs Dylan wrote—something Dylan discovered to his shock only in 1968.
The songs Hudson recorded in the garage were pitched to potential recording artists through a 14-song “demo” tape distributed in London, New York, and Los Angeles. The Byrds, Peter, Paul and Mary, Manfred Mann, Joan Baez—they all got to listen to the new recordings. Clapton later said that what he heard Dylan and The Band doing “shook me to the core.” Low-quality rerecordings of these extraordinary songs began to leak, and by 1969 they were assembled on an illegally produced record called The Great White Wonder—rock’s first notable “bootleg” album.
In 1975 Columbia Records released The Basement Tapes, which consisted of 16 of these upstate New York recordings, assumed to be almost all that had survived. They were enhanced with extra instrumental tracks to make them sound slicker, and supplemented by eight songs The Band had made at other times and in other places. Two factors motivated the release. First, Columbia (and the musicians) wanted the revenue that the pirate record presses were draining. Second, the musicians in The Band had drifted into drug abuse, apathy, and creative doldrums. The Basement Tapes of 1967 came out in 1975 for much the same reason that the poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, having made a grand gesture of burying his unpublished poetic manuscripts with his wife when she died of a drug overdose in 1862, had her exhumed during a bout of writer’s block seven years later.
The album hit number 7 on the charts. Certain of the songs had a rollicking beat that no one had heard since the 1950s. Others had a sense of humor that had never been heard in rock, ever. And the range was remarkable. The New York Times rock critic John Rockwell called it “one of the greatest albums in the history of American popular music.”
Rockwell did not know the half of it. More songs have emerged over the years, and this winter, all the recoverable recordings from those 1967 upstate New York sessions were finally released together as the eleventh volume of Columbia’s Dylan “Bootleg Series.” We can see that back in 1975, at least one more selection of equivalent quality to The Basement Tapes could have been made. Fully 138 tracks make up the 6-CD “Complete” version of the recordings. A highly affordable 2-CD “Raw” version excerpts some of the best of these tracks, and actually has a more informative song-by-song booklet than the 6-CD version. (If you care about that kind of information—including informed guesses about who is playing what on which track—you ought to get the Griffin book.) The 2-CD version plays to the expectations of those familiar with the 1975 selection, stinting on what is genuinely new. The 6-CD version will be amply worth it for Dylan fans, even if the sound quality on the sixth CD reminds one of AM radio stations fading in and out on a long drive across the Great Plains.
This collection is extraordinary for its unselfconsciousness. It is not one of those boring, live-from-the-studio compilations that give 12 near-identical botched takes of a hit song, along with lampoonable badinage about whether the bass is coming through on mike three. There is little banter, even if the album begins with Dylan’s voice. “Why don’t you shut it off,” he says, “and I’ll see how it’s recording.” There follows a beautiful, rough melody that was supposed to turn into a song about seagulls called “Edge of the Ocean.” A couple dozen of the tracks are curiosities of this sort—not so much songs as fascinating stabs at songs, in which Dylan is spouting filler lyrics as he tries to find a melody. Of course, even the finished songs were not supposed to be really finished until various other singers and bands interpreted them. Rough or polished, the surviving versions are the most advanced of any given song, because when the musicians didn’t like the way something sounded they would rewind and record over the previous take.
Dylan has always dissented from the 1960s artistic worldview in a crucial way. He believes that creativity has more to do with tradition than with inspiration. At an awards speech in February, he defended his art by insisting it was not original. “These songs didn’t come out of thin air,” he said. “I didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth.” In his view, anyone who listens to a lot of folk songs will absorb their musical vocabulary, and develop an ability to express himself in it. If a person doesn’t do that, he’s not writing real folk songs. Dylan gave the example of a mid-twentieth-century song by the Shelton Brothers called “Deep Ellum”:
When you go down to Deep Ellum keep your money in
your socks.Women in Deep Ellum put you on the rocks.
Dylan asked his listeners to notice how close it was to his own “Tom Thumb’s Blues”: “Sing that song for a while,” he said, “and you just might come up with
When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez and it’s Easter time
tooAnd your gravity fails and negativity don’t pull you
throughDon’t put on any airs when you’re down on Rue Morgue
AvenueThey got some hungry women there and they really make
a mess outta you.”
If this was Dylan’s method of composition, then you can see that his greatest gift might have been the aural equivalent of a photographic memory. (“I could learn one song and sing it next in an hour if I’d heard it just once,” he said in the same speech.) It gave him what could, in the context of balladeering, be called erudition. The musical interests evident on his expanded Basement Tapes collection are extraordinarily wide. There are a couple dozen folk songs from various traditions, as if Dylan were trying to sing his way into his own composing. The spooky country-western classic about dying of thirst, “Cool Water,” which the Sons of the Pioneers made famous in the 1940s, is here. So is John Lee Hooker’s “Tupelo,” about the Mississippi floods of 1927, floods having exerted a fascination for Dylan at every stage of his career, starting with “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” His range, in fact, often far exceeds his singing ability. On Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” he never quite finds the key. On Ian Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds,” he seems to transpose the verse melody and the chorus melody.
But some of these miscellaneous ballads are triumphs. Dylan had a great ear for Irish ballads, and the 6-CD set includes a masterful version of Brendan Behan’s sad “The Auld Triangle,” the song of a prisoner on the day of someone else’s execution. It has been recorded by dozens of the world’s best singers, in Ireland and elsewhere—and generally mis-sung. Often they are too angry, too maudlin, or simply too drunk (as Behan is in his own recorded version), whereas the song calls for a slight affectlessness—what Kingsley Amis, referring to Philip Larkin’s poetry, once called a “tight-reined sadness.” Dylan’s version of the song may be the best, with his icy melancholy perfectly accompanied by Robertson’s ruminative electric guitar.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ELLIOTT LANDY / MAGNUM
Creativity requires privacy
Privacy is the condition for experimentation. No privacy, no creativity. What makes these recordings so inventive is that the stakes were so low. They were not meant to be heard. Privacy freed Dylan from being hammered into a kind of generic model of a rock star, not just by his corporate employers but also by his loyal listeners. As he sang in 1970:
The man in me will hide sometimes to keep from being seenBut that’s just because he doesn’t want to turn into some machine.(“The Man in Me,” New Morning)
Privacy is even more important to one who is proud of his method of building his own music from other people’s—what Hudson called Dylan’s method of “singing one song to arrive at another.” You play something, and the melody, the mood, the key will drift until they become something new. The process is a sort of de-plagiarization. One of the scratchier recordings on the 6-CD collection is a rope-skipping rhyme called “Jelly Bean.” It starts off sounding like “Ain’t No Cure for the Summertime Blues,” runs through a semblance of “Just Like a Woman,” and winds up something different altogether—not a song worth going on with or refining, but an instructive failure.
There is a lot of laughter in these songs. One of the highlights of the collection is a silly and sinuous slow blues number Dylan wrote called “Get Your Rocks Off.” What a delight. Compare Dylan’s own version, which has the structure of a joke—
You know, there’s two old maids layin’ in the bedOne picked herself up and the other one said:“Get your rocks off.”
—and is interrupted by laughter midway through, with the vulgar sex anthem that Manfred Mann turned the song into. Anyone who doesn’t hear the humor in Dylan’s songs should try to imagine, say, Van Morrison, Tom Jones, or Lou Rawls singing some of them.
A couple of the very funniest songs from the 1967 sessions made it onto the 1975 album—“Clothesline Saga,” for instance, meant as a parody of Bobbie Gentry’s smash hit of 1967, “Ode to Billie Joe,” in which some mysterious Southern Gothic intrigue, probably involving infanticide, gets hinted at while a family makes boring dinner table conversation. Dylan writes an equally deadpan song that is literally about watching clothes dry:
The next day everybody got upSeein’ if the clothes were dryThe dogs were barking, a neighbor passedMama, of course, she said, “Hi!”“Have you heard the news?” he said, with a grin“The Vice-President’s gone mad!”“Where?” “Downtown.” “When?” “Last night”“Hmm, say, that’s too bad!”“Well, there’s nothin’ we can do about it,” said the neighbor“It’s just somethin’ we’re gonna have to forget”“Yes, I guess so,” said MaThen she asked me if the clothes was still wet
This kind of humor, which has something in common with Beckett, Pirandello, and various midcentury absurdist dramatists from Europe, is like a very last breath of life from literary modernism. And Dylan has another reliable kind of silly song, where he uses a strong blues beat as a trellis on which to hang nonsense verse. The 1975 selection has a bias towards songs in this madcap idiom, like “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread” and “Lo and Behold!”:
I came into PittsburghAt 6:30 flatI found myself a vacant seatAnd I put it down my hat.“What’s the matter, Molly dear?What’s the matter with your mound?”“What’s it to ya, Moby Dick?This is Chicken Town.”
Dylan avails himself, too, of the freedom to mess around with, refine, and (as graduate students would now put it) subvert his own songs. When he had tried this in concert the year before, fans wedded to various messages and meanings had tried to shout him off the stage. The fifth CD in the complete collection has a driving, heavily electrified roadhouse-blues version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” that sounds a little bit like Steely Dan’s “Pretzel Logic,” followed by a very differently paced “It Ain’t Me, Babe.” “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”—a song by the Texas bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson that Dylan sang to dirge-like effect on his very first album—reappears in livelier form here (entitled “One Kind Favor”), with Dylan’s beautiful, unruly, almost celestial-sounding strumming of an autoharp in the middle of it.
There may be nothing better in this new collection than the version of the melancholy love song “One Too Many Mornings,” the first verse sung by Richard Manuel, whose deep, bright voice is one of the highlights of late-1960s rock. It far surpasses the version Dylan released on The Times They Are a Changin’. Rather thrillingly, the liner notes for the 2-CD version of the set say: “This track has never even been rumored to exist.”
He built a world he couldn’t inhabit
By the mid-1960s, Dylan was in an impossible position. He had become perhaps the most famous person on the planet by snickering at the American game of ambition as a rat race. Dylan’s fans not only had unmeetable expectations of his music, they had unmeetable expectations of him. He was supposed to share and even embody a whole set of burn-it-down, I-spit-on-your-bourgeois-institutions attitudes towards American society—and he simply didn’t. He was suspended like a cartoon character in midair over the chasm separating his own pre-1960s America from the post-1960s America he had done so much to create. His fans would have been appalled (perhaps he, too, would have been appalled) to recognize on which side of that chasm he thought virtue lay.
So a touching moment on this collection comes when Dylan begins to strum and sing the syrupy “Mister Blue,” a number-one hit for the Fleetwoods in 1959, a perfect embodiment of Eisenhower-era sentimentality, and someone in the background laughs. Across the years, you can’t tell whose laugh it is, or whether the laugh is a joyous one of recognition or a snotty one of expectation that Dylan would mock or parody this exquisite but dreadfully passé song. One might expect irony, but irony was for a later generation. Dylan delights in “Mister Blue,” and Robertson, recognizing this, embroiders around it a quiet lead-guitar accompaniment that is reminiscent of Bruce Langhorne’s on the Dylan hit “Mr. Tambourine Man” three years before.
There is a Golden Oldies sound to even the most polished songs on the Basement Tapes. The rockabilly song “Dress It Up, Better Have It All” will wow today’s listeners with its rollicking wildness, but it is wild in the way Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry had been wild in the 1950s, not in the smash-your-guitars-after-the-concert way that The Who or Jimi Hendrix was starting to be wild. “I’m Your Teenage Prayer” could have come off the American Graffiti soundtrack. In its exuberant improvised silliness, it also reminds one a bit of the Beatles’ “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number),” recorded at about the same time. The pretty, unfinished “Santa Fe” anticipates certain late-1960s songs that, although countercultural, are countercultural in a commercial way—like the ones Jimmy Webb would write for Glen Campbell or the stuff Linda Ronstadt would soon sing for Stone Poneys.
Again and again on this album, Dylan seems to be consciously stepping out of synchrony with his younger, hipper listeners. It is as if his inmost thoughts were no longer cool enough, no longer vanguard enough, for the audience that was waiting on him—and Dylan knew it, even if his fans didn’t yet. And there was another way in which Dylan was even more out of step with his times than if he had proposed, say, escalating the war in Vietnam. In one passage in “Open the Door, Homer” (inspired by the wholly dissimilar 1947 Count Basie song “Open the Door, Richard”), he sings:
Take care of all of your memories, said MickFor you cannot relive themAnd remember when you’re out there tryin’ to heal the sickThat you must always first forgive them.
When the songwriter Carly Simon, who was also managed by Albert Grossman, met Dylan around the time of his move to Woodstock, he was drunk and, she later said in an interview, “saying a lot about God and Jesus.” Dylan’s Christianity has, ever since, been allusive, idiosyncratic, and never of the sort to place him on anyone’s side in any Kulturkampf. But there are a half-dozen songs in these sessions that begin to show the more open Christian religiosity that would appear on his late 1967 album John Wesley Harding.
Even before Dylan was explicitly religious, he had a partiality to biblical imagery and a rather eschatological way of framing things. Sid Griffin mentions that Mick Jagger was one of the London musicians who got to hear the first 14-song demo of the recordings Dylan and The Band were doing. Marianne Faithfull, the hard-luck singer who was Jagger’s girlfriend at the time, was haunted by certain of the songs she heard—particularly “This Wheel’s on Fire” and “Lo and Behold!” “It was one of the first times that Dylan started talking almost in sort of ancient tongues,” she told an interviewer years later. “I always felt that the place where the great horrors were going to come from was America. And when I listened to these things I felt that he knew that, too.”
The version of “This Wheel’s on Fire” that appears on the new release is extraordinary. It is the same one that went on the 1975 Basement Tapes, but stripped of some of the instrumental tracks that were added then to make it sound smoother and catchier. The restored original has none of the elements of an exuberant highway song that one hears on various other versions, from The Band’s own to the one that rolls with the credits on the early-1990s BBC series Absolutely Fabulous. It is, rather, a terrifying, funereal song about how Faustian bargains end, with weird and beautiful harmonies by The Band’s bassist Rick Danko, who cowrote the song. Although it was written in the middle of the 1960s, it encapsulates the decade:
If your memory serves you wellYou’ll remember you’re the oneThat called on me to call on themTo get you your favors doneAnd after every plan had failedAnd there was nothing more to tellYou knew that we would meet againIf your memory served you well
These songs are packaged as a Bob Dylan record, but it is important to bear in mind that they were recorded in a collegial atmosphere with a band that would become—granted, only for two, and possibly three, albums—a musical force as great as any that came out of the sixties. The compatibility between Dylan’s voice and Danko’s warbling is almost alchemical in its sweetness. You can hear it not just on the song they wrote together but on Dylan’s heavily adapted version of Woody Guthrie’s “Nine Hundred Miles.” Robbie Robertson’s insouciant, understated guitar playing (on, for instance, “My Woman She’s A-Leavin’ ”), untempted by the attention-seeking busy-ness that marks most of the era’s guitar solos, fits Dylan’s guitar the way Danko’s singing fits Dylan’s voice.
The Band is the greatest Canadian rock ensemble, and Dylan performs a few Canadian standards on this recording. Such matters are generally of interest exclusively to Canadians, but at the time, The Band’s Canadianness was pivotal. They were not like the other young men who were hanging out in Woodstock—because they were not eligible to be drafted into the Vietnam war. (Even Helm, the one non-Canadian, was older.) Antiwar rallies were the great clearinghouses of political information and agitation, and the members of The Band weren’t spending any time at them. This is one reason why the political issues of the day go untouched here. Dylan was making music with a bunch of Canadians running towards America at a time when the counterculture was made up of Americans running towards Canada.
Within a very few years after Dylan made his basement recordings, everything worth tweaking or ribbing or questioning had been not only tweaked, ribbed, and questioned but ridiculed and discarded. That is why Dylan’s protest music sounds more balanced, less propagandistic and shrill, than that of singers from the 1970s and 1980s who are only slightly younger—people like Janis Ian, who complains about inequality in the sphere of lovability; or Supertramp, which finds the root of Western unfairness not in capitalism but in logic; or Bruce Hornsby, for whom greed is embodied,
anachronistically, by a “man in a silk suit.”
If Dylan was the voice of a generation, it was not of the generation we think. He belonged to the generation before the one that idolized him, as did The Band. For them, the pre-baby boom frameworks of meaning were all still in place, undeconstructed and deployable in art. One of history’s secrets is that revolutionaries’ appeal in the eyes of posterity owes much to the traits they share with the world they overthrew. They secure their greatness less by revealing new virtues than by rendering the ones that made them great impracticable henceforth. There is no reason this should be any less true of Dylan. His virtues are not so much of the world he left us with as of the world he helped usher out.
Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.