BOB DYLAN & THE BAND: THE BASEMENT TAPES (1967; 1975)
1) Odds And Ends; 2) Orange Juice Blues (Blues For Breakfast); 3) Million Dollar Bash; 4) Yazoo Street Scandal; 5) Going To Acapulco; 6) Katie's Been Gone; 7) Lo And Behold; 8) Bessie Smith; 9) Clothes Line Saga; 10) Apple Suckling Tree; 11) Please, Mrs. Henry; 12) Tears Of Rage; 13) Too Much Of Nothing; 14) Yea! Heavy And A Bottle Of Bread; 15) Ain't No More Cane; 16) Crash On The Levee (Down On The Flood); 17) Ruben Remus; 18) Tiny Montgomery; 19) You Ain't Goin' Nowhere; 20) Don't Ya Tell Henry; 21) Nothing Was Delivered; 22) Open The Door, Homer; 23) Long Distance Operator; 24) This Wheel's On Fire.
Technically speaking, this album belongs in the «Addenda» section, together with all the Bootleg Series volumes. As every Dylan fan with a spoonful of experience already knows, this rag-taggy collection of songs was never intended to see the light of day — not even after much of it was bootlegged as Great White Wonder in July 1969, initiating the worldwide bootleg craze, not even after many of its songs were officially covered by other artists, not even after Dylan and The Band went through a new extensive collaborative period in 1974. In the end, it saw the light of day as late as mid-1975, after the tremendous critical success of Blood On The Tracks — some suppose that this had something to do with Bob regaining confidence in himself, but since this is Bob, we will probably never know the truth anyway.
Nevertheless, these reviews are intended to provide some sort of chronological coherence, and from that point of view, The Basement Tapes is a vitally important transition piece for Bob — not a «great Bob Dylan album» by any means, but a notable evolutionary step that might, perhaps, somewhat soften the blow of sudden metamorphosis from the unique psycho-dreamy whackiness of Blonde On Blonde to the stern musical ascetism of John Wesley Harding. Anybody who is willing to learn his Dylan in chronological order should, I believe, put The Basement Tapes in its right place — which is right here, smack dab in the middle of the Summer of Love. Just as the hippies converged in Monterey to open up a new era of peace, love, and soiled underwear, Dylan and The Hawks holed up in the basement — at Woodstock, as ironic as that may sound — and showed 'em all how much they cared.
That infamous motorcycle accident on July 29, 1966... the funny thing is that, apparently, there are no reliable documentary confirmations that the accident even took place, or, at least, that it was really as serious as Dylan described it himself, with broken neck vertebrae and all. If the whole thing was not staged, then, at the very least, Bob clearly used it as a respectable pretext to trump the wheel of fortune and put it in reverse before it burned him up. So very much like Bob — right at the very moment where, in a matter of months, they could have finally crowned him king, to go in hiding, abandoning any possible claims.
The music he made with The Hawks, soon-to-be-the-band in that Big Pink basement over in Woodstock, was, for the most part, «non-music», or, rather, «anti-music», a perfect antidote to his 1965-66 period of creative overdrive. It is not clear to me how it would be possible to think of The Basement Tapes as a «lost and found masterpiece», as is it is often claimed to be, outside of the overall context. The sessions actually started out in full-on «recreation mode», as Bob, in order to kill time, began drawing upon his vast knowledge of «Americana», and playing the game of «teach The Hawks to be The Band in three months», which he actually did — Robbie Robertson and his pals entered that basement in their garage shoes and came out of it wearing pioneer boots. There was no genuine intention to be creative. It just so happened that creativity sometimes comes to you, whether you want it or not.
The Basement Tapes were, indeed, much more important for The Band than for Dylan: they helped lay down the basics for the sound which, when carried over to a proper studio and given an «okay, now let's be serious here, folks» flavor, generated Music From Big Pink and everything that followed. What that sound was, exactly, is hard to define in one sentence. «The real folk rock» is as close as it gets — meaning music with a folk tradition basis, but played on rock instruments, without any unnecessary polish, but with lyrics and moods updated to fit the times. As odd as it seems, very few people had done that prior to the summer of '67 — hence all the alleged «roots-rock revolution», much of which ultimately came from «The Basement».
The funny thing is, Dylan himself did not care all that much. He helped The Band find their voice, but it is interesting that the two best known songs on the album (ʽTears Of Rageʼ and ʽThis Wheel's On Fireʼ), featuring Dylan-written lyrics and Band-written music (Richard Manuel is responsible for the former, and Rick Danko for the latter), are the most serious-sounding pieces on here, whereas most of the «solo» Dylan material is just plain comic stuff — ʽOdds And Endsʼ, ʽMillion Dollar Bashʼ, ʽLo And Beholdʼ... the guy was really not doing much out there, except for just plain goofing off, and this is not even ʽRainy Day Womenʼ-style goofing off, with a bit of a bite: nope, this is as straightforwardly «dumb» as Dylan ever allowed himself to get. At least ʽYou Ain't Goin' Nowhereʼ got itself that lazy, hammocky, nonchalant vibe that The Byrds caught on and exploited so well on Sweetheart Of The Rodeo — but hey, I'd like to hear them try and cover ʽYea! Heavy And A Bottle Of Breadʼ, with all that Roger McGuinn sagacity.
Is there any salt-of-the-earth-type «depth» behind all this fun? Not unless we count the overall raggedness of the session as a means to invoke ye spirits of olde — including Bob's personal transition from the energetic and meticulously staged singing styles of 1965-66 to a deeper, lower, croakier, and somewhat less distinctive manner of delivering his lyrics, which could be just as much a result of a conscious image-shifting decision as it could be the result of physical injury. (One must, however, also remember that these songs were never intended for commercial release, and this is why Dylan is less mindful of steering his soundwaves than he would soon be on John Wesley Harding — whose genius is all about that particular steering). In other words, The Basement Tapes make sense as an overall cultural phenomenon, but certainly not as a collection of bigger-than-life songs, like most of the LPs that Bob put out prior to 1967.
Even the lyrics often sound like they were created on the spot... well, come to think of it, most of Dylan's lyrics took very little time to write, but in the end, they usually fit in very well with the mood of the song, and ended up making their point — not so with songs like ʽMillion Dollar Bashʼ and ʽLo And Beholdʼ, which, quite honestly, sound as if Bob was simply improvising to a freshly discovered groove: "What's the matter Molly dear / What's the matter with your mound? / What's it to you, Moby Dick? / This is chicken town!" and so on. It don't really matter much — if this counts as an easy-going, laid-back set, created in order to have fun and kill time. Of course, it helps that most of the songs are catchy, usually by means of their anthemic choruses, but even the choruses usually give the impression of yer friendly madhouse come to visit.
Curiously, or maybe not so curiously, it is the small handful of Band songs included on the album that tries to be more serious and thoughtful — as if all these little comic trifles from the mind of The Master somehow ended up inspiring Robbie and friends to come up with ʽKatie's Been Goneʼ and ʽBessie Smithʼ, as well as the utmost verbal nonsense of ʽYazoo Street Scandalʼ and ʽRuben Remusʼ that still has a «spiritual tinge» to it — the former is ominous and aggressive, the latter tragic and desperate. It should be noted that a few of the Band songs included here are actually «fake Basement Tapes», recorded somewhere in between 1967 and 1975, which explains an overall higher degree of polish and sound quality: Robertson's explanations on the issue are confusing, suggesting either that they simply did not have access to some of the original recordings and so had to re-record them, or that they would automatically brand any of their post-1967 homemade recordings as a «basement tape» and throw it in the pile. But on the whole, there is no doubt that the Band material included here is stylistically close to what was going on in there, in those summer months — the birth of The Band, with Dylan as trusted godfather.
Because of the extra-crudeness of the demo recordings, this is the only album in Bob's career, I think, where all of the famous songs would be improved upon by future performers — most notably The Band themselves, of course, who took ʽTears Of Rageʼ and ʽThis Wheel's On Fireʼ with them for their debut album, but also by The Byrds and others. However, their appearance here, among all the lighthearted fun stuff, is still very important: these are the first Dylan songs in the genre of «Biblical dirge» — one that he never tried to seriously approach before the motorcycle accident, but which sounds so appropriate after. John Wesley Harding would soon put it on the map in all its gloomy splendor, but these are the first serious inklings — ʽTears Of Rageʼ wails and moans in desperation, while ʽWheel's On Fireʼ wails and moans with reproach and anger: "this wheel shall explode!" is Prophet Ezekiel speaking to you, not Woody Guthrie or Allen Ginsberg, and the speech sounds fairly convincing, if a bit shaky.
Altogether, I believe, it is high time the original Basement Tapes were reconfigured — the 1975 double album release could benefit both from some trimming (for instance, later Band tracks should probably be removed for integrity's sake) and from some expansion — the «seriousness» quota, in particular, could be improved by including ʽI Shall Be Releasedʼ, still usually only available on compilations, even though it is arguably the most important Dylan song of the year 1967, and one that symbolizes the transition from a «young, spirited Dylan» to an «older, wiser Dylan» better than anything else, not to mention simply being one of the most beatiful songs about death ever written by mortal man. (Although, once again, Richard Manuel trumped the original Dylan-sung version on Music From Big Pink).
But even if such a reconfiguring never takes place, the album, inevitably flawed as it is, is still fascinating as a chronicle of the times — and works particularly well in contrast with the chronicle of the Monterey Pop Festival on the opposite coast. The only trick is that it has to be experienced as one barely-cohesive whole: if you go inside, expecting individual sonic masterpieces (which was sort of my original expectation, and the reason why I was so sorely disappointed at one time), «nothing will be delivered». Perhaps, if you are a newcomer both to Dylan and The Band, it might even make sense to postpone the acquaintance until after you have become a convert to the magic of both Blonde On Blonde and John Wesley Harding, not to mention Music From Big Pink. That way, it could be much easier to get those thumbs up.
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