Recorded: June-October 1967
Released: November 4, 2014 (Hey, that’s my birthday!)
Gathering my thoughts on this has been killing me. I’ve been listening to this off and on for the last month or so, and trying to figure out what to say. The problem is (looking either ahead to the 21st or back to the 19th) is that it contains multitudes.
And remember: the first rule of “The Basement Tapes” is that Bob Dylan never made an album called “The Basement Tapes”. Dylan was living in Woodstock in 1967 with his young family, getting away from the insane pace of the past few years, and his friends who’d backed him up on his 1966 tour and parts of Blonde on Blonde were there, too. Over a few summer and fall months, they spent a bunch of time creating and recording songs in the basement of the house where Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel lived. Robbie Robertson was in Woodstock, too. ((Most of) The Band, don’t ya know.)
Dylan did not intend these to be sessions for an album. But he was still working for The Man — i.e., the Record Company — and The Man wanted some value. So Dylan said he was writing and recording a bunch of songs that could be demoed for other artists (and yes, that happend, e.g., this), so I guess that gave him some breathing room.
These recordings became the heart of the first rock bootleg album, and at least in part because of their underground nature, became legendary, a hidden artifact that only a few had tasted, but many lusted after. By 1975 Dylan gave permission for the record company to do an official release of basement tapes recordings, so they brought Robbie Robertson in to take the lead on making this happen. He was most involved in selecting songs to include, cleaning them up, adding in new overdubs, and throwing in some songs by The Band. The result was the official “Basement Tapes” album. By the way, that Wikipedia article gives much more detail about the context of the recordings than the one about the Bootleg Series The Basement Tapes Complete….
So… I first heard the official album probably in the 70s or mid 80s at the latest, then bought an extensive bootleg in the mid to late 90s, then finally listened to the official Bootleg Series version when it came out in 2014. And as I said, I’ve listened to all or large parts of it a handful of times now … and I’m still not quite sure what I think of them.
Remember the whole “legendary” bit? This (along with the 1966 Dylan tour) created The Band (qua Band). Multiple books have been written just about these sessions; best title is Greil Marcus’s “The Old Weird America”. Great description of the songs — was Dylan recovering the old weird America… or creating something that never really existed? (By the way, I only read the book when it came out, and found it obscure and pretentious… I should probably try again.)
I guess the first thing that puzzles me about The Basement Tapes is: what was Dylan up to? Sure, he sold it to the record company as writing and recording demos, but if you listen to the entirety of the tapes (which are in order on the Bootleg Series release), it’s clear he spent a bunch of time first looking for something (old weird America, anyone)… or else just having fun with his buds…. or both? They ran through bunches of old country songs (some of them unashamedly cheesy, IMO), some good versions of Johnny Cash tunes (I’m particularly fond of “Big River”), a few songs he came back to time and time over his career (“Spanish is the Loving Tongue”, “People Get Ready”, “A Satisfied Mind” … good here, but better versions come later), some modern folk songs, some traditional folk songs, and some utter nonsense (“See You Later Allen Ginsburg”, “I’m Your Teenage Prayer”, “Kicking My Dog Around”).
Why these songs? Remember that Dylan had just gone electric, and with (The future) Band had finished an incredible rock tour the year before. No trace of that here. And if he wanted to go back in time, why not go back to his teenage rock’n’roll days? Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry… they were right up The Band’s alley. So why utterly avoid early rock’n’roll, and instead go into country and diverse folk sources?
And then come the originals. Most (but not all) of the most polished originals were included on the 1975 Basement Tapes. I really enjoy listening to these songs, but there’s one reaction I can never escape: many of them are just nonsense. “Million Dollar Bash” – “Well, that big dumb blonde with her wheel in the gorge / And Turtle, that friend of hers, with his checks all forged / And his cheeks in a chunk, and his cheese in the cash / They’re all gonna be there at that million dollar bash.” And pretty much all of “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread”.
I like to be able to know (and maybe tell people) this is what this song is about. I feel like I can do that for most of Dylan’s previous songs, but for some of these I just can’t. Yet I really like listening to “Million Dollar Bash”, “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread”, “Lo and Behold”, “Apple Suckling Tree”, “Please Mrs. Herny”, etc. Dylan’s voice is so expressive, and he sounds like he’s having just the best time.
Of course, there are “serious” songs, too: “Tears of Rage”, “I Shall Be Released”, and “This Wheel’s on Fire” come to mind. “Tears of Rage” and “I Shall Be Released” often are considered among Dylan’s best. I can see why, but for me, the performances are a bit lacking because I don’t think Dylan’s voice is well suited for parts of the songs — he sounds strained on the high notes… not emotionally strained, but like it’s hard for him to sing them. “This Wheel’s On Fire” is pretty great, though — no complaints there.
Lots of the songs aren’t quite finished… either in the lyrics, or the arrangement, or the performance… words are slurred, the mix of instruments is weird, songs kind of just end. Again, this can’t be considered a criticism, since these recordings never were meant to be heard. But I do like the more finished performances. For what it’s worth, “Odds and Ends” is one that always hits me as most polished and successful — it’s such a rollicking good time, why wasn’t this a hit? ‘You know what I’m saying and you know what I mean… odds and ends, odds and ends, lost time is not found again!”
And then there are treasures that remained hidden/forbidden after the 1975 release. Two stand above the rest: “I’m Not There” and “Sign on the Cross”. “I’m Not There” is shocking to listen to: the lyrics are not done, in fact, they’re barely there. Often Dylan slurs words, and when he doesn’t, the words he chooses don’t fit at all. Here was one try at a transcription of one of the verses: “I believe where she’d stop him if she wants time to care / I believe that she’d look upon beside him to care / And I’d go by the Lord and when she’s on my way / But I don’t belong there.” And other transcriptions are totally different. But it’s a great song — someone wrote that it’s Dylan’s saddest song ever. You can figure out what the song is ‘about’.
“Sign on the Cross”… a crazed country gospel sermon, but not a parody (not like what the Rolling Stones did in “Far Away Eyes” a decade later. I enjoy the sound of that song, but their contempt is palpable.) He means it: “Oh, when your days are numbered / And your nights are long / You might think you’re weak / But I mean to say you’re strong / Yes you are, if that sign on the cross / If it begins to worry you / Well, that’s all right you can sing a song / And all your troubles will pass right on through”
I’ll end with this: “Everybody’s in despair, every girl and boy / But when Quinn the Eskimo gets here, everybody’s gonna jump for joy”.