Well, the comic book and me, just us, we caught the bus
The poor little chauffeur, though, she was back in bed
On the very next day with a nose full of pus
Yea! Heavy and a bottle of bread!
I’ve been listening to The Basement Tapes Complete, the latest release in the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series. It’s taken a while to get through – there are six CDs in the full set aimed at the obsessives, with a 2-CD selection aimed at the rational.
It’s an overwhelming experience, if at times a challenging one. The songs were recorded by Bob Dylan and the Band over several months in 1967 at a period when Dylan had decided to live more of a quiet and steady life after the mania of his first years of fame. In a number of venues, mostly notably the basement of a house in West Saugerties near Woodstock, nicknamed the ‘Big Pink’, the musicians gathered in a room and worked their way through over 100 songs, some of Dylan originals, some of them other people’s, chiefly American folk songs. Rough recordings were made by Band member Garth Hudson, but none of the music was released at the time.
Some of the songs would emerge soon afterwards played by other artists (Manfred Mann’s ‘Mighty Quinn’, Julie Driscoll and the Brian Auger Trinity’s ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’, Fairport Convention’s ‘Million Dollar Bash’ etc), and a few turned up on the granddaddy of all bootleg albums, The Great White Wonder, in 1969. But Dylan moved on, releasing John Wesley Harding in 1968, none of whose songs had featured during the ‘basement tape’ session. He had left the period and most of those songs behind. In 1975 he gave permission for CBS to issue a selection of the songs, with overdubs to professionalise the sound, and a selection of numbers by The Band alone. The Basement Tapes was enthusiastically acclaimed but was also the cause of much disappointment, for the inclusion of the weak Band songs and for the omission of so many recordings from the 1967 sessions. A few appeared on subsequent compilations, including ‘Quinn the Eskimo’, ‘Santa Fe’ and ‘Minstrel Boy’, but the vast majority could be found only on bootlegs, notably the 4-CD set A Tree with Roots. But others remained unheard, and indeed it seems unknown.
The story of how the tapes were recorded, copied, stored and bootlegged is immensely complicated, but the simple story is that Garth Hudson kept hold of the originals, and eventually – after much negotiations – the full set of 139 recordings, around 20 of them never bootlegged, and only five of them formerly released officially (‘Quinn the Eskimo’, ‘Santa Fe’, ‘I Shall be Released’, ‘I’m not There’ and ‘Minstrel Boy’) has been released. It has only taken forty-seven years.
The collection is a mixture of the good, the great, the off-hand and the unfinished. Discs one and two feature many songs by others, including Eric von Schmidt’s ‘Joshua Gone Barbados’, Brendan Behan’s ‘The Auld Triangle’, John Lee Hooker’s ‘Tupelo’ and Clarence Williams’ ‘My Bucket’s Got a Hole in it’. There are traditional songs such as ‘Po’ Lazarus’ and ‘Johnny Todd’, and several Dylan originals from the beautiful ‘Edge of the Ocean’ to the jovial musical knockabouts ‘I’m Your Teenage Prayer’ (a teen pop pastiche) and ‘See You Later Allen Ginsberg’. It is fascinating stuff, which demands that you listen closely, though the rudimentary sound recording makes the experience frustrating at times. Some of the cover versions are perfunctorily done, a fact exacerbated by The Band’s unfamiliarity with much of the material. It appears Dylan started on some half-remembered favourite and then expected the others to work out what do as they went along. Some songs just stop halfway, ideas that just didn’t work out.
Discs three and four are astonishing, as Dylan’s major compositions from the period pour out (frequently with two or three takes): ‘Please Mrs Henry’, ‘Lo and Behold!’, ‘This Wheel’s on Fire, ‘Open the Door, Homer’, ‘Sign on the Cross’, ‘I’m not There’, ‘Clothes Line Saga’. The lyrical imagination and musical invention are quite extraordinary. One can see the roots of them in the folk songs that Dylan had been recalling, but equally they are songs the like of which had never been heard before – absurdist fantasies economically expressed and deftly executed, conjuring up an alternate world that laughs at the world in which we find ourselves. To hear one after the other leaves the Dylan enthusiast wondering how, and then – contemplating the fact that Dylan chose not to release any them – why?
Disc five is a mixture of what were new songs (‘Mary Lou, I Love You’, ‘Silent Weekend’), re-runs of old ones (Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’), a beautiful version of the traditional ‘900 Miles from My Home’, and weird takes on the familiar (‘She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain’, ‘It’s the Flight of the Bumblebee’). Disc six is listed as a bonus – recordings of poor quality which have been included for their historical importance, and of course for completeness’s sake. I think it’s my favourite of the whole set. The songs are unfinished sketches of musical ideas, lyrics set down to quick tunes that generally don’t have the hooks that characterise Dylan’s best work. But the sheer unexpectedness of finding that songs hitherto unknown (to me, at least) such as ‘That’s the Breaks’, ‘Jelly Bean’, ‘2 Dollars and 99 Cents’, Northern Claim’ and ‘King of France’ makes this final collection such a thrill – plus, there’s such a strong sense of a profound musical mind working through ideas, both his own and those of others. As The Band’s Robbie Robertson said of the sessions, “I couldn’t tell which were the songs that he wrote, and which wee the songs somebody else wrote”. It didn’t matter, which was which. They were all contributions to the collective repertoire, songs that just had to be sung.
Promo video on the history and making of The Basement Tapes
Why were the songs recorded, and then only released in such a piecemeal fashion or else not all, until now? There’s the romantic idea of Dylan and his friends simply working their ways through songs, Dylan recovering his sense of musical purpose and mental well-being, then moving on. There’s a sense too that he didn’t make the recordings available, or return to them in the studio, simply to be perverse, to help build up the legend. It was the sort of thing that only Bob Dylan would do, so he did it.
There is a prosaic reason why the songs were recorded – there were intended as demos produced for copyright reasons, which would then be made available to other artists. Dylan had recorded such demos from early on in his career, and sure enough several of the songs were recorded by others, as noted, and became hits. But there has to be more to it than that. Aside from the folk songs and the knockabout stuff that is the musicians simply having fun, there were many songs that Dylan wrote at this time that were not picked up by other artists that seem too calculatedly odd. Who on earth was going to make a pop hit out of the lyrically baffling ‘Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread’ or the menacing oddness of ‘Tiny Montgomery’? The motives of artists are seldom simple, and while Dylan was thinking of song sales (he was under instructions from his publisher to come up with more material) he was also caught up in the moment, composing what his mind told him to compose. They weren’t songs intended for release, so it was easy for him to leave them behind. They had served their purpose.
Artists are perverse creatures. We who follow them are simpler in our understanding and in our needs. We just want to hear everything. And the songs belong to us too. There is something profoundly wrong in hiding music away when it could be contributing to that collective repertoire. Just as Dylan loved to recover songs from America’s past and can be heard playing through some of them on The Basement Tapes, so he was under some sort of moral obligation to hand on his own contributions to others. And so he has. It’s just taken a while.
- The bobdylan.com site has a track-by-track listing of the main five CDs with short descriptions by Ben Rollins
- Dylan’s site also brings together a selection of links to websites which have issued exclusive premieres of some of the songs on the set
- And there’s more – Lost on the River is a CD of Dylan lyrics from the Basement Tapes period for which he composed no music. Musicians including Elvis Costello and Marcus Mumford have added tunes to such lyrics as ‘Married to my Hack’, ‘Golden Tom Silver Judas’ and ‘The Whistle is Blowing’