"They were recorded in 66/67 up in Woodstock. We were all up there sort of drying out - members of The Band and various other people - up there making music and planting gardens and just watching the time go by...so in the meantime we made this record...out in the woods...that's basically it really. The record's been exposed throughout the years, and somebody mentioned it was a good idea to put it out as a record so people could hear it in its entirety and just exactly what we were doing up there in those years." Bob Dylan 1975
Released in July 1975 but recorded eight years earlier, "The Basement Tapes" is the album that is mostly responsible for creating and fuelling the myths and legends that surround Bob Dylan. Much of what has been written about this album is guesswork and speculation, and the inaccuracies have been compounded by the release of numerous unofficial recordings purporting to emanate from these sessions. Indeed recent years have seen the release of a five CD collection (The Genuine Basement Tapes Volumes 1 - 5) that claims to be the complete recordings from that magical summer, but for the purposes of this page, we will only be looking at the officially released CBS album. Of course, "The Basement Tapes" is not strictly speaking a Bob Dylan album in that of the twenty four tracks on the album he only takes lead vocal on sixteen. The other eight are shared between the various members of The Band (excluding Garth Hudson) and it is quite likely that he was not even present when they were recorded. However, for reasons of clarity this album is treated as the nineteenth in Dylan's official catalogue.
When Dylan returned to the States in June of 1966 after his controversial world tour, he was in poor shape physically, and needed time to recuperate from the rigours of the madness that tour had imposed on him. Little did he know that this opportunity would come to him via a motor cycle accident on July 29th of that year. The severity of that accident was almost certainly exaggerated at the time, and became a convenient excuse for him to side-step commitments he had to his publisher, record company and public. Instead, he chose to spend the time editing the film footage that D.A. Pennebaker had shot on the tour, the film that would eventually become known as "Eat The Document" and invited partner in crime Robbie Robertson up to Woodstock to lend a hand. Initially, Robertson stayed at Dylan's house, but when the other Band members, Danko, Hudson and Manuel joined him in February 1967 (Helm arrived later), they rented a house, the colour of which caused it to be nicknamed Big Pink. Dylan may have been acting the recluse, but he was far from idle, and according to old friend Al Aronowitz he was writing up to ten songs a week and rehearsing them with his old band mates in his living room. When the presence of Dylan's young family became intrusive, they moved into the basement of Big Pink where a routine was quickly established, "We used to get together every day at one o'clock in the basement of Big Pink" said Robbie Robertson "There was no particular reason for it. We weren't making a record. We were just fooling around." Fooling around or not, the sessions that began in earnest some time that summer (June according to the album cover, but possibly earlier) produced some remarkable music. So remarkable in fact that unofficial recordings of these sessions began to appear, and artists as diverse as The Byrds, Manfred Mann and Peter, Paul and Mary were cherry-picking the session demos for their own hits. Not surprising when one considers the quality of the material on offer here, but what has never been satisfactorily explained is why this music came into being in the first place, and more pointedly why it took eight years to reach the public domain. Of course, nobody can say for certain just how many songs were recorded during this period, but it proved to be an amazingly fertile one for Dylan, and some of the songs that he wrote at this time were to become among his most well known and enduring, even if many of them did not make the album.
"Odds And Ends" typifies both the writing and performing to be found here, deep meaningful lyrics or a nonsense song played by a bunch of friends enjoying themselves, the latter I think. Dylan had not been in a recording studio for more than a year, and there is obviously a marked difference in his approach to this and the "Blonde On Blonde" sessions of early 1966. Of course, the pressure was off, and if as he said these songs were "...just for fun" then it is quite evident here, but the wistful sentiment behind "Lost time is not found again" is out of keeping with the trivial feel of the song. Richard Manuel's "Orange Juice Blues" is a beautiful song, wonderfully performed in Manuel's distinctively plaintive voice. Manuel, a troubled man who died in 1986 at the tragically young age of forty two, probably did not get the recognition that he deserved as a songwriter. Here he chronicles the end of a relationship in deceptively simplistic fashion, "You've had things your way/But now I've got to say/I'm on my way out the door," but can he really be believed when he sings "...I'm tired of everything/Being beautiful, beautiful/And I ain't coming back no more."
"Million Dollar Bash," one of the album's highlights, shows that Dylan had not lost his sixties humour and his ability to juxtapose words that sound as if they have meaning when they are actually nonsense. Ridiculous situations and oddly named characters were still much in evidence here, and the link with "Bringing It All Back Home" which was amazingly only two years old at the time of these recordings, is very strong. "Well, I took my counsellor/Out to the barn/Silly Nelly was there/She told him a yarn" could be straight out of "Maggie's Farm" or "Tombstone Blues." Robbie Robertson's first offering is "Yazoo Street Scandal," a rock number in which he appears to be trying to emulate Dylan's unique brand of chaotic surrealism. He nearly pulls it off with some of the lyrics, "Then she took a pill/She washed her feet in the mud/She said Look out son/You know I just ordered a flood/For forty days and forty nights" sounds distinctly like a Dylan rip-off. This is a good song, even if the lyrics are often hard to hear, and Robbie gives it his best shot.
"Goin' To Acapulco" is one of the most incredible vocals that Dylan has ever committed to record, and one of the least known (or possibly unknown) songs when "The Basement Tapes" was released. The plaintive wail of the opening lines "I'm going down to Rose Marie's/She never does me wrong" is enough to raise the hairs on your neck. Like much of the material here, this song has an unearthly almost spacey quality to it that makes it unique to this time and place, perhaps one of the reasons why it (like most of Dylan's work here) has never been performed live. A great, great song, and one of the undoubted highlights of the album. As is the Robertson/Manuel composition, "Katie's Been Gone" which features Richard Manuel on lead vocal and shows how good The Band's harmonies were. Relatively simple in lyric and theme, this is a perfect example of how professional an outfit they were becoming. A version of this song was recorded for The Band's debut album "Music From Big Pink" and although that album drew extensively from these sessions, this sadly did not make the cut.
Back to the fun side of things with "Lo And Behold!" which sees Dylan again in the familiar territory of the absurd, and there is some delightful irony in "..he asked me my name/I give it to him right away/And hung my head in shame." This is another great song, although most of the imagery is obscure and some of it vaguely sexual, Dylan comes up with some marvellously off the wall observations like "I found myself a vacant seat/And I put it down my hat" and what has to be a reference to Elvis, one of his early idols "I'm goin' down to Tennessee/Get me a truck or somethin'/Gonna save my money and rip it up!" superb stuff.
Another song to showcase the talent of The Band is "Bessie Smith," possibly inspired by the blues singer of the same name. Co-written and performed by Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson, this song features Garth Hudson's distinctive organ work. Danko was a superb and often underrated vocalist (he passed away in 1999) as his duet here with Robertson bears testament to. "Now all the crazy things I had to try/I tried them all and then some" is again evident of Dylan's impact on their writing but they were becoming an increasingly cohesive unit, and there is no escaping the fact that they were far more than just Dylan's backing group.
"Clothes Line Saga" is another fine song, and one that for some reason I always associate with this album. It is unlikely that anyone else would dare attempt a song like this, and equally unlikely that anyone else would get away with it. Dylan's three verse take on a totally insignificant occurrence is an absolute joy to listen to, and the snatches of dialogue like "...Are those clothes yours?/I said, some of 'em, not all of 'em/He said, Ya always help out around here with the chores?/I said, sometime, not all the time" which is followed by the non-sequiter "Then my neighbour, he blew his nose" typify Dylan's eccentric style. This amazing capacity to create a mood or feeling which Dylan has made virtually his own is taken to unsurpassed lengths in 1997's "Highlands" one of his finest songs ever, but here it is in the more fledgling and playful stage, a great song.
"Apple Suckling Tree" is a piece of nonsense that sounds as if it is still in the transitional stage. It begins with Dylan playing rather hesitatingly on the piano, but soon picks up pace as everyone joins in on the vocal, and Garth Hudson's organ is quite distinctive in places, but ultimately the song doesn't really go anywhere.
"Please, Mrs. Henry" contains an unusually large amount of sexual innuendo for Dylan, albeit in veiled and vague form. This is not something normally associated with his work, and although there is a fair amount of it in this album, the descriptions are uniquely Dylan, "I'm a good ol' boy/But I've been sniffing too many eggs/Talkin' to too many people/Drinkin' too many kegs" as are the situations "Now, don't crowd me lady/Or I'll fill up your shoe/I'm a sweet bourbon daddy/An' tonight I am blue," one of the album's minor songs. Not so with "Tears Of Rage," one of the best tracks here. Dylan co-wrote this with Richard Manuel, and delivers another excellent vocal. Manuel's version of the song is the opening track on "Music From Big Pink." Again, the emotion that Dylan puts into this song is something to behold, particularly with the refrain "We're so alone/And life is brief" and the bitterness of "But oh, what kind of love is this/Which goes from bad to worse?" is indicative of the "...remarkable depth and power" that Greil Marcus refers to in the liner notes.
"Too Much Of Nothing" with it's almost paradoxical title is another strong performance, and the chorus (there are many powerful and memorable choruses on this album) gives us the wonderful "...waters of oblivion" a piece of Dylan imagery that is as evocative as any he has written. Again referring to the liner notes, Marcus quotes Dylan as saying that "...mystery is a fact, a traditional fact" and Marcus himself sees in this song a man "...seeking salvation who stares into a void that stares back." That may be overstating the case a little, but the way the song builds almost to a crescendo before each of the three choruses is quite stunning in an almost menacing way. Another great vocal, but less intensity is found on "Yea! Heavy And A Bottle Of Bread," a number that Dylan's almost spoken delivery compels you to listen to. It is unlikely that anyone could decipher these frankly bizarre lyrics, but they are great fun to listen to. "Pack up the meat, sweet, we're headin' out/For Witchita in a pile of fruit" and "Get the loot, don't be slow, we're gonna catch a trout" are wonderfully off the wall in this, one of the minor but most amusing songs here.
Levon Helm takes lead vocal on "Ain't No More Cane," a traditional prison work song arranged by The Band that suits their vocal harmonies perfectly. This is another fine performance by them that illustrates the direction that they were moving in, and it is interesting for some of the social issues that it touches on. Obviously, little respect was observed for gender, "They were driving the women just like they drove the men" and the despair of the line "Go down Old Hannah, don'tcha rise no more" (Old Hannah was a nickname for the sun) is quite evident. I always think of "Down In The Flood" as one of the minor songs on the album, it lacks the passion that is found in The Band's contributions and the humour that is found in Dylan's. It feels like it would have benefited from a little more enthusiasm, even though Greil Marcus talks about the "...rhythms in the music that literally sing with compliments tossed from one musician to another." A sentiment that may well be true of "Ruben Remus," another song written, but this time less successfully than "Katie's Been Gone," by Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel. Probably the weakest or certainly the least memorable of The Band's contributions. Several people have commented that their offerings detract from Dylan's, Clinton Heylin puts it even stronger, saying that their tracks "...only pollute the official set and reduce its stature" and much as I respect Heylin, I find that a little hard to go along with.
Dylan returns to his love of the bizarre and the nonsensical for "Tiny Montgomery," but what a great vocal he delivers, listen to the way he rhymes "bang" with "thing" in this, one of the most esoteric tracks on the album. Along with Tiny himself, we are introduced to the equally wonderfully named Skinny Moo and Half-Track Frank (although Dylan sings T-Bone Frank) in a song that by the final verse has descended into the truly incomprehensible as Dylan seems intent on reciting the first words that come into his (probably stoned) head, wonderful stuff.
"You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" is of course a song of great expectation and exuberance that The Byrds purloined to open their 1986 album "Sweetheart Of The Rodeo" (incidentally, that album closes with another song from this set, "Nothing Was Delivered"). This is one of Dylan's most enduring songs, and with its laid back country refrain of "Oh, oh, are we gonna fly/Down in the easy chair" it would easily fit onto the end of "John Wesley Harding." It has appeared in various guises over the years, the version that appears on "More Greatest Hits" is different from this one, and although most of the songs here have never been played live this has, but it only received its debut in Maine in April 1997.
"Don't Ya Tell Henry" is apparently one of the "...obscene nonsense songs" that John Herdman talks about in his 1982 book "Voice Without Restraint." Obscene it certainly is if the lyrics are to be taken at face value, but Levon Helm sings it with such unabashed glee that it is difficult to take offence. This is one very confused man, so much so that by the final verse we get the almost inevitable "I looked high and low for that big ol' tree/I did go upstairs but I didn't see nobody but me." A funny if somewhat distasteful song, it was performed at The Band's new year's eve concert at The Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1971 where Dylan made a surprise appearance and performed "Down In The Flood."
Here he performs another great vocal on "Nothing Was Delivered," a song which features acceptance of betrayal at its heart, something that he would deal with extensively in later material. "...I tell this truth to you/Not out of spite or anger/But simply because it's true" is his pragmatic statement of intent. Robert Shelton puts this song into the category of what he calls "...the search for salvation" but Dylan's metaphors reduce the conflict to a simple contract "Now you must provide some answers/For what you sell that has not been received" and the haunting but vague chorus "Nothing is better, nothing is best/Take heed of this and get plenty of rest" has an air of finality about it.
Metaphors, albeit mixed ones, crop up in "Open The Door, Homer" where Dylan comes up with the wonderful "...there's a certain way/That a man must swim/If he expects to live off/Of the fat of the land" where the central character Richard replaces the Homer of the title. Some nuggets of down-to-earth advice pop up in this song from the various friends "Take care of all your memories/Said my friend, Mick/For you cannot relive them" being one of the most practical. One of the most underrated songs on the album, while "Long-Distance Operator" provides little more than filler. I suppose everyone of a certain age will be familiar with the frustrations of telephone communications, but modern technology renders the song if not the sentiment, obsolete. Oddly, of the few songs from this set that have been performed live, this is the only one to have a live debut before it was recorded, it was performed in California in December 1965.
"This Wheel's On Fire," one of the strongest songs both in terms of writing and performance, closes the album. This song has seen many arrangements, The Band chose to include a version on the already mentioned debut album, Julie Driscoll and the Brian Auger Trinity had a big hit with it in the UK and bizarrely it became the theme song for the British comedy series Absolutely Fabulous. Another memorable chorus, "This wheel's on fire/Rolling down the road/Best notify my next of kin/This wheel shall explode" and again some sterling work from Garth Hudson. Greil Marcus calls Dylan's singing here "...as sly as Jerry Lee Lewis, and as knowing as the old man of the mountains" a great song, and an equally great way to close the album.
As splendid and as relevant "The Basement Tapes" is, and there is no denying its quality, confusion and mystery still surrounds it. Paul Cable for one is sceptical as to the provenance of these tracks "It is certainly possible that these tracks were recorded nowhere near the basement of Big Pink...as is claimed" he states in his excellent work on Dylan's unreleased recordings. Clinton Heylin, someone else whose opinion counts greatly, maintains that The Band's material was recorded in New York after the alleged basement sessions, some as late as 1975, and that several of Richard Manuel's compositions were deliberately omitted so as not to divert attention from de facto leader Robbie Robertson. And Paul Nelson in his tongue-in-cheek Rolling Stone review in 1975 pointed out "The Basement Tapes seemed destined to remain a mystery, and I wasn't at all sure that Dylan hadn't planned it that way from the start." Whether you believe that these songs are the product of a real recording session in a real studio and the myth was created for whatever reasons myths are created, or that Garth Hudson recorded them in a domestic basement on a reel to reel tape recorder is not really relevant. The album is almost frozen in time and the songs are as fresh now as when they were recorded. Praise was high in 1975 "The greatest album in the history of American popular music" said John Rockwell in The New York Times and Robert Christgau in the Village Voice was no less complimentary "We don't have to feel ashamed because this is the best album of 1975" he said, adding "It would have been the best album of 1967, too." It really does not matter that some of Dylan's finest songs were overlooked, "I Shall Be Released" and "The Mighty Quinn" to name but two (even though Quinn appears on the album cover) what is included is certainly worth the price of entry. Perhaps Paul Nelson was right when he said "They're either King Lear or they're nothing - take your pick, then leave them alone. I respect them and I think I understand them, and that's enough for me."