This week’s release of all of Bob Dylan and the Band’s “basement tapes” provides for many music lovers a thrill much like Bible scholars must have enjoyed when the Dead Sea Scrolls were finally translated. It is a trip back in time to an age of miracles.
The 138-track CD set, entitled The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11, is a remastering and a recompilation of songs Dylan and his friends recorded between February and December 1967 in the cellar of a rented pink house in upstate New York. To describe this collection as mythic may be an understatement, given the reams of prose dedicated to its praise that have been generated over the ensuing decades.
I have paid a lot of money already for this music. I bought its first iteration in 1970, a two-disc vinyl album in a plain jacket with the words “Great White Wonder” stamped upon it. It was an illegally pressed LP, of the sort that would come to be known as “bootlegs,” and it contained an assortment of songs recorded between 1961 and 1969, none of which had been officially released.
The seven songs on the album from the basement were the most intriguing, if only because of the mystery surrounding their origin. In the late ‘60s, absent the Internet, it was hard to know what was going on with Bob Dylan. After the triumphal world tours of 1965 and 1966, after the stunning releases of Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, Dylan had vanished from public view. There were rumors of a near-fatal motorcycle accident, dark talk that he might be paralyzed or disfigured. The Summer of Love came and went with no word.
What we didn’t know — what Dylan didn’t want us to know — is that, wreck or no wreck, he had decided to abandon the heights he had scaled as a pop idol for surer footing among his family and friends, off the grid, up in the woods. What he didn’t leave behind was the process of creation. Unbound by commercial pressures, he set out on a sonic voyage of discovery in the house called Big Pink, joined by the master musicians who would soon come to be known as the Band. They assembled every day to play music together, everything from old sea chanteys and Child Ballads to Hank Williams and the Everly Brothers; what Richard Candida Smith referred to as “the repertory of the past.”
Using three microphones and a borrowed tape recorder, they also captured the repertory of the present. The unfettered Dylan was cranking out songs with astonishing alacrity, as many as 10 a week. Twelve of these new compositions were pressed to send out as demos to artists interested in covering a new Dylan composition, and the basement tracks on Great White Wonder were likely pulled from that acetate. It marked the first time we had heard the original, magical versions of future classics such as “The Mighty Quinn”, “This Wheel’s On Fire” and “I Shall Be Released”.
There was a Great White Wonder II in short order, but in 1975, after years of clamor from fans, Columbia Records put out an “official” release of what were now officially called The Basement Tapes. Unfortunately, these were overdubbed and included compositions by the Band never recorded in the pink house. It was unsatisfying, but it was all there was, until bootleggers asserted themselves once more in the 1980s, purloining tapes with even more songs from 1967 from the collection of Robbie Robertson, the Band’s lead guitarist. Now we were able to hear more of the past’s repertoire, as the musicians played — and played with the ideas of — old folk songs such as “Bonnie Ship The Diamond” and “Young But Daily Growing”. Around the turn of the century, tapes believed to have belonged to organist Garth Hudson made their way onto a larger CD set called The Genuine Basement Tapes, followed a few years later by a remastered version with 128 tracks, thought to be the definitive compilation, A Tree With Roots.
I bought all of these. I’ve bought the new one, too, not just because its sound is superior to the unsanctioned versions, but also because there’s even more stuff on here no one’s heard since 1967.
Why should it matter? These are essentially rehearsal tapes, after all, certainly never intended for release. There are missed harmonies and ragged voicings and clams all over the bar. This is the rough way any group might have sounded, recording in a garage in 1967.
The answer to that question involves asking another: what if you did not know that this was Bob Dylan with the Band? What if these tracks had dropped anonymously into American culture with no celebrity baggage attached? Would we hear these run-throughs of old blues, cowboy, folk and country songs as anything more than the reefer-fueled dabbling of Woodstock hippies?
I think yes. In The Basement Tapes Complete, you don’t have to know who’s playing to realize that these men are covering a lot of cultural ground in no particular pursuit of gold records. In the context of its time, as pop music was exploding as a worldwide commodity, the players in that basement seemed to be seeking shelter among the sturdy artifacts of folk music, in search of something lasting even as they looked into the future.
Bob Dylan, the old savant, could not have anticipated where his road would take him. Almost fifty years after these epochal recordings, he is still out barnstorming, but his concerts no longer explore the possibilities of his vast songbook. His next album, scheduled for next year, is said to be all covers of Frank Sinatra songs. Maybe for him there was ultimately too much of nothing. No matter. Bob Dylan’s legacy is fulfilled at last this week. The Basement Tapes are finally complete.