Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Lost Time Is Now Found Again: The Basement Tapes.

Bob Dylan contemplates the best way for you to prove your loyalty by spending $120.00.

Part 1: A Background.

It's taken some 47 years, but I can now write 4 simple words that have eluded nearly a half-century of rock scholars before me: The Basement Tapes exist.

This is no small feat. After taking the world by storm in 1966 with the loudest, greatest, & most controversial rock music anyone had ever heard (live, anyway), Bob Dylan crashed his motorcycle in upstate New York & hid out for the better part of a year, playing the family man while his backing group--then called The Hawks, now better known as The Band--began to join him. Together, they spent the middle part of 1967 into early 1968 jamming & recording, first in the Red Room at Dylan's house & then in the basement of a house rented by several members of The Band known as the Big Pink for the tacky color of its aluminum siding.

The music was a retreat from the groundbreaking rock & roll they had pioneered, exploring their rock, country, folk, & blues roots in a barrage of often spur-of-the-moment covers, & then on a series of strange & timeless originals. These were initially circulated as demos for other artists to record, but in time, Dylan & The Band's versions began leaking out, all but single-handedly creating rock music's bootleg industry (&, as some like to tell it, the alt-country & Americana genres).

In 1975, Dylan & The Band (or rather, Columbia Records) released The Basement Tapes, a double-album which attempted to put the whole thing to rest. It didn't. While it was extremely well-received & a big hit, hindsight has proven it to be a compromised product: Many of the most famous Basement Tapes songs were missing, such as "Quinn The Eskimo" & "I Shall Be Released," & the songs that were released featured overdubs & edits that over-polished the integrity of the originals. But most jarringly, among the 24 songs included were 8 recordings by The Band, which were passed off as part of the sessions. While The Band's music on the album is excellent, it would have been better heard on a compilation album by The Band, as it has a different sound, feel, & focus from the Dylan material.

Over the years, an additional 4 (undubbed) Basement Tapes recordings were released on various Dylan compilations, but the CD age brought several top-notch multi-disc bootlegs of material, first in 1989's 5-disc The Genuine Basement Tapes, & then 2001's 4-disc A Tree With Roots. While the former may have a bit more material, I've always preferred the latter since the sound was (mostly) remastered at a much clearer level.

But with Columbia releasing The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Complete Basement Tapes earlier this month, all such bootlegs are instantly rendered moot. Since Dylan's "Bootleg Series" began over 20 years ago, I was shocked that they hadn't ever done a definitive Basement Tapes until now--& was beginning to think that perhaps they never would. Perhaps it was too unwieldy, or required too many legal rights?

Well now, some 40 years after Columbia first released the original Basement Tapes double-LP, they have issued a deluxe 6-disc anthology that purports to contain every extant song & fragment of Basement Tapes material, housed in two small hardcover coffee-table books in a slipcase. The whole thing is a bit humbling--& like the Basement Tapes themselves, more than just a little surreal.

All that said, it is not a flawless set. Instead of trying to make educated guesses on who plays what, the producers of the set have opted to instead say that Dylan sings lead on everything, & as for the backing vocals & instrumentation, no one can be positive since The Band were all multi-instrumentalists. OK, I get it, but still a cop-out. Process of elimination & logic should've filled in the gaps, even if it contained numerous parenthetical question marks. After all, how many people in The Band ever regularly played bass on anything? (I count one: Rick Danko.)

Also frustrating is that, despite all of the photographs & reproductions of tape boxes & reels, there is nowhere that simply lists all of the numbered tapes in order & the material that each contains. We just have to take their word that it's roughly chronological, but with the 6th disc being made up of material with poor sound quality, the whole thing is intrinsically set up with gaps in the narrative. Again, I get it, but why not put an ordered list so that we can reconstruct the complete running order ourselves if we so choose?

Finally, I am not convinced that every shred of recording is in fact accounted for. I say this only because of one thing that I know is missing: The beginning of "See You Later, Allen Ginsberg," in which the person doing the answer call (I hear Rick Danko, but others could argue for Richard Manuel or Robbie Robertson), first pops in the words "Allen Ginsberg" for "Alligator." Dylan is caught off-guard, laughs hysterically, & relaunches the song as a surreal novelty. The new official version leaves out this early piece of the song, implying that it is Dylan who had considered this as part of the song from the start. Did Dylan not want to give away that it was another person's punchline? Or is it a scrap of tape that actually has been lost? Or something else entirely?

Given the sheer volume & ranging quality of this material, it's no surprise that the set has divided the critics somewhat into various camps. If you want to see the believers' side, check out David Fricke's over-zealous 5-star review in Rolling Stone; if you want the non-believer's side, check out Sasha Frere-Jones' misguided take in The New Yorker.

In truth, neither are correct--The Basement Tapes are not a masterpiece nor a joke shop of follies, but both & neither, & more, & less. Trying to paint them as all good or all bad defeats the purpose of their very construction & existence as a cultural artifact--they instead are just that, a cultural artifact, something that is at once artistic & accomplished, yet primitive & incomplete.

* * *

Part 2: A Review.

Disc 1: The Beginning.

The new Basement Tapes set begins with nothing less than Dylan & The Band going back to Sun Records where it all began, around 1955, & remaking rock & roll music from the beginning. Only instead of focusing on Elvis, Johnny Cash is their man. (Indeed, the sole Elvis song that makes the cut on these initial Basement Tapes excursions is "I Forgot To Remember To Forget," one of only 2 songs to be recorded by both Elvis & Cash during their respective times at Sun.) Various country tunes make their stream-of-conscious hit parade--an off-the-cuff take on Hank Williams' "My Bucket's Got A Hole In It," a lovely version of Cowboy Copas' more obscure "Waltzing With Sin"--but it's the Sun-era Cash who they keep going back to: His Old Testament prophecy of "Belshazzar," a driving "Folsom Prison Blues," & a wonderful reinvention of "Big River" across 2 takes that open the song up into a funky groove, with Dylan's words dragging things out like the winding river he follows. At 10 songs in, The Basement Tapes have already reached its first stunner.

Dylan & The Band conjure a Sun Records with no Carl Perkins songs, only his lead guitar work that can be applied everywhere (& was, thanks to The Beatles catalog). Even a force of nature like Jerry Lee Lewis is reduced to a ghost; he can only be heard through his own Hank Williams cover of "You Win Again," yet in the Basement Tapes, they remember the words to the second bridge ("You have no heart...") that Lewis himself forgets. It is a country & western swap-meet, with Johnny Cash standing over the proceedings--& what they lack in deep baritone, they make up for in sheer willpower.

The remainder of the first disc finds their way from country into folk, including a stark reading of "Bells Of Rhymney" at arm's length that sets the stage for the silly wordplay to come (even if every word is true to the Pete Seeger original) & a sweeping "Ol' Roison The Beau," which is the basis of pretty much every drinking song of the 19th century. Most lovely is a version of "On The Banks Of The Royal Canal," here called "The Auld Triangle," which becomes a song about how prison can transform into purgatory. In this way, it is the flipside of their earlier version of "Folsom Prison Blues," which took a grim prison ballad & turned it into a weekend getaway. In "The Auld Triangle," every word & note is measured carefully, the best verse coming towards the end, when the singer imagines the female prison with 70 women (which, as a modern listener, I can't resist by filling in with the extended cast of Orange Is The New Black). "& it's with them, where I'd like to dwell..." daydreams the singer. His prison life is so complete that even when he pictures himself with women, they too are in prison.

One of the first originals of the set is "Under Control," which I mention for the sole reason that it sounds so remarkably like The Eagles' "Life In The Fast Lane" (minus The Eagles' cheeky refrain & guitar lick), I can't help but wonder if Don Henley didn't somehow get a version of this Basement Tape on his hand & subconsciously turn it into his own rocker. Stranger things have happened in rock, such as, for example, the remaining 5 discs of this set.

Disc 2: The Weird.

This is where the strangeness sets in. Greil Marcus has famously described The Basement Tapes as tapping into "The Old, Weird America" of Harry Smith's Anthology Of American Folk Music, & it is here where this "Old, Weird"-ness is fully heard. After a rollicking version of the Liverpool ballad "Johnny Todd" that is built on the same chord changes as half a dozen garage rock standards, Dylan sets his sights on John Lee Hooker's "The Big Flood," & in Marcus's perfect words, "turns a dank, still blues about death & ruin into a spelling bee." Dylan also renames the song after the place where it all went down--"Tupelo"--about a half-dozen years before Elvis Presley was born in the same streets.

There's "Kickin' My Dog Around," which is as complete & self-contained a statement as one can find in the Basement Tapes--"Every time I go to town, the boys keep kickin' my dog around/Don't know why I go to town, don't know why they kick my dog around"--to The Band's backing vocals that turn the proceedings into a dada version of "Old MacDonald Had A Farm." One can find "See You Later, Allen Ginsberg" (but NOT the earlier part of the tape where the joke is first created--only its silly aftermath, which strips it of its punch), which finds Bill Haley rubbing shoulders with the best minds of my generation, destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical...especially when they say the word "crock-a-gator."

"Tiny Montgomery" is the first original Basement Tapes standard to appear: Train-wreck words ("3-legged man in a hot tent-pole...") filling in the spaces between its deceptively simple message ("...tell 'em all Montgomery says hello"). This disc also first unleashed the joys of "I'm Your Teenage Prayer" for me, a profoundly weird (yet well-structured & performed) '50s-style doo-wop send-up, with the lead & backing singers competing for the listener: "Take a look at me, baby," sings one, "Take a look over here, baby," answers another right after. Such an obvious & simple idea--with all the shtick to be found in 50s records, how had no one thought to put the backing vocalists competing with the singer? It's almost enough to make you miss that the tagline--"I am a teenage prayer" sounds a few words short of a coherent statement.

The remainder of the disc is divided between music that is either lovely (the protest ballad "Joshua Gone Barbados," which Dylan sings with all of the passions as, well, Dylan singing it in 1963; the either entirely stupid or entirely brilliant "Baby, Won't You Be My Baby") or tedious ("Rock, Salt, & Nails," which seems to only be worth singing through to get to its wonderful closing couplet; "Try Me Little Girl," which Dylan uses to try a screeching falsetto). & then spread throughout is the material originally recorded by Ian & Sylvia, which is at once lovely ("Four Strong Winds" & "Song For Canada") & tedious (both takes of "The French Girl").

Disc 3: The Classic, Pt. 1.

After 3 of the finest folk covers of The Basement Tapes--a tender "Young But Daily Growing," a determined "Bonnie Ship The Diamond," & a weary "The Hills Of Mexico"--Dylan & The Band spend most of the disc getting into the most classic music of The Basement Tapes project.

There's "Million Dollar Bash," the closest the Basement Tapes have to a national anthem; "Yea! Heavy & A Bottle Of Bread," pure dada written by a man who simply loves words; "I'm Not There," an unfinished, unclear, unforgettable tale of love & devotion that is the most legendary Basement Tapes song of all; "Please Mrs. Henry," a drunkard's sing-a-long plea for acceptance into a boarding house; "Crash On The Levee," a blues about a universal flood & the personal toll it can take; "Lo & Behold!," a version of The Lady Vanishes, where the lady stays put & logic vanishes instead; "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," a perfect 3-chord proto-country rock standard featuring mail-order brides, easy chairs, & a tree with roots; "I Shall Be Released," perhaps the most famous of the Basement Tapes songs, well-known enough to have Elvis sing through a refrain in 1971; "This Wheel's On Fire," for my money, the best Basement Tapes song, period; "Too Much Of Nothing," with the perfect answering line, "can make a man ill at ease."

If you've made it this far into this article, chances are you already know all about these songs & have heard them a million times (& happily have never gotten any closer to their depths). But to hear them here is a small revelation, with no overdubs but a high-quality sound. Even if you can never imagine improving on your copy of A Tree With Roots, you should get this set if only because you can simply hear everything better. When "I'm Not There" (for many, the quintessential Basement Tapes song) was first released on the film soundtrack of the same name, I was disappointed at how low it was mixed, despite the fact it was now the 21st century. Someone must've gotten the memo because "I'm Not There" starts so loudly it becomes an entirely different, completely fuller, listening experience. Song-for-song, this may be the finest disc of the set (if not Dylan's entire career--yeah, I said it), in no small part because it is now that much greater to listen to.

& for me, the riddle at the center of "This Wheel's On Fire"--"& you know that we shall meet again, if your mem'ry serves you well," which impossibly places an unknown future into a known past--may just be the perfect Dylan line of them all, even if it may have been written by Rick Danko.

Disc 4: The Classic, Pt 2.

Picks up in the same classic territory as the previous disc left off: "Tears Of Rage," a funeral for a country that has forgotten Independence Day; "Quinn The Eskimo," the most unlikely UK #1 hit single (thanks to Manfred Mann) to use the phrase "it ain't my cup of meat"; "Open The Door Homer," reaching back to Jack McVea's 1946 vaudeville-inspired rhythm & blues hit "Open The Door, Richard" (the first song to have a fade-out) to spin advice about memories & toilet-flushing; "Nothing Was Delivered," the fallout of a faulty bill of sale, in which the victims still wish good health for the seller. All were released in various versions over the years (although "Henry" was in a version by The Band), & all deserved to be.

But after 3 takes of "Nothing Was Delivered" with varying success, the entire disc (if not Basement Tapes project) pivots on one transition: The one between "All American Boy" & "Sign On The Cross." As the earlier bootleg sets attested to, these songs were apparently recorded back-to-back, one beside the other on their respective Basement Tapes reel. To my ears, they provide the Basement Tapes' greatest one-two punch.

"All American Boy" is a goof on Bill Parsons' 1958 talking blues about getting a guitar, learning hot licks, getting hooked up with a manager with a big cigar, & becoming a star until you get drafted into the Army--in other words, it was a song about Elvis Presley. Dylan draws a line around the song so that the bottom falls out, the guitarist becomes a drummer, & everything goes from strange to stranger in a drunkard's reverie: "Clean your hand & come up tight, roll smoke & down at night/Hold on a train on a whiskey jar--settle it down, there you are!"

Dylan was comfortable with the talking blues form, as he had learned it from Woody Guthrie & then perfected the form himself in songs like "Talking New York Blues" & "Talking World War III Blues." Each of those songs had a point, but here any larger messages are lost. What we have instead is the sound of someone making up a song as they go along, to amuse his bandmates, to amuse himself. & yet, the careless, casual randomness of the words create a distinctively Basement Tapes feel--a secret America where reason go out the window in favor of a land where anything can happen--or, as the case may be, nothing can happen. A lot. It is a strange, timeless sound & it is this element that connects so well with the early folk & blues records of The Anthology Of American Folk Music.

& then, at one of the throwaway answer parts of the song, sung in a goon's voice that sounds like Richard Manuel (even if Garth Hudson confirms it is Robbie Robertson), he free-associates with Uncle Sam coming in from the original song's version: "Uncle Sam," he begins, followed by, "In this land." & then he adds 4 more words--"Ripping up draft cards"--& everything, the song, the Basement Tapes, goes from a timeless America to one that is decidedly 1967. Dylan comes in & interrupts him, as though to save the song from any modern interjections, & finishes it out with a return to the strangeness that has defined it thus far; the fact that Dylan can successfully return to this level is not only lucky, but remarkable. "You'd be a fine drummer," he drawls at the end. "Picker man's a-commer. Dog hummer." It is at once timeless, strange, & kinda dumb.

The next sound we hear is a reaching guitar winding together the instruments of "Sign On The Cross," & suddenly, everything is completely different. The irreverence has given way to reverence, all balanced on a stately gospel progression, the soft thunder of the drums rumbling underneath. It is a song of subtle, small gestures & extreme focus, & contains what is probably the most beautiful vocal that Bob Dylan will ever record.

"Sign On The Cross" is a song about religion & devotion, but more in the way that it is sung & played than any lyrics in & of themselves. Like the best Basement Tapes music, the words are obscure & sometimes nearly unintelligible, but are carried by the emotion. In this regard, it is a sort of answer record to that other long, mysterious, & legendary Basement Tapes song, "I'm Not There," only where that song finds extreme isolation, "Sign Of The Cross" finds community. By both implying & eluding proper organized religion, it serves as a powerful reminder as to why we have organized religion in the first place; as a religious song, it is Dylan's finest, with the possible exception of "Every Grain Of Sand."

But then, about halfway through, Dylan steps on the mood, pulling himself out of the song by breaking into a weird spoken break about the sign of the cross, delivered in a smiling African-American dialect that turns the song from a serious deliverance into a silly performance. You can't tell if he's celebrating the sound of an old southern preacher or mocking it, & in truth, it's probably both. It is a distancing method between the singer & the song, holding this sacred performance at arm's length as though it may all just be a joke after all--it looks into the Sign On The Cross & finds an All-American Boy.

& then just as effortlessly as Dylan slips out of his serious persona, he slips back into it, returning to the reverence in a bridge about the prisons & penitentiaries too that drives the whole thing home (literally, as it brings the song back to the root chord for a final verse). Yes, you can hear him giving muffled chord changes to his bandmates here & there & even a near-flubbed note or two, but "Sign On The Cross" sounds like one of the more rehearsed numbers on the Basement Tapes recordings. For almost any songwriter, it would go on to be a centerpiece of their career, but for Dylan, it would be recorded one time & largely forgotten, not even properly released until a few weeks ago.

After "All American-Boy" & "Sign One The Cross," we get more weird classics: The rocking "Odds & Ends" that is so perfect, it led off the official Basement Tapes release, while summing up the project in 6 words or less ("Lost time is not found again"); "Get Your Rocks Off," which is at once lazy, filthy, unsettling, & hilarious; "Clothesline Saga," which inverted Bobbie Gentry's then-contemporary #1 hit "Ode To Billy Joe" into a song that Christopher Ricks uses to illustrate "Sloth" in his mad, beautiful Dylan's Visions Of Sin; you can hear "Apple Suckling Tree" converge over 2 takes until it's one of the homespun-yet-funky moments in the entire project; a cut-off "Don't Ya Tell Henry" with some awful/amazing horns; & finally, a version of "Bourbon Street" that takes the horns of the previous song & drives them into the ground like a steamroller in a graveyard.

If the Basement Tapes ended there, no one would blame Dylan & The Band--& in a way, they do.

Disc 5: The Homecoming.

The first half of the 5th disc begins with never-before-bootlegged material from early 1968, with Levon Helm back in the group & the proceedings more organized. For the first time, the songs sound less like a bunch of guys rummaging through a garage sale & more like a singer & his band going over songs for a setlist.

3 of the first 4 songs reinvent Dylan standards in profound ways: There's a "Blowin' In The Wind" that must be heard to be believed--running for 6-&-a-half minutes over a funky bar groove, it takes the endlessly-covered song to places where no one else has had the vision to take it, setting the words out like a test, & watching them bounce off the music & each other until everything rolls along into the next line; they do a version of "One Too Many Mornings" that plays like a subdued version of "The Royal Albert Hall" concert, it's got all of the vigor of the loud-&-electric stage version, but washed in a lazy Sunday afternoon--Richard Manuel does a stunning job taking the first verse & makes you wish that more verse-trading had happened over the sessions; & finally, Dylan leads an "It Ain't Me, Babe" that sounds like a dry-run for The Rolling Thunder Review. Appropriately, the one non-Dylan song in the string is called "Satisfied Mind."

Dylan then leads the group through 2 takes "Ain't No More Cane," which is being rightfully lauded as one of the finest "new" moments of the box set, & then on to "Santa-Fe," one of my very favorites of the classic Basement Tapes songs, unfinished yet natural, & then onto songs that feel more contained & organized. Even the one that isn't, "My Woman She's A-Leavin'," is tightened up a few songs later as "Silent Weekend," which takes the blueprint of Charlie Rich's "Lonely Weekends" & applies it to a Wilson Pickett demo, only with internal rhymes that are as funky as the groove. Perhaps most odd is a version of "900 Miles From My Home" that takes the shell of a traditional folk song & welds it into the melody of Dylan's then-recent composition "John Wesley Harding." We can feel the curtains being closed & the floor being swept on the Basement Tapes.

But there's one last stretch of the Basement Tapes sound with Levon Helm in toe, as the parlor-ballad-turned-folksong "Wildwood Flower" is turned back into a half-forgotten slurred parlor tune & the 6 white horses of "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" make their way into the 6 white horses of "She'll Be Coming 'Round The Mountain." The Old, Weird America lives.

One final Basement Tapes classic can be heard, "Goin' To Acapulco"--its late appearance in the chronology informing Helm's quoting it in his autobiography, This Wheel's On Fire ("It's a wicked life/But what the hell/Everybody's got to eat")--looking beyond the border of America to fuel one last journey.

The set ends where it should, with the 2 takes of "All You Have To Do Is Dream," which lifts the title of an Everly Brothers song & turns it into a paean to confusion & floorbirds.

Disc 6: The Rough Stuff.

As mentioned before, the material with the worst fidelity was taken out of order & put into a final disc, which concludes the set. Song-for-song, it is easily the junkiest volume of the box, but that's not to say it doesn't reveal its odd charm. Weird hooks like the bounce of "2 Dollars & 99 Cents" & the nonsense syllables of "Jelly Bean" take us back to repetitive almost non-songs like "Old Lady & The Devil" & "King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O" of The Anthology Of American Folk Music, in both fidelity & feel. There's a lot of Dylan instructing, or putting out ideas & riffs, & in some cases, like "Hallelujah, I've Just Been Moved," it pays off, while in others, like the long & listless "That's The Breaks," it doesn't. & then there's stuff like the 19th century-sounding waltz of "Pretty Mary" that I bet most people would hate, even if I dig it.

From the previously released bootlegs, one can find the unfinished & elusive "King Of France," which I've always associated with The Band's own poor-fidelity version of "Ferdinand The Imposter"--both rough but well-worth a listen. "Goin' Down The Road Feeling Bad" finally unleashes the presence of Woody Guthrie that has been felt all along--the wandering mind, the talking blues, the ability to try & accept anything that comes your way, especially if it originates from your own mind--& does it justice. & a version of The Rays' 1957 hit "Silhouettes" is quadrupled from a fragment to a nearly 2-minute clip where you can hear the doo-wop sound that Dylan & The Band are constantly returning to, played like "Heart & Soul" by a 7-year-old piano student.

Thrown in at the end is the 2 takes of "The Spanish Song," which for my money is the worst thing on the Basement Tapes, & probably not a coincidence that it's listed as the final music on the set. Thankfully, one final secret track revives a completely different "900 Miles From My Home" from the previous disc, turning it into an exploding fiddle piece that in sound & spirit matches only Robertson, Manuel, & Danko singing "Old Time Religion" in The Last Waltz, before ending on a take of "Confidential," another trip back to another half-forgotten early rock & roll song, ending things where it probably should, on a doo-wop cover, where Dylan & each member of the Band probably began their own musical journey over a decade earlier.

* * *

Part 3: A Conclusion.

As one reviewer has suggested, the 139 tracks from the recent Basement Tapes box set can be seen as an invitation from which you can make your own collection (just like The Beastie Boys actually did with their trailblazing Sounds Of Science anthology in 1999, but I digress). Although a smaller, 2-disc Basement Tapes Raw has been released alongside the deluxe box, I believe there's room for one more product that would bring it all home: A disc that collects the original versions of all of the Dylan songs from the 1975 Basement Tapes release in their most familiar versions, along with 8 more of the most classic originals. & like the original 1975 set, all 24 songs fit on a single disc. I call it:

The Basement Tapes "Masters"

1. Tiny Montgomery
2. Million Dollar Bash [Take 2]
3. Yea! Heavy & A Bottle Of Bread [Take 2]
4. I'm Not There
5. Please Mrs. Henry
6. Crash On The Levee [Take 2]
7. Lo & Behold! [Take 2]
8. You Ain't Goin' Nowhere [Take 2]
9. I Shall Be Released [Take 2]
10. This Wheel's On Fire
11. Too Much Of Nothing [Take 1]
12. Tears Of Rage [Take 1]
13. Quinn The Eskimo [Take 2]
14. Open The Door Homer [Take 1]
15. Nothing Was Delivered [Take 1]
16. Sign On The Cross
17. Odds & Ends [Take 2]
18. Get Your Rocks Off
19. Clothes Line Saga
20. Apple Suckling Tree [Take 2]
21. Don't Ya Tell Henry
22. Santa-Fe
23. Silent Weekend
24. Goin' To Acapulco

& there you have it. Running at 1:19:37, it nearly covers the entirety of a single compact disc. I of course would've loved to include "All-American Boy," but ultimately did not because it is not credited to Dylan.

& besides, it wouldn't be the Basement Tapes if it weren't missing a few odds & ends.

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