THE BASEMENT TAPES COMPLETE
By Harvey Kubernik~
The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11 is being released by Columbia Records/Legacy Recordings. It’s a six-disc definitive chronicle of Dylan’s 1967 sessions with The Band — made from the original tapes.
In 1965, Levon Helm and the Hawks ((Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson) had met up with Bob Dylan, who hired them as his back-up for what was to be many months of savage, sinew-building road trips. Levon did not go along, however, embarrassed that his band was backing another. Mickey Jones was the drummer on Dylan’s 1966 European tour.
On July 29, 1966, just a month or so after Blonde On Blonde was in record store bins, Bob Dylan was reportedly involved in a motorcycle smash up and then spent nine months in alleged seclusion.
In 1967, Levon swallowed his pride and rejoined the Hawks in Woodstock. The others had earlier accompanied Dylan into the woods of upstate New York in search of an idyll, and there resolved to bow out of Dylan’s secondary spotlight.
During 1967, Dylan ensconced himself with Robertson, Danko, Manuel, Hudson and, later, Helm, in the basement of Dylan’s home in Woodstock and at a small house the Band had rented in West Saugerties, known as Big Pink.
They subsequently recorded over one hundred songs, most of them originals, with Dylan on lead vocals. Later to be known as the Complete Basement Tapes.
In November 2013, Bob Dylan’s The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11 was finally released, along with The Basement Tapes Raw: The Bootleg series Vol. 11, a two-disc product from the deluxe edition as well as a three-LP set pressed on 180-gram vinyl.
The Dylan and Co. 1967 collaboration yielded traditional covers, wry and comical ditties, off-the cuff takes, and, most important, dozens of newly-written Dylan tunes, including “I Shall Be Released,” “The Mighty Quinn,” “This Wheel’s On Fire” and “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.”
In late ‘67, a fourteen-song selection of those Dylan songs subsequently made the rounds as an acetate disc to various music publishers and recording artists. They were registered and copyrighted for Dylan by Dwarf Music, a publishing company he owned with his manager Albert Grossman.
During 1967, Brian Auger heard the acetate pressing of available Dylan songs in a U.K. music publishing office.
“Manfred Mann had gotten ‘Quinn the Eskimo’ first. Then I was played ‘This Wheel’s on Fire.’ It had a walking bass on it. I then grabbed the tune for us to cover,” Auger explained to me around his 2012 club date at The Baked Potato in Studio City, California.
In addition, The Byrds recorded two tracks from The Basement Tapes on their Sweetheart of the Rodeo LP, “Nothing Was Delivered” and “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” Their live repertoire, always including Dylan, later included “This Wheel’s on Fire.”
“Chris (Hillman) got the demos of the two Dylan songs in the mail that we did,” Roger McGuinn told me in 2007. “Dylan as a songwriter was so much better than everyone. We had been out of touch for a few years and it was interesting to notice that at this same period he was going in the same musical direction we were in.”
“I have no idea why I got in the mail the two Bob Dylan Basement Tapes songs in my mail,” added Hillman in a 2014 interview. “I sensed something was good there and I took them to McGuinn.”
“After the motorcycle accident, Dylan was off the public radar for what seemed like a couple of years,” offered music historian and writer, Kirk Silsbee. “We didn’t know it but he was holed up in Woodstock, which most of us had never heard of before the festival. That absence gave way to all kinds of speculation on his whereabouts and well being.
“Though he wasn’t speaking for himself, Dylan had several interlocutors in the form of his songs, performed by others on the emerging FM rock radio. Peter, Paul & Mary introduced ‘Too Much Of Nothing,’ the Byrds gave us ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere,’ ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’ was done by Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger & the Trinity, and Manfred Mann’ did ‘Mighty Quinn.’ The songs were all introduced to us by those artists, and it was a form of mental sport to try to divine some kind of secret code being sent to us from Dylan through them. I imagined him in the same kind of cloistered bunker that Thelonious Monk stared out from on the cover of his classic Underground album of 1967, furtively sending cryptic messages to the front any way that he could.”
“When I first was given a cassette tape of The Basement Tapes by Garth Hudson in the fall of 1968, I felt like it was the American version of the Soviet Samizdat — a hand-made piece of art secretly passed from hand to hand,” recalled Jonathan Taplin, former manager of the Band, and now, director, USC Annenberg Innovation Lab. “I think credit needs to go to Garth for recording these songs in the Big Pink basement with a rather amazing fidelity. In a sense he was following in the ‘field recording’ tradition of Alan Lomax. For both Dylan and the Band it was a way to let friends know about their new work, with none of the commercial pressures of putting out a record. And in that sense, much like the development of Be Bop during World War II when there were no recordings, a new kind of ‘Americana’ was birthed outside of any market pressures.”
What strikes me in 2014 about The Basement Tapes is that it’s a totally independent production. It has something to do with musicians talking the jazz idea of spontaneous live performance. And the hippie aesthetic idea of something organically rooted in the place time experience. And turning that from a social goal into actual behavior.
Dylan and Co. enacted that in a basement cellar garage. Instead of just writing a song about it or how great it would be to be in a functional community. They created a functional community. And it had nothing directly to do with the corporation. Not because Bob Dylan was theoretically anti-corporation. But because the music had so much coming into it and so much going on in it that it just had a whole different function.
When rumors and rare acetates of some of these recordings first began surfacing, it created a curiosity strong enough to fuel an entirely new segment of the music business and record collector world: the bootleg record.
In 1969, an album mysteriously titled Great White Wonder started appearing in record and head shops around the country, and Dylan’s music from the summer of 1967 began seeping into the fabric of popular culture.
With each passing year, more fans and sought out this rare contraband, desperate to hear this new music from Dylan.
The actual recordings, however, remained commercially unavailable until June 26 1975 when an official double LP collection of The Basement Tapes was compiled by Robbie Robertson for Columbia Records and released as Bob Dylan and the Band.
In a 1976 interview I conducted with Robertson for Crawdaddy! magazine. I asked Robbie about Basement Tapes album songs that he selected for the retail product.
“All of a sudden it seemed like a good idea,” Robertson claimed. “I can’t tell you why or anything. It just popped up one day. We thought we’d see what we had. I started going through the stuff and sorting it out, trying to make it stand up for a record that wasn’t recorded professionally. I also tried to include some things that people haven’t heard before, if possible. Whether it went top ten or not didn’t concern me. I just wanted to document a period rather than let them rot away on the shelves somewhere. It was an unusual time which caused all those songs to be written and it was better it be put on disc some way than be lost in an attic.”
The Basement Tapes Complete brings together, for the first time ever, every salvageable recording from the tapes, including recently discovered early gems recorded in the “Red Room” of Dylan’s home in upstate New York. Garth Hudson worked closely with Canadian music archivist and producer Jan Haust to restore the deteriorating tapes to pristine sound, with much of this music preserved digitally for the first time.
The decision was made to present The Basement Tapes Com-plete as intact as possible.
Also, unlike the official 1975 The Basement Tapes product, these performances are presented as close as possible to the way they were originally recorded and sounded back in the summer of 1967. The tracks on the 2014 edition run in mostly chronological order based on Garth Hudson’s numbering system.
“The Basement Tapes, a Dylan and Band (a.k.a. Hawks, Crackers) collaboration recorded June-November 1967, were wholly concealed from public viewing hearing in ’67,” lamented Prof. James Cushing in 2013, who teaches English and Creative writing in Central Coast California on the campus of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
Poet Cushing is a deejay on KCPR-FM who hosts a weekly program, Lunch with Bob, Tuesdays from noon-one p.m. His most recent book is The Magicians’ Union, published by Cahuenga Press.
“If the full five-CD, five-hour-each disc set of the complete recordings was commercially released, it would be an item to get completely lost in, like an equivalent of the Harry Smith Anthology. Each song is terrific in itself and each song has a terrific relationship with every other song on it. Some are old. Some are brand new. Some are serious. Some are funny. Some are Biblical. Some are sort of silly and some are excuses to crack up. But you get the sense these are real human beings making real human music in a real human situation for real human purposes.
“The Basement Tapes Complete are like a whole shadowy subterranean alternative career for Bob Dylan. It’s as though somebody discovered that while James Joyce was writing Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, he also wrote two other novels that were completely finished but put them in a trunk,” Cushing concluded.
“It’s hard to believe that at the peak of ‘psychedelia’ Bob Dylan was hunkered down in the backwoods with a cohort of grizzled fur trappers who looked like extras from How The West Was Won, ventured Kenneth Kubernik, musician, author and a contributor to Variety.
“His own speed-addled phase played out, it was time for Dylan to craft a new musical identity, still lyrically symbolist but grounded in the loamy soil of juke joint blues, hillbilly folk, tin-pan saviness and the steely authority of master musicians/artisans growing a new material that appeared both timely and timeless.
“It’s been nearly a half a century since The Basement Tapes surfaced and we’re still coming to grips with the scope of their influence, like a king’s harvest for epicurean ears.”
“Like far too many anxious fan(atic)s I would wager, my first exposure to something called The Basement Tape — singular — came via a 1969 article in Rolling Stone,” admits part-time Dylanologist and full-time admirer Gary Pig Gold. “That immediately propelled me out of chemistry class and into downtown Toronto, to the big flagship Sam The Record Man store: But all that could be found in my uneducated hunt there were some semi-legal rare batch of Little White Wonder LPs imported from Italy, I believe. No dice.
“Then in 1975 came something pretty official looking from Columbia Records itself called The Basement Tapes. Yet even to my young untrained ears these recordings sounded suspiciously updated, as opposed to upgraded, in a thoughtlessly Malibuesque Planet Waves kinda way (damn you, R. Robertson!) …again, I was wondering what all Greil Marcus’ raving about in that old Stone was actually for in the first place.
“It wasn’t until the dreaded mid-Eighties, thanks to a then flourishing network of, um, tape traders who were stepping up to do what the music industry couldn’t be bothered to, that I finally began to find, hear, collect and duly treasure THE REAL THING. As in those majestically raw-boned, un-tinkered-with, expertly Garth Hudson-engineered, subterranean West Saugerties jewels. Dozens upon dozens of them, in fact! Some funny, some smart; some long, others quick, all basically indescribable… especially when placed within their proper historical — as in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band perspective. Yes, these here were songs and sounds unlike anything else at all being made anyhow by anyone, anywhere, in 1967. Not to mention 1975, 1987, or of course 2014.
“And so, lovingly curated by proud Torontonians Jan Haust and Peter J. Moore right there in the shadow of Rompin’ Ronnie and the Hawks’ old Yonge Street stompin’ grounds, today The Basement Tapes unspool anew so thankfully unspoiled, with all their big pink and bluesy splendor intact. Like some sort of David Lynchian deep woods, behind-the-midway counterpart to Brian Wilson’s concurrent SMiLE sessions, Dylan and his cracker Band had unknowingly — or then again, maybe not? — tripped open a lyrical and sonic portal into a distant past which was, in fact, a glimpse towards hitherto unimaginable futures. Biblical, you may ask? Well, only in a Jerry Lee Lewis way I reckon. But parables of pure, impudent rock ‘n’ rolling nevertheless.
“The Basement Tapes, in this latest and by far greatest incarnation, should indeed continue to be savored and studied for immeasurable years to come. If you haven’t already, now you know where to start.”
A related companion album of Bob Dylan 1967 long-lost songs produced by T Bone Burnett was also released in November, Lost On The River: The New Basement Tapes.
20 Dylan lyrics now fully realized with music and studio performances from Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens, Taylor Goldsmith, Jim James and Marcus Mumford issued on Electromagnetic Recordings/Harvest Records (Capitol Music Group) that will be accompanied by a Showtime documentary titled, Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued, directed by Sam Jones.
“The discovery of these previously unknown Bob Dylan songs that were thought lost since 1967 is the stuff of Hollywood fiction and a find of truly historical proportions,” said Jones. “It is a unique opportunity to film T Bone and these great artists as they collaborate with a young Bob Dylan, and each other, to create new songs and recordings. These days and nights in the studio have been nothing less than magical.”
Jones will weave these studio sessions into a broader narrative that will incorporate the stories behind the original Basement Tapes, expound on their cultural significance and chart their enduring influence.
Harvey Kubernik has been an active music journalist for over 42 years and is the author of 8 books. During April 2014, Harvey’s Kubernik’s Turn Up the Radio! Rock, Pop, and Roll in Los Angeles 1956–1972 was published by Santa Monica Press. In September 2014, Palazzo Editions published Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows, a coffee-table-size volume written by Kubernik. Harvey and Kenneth Kubernik have written the text and for photographer Guy Webster’s debut book for Insight Editions published in November 2014. Big Shots: Rock Legends & Hollywood Icons: Through the lens of Guy Webster. Introduction by Brian Wilson.