The Basement Tapes (1975)
The Basement Tapes
Bob Dylan & The Band
Some years back, The Band cut a song called "The Rumor." It's a tune that could well describe the music now collected here. "The Basement Tapes" are a bit like the phantom 1956 session that brought Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash together for the first and last time. In spite of the bootlegs and cover versions, "The Basement Tapes" have always been more of a rumor than anything else.
Some facts, then. The twenty-four songs on these two discs are drawn from sessions that took place between June and October, 1967, in the basement of Big Pink, a house rented by some members of The Band, up in West Saugerties, New York. Bob Dylan sings lead on sixteen numbers; one of them, "Goin' To Acapulco," has never been bootlegged -- for that matter, it has never even been rumored. Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, and Robbie Robertson take the lead on eight others, none of which has ever surfaced either. There's a lot of back-up singing all around.
The instrumental line up is: Rick Danko, bass (mandolin on "Ain't No More Cane"); Garth Hudson, organ (sax on "Orange Juice Blues (Blues For Breakfast)," accordion on "Ain't No More Cane"); Richard Manuel, piano (drums on "Odds And Ends," "Yazoo Street Scandal," "Ain't No More Cane" and "Don't Ya Tell Henry," harp on "Long Distance Operator": Robbie Robertson, lead guitar (drums on "Apple Suckling Tree," "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" and "This Wheel's On Fire," acoustic guitar on "Ain't No More Cane"); Bob Dylan, acoustic guitar (piano on "Apple Suckling Tree"). Levon Helm, who had left The Band when, as The Hawks, they were backing Dylan on stage in 1965, had yet to rejoin his group when most of the material with Dylan was recorded; he was back, on drums (mandolin on "Yazoo Street Scandal" and "Don't Ya Tell Henry," bass on "Ain't No More Cane"), for the tunes by The Band.
Cut live on a home tape recorder, with from one to three mikes, all of the tracks have been remastered; highlights have been brought out, tones sharpened, tape hiss removed, and so on. The sound is clear, immediate, and direct; as intimate as living room and as slick as a barbed wire fence.
As for the quality of feeling in the music -- well, that has never been in doubt.
"...with a certain kind of blues music, you can sit down and play it...you may have to lean forward a little." -- Bob Dylan, 1966
In 1965 and 1966 Bob Dylan and The Hawks played their way across the country and then around the world; those rough tours pushed Bob Dylan's music, and The Band's, to a certain limit, and they had made stand-up, no-quarter-given-and-no quarter-asked music if there ever was such a thing. In the summer of 1967 Dylan and The Band were after something else.
Neither "John Wesley Harding," made later that year, nor "Music From Big Pink" (for which all of The Band's numbers here were at one time intended), sound much like "The Basement Tapes," but there are two elements the three sessions do share; a feeling of age, a kind of classicism; and an absolute commitment by the singers and musicians to their material. Beneath the easy rolling surface of The Basement Tapes, there is some serious business going on. What was taking shape, as Dylan and The Band fiddled with the tunes, was less a style than a spirit -- a spirit that had to do with a delight in friendship and invention.
As you first listen to the music they made, you'll be hard put to pin it down, and likely not too interested in doing so, What matters is Rick Danko's loping bass on "Yazoo Street Scandal"; Garth Hudson's omnipresent merry-go-round organ playing (and never more evocative than it is on "Apple Suckling Tree"); the slow, uncoiling menace of "This Wheel's On Fire"; Bob Dylan's singing, as sly as Jerry Lee Lewis, and as knowing as the old man of the mountains.
There's the kind of love song only Richard Manuel can pull off, the irresistibly pretty "Katie's Been Gone"; there is the unassuming passion of The Band's magnificent "Ain't No More Cane," an old chain gang song that ought to be a revelation to anyone who has ever cared about The Band's music, because this performance seems to capture the essence of what they have always meant to be. There's the lovely idea of "Bessie Smith," written and sung by Robbie and Rick as the plaint of one of Bessie's lovers, who can't figure out if he's lost his heart to the woman herself or the way she sings. There is Levon Helm's patented mixture of carnal bewilderment and helpless delight in "Don't Ya Tell Henry" (and the solos he and Robbie stomp out on that tune) -- and the tale he tells in "Yazoo Street Scandal," a comic horror story wherein the singer is introduced, by his girlfriend, to the local Dark Lady, who promptly seduces him, and then scares him half to death.
"The Basement Tapes," more than any other music that has been heard from Bob Dylan and The Band, sound like the music of a partnership. As Dylan and The Band trade vocals across these discs, as they trade nuances and phrases within the songs, you can feel the warmth and the comradeship that must have been liberating for all six men. Language, for one thing, is completely unfettered. A good number of the songs seem as cryptic, or as nonsensical, as a misnumbered crossword puzzle-that is, if you listen only for words, and not for what the singing and the music say -- but the open spirit of the songs is as straightforward as their unmatched vitality and spunk.
One hears a pure, naked emotion in some of Dylan's writing and singing -- in "Tears Of Rage," especially -- that can't he found anywhere else, and I think it is the musical sympathy Dylan and The Band shared in these sessions that gives "Tears Of Rage," and other numbers, their remarkable depth and power. There are rhythms in the music that literally sing with compliments tossed from one musician to another -- listen to "Lo And Behold!," "Crash On The Levee (Down In The Flood)," "Ain't No More Cane." And there is another kind of openness, a flair for ribaldry that's as much a matter of Levon's mandolin as his, or Dylan's, singing -- a spirit that shoots a good smile straight across this album.
More than a little crazy, at times flatly bizarre (take "Million Dollar Bash," "Yazoo Street Scandal," "Don't Ya Tell Henry," "Lo And Behold!"), moving easily form the confessional to the bawdy house, roaring with humor and good times, this music sounds to me at once like a testing and a discovery -- of musical affinity, of nerve, of some very pointed themes; put up or shut up, obligation, escape, homecoming, owning up, the settling of accounts past due.
It sounds as well like a testing and a discovery of memory and roots. "The Basement Tapes" are a kaleidoscope like nothing I know, complete and no more dated than the weather, but they seem to leap out of a kaleidoscope of American music no less immediate for its venerability. Just below the surface of songs like "Lo And Behold!" or "Million Dollar Bash" are the strange adventures and poker-faced insanities chronicled in such standards as "Froggy Went A-Courtin'" "E-ri-e," Henry Thomas's "Fishing Blues," "Cock Robin," or "Five Nights Drunk"; the ghost of Rabbit Brown's sardonic "James Alley Blues" might lie just behind "Crash On The Levee (Down In The Flood)" ("Sometimes I Think That You're Too Sweet To Die," Brown sang in 1927, "And Another Time I Think You Oughta Be Buried Alive") "The Basement Tapes" summon sea chanteys; drinking songs, tall tales, and early rock and roll.
Along side of such things -- and often intertwined with them -- is something very different.
"Obviously, death is not very universally accepted. I mean, you'd think that the traditional music people could gather from their songs that mystery is a fact, a traditional fact." -- Bob Dylan, 1966
I think one can hear what Bob Dylan was talking about in the music of "The Basement Tapes," in "Goin' To Acapulco," "Tears Of Rage," "Too Much Of Nothing," and "This Wheel's On Fire" -- one can hardly avoid hearing it. It is a plain-talk mystery; it has nothing to do with mumbo-jumbo, charms or spells. The "acceptance of death" that Dylan found in "traditional music" -- the ancient ballads of mountain music -- is simply a singer's insistence on mystery as inseparable from any honest understanding of what life is all about; it is the quiet terror of a man seeking salvation who stares into a void that stares back. It is the awesome, impenetrable fatalism that drives the timeless ballads first recorded in the twenties; songs like Buell Kazee's "East Virginia," Clarence Ashley's "Coo Coo Bird," Dock Boggs' "Country Blues" -- or a song called "I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground," put down by Bascom Lamar Lunsford in 1928. "I wish I was a mole in the ground -- like a mole in the ground I would root that mountain down -- And I wish I was a mole in the ground."
Now, what the singer wants is obvious, and almost impossible to really comprehend. He wants to be delivered from his like, and to be changed into a creature insignificant and despised; like a mole in the ground, he wants to see nothing and to be seen by no one; he wants to destroy the world, and to survive it.
Dylan and The Band came to terms with feeling -- came to terms with the void that looks back -- in the summer of 1967; in the most powerful and unsettling songs on "The Basement Tapes," they put an old, old sense of mystery across with an intensity that has not been heard in a long time. You can find it in Dylan's singing and in his lyrics on "This Wheel's On Fire" -- and in every note Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm and Rick Danko play.
And it is in this way most of all that "The Basement Tapes" are a testing and a discovery of roots and memory; it might be why "The Basement Tapes" are, if anything, more compelling today than when they were first made, no more likely to fade than Elvis Presley's "Mystery Train" or Robert Johnson's "Love In Vain." The spirit of a song like "I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground" matters here not as an "influence," and not as a "source." It is simply that one side of "The Basement Tapes" casts the shadow of such things and in turn, is shadowed by them.
-- Greil Marcus
Bob Dylan -- Acoustic Guitar, Piano & Vocals
Robbie Robertson -- Electric Guitar, Acoustic Guitar, Drums & Vocals
Richard Manuel -- Piano, Drums, Harmonica & Vocals
Rick Danko -- Electric Bass, Mandolin & Vocals
Garth Hudson -- Organ, Clavinette, Accordion, Tenor Sax & Piano
Levon Helm -- Drums, Mandolin, Electric Bass & Vocals
Recorded in the basement of Big Pink, West Saugerties, NY., 1967
Recording Engineer -- Garth Hudson
Mixing Engineers -- Rob Fraboni, Nat Jeffrey, Ed Anderson & Mark Aglietti
Mixed at Village Recorders & Shangri-La Studios
Mastering Engineer -- George Horn
Photography -- Reid Miles
Design Consultant -- Bob Cato
Compiled by Robbie Robertson
Produced by Bob Dylan & The Band