Anticipating Dylan’s “The Basement Tapes Complete”: An Essay

The New York Times put on its front page this week the news that Orson Welles’ final film will at long last make it to the silver screen.  We marveled at the news, but also at the news judgment, the front-page treatment, and wondered what they’ll do about The Basement Tapes finally being released in their entirety November 4th, 47 years after they were recorded.

You may think we are overdoing things here, preparing for the six-CD release of the 138 songs as if it were a newly found segment of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  But the story of Dylan’s crashing his motorcycle in June ’66 and then dropping from sight for the next eighteen months, all the while recording, with a cohort of confederates in the basement of a Woodstock ranch house, a collection of original songs and American obscurities, is perhaps the enduring myth of rock’n’roll.

Already by 1973, Don DeLillo began what may be the most compelling novel about a rock’n’roll star, Great Jones Street, with this opener:

“Fame requires every kind of excess. I mean true fame, a devouring neon, not the somber renown of waning statesmen or chinless kings.  I mean long journeys across gray space.  I mean danger, the edge of every void, the circumstance of one man imparting an erotic terror to the dreams of the republic.”

The character narrating the story was named Bucky Wunderlick, a rock star hiding out on Great Jones Street (not nearly such a desired or high-priced address in the early ‘70s.)  Wunderlick had recently dropped from sight and secretly recorded a new album he was hiding from his record company, and it was called, simply, Mountain Tapes.  Sound familiar?

“Fame, this special kind, feeds itself on outrage, on what the counselors of lesser men would consider bad publicity – hysteria in limousines, knife fights in the audience, bizarre litigation, treachery, pandemonium and drugs.  Perhaps the only natural law attaching to true fame is that the famous man is compelled, eventually, to commit suicide.”

When Dylan came up over the rise — the story is told wonderfully by Clinton Heylin in the new Uncut —  and was blinded by the morning sunlight that caused him to crash the bike, he was actually blessed by good fortune.  If his fame was compelling him, as Wunderlick said, toward suicide, then Dylan’s compressed vertebrae was a lucky break.

He crashed on July 29th, 1966.  Less than a month later, the centrifugal forces of ‘60s fame would compel the Beatles to stop touring.  They would depart one ring of the circus that surrounded them, never to play a real concert again.  The Stones, too, were on the road that summer, touring an America that was changing by the hour, but they were rapidly coming to the end of Chapter One, the madness of their rise soon to sputter from the heavy punctuation of drug busts and romantic dissolution, before they returned, in ’68, with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” kicking off their four-year Golden Age.

Dylan’s accident was the most dramatic, and as it turns out, most graceful way to get off the stage, to leave in the nick of time.  By nearly killing himself on that motorcycle (it wasn’t that bad a crash, but it was a close call), he had an excuse to disappear, and in so doing, likely saved himself from becoming an Art Martyr, the first of this generation of rockers to die.

The Basement Tapes is the output of that moment hidden away from fame.  And even when so many of the songs have appeared on bootlegs over the years, even with lickings of the cream of the collection, released by Columbia Records as a botched double-record, it is one of rock’s last mysteries.  There is no hidden trove of Beatles gems.  Truly.  And yes, we hold out hope we will someday get the live album from the Stones’ ’72 tour: the Holy Grail for those who were there.  But it’s The Basement Tapes, in their entirety, that promises to further complete our knowledge of rock’n’roll, and also, importantly, American Arts and Letters.

Dylan’s role as a quintessential American artist is one of the key elements in why, even had the Beatles and Stones secretly gone to work in some cottage in the Cotswolds, they couldn’t have produced something with the particular meaning of The Basement Tapes. What they were capable of would not have matched what Dylan was able to do in that basement with the Band.

The Beatles were fundamentally dependent on the Studio As Instrument, on a fifth member of the band, George Martin, who could leverage their capabilities and serve as midwife to their muse.  At the moment Dylan was recording The Basement Tapes, the Beatles were releasing their most influential studio album, Sgt. Peppers.  It was wholly new and original, a great work of art, and almost the polar opposite of what Dylan was doing up in Woodstock.

The Stones could play, Lord knows they proved that, but they were never in a position to tap into a native art form the way that Dylan was.  We know what the Stones would do when left to their own devices, and it was Exile On Main Street – supremely brilliant, to be sure, and yes, recorded in the factory above which at least Keith slept, so that it had the semblance of an ongoing, lazy session on the artists’ own terms.

But that studio was a basement in a rented estate in Villefrance-sur-Mer, in the elegant south of France, and in addition to Keith’s kilos of smack, they brought along a state-of-the-art recording truck and their producer, Jimmy Miller.  They just moved the studio to more comfortable surroundings.  And while Exile is an homage to the American blues and rock’n’roll they absorbed every bit as thoroughly as a cotton ball sucking up liquefied heroin, the Stones were always separate from the musical idioms they mastered by the cultural distance of being born on the far side of the Atlantic.  They could play the blues beautifully, but they couldn’t embody them, if only because they were white guys from London.

When by the early summer of 1967, Dylan remained upstate in Woodstock to record a masterpiece of Americana in the basement rented by his Canadian sidemen, the artificial, invented character of “Bob Dylan” was returning to authentic roots. The Bob Dylan whose persona conquered Greenwich Village and the folk movement and eventually pop culture — as completely as Bucky Wunderlick is said to have done – he was musically returning to the heart of the heart of the country and a song book he knew from memory.

When messing around on “Big River,” the Johnny Cash song, Dylan hollers out this verse so delightfully:

I met her accidentally in St. Paul (Minnesota).

And it tore me up every time I heard her drawel, Southern drawl.

Then I heard my dream was back Downstream cavortin’ in Davenport

And I followed you, Big River, when you called.

 Robert Zimmerman knew from geographic proximity what it was like to cavort in Davenport.  If the Stones had sung that – if Mick had sung that – it would have been fun, but it would have been an act.  When Dylan sang that, the artist who invented everything about himself including his name was as authentic as he had ever been.  Our theory is The Basement Tapes was Dylan returning to himself, after his art had created fame that might have killed him. It is the most authentic, true music he made in the 1960s.  And much of it has never been heard, until now.

Robbie Robertson, learning from Dylan, would come to channel in his songwriting that same timeless evocation of American folk, country, and blues storytelling.  The marriage of Dylan and the Band was a perfect match of musicians, singer, songwriter, and recording conditions: unhurried, unpressured, unwitnessed joy in musical storytelling taking place in a basement, hidden from the world.

Dylan stepped off the Dexedrine-fueled hamster wheel in a manner the Beatles couldn’t.  For an ambitious young man who had had producers assigned to him and musicians he barely knew show up for sessions his record company arranged in the high-pressured theater of a New York studio where the explicit desire was for hits… well, sitting around a basement on a summer’s afternoon, with no supervision, no deadline, playing music written with seemingly a remote expectation it would be released into that howling wind of fame from which he’d just escaped, with the musicians themselves in charge of “the studio”… it was an assertion of artistic control to play timeless music outside of time itself.

Dylan snuck away to do what he wanted to do, and with no pressure on him to do something great, he actually created some of the greatest work… the greatest writing, the greatest music… in American art.

The jacket copy to Invisible Republic, Greil Marcus’ fascinating, if over the top, book on The Basement Tapes, calls it “secret music, never intended for release.”  But we don’t quite believe that.

We have come to accept, and this is confirmed in Uncut’s magisterial recounting of the many things in play when Dylan made The Basement Tapes, that at least some of the songs were written and recorded with an eye toward publishing them – either with him recording them again more formally at a later date, or as song demos created to fulfill the implicit demands of Albert Grossman, his estranged manager, and the business interests dependent on new Dylan product.  The guy was as big as the Beatles, and when he went flying off that motorcycle, so went the economic fortune of record label, publishing house, and the apparatus propping up, and living off, Dylan’s fame.  So there must have been at least an unconscious desire to create music that was, in some way, usable.

You don’t write songs as gnarled and ambitious as “Too Much Of Nothing” intending to let them never be heard outside of the basement of a pink-colored house in the hills. But then you don’t write a song as funny as “Clothes Line Saga” thinking it would get the radio play of “Like A Rolling Stone.”

The next day everybody got up
Seein’ if the clothes were dry
The dogs were barking, a neighbor passed
Mama, of course, she said, “Hi!”
“Have you heard the news?” he said, with a grin
“The Vice-President’s gone mad!”
“Where?” “Downtown.” “When?” “Last night”
“Hmm, say, that’s too bad!”
“Well, there’s nothin’ we can do about it,” said the neighbor
“It’s just somethin’ we’re gonna have to forget”
“Yes, I guess so,” said Ma
Then she asked me if the clothes was still wet

 The summer of 1967 was, let us not forget, The Summer of Love.  But even though he was a folk hero to the bands in San Francisco, woodshedding up in Woodstock he was a world away.  Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band would be released that summer, and so would The Velvet Underground with Nico.  And there was Dylan with the Band, channeling the voices, as Marcus points out, of obscure folk musicians from the turn of the century.

A missing piece of the American story will be released on Tuesday, 138 songs – originals and covers, completed masterpieces as well as fragments. Thinking of history’s widest angled lens, of course these songs would not be released in their entirety until now; the story of The Basement Tapes, their long path to our being able to examine them in quasi high fidelity, depends upon the circuitous route they took to getting here.

This will be viewed as heresy by many, but we actually think The Basement Tapes, as we have grown to know them over the past 40+ years via bootlegs and the roughly ten percent that has been released officially, comprises one of three distinctly great segments of Dylan’s entire career.  The first segment of greatness was the trio of records released in 1965 and 1966 – Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde On Blonde.  The next segment is The Basement Tapes.  It would be 30 years before Dylan would again ascend these heights, when with Time Out Of Mind, Love And Theft, and Modern Times, he redeemed all that had been missing in the uneven albums since.

If I had to choose only one of the three to take to a desert island, it would be The Basement Tapes.  And there are at least 30 songs among them that, starting Tuesday, I will hear for the first time.

And you wonder why I am so excited.

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