After Working Through “The Basement Tapes Complete”

The Basement Tapes Complete is such an intimate portrait of Dylan’s creative life in 1967, it feels like you are spying.  From the early sessions when he and the Band settle in by playing Johnny Cash and Hank Williams covers, to the amazing CDs 3,4, and 5, when most of the original songs we’ve long known as “the Basement Tapes” come one after another, the power of Dylan’s muse gathers momentum.  Spending most of a week immersed in it, as we have just done, is to be transported into a private world gone public, and us — finally — the better for the privilege of witnessing those Big Pink sessions.

We thought the joy from finally having The Basement Tapes Complete would lie in the word “complete” — the songs we’ve never heard, or at least only in the flat mono bootlegs we’ve plunked down money for since 1971.  Instead, honestly, the joy lies in hearing the core 14 songs that have comprised our understanding of what Dylan and the Band created, finally available in expansive, amazing stereo.  Instead of hearing “Yeah! Heavy And A Bottle Of Bread” in the compressed monotone of the official 1975 release, we can hear it in a glorious low-fi, intimate space.  We find that many of the choices Robbie Robertson made in ’75 over which takes to choose were correct.  (The exception, maybe, is that he chose the first take of “Too Much Of Nothing” over the better second take, choosing to overdub the off-putting harmonies by Manuel and Danko rather than deal with the initial flub by Dylan.  But yeah, the 2nd take is much better, as has often been claimed by Basement Tapes aficionados.)

You have to work your way through all 138 songs to really get a sense for how much joy was at work in that basement/garage near Woodstock where Dylan and the Band decamped.  How many times does Dylan crack up midway through a song, only to pull it together to quit the stoner laughter and finish?

The sequencing does not appear to be precisely sequential, but good Lord, disks 3-5 indicate that at a certain point Dylan settled into a rhythm of unparalleled creativity, with all the songs that were on the ’75 release as well as such missing evidence of genius as “I’m Not There,” “I Shall Be Released,” “Quinn The Eskimo.”

And then there are gems that we will be listening to for years: “Silent Weekend,” “Wild Wolf,” “Dress It Up, Better Have It All.”  The good news is that, for most, buying The Basement Tapes Raw — the two-disk compilation — will be sufficient.  For Dylan completists, finally having his version of Johnny Cash’s “Big River” in stereo, not to mention originals like “Get Your Rocks Off” or “French Girl” is like having Christmas presents delivered early.

The collective and individual brilliance of the Band’s playing is only matched by Dylan’s voice – allowed to shine clearly without the “raunching and rheuming” that Tom Wolfe described in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.  And importantly, without the accompaniment of harmonica.  This was Dylan working in intimate scale with one of the greatest collections of musicians on the planet, capturing originals he typed upstairs and put to music moments later in the basement, not to mention all the covers of folk songs he was teaching the R&B maestros from Ontario.

James Joyce once famously said that it took him 17 years to write Finnegans Wake and it should take the reader 17 years to read it.  It has taken 47 years for us to get these recordings in full, at a sonic level that lets us know precisely what was being accomplished as these musicians played with joy, with no sense anyone ever would be listening to them at home and in full.  This should keep us going another 47 years.

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