Bob's Big Box

Bob's Big Box
As a music lover who just turned 40, I thought it was about time I explored the back catalogue of Bob Dylan, an artist I'd largely ignored previously. Right then...

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

17. The Basement Tapes (1975)

This post is a bit later than intended, for two reasons.  The first is that after I'd blogged about Blood On The Tracks I still wasn't quite ready to let go of it, so I indulged myself and carried on listening for a couple more days before finally tearing myself away and putting it back in the BobBox. The second reason for the relative tardiness of this new post is that it took me a little while to really get into this next album, but get into it I did, and so here we are at last.

The Basement Tapes were of course famously recorded with The Band, in the months following Dylan's mysterious motorbike accident. Sessions initially took place in the 'Red Room' of Bob's family home just outside Woodstock, then moved to the basement of a local house named Big Pink where the Band had taken up residence after the cancellation of some 63 tour dates planned by Dylan's manager Albert Grossman.  The sessions seemed to provide Bob with the spiritual and physical R&R he so desperately needed, but as well as playing and recording lots of old folk tunes and pop covers (teaching the Band many of the former along the way) he used the time - and inspiration - to write a number of new songs.  In these he coupled an ancient, traditional, American sound with his own free-association, stream-of-consciousness lyrics, resulting in a collection of songs which are by turns dramatic, hilarious, rocking, weird and moving, and in some cases all of these at once.  Of the hundred-plus rough and ready recordings made (you can get the lot here if you're so inclined) 16 of them made it onto this 1975 album, as well as several more tracks recorded by just The Band (some apparently as late as 1975).  By the time of it's release, a 14-song acetate produced to hawk some of the material around the labels for other artists to cover (with great success) had been widely bootlegged, which bolstered the mystique surrounding the sessions.  No doubt this contributed to the album being put out, albeit after almost eight years.

The cover photo gives a first clue to what's in store, depicting what looks like a bunch of freaks and misfits from a traveling circus, plus Bob and co., in a kind of creepy version of the Sgt. Peppers sleeve.  Dylan appears to be holding an invisible bow across a mandolin for some reason, and on the inside cover a blonde nun is perched on his lap as he gazes up at her, oblivious to the oddballs around him in the mocked-up basement, including a strongman rolling around on the floor.  Many of the characters make an appearance in the songs, of which the majority fall into three broad categories: nonsense, good-time songs; songs with a sense of yearning for salvation or the truth; and Band Stuff.

I mentioned how it took a while for me to get into The Basement Tapes; well Lo and Behold! was the first song to stick in my head, due to the (irritatingly) catchy chorus.  It belongs firmly in the nonsensical/good-time camp, sounding like an absurd drunkard's tale, including a line about buying his girl a herd of moose.  Like many of the songs here (including the even shorter Odds and Ends) it's no more than a sketch.  Many of TBT's lyrics were made up on the spot; Bob and the boys were often just goofing off, playing around and seeing what they could come up with, so words were unimportant much of the time.  By improvising as he went along, a lot of gibberish was produced, but this adds to the carefree feel and matches the sloppy playing and poor sound quality, lending the recordings an overall sense of warm, relaxed camaraderie.  My favourite is probably Apple Suckling Tree, a Froggy Went A Courtin'-style ditty almost throwaway in its delivery, with a breezy organ solo from Garth Hudson.

Levon Helm had left the '66 tour under a cloud and wasn't present for much of the Basement sessions (at one point he was employed on an oil rig).  Robbie Robertson took to the drums occasionally, but many of the tracks are drumless.  This doesn't take away any of the good-time feel from Million Dollar Bash, about a raucous do up the road where Silly Nelly tells a yarn, Jones takes out the trash and the narrator takes his 'Poh-TAY-toes' down to be mashed. What a swell party that was!  On Clothes Line Saga, Dylan delivers a deadpan laundry-based parody of Bobbie Gentrie's hit Ode To Billie Joe while the Band noodle gently in the background, and during the equally straight-faced Please, Mrs. Henry, where Dylan pleads with a landlady for hospitality, he almost loses it during the final chorus and collapses into a brief, drunken-sounding chuckle.  I disliked the repetitive Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread, with it's talk of a pus-filled nose (blee!), but loved the bonkers babble of Tiny Montgomery, even though this is the track with the poorest sound quality of all.  Here's the wonderful gobbledygook of the third verse.  Various lyric sources differ greatly - even the words in the official lyric book don't quite match up to the take used on the album - but this is what I can hear:

"Scratch your dad
Do that bird
Suck that pig
And bring it on home
Pick that drain
And nose that dough
Tell 'em all
That Tiny says hello"

Of the songs with a sense of yearning, some of them deal with a longing for the fairer sex.  In the innuendo-ridden Goin' to Acapulco the narrator talks about visiting his favourite hooker down in Mexico who knows how to put it to him "..plain as day, and gives it to me for a song".  Cheap too, eh?  This song wasn't on the demo acetate so was one of the few tracks not bootlegged.  You Ain't Goin' Nowhere is one of my favourite TBT songs, and sees the author waiting for his bride and spouting some other indecipherable stuff about Genghis Khan and strapping someone to a tree with roots.  Memorably covered by The Byrds, here Robertson overdubbed electric guitar in 1975, in my opinion unnecessarily.  This type of overdubbing was applied to several of the original tracks at the behest of Robertson, who was put in charge of compiling the 1975 double album from the old tapes.  Keyboard and drums were overdubbed on to Too Much of Nothing; I don't know what the subject here longs for, but the song has a sad wistfulness that would have been fine without the later tarting-up.

Tears of Rage is a beautiful, mournful lament from a betrayed father to his daughter.  Co-written by Dylan and Richard Manuel, and later recorded by the Band for their debut album, the chorus features some deeply emotional harmonies from Manuel and Rick Danko, and thank goodness no drums were nailed on later.  We get more beautiful vocal harmonies on the country blues of Nothing Was Delivered, where a sense of loss and a demand for truth is set to an aching melody. The Band's real value to the type of music made during these sessions is demonstrated particularly well here; their playing and their singing make the remorse and anger of the protagonist almost tangible.  The search for some kind of truth is also explored in Open The Door, Homer, on which Dylan recounts seemingly nonsensical advice from his pals Jim, Mick and Mouse, although "Take care of all your memories....for you cannot relive them" is a bit of a gem.

One of the more fully-formed songs on TBT is the cryptic drama of This Wheel's On Fire, most famously covered by Julie Driscoll with The Brian Auger Trinity in 1968. This was a Dylan/Danko co-write and Robertson added acoustic guitar overdubs in 1975 which didn't do it any harm.  The Band later recorded it themselves for their Music From Big Pink album, but I much prefer the eerie Basement Tapes version.

Apart from the short Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood) with its doom-laden blues lightened by twirling organ, this leaves us with the category 'Band Stuff'.  Of the eight songs here featuring just The Band, two were written by Dylan.  
Long Distance Operator was recorded in LA in 1968 and for me is spoiled by some particularly strangulated vocals from Manuel.  The version used here is an outtake from the Big Pink sessions.  It's clear that the bluesy Don't Ya Tell Henry, also written by Bob, is a later studio recording (from 1975 in this case) due to the tighter, more rehearsed feel, which stands out like a sore thumb despite the sound being deliberately muddied in an attempt to make it fit with the genuine basement recordings.  This method was applied to other the Band-only material, which includes a cover version of the traditional work song Ain't No More Cane (this is excellent) and five Band originals, the best of which are the sweet Bessie Smith and the gritty Yazoo Street Scandal, probably because they feature other band members than Manuel on lead vocals - I really can't understand how some people can enjoy his creaky whimpering on tracks like Orange Juice Blues (Blues for Breakfast) and Ruben Remus.

Although I like several of the Band's own songs, I do feel that Robbie Robertson took a bit of a liberty with the compilation of this album.  Over one hundred recordings were made in that basement, and yes of course many of them were no doubt unusable sketches, but was adding overdubs and later Band tracks a real reflection of what went on during those months at Big Pink? I think it would have been better if songs such as Quinn The Eskimo and I Shall Be Released had been included instead (even though live versions of these had already been released on Self Portrait and Before The Flood, respectively).

This minor gripe aside, I came to very much enjoy and appreciate The Basement Tapes, although it took me somewhat longer to get into than Bob's other albums so far.  I like the fact that we are listening to Dylan with his guard down - remember that none of the recordings were ever meant to be heard, and even the sales demos not by the public at large.  It shows him at his most unselfconscious, kicking back with friends, and this translated into a collection of songs that mixed blues, folk, country and Cajun styles, whose humour, warmth, looseness and merriment still remain some 48 years later.  While much of the pop world was putting out complex, layered psychedelia, Dylan and The Band succeeded in making out-of-time music that became timeless.


Note: Initially I got into a bit of a muddle listening to the vinyl copy of TBT, as the pressing I bought from a car boot sale (UK 2nd pressing, £3) has an altered running order from other versions.  Side 1 is just fine, but Side 2, labelled here as Record 1 Side 2 has the songs from what's correctly listed on the sleeve as Side 4.  Side 3, labelled Record 2 Side 1 has the tracks from the original Side 2 (you still with me?), and Side 4, labelled Record 2 Side 2 has what should be the songs from Side 3, i.e. beginning with Too Much of Nothing.  Nerds among you can see this pressing here, including photos of the labels:
Uber-nerds can compare and contrast various pressings here:

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