Album Analysis | Bob Dylan and The Band - The Basement Tapes
The Basement Tapes are Dylan finding the roots and essential nature of traditional American music and bending it to his will whilst mired in its own temporal and musical mysteries.
The 1975 official release of The Basement Tapes, in keeping with the semi-mythical reputation of the original recordings, was mired in its own temporal and musical mysteries. Overseen by Robbie Robertson, they are part genuine exposition of lost music and part fakery. To understand them requires a meander into Bob Dylan lore.
In 1966, Bob Dylan played forty-seven shows between February and May. The tour – which spanned North America, Australia and Europe would become infamous. Dylan was booed and condemned as “Judas” by some of his folk purist fans for daring to play electrified rock and roll during the second half of the shows with his backing band, The Hawks.
At the end of that run, exhausted, he retreated to the town of Woodstock in upstate New York. On July 19th, he had an accident on his Triumph motorcycle that left him with damaged vertebrae in his neck. After six months of recuperation, Dylan’s creative drive once again left him restless. He started work on film footage from the 1966 tour for his movie Eat the Document with Howard Alk. Wanting fresh input, he invited Hawks members Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko to come help with the project, and they were joined by Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson.
Robertson moved to a house with his girlfriend while the others eventually rented a property in nearby West Saugerties that became known as "Big Pink". They set up a recording studio in the building's basement, softening the unpromising acoustic elements of cinder block walls, cement flooring and a huge boiler with nothing more than a rug, and started to play music. This "club house" atmosphere proved to be an irresistible lure to Dylan, who began to visit everyday.
The circumstances were not entirely benign: the idyllic vibe had a sharp edge of commerce to it. Grossman was starting to push Dylan to write songs and put a demo out for other singers to record, and The Hawks were on retainer so needed to justify their salaries. Grossman was also beginning to realize The Hawks could become a separate band under his management and their transition to becoming The Band began.
From May to October 1967, Garth Hudson captured close to one hundred and fifty tracks on a reel to reel tape before Dylan’s departure for Nashville to record John Wesley Harding shut the club house down. They had run through of a collection of traditional songs, a slew of new Dylan originals, some of his older songs and the nascent compositions of the Hawks.
Eventually some of these recordings leaked out and triggered the beginning of the unofficial world of the bootleg industry, first appearing on an underground album called Great White Wonder in July 1969.
In 1975, Robbie Robertson and Rob Fraboni, who had engineered Dylan’s 1974 album Planet Waves, entered an L.A. studio to enact a little revisionist history with the aforementioned tapes. The result of that collaboration is what we hear on The Basement Tapes.
The first thing to note is that out of twenty-four tracks on the album Robertson included eight of The Band performing without Dylan. Some of these were not recorded in Woodstock. Fraboni recalls three being laid down in 1975 in preparation for the release of the album, the others in New York or L.A. When challenged about this Robertson said they are all in the style of Basement recordings which he defined as “homemade”. Robertson gives us his idealized version of The Band’s contribution to the original sessions: whether for reasons of vanity or money is unclear, likely a mix of both. Regardless, as freestanding pieces they demonstrate the dexterity and development of The Band in this period, with lyrical and musical nods to mentor Dylan, and their own desire to immerse themselves in what would later be called "Americana".
The Dylan tracks are, unsurprisingly, the meat of the album. Compared to the tightly wound iconoclast of the previous year, Dylan is relaxed and clearly enjoying himself. Many of the songs stay connected to a spirit of irreverence and bawdiness wrapped in tall storytelling, populated by a cast of colorful characters and employing nonsensical wordplay.
Despite this general mood, Dylan finds time to cover larger themes of aching loss and confusion on "Tears of Rage" and ruminates on emptiness in the absence of purpose on "Too Much of Nothing". Whatever the particular gravity of a song, they are all shot through with an overriding sense of Dylan working in the company of trusted wingmen. Whether it's the shuffling beat of "Apple Suckling Tree", the gentle groove of "Please Mrs Henry", or the loping rhythm of "Clothes Line Saga", each instrument settles into its natural place in the mix.
The constant presence of Garth Hudson’s organ swirls and fills add a texture that is inseparable from Dylan’s often mellow vocals and the backup singing of Danko and Manuel. Dylan’s voice shifts in tone where required, singing deeper and leaning into a jape of a song like "Million Dollar Bash", and higher and leaning away from "Goin’ to Acapulco" where he is capturing a wistful yearning to escape to the embrace of "Rose Marie". The often simple chord structures to the songs belie a sophistication of melody that does its fair share of the lifting to create the feel of the album.
It is tempting to draw a hard line between this countrified version of Dylan and the rock star incarnation of the previous year, but beneath the masks is the same artist. Part of the movie footage that they were working on captures Dylan at his 1966 hipster peak, tousled bird’s nest hair and stick thin, outside an English pet store riffing on words from the list of services offered. He is cracking himself up.
I’m looking for a place to bathe my bird
buy my dog,
collect my clip
sell me cigarettes
and commission my bath
On "Tiny Montgomery" Dylan stifles a laugh while singing:
Scratch your dad
Do that bird
Suck that pig
And bring it on home
Pick that drain
And nose that dope
Tell 'em all that Tiny says hello
It would be a fools errand to try and import some overriding sense to this set of songs. There are themes of comings and goings, of journeys away and of staying put, but the lyrics hold on tight to their elusiveness. Beyond the music the abiding value of the album is in what it tells us about Dylan as a creative artist. The lyrics are often nonsense, sometimes made up on the fly, but Dylan is using the sessions to transition from one phase of his artistic journey to the next.
The change in Dylan on display here may seem radical but the consistency of that journey is also evident as it relates to his past and future. As he and The Hawks were busy birthing "Americana" in that basement they were doing it sitting in a circle playing quietly as the acoustics were unforgiving if the volume got too loud. Almost fifty years later Dylan would sit in a circle with another set of road tested musicians and record a different style of American music with his interpretation of the American Standards on Shadows In The Night.
Despite his reputation for shapeshifting, Dylan has always retained a deep respect for and connection to the basics as well as an uncanny ability to find the essence of whatever musical style he is exploring. The Basement Tapes are Dylan finding the roots and essential nature of traditional American music and bending it to his will, and, in turn, sprouting a new branch on that particular tree.
Listen to Bob Dylan and The Band's The Basement Tapes on Spotify here.