Homemade Magic

Digging the Gold in Dylan’s ‘Basement’

A new complete set of the music recorded by Bob Dylan and The Band on ‘The Basement Tapes’ shimmers with the infectious pleasure they took in making these classic songs.

Wikimedia Commons

When I was a freshman in college in 1970, the most sought after record album was not even officially an album. The Great White Wonder, a rather random collection of unreleased Bob Dylan songs (the first bootleg record ever!) was owned only by those with a connection to some underground source or some record store willing to do a little under-the-counter business. I never owned a copy but I knew people who did, and we spent hours in dorm rooms trying to decipher what was on it.

The selections included on that first bootleg were clearly Dylan songs, but there was no rhyme or reason to their inclusion—and certainly no liner notes or recording information. Some seemed to date from his purely folkie days. A few were rock songs of roughly the same vintage as Highway 61 or Blonde on Blonde. And then there were all these gnomic, murky-sounding songs that could have been played by hillbillies on acid—the audio quality throughout was awful, probably because these versions were copies of copies of copies, but for whatever reason it was like listening to a record being played on the other side of a freeway. As we all know now but almost no one knew then, these were songs culled from what would come to be called The Basement Tapes, the dozens of songs recorded in living rooms and basements in Woodstock by Dylan and the musicians who would soon become The Band.

This is all but impossible to explain to people today, when you can Google anything about everything, but the ’60s and ’70s were an era when there was entirely too little information and entirely too much time, which is usually a recipe for conspiracy theories but not much else, e.g., Paul is dead. Back then, mystery and misinformation were the coins of the realm. So while the poor sound quality was aggravating, it was also a signal of some weird legitimacy. This was the real deal, we wee Dylanologists told ourselves, this was pure…what? Well, we never got that far. But none of that stopped us from spending countless hours deciphering lyrics, pondering the provenance of all this music, spinning endless fantasies about what Dylan intended in these spooky songs that sounded as though they’d sprung full blown from the ether.

What no one has ever explained to my satisfaction is why Columbia, which busily prosecuted the bootleggers, never realized that the easiest way to forestall the illicit releases was to put the music out as a legitimate release. (Subsequent bootlegs would prove that the sound wasn’t all that bad in a lot of instances—crude, yes, but not all that different from the stripped-down sound on, say, John Wesley Harding.) Yes, there was the official 1975 release The Basement Tapes, but welcome as it was, it was always a half-measure—cleaned up, overdubbed, truncated.

The 1975 release did prove one thing: The songs and the performances were wonderful. Clearly there was a trove here worth mining. But aside from a cut here and there released on Dylan’s official “bootleg” series over the years, the good stuff stayed locked up.

Now, almost 50 years late, Columbia/Legacy has finally done the right thing and commercially released a luxurious boxed set containing all the music recorded by Dylan and The Band and known (practically since its inception) as the Basement Tapes. The Basement Tapes: Complete (The Bootleg Series Vol. 11) contains 148 cuts on six CDs and is slipcased with two books containing lots of pictures from the Basement Tapes/Big Pink period and copious annotation on the creation of the songs and how they were recorded. With no overdubs and only a little rechanneling to center the vocals, this is pretty much the music Dylan and The Band would have heard when they played back what they’d just recorded in 1967 and 1968.

I don’t know how much more there is to say about these songs. Sometimes it seems like every blessed soul who’s interested in this music even a little bit has written about it already, and some have written wisely. Let it suffice that the Basement Tapes contain some of the best songs that Dylan ever wrote. Beyond that, I don’t think the world needs another take on “Nothing Was Delivered” or “I Shall Be Released,” or more musing about Dylan’s state of mind after the motorcycle accident that left him laid up in Woodstock in 1966.

What interests me is the sound or, a little more precisely, the atmosphere that pervades the cuts included on the new boxed set. The recording quality varies from reasonably good to something that sounds like it was recorded not even in a basement but a closet or maybe a phone booth—“One Man’s Loss” sounds like it was recorded with The Band in the basement and Dylan out in the backyard. But the atmosphere, that’s something else: Everyone here sounds loose and relaxed but intent. This is the ragged but right sound of music made among friends on the porch, in the parlor, down in the basement.

As Band guitarist Robbie Robertson says in Million Dollar Bash, Sid Griffin’s illuminating book about these recordings, “The Basement Tapes refers to the basement there at Big Pink, obviously, but it also refers to a process, a homemade process. So some things we recorded at Bob’s house, some things we recorded at [Band member Rick Danko’s house]…we were here and there, so what it really means is ‘homemade’ as opposed to just a single location in a formal studio.” These musicians are as good as musicians get, but the feeling that flows between them is not just the property of pros and geniuses. It belongs to everyone who’s ever drawn pleasure from playing music with other people.

All of the musicians who participated in these sessions agree that the music was made with no thought that it might ever be released to the public. If that’s true, then all I can say is, more musicians should record with that mind-set. Because the music here is so free, so joyous, so relaxed that all its pleasures are instantly communicable.

By the time he recorded the Basement Tapes, Dylan was plainly weary of always having to play the smartest man in the room as a professional obligation. At this point, he became Tom Sawyer, letting his musical compatriots—and the folk tradition—help paint his musical fence.

This was not laziness but the acknowledgment that some of the greatest music is collaborative (Duke Ellington without his orchestra was just a good piano player with a lot of sheet music). The high points of Dylan’s career for me are the magpie moments in the late ’60s and the late ’90s, when he consciously, forthrightly began incorporating phrases and forms from other, older songs, a kind of blurring and borrowing common in traditional music: Did John Hurt write “Casey Jones”? Did Furry Lewis? Even if it didn’t matter, would you be without either version? The point is, the 12-bar blues, the Child ballad, the children’s rhyme, all these forms and the lyrics that their makers, and makers before them, have swapped and traded, all these things are the rack upon which Dylan hangs his hat, the well he drinks from, the larder he pilfers from with the clean conscience of a man who knows he will always return whatever he’s borrowed with a measure added.

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The highest compliment you can pay the Basement Tapes songs is to say they stand on their own. They may be the product of a strong personality, but they do not depend in any way on the cult of personality for their power. For me at least, the singer and the songs on Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited are indivisible. It’s always jarring when I hear other people do those songs. The Basement Tapes songs are certainly no less idiosyncratic than any songs in the Dylan songbook, but they do wear, albeit lightly, the inevitability of songs plucked right out of the air, as Bill Monroe once described his creative process.

What’s illuminating about this edition of the Tapes is its expansiveness. Size really does matter in this case, if you’re going to take the measure of what happened up in Woodstock all those years ago. The double album version of the material released in 1975 contained 16 basement tapes (cleaned up, overdubbed, and rendered into mono to make them sound—what? Antique? Authentic?) and eight songs by The Band by itself, including material not recorded until the mid-’70s. And as for the Dylan/Band songs, the 1975 album collected only the most finished songs, and not even all of those (no “Mighty Quinn,” no “I Shall Be Released”). These were the demos of material Dylan wrote at his manager’s request, songs intended for licensing to other groups.

The expanded song list on the new boxed set reveals there was considerably more going on. Lots of time and tape were expended on covers of everything from “People Get Ready” to “She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain.” It’s just jamming on old stuff, a way to have fun while finding a style comfortable for everyone to work in. (This is what Self Portrait should have sounded like.) After all, this music was nothing like the hard-charging and very loud rock the same musicians had played when they were Dylan’s touring band in 1966.

This was music that had to be crept up on, music to be learned from the ground up. And it had to be quiet, as Robertson points out: “One of the things is that if you played loud in the basement, it was really annoying, because it was a cement-walled room. So we played in a little huddle: if you couldn’t hear the singing, you were playing too loud.” But the softness, the muted quality in turn became an aesthetic.

Even the covers are worth hearing twice over: first, because they’re good songs and so’s the playing, especially the chalk and cheese interplay of Robertson’s barbed wire guitar and Garth Hudson’s organ playing that floats somewhere between funeral-parlor baroque and bouncy-castle calliope; and second, because you can hear a sound being born, a sound that would define The Band in the years to come but which also helped nurture the very songs Dylan was writing at the time.

I wish more music were recorded like this (not all music—there is always room for a Brian Wilson, if he’s as talented as Brian Wilson). These songs make the strongest argument possible for forsaking the “finish fetish” and leaving in all the parts that producers cut out—false starts, multiple takes, spontaneous laughter, the moments where everybody finds a groove, and the moments where you can hear the musicians being as amazed as you are at what you’re hearing. The pleasure in these grooves is as palpable today as it was in 1967.

In a 1969 interview with Rolling Stone, Dylan put it succinctly: “That’s really the way to do a recording: in a peaceful, relaxed setting. In somebody’s basement. With the windows open...and a dog lying on the floor.”

You do wonder, though, why he never again tried his own wonderful recipe.