“The Basement Tapes” by Bob Dylan & The Band (1975)
On July 29, 1966, Bob Dylan was on the way home from visiting his manager, Albert Grossman, in the countryside near Woodstock, N.Y. He was riding on his 1964 Triumph T100, with his wife, Sara, following in a car.
What happened next remains a subject of conjecture nearly half a century later. Dylan told various people that he either hit an oil slick or was blinded by the sun. Other sources blame a mechanical problem with the bike. Whatever the case, he went down hard on the pavement, cracking a vertebra.
Rather than simply recuperate and resume his touring schedule, Dylan turned into a virtual recluse. He’d been less than well-received in many quarters since he started to add rock elements to his traditional folk-blues, with audiences on his recently concluded British tour contributing particular vitriol. Listen to the second disc of his “Bootleg Series: Vol. 6” for a taste of what he and his backing band, the Hawks, received.
So he apparently decided to lay low for a while, fueling speculation that he either was dead or close to it. Two years would pass before he released his next album, the low-key masterpiece “John Wesley Harding.” In 1969, his appearance at the Isle of Wight Festival was tremendously received by fans who thought they’d never see him in concert again. Similarly, the highlight of George Harrison’s 1971 Concert for Bangladesh was Dylan’s first live appearance in the United States in more than five years. And it wouldn’t be until 1974 that he toured again, with the Hawks – by then, renowned throughout the world as The Band – complementing him musically.
The reclusive Dylan kept busy, though. He and the Hawks got together during 1967, while the music world received the likes of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “Are You Experienced?” and “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” producing a low-key, back-to-the-roots series of recordings that ran counter to the grander explorations of the rock community at large.
“The Basement Tapes” represents Columbia Records’ distillation of those recordings, which perhaps numbered a hundred, eight years after the fact. Many of the 24 tracks on the two-record set were recognizable to listeners, either through cover versions of the Dylan compositions or tracks that the Band re-recorded for its debut album, the landmark “Music from Big Pink.” And many of the songs were recognizable because they’d been available outside of Columbia’s control for years.
“The Great White Wonder” is the name attached to what is considered as the first bootleg rock album, which surfaced in 1969. It contained a handful of songs that Dylan and the Band had cut during the 1967 sessions, along with a number of other rarities dating back to Dylan’s formative years as a musician.
At any rate, by the time “The Basement Tapes” appeared, the legend had grown sufficiently that the album went to No. 7 on the charts and drew almost unanimous critical acclaim. The dissenting voices didn’t complain about the music, per se, but about how the album was structured. Many of the original ’67 recordings were nowhere to be found, while the Band’s material given a much more prominent role, and some of those tracks had been cut relatively recently. Plus a good bit of “The Basement Tapes” had been subjected to overdubs, about which purists always complain.
Whatever the case, the finished product stands as a major document in the development and maturity of rock music, offering a series of entertaining and whimsical vignettes that examine numerous topics, often in a thoroughly obtuse manner.
The official version of “The Basement Tapes” opens with “Odds and Ends,” which may well have served as the album’s summation, if the title is any indicator. Dylan seems to acknowledge as much in the lyrics: “I’ve had enough, my box is clean/You know what I’m saying and you know what I mean.”
“Orange Juice Blues (Blues for Breakfast)” is a performance by the Band, or more accurately, composer Richard Manuel and bass player Rick Danko, who recorded the basic track in 1967. They joined with the rest of the group – Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson – to finish the track shortly before the album’s release.
“Million Dollar Bash” was familiar to fans of the British folk-rock group Fairport Convention, having appeared on that group’s third album, “Unhalfbricking,” in 1968. The song contains brilliant Dylan wordplay throughout; for example: “Well, I looked at my watch, I looked at my wrist/Punched myself in the face with my fist/I took my potatoes down to be mashed/Then I made it over to that million dollar bash.”
“Yazoo Street Scandal” demonstrates why the Band became one of the most important rock groups to emerge in the late ’60s, with the elements of songwriting (Robertson), vocal delivery (Helm) and distinctive instrumentation (particularly Hudson’s organ) putting forth the tale of a rainstorm of dubious origin set against a colorful cast of characters, including a pill-popping prostitute named Eliza.
Dylan returns for the relatively subdued “Goin’ to Acapulco,” a destination for an obvious reason: “Goin’ down to see some girl/Goin’ to have some fun.” Then the proceedings shift back to the Band for “Katie’s Been Gone,” another track that would have been right at home on one of the group’s first two albums, which made such an impact in the rock world before the end of the decade.
“Lo and Behold” is another great lyrical romp that makes the listener wonder what the hell Dylan is talking about, but can’t help enjoying the song, anyway. He invokes Pittsburgh as a train stop leading up to this gem:
What’s the matter, Molly, dear/What’s the matter with your mound?
What’s it to ya, Moby Dick?/This is chicken town!
Speculation about the Band’s “Bessie Smith” places the song as being recorded perhaps two or as many as eight years after the original sessions for “The Basement Tapes.” Critics contend in that case, it doesn’t belong on the album. But it’s a suitably melodic, melancholy number that certainly fits well within the Band’s canon of subtle storytelling.
Dylan’s “Clothes Line Saga” evokes images of neighbors hanging out, shooting the breeze, as this fanciful exchange illustrates:
“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”
It’s not know where this may or may not have occurred involving Hubert H. Humphrey …
“Apple Suckling Tree” approaches traditional folk in delivery, the lyrics notwithstanding. Again, Dylan appears to have great fun delivering words seemingly at random: “Who should I tell, oh, who should I tell?/The 49 of you like bats out of hell/Oh, underneath that old apple suckling tree.”
In “Please Mrs. Henry,” the narrator appears to be a drunken mess, imploring his landlady to take care of him in one way or another, like letting him use the bathroom: “Now, I’m startin’ to drain/My stool’s gonna squeak/If I walk too much farther/My crane’s gonna leak.”
“Tears of Rage” already was a widely known and acclaimed song because of its appearance as the leadoff track on 1968’s “Music from Big Pink.” Dylan sings “The Basement Tapes” version, an elegaic reading that conveys the anguish being felt by some elements of American society in the ’60s. And today, for that matter.
On the two-CD set currently in print, “Too Much of Nothing” opens the second disc with a haunting melody and matching lyrics: “Say hello to Valerie, say hello to Vivian/Send them all my salary, on the waters of oblivion.” Peter, Paul & Mary, whose version of “Blowing in the Wind” had shot Dylan, the songwriter, to superstardom, also covered “Too Much of Nothing” and took it to the Top 40 in 1967.
The rollicking “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread” contains lyrics that are as difficult to fathom as the title suggests. They’re a hoot, though:
Now, pull that drummer out from behind that bottle
Bring my pipe, we’re gonna shake it
Slap that drummer with a pie that smells
Take me down to California, baby
“Ain’t No More Cane” is a traditional song that the Band played at Woodstock, in between scorching blues-rock sets by Johnny Winter and Ten Years After. The recording date of “The Basement Tapes” version also is subject to much speculation and could have been done as late as 1975.
“Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood)” is based on songs about the rising of the Mississippi, with Dylan’s unique take on proceedings: “Well, it’s sugar for sugar, and salt for salt/If you go down in the flood, it’s gonna be your own fault.” The tune also was covered by Fairport Convention, appearing on the live album “A Moveable Feast.”
Manuel sings the raucous “Ruben Remus,” which may have been a “Music from Big Pink” outtake. “Tiny Montgomery” features more of Dylan’s nonsensical lyrics in a spirited romp about an ostensibly friendly fellow who may or may not be going to San Francisco.
The Byrds covered “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and made it the first track on their milestone “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” (1968). Roger McGuinn described his fascination with the song in choosing it for such a visible position: “It was country-ish and had that Dylan mystique where you couldn’t really figure what he was talking about, yet the lyrics nevertheless drew you in. … I always thought it was about when Bob was laid up in Woodstock after the bike accident and sure wasn’t going anywhere.”
“Don’t Ya Tell Henry” was written by Dylan but performed by the Band on “The Basement Tapes,” in another session possibly as late as 1975. The Band also played the song at the mammoth Watkins Glen festival in 1973, an authorized version of which was released in the mid-’90s.
“Nothing Was Delivered” also appeared on “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” with the Byrds making it the closing track in a grand arrangement featuring steel guitar runs and well-blended harmony vocals. The version on “The Basement Tapes” is much more raw, perhaps better conveying Dylan’s story of a drug deal gone bad using perhaps his most direct lyrics on the album.
“Open the Door, Homer” evokes a Count Basie song called “Open the Door, Richard” … actually, that’s what Dylan sings in the chorus. Thunderclap Newman covered the song on its sole album, “Hollywood Dream,” and Fairport Convention titled it using “Richard” on “Red & Gold.”
“Long Distance Operator” is a Dylan song that dates from the mid-’60s, but Manuel sings lead on “The Basement Tapes” version. It’s a blues song with a groove, carried musically by Hudson’s whirling organ.
“This Wheel’s on Fire” closes the album as another song that gained fame from its appearance on “Music from Big Pink,” along with the Byrds’ proto-metal version on “Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde.” The “wheel” probably refers to the one that caused all the trouble on Dylan’s Triumph.
And by extension, caused “The Basement Tapes” to come into existence.