Three scenes from The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s documentary concerning The Band’s final concert, held at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom on Thanksgiving Day in 1976:
1. The five members of The Band are sitting around. Scorsese asks why, when they first started playing together as The Band, why they shied away from publicity. Garth Hudson answers: “That was just part of a lifestyle that we got to love in Woodstock. We got to like it, you know. Being able to chop wood or hit your thumb with a hammer. We’d be concerned with fixing the tape recorder and fixing the screen door, stuff like that, getting the songs together.” “We always seemed to get a whole lot more done when we didn’t have a lot of company around. We were more productive,” agrees Rick Danko. “And as soon as company came, of course, we’d start having fun. You know what happens when you have too much fun.” Everyone laughs. It’s a knowing laughter; unclean and full of their raucous shared past.
2. Richard Manuel, Danko, and Robbie Robertson are on beat up old couches under a rusting sign bearing the word “DIXIE” and they run through a ramshackle rendition of the traditional tune “Old Time Religion.” After the song, such as it is, falls apart, Roberston chuckles and says smugly (Manuel and Danko are visibly drunker than he is), “Aw, it’s not like it used to be.”
3. The film ends with its All-Star Cast (Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, and more) spanning the length of the stage at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, singing Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.” At this point the song was well known. It had been the final track on The Band’s first album, Music from Big Pink but, as Greil Marcus wrote, it was “almost unbearable in its ’70s incarnation as a pious, ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ mass-concert closer.”
The song as it appeared in these cases lacked all the sad subtlety and doubt of its original form, a form that predates Music from Big Pink. The song originated in upstate New York in the summer of 1967, during months of private sessions held by Dylan and The Band. Hours of recordings were made by Hudson, which came to be known as The Basement Tapes. In the annals of popular American music, few sets of recordings can rival them for widespread mystery and allure. Now, at long last, after decades of bootlegs, writings, and rumors, Columbia Records has officially released them all.
Having retreated to an idyllic rural setting following the legendarily tumultuous world tour of 1965-1966 and recovering from a motorcycle accident, Bob Dylan turned his back on touring, agreeing to use his time off to write some songs to fulfill contractual obligations. The group he’d toured with was named The Hawks—a wild, well-oiled band of young rock and rollers who took their name from former front man Ronnie Hawkins. All but one (drummer Levon Helm) were Canadian and all but one (the ancient 28-year-old polymath Garth Hudson) were in their early 20s, and all of them had played professionally since they’d sprouted pubic hair. Helm jumped ship from the Dylan tour amidst the chorus of booing crowds, and Dylan asked the remaining Canadians to come help him out upstate during his respite period. These sessions, which took place primarily in the basement of a Saugerties house known as Big Pink, provided a remote and relaxed situation where Dylan would reinvent himself as a songwriter and performer, and his collaborators would call Helm back to the fray and transform themselves into The Band. Some of the songs were recorded by other artists as planned, and The Band performed some on Music From Big Pink, but the recordings themselves were either publishing demos or clandestine experiments and were never meant to be heard. But the 14-song acetate used for publishing purposes began to circulate, nudging open the door to the basement in Saugerties and letting some of its weird magic start to leak out.
By decade’s end there appeared a shoddily-produced double LP set in a white sleeve with the words Great White Wonder stamped on the front. It was the first real rock bootleg of any consequence, now widely credited with starting the rock bootleg industry as we know it. The records featured a smattering of unreleased Dylan material, including some tracks from Summer ’67, known then as The Basement Tape—singular. These songs quickly became a holy grail of sorts for Dylan fans, countless other bootlegs were produced, and The Basement Tapes entered into the peculiar cultural space they’ve occupied for the past four decades; somewhere between legend and contraband, between the unheard and, if you knew the right people, the relatively easy to hear. They acted, and were treated, like drugs. Greil Marcus again: “In early ’68, this guy calls me up, and we do the equivalent of a dope deal except there’s no money involved. He surreptitiously hands me this cassette and says ‘Don’t tell anyone where you got this.’ And I take it home and listen to it and call up all my friends and they come over and we all listen to it completely awestruck.” In June of that year Jann Wenner wrote a famous cover story-plea in Rolling Stone titled “Bob Dylan’s Basement Tape Should Be Released.”
In 1975 Columbia caved (The Band’s career needed a boost, too) and released a double LP set called The Basement Tapes, containing a mixture of genuine Basement Tapes and material recorded by The Band in ’75 that were dressed down to sound like Hudson’s murkily-recorded 2-tracks. Two of the best-known songs from the original sessions, “I Shall Be Released” and “The Mighty Quinn,” didn’t even appear on the set, and no one was under any illusions that this was everything. But it was a great record and got the material in wider circulation than it’d previously been.
In the mid-80’s two double LP sets appeared, attributed to Blind Boy Grunt & The Hawks (apparently compiled by an ex-roadie), spilling piles of new tracks, confirming the general suspicion that the ’75 Columbia release was just the tip of the iceberg. The early ’90s saw a five-CD bootleg called The Genuine Basement Tapes, compiling what by now amounted to over 100 tracks—later re-bootlegged as the four-CD A Tree with Roots with improved sound. These recordings became the basis for two full-length book studies: Greil Marcus’s marvelous, fiery, poetic, digression-ridden Invisible Republic (which would, in appropriately confusing Basement Tapes manner, be republished as The Old, Weird America) and Sid Griffin’s Million Dollar Bash, a book heavy on facts yet light on insight and style.
The Basement Tapes are part of every serious discussion of Dylan’s career—they tend to come up almost immediately. At this point there’s been so much written about them it’s nearly impossible (and utterly fucking tedious) to read it all. Part of their appeal lies in the fact that they’re tailor-made for the depraved psychology of the collector—a baffling and fairytale-like set of recordings by widely popular artists for whom many fans feel a guardedly personal affection—thus their lives as constantly bootlegged totems offering a fleeting, kaleidoscopic vision of truth has continued to be so fertile and persistent. The proverbial cat has been halfway out of the bag for a long time.
But now it’s all the way out. It’s all above board. It’s all legal. No more trips to strange towns to ask for the box of “collector’s records” behind the counter, no more meeting on the street corner to hand someone a tape in return for some other tape. No more overpriced gambles on records that look great but might sound horrible (we still buy them for the covers). No more wincing as you click a possibly shady download link. It’s available. If you want it, you save up for it and you buy it.
The presentation is gorgeous. The box contains two hardcover books, one containing the CDs and liner notes and another full of archival materials and photographs. There are full-color representations of the original tape boxes and reels, unseen images from both the summer of ’67 and the Fellini-esque photo shoot for the cover of the ’75 Columbia release. Clinton Heylin offers a hilariously labyrinthine description of the various bootleg iterations and which reels were accessed for which version, Sid Griffin gives the basic history of the sessions with an annoying insistence that their importance is evidenced primarily by their influence on Alt-Country and Americana, and Jan Hurst gives his account of the painstaking process of cleaning up the original tapes for release. The sound is head and shoulders above any prior manifestation, and over 30 never-bootlegged tracks are included.
For all the cleaned up sound, massive amounts of documentation, and loving presentation, it’s the sequence of this new collection that marks its most revealing departure from the rest of what’s ever been available. Previous collections, no matter how meticulous, have been grouped in all kinds of different ways, but now the tracks are sequenced in more or less the order in which they were recorded. Since they were never meant to be heard by anyone and because, as Marcus would recognize, they represent a laboratory of sorts (“No, a conspiracy,” Robertson fired back), The Basement Tapes gain their cumulative power from their documentary insight into the process behind bodies of work much of the culture now accepts as iconic. Here they exist as more than a collection of moments; they open up now and unfold as a narrative arc.
The early discs comprise a number of covers—“You Win Again,” “I Forgot to Remember to Forget,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I’m in the Mood,” and on and on. The boys know each other so well that they start pushing each other around, using these old songs as not only ways to find new voices, but also as templates for having fun, for real playing. Pockets are found and filled, gaps are welcomed, laughter ensues. Bobby Charles’ “See You Later, Alligator” becomes “See You Later, Allen Ginsberg.” On “Baby, Ain’t That Fine” you can almost hear their fingers smiling as they play. Dylan starts to throw in some originals. “Under Control” is a driving, dangerous blues which allows Robertson’s guitar to sting like a bumblebee falling down the stairs. “I’m Your Teenage Prayer” is simultaneously sentimental and irreverent, a template for what the crux of the sessions were about: song forms as both pools of study and objects of reverence which might open up oceans of possibility.
Most magnificent of these early originals is “Tiny Montgomery,” the first example of The Basement Tapes really finding their feet. The song takes on a personality all its own, living on its own terms. Tiny Montgomery (a name that sounds like a euphemism for a small penis) is a character of unexplained mythological proportions. Everyone’s heard of him, and all anyone has to do to get what they want is mention his name. The action in the song is vague, all cause-and-effect without any sense of what is happening or why. Garth Hudson’s organ whirls like a celestial carnival. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, unbelievably strange, and full of all the confidence that comes with not being watched or heard—like a teenager lip-synching in the mirror when no one’s around.
The set’s alchemical sparkle comes to full fruition on the next two discs; breathtaking explorations of the boundless pleasure and bottomless sorrow found in the strangeness of old music. The songs dive eagerly into the cracks in the sidewalk of American music. Dylan and The Band saw old songs not as relics to be revered, but as open fields for adventure. They had such comfort with one another that they developed an internalized shared vocabulary, and they rushed through the swinging doors of their clubhouse saloon into a land of their own making. The songs they crafted to fit this place are peerless: “Million Dollar Bash,” “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread,” “Crash on the Levee,” “Too Much of Nothing,” “Quinn the Eskimo”— songs now such a part of the popular rock lexicon that it boggles the mind to think that they were recorded at such lightening pace by a group of people in their mid-20s goofing off in the hills. “Lo and Behold!” speaks volumes with little more than a loping piano-driven rhythm, tentative harmony vocals, and vague lyrics full of painful historical implication. The three takes of “Nothing Was Delivered” pump along with “Blueberry Hill”-like enchantment. “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” morphs from a weird burst of accidental surrealism into the catchy song The Byrds would make popular.
The three versions of “Tears of Rage” are so heartbreaking, each highlighting the varying levels of the song’s world-weary sadness. The third take was what The Band would use as the model for their own version as the opening track on Music from Big Pink. In that moment it charged from Richard Manuel’s throat like a steamroller while the music thumped funereally alongside him. The performance remains startling, perhaps the best example of the gift Manuel had for filling a song with oceans of feeling it never knew it had. But as Dylan sings The Basement Tapes version, it’s more ominous, less directly definable, and scarier.
To hear “Sign on the Cross” in this context pulls the absurdity of its previous unavailability into sharp focus. Perhaps the ultimate example of the oft-stated adage that Dylan’s records were as interesting for what they contained as what was left off of them, the song is a powerhouse, a magnificent gospel-tinged meditation so far-reaching as to encapsulate just about everything there is to meditate upon. What’s more, it’s only a sketch — mumbled half-words and slack-jawed syllables often take the place of actual phrases, but the performance is so strong and so supernatural that one has to wonder if the reason that they never took it any further comes from a shared sense that it may never get any finer. It’s the kind of magic that can’t, and probably shouldn’t, be replicated.
“I’m Not There,” baring the portentous and unexplained parenthetical subtitle “1956,” is the pinnacle of the entire enterprise. One of the most-discussed of all Dylan outtakes, it’s a startlingly oblique dirge, a sometimes-wordless moan of a place beyond despair and regret. “I’m not there/I’m gone,” runs the refrain, each use taking on a more difficult-to-grasp set of implications. “I wish I was there beside her but I’m not there, I’m gone.” The last is the worst: “I wish I was there to help her but I’m not there, I’m gone.” The song is obvious only in that it clearly follows a tragedy so great that the narrator has been left without reason, without language, and without recourse but to sing this horrible song. The “1956” only adds to the terror. What happened then? We see whatever it is through a broken-hearted noir fog. There is no other song like it anywhere.
And they were recording so fast they acted like nothing had happened, just moving on to more songs. The fifth disc provides a wealth of tracks which have eluded even the most ruthless collectors. It opens with “Blowin’ in the Wind,” perhaps the song most flattened in meaning from Dylan’s messiah-like rise to fame in the early ’60s. There’s no ostensible reason, especially given his desire to get away from it all, that this would be something he would try. But he does, and it’s a testament to the integrity of the song itself and the relationship between the players that it works so well. This song, which should for all intents and purposes be worn out beyond belief, is suddenly full of life and vitality, its meaning changed by virtue simply of the attitude with which it’s performed. They’re so loose and so confident that the song sheds its sincere popular meaning completely, turning instead inward. At this point no one on earth would have thought of giving such a reading. All the joy of the so-called blasphemy of the electric sets from the ’66 tour is here, but no one is around to boo—the performance is joyous rather than defiant, more like looking at a sunrise than looking down from a tightrope.
On “One Too Many Mornings,” a song they’d played to death and with all the fury in the world on their tour, Manuel takes the first verse. It’s as tentative a vocal as he’d ever produce, and it’s a shame in a way that he didn’t take the whole song. But Dylan swoops in on the second verse and the song takes on a life different than it ever had before, somewhere between its original recording and the bombast of the tour version. “It Ain’t Me, Babe” is here as well, one of Dylan’s many explicitly self-guarded manifestos of independence.
If anything, the fifth disc acts as an extended coda. They’re back to covers and traditional numbers. “Minstrel Boy” is a spectral lament aided immeasurably by the audible backing vocals of Levon Helm. “Ain’t No More Cane” would appear as one of the ’75 faux-Basement Tapes tracks by The Band, but would more memorably surface with the release of the film Festival Express, as a geeked-out, drunk Danko leads an in-motion sing-along of the song with Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia, and Bob Weir.
A “bonus disc” rounds the set out, full of crumbling, aging tapes deemed of historical interest only. Robertson said at one point that The Basement Tapes were like field recordings, a quality which gets to stretch itself out here at the end. The roominess of these performances and their extremely poor fidelity only add to the mysterious pleasure of having the full recordings laid out. One listen to the ramshackle rendition of the traditional tune “Hallelujah, I Just Been Moved” proves Robertson’s smug “not like it used to be” claim emphatically wrong. The Basement Tapes, in all their transcendent oddity and unabashed looseness show that, in a way, that’s exactly how it used to be.
No matter which version you encounter, listening to The Basement Tapes is akin to coming across an old box of photographs in the back of a closet. As one flips through the dusty, faded images, memories are reinforced (or, more likely, created), associations are drawn, and stories start to emerge. The Basement Tapes have changed hands for decades in various incarnations, helpless recordings subjected to constant analysis and interpretation. Along the way they’ve accrued and shed meaning, they’ve shifted their shapes, they’ve expanded and contracted. Countless fans have poured their dreams into them, only to have the recordings change form again and elude them. It’s a mistake to treat this official box set as the definitive, nail-in-the-coffin story. It’s a new presentation with more muscle as far as sound quality, ephemeral documentation, and completeness goes, but it can’t be seen as The Basement Tapes themselves. The Basement Tapes are an amorphous historical force, more an idea or a feeling than a set of songs or certainly anything we could call a record.
The fallout from these things is incalculable. The first two Band albums and Dylan’s John Wesley Harding would be enough, but this official release reinforces just how much the culture is still gasping at The Basement Tapes, each inspired artist or lonely fan still trying desperately to find a similar freedom in their own lives. It’s an expansive, fly-on-the-wall document that allows the listener to peer into process in an unparalleled way, a snapshot growing ever more faded, full of historical wonder.
What we’re dealing with is a living myth. This set presents as full a picture of this music as we’ll probably ever get, but it remains unable to actually put a period on a sentence that’s been running on for nearly 50 years. A bit of the mystery has been peeled back, perhaps, but the mystique only grows. No one can tell the story of The Basement Tapes. They are their own story, and now they can tell that story on their own terms, holding a fuzzy mirror up to our everyday lives and asking what exactly we’re doing with them.■
About the Author
Matt Krefting is a writer and musician based in Holyoke, Massachusetts. He is a regular contributor to The Wire and Bull Tongue Review. Chapbooks of his work have been published by Kendra Steiner Editions and Glass Eye Books. Another Night on the Town, a collection of his poems with drawings by Belgian artist Dennis Tyfus, was published in 2014 by Ultra Eczema.
He formed the long-running experimental trio Son of Earth with Aaron Rosenblum and John Shaw in 2000, played bass in The Believers, and performs with Idea Fire Company and Orchid Spangiafora. He performs regularly in the United States and Europe. His music has been released by Open Mouth, Ultra Eczema, Ecstatic Peace!, and Kye, among others.