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The Basement Tape: Mixed Up Confusion?

by Harm van Sleen

This article first appeared in issue no.4 (spring/summer 1997) of The Band fanzine Jawbone. Reprinted with permission. Copyright © 1997 Harm van Sleen.

This is my attempt to categorize what Basement Tape songs are currently in circulation, and to determine if some of the tracks that are generally credited to the basement tape actually were recorded in Big Pink.

Now I believe that all the Dylan stuff was actually recorded in the basement of Big Pink, with exception perhaps of a few songs that, according to Clinton Heylin (in Bob Dylan: The Recording Sessions) were recorded at Bob Dylan's own home, in the Red Room. Maybe he's right; who knows? Anyway, almost every Bob Dylan song currently in circulation appears in excellent stereo quality on the terrific Genuine Basement Tapes Vol. 1-5 ed set. Only a few tracks were excluded, although they are in circulation on tape: Come All Ye Fair And Tender Ladies (a funny Dylan vocal, screeching in a high falsetto voice), Silhouettes On The Shade (I have yet to hear this; Clinton Heylin reckons it's a Dylan vocal, but it's a Band track according to Barney Hoskyns), It's Just Another Tomato In The Class (this title appears in Clinton Heylin's track listings but I haven't heard it myself or seen it on any other lists; maybe it's a different title for a familiar tune) plus various instrumentals with Dylan (presumably) on piano and harmonica.

According to Garth Hudson, every extant Basement tune is now in circulation. However it seems likely that the following tracks were also recorded at these sessions (although maybe they have been lost or erased): Wild Wolf (copyrighted in 1973; a publisher's copy of this song is very likely to exist), You Bet Your Life (mentioned in a Danko interview), Standing Around Shoeing A Horse (a lyric sheet of this song was offered to Eric Clapton in 1967), You Can Change Your Name (a lyric sheet was found in Dylan's garbage).

In addition, a few songs have been registered with the music publisher with lyrics different to those on the circulated takes. In some cases the transcription appears to have simply been done very badly (Sign On The Cross, Goin' To Acapulco, I'm Not There (1956) and Silent Weekend spring to mind), in other cases this could mean that alternate takes are in existence. This could apply to All American Boy, Bessie Smith and several other tracks. In any case it seems likely that alternate takes of most Dylan originals were recorded. Goin' To Acapulco and Please Mrs. Henry sound much to polished for first takes.

Finally a note about the bootlegs. The definitive collection must be Genuine Basement Tapes Vol. 1-5. However volume 3 of this series was erroneously mastezed in mono; it is availible in a stereo version called After The Crash Vol. 1. Also there's a small drop-out on Vol. 5 on Folsom Prison Blues that isn't on the original tapes. A few tracks on Vol. 3 are inferior quality compared to early bootlegs or the official album, particularly This Wheel's On Fire and You Ain't Goin' Nowhere. This Wheel's On Fire is also shorter than on the earlier mono tapes.

The real confusion starts with the tracks without Dylan. The first of these tapes to emerge includes the following titles: Ferdinand The Imposter, Ruben Remus, Katie's Been Gone, Orange Juice Blues, Yazoo Street Scandal. At the end of this tape there's a snatch of Ain't That A Kindness, presumably added by Garth Hudson (who reputedly got the tape in circulation) as filler material for reasons unknown. This track is certainly not performed by The Band but is nonetheless included in many basement tape tracklistings. It would seem that all these tracks come from one session. It sounds like a studio tape; this version of Orange Juice Blues was subsequently released on the Across The Great Divide box set where it was credited to The Band's demo session for Albert Grossman at Columbia Studio E on September 5, 1967; and all the tracks were included on the actual demo, according to Barney Hoskyns and Greil Marcus. Therefore I presume that the above tracks all come from the Columbia Studio demo session. Ruben Remus and Yazoo Street Scandal from this tape are the official album versions, so these weren't basement tapes at all! Indeed it has been suggested that most of The Band's songs on the Basement Tapes album weren't recorded during the basement tape sessions. Katie's Been Gone is different to the officially released take; Ferdinand is a complete version of the song and a different take compared to the one released on Genuine Basement Tapes Vol. 3. None of these tracks were ever bootlegged. Other tracks that were reputedly recorded during this session are: Little Birds, I Want To Be A Single Girl Again, You Say You Love Me, Bessie Smith*, Ain't No More Cane*, Don't Ya Tell Henry*, Long Distance Operator*. (*: Possibly the official album versions of one or more of these songs come from this demo session as well).

The next batch of non-Dylan tracks to emerge were on a tape that belonged to Richard's widow, that was released almost in it's entirety on Blind Boy Grunt & The Hawks Vol. 1 & 2. Songs that weren't included on this bootleg are: Yazoo Street Scandal (alternate take with barely audible Robbie Robertson vocal) and All You Have To Do Is Dream (short instrumental take) plus a few tracks 'that would later appear on Genuine Basement Tapes Vol. 1-5.

At the time it was thought that all the tracks came from one source, i.e. the basement tape. However it's inclusion of the backing track of the demo of Orange Juice Blues proves that the tape was a compilation of various sources. For instance, it seems unlikely that the four Tiny Tim tracks were recorded in the basement. The tracks were always intended for official release on the You Are What You Eat soundtrack, and in those days you didn't record an official album in the basement. Even Music From Big Pink was recorded in a professional studio! Also the Tiny Tim tracks sound too slick, particularly the backing vocals. These were probably overdubbed, and I don't think the Big Pink reel-to-reel was very suitable equipment for overdubbing. I assume that after recording the tracks, Richard Manuel wanted a copy for private use, and simply put it on this tape. Also, some of the instrumentals sound like backing tracks of songs, where either lead vocals were left out of the mix, or had yet to be recorded. This would indicate studio recordings too. Possibly one of these is the backing track to the elusive I Want To Be A Single Girl Again. The tape includes three finished Band songs. Ferdinand The Imposter is cut, and You Say You Love Me appears in two versions. All three songs sound like basement tape cuts, but were probably recorded when Levon Helm had rejoined the band.

The next batch of basement tape material came from Garth Hudson it is rumoured, who went through the vaults to compile material for Dylan's Bootleg Series. All these tracks appear to come from the actual basement tape sessions. The tapes include a few tracks that haven't made it onto the Genuine Basement Tapes set: Instrumental blues, Harp instrumental, Piano and harp improvisations (Dylan solo), Piano instrumental (Dylan solo), Instrumental, Come All Ye Fair And Tender Ladies, Silhouettes On The Shade.

Finally there's a rare compilation tape of Band-oddities from 1967. It starts with a collection of instrumentals, Tiny Tim cuts, and Band-tracks, all of them from the Richard Manuel tape, most of them bootlegged on Blind Boy Grunt & The Hawks (but not on The Genuine Basement Tapes). Two instrumentals that appear on Blind Boy Grunt are missing from this tape though. Most of the songs that appear next seem to come from the basement tape: Trombone instrumental (very cacophonous, reminiscent of the early Mothers of Invention), Gloria In Excelsis Deo/Banana Boat Song (this is probably the oft-rumoured Even If It's A Pig Part One), More trombone, Ruben Remus (instrumental), Beautiful Thing (two takes that sound identical; Richard solo), Orange Juice Blues (official album version minus drums, guitar and sax; these were obviously overdubbed), Katie's Been Gone (alternate version; no drums, so probably a basement tape track), Ruben Remus (backing track as on the demo and on the official album, but with a different doubletracked vocal that is reminiscent of many sixties records), Orange Juice Blues (demo version, speeded up slightly), Yazoo Street Scandal (demo version, speeded up slightly), Instrumental (alternate take, also appears on the Richard Manuel tape), Instrumental, Ferdinand The Imposter (yet another take, complete and also rather slick, this could be an alternate take from the demo session or perhaps even a Music From Big Pink outtake. I don't think it's from the basement tape).

Then there are three songs that sound totally unlike the other 1967 recordings; they sound more like Levon & The Hawks from 1965: If I Lose (God knows what this is. It's on the Genuine Basement Tapes too, but it's probably not a basement cut. It sounds like a studio recording and features Levon Helm on lead vocals. It doesn't appear on the tracklisting of their demo. It's not a Band composition - it was written by Ralph Stanley, and sounds a bit like the Levon And The Hawks single Go Go Liza Jane), Bacon Fat (incomplete) (Studio cut. Could be an early demo, or a Music From Big Pink outtake), Long Distance Operator (official album version with extra verse. This verse appeared on sheet music and the Hawks performed it with Dylan in December 1965).

So if one of these tracks sounds like a '65 Hawks single, the next was a regular in the Hawks '65 sets, and the third was written and performed by Dylan & The Hawks in 1965, isn't it likely that The Band (or The Hawks) cut these songs in late 1965, rather than 1967? They were already in the studio anyway, recording material for Blonde On Blonde.

Next on the tape, a little basement insanity: Speech + piano, Blue Moon, Banana Boat Song and Poem (this "medley" is presumably the rumoured Even If It's A Pig Part Two; the songs match Barney Hoskyns description of this song. Basically it's just madness and definitely from the basement tape).

Clinton Heylin suggests that of The Band's tracks on the official album, two were actually 1967 studio demos (these would be Ruben Remus and Yazoo Street Scandal), two were Richard Manuel solo performances from 1967 with 1975 Shangri-La overdubs (Orange Juice Blues and one other cut: Katie's Been Gone? Who has his solo version on tape?), two were actual basement recordings with Levon Helm rejoining The Band (Bessie Smith and Ain't No More Cane?) and two were 1975 Shangri-La recordings (Long Distance Operator and Don't Ya Tell Henry?).

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