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Bob Dylan and the Band: The Basement Tapes

by Mick Gold

From the UK magazine Let It Rock, September 1975.
Published with permission from the author.
The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.

On Blonde on Blonde, Dylan gave us his metaphysical, amphetamine dreams from some smoke-filled apartment in midtown Manhattan. OnJohn Wesley Harding, he synthesized a timeless landscape out of Biblical parables and images of the American frontier, and used this Invented countryside as a location for fables about guilt and innocence, heroes and villains, landlords in power and hobos on the run.

The Basement Tapes is the bridge between these two lands, recorded in April 1967, about eight months after Dylan and the Band had pulled into West Saugerties in upstate New York, looking for some place to lay their heads, and discovering in the countryside, in booze, in traditional music, an antidote to urban chaos and fragmented values: 'Strap yourself to a tree with roots/You ain't goin' nowhere'.

For five years, fourteen of Dylan's Basement songs have been widely available via bootleg recordings, and over these five years I came to feel that these songs possessed more power than all Dylan's other 'illicit' recordings added together. The out-takes fromHighway 61 Revisited provide fascinating insights into Dylan's image association techniques, and theAlbert Hall recording of 1966 is just unbeatable as a moment in rock history, the sound of Dylan, driven by both superstar arrogance and by the bleak vision that was devouring him, transforming his songs into something truly maniacal and threatening.

The Basement Tapes add up to a cohesive album: a comprehensive record of Dylan mapping out the consequences of one way of life, while simultaneously searching, desperately, for a better one. It was as if he had cut himself to pieces with his own razor-sharp mind, and, while half the Basement songs sought solace in a surrealist, hillbilly, alcoholic stupor ('Million Dollar Bash', 'Please, Mrs Henry', 'Yea! Heavy And A Bottle Of Bread'...all brought to you by the classiest juiced-up bar band in the business), the most haunting songs looked back into the abyss that Dylan and the Hawks had skated around. Echoes of Dylan's bike crash, of the crazy tours of 1965 and 1966, of a sense of betrayal and emptiness, reverberate through the songs like an obsession.

'Tears Of Rage' redressed the arrogance of youth that had impelled Dylan through his early career; the song expressed humility, experienced pain from the other side of the generation gap, and articulated the ultimate loneliness of being old and Unnecessary. 'Down In The Flood' was rooted in a whole tradition of apocalyptic blues, but added a new ethical twist. In 1927, after the Mississippi floods had left half a million people homeless, Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe recorded 'When The Levee Breaks' and sang "Oh crying won't help you, praying won't do no good/When the levee breaks, mama you got to move". Dylan's song repeated these images, but transformed the Mississippi flood into a psychic maelstrom, and added the Biblical notion that the flood was retribution for some past sin: "Now it's sugar for sugar and salt for salt/If you go down in the flood it's gonna be your fault".

The Beatles, in their most haunting song, had sung that "nothing is real", and Dylan was also thinking of nothingness as a solid commodity. Whether you interpret it as the selfishness that society encourages, as a lack of self-knowledge, or as straightforward nothingness, the most powerful moments onThe Basement Tapes were the testimony of a man who had finally looked beyond the hyperverbal, neurotic, urban world of Blonde On Blonde, and seen that people could be destroyed by their own children ('Tears Of Rage'), by the roles. they were encouraged to play ('This Wheel's On Fire'), by the values they were encouraged to pursue ('Nothing Was Delivered'), and, ultimately, by a fear of mortality itself, 'I Shall Be Released', for me the finest of the Basement songs, which has been omitted from this CBS collection, and which is one of the reasons I feel uncomfortable about this 'authorised' version ofThe Basement Tapes.

'I Shall Be Released' is both a vision of hopelessness and liberation. The images follow one another like cryptic building blocks, constructing both an actual prison and a whole society:

They say everything can be replaced
Yet every distance is not near'
So I remember every face
Of every man who put me here.

Added to which the chorus reverses nature by seeing 'the light come shining from the west unto the east', from the land of sunset towards the sunrise, conveying the grim realisation that death is the only real release. I don't know why this song has been excluded from this album. I only know that it deprives the collection of its most masterful formalisation of the themes of foreboding, betrayal, and coming to terms with mortality -- themes which recur throughout the most moving songs on The Basement Tapes.

Instead, we are treated to a number of unfamiliar songs, most of which are fun but minor achievements. OnBefore The Flood, Dylan performed 'It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding') with a venom which made one feel one had never heard the song before. And then the Band effectively blew the atmosphere by trooping on and doing 'The Shape I'm In', It's a well constructed song, it's a competent version, but it just isn't in the same class as Dylan's performance. I feel the same about the Band's contribution toThe Basement Tapes. 'Katie's Been Gone' and 'Bessie Smith' are two more wax figures in the Band's collection of idealised, rural ladies. 'Reuben Remus' is a vague portrait of a Mark Twain style hustler, and 'Ain't No More Cane' is a trad number which possibly provided some inspiration for 'King Harvest (Has Surely Come)'.

I hate to sound so harsh about the Band, since their contribution is inseparable from what Dylan achieved at the Albert Hall in 1966, at the Guthrie Memorial Concert of 1968, and on his 1974 tour. It's just that, for me, the Band only really make it as artists on their second album; else where they've been more valuable in a supporting role, rather than as costars.

Of the Dylan numbers which are new to me, 'Goin' To Acapulco' made the most impact, laconically betraying the promise of its title with the style of its delivery: "Goin' to Acapulco, gonna have some fun" sings Dylan with all the enthusiasm of a man on his way to his fifth funeral of the week. Musically, Garth Hudson continues to stand out as the musical genie of the Band; his organ, accordion, and sax contributions display a flair for sound textures and improvisation which are a continual delight, and a welcome counterbalance to the more stolid musicianship of the rest of the group. And Greil Marcus' notes are an unexpected bonus, confirming that he is one of a handful of writers able to treat Dylan's work with both the subtlety and vitality it deserves.

If you've half an ounce of interest in Dylan, you'll already have this album. It is the missing link between the tanked-up blues band ofBlonde On Blonde and the sparse acoustics ofJohn Wesley Harding; and it is beautiful music. The high points that this album possesses -- the impression of Dylan carefully preserving his cool while pissed out of his mind on 'Please, Mrs Henry', the controlled desperation of 'This Wheel's On Fire', the eerie underwater allegory of 'Down In The Flood', the achingly beautiful singing of 'Tears Of Rage' -- are fully the equal of any of Dylan's other recorded triumphs. But still, this edition remains less powerfully focussed than the fourteen song bootleg version I already knew. By padding it out to a double album of twenty-four songs, and omitting 'I Shall Be Released', something has been lost. If you were asked whether you'd rather have Dylan's legendary, unreleased album or some out-takes from Music From Big Pink, you probably wouldn't hesitate but what do you do when you discover that they're both the same album?

© Mick Gold, 1975

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