Bob Dylan: The Basement Tapes – [Record 129]
The Basement Tapes is a studio album by American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan and the Band, released on June 26, 1975 by Columbia Records. It is Dylan’s sixteenth studio album. The songs featuring Dylan’s vocals were recorded in 1967, eight years before the album’s release, at houses in and around Woodstock, New York, where Dylan and the Band lived. Although most of the Dylan songs had appeared on bootleg records, The Basement Tapes marked their first official release.
During his world tour of 1965–66, Dylan was backed by a five-member rock group, the Hawks, who would subsequently become famous as the Band. After Dylan was injured in a motorcycle accident in July 1966, the Hawks’ members gravitated to the vicinity of Dylan’s home in the Woodstock area to collaborate with him on music and film projects. While Dylan was concealed from the public’s gaze during an extended period of convalescence in 1967, they recorded more than 100 tracks together, comprising original compositions, contemporary covers and traditional material. Dylan’s new style of writing moved away from the urban sensibility and extended narratives that had characterized his most recent albums, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde, toward songs that were more intimate and which drew on many styles of traditional American music. While some of the basement songs are humorous, others dwell on nothingness, betrayal and a quest for salvation. In general, they possess a rootsy quality anticipating the Americana genre. For some critics, the songs on The Basement Tapes, which circulated widely in unofficial form, mounted a major stylistic challenge to rock music in the late sixties.
When Columbia Records prepared the album for official release in 1975, eight songs recorded solely by the Band—in various locations between 1967 and 1975—were added to sixteen songs taped by Dylan and the Band in 1967. Overdubs were added in 1975 to songs from both categories. The Basement Tapes was critically acclaimed upon release, and reached number seven on the Billboard 200 album chart. Subsequently, the format of the 1975 album has led critics to question the omission of some of Dylan’s best-known 1967 compositions and the inclusion of material by the Band that was not recorded in Woodstock.
Record One. Side One.
1, Odds and Ends.
2, Orange Juice Blues (Blues for Breakfast).
3, Million Dollar Bash.
4, Yazoo Street Scandal.
5, Goin’ to Acapulco.
6, Katie’s Been Gone.
Record One. Side Two.
7, Lo and Behold.
8, Bessie Smith.
9, Clothes Line Saga.
10, Apple Suckling Tree.
11, Please, Mrs. Henry.
12, Tears of Rage.
Record Two. Side One.
13, Too Much of Nothing.
14, Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread.
15, Ain’t No More Cane.
16, Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood).
17, Ruben Remus.
18, Tiny Montgomery.
Record One. Side Two.
19, You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.
20, Don’t Ya Tell Henry.
21, Nothing Was Delivered.
22, Open the Door, Homer.
23, Long Distance Operator.
24, This Wheel’s on Fire.
Background and recording: By July 1966, Bob Dylan was at the peak of both creative and commercial success. Highway 61 Revisited had reached number three on the US album chart in November 1965; the recently released double-LP Blonde on Blonde was widely acclaimed. From September 1965 to May 1966, Dylan embarked on an extensive tour across the US, Australia and Europe backed by the Hawks, a band that had formerly worked with rock and roll musician Ronnie Hawkins. The Hawks comprised four Canadian musicians—Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson—and one American, Levon Helm. Dylan’s audiences reacted with hostility to the sound of their folk icon backed by a rock band. Dismayed by the negative reception, Helm quit the Hawks in November 1965 and drifted around the South, at one point working on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The tour culminated in a famously raucous concert in Manchester, England, in May 1966 when an audience member shouted “Judas!” at Dylan for allegedly betraying the cause of politically progressive folk music. Returning exhausted from the hectic schedule of his world tour, Dylan discovered that his manager, Albert Grossman, had arranged a further 63 concerts across the US that year.
Motorcycle crash: On July 29, 1966, Dylan crashed his Triumph motorcycle near his home in Woodstock, New York, suffering cracked vertebrae and a mild concussion. The concerts he was scheduled to perform had to be canceled. Biographer Clinton Heylin wrote in 1990 on the significance of the crash: “A quarter of a century on, Dylan’s motorcycle accident is still viewed as the pivot of his career. As a sudden, abrupt moment when his wheel really did explode. The great irony is that 1967—the year after the accident—remains his most prolific year as a songwriter.” In a 1969 Rolling Stone interview with Jann Wenner, Dylan said, “I had a dreadful motorcycle accident which put me away for a while, and I still didn’t sense the importance of that accident till at least a year after that. I realized that it was a real accident. I mean I thought that I was just gonna get up and go back to doing what I was doing before … but I couldn’t do it anymore.”
Dylan was rethinking the direction of his life while recovering from a sense of having been exploited. Nine months after the crash, he told New York Daily News reporter Michael Iachetta, “Songs are in my head like they always are. And they’re not going to get written down until some things are evened up. Not until some people come forth and make up for some of the things that have happened.” After discussing the crash with Dylan, biographer Robert Shelton concluded that he “was saying there must be another way of life for the pop star, in which he is in control, not they. He had to find ways of working to his own advantage with the recording industry. He had to come to terms with his one-time friend, longtime manager, part-time neighbor, and sometime landlord, Albert Grossman.”
Early Recordings: Rick Danko recalled that he, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson joined Robbie Robertson in West Saugerties, a few miles from Woodstock, in February 1967. The three of them moved into a house on Stoll Road nicknamed Big Pink; Robertson lived nearby with his future wife, Dominique. Danko and Manuel had been invited to Woodstock to collaborate with Dylan on a film he was editing, Eat the Document, a rarely seen account of Dylan’s 1966 world tour. At some point between March and June 1967, Dylan and the four Hawks began a series of informal recording sessions, initially at the so-called Red Room of Dylan’s house, Hi Lo Ha, in the Byrdcliffe area of Woodstock. In June, the recording sessions moved to the basement of Big Pink. Hudson set up a recording unit, using two stereo mixers and a tape recorder borrowed from Grossman, as well as a set of microphones on loan from folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary. Dylan would later tell Jann Wenner, “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.”
For the first couple of months, they were merely “killing time”, according to Robertson, with many early sessions devoted to covers. “With the covers Bob was educating us a little”, recalls Robertson. “The whole folkie thing was still very questionable to us—it wasn’t the train we came in on. … He’d come up with something like ‘Royal Canal’, and you’d say, ‘This is so beautiful! The expression!’ … He remembered too much, remembered too many songs too well. He’d come over to Big Pink, or wherever we were, and pull out some old song—and he’d prepped for this. He’d practiced this, and then come out here, to show us.” Songs recorded at the early sessions included material written or made popular by Johnny Cash, Ian & Sylvia, John Lee Hooker, Hank Williams and Eric Von Schmidt, as well as traditional songs and standards. Linking all the recordings, both new material and old, is the way in which Dylan re-engaged with traditional American music. Biographer Barney Hoskyns observed that both the seclusion of Woodstock and the discipline and sense of tradition in the Hawks’ musicianship were just what Dylan needed after the “globe-trotting psychosis” of the 1965–66 tour.
New compositions: Dylan began to write and record new material at the sessions. According to Hudson, “We were doing seven, eight, ten, sometimes fifteen songs a day. Some were old ballads and traditional songs … but others Bob would make up as he went along. … We’d play the melody, he’d sing a few words he’d written, and then make up some more, or else just mouth sounds or even syllables as he went along. It’s a pretty good way to write songs.” Danko told Dylan biographer Howard Sounes, “Bob and Robbie, they would come by every day, five to seven days a week, for seven to eight months.” Hudson added, “It amazed me, Bob’s writing ability. How he would come in, sit down at the typewriter, and write a song. And what was amazing was that almost every one of those songs was funny.”
Dylan recorded around thirty new compositions with the Hawks, including some of the most celebrated songs of his career: “I Shall Be Released”, “This Wheel’s on Fire”, “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)”, “Tears of Rage” and “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”. Two of these featured his lyrics set to music by members of the Band: Danko wrote the music of “This Wheel’s on Fire”; Manuel, who composed “Tears of Rage”, described how Dylan “came down to the basement with a piece of typewritten paper … and he just said, ‘Have you got any music for this?’ … I had a couple of musical movements that fit … so I just elaborated a bit, because I wasn’t sure what the lyrics meant. I couldn’t run upstairs and say, ‘What’s this mean, Bob: “Now the heart is filled with gold as if it was a purse”?'”
One of the qualities of The Basement Tapes that sets it apart from contemporaneous works is its simple, down-to-earth sound. The songs were recorded in mid-1967, the “Summer of Love” that produced the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, their most technically elaborate album. In a 1978 interview, Dylan reflected on the period: “I didn’t know how to record the way other people were recording, and I didn’t want to. The Beatles had just released Sgt. Pepper which I didn’t like at all. I thought that was a very indulgent album, though the songs on it were real good. I didn’t think all that production was necessary.” Of the sound and atmosphere of the basement recordings, Barney Hoskyns wrote that “Big Pink itself determined the nature of this homemade brew.” “One of the things is that if you played loud in the basement, it was really annoying, because it was a cement-walled room”, recalled Robertson. “So we played in a little huddle: if you couldn’t hear the singing, you were playing too loud.”
Mike Marqusee describes how the basement recordings represented a radical change of direction for Dylan, who turned his back on his reputation for importing avant-garde ideas into popular culture: “At the very moment when avant-gardism was sweeping through new cultural corridors, Dylan decided to dismount. The dandified, aggressively modern surface was replaced by a self-consciously unassuming and traditional garb. The giddiness embodied, celebrated, dissected in the songs of the mid-sixties had left him exhausted. He sought safety in a retreat to the countryside that was also a retreat in time, or more precisely, a search for timelessness.”
Dylan had married Sara Lownds in November 1965. By the time the basement sessions started in Big Pink around June 1967, he had two children: Maria (Sara’s daughter from her first marriage) and Jesse Dylan. Anna Dylan was born on July 11, 1967. Both Heylin and biographer Sid Griffin suggest that recording had to move from Dylan’s home to Big Pink when it became clear that the sessions were getting in the way of family life. Domesticity was the context of The Basement Tapes, as Hudson said in The Last Waltz: “Chopping wood and hitting your thumb with a hammer, fixing the tape recorder or the screen door, wandering off into the woods with Hamlet [the dog Dylan shared with the Band] … it was relaxed and low-key, which was something we hadn’t enjoyed since we were children.” Several Basement Tapes songs, such as “Clothes Line Saga” and “Apple Suckling Tree”, celebrate the domestic aspects of the rural lifestyle.
The intense collaboration between Dylan and the Hawks that produced the basement recordings came to an end in October 1967 when Dylan relocated to Nashville to record a formal studio album, John Wesley Harding, with a different crew of accompanying musicians. The same month, drummer Levon Helm rejoined his former bandmates in Woodstock, after he received a phone call from Danko informing him that they were getting ready to record as a group. In his autobiography, Helm recalled how he listened to the recordings the Hawks had made with Dylan, and remembered that he “could tell that hanging out with the boys had helped Bob to find a connection with things we were interested in: blues, rockabilly, R&B. They had rubbed off on him a little.”
Dwarf Music demos and Great White Wonder: Dylan referred to commercial pressures behind the basement recordings in a 1969 interview with Rolling Stone: “They weren’t demos for myself, they were demos of the songs. I was being PUSHED again into coming up with some songs. You know how those things go.” In October 1967, a fourteen-song demo tape was copyrighted and the compositions were registered with Dwarf Music, a publishing company jointly owned by Dylan and Grossman. Acetates and tapes of the songs then circulated among interested recording artists.
Peter, Paul and Mary, managed by Grossman, had the first hit with a basement composition when their cover of “Too Much of Nothing” reached number 35 on the Billboard chart in late 1967. Ian & Sylvia, also managed by Grossman, recorded “Tears of Rage”, “Quinn the Eskimo” and “This Wheel’s on Fire”. In January 1968, Manfred Mann reached number one on the UK pop chart with their recording of “The Mighty Quinn”. In April, “This Wheel’s on Fire”, recorded by Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger and the Trinity, hit number five on the UK chart. That same month, a version of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” by the Byrds was issued as a single. Along with “Nothing Was Delivered”, it appeared on their country-rock album Sweetheart of the Rodeo, released in August. The Hawks, officially renamed the Band, recorded “This Wheel’s on Fire”, “I Shall Be Released” and “Tears of Rage” for their debut album, Music from Big Pink, released in July 1968. Fairport Convention covered “Million Dollar Bash” on their 1969 album Unhalfbricking.
As tapes of Dylan’s recordings circulated in the music industry, journalists became aware of their existence. In June 1968, Jann Wenner wrote a front-page Rolling Stone story headlined “Dylan’s Basement Tape Should Be Released”. Wenner listened to the fourteen-song demo and reported, “There is enough material—most all of it very good—to make an entirely new Bob Dylan album, a record with a distinct style of its own.” He concluded, “Even though Dylan used one of the finest rock and roll bands ever assembled on the Highway 61 album, here he works with his own band for the first time. Dylan brings that instinctual feel for rock and roll to his voice for the first time. If this were ever to be released it would be a classic.”
Reporting such as this whetted the appetites of Dylan fans. In July 1969, the first rock bootleg appeared in California, entitled Great White Wonder. The double album consisted of seven songs from the Woodstock basement sessions, plus some early recordings Dylan had made in Minneapolis in December 1961 and one track recorded from The Johnny Cash Show. One of those responsible for the bootleg, identified only as Patrick, talked to Rolling Stone: “Dylan is a heavy talent and he’s got all those songs nobody’s ever heard. We thought we’d take it upon ourselves to make this music available.” The process of bootlegging Dylan’s work would eventually see the illegal release of hundreds of live and studio recordings, and lead the Recording Industry Association of America to describe Dylan as the most bootlegged artist in the history of the music industry.
Columbia Records compilation: In January 1975, Dylan unexpectedly gave permission for the release of a selection of the basement recordings, perhaps because he and Grossman had resolved their legal dispute over the Dwarf Music copyrights on his songs. Clinton Heylin argues that Dylan was able to consent following the critical and commercial success of his album Blood on the Tracks, released that same month: “After Blood on the Tracks, The Basement Tapes no longer had the status of a final reminder of Dylan’s lost genius”. In 1975, as well, the Band purchased Shangri-La ranch in Malibu, California, which they transformed into their recording studio.
Engineer Rob Fraboni was brought to Shangri-La to clean up the recordings still in the possession of Hudson, the original engineer. Fraboni had worked on Dylan’s Planet Waves album, with backing by the Band, and the live Dylan–Band album Before the Flood, both released in 1974. Fraboni has described Robertson as the dominant voice in selecting the final tracks for The Basement Tapes and reported that Dylan was not in the studio very often. The stereo recordings made by Hudson were remixed to mono, while Robertson and other members of the Band overdubbed new keyboard, guitar, and drum parts onto some of the 1967 Woodstock recordings. According to Fraboni, four new songs by the Band were also recorded in preparation for the album’s official release, one of which, a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Going Back to Memphis”, did not end up being included. There is disagreement about the recording date of the other three songs: “Bessie Smith”, “Ain’t No More Cane” and “Don’t Ya Tell Henry”. While Fraboni has recalled that the Band taped them in 1975, the liner notes for the reissued versions of the Band’s own albums state that these songs were recorded between 1967 and 1970. Ultimately, eight of the twenty-four songs on The Basement Tapes did not feature Dylan, several of them studio outtakes postdating the sessions at Big Pink. In justifying their inclusion, Robertson explained that he, Hudson and Dylan did not have access to all the basement recordings: “We had access to some of the songs. Some of these things came under the heading of ‘homemade’ which meant a Basement Tape to us.” Robertson has suggested that the Basement Tapes are, for him, “a process, a homemade feel” and so could include recordings from a wide variety of sources.[