Basement Tapes (recorded 1967; released 1975)
If The Rootabaga Stories, Carl Sandburg’s strange American fairy tales, had a soundtrack, it would be The Basement Tapes. While Rootabaga Stories are filled with characters who go by names like Gimme the Ax and The Potato-Faced Blind Man, The Basement Tapes are populated by Soft Gut and Skinny Moo. It is certainly deserving of the title of Greil Marcus’s book about these tapes – The Old, Weird America – which seems to be the first book-length study of a single Dylan album. The album started after Dylan suffered a serious motorcycle crash that sidelined him for close to a year. When he was starting to feel better, The Band came around to see him. They were still on his payroll, so Dylan decided to be productive by teaching them a lot of old, weird folk songs and having them all play and sing them together, presumably to raise Dylan’s spirits. The playing rolled into writing and over the summer of ’67 Dylan was more prolific than he was at any other time in his career. It is a shame, then, that The Band’s Robbie Robertson, given the role of executive producer, butchered the album. If memory serves, there are 74 songs recorded at the sessions with 105 separate takes. Many of them are covers, ranging from “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain” and “Flight of the Bumblebee” to songs by Hank Williams, Curtis Mayfield and Elvis. There was plenty of original material though. Despite there being very few songs at the sessions not to feature Dylan, eight of the twenty-four recordings to appear on the official album were cuts by The Band. None of them came from the Basement Tapes sessions (though, for all my griping, I must admit that they are all very good). Two of them were covers of Dylan songs, one was an old folk song and five were originals. They had all been recorded for, and then reject from, The Band’s post-Dylan albums. It may have been Dylan’s call – he had only intended for a few songs from the home-spun sessions to get out as demos. He wanted to keep the songs close to him and only relented to the record company’s pressure to release them six years after they had started being heavily bootlegged. Dylan’s call or not, the eight band cuts make this a missed opportunity. Since then “The Mighty Quinn,” “I Shall Be Released,” “Santa Fe” and “I’m Not There (1956)” have seen the light of day, but there are still at least a half-dozen classics or near-classics stuck in the vault. “I’m A Fool For You” and “All I Have To Do Is Dream” are underrated and not releasing “Sign On the Cross” is near criminal. Then you add “Get Your Rocks Off,” “I’m Your Teenage Prayer” and “Silent Weekend” and it is easy to see how a triple album of all Dylan would have still disappointed. A Tree With Roots is the most complete bootleg with the best sound from these sessions, and with four songs, two of which must come from the official album, this can’t help but be a weak offering of the riches available. Perhaps Dylan’s most American album, two of the songs seem rooted in British culture. “Tears of Rage” is based on King Lear while “Too Much of Nothing” references Valerie and Vivian, T. S. Eliot’s two wives. The culture of ex-pat Eliot may be British, but the divorce-tabloid expose of Eliot seems distinctly American in style, and for all Lear’s Britishness, Dylan sets the song on Independence Day.
Best song: Goin’ to Acapulco – Sometimes the things we like most are shaped by experiences, and Jim James cover of this for the soundtrack of I’m Not There is utterly gorgeous, not to mention the best-used song in the film. I’m 99% sure it’s about a hooker.
Worst song: Million Dollar Bash – I don’t really have anything against this song except that it lacks the swagger of similar Basement Cuts, such as “Lo and Behold” and “Tiny Montgomery,” that makes them vastly superior. This cut was chosen for 1985’s Biograph, the first major-artist deluxe box-set to mix older material with unreleased tracks, and when I got that I expected this to be a revelation having heard so much about how great The Basement Tapes were, and I remember it being kind of a let-down.
Best outtake: I’m Not There (1956) – Probably 4/5ths of the lyrics are made up on the spot, but the fumbling perfectly matches the tone of insecurity the sound creates. It is a song about unworthiness, and a beautiful love song. When Dylan gets to a line where he knows what he wants the lyrics to be – “she’s my prize-forsaken angel,” “she’s a long-hearted mystic,” “she’s gone like the rain,” “I believe that it’s rightful; I believe it in my mind” – the haze of yearning clears and the void it leaves in its wake is immediately filled by an untamed desire to just be there for somebody. No one knows for sure about the 1956 – some say it was just a joke and it isn’t on the official version – but I think 1956 is the she; it is the most Romantic (in the Blakeian sense) year of Dylan’s youth – the year Elvis became a star – and unfortunately something intangible in him, and perhaps in the nation, died that year and he’ll never be able to reclaim it.
Notable live version: Down in the Flood – this may be a bit cheating, but in Masked and Anonymous, Jack Fate, played by Dylan, does a show for the gathered actors, including this scorching take on “Down In the Flood.”
Rhymes: snake/drake (“Please Mrs. Henry”); Vivian/oblivion (“Too Much of Nothin’”); bus/puss (“Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread”); flutes/shoots/substitutes/roots (“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”); sympathize/lies (“Nothing Was Delivered”)
Images: “blow my plum” (“Goin’ to Acapulco”); “I bought myself a herd of moose… round that horn and ride that herd. Gonna thread up!” (“Lo and Behold!”); “old wild shirts and a couple pairs of pants that nobody really wanted to touch” (“Clothes Line Saga”); “sniffing too many eggs” (“Please Mrs. Henry”); “the heart is filled with gold as if it was a purse” (“Tears of Rage”)
Axioms: “If someone offers me a joke, I just say no thanks” (“Goin’ to Acapulco”); “Gonna save my money and rip it up” (“Lo and Behold!”); “I’m a generous bomb. I’m T-Boned and punctured, but I’m known to be calm.” (“Please Mrs. Henry”); “Slap that drummer with a pie that smells.” (“Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread”); “Remember when you’re out there trying to heal the sick that you must always first forgive them.” (“Open the Door, Homer”)