The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes

[5 May 2011]

By Greil Marcus

Excerpted from Chapter 1: “Into a Laboratory”, from The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, 2nd edition by Greil Marcus. Copyright © 2011 by the author and reprinted by permission of Picador, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Into a Laboratory
Once a singer stood at a world crossroads. For a moment he held a stage no one has more than mounted since— a stage that may no longer exist. More than thirty years ago, when a world now most often spoken of as an error of history was taking shape and form—and when far older worlds were reappearing like ghosts that had yet to make up their minds, cruel and paradisiac worlds that in 1965 felt at once present and impossibly distant—Bob Dylan seemed less to occupy a turning point in cultural space and time than to be that turning point. As if culture would turn according to his wishes or even his whim; the fact was, for a long moment it did.

As a public matter, his story went back only a few years. He was born Robert Allen Zimmerman, in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1941, and grew up in Hibbing, a town in the northern part of the then northernmost state. He first made himself known to more than a few in the early 1960s, in New York City, as the self-proclaimed heir to Dust Bowl balladeer Woody Guthrie. His first album, Bob Dylan, released in 1962, was a collection of folk performances about frolic and death; by 1963, after “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “With God on Our Side,” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” he was no longer merely a singer, or a songwriter, or even a poet, let alone simply a folk musician. In a signal way, he was the Folk, and also a prophet. As he sang and wrote he was the slave on the auction block, the whore chained to her bed, a questioning youth, an old man looking back in sorrow and regret. As the familiar standards of the folk revival faded from his repertoire, he became the voice left after the bomb had fallen, the voice of the civil rights movement; then he became the voice of his times and the conscience of his generation. The sound of his hammered acoustic guitar and pealing harmonica became a kind of free-floating trademark, like the peace symbol, signifying determination and honesty in a world of corruption and lies.

All of this was suspended in the air—and, for thousands who had followed Bob Dylan’s progress as a confirmation of their own, dashed to the ground—when in July 1965 the folk singer who once dressed only in fraying cotton appeared onstage at the Newport Folk Festival with an electric guitar in his hands and a high-style black leather jacket on his back (“a sellout jacket,” someone whose name is absent from history called it). With a five-man band around him, a band he would quickly leave behind, he made the most raucous sound he could: an electric noise that to many signified corruption and lies. Though today there may be no person left on earth who would admit to having booed Bob Dylan at Newport, the result on July 25, 1965, was an uproar: a torrent of shouts, curses, refusal, damnation, and perhaps most of all confusion.

Beginning earlier in 1965, with Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan balanced a side of visionary acoustic ballads—“Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Gates of Eden,” “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”—with one of comic tunes recorded with a band, and there was little controversy. After Newport, in the fall of 1965, he released the almost fully orchestrated Highway 61 Revisited, which took him to the top of the charts and, to many, onto the back of the Golden Calf. In May 1966 the Depression soul of the folk movement was erased by a dandy dropping the glamorous Blonde on Blonde. Taken together, as a single moment, these records rank with the most intense outbreaks of twentieth-century modernism; they join the whole Gothic-romantic traverse of American self-regard. But the true result of this long year of creation and discovery was no aesthetic artifact to buy or sell, to hoard or discard, but rather a set of public performances: a tour that from the fall of 1965 through the spring of 1966 grew almost nightly in fervor, drama, and, near the end, conflict. Officially all but undocumented, these nights, these events, found their form in rumor, tall tale, and memory.

In a combination completed by various temporary drummers, most notably Mickey Jones of Trini Lopez fame, the musicians Dylan played with on his tour were bassist Rick Danko, organist Garth Hudson, pianist Richard Manuel, and guitarist Robbie Robertson. They were four-fifths of an obscure Toronto honkytonk outfit called the Hawks, once the backing band for Arkansas born rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins; in 1968, after they were reunited with their original drummer, Arkansan Levon Helm, who worked with Dylan before jumping ship after two months on the road, they became known as the Band. Starting in Austin, Texas, in September 1965, they crisscrossed the U.S.A. four times. With Jones they pushed on to Australia, Scandinavia, France, Ireland, and the United Kingdom, with no end in sight.

In June 1966, during a brief hiatus, Dylan suffered a motorcycle accident near his home in Woodstock, the old artists’ colony in upstate New York, and went into seclusion. Eventually Danko, Hudson, Manuel, and Robertson, now calling themselves the Crackers, or the Honkies, or nothing, made their way to Woodstock to regroup and to work with Dylan on a film about their tour. Soon enough, in the early summer of 1967, they and Dylan began to meet on an almost daily basis, most often in the basement of a place in West Saugerties they named Big Pink, a house Danko, Hudson, and Manuel were renting; there and elsewhere they made casual music and, after a bit, casual recordings, taping more than a hundred performances of commonplace or original songs. Fourteen of the new tunes they came up with were pressed as an acetate disc, titled “The Basement Tape,” and sent to other musicians. Some of the songs—“Too Much of Nothing,” “Quinn the Eskimo,” “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”—soon turned up as hits by Peter, Paul & Mary, Manfred Mann, and the Byrds, and tapes of the acetate itself leaked out to the general public in 1968. Rolling Stone called for its release, to no avail; by 1970 the music was being pressed onto vinyl and bootlegged everywhere.

The basement tapes— the name shifted slightly in the journey to contraband—became a talisman, a public secret, and then a legend, a fable of retreat and fashioning. When a collection of sixteen basement recordings, plus eight Band demos, was officially released in 1975 and reached the top ten, Dylan expressed surprise: “I thought everybody already had them.” From the first, the most immediately striking basement tape numbers—“I Shall Be Released,” “This Wheel’s on Fire,” “Tears of Rage,” “Down in the Flood,” “Million Dollar Bash”— were recognized for a peculiar grace and spark; for a spirit, as I wrote in the liner notes to the 1975 release, pitched somewhere between the confessional and the bawdy house. The music carried an aura of familiarity, of unwritten traditions, and as deep a sense of self-recognition, the recognition of a self— the singer’s? the listener’s?—that was both historical and sui generis. The music was funny and comforting; at the same time, it was strange, and somehow incomplete. Out of some odd displacement of art and time, the music seemed both transparent and inexplicable.

Deserter’s Songs

As over the years more and more of the basement performances appeared—as sold or stolen and then traded tapes, further bootleg lps and then cds, here and there an officially released track on a Dylan anthology— one could begin to hear something more than a number of interesting songs, or a moment in a particular career. Heard as something like a whole—as a story, despite or even because of its jumble of missing pieces, half-finished recordings, garbled chronologies of composition or performance— the basement tapes can begin to sound like a map; but if they are a map, what country, what lost mine, is it that they center and fix? They can begin to sound like an instinctive experiment, or a laboratory: a laboratory where, for a few months, certain bedrock strains of American cultural language were retrieved and reinvented. That was the notion that occurred to me in 1993, driving from California to Montana and back again listening to nothing but weather reports and a five-cd set of basement tapes bootlegs. Twenty-six years after they were made, years during which Bob Dylan had, it seemed, long since lost all maps to any crossroads beyond those within the ever-diminishing confines of his own career, the basement tapes were creeping up and out of their laboratory as if for the first time. Without knowing quite what I meant by “a laboratory,” I tried the notion out on Robbie Robertson, a friend since the early 1970s. “No,” he said. “A conspiracy. It was like the Watergate tapes. A lot of stuff, Bob would say, ‘We should destroy this.’ ”

“We went in with a sense of humor,” he said. “It was all a goof. We were playing with absolute freedom; we weren’t doing anything we thought anybody else would ever hear, as long as we lived. But what started in that basement, what came out of it—and the Band came out of it, anthems, people holding hands and rocking back and forth all over the world singing ‘I Shall Be Released,’ the distance that all of this went—came out of this little conspiracy, of us amusing ourselves. Killing time.”

Music made to kill time ended up dissolving it. As one listens, no date adheres to the basement tapes, made as the war in Vietnam, mass deaths in black riots in Newark and Detroit, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the Summer of Love all insisted, in their different ways, on the year 1967 as Millennium or Apocalypse, or both. The year “America fell apart,” Newt Gingrich has said; “deserter’s songs,” a skeptic called the basement tapes in 1994, catching an echo of a few people holed up to wait out the end of the world. Yet the basement tapes could carry the date 1932 and it would be as convincing, as one listens, as 1967, if not more so— as would, say, the dates 1881, or 1954, 1992, 1993. In those last two years, Bob Dylan, then in his early fifties, suddenly recast what had come to seem an inexorably decaying public life with two albums of old blues and folk songs, Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong. Ranging from the sixteenth-century children’s ditty “Froggie Went A-Courtin’” to the 1890s murder report “Stack A Lee,” from the archaic Child ballad “Love Henry” to Blind Willie McTell’s 1931 “Broke Down Engine,” the songs were played on acoustic guitar and harmonica, with no other accompaniment; in Bob Dylan’s repertoire they preceded the material on his first album, issued thirty years before. Unlike other songs he had sung in nearly a quarter century, they removed him from the prison of his own career and returned him—or his voice, as a sort of mythical fact to the world at large.

“It is almost inconceivable that this is the man who once broke rock—as a form, as a mode of experience—in half,” critic Howard Hampton had written of one of Dylan’s albums of a few years before. “Now he’s the dutiful repairman. ‘Everything is broken,’ he sings, but promises the pieces can be put back together in his art as assuredly as they cannot be in the world. This is an inversion of what his work once meant, but it is also a continuation of the political world of the last twenty years. Society has structured itself around the suppression of the kinds of demands Dylan’s music once made, that it might make such speech unimaginable all over again.” But it seemed as if it were precisely an unimaginable form of speech—a once-common, now-unknown tongue— that Dylan had found, or was now proffering, in ancient songs. “Strange things are happening like never before,” went the first line of World Gone Wrong, from the title song, the Depression-era words from the Mississippi Sheiks sung in a weary, unsurprised voice; the tune, Dylan wrote in his liner notes, “goes against cultural policy.” Just as the basement tapes escaped the monolithic pop immediacy of their year— a year of such gravity, it could feel at the time, that it was like a vacuum, sucking everything into itself, suffering nothing to exist outside its own, temporal frame of reference— these old-timey albums were bereft of any nostalgia. If they were a look back they were a look that circled back, all the way around to where the singer and whoever might be listening now stood.

Photo by Thierry Arditti, Paris

Photo of Greil Marcus by © Thierry Arditti, Paris

More than anything Bob Dylan had done in the intervening years, these records were a continuation of the story the basement tapes told, or an unlocking of their laboratory. They “sound like they were made in a cardboard box,” Elvis Costello said in 1994 of the basement tapes, with Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong playing in his head. “I think he was trying to write songs that sound like he’d just found them under a stone. As if they sound like real folk songs— because if you go back into the folk tradition you will find songs as dark and deep as these.”

“He would pull these songs out of nowhere,” Robbie Robertson said. “We didn’t know if he wrote them or if he remembered them. When he sang them, you couldn’t tell.” That, in the basement tapes laboratory, is the alchemy, and in that alchemy is an undiscovered country, like the purloined letter hiding in plain sight.

Greil Marcus is the author of Lipstick Traces, Mystery Train, and most recently Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus, Writings 1968–2010 (PublicAffairs 2010). With Werner Sollors, he is the coeditor of A New Literary History of America (Harvard 2009). He lives in Berkeley, California.

© Greil Marcus

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