It’s the most famous room in the annals of pop music, its history equal parts legend and truth. In the decades since its use as a rehearsal space, this subterranean refuge has become known as the birthplace of some of America’s most examined (non-Paris-Hilton-sex, non-Watergate) tapes.
The Basement Tapes. Many of a certain generation know the basics: In and around Woodstock, N.Y., Bob Dylan and his then-backing band, the Hawks, converged to create stripped-down, defiantly un-psychedelic artistic magic. As the story goes, while recuperating from a motorcycle crash and starting his life as a husband and father of two, Dylan and his compadres, who soon rechristened themselves the Band, crafted a mysterious vessel on more than 40 reels of tape that have since become sacred texts of sorts.
The most famous of these works are well known: “This Wheel’s on Fire,” “I Shall Be Released,” “Tears of Rage,” “Sign on the Cross,” “I’m Not There,” “Lo and Behold.” Many were traded on the underground circuit through the decades: as whispers on poorly mastered bootleg albums starting with the “Great White Wonder” from 1969, on hissy cassettes, duped CDs and voluminous megabytes.
But until this week, the full set has never been officially issued. Nearly 50 years after Band keyboardist Garth Hudson started setting up recording gear, Columbia/Legacy’s new six-CD set “The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11” gathers everything the team recorded from February through December 1967, more than 100 songs or fragments. A two-CD volume collects highlights.
Taken as a single seven-hour-plus narrative told in music, the recordings bear witness to the birth of a new Dylan, one for whom songs are restless creations that gain strength with each new interpretation. At the same time, the set time stamps the moment when the most important American musician of the 1960s vanished from New York City to a place a train ride away in the Catskills.
Here, setting up life in an 11-room house called Hi Lo Ha, the Dylan family made a home. And many days around 1 p.m. he’d head nearby to a house called Big Pink to hook up with his band. According to Dylan biographer Clinton Heylin, most days they’d smoke a joint and set to work making songs. The result?
“It’s just mind-boggling,” says songwriter and Basement Tapes scholar Sid Griffin, whose book “Million Dollar Bash: Bob Dylan, the Band and the Basement Tapes” has just been republished in revised form. “Not only did he write the biggest volume of stuff of his career — and didn’t put anything out but a greatest hits package — he’s also written the best stuff of his career.”
Not all would agree. When Dylan pulled back, he also ceased being a one-man revolution pushing pop music in challenging new directions and speaking truth to power, ceding the podium for the sake of family, and to explore crevices in American music’s history.
Others, though, took Dylan’s retreat to be courageous. Amid the Summer of Love celebrations of free love and LSD, within a period when Vietnam War protests and urban violence were erupting around the country, the artist’s off-the-grid move, it could be argued, was a legitimate political act. Politics, though, weren’t obviously on his mind as the musicians frolicked through “She’ll be Comin’ Round the Mountain” and “Wildwood Flower.”
Instead, variety was. Looking for the evolution of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” Dylan’s rollicking kiss-off, he and the Band explore the song from a few different angles, experimenting with tempo and texture, the singer trying to figure out phrasing along the way. They tear through country and western songs by Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, turn “Blowin’ in the Wind” into a death march that lead guitarist Robbie Robertson propels through bluesy licks.
During a remarkable version of “One Too Many Mornings,” a song that Dylan and company had beaten into an electrifying rock song during their 1966 British tour, the five revisit it and turn it sideways. Relaxed, mournful, filled with longing, the version opens with the late keyboard player Richard Manuel trading verses with Dylan. On the mysterious, brilliant oddity “Wild Wolf,” the late bassist Rick Danko offers a restless, roaming line.
Hear a giggling Dylan free-associate the words “See you later, Allen Ginsberg” to the tune of “See You Later, Alligator.” Elsewhere they work out a stunning version of the Impressions’ “People Get Ready.” At one point Dylan chides Hudson for wasting tape.
As if you were there
With each new take, a much ballyhooed document many regard as the big bang of an important strain of rootsy, laid-back American music comes more vividly into focus. The set removes decades’ worth of warble and sonic dust, to be the clearest possible view of a historic year.
“Everybody worked thousands of hours on this to get it to sound as if you were sitting on the steps listening to this band play in the basement,” said Steve Berkowitz, who with Jeff Rosen and Jan Haust produced the set for release. The result is Dylan’s “Leaves of Grass” — a suite of poems that also went through numerous editions but was so resonant that it transformed the course of its medium.
Even before the bounty was legitimately released, the cultural critic Greil Marcus penned a book-length exploration of the sessions (first titled “Invisible Republic”) that traced its creation to a realm he described as “the old, weird America.” He linked the tapes to “The Anthology of American Folk Music,” an essential collection of vintage songs released by Folkways Recordings in 1952 that Marcus describes as “an occult document disguised as an academic treatise on stylistic shifts within an archaic musicology.” Such connections only added to the legend.
Despite a double-LP set issued by Columbia in 1975 that highlighted some of the best of the tapes, the story continued to spread as the unreleased stuff passed from friend to friend. With each dub, the mystique grew into a cipher, which, if it could just be cracked, suggested just-out-of-reach answers on how to live in such turbulent times.
“Each tape would get muddier and less specific and duller and muddier and harder to hear — and therefore, more desirable,” says Berkowitz, who spent time in a Toronto studio last year with Hudson and Peter Moore, who mastered the set, transferring the originals. They drew from various sources, comparing the versions known in fanatic circles by names such as the roadie tapes, the safety copies, the Fabroni tapes and the Mazer tapes.
For those of us interested in Dylan’s process, the full recordings offer repeated epiphanies, even if novices might not see the need for repeat versions of, say, “Open the Door, Richard.”
Dylan pulls back
Dylan’s retreat only further fed the public’s appetite, one whose ravenous devotion he’d been wary of from the start, he claimed.
“I really was never any more than what I was — a folk musician who gazed into the gray mist with tear-blinded eyes and made up songs that floated in a luminous haze,” Dylan wrote in “Chronicles, Vol. 1.” “Now it had blown up in my face and was hanging over me. I wasn’t a preacher performing miracles. It would have driven anybody mad.”
Berkowitz, a Grammy-winning producer, over the years has helped resurrect essential recordings by Robert Johnson, Miles Davis, the Beatles and dozens of others. Like the Johnson set, the mystery of the sessions adds a hint of narrative, which drives interest.
“What’s wonderful about that, and then compared to this, is that after the story, or the marketing, or the hype and when it all comes down, the Robert Johnson is really worth hearing because it’s the classics, but so are the Basement Tapes,” says Berkowitz. Plus, he stresses, the Woodstock sessions are easy to fall in love with. “I enjoy the idea of a band playing in a basement, especially these guys and this guy, with no budget, no A&R guys, no delivery date, making music for why they make music.”
Indeed, the most illuminating aspect of the set is the playfulness, witnessing songs blooming, a sound being explored with casual joy, like-minded artists coming together in that ethereal realm that transcends theaters, studios or garages.
“Dylan codified Americana with the Basement Tapes,” says Griffin, whose essay opens the official release. The singer, songwriter and founder of formative ‘80s L.A. country punk band the Long Ryders describes the musicians as crafting “something identifiable, and something with boundaries, and while the boundaries could be pushed, they couldn’t be ignored.”
The writer traces this lineage from the present: “Go back from Midlake, and go back from Lucinda Williams, and go back from the Long Ryders and Uncle Tupelo, and go back from the Flying Burrito Brothers or whatever and — bing! — there we are, starting with the Basement Tapes.”
The house where most of the songs were made still stands, even if visits yield something of a disconnect. The main problem with the so-called Basement Tapes, says Griffin, is the set’s title. “It’s more of a garage,” he says with a laugh. “Yes, you do leave the kitchen and go down the stairs to the basement, that is true. But it’s really a garage with stairs leading down to it.”
“It’s about the size of what a 1965 Lincoln Continental would fit into,” clarifies Berkowitz. He adds that both he and the Band’s Hudson — unraveling a bit more of the mythology — consider the room to be more a cellar. “But the Cellar Tapes aren’t famous.”