Chronology imposes narrative when all else fails. So thank the tape-crawlers who've assembled Bob Dylan and the Band's The Basement Tapes Complete, the 11th volume of The Bootleg Series, Dylan and Sony Music's shrewd posterity-burnishing enterprise, for putting the thing together in as close to properly recorded order as this music is ever going to come—not to mention as close to fully intact as we're going to be allowed to hear so long as the guy on the cover draws breath. As the six-CD set's Producer's Note explains: "We decided to release EVERYTHING recorded in that basement. The only exceptions are those few instances where the audio is so decayed as to be unlistenable." Undoubtedly there are Dylanites dedicated to ensuring that even the dregs get out there in some manner, but they can have them. The rest of us have more than enough on our hands already with this thing.
"This thing," of course, is rock's most heavily mythologized recording. Having utterly altered the face of popular music in just two years—at the same time the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, James Brown, and Aretha Franklin were also altering its face—Dylan's July 29, 1966 motorcycle accident left him in a neck brace and ready to hit pause on his nonstop professional lifestyle. Already married, he settled into his country-squire period, staying home with his family (Dylan and his first wife Sara had four kids together, and he adopted her eldest daughter from a previous marriage), and stayed off the road.
The Basement Tapes were the recordings Dylan and his backing band, the Hawks—by 1968, the Band—cut in private through 1967, in part as simple horsing around, in part to lay down material Dylan was writing but had no intention of cutting in a real studio. Gradually, the tapes made their way into biz insiders' hands, then onto black-market LPs; in 1975, 16 tracks—abetted by eight newly cut Band songs—were released as the double-LP The Basement Tapes. It won the second- or third-ever Village Voice critics' poll, beating Patti Smith's Horses, Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run, Neil Young's Tonight's the Night—and Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, which finished fourth. Greil Marcus wrote The Basement Tapes' liner notes; in 1997, he wrote an entire book about the period—initially released as Invisible Republic,but later re-titled The Old, Weird America—inspired in part by a four-disc set of "complete" Basement Tapes that traveled under several titles. (The version I heard a few years later was called A Tree with Roots.)
Having it in order, then, is a coup—not least because, as a separate liner note by British rock historian Clinton Heylin painstakingly (zzzzz) explains, the tapes were so scattered over the years that this is the first time they've all been assembled in one place, privately as well as publicly. Apart from disc six, which houses the set's iffier-sounding (but still listenable) material, this new setting allows us to hear patterns, if not precisely rhyme or reason. The first track to make the 1975 double-LP version, "Tiny Montgomery," shows up on disc two—or, if you prefer, at selection 28—and most of the rest are clustered together, frequently in multiple takes, beginning with disc three. The first two discs, then, constitute a rehearsal, or a loosening-up, before the musicians got semi-seriously down to the business of fixing new songs to the firmament.
"Semi-seriously," because even after laying down the songs that grew the Basement Tapes legend, they kept fucking around and loosening up and covering other people's material—a huge swath altogether, from Johnny Cash's "Big River" to John Lee Hooker's "Tupelo" to Elvis Presley's "A Fool Such as I" to Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready." There's an "original" titled "It's the Flight of the Bumblebee"—guess what that's based on. They even do Tim Hardin's absolutely godawful "If I Were a Carpenter."
And yes, "songs," not "records," because in 1967, you didn't make the latter in houses (three different ones in upstate New York, and not always in basements), using non-pro-grade equipment, with whatever reel-to-reel tape you could find at the store, with the intention of releasing them. Not only was this music never intended for release; it was barely intended to be heard.
The reason any of it was recorded at all is that Dylan's publishing company needed to transcribe the better or more complete songs for copyrighting and to shop around for other people to cover, which many did. The sessions were multi-purpose because they had no specific purpose. Dylan had no intention of cutting this material in a studio—there's zero overlap between this box set and John Wesley Harding, released two days after Christmas 1967. Yet the songs are as fecund now as they were then—the full scope took years to emerge.
The Basement Tapes are an indubitable artistic statement from great artists, created with no intention of making any statement at all. The world-bending classics that preceded them—Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde—were speed-fueled; The Basement Tapes have just as much overdriven imagination, only decelerated. The songs' wordplay is as bizarre, their imagery as surreal. Dylan could have taken them to a real studio, given 'em a shot in the ass (screencap via Popsugar), and called it a proper follow-up. Cut off from the world until well after their making—the publishers' demos began circulating in 1968; Great White Wonder, the Legendary First Rock Bootleg Album EverTM, in 1969—let the recordings float in their own amber, gave them their own self-contained myth. "If I wasn't Bob Dylan," he told Playboy in 1978, "I'd probably think that Bob Dylan has a lot of answers myself."
Let's look at another old Dylan interview quote; this one aired on Westwood One radio stations in November 1984. Question: "Was writing something that you'd always wanted to do?" Dylan:
No, not really. It wasn't a thing I wanted to do ever. I wanted just a song to sing, and there came a certain point where I couldn't sing anything. So I had to write what I wanted to sing 'cause nobody else was writing what I wanted to sing. I couldn't find it anywhere. If I could, I probably would have never started writing.
It's not hard to map that progression again onto the newly chronological Basement Tapes. Dylan wanted to start over; that meant to go back and play his heroes—and people's heroes tend to shift between ages 20 and 26 no matter who you are. He had compatriots to play off of, too; there was real camaraderie between him and the members of the Band, short drummer Levon Helm, who was out for most of the Basement Tapes' recording, only coming back near the end. No matter—everyone in the group played multiple instruments, so combined with the lo-fi sound, the arrangements often seem enchantingly daubed, rather than sharply etched in the way of the studio recordings preceding it.
There's jollity to the proceedings—not uniformly so, but spirits seem high. And they also seem plentiful. There's a straight-up drunkenness to certain performances: "I'm Your Teenage Prayer," "Beware of Stones That You Throw," both takes of "See You Later Allen Ginsberg" (total time: 1:20). Contrast them with the version from Live 1966—The Bootleg Series Vol. 4 of "I Don't Believe You," where the edges are frayed because every musician sounds raw-nerved. No wonder they got so silly so frequently.
Because the Basement Tapes constitute Bob Dylan's funniest work; it's the work of the world's cleverest—and loopiest—lyricist trying to crack his friends up and occasionally succeeding, though not before succumbing first. The utterly ridiculous "Kickin' My Dog Around" is a near-miss, but he loses it during the first take of "Lo and Behold," on disc three, dissolving into laughter after the half-line "Gonna save all my money and rip it up," as if only fully getting his own Little Richard reference a second after he sang it. ("Dress It Up, Better Have It All" tips its hat in that direction as well.) There have been times when the final verse of "Million Dollar Bash" ("I looked at my watch / I looked at my wrist / I punched myself in the face with my fist") constitutes my favorite Dylan writing ever—while it's playing, namely. "Clothes Line Saga" is to Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe" what Blonde on Blonde's "Fourth Time Around" had been to the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood," parody and homage too deeply entwined to fully pull apart. If you can make sense of the opening verse of "Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread," or have spent a lot of time trying, commit yourself today.
The filmy ambience of the thing gives it a retrospective glow that helps made it seems instantly antique and therefore immediately classic, almost pre-historicized, and its back story was as irresistible as everything else Dylan had done up to that point. This means The Basement Tapes' "timelessness" gets trumpeted, as does its rejection of post-Sgt. Pepper's psychedelicism. But Garth Hudson's organ turns weirder knobs inside your mind's eye than anybody else's Moog; moreover, he recorded and kept the bulk of the reels all these years, and was instrumental in assembling sometimes very rough tape into this package.
There's a fairly obvious list of things the Basement Tapes directly impacted, from the Band's initial career to—as lead liner-note writer Sid Griffin reminds us, it seems, no less than 75 times in just a few pages—alt-country and/or Americana. I hear them aplenty in a band like the Fiery Furnaces, who spent the 2000s putting out one of the strangest catalogs in existence—overstuffed songs that took crooked roads around a similarly deadpan surrealist terrain as the loopier Dylan lyrics from the upstate sessions. (That's not all you can hear, by any means, in the Fiery Furnaces, but it's there.)
So: Is all this music really worth hearing? Of course not: Most of the highlights are long available (not just the 1975 Basement Tapes but the troubled, incandescent "I'm Not There," on the soundtrack of Todd Haynes' 2007 fanfic film of the same name), and if you get more than one play's pleasure from truly thrown-away run-throughs of "She'll Be Comin' 'Round the Mountain" or a hollered-out "Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad," you're a college-radio DJ.
Yet only fanatics will drop $120 on the physical copy anyway; the rest will poke at the stream. It's easy to fall into. I've listened to the sessions both chronologically and then on shuffle—it seemed apt, and was. For all the retrospective rhyme or reason The Basement Tapes Complete allows us, they're still haphazard as all hell; that's part of their charm. Put them all onto one playlist, hit random, and watch the weirdness roll out. A song will stumble to the gate then rev up unexpectedly, only to suddenly cut off, like "I'm Your Teenage Prayer." Then "Next Time on the Highway": "Listen to Richard play that piano," crows Dylan; shortly afterward, the take (not the tape) disintegrates. (Playlist idea: Dylan Cracks Up.) Over to "Silent Weekend," with its bumptious pulse (Rick Danko's near-funk bass drives it), with the singing (including harmonies) a raucous stray-cat yowl.
And of course plenty of squibs and false starts and weird gospel covers that strafe without catching—landscape rather than landmarks. It's seven hours long. You'll never absorb it all. You were never meant to. But it's got too many currents running through it to stop hearing anew.
Michaelangelo Matos is the author of the forthcoming The Underground Is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America (Dey Street Books, March 2015) and contributes to Rolling Stone, NPR, Red Bull Music Academy Magazine, and more. He lives in Brooklyn.
Photos by Elliott Landy, courtesy Sony Music.
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