The legend of Bob Dylan and the Band's Basement Tapes
Lo and Behold!
Bob Dylan was bigger than he’d ever been in 1965 and 1966.
Sure, folkies bitter that he went electric booed him at shows, but they were still well-attended and well-received by critics.
He had hit singles, including “Like a Rolling Stone,” and “Rainy Day Women #12 and #35.” Some of his most creative material, including “Desolation Row,” “Visions of Johanna,” and “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding,” was written during this period. Album after album, Bringing it All Back Home (1965), Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde (1966), was a classic.
Amidst all this, he somehow also had time to work on a book, a movie, and a TV special.
This creative time in Dylan’s career came at a price. He was well-known for excessive use of amphetamines and other drugs to keep him awake for his grueling schedule.
Early on the morning of July 29, 1966, after reportedly being awake for three days, he decided to take his motorcycle in for repairs at a shop near his home in Woodstock.
It only took a short time for the high July sun to blind a weary Dylan. He crashed. There would be no movie, no book, no TV special.
But there would be something much greater.
In early 1965, Levon and the Hawks – former backing band for rockabilly hellraiser Ronnie Hawkins – were a relatively unknown bar band.
They’d be world famous by September.
Although they weren’t known all that well nationally, the Hawks were one of the most revered bands on the rockabilly and R&B circuits in the American South and in Canada, where rockabilly was still very popular.
They played mostly straightforward rockabilly and ’50s style rock n’ roll with Hawkins, but they turned a corner after going out on their own, expanding their sound to include soul and rhythm and blues.
This hard rocking, hard practicing band – drummer Levon Helm, guitarist Robbie Robertson, pianist and lead vocalist Richard Manuel, bassist Rick Danko, and organist Garth Hudson – eventually became one of the most powerful forces in rock music.
They wouldn’t reach their potential as a bar band. Or even backing Dylan.
But their time would come.
Too Much of Nothing
Regardless of the severity of his injuries, it gave him the opportunity to, in his words, “get out of the rat race.” He understandably traded the stressful schedule of writing and performing, which was fueled by a dangerous stream of drugs, for relaxing with his wife and newborn child at their somewhat secluded home in Woodstock New York.
Unfortunately for Dylan, it wouldn’t be this simple for very long. His cohorts in the Hawks were still on retainer, being paid for the shows they were supposed to play before they got canceled due to the motorcycle accident. Because he wasn’t on tour, Dylan was also pressured to do something to make money. Perhaps write songs for other singers and bands to perform?
Eventually, the members of the Band rented a pink house near Dylan’s. Their proximity and instinct to create could only be contained for so long. First at his home, and then in the basement of what became known as Big Pink, they wrote and recorded some of the most legendary music of all time.
This Wheel’s On Fire
More than music, more than a time piece, the Basement Tapes exist outside of time. They create their own world and draw us in. It’s the last link to that old, weird America.
Dylan simplified his life after his motorcycle accident. He was a father and a husband. As the world around him raged against the government, authority, parents, and anything else it could rage against, he was living the sort of idyllic small-town life that he had idealized his entire life.
He also re-immersed himself in the American music and culture that inspired him. Blues, country, early rock n’ roll, rhythm and blues, and classic folk filled his head and his living room.
And he read the Bible. A lot.
The spirit of that old, weird America, combined with the serious, prophetic voice of the scriptures, with its parables and mysterious language, are at the heart of the Basement Tapes.
The Band were also living a simple life, something their non-stop touring schedule hadn’t allowed them to do since they were kids.
They chopped wood, prepared their own food, went for walks along the mountainside, and did all the mundane chores that came with maintaining a house. Getting off the road and getting back to nature eased their minds and gave them focus.
This simple foundation, and these influences, shaped the Basement Tapes. The back-to-basics lifestyle of Dylan and the Band during this time are the essence of the music they created.
When the Band Starts Playing
The atmosphere that the Band creates is as important to the timelessness of the Basement Tapes as the material Dylan was writing and interpreting.
Each member was at the height of their immense talents. The bass playing of Rick Danko is fluid and his high harmonies soar; Richard Manuel’s soulful voice is breathtaking, and his effective piano playing gives the songs a solid foundation; and Robbie Robertson’s raw, subtle, gospel-tinged guitar work is revolutionary. Years of touring made their interplay effortless and intuitive.
The real hero of the sessions, though, the Band’s Garth Hudson. Not only does his distinctive, ethereal organ give most of the songs their otherworldly quality, his engineering skills are the reason we have the tapes at all.
The sound he gets from a primitive tape machine in a space that isn’t ideal for recording is jaw-dropping. Danko and Manuel’s harmonies sound ghostly and chilling. Robertson’s guitar has a hard, juke joint sting. And, of course, there’s the organ.
Hudson’s final product isn’t as much music production as it is the conjuring of ghosts, ghosts of America’s past, ghosts of his fallen brothers in the Band.
People Get Ready
The earliest Basement Tapes are fun and off the cuff. Dylan and his friends warm up in grand fashion on loose versions of a wide variety of Cosmic American Music.
The festivities include country classics “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It,” “You Win Again,” and “Be Careful of Stones that You Throw”; seminal Johnny Cash material like “Belshazzar,” “Big River,” and a fresh r n’ b take on “Folsom Prison Blues”; American and British folk music, including “Bells of Rhymney,” “Ol’ Roison the Beau,” and “Bonnie Ship the Diamond”; and some blues and soul, “I’m in the Mood,” “Tupelo,” and a beautiful version of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready.”
These highlights are only a small portion of the 50+ songs that were laid down in the initial sessions. Each are revelatory.
Even early on there are plenty of Dylan originals – around 14 before things get a bit more serious. “Edge of the Ocean,” possibly the first track laid down for the Basement Tapes, is a pretty little song that could have been on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.
Catchy R&B workouts “Baby Won’t You Be My Baby” and “I’m Alright” are as strong as anything on the original 1975 Basement Tapes release and should have been covered for hits in the ‘60s. Melodic, slow blues ballad “One for the Road” features tight harmonies from Danko and Manuel and feels instantly familiar.
The first three discs of The Basement Tapes Complete (2014) are filled with many more songs and sketches like this. That Dylan never came back to them, material that most other songwriters would die for, is incredible.
A Bunch of Basement Noise
The fly-on-the-wall feel is one of the most fascinating parts of the Basement Tapes.
‘50s doo wop imitation “I’m Your Teenage Prayer” is equally well-written, well performed, and hilarious. Richard Manuel’s drunken ad-libbing is one of the sessions funniest moments.
During the first take of “Million Dollar Bash” an obviously high Dylan breaks out in laughter multiple times. Short workouts like the funky blues of “Under Control,” the mid-tempo soul of “I’m Guilty of Loving You,” and rollicking “One Man’s Loss” give an intimate glimpse into the creative process.
The first 30 or so songs recorded during the Basement Tapes saw Dylan trying to find his muse after his motorcycle crash and the Band tightening their sound. Most importantly, they were having fun. You can practically see the fog of smoke and smell the beer on Richard Manuel’s breath.
Eventually, however, they started taking things a little more seriously. Perhaps it was a renewed sense of purpose influenced by the wide range of material that they had been covering. Perhaps it was pressure from on high to write songs that could be covered by other artists. Perhaps Dylan had finally regained his muse.
Regardless of the cause, it was obvious that they had turned a corner. What lay ahead was more groundbreaking than anything they had done up to that point. And perhaps would ever do after.
That Million Dollar Bash
The official 1975 release of the Basement Tapes, although highly regarded, has its critics.
The Band added overdubs to the existing tapes, included their demos from the period, and even re-recorded a couple songs from the era. Purists eventually began seeing it as inauthentic because it didn’t include only original recordings.
As often happens, though, the purists miss the mark.
The overdubs flesh out the original skeletal demos into full, well-produced songs. There is also no reason to complain about the addition of beautiful Band demos like “Bessie Smith,” one of their best songs, and otherwise forgotten vintage Manuel tracks “Orange Juice Blues,” “Katie’s Been Gone,” and “Ruben Remus.”
Despite the criticism, the bulk of the 1975 release came directly from the sessions with few, if any, overdubs.
After Dylan and the Band messed around for awhile, which covers roughly the first two discs of the Basement Tapes Complete box, they abruptly got serious.
With classic “Million Dollar Bash” they began to show that these sessions were more than just loose jams with no purpose. They were on to something.
Song and Dance Man
Once the songs started coming to Dylan, he began knocking them off effortlessly.
In a short amount of time he and the Band recorded a bulk of the original material that ended up on the official release. Wordplay heavy, singalong folk songs “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread,” “Please Mrs. Henry,” “Crash on the Levee,” “Lo! And Behold,” and several other benchmark Basement songs were recorded one after another.
Because tour income had run dry, it is said that many of these songs were written for other singers and bands to record as possible hit singles.
Although this happened with some tracks, notably Manfred Man’s “Quinn the Eskimo” in America, it’s hard to believe that any of the songs could have been imagined as singles.
Several are catchy, but they are all about as non-commercial as you can get. Their timeless sound may have been popular on the carnival circuit in the 1800s, but they sound as out of place in the context of the ’60s as they do today.
Sure, Dylan had gotten away with weird lyrics before, but “slap that drummer with a pie that smells” and “that big dumb blonde with her wheels gorged/and Turtle that friend of hers with his checks all forged/with his cheeks in a chunk/and his cheese in a cash” were on an entire different level.
It’s almost like he took the entire prospect of writing for other people as a joke. I can imagine he and the Band laughing between takes. “Let’s see them make something out of THIS!” Far from having an eye on the charts, the songs sound like they have an eye on a 1920s minstrel show. Like always, Dylan did exactly what he wanted.
That’s not to say that bizarre songs like “Clothes Line Saga” and upbeat rhythm and blues workouts like “Odds and Ends” aren’t great tracks. They are. It’s just that Dylan wrote many others during this period that make them seem like child’s play in comparison.
I’m Not There I’m Gone
Some Dylan’s best songs were written during the Basement Tapes.
Two of the best, spooky Old Testament influenced “This Wheel’s on Fire” (see the beginning of the book of Ezekiel) and soulful “Tears of Rage,” were written with Danko and Manuel respectively. Their basement demos ended up on the 1975 release, but the Band perfected them on their 1968 debut Music from Big Pink. They did the same with anthem “I Shall Be Released,” also recorded during these sessions.
A lot of other material was available but never released. Most notable are two legendary Dylan songs, beautiful “I’m Not There,” which features his best ever vocal performance, and sensitive, sprawling “Sign on the Cross.”
Although neither are fully realized, both definitive statements, as important as “Visions of Johanna,” “Desolation Row,” and “Blind Willie McTell.”
Band drummer Levon Helm left the group during Dylan’s infamous ’66 electric tour. Tired of being a backing musician, he quit the music business and took a job working on an oil rig off the Gulf of Mexico. He rejoined his friends towards the end of the sessions, making an immediate impact with both his voice and drumming.
The outtakes from this period on The Basement Tapes Complete, featured mostly on disc five, are revelatory.
Rockabilly/rhythm and blues rave-ups “Silent Weekend,” “Mary Lou, I Love You Too,” and “Dress it Up, Have it Better” are thrilling. The harmonies of Helm, Danko, and Manuel shine on moving “Minstrel Boy.” “What’s it Gonna be When it Comes Up,” a slow blues sung in Dylan’s Nashville Skyline croon, is also a highlight.
I Was So Much Older Then
It was originally thought that no older Dylan songs were attempted during the Basement Tapes. That there were, as documented in The Basement Tapes Complete, was a relatively shocking surprise.
“Blowin’ in the Wind” is given a cool, swinging gospel flavor. Sid Griffin, author of the essential Million Dollar Bash: Bob Dylan, the Band, and the Basement Tapes, puts it perfectly: “Best described as a tipsy Rolling Stones performance of a traditional gospel tune.”
Upbeat, soulful “It Ain’t Me, Babe” is engaging. Hearing Helm harmonize with his friends again on the “no, no, no” lines is a dream.
Manuel takes the lead on the first verse of a gorgeous “One Too Many Mornings.” The slow, emotive performance is chilling.
I’ve Heard it Said Before
Bob Dylan’s future was up in the air after his motorcycle accident. His simple decision to jam with his touring band became one of the most important of his career.
The music they made, a cosmic combination of folk, blues, country, soul, rhythm and blues, and rockabilly, is as unique today as it was when it was recorded.
The world they created, although deeply rooted in the mystique of America, exists outside of time. Bob Dylan, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson, and Levon Helm cemented their place in American music history with the Basement Tapes.
The complete sessions are essential listening for anyone interested in American music.
by Erik Ritland
Erik Ritland is a songwriter and journalist from Nashville, Tennessee. Check out all his albums here, in addition to his articles for Music in Minnesota and Something Else! Reviews.