.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Doctor recommended for optimal cerebral hygiene 

From the Dust Bin

Sunday, September 12, 2004

The Basement Tapes

by Bob Dylan & The Band

In the summer of 1967, The Band – Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel & Levon Helm – rented a house in West Saugerties, New York. The music recorded in the basement of that house almost single handedly altered the current of Rock & Roll. The house was affectionately called Big Pink, and though the eponymous Music From Big Pink, released by The Band in 1968, is most often credited for this sea change, the genesis can more accurately be traced back to the collaboration between The Band and Bob Dylan, which had begun on my first birthday, August 28, 1965 at a Dylan gig in Forest Hills, New York. Formerly known as The Hawks, the backing band for an early 60’s R&B front man Ronnie Hawkins, they were hired to back Dylan on his infamous first electric tour of North America and Europe. During the tour, they were so often referred to collectively as nothing more than “the band” that was backing Dylan that the name simply stuck.

Eric Clapton has oft been quoted as saying that Music From Big Pink changed his life. As the story goes, at the time that he heard the album, Clapton was in the British psychedelic group Cream, a band known for their pop sensibilities, blending power trio rock with electronic guitar effects and generally spacey compositions. It was 1968 for crying out loud; only a year after Sgt. Pepper, and rock music was all atmospheric and influenced by hallucinogenic drugs and pop art. Regardless, though Cream was at the height of their success and Clapton was practically worshipped as a guitar god, legend has it that he disbanded Cream after he heard Music From Big Pink. In actuality, it didn’t happen as sudden as that, since they released one more album in 1969, but the writing was on the wall.

So, in the “Summer of Love”, in the midst of a year that saw the release of Cream’s Disraeli Gears, The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, as well as debuts by Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, The Velvet Underground, The Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan and The Band were hanging out in the basement of Big Pink essentially turning their backs on the prevailing trends, retreating to some musical dark hollow, setting up a still and brewing a grand cocktail of Americana hooch. Guitars with no fancy electronic effects, mandolin, bass, drums, organ, piano and the occasional horn. That’s it. From the honkytonks to the front porch, the music stirred with ghosts, telling tales both profound and nonsensical. There was nothing else like it coming from any of the major pop artists of the day. For The Band this was simply what they did. For Dylan, who was such a trailblazer, it was a necessity.

Though The Basement Tapes was not released until 1975, bootlegs circulated for years, becoming the most famous unreleased recordings in music history. Putting this phenomenon in a present day context, it is almost impossible to conceive of such a body of material having been recorded yet not released immediately. Yes, there are no “hit singles”, yet all the elements that were to be found on Music From Big Pink were in place here. Dylan’s name alone would have fueled an album culled from these sessions at least to critical acclaim.

Perhaps Dylan was not ready to share the spotlight, the name above the title, with The Band. The songwriting and performing appear to have been done in a completely collaborative manner, as evidenced by the rotating roles the musicians assumed; from song to song there were frequent changes in lead singing, the drummer playing the mandolin, the bassist playing the guitar, the keyboard player playing the saxophone, etc. Consequently, there’s no way that a representative sample could have been put together as solely a Dylan album. In fact, it would take until the 1974 and the live album Before The Flood for Dylan to share top billing with The Band. It was the success of the 1974 joint tour that finally inspired the release of The Basement Tapes.

If I didn’t know anything about Dylan and The Band and listened to The Basement Tapes for the first time, it would seem the most natural thing if someone told me that these were field recordings, Alan Lomax-esque documentation from some obscure American backwater, laid down by guys who no one had ever heard of. I am fond of actually visualizing this scenario as I listen to undiscovered classics like Odds And Ends, Goin’ To Acapulco, Please, Mrs. Henry, and Nothing Was Delivered. I recommend you do the same. It’s a helluva lot of fun!