Music

Review: 16 Essential Songs To Hear In Dylan’s New ‘Basement Tapes’ Box Set

Dylan, Band Recorded Songs In Late ‘60s In Woodstock, N.Y.

Photo: Elliott Landy/Capitol Records

Photo: Elliott Landy/Capitol Records

When Bob Dylan and the Band recorded the material that soon gained legend as “The Basement Tapes” in the late 1960s, this homespun, tradition-minded music stuck out like a sore thumb during the psychedelia-drenched Age of Aquarius.

Nearly 50 years later, the arrival of a 139-song box set this week painstakingly cataloging these recordings comes in an era when the long-playing album is on its last legs and single-song downloads are becoming the main musical currency.

Today, as was the case then, it’s Dylan who is in the right. “The Basement Tapes” might be more than a bite-sized portion for many listeners, but it will be one they will find a rewarding examination of American traditional music. (For an essay on the history and importance of the “Basement” recordings, read this article.)

Thankfully, Dylan’s management offer an out for those with short attention spans or shallow pockets. The new six-CD set titled “The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11” has nearly everything recorded in Big Pink, the group’s communal hangout in Woodstock, N.Y., and elsewhere during that magical year, while a two-disc “Raw” version is a Cliff Notes-style overview only casual listeners will add to their collections.

Below is a kind of syllabus on one of the most important musical history lessons and the key starting points for those who are just diving into this material. These aren’t the only “Basement” songs worth of note. (“I Shall Be Released,” “Tears Of Rage,” You Ain’t Going Nowhere” and “Quinn The Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)” are surely contenders just as compositions.)  Rather, they represent some of these session’s finest moments, as well as the most interesting half-formed ideas. Start here and then go further.

So, here is a list of the most important “Basement” songs, in no particular order:

“I’m Not There”

Even among the many treasures of the “Basement” sessions, “I’m Not There” is that rare lightning in a bottle.

Here, listeners can listen to Dylan extemporaneously trying out some lyrics and a majestic melody from some basic guitar chords. If all those bootleg buyers wanted a peek behind Dylan’s creative curtain, “I’m Not There” is the goods. While only a first draft of a masterpiece, it remains one of the great lost “Basement” songs, only getting an official release a couple of years ago on the soundtrack for the surrealist Dylan biopic, “I’m Not There.”

The song’s skeletal arrangement and dummy words are both indicative of its incompleteness as well as lending it an unintended air of mystery. (Maybe Dylan meant for listeners to hear this collage of nonsensical verbal images?)

Dylan keeps a steady strum on his acoustic guitar, letting the ideas and emotions to spring from his mind and his impassioned vocals. In the birthing process, he is aided only by organist Garth Hudson and bassist Rick Danko, who are tasked with peopling the background with complimentary ideas. Pianist Richard Manuel summons his courage halfway through, joining in to add some piano tinkering and then a bed of chords.

After more than 5 glorious minutes, Dylan is content to toss this song back into his creative reservoir without reeling it in. All listeners should feel thankful that Hudson turned on the recorder when he did.

“Sign On The Cross”

Along with “I’m Not There,” “Sign On The Cross” was one of the true highlights of the “Basement” recordings — if not Dylan’s entire discography — but one that oddly never saw an official release until now.

A decade before Dylan’s very public conversion to Christianity, “Sign On The Cross” signals the spiritual awakening that the singer was undergoing during those tranquil Woodstock years. His friends and family remarked in the press at the time about a Bible being open on a stand in his home. Careful listeners can also hear the number of scriptural references and allusions that crept into his work during this period, both in the “Basement” songs and Dylan’s subsequent record, “John Wesley Harding.”

“Sign On The Cross” is an elegant hymn that creeps to a religious ecstasy. As Dylan warbles through every line, he is abetted by the Band’s most formidable instrumentalists, Hudson and guitarist Robbie Robertson. The guitar playing here is Robertson at his most poetic. He plays pinched, ringing notes that sound like glistening bells. Hudson, who allegedly once played in an uncle’s funeral parlor in Canada, dresses the song in a perfect tapestry of musical hosannas conjured from his Lowery organ.

As Dylan runs out of words at the end, he changes character from a crooning gospel prophet to a televangelist encouraging redemption through music release. “If it begins to worry you/Well, that’s all right because sing a song/And all your troubles will pass right on through,” Dylan raps.

Amen.

“Apple Suckling Tree”

While the first take of “Apple Suckling Tree” is a shambolic trial run, the second take is a boogie-woogie revivalist stomper that forever establishes Hudson’s keyboarding genius. Dylan is on upright piano and Robertson or more likely, Manuel, is providing some excellent kick drumming that keeps the spirits high as Bob takes this ditty on a spin around the Catskill Mountains on a wild spring day. Danko chirps along like a hype man, seconding the boss’ every hare-brained claim. The song culminates in Hudson’s marvelous slippery solo – part carnival calliope, part Dixieland excursion – that is a miracle of Western music.

“Too Much Of Nothing”

Long overlooked among the most prominent “Basement” songs, “Too Much Of Nothing” represents the very best of the Dylan-Band collaboration. The song is no longer an example of a singer and his backing band rehearsing a track. This is a natural outgrowth of a cohesive unit playing to its own unique strengths and characteristics. For the first time since his high school days in Minnesota, Dylan is really in a band!

The tone of “Too Much Of Nothing” can’t shake a sense of uncertainty. Many of Dylan’s lyrics are dead-end lines that suddenly take a new spin thanks to Biblical allusions and common working-man tropes. Dylan the songwriter seems to be testing which direction the words should go: Should this be a proletarian anthem masquerading as a story song? Or an elusive, mystery-laden parable? Right now, the answer is both.

Robertson and Hudson, as usual, provide much of the musical color. Robertson’s stately guitar is bopping to Dylan’s every verse, nudging the song forward. Hudson’s organ creates a lush, one-man orchestra. With Danko and Manuel joining Dylan on the choruses, Dylan’s singing really cuts loose. If Dylan can’t sing — as so many haters allege — this guy doesn’t know it.

On the 1975 double album, “The Basement Tapes,” additional overdubs — guitar, drums, improved backing vocals — were added to the song to polish the piece. It’s hard to argue with the improvements. On the new box set, which prizes historical accuracy over listening pleasure, they’ve omitted the augmentations to reveal “Too Much Of Nothing” as an imperfect gem.

The second take included here is less coherent and enthusiastic. They might be ready to move on to something new.

“Goin’ To Acapulco”

When Robertson assembled the original double album, the inclusion of “Goin’ To Acapulco” was the track that raised the most questions among those who had already heard the bootleg records. First, the song had never been heard before or even rumored to exist. Despite its qualities, it wasn’t included in any of the material that Dylan’s manager and song publishers had shared with other artists. In particular, the song’s appearance set off alarm bells suggesting the archive ran far deeper than anyone imagined.

“Goin’ To Acapulco” starts abruptly, the swell and swoon of the music already shimmering seconds after Hudson hit the record button. Slow and meandering, Dylan passionately sings a drunk’s tale of loneliness and lust with only Robertson’s sublime guitar runs to act as drinking buddy at a seaside bar. Manuel’s high hat work is tender, almost like gentle tapping of tablas instead of a snappy beat. The lyrics are nearly inscrutable, but it isn’t clear if the lyricist is just confused or the song’s protagonist is a little fuzzy from drink. In the end, who cares.

As the song builds to a release, Dylan, Danko and Manuel beautifully howl a drunkard’s refrain as Hudson’s quivering organ lines make the maudlin sound very nearly graceful. Robertson, the former blues-guitar hero, too has gone gentile. The song offers one of his most soulful guitar moments and representative of a new, less-is-more style that he pioneered on the early Band records.

My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and indie-rock alt-country group Calexico recorded a remarkable cover of this song for the soundtrack for the “I’m Not There” film. The movie sequence in which James and the group perform the song at a public wake in the town square to a menagerie of Dylan-ized carnival characters is the most heartbreaking sequence in the whole flick.

“Santa-Fe”

First released on “The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3” in 1991, “Santa-Fe” was the first “Basement” song to leave Hudson’s archives since the 1975 double album.  With hindsight, it’s odd that this song never made it onto any of the highlight reels for other artists as except for “Quinn The Eskimo (The Might Quinn),” “Santa-Fe” is probably the catchiest of the best.

Bright and cheery even though it’s half-finished, Dylan seems just excited to sing a real tune. The group’s backing is suitable if unremarkable. One is left to wonder where this thing could have gone had Bob finished the lyrics and allowed the players more than a single pass to give their parts some additional personality.

“Wildwood Flower”

After months of going unused, someone in Big Pink has finally found the autoharp. This wouldn’t be a hootenanny without it.

If the Band members did have any knowledge of old-timey mountain music – Danko and drummer Levon Helm were the most likely suspects — the Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower” is a song they would have been very familiar with. If the song was new, however, perhaps this was the perfect example of Dylan imparting his extensive folk-music knowledge on to boys well-versed in hell-raising, bar-band fare.

Manuel kicks off the song with some peeling blues harp, but that is shunted aside when Dylan mans that autoharp, which is an intellectually intriguing but poor substitute for Maybelle Carter’s dazzling acoustic-guitar fingerwork. Dylan’s full strumming claims almost all the middle frequencies as it springboards off Danko’s energetic, elastic basslines. In fact, Dylan seems so preoccupied with the autoharp, his singing is most perfunctory and claiming none of the mournfulness that Sara Carter was able to evoke on the original recording.

Had Dylan succeeded in turning the Band members into full-blooded folkies, this would have been the starting point.

“All You Have To Do Is Dream”

The two versions of “All You Have To Do Is Dream” originate from the later sessions, right after Helm had returned to the drum stool and as the “Basement” period was winding down in early 1968. The twin takes show Dylan’s penchant for constant reinvention in hopes of unlocking something in a newly conceived arrangement.

Two bars into the first version and it’s clear there’s some funky drumming the likes of which listeners haven’t heard on most other “Basement” cuts. Clearly, Helm is back and was much needed. Robertson plays off his partner’s beats by striking the chords like he’s wielding a machete. Manuel’s piano repeats downcast, circular passage while Hudson’s keyboard sneakily trails after the singer. Dylan’s vocals stroll through these colliding parts. His calm confidence fashion him as a rounder extolling street wisdom on a New Orleans levee where waters will never crash.

The second take has a faster tempo and slicker feel to the performance that robs the song of any remarkable qualities. Everyone just sounds rushed. Perhaps picking up the dulled vibe in the room, Robertson’s guitar is bereft of inspiration and his solo sails around without purpose before ending on a dud. The first take was clearly the place to start from.

“Wild Wolf”

Long rumored among the AWOL “Basement” songs, “Wild Wolf” had been copyrighted in the early ‘70s but remained tantalizing out of bootleggers’ hands.

Now available for the first time, it has a foreboding quality that would have made it an ideal candidate for a Sergio Leone film. Danko’s bass is surprisingly busy, bouncing off any other instruments (guitar, piano) that have been nudged to the periphery.

“Edge Of The Ocean”

This track allegedly dates from the earliest “Basement” sessions at Dylan’s own Woodstock-area home before the crew moved over to Big Pink. And despite some recording issues – what is that clacking? – there’s a clear sonic vision here that contrasts sharply from anything Bob and the Band were doing during the high-octane 1965-1966 world tour.

Peaceable and soulful, the song is a pleasing introduction to these musical experiments. In a time when Cream and Jimi Hendrix were pushing the concept of jamming to an audience’s breaking point, these musicians were zeroed in on songcraft and sonic economy.  Maybe Otis Redding could have made something of this?

“One Too Many Mornings”

A new, electrified arrangement of “One Too Many Mornings” was a nightly highlight of the ’66 leg of the tour, featuring plenty of Robertson’s electric guitar wallop.

When the song was committed to tape in the basement, however, it’s unclear if this was just a warmup, an attempt to get a demo of this arrangement for others or perhaps, an attempt to soft peddle the song for the Band members to do it themselves. (They eventually did, but in the ’90s.)

Lending credence to these theories was Dylan ordering Manuel to take the first verse. The pianist’s cadence is slower and more vulnerable.  By the second verse, Dylan has taken over and he’s less precious about going through the lines.

Most of the performance is much the same as the ’66 version. One noteworthy switch is how Dylan adjusts the chorus’ backing vocals to be less of a yell over the howl of Robertson’s Telecaster and more of a church group chiming in unison.

 “I’m Your Teenage Prayer”

Robertson famously said the basement sessions was only “reefer run amok” and the novelty song “I’m Your Teenage Prayer” would be at the top of the list to prove Robbie’s point.

But even if Manuel is intent on busting Dylan up during this ’50s doo-wop parody, serious work is happening here between the chuckles. As Dylan strums and sings the same couple of hooks with a straight face, Manuel and Danko are tossing out rhymes for the writer to potentially throw into the mix. When Dylan inevitably cracks and joins in the silliness, the song finally ends with a blissed-out outro.

If the song or these sessions were really just a goof, these guys wouldn’t have kept trying to build a tune instead of enjoying the laugh.

“Pretty Mary”

Distorted and roughly mixed, “Pretty Mary” is a Hank Williams-style country lament that instead of becoming a love letter on country radio was hidden away to rot among Hudson’s possessions. (That could be its own song.)

When the chorus comes around, Dylan and the Band singers produce an inviting, rough-hewn blend of voices. Any Music Row producer of that generation would have embraced with open arms.

The song has some kinship with the material that Dylan would record on “Nashville Skyline,” but is less polished and lovey-dovey than those songs. Had it made it onto that album, the longing qualities in “Pretty Mary” would have harshed the mellow Dylan.

“Waltzing With Sin”

Initially, Dylan and the group can’t decide whether this song should be a Nashville country song or some kind of a Mexican bandit tale.

Halfway through, Dylan knows he’s missed the mark and asks for another go-around that better coalesces the stylistic impulses running through these subgenres. Hudson improvises some churchy patterns and Robertson tentatively tries out a mandolin trilling effect on his guitar that he would later make much use of on future releases. There’s something here but the gang leaves this experiment unresolved.

“900 Miles From My Home”

This lilting rendition of a traditional American railroad song has many of the rollicking qualities that Dylan and the Band gave to a trio of Woody Guthrie covers during their first post-crash appearance at a tribute concert in January 1968. The arrangement is loose, buoyant in spirit and with an undeniably punchy beat.

Dylan hits the guitar strings with gentle confidence and Danko’s wavering tenor voice is again cast as Bob’s second when he steers the ensemble to the chorus. And could that be Helm giving the rhythm some extra pep and shouting out backup vocals from the drum stool, way far off mic?

Dylan apparently wasn’t satisfied with this beautiful first try. An overly distorted, wack-job version of this song was recorded later and literally flies off the rails. (The second attempt is a secret track on the new box set.) The tempo is too fast and Danko’s fiddle is sloppy and off-kilter – the Velvet Underground’s John Cale would appreciate Danko’s attempt at dissonance but would likely ask him to stop. This rendition is so confusing it sounds like they’ve sucked up a bunch of helium before the tape started rolling. The recording cuts off not a moment too soon.

“This Wheel’s On Fire”

The “Basement” version of “This Wheel’s On Fire” proves the architect always has a few secrets the others might miss. While the Byrds and countless others took a stab at re-recording the song – and had some chart success in the process – no one apart from Dylan had the patience and perspective to invest the right amount of emotion into their performance.

Even Danko, who co-wrote the song with Dylan, sang a speed-up version of the song on the Band’s debut album, “Music From Big Pink,” but badly mishandled it. It was one of the rare instances where the Band allowed a potential hit to slip through because of a gimmicky arrangement that tried too hard to strike a different note than Dylan’s version. In classic case of bad casting, Hudson used the wrong keyboard effects from his arsenal of sounds.

In the basement, Dylan strums the chords like a march to the sea and sings the words with an air of building inevitability. Piano chords drive home the building tension and Hudson’s organ swirls like Captain Nemo wants this soundtrack to play as the Nautilus reaches ramming speed.

The meaning behind Dylan’s lyric is elusive, but the ominous intent is clear: Repent “before it gets too late.”

Note: David’s music column, Soundbytes, appeared on Wisconsin Public Radio’s website. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2014 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s