Bob Dylan will be 74 years old on May 24 and, in two more years, the serendipitous gathering in the summer of ’67 that produced what came to be known as The Basement Tapes will be 50.
The Band, known then as The Hawks, had been touring with Dylan for two years. Rock critics Greil Marcus, Sid Griffin, and Clinton Heylin, among others, have written exhaustively about the place, process, and people instrumental in this collaboration.
According to guitarist and band spokesman Robbie Robertson, organist Garth Hudson used an old reel-to-reel tape recorder and boxes of Scotch and Shamrock tapes to preserve hits like “Tears of Rage,” “Million Dollar Bash,” “This Wheel’s on Fire,” well known traditional tunes, and many of Dylan's compositions.
Re-released by Columbia in August 2014 as a six-disc set, The Bootleg Series, Vol. 11, Bob Dylan and The Band: The Basement Tapes Complete includes diamonds in the rough that sparkle and intrigue at least as much as the 24 songs originally released in 1975 as The Basement Tapes.
Dylan fearlessly interprets classics that are decades, even centuries, old. The first song on Disc 3, “Young But Daily Growing” (also known as “The Trees They Do Grow High”), dates back to the mid-18th century.
We are mid-song at the outset, but it’s still more than enough to marvel at his articulate and achingly authentic rendition of this classic. It’s not hard to imagine sepia-colored scenes of young boys playing in slow motion, new grass growing around a fresh gravesite, and a young wife quietly mourning.
The raucous, postmodern “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread” is a frivolous yet hypnotic nonsense track that was part the original release. It is one of the main reasons Disc 3 is my favorite. The instrumentation and vocals are as tight and well-rehearsed as any in the collection—which is saying a lot for a song that boasts lyrics like, “Slap that drummer with a pie that smells,” and, “It’s a one-track town, just brown and a breeze too.” Not to mention the title itself.
Redundantly playful piano sequences counteract the crazy lyrics and total absence of any sort of narrative structure. It’s the kind of tune that makes working indoors on a sunny spring day much easier to take because of how insistently the song’s idiosyncrasy skips along in your mind—for hours. (The 2002 You Tube version is nowhere near as mesmerizing and, more importantly, the Hawks are not there.)
On Disc 5, the 1956 doo-wop tune, “Confidential,” composed by Dorinda Morgan for Sonny Knight, features a schmoozy conversation between organ and piano. Dylan deepens and softens his voice for the occasion. A flimsy romanticism emerges, making the song sound like a parody until you remember that just about every song predating Chuck Berry sounded like this. Dylan brings the genre to life alongside some classic accents from Hudson’s virtuoso organ. Spoiler alert: The song reappears unacknowledged in a most appropriate place on the bonus Disc 6.
Join in the fun: Count the number of times Dylan cracks up, or identify all 17 instruments used by The Hawks, or play “Count the Classics,” including reinterpretations of then-contemporary hits like John Lee Hooker’s “I’m in the Mood” (1951), Tim Hardin’s “If I Were a Carpenter” (1967), Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” (1957), The Fleetwoods’ “Mr. Blue” (1959), and Bobby Bare’s rollicking parody of Elvis’ career, “The All American Boy” (1958).
The Basement Tapes collaboration is astonishing for its absence of studio business. The band sensed exactly what Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes means in The Creative Fire, that “being able to play without a goal, being able to play aimlessly is very important to creativity, for one discovers all manner of useful things on the way to nowhere in particular.”
They had no thought of marketing, moving to a big city studio, or least of all taking it too seriously. There is laughter, improvisation, ad-libbing, ribaldry, and both carefree and earnest experimentation on every disc. According to Robbie Robertson, Dylan said at one point during the sessions, “We’re going to have to destroy all of this.”
The Columbia re-release includes two books—one containing the discs pocketed in mock tape boxes, and the other with scores of photographs by Elliott Landy and John Sheele as well as dozens of newspaper clippings, album covers, tape box labels, correspondence, posters, and vinyl center labels.
If you’re not already a Dylan fan, this collection may not turn you into one, but it won’t turn you off. It’s as far from living in the past as Duluth is from Big Pink. In his book The Old, Weird America, rock critic Greil Marcus called The Basement Tapes, “A half-remembered dream.” We should all dream so pleasantly.