Bob Dylan's unguarded moment: The glorious subversion of the new "Basement Tapes" box set

Latest edition of Dylan's bootleg series is essential, and a tough comparison for a new Costello/Jim James project

Published November 15, 2014 10:00PM (EST)

“The Basement Tapes” is the most notorious bootleg in the history of rock 'n' roll. In the late 1960s, Bob Dylan recorded some long, loose, loopy sessions with members of the Band, and for years these demos/field recordings/gag reels were available only on white-label pressings sold under the counter like drugs and pornos, then debated among hardcore Dylanophiles with the vehemence that most people bring to discussions of religion and politics. A handful of songs were released in the mid-1970s, but they had been cleaned up, sussed out and overdubbed with Robbie Robertson’s preening guitar licks. That set only hinted at the shambolic grandeur of the real “Basement Tapes,” which despite being famously hard-to-find seeped into the American subconscious, inspiring generations of artists, at least one feature film (Todd Haynes’ expertly fragmented 2007 biopic “I’m Not There”), and Greil Marcus’ “The Old Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes,” which stands as one of the best volumes of music criticism in the last 20 years.

Because we’ve waited nearly half a century for an official release, the new reissue of “The Basement Tapes” — the 11th volume in Dylan’s vault-clearing Bootleg Series — arrives in stores with an air of finality, although not for Dylan’s or even for the high eBay bids on bootlegs. Instead, it harkens the end of the CD age itself. Sales are plummeting by the week, and CDs have been upstaged by technologies both older (vinyl) and newer (digital), which means there won’t be many more holiday shopping seasons to gather these tunes in the format that most baby boomers still buy. As well, Columbia Legacy is releasing it in three different packages: a two-disc set for curious fans, a six-disc set for completists, and a vinyl box for whoever is more rabid than completists. In other words, rock’s first great bootleg may be its last great CD box set, which is fitting: “The Basement Tapes” is all about tearing things up and rebuilding them cattywampus.

Genially anarchic and often hilarious, the music of “The Basement Tapes” is so tangled up in the story of “The Basement Tapes” that the two have become inseparable. In 1967, Dylan was recovering from a motorcycle accident that stalled his career, dragged him out of the spotlight, and alleviated the pressure of being a generational mouthpiece for most of the decade. Thoroughly shaken, he retreated to rural New York state, where he and members of his backing band the Hawks set up makeshift studios at Dylan’s house and later in the basement of a rental nicknamed Big Pink. Recuperating from a long world tour during which Dylan unveiled his new electrified sound for antagonistic audiences, the musicians wrote and played and sang and created some of the wildest and wooliest music of the era, with only themselves as the intended audience.

The result, nearly 50 years later, is a sprawling collection of gloriously half-assed performances, as loose and unguarded as Dylan has ever sounded. They rip through new arrangements of old tunes and old arrangements of new tunes, deconstructing pre-rock folk ballads like “Bells of Rhymney” as well as recent hits by Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. They indulge rambling improvisations that would be a stretch to call jams. The tackle doo wop and teen pop, often running through the same song in different musical settings. The mood is loose and amiable, almost drunkenly so at times, yet these sessions produced some of Dylan’s most enduring songs, including “I Shall Be Released,” “Million Dollar Bash,” “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and “Tears of Rage” (several of which would appear on the Band’s 1968 debut, “Music From Big Pink”).

These aren’t professional recordings, which is exactly the point. When you throw out conventional ideas of good and bad, you get something new and powerfully subversive. The underground means of dissemination—via bootleg rather than official release, favoring the hawker and the pusher rather than the major label—became an extension of that idea, and much of the power of “The Basement Tapes” has traditionally derived from its scarcity. It was something you had to hunt, like wild prey, sly and evasive. Buying a copy of “Great White Wonder” (the most popular bootleg iteration) made you an outlaw of sorts. Which was only fitting since the musicians were playing these songs like they stole them.

On the new reissue, Dylan comes across as the ringleader of this motley crew, leading them through a dramatic and even revolutionary reimagining of American folk music. That impression, however, is misleading. Because it’s now part of Dylan’s Bootleg Series, the box set includes only the tracks where Dylan sings lead and ignores those featuring Richard Manuel or any of the other Band vocalists (some of which appear on the 1975 double album, which is not yet redundant). But the Band wasn’t Dylan’s backing band. Instead, he had been absorbed into the collective, the fifth member (sixth, once Levon Helm returned to the fold) in a musical democracy.

That is crucial, because it’s the same spirit with which they approach American music, where one style holds no more sway than any other style. There is folk and rock, but also country and rockabilly, odd takes on matinee pop and R&B. Traditional Irish and American folk tunes like “Ol’ Roison the Beau” and “The Bells of Rhymney” jostle against pop and country covers like Hank Williams’ “You Win Again” and the Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower.” For years I thought “I’m Your Teenage Prayer” had to be a cover of some sappy Sinatra crooner’s only obscure hit, because it just sounded too weird to be Dylan’s own composition. Theirs is an egalitarian understanding of American popular music.

“The Basement Tapes” is a weird and contradictory artifact. Although pursued by fans, assessed by critics, and dissected by academics with dogged determination over the years, the music makes a virtue of never taking itself too seriously, and that attitude may be the source of its charm and easygoing genius. Rather than give old-time music the white-glove treatment, they poke some fun at the notion of pop music past or present as “important,” which for Dylan seems profound. In the basement of Big Pink, he could make stuff up on the spot. He could goof off, crack a joke or two, smirk and insinuate — all without the expectation of making some grand pronouncement. On “The Basement Tapes” he sounds like an artist slipping out from under the pressures of his own celebrity, even going so far as to redo his career-making composition “Blowin’ in the Wind” as a lowdown rural blues rather than a solemn folk dissension. To listen to it is to hear Dylan reborn into a craftier and much slyer artist, closer to the squirrelly old man he is today than to the earnest, angry young man he was in the ‘60s.

In the liner notes to the new box set, musician and Dylan historian Sid Griffin asserts that “The Basement Tapes” were not just a reaction to Dylan’s own catalog, but to the music of the late 1960s: “The hit parade showed a popular music full of incense, peppermints, tea parties with the vicar, white rabbits, face painting, fresh flowers, and grandly orchestrated musical backdrops fraught with ruffles and flourishes,” he writes, then later adds, “There is not the first reference to elves, fairies, castles, space travel, a drug experience or misty mountain tops.” There is a sense on “The Basement Tapes” that Dylan is lampooning the sanctimonies of that decade, most notably on “All American Boy.” It’s a cover of Bobby Bare’s 1958 hit, a talking blues inspired by Elvis Presley’s military service. As such, it’s not an especially serious song, but Dylan and the Band, singing and playing like they remember the song very well, cover it like a parody of the antiwar/anti-establishment/anti-whatever-you-got protest songs that defined the era.

Griffin’s head-scratching disdain for late ‘60s pop music notwithstanding, Dylan and the Band weren’t reacting to the times so much as they were ignoring them altogether. “The Basement Tapes” burrows deep into the past and throws a million-dollar bash. It’s their own version of Harry Smith’s famous “Anthology of American Folk Music,” a gigantic mixtape of weird old tunes that inspired Dylan and many others of his generation. That the music of the past might have relevance to the present was not necessarily a new idea; Dylan himself was a product of the folk revival who eventually rebelled against the movement’s self-imposed strictures. But rarely has old music been updated with so few history-class sanctimonies. Even in its new packaging, “The Basement Tapes” isn’t a museum piece, but a body of work that reaches as far into the future as it does into the past.

“When you look at the song titles on an ‘Americana’ chart in any trade magazine today,” Griffin writes in the liner notes, “you are seeing the Basement Tapes’ musical grandchildren.” Especially when rootsy Americana has returned to the mainstream (or what counts today as the mainstream), this is both a well-timed release and a much-needed reminder that popular music has gotten less weird, not more. Artists like Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers approach old-time music reverently, as a means of attaching added sincerity to expressions of great emotion. But any listen to “The Basement Tapes” will reveal that actual old-time can be ironic and emotionally elusive rather than straightforward. It can be lusty and violent and lascivious. It is sophisticated rather than simple. It can’t be trusted with your wallet or your woman.

Too few contemporary Americana artists are quite so satisfying feisty and contradictory as Dylan and the Band are on “The Basement Tapes,” but there are a few who embody those qualities. Alynda Lee Segarra, frontwoman for the New Orleans country-jazz outfit Hurray for the Riff Raff, possesses a similarly sly sense of humor and attitude, which are tempered with outrage on “Small Town Heroes,” one of the best albums of 2014. Luther Dickinson, the son of famed producer Jim Dickinson (Big Star, the Replacements), evokes a similarly roustabout mishmash of folk, R&B, rural blues and Memphis rock on his recent album, “Rock & Roll Blues,” while Shovels & Rope, the husband-wife duo from Charleston, South Carolina, conveys a shambolic orneriness and grit, a sense of creative zeal that turns country into a vehicle for punk. (They’ve been covering the “Basement Tapes” track “I Shall Be Released” on their current tour.)

Too bad none of those artists were involved in the New Basement Tapes, a questionable project from T Bone Burnett. The man behind the legendary “O Brother Where Art Thou?” soundtrack — which is generally seen as the Bible for the current Americana revival — recruited a small band of the usual suspects to flesh out some lyrics that Dylan scrawled in the basement but never recorded: Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons, Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Jim James of My Morning Jacket (who covered the “Basement Tapes” track “Going to Acapulco” for the “I’m Not There” soundtrack). They all collaborated on the arrangements, recorded mostly off the cuff, and somehow got it all wrong. “Further Down the River,” the makeshift group’s weirdly staid album, sounds too professional in its production, too timid in its music, too scripted in its improvisation to adequately capture the joyful chaos of the old “Basement Tapes.” Only Mumford comes off well here — or at least not quite so boring as the others — which is because his band seems to work so hard at being earnest and dull.

Perhaps the best recent evocation of the spirit of “The Basement Tapes” comes from Old Crow Medicine Show, the Virginia string band who’ve been singing, plucking, strumming and touring for more than a decade. In 2003, frontman Ketch Secor rewrote a scrap of unused Dylan lyrics to create a new song called “Wagon Wheel.” It became a live favorite among fans, and in 2013 Darius Rucker covered it on his album “True Believers,” with Lady Antebellum singing backup. Dylan was so impressed with Secor’s reinterpretation of the tune that he gave Old Crow another set of lyrics to play around with. The result is “Sweet Amarillo,” a standout on their recent album “Remedy.”

“Sweet Amarillo” tells of a cowboy’s regret over leaving his lover behind and his endlessly thwarted efforts to find her somewhere in America. “Sweet Amarillo, you never will know how hard I cried!” There’s something clever and incredibly exuberant in the singsong way Secor rhymes “Amarillo” with “never will know,” as though he might be enjoying the heartache and frustration a little too much. It’s a particularly Dylanesque pop contradiction, as though they’re not really singing about those emotions but singing about all the songs that convey those emotions. Dylan did not write the lyrics to reflect real experience, but to bounce off the tower of American song. On a song that sounds tossed off, Old Crow manage to grasp and elaborate on that complex idea, which suggests that the wiliness of the “Basement Tapes,” the irreverence and sly humor projected by Dylan and the Band, are timeless.

By Stephen Deusner

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