Rock and roll is a city of legends built on a swamp of myths, obscured history, and false identities. Bruce Springsteen’s new box set, Album Collection Volume 1, which brings together Springsteen’s first seven studio albums, is the sound of a legend rising. The turning point in the set is Born to Run, the inception story of which is, by this point, commonly known. By 1975, Springsteen was on his last chance with Columbia Records for a commercial breakthrough. His first two albums, Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ and The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle, had been well-received — earning Springsteen the title (both critically and in his marketing) of the new Dylan — but failed to become commercial juggernauts.
Born to Run, Springsteen’s third album, had to change that. Springsteen pored over it, managed every detail, and if ever you want to hear what the shift from rock musician to rock star sounds like, just compare “New York City Serenade,” the final song on Bruce Springsteen 1973 sophomore album The Wild, the Innocent, to Born to Run’s closer, “Jungleland.” Each is just under ten minutes long, but whereas “New York City Serenade” ambles and rambles to a moving but controlled climax, “Jungleland” is all high-density passion, an astonishing feat of rigorous structure that still evokes the feeling of feverish emotional release.
1975 made Springsteen a phenomenon and also saw, after years of bootlegs, the official issue of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, a collection of songs recorded eight years earlier while Dylan was ostensibly recovering from a motorcycle crash. Holed up in the area surrounding Woodstock, NY, in both his home and the basement of a house nicknamed Big Pink, Dylan spent a good part of 1967 playing music with The Band, who, with the exception of drummer Levon Helm, had backed Dylan on the infamous 1966 tour during which he was harassed nightly by traditional folk fans devastated by his new electric sound. With Basement Tapes, Dylan was on a mission entirely opposite to Springsteen’s during the making of Born to Run: having run away from the spotlight, he was forsaking the unique, inimitable voice and style that had brought him superstardom, not creating one; in a makeshift studio, he was disregarding a polished sound, not chasing after perfection.
The Basement Tapes, Big Pink, and the songs that emerged from both have by now become as storied as the Born to Run sessions. But the release of The Basement Tapes Complete, a six-disc box set that collects all the recordings from those months in Woodstock, forces us to reconsider just what we’re memorializing when we talk about that makeshift studio and those songs. If there’s a mythos to the recordings, it cannot be conflated with Dylan’s legend. The recordings contain none of the ego, none of the iconoclasm. None of what made Highway 61 Revisited, say, or Born to Run. They are myths in the sense that rock critic Greil Marcus defined the term in Invisible Republic, his seminal book about The Basement Tapes: that which “in their constancy… carry neither names nor faces.”
The most revelatory elements in Basement Tapes Complete are its many covers, which range from John Lee Hooker blues songs to Irish and Scottish traditionals, folk songs reminiscent of Dylan’s pre-electric days, and country classics. They offer a startling map of Dylan’s origins — a blueprint of the ground on which his legend was built. But listening to the range of songs on the collection also offers a unique appreciation of the multifarious origins of rock and roll.
Dylan and The Band, for example, sing a version of “I Forgot to Remember to Forget,” one of the just over two dozen songs that Elvis recorded during his tenure at Sun Records. (It was, in fact, the B-side to “Mystery Train,” Elvis’ first song to reach #1 on the country charts.) And it was at Sun Studios, of course, that Sam Phillips recorded Howlin’ Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and others, through whom a mishmash of soul, blues, and country turned into rockabilly and then rock and roll.
If that’s a simplified story then it reflects the kind of distillation that’s an essential component of all rock music. It is, after all, the process that made Elvis. His Sun recordings include the country song “I’ll Never Let You Go (Little Darlin’)” the bluesy, Junior Parker-penned “Mystery Train,” and the bluegrass “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Some were written for Elvis, others written and recorded by others but taken and thereafter owned by Elvis. And as Elvis soaked up these styles, the Great Man theory of rock and roll grew from him, developed in his rivalry with Jerry Lee Lewis, and then became an integral part of the music’s identity. Even today, there’s no new style of rock, no new scene, if there isn’t a figure to identify with it. That’s not to say that gospel, country, and folk don’t have certain singers and songwriters that are remembered more than others. But even among these artists — the Mahalia Jacksons, Hank Williams, and Pete Seegers — there are many who epitomize their styles without radically veering from their traditional sound. In rock, it’s the transformative that gets valued above all.
Dylan, of course, fit himself quite neatly into that vision of rock and roll when he took the stage at Newport with an electric band and got met, as Marcus describes it, with a “torrent of shouts, curses, refusal, damnation, and perhaps most of all confusion.” On Basement Tapes Complete, though, there’s hardly any of the defiance that pushed Dylan to that kind of performance at Newport. There’s no sense of his singularity, only of the various traditions he belongs to. His folk heritage is present in fairly straight versions of songs like “Four Strong Winds” and “The Auld Triangle.” (His rebellious streak does come through, though, in a bluesy, rollicking cover of “Blowin’ in the Wind.”) There are traditional blues and gospel tracks here as well.
What you hear most, though, on Basement Tapes Complete is Dylan’s immersion in the country tradition. In one respect, that part of the box set evidences the fact that these songs are not entirely out of time. After all, Dylan’s first album upon leaving Big Pink would be 1967’s John Wesley Harding, a straight country record followed by 1969’s equally traditional Nashville Skyline.
Those two albums may have seemed at the time to break with the exploratory and unpredictable ethos that Dylan had helped to define — Ellen Willis described it as an album in which Dylan asked “why should he have to make the revolution every time” — but ultimately they weren’t much more than an explicit exploration of the roots of rock and roll. Many of the country songs that Dylan pulled out at Big Pink were the same ones that in the past 15 years had become part of the great fusion in rock and popular music generally. The first disc ofBasement Tapes Complete includes a cover of Hank Williams’s “You Win Again,” a song that Jerry Lee Lewis recorded as the B-Side to “Great Balls of Fire” and that Ray Charles included on his equally influential and genre-bending 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.
That’s just one example of how the expanded Basement Tapes offers much more than outtakes; more than a glimpse of six friends and musicians goofing off (though we do get that in joke songs like “See You Later Allen Ginsberg,” which, in their impulsive disorder, represent an equally important side of rock and roll); more than a look at the wide range of styles that influenced Dylan. What’s on display is nothing less than the elements that, when meshed together, created rock and roll.
In Invisible Republic, Marcus rightly posits Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music as a “backdrop to the basement tapes.” But the recordings of Dylan and The Band playing through the songs they know off by heart, so much so that they can contort them and joke around with them, are equally evocative of the Million Dollar Quartet sessions, in which Johnny Cash, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins spontaneously joined together at the height of their careers for a jam session at Sun Studios and played a series of gospel, country, and early rock songs, stripping away the personal style that had brought them all individual success to reveal a shared heritage. If by 1967, rock was a souped-up, well-oiled machine, in Woodstock, Dylan and The Band were taking it apart and laying out its component parts for all to see.
With Born to Run, Springsteen defined himself sonically (as an arena-rock anthem writer) and thematically (parked where the American dream meets everyday disappointment). But the incredible run of records he produced afterward developed, shifted, and sometimes upended that style, message, and personality. It is, of course, the duty of rock stars to never repeat themselves, to constantly be reinventing themselves. And listening to The Album Collection Vol. 1, it becomes clear that those shifts emerge from the different musical styles Springsteen pushed to the forefront of his sound on every new album. So while you can hear Springsteen and the E Street Band’s roots as an R&B and early rock and roll cover band on Born to Run’s “10th Avenue Freeze Out,” it’s not until The River and its short, three- or four-minute numbers like “I’m a Rocker” and “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” that these influences stand front and center.
Still, as with Dylan, the range of styles that Springsteen draws upon becomes most explicit when you hear his live recordings, side projects, and unreleased material. We Shall Overcome, Springsteen’s 2006 album featuring covers of folk songs written or made famous by Pete Seeger, spotlights the kind of storytelling that Springsteen would use in songs like “The River.” Springsteen rented his first guitar when he was six after seeing Elvis perform on the Ed Sullivan Show, and that inspiration is most evident in Springsteen’s straight-from-the-hips croon on “Talk To Me,” a track recorded during the sessions for Darkness on the Edge of Townbut released only in 2010 on The Promise. Springsteen has also cited the electro-punk band Suicide as an influence, particularly on 1982’s Nebraska, but that’s more obvious from his statements and his live covers of Suicide’s song “Dream Baby Dream” than from Nebraskaitself, on which the high-pitched wailing that’s reminiscent of Suicide frontman Alan Vega is just one of many elements that help form the album’s unique sound.
When you listen to Springsteen’s albums together, you hear one voice, one man trying on new suits and fashions. But that’s a pleasing fabrication, a way to view the music in its most simplistic and heroic form. It’s not that anyone could have done what he or Elvis or Dylan did, not that their musical talents are superfluous. But what sets them apart equally is a desire and ability to become larger than life; to, as Tony Tost writes of Johnny Cash, a man of similar talents, clothe themselves “in myth, expelling a new self again and again through labor.”
But there’s an important element that has gone unspoken here. If we’re talking about influences then we’re also talking about appropriation. If we’re talking about legends then we’re also talking about the fact that their edifices are built on others’ less successful careers. Springsteen, Dylan, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis: these are all white artists taking up styles originated by black musicians. It was, after all, Otis Blackwell, a black man, who wrote “Don’t Be Cruel,” “All Shook Up,” and “Great Balls of Fire.”
Things are no different today. In his review of Taylor Swift’s 1989, New York Times critic Jon Caramanica wrote that “modern pop stars — white pop stars, that is — mainly get there by emulating black music.” And even though he makes the point to argue that Swift avoids that route, the larger truth is that in rock and pop, artists stand on the shoulders of their influences (or their songwriters) and the bigger they get, the more those influences get buried. It’s a peril engrained in both rock stardom and pop stardom insofar as both function according to the same logic of individual exceptionalism.
There are legends in blues and country as well, of course, but they tend to be subsumed under the larger mythology of their musical genre. Robert Johnson and Blind Willie Johnson are prime examples. The former is alleged to have sold his soul to the devil to become a famous bluesman; the latter was apparently blinded at age five when his mother threw lye in his face, and died destitute while sleeping in the ruins of his burned down house. Ultimately it’s no matter whether those stories are true because the legends are not meant to elevate the artist but to emphasize their sacrifice to the music — the goal is to lift the music, as a powerful and engulfing and mystical force, rather than the man. It’s the difference between, on the one hand, genres defined by tradition, whether stylistically (acoustic, political folk) or even structurally (the 12-bar blues), and ones obsessed with repeatedly subverting what came before. To put it another way, the difference is between genres like folk where, as Greil Marcus writes, “any song belongs to all and none belongs to anyone in particular,” and ones like rock where the goal, the prize for innovation, is individual fame. A wide range of artists and styles laid the groundwork for Springsteen’s music, and while they’re never hidden on his albums they always bear the prominent imprimatur of their creator: The Boss.
Listening to Basement Tapes, you hear Dylan surrendering himself to whichever genre and style he’s indulging in at the time. There’s hardly a Dylan there; mostly there’s just the blues, country, the songs for which the word timeless fits because, even though they’re unknown, you have heard them before with only slightly different lyrics or with only a change in key. You can also hear all of Dylan — bluesman, folk singer, rock troubadour, country music lover (not his recently announced Frank Sinatra phase, though) — in the Basement Tapes. But that’s true as a consequence of what makes these recordings, particularly as presented in their entirety in Basement Tapes Complete, so remarkable: rather than the sound of an emerging musical aesthetic, they provide an aural record of that murky swamp of musical myth from which such legends arise.