Saturday, March 02, 2013

Mo' Bob -- Basement Tapes; in print


For reasons that are unimportant to this discussion, I find myself house bound and unemployed. While my heart is full, there's a hole in my soul, and I've given up on my customary means of filling it. Absent those, I'm reading more now than I have in 30 years, and I'm using this opportunity to catch up on some musical things I've missed in the past five decades. Like all the performers Allen Lowe writes about in his books. And Bob Dylan.


I got the Columbia 2CD of The Basement Tapes and listened to it late at night, when I was alone and free of distractions, per my pal Phil's recommendation, and was overwhelmed by how much I could be affected by music I'd managed to avoid since their "official" release in '75. By then, they'd already been a rumor for eight years, unless you were one of the musos or industry people who'd heard one of the acetates Bob's British publishers circulated, or one of the bootlegs that started appearing in '69. (One of my friends has the 4CD A Tree With Roots -- great title, from a line in "You Ain't Going Nowhere" -- while another has the 5CD Genuine Basement Tapes. There are lots more.) Bob and the ex-Hawks sound like they're inventing a new kind of music.

The way we got here was my remark to Phil that I found the Hawks more obtrusive than other bands of Bob's, probably because they have a stronger identity. I'm not a fan of the Band per se, although I'm not as anti-Band as a muso I used to play with, who claims to hate "that fucking 'take a load off Fanny' song" more than anything on Earth. In fact, I have an abiding fondness for their second, self-titled album, which my seventh grade science teacher, who was also a friend of my parents', gave me when I was 13 because her son, who was also a Who fan (and wound up spending 30 years in Africa with the Peace Corps) dug it.

I got a vinyl copy of The Band a couple of years ago, in the same textured gatefold I remember, and was reassured to find it still casts the same spell. The cover photo looked like it should have been taken by Matthew Brady; who'd a thunk that 40 years down the line, the guys in the Band, with their rustic clothes and facial hair, would be the most influential act from their time, sartorially speaking?

Back when it was new, their music sounded really old to me, but then again, I'd only recently been obsessed with Live At Leeds. Years later, I realized that the 19th century echoes I imagined I was hearing on The Band were actually the refracted voices of Ray Charles and Bobby Bland: Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Levon Helm were actually soul singers, although Levon's voice had the twang of Appalachia in it. Danko's the best high harmony there is, and when his unison shadows Manuel on "Bessie Smith," the effect is haunting.

The rollicking roll in the Band's music, particularly Danko's bass, was actually rooted in New Orleans second line. I heard the same sound in Little Feat, who should also have paid royalties to Professor Longhair, the Meters, and the Wild Tchopitoulas. On The Basement Tapes, that second line strut is present on Dylan's "Open the Door, Homer" and the Band's "Yazoo Street Scandal" and "Don't Ya Tell Henry" (both sung by Levon after he returned to the fold; he'd quit the Hawks in '66 because he didn't dig getting booed by Dylan's folk-purist fans, yielding the drum seat to a guy who wound up on the TV show Home Improvement in the '90s).

I've always found Garth Hudson's swirling, carnivalesque organ to be one of the most easily recognizable instrumental sounds, but hearing The Basement Tapes has given me a new respect for Robbie Robertson as a guitarist. On many of these tracks, he synthesizes what was best about Steve Cropper's and Hubert Sumlin's styles, and gives an inkling of what Dylan was talking about when he called Robertson "the only mathematical guitar genius I’ve ever run into who doesn’t offend my intestinal nervousness with his rearguard sound." You still can't imagine him playing a long solo, but his little decorative fills and short, punchy statements are immaculate.

Part of what's so striking about The Basement Tapes is hearing Dylan invent a new voice (or two) for himself, and to these feedback-scorched ears, the secret influence is Manuel, who could sound robust and plaintive, virile and vulnerable at the same time. Gone is the nasal stridency of the early folk period and the "thin, wild Mercury sound" of the '65-'66 epoch, when Bob was reinventing everyone's consciousness. In its place is something more resonant that you can hear evolving into Nashville Skyline's rounded tenor; listen to "Please, Mrs. Henry" ("I'm down on my knees, and I ain't got a dime"), the great "Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread," and "Tiny Montgomery," in which Dylan's sleepy, slurred inflection is redolent of the bayou. Then again, on "This Wheel's On Fire," co-written with Danko, Dylan's voice is virtually indistinguishable from Manuel's. And contrary to my earlier perception, Bob's beautifully integrated into the group, without fear of his lead being overshadowed by backing singers who, man for man, are stronger vocalists than he is.

On "Too Much of Nothing," with its crazy ascending melody, Dylan sounds as if he's been infected by the Band's melodic adventurousness. Elsewhere, he relies on classic forms in the same way he did in his folk period. "Odds and Ends" is straight ahead blues and "Apple Suckling Tree" uses gospel changes, while "Nothing Was Delivered" echoes Bobby Marchan's "There Is Something On Your Mind." Throughout, there's a sense of ease here, a marked contrast with the urgency of Dylan's earlier work, where words and ideas flowed out of him as though he couldn't wait to get them out.

In his book Bob Dylan: Performing Artist, 1960-1963 (the first volume of a trilogy), Paul Williams refers to the time following Dylan's '66 motorcycle crash, when The Basement Tapes and John Wesley Harding were recorded, as a time of "great healing," and wonders "why this creative flowering didn't last." Myself, I think of The Basement Tapes as the supernova that followed Dylan's '65-'66 drug-fueled zenith of creativity -- a peak that wasn't sustainable, as Dylan realized while it was happening and bailed out of as quickly as he could. In a way, perhaps his Woodstock idyll was a way of repaying the musicians for enduring the slings and arrows of the tempestuous '66 tour -- an opportunity to commingle their creative streams for a moment, after the Hawks had spent three months playing a set drawn from Dylan's catalog under the most suboptimal conditions imaginable.


As I write this, Paul Williams is in hospice. Since 1995, he's been suffering from dementia brought on by traumatic brain injury sustained in a bicycle accident, but when he was a teenager back in the '60s, he helped create rock journalism from the whole cloth of his listener's enthusiasm coupled with his experience publishing sci-fi fanzines. His first book, Outlaw Blues (titled after a Dylan song from Bringing It All Back Home) taught me how to listen analytically, but his greatest achievement just might be his Dylan trilogy. It was the first place I went when I was looking for a Dylan companion (Greil Marcus being too obtuse for my taste, Clinton Heylin too insufferably snarky and self-aggrandizing).

The first volume is a fanatic collector's delight; I'm glad I had Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 when I started, or I'd be, if not frustrated, then certainly tantalized by his descriptions of recordings that didn't see legit release until Sony started "bootlegging the bootleggers" in the '90s. The 1964 Philharmonic Hall concert sounds particularly intriguing, as does the "piano-only" version of "She's Your Lover Now," which Williams conditionally amends to a characteristically quirky list of "masterpieces" that include "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Like A Rolling Stone," the seldom seen '78 film Renaldo and Clara, and "Blind Willie McTell."

The '66 tour is the subject of some of Williams' sharpest writing, which will ring true for any reader who's ever been fortunate to experience the thrill of a successful musical performance as a participant. His capacity for empathy makes him the Stephen Crane of rockcrits: "He knew full well he was burning the candle at both ends, that it couldn't go on like this, that he was hurting himself. But he also loved the results he was unimaginable freedom from self-consciousness, a total willingness to share in each song everything he's feeling and everything each song means to him, to give it all away without any conditions to anyone who happens to be listening."


Or you could go to the man himself. Dylan's Chronicles, Volume One is a quick, easy read that will frustrate fans who are looking for Ugly Things-style detail, but that's not really his job, is it? (A friend of mine groused after reading Pete Townshend's Who I Am that "he didn't say anything about the 'Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere' recording session." Myself, I thought that the bits where Big T describes his stage trip as a comment on the threat of nuclear annihilation, and his Mod constituency buttonholing him after "I Can't Explain" was released and "commissioning" him to "write more songs like that!" were more germane in terms of getting us inside Pete's head. Not to mention the bits about hearing music in a boat's motor as a kid, or being praised by his great aunt for banging on her piano.) At least he doesn't keep veering into the ditch of his current obsessions the way Neil Young did in his memoir.

You won't find anything about The Basement Tapes or the '66 tour in Chronicles. Perversely, Bob mainly focuses on three distinct time periods: his early days in the Village, up to his signing with Columbia; the time leading up to his early '70s reemergence with New Morning; and the writing and recording of the '80s album Oh Mercy, which includes lots of detail on his creative process and is vaguely reminiscent of Young's description of the trials 'n' tribs that resulted in Americana and Psychedelic Pill (the episode begins with Dylan injured and unable to play). In some ways, Chronicles is like a play or movie where the "real action" takes place offstage or off camera. While the cataclysmic years of '65-'66 are alluded to obliquely but never discussed, they hang over the New Morning chapter like a pall, and Dylan does express his feelings on his image, the interpretation of his songs, and the effect of celebrity on his family life.

Dylan's at his worst when talking about the technical side of music-making; there's a five-page description of a guitar technique he learned from bluesman Lonnie Johnson that's fairly unfathomable (perhaps he's trying to get people like me to go back and listen to Oh Mercy?). He's better when he recalls growing up in the midwest, his impressions of New York City, his love of folk music and admiration for his peers (Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez, Ramblin' Jack Elliott) and influences (Robert Johnson, The Threepenny Opera, and above all, Woody Guthrie). My favorite bits are the unexpected ones: the regard with which he writes of early '60s teen idol Bobby Vee, for whom he once played piano; his description of building furniture for his first New York apartment (Bob the tool man?); his recollection of watching sports and playing ice hockey as a kid in the North Country (the latter something he probably shared with the Canadians in the Hawks/Band).

To be continued...


Anonymous shipman said...

I'm so glad that you found Dylan's description of that guitar technique unfathomable as well- I was afraid it was just me!

12:20 PM  

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