Saturday, October 22, 2016

Back in the Basement with Bob


Say what you want about Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize for literature: There isn't another scribe besides Shakespeare whom people of A Certain Age have quoted more (knowingly or unknowingly).

While I'm not going to say that my buddy John Bargas conjured Bob's Nobel, we had lunch a couple of days before the announcement and he gave me a copy of Invisible Republic, in which Greil Marcus imagines a country based on Bob's '67 "basement tapes" and Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. I'd never read it before, because I bailed on Marcus after Lipstick Traces, which I found unreadable. But it sent me back to Robbie Robertson's revisionist-history version of The Basement Tapes, which Columbia released back in '75, and which I now own on vinyl. And without Greil's pointing it out, I'd never have recognized "Clothes Line Saga" for a goof on Bobbie Gentry. I'm slow like that.

The Robertson Basement Tapes remains not only my favorite Dylan music, but my favorite Band music after the "brown album." But it's not The Thing Itself, it's an edition compiled by a shameless self-mythologizer that made me remember watching The Last Waltz and thinking, "Wow, isn't Robbie full of himself?" Robbie and engineer Rob Fraboni remixed the original stereo tapes in mono, adding reverb and overdubs, and included eight performances recorded after the fact by the Band without Dylan. Beyond that, it's puzzling that something could have been marketed under that title that didn't include "I Shall Be Released" and "Quinn the Eskimo."

Still, it was the most commonly available way for a non-Dylan fanatic (they had all the bootlegs) to hear this music until Columbia released the full whack on five CDs a couple of years ago as The Bootleg Series Vol. 11 (with a 2CD "highlights reel," The Basement Tapes Raw, for cheap bastards like your humble chronicler o' events, or folks who feel like they've been brainwashed after listening to multiple takes of the same song back-to-back). Even the "complete" release, however, doesn't include "Even If It's A Pig (Parts I and II)," two mic-testing jams that sound so hallucinatory in Marcus' description that I had to go back and look them up in the index a few days after my first reading of Invisible Republic to make sure I hadn't imagined or dreamt them. Perhaps in another ten years, Sony will release yet another upgrade that includes them. Completism is endless, and Dylan's appeal doesn't look to be fading any time soon.


OK, so I broke down and bought The Basement Tapes Raw. To these feedback-scorched ears, they actually sound better -- clearer -- than the '75 release. Then again, I often like "demo albums" better than fully produced ones. All I generally want to hear is what went down in the studio, not what someone thought it would be clever to add after the fact. Without the 'verb, it's easier to hear the lyrics, and none of the overdubs are missed. Plus, you get to hear things, like Bob cracking himself up in the middle of "Please Mrs. Henry," that Robbie excised. To say nothing of all the "new" songs -- 22 of 'em! There are instances where I prefer Robertson's revisionism to The Thing Itself: the Band's version of "Ain't No More Cane on the Brazos" beats Dylan's on vocal harmonies; the second take of "Too Much of Nothing" on Raw lacks the crazy modulations of the first take, which Robbie used; and the trombone-driven "Don't Ya Tell Henry" that Bob sings here isn't a patch on the Levon-sung one from '75. But those are few, and I've still got the records, for when I want to hear 'em.

I almost projectile vomited when I started to read the liner note essay, which commenced by declaring that the basement tapes are important because they represent "the roots of alt-country" and "the end of psychedelic music." To the first point, I've been reading this kind of hype -- which suggests that something old is relevant only in relation to something newer -- since I stumbled on the Yardbirds in 1970 ("no Yardbirds, no psychedelia/metal," to which a subsequent generation of PR flacks would add "punk"). In my dotage, I think singular art and artists matter because of their intrinsic qualities, not the fact that someone (invariably not as good) copied them. In the last decade, there's been a glut of bands that have borrowed the superficial trappings of the Band ca. the "brown album." Hats, facial hair, and funny looking instruments abound. But there was no template or model for the basement tapes; that's what made them great. And as far as psychedelia being dead, tell it to Tame Impala and Dungen. Psych will survive as long as metal, in its own world, oblivious to the passing of innumerable Next Big Things. May it always be so.

The Hawks were a rock 'n' roll band with enough blues in them to have nearly been Sonny Boy Williamson's backing band (they knew him in West Helena, before he died in '65). They'd been living in each other's pockets since the early '60s, and had a strong identity before they started backing Bob. That gave the music they made with him -- on the road and in the basement -- a different feel, more cohesive and organic than the somewhat shrill, strident sound the session cats made on his great run of records in '65-'66. (You could almost put it down to the difference between the metallic scream of the bridge pickup on a Fender Telecaster, which Mike Bloomfield favored, and the throatier tone of the neck pickup, which Robbie preferred.) While the legend of their touring days focuses on their volume -- possibly because many of the reporters were folkies who weren't used to loud electric guitars -- in Woodstock, they made human scale music. At low volume, in small rooms, they found they had different things to say than they had when they were roaring back at volatile arena crowds. And on the "raw" tapes, you can hear the sound of the basement at Big Pink as surely as you can hear the sound of the rooms where the great Sun and Chess records were made.

Another factor in the "thin, wild mercury sound" of Bringing It All Back Home through Blonde On Blonde was Dylan's drug use, which, Bargas points out, gets glossed over in Martin Scorsese's otherwise excellent documentary No Direction Home. Myself, I'd bet it was the price the director agreed to in exchange for his subject's candor on other subjects in his on-screen interviews. I'm no conspiracy theorist, but I wouldn't be surprised if the '66 motorcycle accident was something Albert Grossman concocted for the media after Dylan got home from the UK, looked at his itinerary for the rest of the year, and elected to step back from the abyss of drugs and overwork before he destroyed himself. The Beatles, of course, took a similar step around the same time.

Back in Woodstock, Dylan returned to the well of folk tradition he'd abandoned in '65. (Marcus points out that he'd do the same thing again in the early '90s with the albums Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong. Dylan also devotes a sizable chunk of Chronicles to his love of folk music.) Bob used that body of American song to ground and center his music. He also schooled the Hawks in that tradition, which they'd come up disdaining as the province of "the Yorkville people." (Did he bring them Ian and Sylvia songs to record thinking these Canadians would find the material more relatable?) Once they'd internalized those lessons and learned to draw from them as he did, they were able to forge a career as the Band without him.

The gate of influence swung both ways, because that's the way symbiosis works. Canadian archivist-producer Jan Haust, who worked on the 2014 reissue of the basement tapes, writes of the Hawks/Band's estimable multi-instrumentalist/electronics whiz/recordist Garth Hudson recalling that gospel 45s were a staple of the musos' listening during the time of the recordings, and that feel definitely permeates much of the music -- "Apple Suckling Tree," "Sign On the Cross," and most transcendentally, "I Shall Be Released."

Beyond that, I remain convinced that playing with Richard Manuel -- whom Ronnie Hawkins once said was more talented than Van Cliburn -- caused Bob to rethink his approach to singing. The Hawks' haunted piano player is the hidden influence on post-basement Bob in the same way as Muhammad Ali was the hidden influence on '65 Bob. Just listen to the newly-discovered take of "One Too Many Mornings," on which Richard sings the first verse before Bob takes over the lead, or "Tears of Rage," which Bob sings here, but Richard would sing on Music From Big Pink. Or the three-part harmony at the end of "All You Have To Do Is Dream," which Bob, Richard, and Rick Danko repeat five times, just for the sheer ecstatic rush of it. Even when these voices strain, every note is felt and meant.

In rediscovering and recombining folk elements, Dylan discovered the mutability of both the tradition and his own songs. Never a purist, Bob drew from rockabilly and soul music as freely as he did from sea chanteys, country, and blues. His vision of American song was expansive enough to include Johnny Cash, John Lee Hooker, and Frank Sinatra as well as Clarence Ashley, Dock Boggs, and the Carter Family. Not only that, but he could mix and match influences at will -- and the Hawks had the variegated chops to follow him. Thus, the basement tapes include a version of "Folsom Prison Blues" that owes as much to Jimmy Reed as it does its author (a familiar of Bob's). You can also hear Bob realizing that not only the historical canon but his own catalog can be reimagined, when he revisits "Blowin' in the Wind" as a blues jam shuffle, with Robbie soloing with wilder abandon than is his custom. In the wake of this discovery came years of fans (myself included) at Dylan concerts wondering "What song is he playing now?"

While Dylan and the Hawks were making this music in Woodstock, the Civil Rights movement was giving way to cities aflame with riots, and the Vietnam war was escalating as the flowers of the Summer of Love faded. Once, the music Dylan and the Band went on to make when they emerged from the basement -- John Wesley Harding, Music From Big Pink, and The Band -- allowed an alienated generation, in small ways, to reconnect with America. But can that genetic memory resonate for people far enough removed from those events to be able to wish they'd been young in the '60s without thinking about the draft? The basement tapes exist outside of time, in a world where it is simultaneously 1967, 1890, 1930, 1956, and right now.

To be continued...?


Blogger joel rowlison said...

what he said

12:48 PM  

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