Bob Dylan & The Band: The Basement Tapes

By James Calemine

“Odds and ends
Odds and ends
Lost time
Is not found again…”

“Odds And Ends”
Bob Dylan & The Band

I’m working on my next fiction collection for 2020. I need levity. I walked back into the kitchen to refill my coffee cup, and decided to listen to Bob Dylan & The Band’s The Basement Tapes.

Recorded between June and October of 1967 at the Band’s home–Big Pink–in West Saugerties, New York, The Basement Tapes captures a classic bygone era. Dylan lived not far away, and every afternoon he’d stop by and record these homespun tunes with The Band. Although recorded in 1967, The Basement Tapes were not released until 1975.

A rustic sound emanates from these 24 phantom songs that were all cut live on a home tape recorder with no more than three microphones. On any given number–Dylan, Levon, Rick, or Richard may sing lead vocals. It’s a patchwork quilt of original Americana compositions. Every song tells a story. Some numbers are humorous like “Clothes Line Saga”, “Lo And Behold”, “Please, Mrs. Henry” and “Tiny Montgomery”. Soulful tracks such as “Bessie Smith” and “Katie’s Been Gone” thread this tapestry, while others like “Tears of Rage”, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”, “Too Much of Nothing”, “Nothing Was Delivered” and “This Wheel’s On Fire” carry an eternal gravity. Soul, levity, redemption and anguish all reside in The Basement Tapes.

I turned up the volume, and made notes on a venemous story. “Odds And Ends” kicks in the organic Hawaiian coffee. Robbie Robertson’s guitar licks sound like an electric switchblade. Dylan takes a sly, but slicing angle on this short number. Rick Danko sings “Orange Juice Blues”, which seems to fit my early afternoon mood. “Million Dollar Bash” counts as a lark…especially when Dylan sings: “I looked at my watch/I looked at my wrist/I punched myself in the face with my fist/I took my potatoes down to be mashed/And I made it on over to that million dollar bash.”

Greil Marcus composed the liner notes and stabbed this on the table regarding this treasure trove: “And it is in this way most of all that The Basement Tapes are a testing and a discovery of roots and memory; it might be why The Basement Tapes are, if anything, more compelling today than they were first made, no more likely to fade than Elvis Presley’s “Mystery Train” or Robert Johnson’s “Love In Vain”.’

Levon Helm sings “Pick a card before you go/It’s a long trip to Mexico” on the dirty and swinging “Yazoo Street Scandal” that sounds like they are playing in a Mississippi juke joint. Dylan sings “Goin’ To Acapulco” and it’s clear this is a working man’s song. Rick commands lead vocals on the love song “Katie’s Been Gone” and you realize how the Band really resonated on so many levels. “Lo And Behold!” conjures a light-hearted vibe.

“Bessie Smith”, about the old blues singer, captures a real story. Another love tune written by a fictional perspective, but you know it happened. Once again, Dylan exercises his humor when he sings the silly “Clothes Line Saga”. “Apple Suckling Tree” emits a reckless saloon abandon. “Please Mrs. Henry” maintains the same humorous vein. The lyrics resemble something a local drunk might tell a bartender. The soulful “Tears of Rage”, written by Dylan, ends up on The Band’s first record. They thought it was a keeper, and Dylan let them record it.

Dylan cuts to the chase on “Too Much of Nothing”. It’s a proverbial composition. Dylan sings “Too much of nothing can make a man ill at ease/One man’s temper might rise/Where another man’s temper might freeze.” A lazy insight, almost zen-like quality, exists in this collection. Stove-pipe songs. Levon sings the traditional “Ain’t No More Cane”, and it puts you on a remote dock on the bayou, which leads into another Delta ditty called “Crash On The Levee”.

Richard Manuel sings  “Ruben Remus” with a cold sarcasm laced with Garth Hudson’s organ and Robertson’s mercurial guitar playing. Dylan’s “Tiny Montgomery” indicates most of these songs were probably recorded in one take. Gram Parsons and The Byrd’s covered “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” on their Sweetheart of the Rodeo album. During this time, the longhairs began to explore the regions of old country, and The Basement Tapes radiated tips of the hat to folk, country, blues and rockabilly music. But nothing ever sounded like these organic sessions.

“Don’t Ya Tell Henry” stands as a juke joint gem. A jukebox wonder that contains grit only Levon Helm could deliver. “Nothing Was Delivered”, a Dylan tune, epitomizes a stark clarity that people say one thing and do another. Like a few of the folks we all know. By this point, one feels consolation at every good or bad decision ever made. Levon Helm called his book “This Wheel’s On Fire”, another Dylan song, and it expresses an urgency in the present moment…if it’s 1967 or 2019…the poetic message is the same. A timeless song. A torch ballad or parlor tune you might hear in the early morning walking out the door of some strange New Orleans motel. The record ends. Here I sit.

When asked about The Basement Tapes in 1969, Bob Dylan responded: “…With a certain kind of blues music, you can just sit down and play it…you have to lean forward a little.” When The Band toured with Ronnie Hawkins, they were called The Hawks, but eventually Dylan retained their musical services after his well-documented motorcyle accident.

The Basement Tapes led up to The Band recording their debut album Music From Big Pink (1968), and Dylan would go on to record John Wesley Harding (1967) and Nashville Skyline (1969). In 1974, Dylan and The Band recorded the vintage Planet Waves album.

I’ve listened to these Basement Tapes thousands of times. On this hot August day, it’s like I never heard them before. It’s so good, it gives you a new perspective on your own endeavors–isn’t that what art is supposed to do? I was on the right track all along…

www.jamescalemine.com

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