Bob Dylan: this ain’t it. Thoughts on the “Basement Tapes Complete” box set


As you may have noticed, if you are a regular visitor to these pages, Untold Dylan is working its way through the last few songs on the Complete Basement Tapes that we’ve never covered before, to round off our attempt to review every Dylan song, of which we have a copy.

But here we pause for a moment in that pursuit to consider an overview of the whole Basement Tapes Box Set phenomena…


Thoughts on the Basement Tapes Box Set

by Kevin Lang

This review should have written itself.  In fact, I could have written it without listening to a single song.  In fact, I dare say I can tell you what every other review says.  I bet they say “it’s a fun, and loose, Bob Dylan.  Dylan finally leaves the spotlight behind and gets back to being Bob.  These sessions show a behind the scenes look at the genius mind.  We get a glance at the genius without the filters he so carefully created to keep us at bay.”

See, there is a ton of great early secret Dylan stuff.  But this ain’t it.

Allow me to clarify; early Bob Dylan’s demos may be my favorite thing in the world.  I can seriously only compare the joy of the first 3 ‘bootleg series’ to seeing Bob in real life.  That first set they released, long ago, was a peak behind the curtain, revealing demos, lost songs, and completely different takes.

You want to hear early Bob?  Get the Bootleg Series 1-3.    The alternate version of ‘Tangled up in Blue’ will change your life.  As for ‘Seven Curses’, I just can’t think of a better song, or better performance.

Yes, there is much to celebrate about a loose and fun Dylan.  But the Complete Basement Tapes, set is not it.

The Basement Tapes set comes in two flavors; one is a small 2 discs ‘best of the box’ kinda set.  Then, there is six disc set of everything that was recovered.   I have the former, and it’s about every song too long.

What happened?  What are we talking about?  Well, this is a super cool story.  I mean, I know you know it already, but just step back and think about it once again as if you’ve never heard it before.

Around 1965, Dylan was the biggest star on Earth.  He was also the voice of a generation. He absolutely hated both aspects of his life.  He was living in upstate New York town of Woodstock – yes that Woodstock.

Then Bob had a motorcycle accident.  They told everyone it was very bad, and you just may never see him again.  At least, not as you knew him.  Except some like Ultimate Classic Rock suggest it never happened. 

Dylan had just come off the insane beautiful and perfect masterpiece ‘Blonde on Blonde’.  He was set to head off on a long and gruelling tour, again.  With the accident, though, everything was put on hold.  How bad was Bob hurt?  What really happened that day?   We STILL do not know. Bob won’t say.

Personally, I think it was entirely and completely blown out of proportion by Bob and company.  It gave Bob a chance to disappear completely for a couple of years.  It has been strongly implied by his manager, the formidable Albert Grossman, that Bob spun out, and likely got a bruise or two when he fell of his bike.

That day in Woodstock, he went in as a boy and left as a man.  It gave him a chance to step off the success machine and go about his life like a regular man.  He had a wife, kids, and a nice place in the woods.  What’s better than that?

Well, music is, man.  Bob got bored, and enlisted a neighboring band (literally called ‘the Band’) to be his back up band.  He had a great plan; live behind the scenes as a professional songwriter for hire.  It was kind of always his plan.  The great ‘Witmark Demos’ were put together to shop Bob’s songs around.

In essence, Bob wisely figured he could have it all:  keep writing music, stop being famous, and get paid handsomely.  He got together with these fellas, the Band, and started jamming daily.  They were loose and happy, and just making music.  Bob simply wanted rough drafts for songs to sell.  To me, it totally makes sense.  Who wouldn’t want to buy a song from the greatest songwriter in history?

Even better, these sessions were recorded, and we have them now.  This piece, then, is to review those recordings, which were recently cleaned up, remastered, and re-released.  Isn’t that amazing?   We have a window into fun Bob, and happy Bob.  These tapes made it out of the basement and got released to huge acclaim.  According to Clinton Heylin, this was the first ‘bootleg’ ever.

Problem is this; musically, it sucks.  It is boring, and literally sounds like 5 dudes who are WICKED high tuning their instruments.  See, there is no such thing as ‘fun Bob’, or ‘Bob relaxed’.  Well, there is… but this isn’t it.  There was a ‘carefree Bob’, and this was captured in Pennebaker’s master study ‘Don’t look back’.  That was ’62, as Bob was just breaking big.  Of course, he wasn’t exactly all super happy fun in that film, either.  Actually, Bob told the guy to follow him around and catch everything.

When the film was done, Dylan realized it made him look like a dick (you GOTTA see his press conferences) and tried to have to film stopped.  Pennebaker won, and Dylan lost.  The judge is basically saying ‘well, yes… you do come off as a total dick in the film.  However, the film seems accurate to me, you are a dick!”

My point about the Basement Tapes Complete is this – don’t buy it.  You can have mine.  Instead, buy this (Bootleg Series 1-3) and the Witmark demos.  Most of this series of mini box sets have been amazing.  Any and all Bob is great, up to ’65, and the motorcycle ‘accident’.

The word is that the next ‘Bootleg’ series will be the Blood on the Tracks stuff.  Holy fuck, that album is good.  It is easily in my top five, along with ‘Siamese Dream’, ‘Appetite for Destruction’, ‘Yield’, and “Physical Graffiti’.

Last words are this – I kept raving about Tangled up in Blue above – even know it has NOTHING to do with the ‘Basement Tapes’.  I just wanted to show you there was still some serious genius in Bob come 1975.  To me, nearly none of that genius can be found in the Basement Tapes.

Don’t ever forget, Mr Jones is you.


Untold Dylan is always happy to take alternative views on aspects of Dylan’s music.  If you’ve an article you’d like to have considered for publication please do drop us a line.  This article has been edited slightly from the original which appeared on The Phantom Blog.

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15 Responses to Bob Dylan: this ain’t it. Thoughts on the “Basement Tapes Complete” box set

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    And early Dylan stuff was available ‘way back’ on the unauthorized high-quality TMQ vinyl bootlegs.

  2. hans altena says:

    Funny, I partially agree, although I think that Little White Wonder, the first bootleg I laid my hand on, presents the perfect follow up to Blonde on Blonde and is the bridge between that and the sober masterpiece John Wesley Harding, containing the the sample of demo’s that was send around for people to cover, with such gems as Tears of Rage (tell me that ain’t great in this version where alone the background singing already makes you weep), I shall be released (a wonder indeed). The whole idea of publishing everything of those sessions sets me off. I like albums, therefor I did not buy The Basement Tapes Raw. I wished I could have laid my hand on what Garth Hudson released, that is the finest pick! I resent the bootleg series tendency for swapping everything together and piling it up BIG. Give me for instance a extended Infidels with the original on one lp and the best of the outtakes on the other. In that way you create something that makes sense. A big pile of try outs does not.

  3. Rob Davenport says:

    A very enjoyable article, so I’m going to be listening some older Dylan stuff very soon.
    A thought struck me, how the heck do you remember that “Tangled ..Blue” on the Bootleg Series 1-3 was so good ? Or did you look it up for this article. I’ve forgotten so much of ‘Dylan; cos there is SO MUCH of him around.

  4. Chris Floyd says:

    Everyone is welcome to their own opinion in musical matters, of course. Although for me, personally, it’s hard to be simpatico with someone who thinks the music on the Basement Tapes “sucks.” (All of it? Every song? Every performance? Tough audience.) But opinions aside, there are a couple of factual errors here. First, it’s simply not true that “Bob won’t say” what happened with the motorcycle accident. He’s described it in plain and simple terms several times. Far be it from me to question the authority of Ultimate Classic Rock, but it’s not factually correct to state that Dylan has never said what happened. He’s told the same account of the accident many times, especially in recent years. You can choose to disbelieve him — and of course no one “really” knows the whys and wherefores of the situation and its aftermath. (Although, when you think about it — who cares? I personally think he had an accident, that it was pretty serious but not life-threatening, and that he used the opportunity to not only recover from the crash but also get off drugs and change the direction of his life. But again, I don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter to me.)

    Second, the stuff about Pennebaker and “Don’t Look Back” seems very muddled to me. It’s not true that “Don’t Look Back” was filmed in 1962(!). But perhaps this was a typo. The film was shot in 1965 and released in 1967. I’ve been following Dylan’s music and reading about him for 45 years, and I have to say this is the first time I’ve ever heard that Dylan sued Pennebaker to stop release of the film, and then lost a court case over it. Maybe that happened, or maybe I don’t read Ultimate Classic Rock often enough, but I’ve never heard about it. Whether there actually was such a court case in 1967, we do know these facts. Pennebaker made a film about Dylan’s 1965 acoustic tour of England. He showed the cut of the film to Dylan. They tried to get it distributed, but no distribution company would pick it up, so in the end they distributed it themselves. (In a business partnership that, as Pennebaker recently noted, exists to this day.) Dylan liked it so much he asked Pennebaker to come on his 1966 tour and film that; Dylan would then use that footage to cut his own film, with Howard Alk, which was originally to be shown on ABC. This was “Eat the Document.” The network turned it down as too “weird” for mainstream TV. It was never officially released (although I’m sure we’ve all seen the bootleg copies).

    Again, I’m not saying there wasn’t a court case or some legal action, and I’d be happy to be pointed to some source about it. But I’ve never heard about it. Pennebaker never mentions it anywhere. (There’s a good interview with him, in 2016, here: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/20/movies/da-pennebaker-interview-bob-dylan-documentary-dont-look-back.html.) In any case, Don’t Look Back wasn’t filmed in 1962, the year Dylan first came to New York, but in 1965.

  5. John Knuhtsen says:

    For most of it I agree. The witmark Demoes ment a lot to me when it came out. I made an extraction CD for my own use and gave a friend of mine a copy with complete selfmade cover and track list. The bootleg series 1-3 presents most of the other stuff if you don’t have it already. I would add the MTV Unplugged live CD/DVD from 1995. Great stuff and perfect mood, except the sunglasses.

  6. Stephen Goldsmithh says:

    I like the idea of everything Bob recorded being released in beautifully presented boxed sets.
    We have a reasonable idea of what Bob viewed as acceptable for release from the Columbia singles and albums that were originally released. For those who want to hear more of this stuff, its available thanks to the Bootleg Series.
    If people don’t like the bootleg series material they are not being compelled to buy it, or being threatened if they are caught attending one of his concerts because they aren’t buying it, or being summoned to the Court of Dylan Followers to explain themselves. Or highly intelligent, educated academics with powers to force miscreants to read endless literature on Bob and religion, Bob and folk tradition, Bob and alcoholic irrigation in Forced Labour Distilleries.
    My favourite unreleased Basement material is the Little White Wonder Collection released in Europe in 1971 with magnificent graphic cartoons of the songs enclosed drawn by a gifted Dutch Artist. The sound quality is mediocre, but it makes the songs sound mysterious, like they were recorded in the 1930s.
    Unfortunately we now live in an age where everything is on the internet. Although I am pleased that Dylans unreleased work is being released, especially the 1966 box set,
    and much else that has been released, the cost is we have lost much of the mystery around Bobs work.

  7. hans altena says:

    ps I agree with Stephen… and by mistake I wrote that I did not buy Raw, I did and am glad with it, though it might have been better as a double, it was the complete edition that I had no interest in.

  8. Ray B. says:

    Please provide the correct dates so you don’t confuse folks…. Dylan’s accident was in 1966 and the film of Don’t Look Back released in 1967 was filmed in May of 1965. Otherwise I agree with your views on the 6 CD set. Jamming can be boring sometimes.

  9. TonyAttwood says:

    But disc 5 really is good.

  10. Martin Rostrevor says:

    Had a 12-song album from the basement tape sessions been released as an official studio album with the Band backing, it would have blown people’s minds and been hailed as a masterpiece. I cannot understand it being described as “sucks.” It is said that he didn’t do that because of a dispute with Albert Grossman.

  11. Bob R. says:

    I have the bootleg CD Mixin’ Up The Medicine, which was supposedly taken from the “safety tape” that Garth Hudson recorded. I think this cd sounds better, fuller than the recent release. The songs on MUTM are the best of the bunch; when I want to hear the Basement Tapes I reach for this bootleg. I have listened to the box set exactly 1 time and wonder if I will ever listen to it again. But it looks lovely on my shelf sitting next to the other 2 giant bootleg series box sets. As an icon it is pretty cool. But I, mostly, agree with your post that this period is overrated. As you said the 1st Bootleg Series cannot be beat. Tell Tale Signs comes in 2nd.

    And as Stephen posted above we now have too much. The law of diminishing returns. My peak happiness for the 1966 tour was getting the Guitars Kissing bootleg. Nothing was added to my life in owning the umpteen shows on the ’66 box. It’s ridiculous to be nostalgic for having less but that is how I feel.

  12. What I love about Bootleg 1-3 is that it was a way back in for me. “Street Legal” is where I’d gotten off the bus, and for the most part everything that had preceded it had been worn so smooth from repeated listening that I couldn’t really hear it any more. 1-3 was fresh, and from the time when he was prolifically hitting hitting stuff that nobody had ever imagined songs could be like. It brought me back aboard.
    Right now the Dylan collection that’s my go-to is Tell-Tale Signs, Bootleg Vol. 8, for some of the same reasons. This material really is “unheard” Dylan, from the time when I thought he was lost.

  13. Rimshottbob says:

    Yep, each to their own, but wow! Really? ‘Musically, it sucks?’ … not for me… it’s a fantastic article, the 6-disc box… not every track is a masterpiece, but almost every one is enlightening and/or entertaining in some way. And the mood, the atmosphere, the ‘feel’ of it all is just incredible…. I love getting lost in the 6-disc set.

    While I love a lot of Dylan’s very early stuff, it’s the Witmark demos for me that are pretty uninteresting. These come much closer to ‘sucking’, musically, I’d say. There are some masterpiece songs, but many of the performances are rote to my ears, run-throughs for the publisher.

  14. Ant B. says:

    It’s a shame you don’t find it more entertaining, hopefully you can go back to these songs and discover something you hadn’t in the past. I had written something about this before (mainly just on the songs alone, the rest is irrelevant), but I’ll do it again. Also I’m 25, so keep in mind what I haven’t been able to experience without the help of the internet. Most of this is coming from a songwriter’s perspective (m’wah).

    When it comes down to it, it’s all in the music and what you can learn from it if you want to write songs. It’s like their then-modern version of what the Anthology of American folk music ended up being…like a summation of all the current stuff of their time plus their own songs. Sure, they might be dicking around, but the music doesn’t lie. If you read about it, that anthology was like discovering gold for the musicians who listened to it because it gave them a musical avenue that was considered lost after ww2 (to the wide audience). I can imagine that a lot of the kids around now (even adults born > 60s) don’t know the best of what rock and roll, blues, country, story songs, etc., has to offer (obviously, no one on this website ha ha.) You could hand them the basement tapes and that would act as the starting point to all that stuff. Then travel back farther, and you discover the origins. Given you know how to play songs with good rhythm, you could essentially do the same thing Dylan did, just in the 2010s. Create your own songs, based on centuries-old song structures, with sensible, applicable-to-the-modern-world words, and new melodies, then bada-bing….it’s not rocket science (again, you still have to be good, but that’s where practice comes in, otherwise you’ll sound like you’re not ready.)

    Now, for the songs. I’m gonna list a bunch of my favorites (that he wrote, not covers) and just ramble on for a bit: Wild Wolf, My Woman She’s a-Leavin’, Million Dollar Bash, Lo and Behold!, Crash on the Levee, Tears of Rage, One Too Many Mornings, Mary Lou I Love You Too, Dress It Up Better Have It All, Silent Weekend, What’s It Gonna Be When It Comes Up, 2 Dollars and 99 Cents, That’s the Breaks, On a Rainy Afternoon, Roll on Train, One for the Road.

    Some of the songs have structures that obviously weren’t invented in 1967…but they do the styles justice that never comes across as pure imitation. Original, but respectful.

    I think these guys were the last of anybody to capture the styles of that music, to the fullest extent that their times offered. The rhythm in these songs is something else all together. The words flow in, out, on top, underneath all the instruments so well…the syllabic timing, to me, is the hornets thorax.

    I’ve done the following before, but never with these songs: One day I went to the Wissahickon woods in Philly, PA, walked along this trail that led to my favorite hill, sat down, smoked a great joint, then put on these songs and a couple others. The sounds knocked me the fuck out in a way that no other music has before that time. The echoes of the basement and the resonance of the instruments felt like they were being played down below at this place called Devil’s Pool. Nowadays, when people talk about contemporary “folk music”, “mountain music”, “rock music”, “Americana music”, I don’t think they know what they’re talking about. I can’t feel modern music in that natural setting…there’s too much studio, too much technology, too much “artistry”.

    But the basement songs these guys made speaks the language of mountains…the dirt, the creeks, the light, the trees, the bridges, and the falling leaves.

    I don’t really know where I’m going with any of this, but if you think you haven’t fully heard the basement tapes, keep trying (and for the songs that deserve to be heard, not that Allen Ginsberg shit.) There’s something to be tapped into, something that your soul will understand but your brain may not. Don’t let the two conflict.

  15. TonyAttwood says:

    Dear Ant B

    Thanks for your comments – as you may have seen, all the songs from the Complete Tapes have now been reviewed individually, so there are different interpretations to be found on this site. Have a look at the page Dylan Songs of the 60s and you will find an index to all the songs and a link to each review.

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