Bob Dylan’s Odyssey: The Basement Tapes, Part 1

By Paul Robert Thomas & Kim E. Hatton


The following is the fruit of two very different approaches to the songs performed and recorded by Dylan and The Band in the period June to October/November 1967, after a year of ‘public silence’ from Dylan following his ‘Motorcycle Accident’. This effectively gave him time to reappraise his life during the ‘retirement’ he had been talking about at the time of the 1966 tour.

It is our belief that the songs which appear on The Genuine Basement Tapes give a unique insight into the way Dylan perceived the madness of his fame, the toll it took and the lifestyle it had led him into.

In the case of one of us, we heard many of the songs as containing sexually explicit lyrics, veiled by innuendo, slang and metaphor, and referring to sexual deviations as diverse as male homosexuality, lesbianism, anal intercourse, transvestism and fellatio. This suggested one reason why Dylan had shown so little interest in releasing The Tapes as an album which would bridge the change in his work from Blonde On Blonde to John Wesley Hardin’, of which the latter suggested, to some, that Dylan had undergone what Clinton Heylin reports as ‘a personality change’ (Note 1) – a rather radical expression for achieving maturity.

But, while one of us was working on questioning the songs sexual content, the other was concerned with the overall feel of this wealth of songs. Some were no more than warm-ups, although the choice of material pointed to the wide range of Dylan’s repertoire, harking back to country and blues by little known artists. Then there were pastiches of the emerging ‘teen music’ of the fifties and, most importantly, there was also a wealth of songs which seem preoccupied with doubt, judgement and apocalypse, and so the possibility suggested itself of there being a narrative revealing a time of spiritual crisis following the touring of 1965 & 1966, captured so well on the films Don’t Look Back and Eat The Document.

Whilst confirming our comments here to the songs included in Lyrics we took account of the material available on The Genuine Basement Tapes. What evolved, as both of us worked separately on an exploration of The Tapes, only discussing our work by phone or the occasional letter, was a shared conviction that The Basement Tapes can be interpreted as having a unifying theme which reveals itself as an eschatological conceit, as we ‘wind back the clock and turn back the page to reveal a book which nobody can write’ – but which Dylan has sought to embody the spirit of in the performances of the last thirty years, and comes close to succeeding with on The Basement Tapes alone.

But who knows. A song is a modest thing and interpretation illimitable. Dylan has become an ‘Archetype’ carrying the projections and fantasies of followers as they impose their own preoccupations and interests on to him. To Stephen Pickering, a Devout Jew, Dylan is a Hassidic, a mystic and Prophet working through The Kabbalah (Note 2). To Jenny Ledeen, Dylan single-handedly created the Peace Movement through teaching a Christian ethic via his music, specifically in the composition of Blowin’ In The Wind, and through the songs of the first five years of his career (Note 3).

Pickering and Ledeen have their ‘blind spots’ but their work should be taken seriously. Born Again Christians, whose doctrines require them to believe, a priori, that Dylan is and always will be a Christian, since his conversion in 78, find such a position difficult to reconcile with his ‘amoral lifestyle’ (Note 4), and fans of no apparent belief system seem to suspend any critical judgement when they assert in the person of Larry (Lambchop) Eden, that “Bob Dylan is the most important person in the universe today” (Note 5). Our position undoubtedly has its own lunacies – and will doubtless upset some people. We do not wish to enter into debate but perhaps the editor would welcome an article challenging our conclusions. We accept that what follows isn’t definitive.

Both of us began with a distrust of a lot of Dylan interpretation. It seemed either marred by an obsessive Webermanesque quality or a deficit of humour and balance to say the least. Often we related more to the songs out of a gut reaction, and an admiration for Dylan’s genius in fusing language and music, than to dry academic ramblings comparing Dylan to Blake, Yeats or D. H. Lawrence. The whole point of listening to Dylan we argued, was to respond to the feelings he invokes, setting the mind free to allow images and associations to rise from the unconscious and to ‘forget about today until tomorrow’. The songs might be played over and over again, but to crouch over the C.D. player or tape machine and zap the ‘pause button’ to dissect and scribble down the ‘meaning’, line by line, word by word, and to trace these to films or poems or books Dylan might or might not have seen or read seemed absurd. “What does it all mean?” “What does he sing/write ‘table’ there?” “Who is the Italian poet from the 13th century blah blah blah?”

Put on Like A Rolling Stone, turn up the volume and feel the venom coursing through the lyric as Dylan, by his performance, sets up a chain of responses, memories and insights which identify ourselves at once with the poet/narrator, then with his victim. If you want to feel this song at its most searing, then listen to him scream it out in Manchester 1966, and if you believe any version can be carried by the words alone, listen to his indifferent Isle of Wight performance, or the song in embryo on The Bootleg Series. Same words, a fine poem, but in both cases robbed of all its glory and provoking a disappointment no amount of analysis can relieve. We didn’t want to know why he did it that way, “what he was really saying”, we felt let down, “almost betrayed.” was the response voiced by one of us.

Continually seeing Dylan’s works sombrely dissected on the pages of some Dylanzines, as interesting as some of the opinions of such ‘self-ordained professors’ might be, gave rise to an even deeper sense of betrayal than Dylan at his worst. Did these critics ever stop to put heart and mind together? It’s possible. Read Paul Williams. However, what some of those articles, and works by Gray, Heylin, and some of the contributors to anthologies and the ‘Wanted Man’ series make clear is that Dylan is as much a plagiarizer as any other artist. That he works within a tradition. And they have sent us looking for the sources of Dylan’s inspiration and artistic ventures and ‘opened many a door’.

Most recently, in following Dylan through his ‘roots’ albums, Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong and then listening to some of the artists he covers (and mentions in the liner notes to World Gone Wrong) he has revealed artists long forgotten or never heard of. The feelings these old songsters fill you with are where their value lies, along with the history they preserve. When you can pull yourself away from the never-ending tape collection put on some Mance Lipscombe, Big Bill Broonzy or Blind Willie Johnson and… Enjoy! But, ‘The life which is unexamined’ wrote Plato in his Apology ‘is not worth living’. Dylan seems to have taken this to heart throughout his career, so putting aside prejudices we tried some analysis of our own. As collaboration the views we offer are often held by only one of us but for the sake of unity, they appear under our joint authorship.

To begin with we asked why the release of any of the songs from the tapes (as performed by Dylan and The Band) were delayed for so long and then released in such a partial/bastardized form? Why were so many of the songs cast aside or suppressed’? Dylan had made it known that he would never have released The Basement Tapes, and the record put out under that title, in 1975, by Robbie (Jamie) Robinson did not please him. (Although we seem to remember that he made an ironic remark about the record’s success by commenting ‘I thought everybody already had them’).

Listening now to the Genuine Basement Tapes, with 108 of the recorded songs presented, we hazard a guess at why Dylan wanted these songs held back from release. For some of these songs contain some of the most sexually explicit material he ever recorded, often funny, sometimes distasteful, lacking any subtlety, occasionally disturbing. But the collection doesn’t begin and end there. Other songs tip a hat towards Dylan’s and The Band’s influences rooted in a wide musical heritage of Burlesque, Protestant Hymnody, Honky-Tonk, Folk and Blues, Race Music and standard commercial Pop Music. And yet others reveal feelings of alienation and dread, remorse, and a struggle to find meaning and faith of a personal and global nature looking beyond the present to a time of transcendence and salvation, most notably in I Shall be Released, which is sung in American churches today (Note 6).

Bob Dylan Lyrics 1962-1985 displaces the songs of the tapes from the time they were recorded (around June – October 1967) to the release date of Robertson’s selection (75). This might mislead some from immediately recognizing a link with the previous album Blonde On Blonde especially if they’re new to Dylan. (B.O.B might be seen as suggesting an album of songs featuring ‘autobiographical’ material – a ‘self portrait’ penned after the gruelling and debauched ’66 tour.) The Basement Tapes are, we suggest, a continuation of this ‘reflective’ and autobiographical strain which is present more or less in all of Dylan’s material (Note 7).

At the time Blonde On Blonde came out it was very much a ‘hip scene’ album reflecting, amongst other things, the world of Andy Warhol and The Factory, of 15 minute superstars like Candy Darling; a world of sleaze and sexual experimentation, drag addicts and drug addicts, the blurring of sexual boundaries and the cynical dismissal of any morality. The interpretations below, of only some of the songs from The Basement Tapes, suggest that Dylan was aware of and caught up in a similar world, and that may explain why he wasn’t keen to release the ‘evidence’. What follows are the ‘gut reactions’ of one of us to songs that do not seem to be that difficult to ‘decode’ as dealing with sexual excess and experimentation. But these will be followed by a wider look at the material on The Basement Tapes, and the suggestion made that they comprise a particular work which might be called Epic in the literary sense.

The first song to look at, Odds and End~, contains the following lines:

"You promised to love me,
but what do l see
Just you comin' and spillin' juice over me"
 "Now you take your file and you bend my head"

"You're always spillin' juice like you've got somewhere to go"

"Now I've had enough my box is clean
You know what I'm saying and you know what I mean"

'From now on you'd best get on someone else"
"While you're doing it keep that juice to yourself'

 (The words underlined indicate where Dylan places particular stress.)

In this song Dylan could either be speaking through the persona of a woman complaining about his, or some other man’s sexual inadequacies or describing homosexual encounters. It might just as easily be read as a put down of a particularly persistent but unwanted lover. The first verse quoted suggests – ‘you promised to love me’ – but you come too soon, or ‘you promised to love me’ but all you offer is carnal love.

The next verse might be interpreted as a reference to fellatio (file=penis) and either a woman is being forced to ‘give head’ or a man is being forced to perform oral sex. However, in ‘Now I’ve had enough, my box is clean’ the narrator seems to be moving from oral sex to a request for anal sex (though box can refer to vagina according to dictionaries of slang) which is considered more prevalent among gays. Or does ‘box’ refer to ‘body’ (as ‘house’ may?) But soon Dylan’s protagonist, male or female, is refusing to cooperate – ‘you’d best get on someone else’. Because the other always comes too soon? Because the narrator is being pestered or because the ‘love’ is too shallow? “Lost time is not found again”. Finally the last line quoted above might be the narrator insisting that the subject transcend a merely carnal lust in their definition of love. But ‘juice’ may be slang for lust, sexual fluids, or another deviant sexual practice ‘golden showers’ or ‘watersports’. Confused? Juice = Urine (Note 8).

Don’t Ya Tell Henry opens with the following:

"I went down to the river on a Saturday morn,
A~lookin’ around just to see who's born
I found a little chicken down on his knees,
I went up and yelled to him,
'Please, please please!'

          He said Don't ya Tell Henry, 
         Don’t ya tell Henry, 
         Don’t ya tell Henry,
         Apple's got your fly".

 The saga continues with the protagonist looking for ‘the one I love’ visiting The Beanery and spotting ‘horses’, ‘donkeys’, ‘cows’, who say Don’t ya tell Henry’, and in the fourth verse the action takes place in the ‘pumphouse’, slang for whorehouse – which is what is sung, maybe Gay Whorehouse, (‘I looked high and low for that big ol tree’= stud/male-whore with a large erection) or, with ‘Horses and Cows’ mentioned earlier, maybe the place is a known pick up joint catering for all sexual preferences. So this song is an old fashioned honky-tonk, about looking for sex in bawdy houses. But if that’s the case the first verse is disturbing.

"I found a little chicken down on his knees,
I went up and yelled to him Please please please"

 This line has been the cause of hot dispute. ‘Little chicken’ is often an affectionate term for a child but if the whole song deals with sexual encounters this suggests paedophilia. But the line calls to mind an old blues song on the Paul Oliver 4 CD collection, Roots & Blues.

“If you can’t find me a woman I’ll have a cissv boy instead” (circa 1939/45)

The line presents a precedent for one interpretation of the above lines by Dylan. The subject referred to is male but is promiscuous and knowing enough to say ‘Don’t ya tell Henry’. Is Henry a pimp? In a sexual context, it seems that Dylan’s protagonist could be referring to a ‘rent boy’ that he finds in the ‘give head’ position and begs oral sex from. The ‘Henry’ referred to in the song may or may not be the same as ‘Mrs. Henry’ a name which suggests sexual ambiguity; a gay transvestite man perhaps or a tough ‘masculine woman’. But either way the song persists in the refrain ‘Don’t ya tell Henry’ suggesting fear of disapproval or jealousy. Something has to be hidden.

This series of articles will continue shortly.

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  1. We didn’t have no’ ‘pause buttons’ on vinyl recordings; we didn’t need no stinkin’ pause buttons…….CDs were one them thar new-fangled things!(lol)

    Nor did we have to look up poetic and book references ….we knew a lot of them already – often double checked them, of course)

    It’s like if you know music and say to yourself, I’ve heard that riff or chord, whatever, before!

  2. From the very first time I heard “Odds and Ends,” I got this hit about little kids–toddlers how they climb all over you with their sippy cups and juice bottles, spilling stuff half of the time, and then, bam, they’re gone. They come and they go but the truth is, “lost time is not found again.” And that is a powerful truth! I don’t know if there is any merit to this feeling the tune sparked in me, but Bob WAS a new father around that time and I was always impressed with how that experience generated the deep insight into becoming a parent that we find in “Tears of Rage.” How he grasped that truth so early on remains a mystery…but mystery is something he has always offered in abundance, right?

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