Bob Dylan’s Odyssey: The Basement Tapes part 3

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If we deal solely with the sexual imagery in The Basement Tapes the atmosphere imposed upon them by Greil Marcus’s liner notes on the ‘official album’ is inadequate. Only a small part of the narrative The Tapes contain is being emphasized, suggesting a catalogue of sexual encounters, and ‘locker room humour’ at the expense of a deeper understanding or interpretation of the whole work. For The Basement Tapes could be seen as an odyssey in the epic tradition. A Rock ‘N Roll story of loss, alienation, spiritual conflict and homecoming – Redemption.

“Too much of nothing can make a man feel ill at ease”

Too Much of Nothing will be taken as a song in which the abandonment and license begins to play. Too much of nothing sure can make a fella mean – and desperate. (Read King Lear)

“In the day of confession
We cannot mock a soul
Oh when there's too much of nothing
No one has control”

 The waters of oblivion are rising alarmingly and a reckoning must be faced. In a nihilistic search for pleasure everything loses value, nothing is sacred.

"Too much of nothing.
Can make a man abuse a king
He can walk the streets and boast like most
But he wouldn’t know' a thing
Now it's all been done before,
It's all been written in a book,
But when there's too much of nothing
Nobody' should look”.

This song arrives like a moment of sanity; and insight – and dread. The past has all been recorded but who has the courage to look back after living out the orgiastic abandonment of the songs we’ve been discussing. The possible consequence is outlined in Down In The Flood

"Oh Mama you're gonna miss your best friend now
You 're gonna have to find yourself
another best friend somehow"

 The Flood is an archetypal image, open to many interpretations but here Dylan uses it Biblically, as it appears in Genesis and in The Psalms. The waters of oblivion burst their banks and there’s no middle ground, no compromise.

“Wow don't you try to move me
You’re just gonna lose
There's a crash on the levee
And, mama, you've been refused”.

Excess always leads to sober reflection, as epitomized in Too Much Of Nothing, to wisdom, through a reappraisal of personal history and belief suggested in Sign On The Cross

'Wow when I was just a bawlin' child,
I saw what I wanted to be
And it's all for the sake
Of that picture I see 
But I was lost on the moon
As I heard that front door slam,
And that old sign on the cross
Still worries me.

 The tune is reminiscent, in structure, to Amazing Grace but in contrast to the hymn it emphasizes spiritual uncertainty. These are fearsome songs in the context of the whole collection and amplify and compliment each other. As for You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere – at this point Dylan wasn’t and by all accounts he didn’t care about C.B.S or touring or obligations to his manager or publishers. According to Dylan it was about the time that he recorded the songs of The Basement Tapes that he had begun to realise how much change he had been through, couldn’t avoid.

“I didn’t sense the importance of that accident until at least a year after that. I realized (then) that it was a real accident. I mean I thought I was just gonna get up and go back to doing what I was doing before…. but I couldn’t do it any more”. (Note 11) (Dylan 1969).

“The turning point was Woodstock. A little after the accident. … I looked out into the bleak woods and I said ‘something’s gotta change.’ There was some business that had to be taken care of”. (Note l1)         (Dylan 1974)

This song now appears to reflect the relief and freedom he felt, and could be read as charting his feelings from the period straight after the accident (or just prior to it), to the days when he began to work again. The song begins in present tense with an image of instability, storm. The clouds aren’t ‘heavy’ but ‘swift’, the weather (of the psyche) changeable. But the rain is constant, and the stanza ‘Railings froze’ suggests both stasis and the possibility that the narrator has moved from present to past tense,

"Clouds so swift
Rain won’t lift
Railings froze"

 something which is reinforced by the fourth and fifth stanzas

"Get your mind off wintertime
You ain’t going nowhere".

‘Winter’ must be put aside and faith placed in the future. Then follows the line (chorus) already treated. What we suggest now is that the song deals in the first verse with the depression prior to, or immediately following the accident, the second a refusal to respond to ‘obligations’

"I don't care how many letters they sent'
Morning came and morning went
Pick up your money
Pack up your tent
You ain’t going nowhere".

 In the third verse the nomadic life is rejected, the tent swapped for a ‘tree with roots’. Like the author of The Psalms, Dylan emerges from a period of darkness and calls for a flute, and strengthens his defences against intruders by creating a newfound life committed to family and music.

The final verse may be interpreted as Dylan refusing the role of Genghis Khan, a conqueror/leader without equal, no longer willing to supply his fans with ‘sleep’ (escape or dreams through Dionysian music.). Each verse ends in a chorus of liberation. Dylan has swapped his throne for an easy chair, in which he and his ‘bride’, Sara, his muse, or God are free to ‘fly’; transcending the past and the mundane present.  If there are sexual references, then they seem undoubtedly concerned with Sara. However it seems more likely that they refer to the imminence of union, between Dylan and Sara, Dylan and God or Dylan and his muse. Secure, rooted, Dylan awaits renewal. ‘Ride me high’ might be heard as a phrase similar in meaning to ‘Sit tall in the saddle’. An expression of self-worth and healthy pride.

If you deal with The Basement Tapes (on their own or together with the four albums which followed), they could be read as an Odyssey about the ’66 tour. The excesses of that period, and the cost, and after, a period of regeneration. You Ain’t Going Nowhere, minor as it may seem at first glance, is a pivotal song marking a change of direction. The cynicism mentioned initially may now be heard as a flat determination to put down roots and refuse compromise. A hope he would later express with less certainty in Sign On The Window,

"Build me a cabin in Utah,
Marry me a wife, catch rainbow trout 
Have a bunch of kids who call me 'Pa’, 
That must be what it's all' about
That must be what it's all 'about

 Sometimes, listening to Sign On The Window, it seems that a note of pure desperation enters Dylan’s voice as he sings the final stanza with its parallelism, a device which occurs regularly in Hebrew poetry and most famously in The Psalms. It is a device to imply resoluteness or crisis; to amplify a feeling:

Yet their voice goes out through all the earth
And their words to all the world                            Psalms. 19

They are like a lion eager to tear
like a young lion lurking in ambush Psalms. 17

The effect of this device in Sign On The Window betrays Dylan’s uncertainty. It’s as though he wanted to believe the sentiments of the verse especially as it finishes the song and comes after a description of capricious love and impending storm. ‘Looks like nothing but rain … hope that it don’t sleet’. This verse, the way it’s sung, betrays an underlying desperation which is, as I have already suggested, present at the point Dylan appears to be committing himself to Home and Family. However coming back to the tapes, and to the song Open The Door Homer (Richard), we meet Dylan acting on his conviction that ‘something’s gotta change’. A series of characters act as guides or advisers (reminiscent of line 300 of Job) to the narrator of the song. Jim’s advice is ambiguous, if “there’s a certain way that a man must swim/ If he expects to live off the fat of the land” suggests compromising oneself for material reward. But it might mean putting one’s personal integrity first, in the certainty that this will be rewarded. In one performance the line is sung

"There's a certain way we all must swim
If we expect to live of the fat of the land"

 This either suggests a universal principle to achieve ‘the good life’ in material terms or an admission that all have to compromise. In different moods we might receive one or the other message listening to the song. Interpretation is always subjective. In the second verse ‘House’ appears and the lesson he presents is that,

“everyone must always first flush out his house If he don’t expect to be housing flushes”.

The ‘house’ could be interpreted as the body, which must he made a fit place for the soul, or it could be the soul itself. In the past people didn’t define the one from the other. But the name Mouse, suggests timidity. His blushes, (he appears flushed) indicate he has trouble following his own advice. But it’s good advice. Mick alone seems to have grasped that the important part of the healing process is in making peace with the past and recognizing one’s own limitations.

“Take care of all of your memories
Said my friend Mick
For you cannot relive them
And remember when you're out there
Tryin' to heal the sick, 
That you must always 
First forgive them"'

Don’t deny where you’ve been and what you’ve experienced. You can’t relive the past, but a wise man remembers and ponders it.’ Out of the acceptance of our own mistakes, and through forgiveness, of ourselves and others, we can keep the experience and the meaning of that experience. It is crucial to ‘salvation’. But most people ‘have the experience and miss the meaning’. T.S. Eliot said something like that. ‘Memory’ is central to the meaning of this collection and makes it comparable to such work as The Odyssey of Homer or The Divine Comedy of Dante. The material on The Basement Tapes begins to suggest a ‘Song Cycle’ in the epic tradition of Homer and Dante, but have a closer affinity to Une Saison En Enfer (A season In Hell) and Illuminations, by the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. Further, when Enid Starkie, Rimbaud’s biographer introduces her work on the poet she uncannily echoes what many feel about Dylan –

“All those who study Rimbaud soon reach a gulf of mystery which their imagination and intuition seem unable to bridge… Can a correct picture of the poet be painted from the incalculable contradictions and complexities with which the critic is confronted, a picture which will make him recognizable as a human being, and not merely a collection of abstractions loosely strung together?” ” (Note 12).

Like Dylan, Rimbaud was unpredictable, anti-rationalist, torn by conflicting forces and, without a doubt, a genius. And like Dylan, he created the work he is most celebrated for in a prodigious burst of activity before falling silent. Rimbaud’s importance to Dylan has been quoted many, many times and the following, put alongside the years when Dylan was at the height of his powers, makes it clear why.

It was Rimbaud’s own conviction, expressed in letters, that “the poet, to become Seer must give himself over to a complete disordering of the senses, he must not shrink from anything, nothing is too degenerate, the poet doesn’t risk madness, he embraces it”.

Rimbaud’s work Une Saison En Enfer (A Season In Hell) begins –

“Once, if I remember rightly, my life was a feast at which all hearts opened and all wines flowed. One evening I sat Beauty on my knees – And I found her bitter – And I reviled her…..I managed to erase from my mind all human hope. Upon every joy, in order to strangle it, I made the muffled bound of the wild beast. I called up executioners in order to bite their gun butts as I died    And I played some fine tricks on madness”.

The poem ends:

“Yes; the latest hour is, to say the least, very’ severe    All the filthy memories are disappearing. My last regrets take to their heels – jealousies of beggars, brigands, friends of death, all kinds of backwards creatures – Damned, too if I took vengeance’        I have seen the hell of women down there – and it will now be permitted me to possess truth in one soul and one body”. (Note 13) (Rimbaud’s emphasis)

Rimbaud’s goal was nothing less than to create a new poetic, to re-invent language by the rules of Alchemy, which has made his work difficult for French readers, and almost impossible for his translators (Note 14). Dylan, in his work from his fourth album to Blonde on Blonde appeared to be trying something similar, but unconsciously. The striking similarity between Rimbaud’s imagery, and that of Dylan’s work of that period, presents more of a case for a serious comparative study of the two poets (Does anyone want to try?), than the books which attempt to trace a line between Rimbaud and Jim Morrison. Unlike Rimbaud, Dylan’s silence (retirement) did not last but, after 1967 he never again produced work of such power and transcendence as that composed and performed before the accident. Finally, like Rimbaud, he changed direction upon completing his greatest work. The Basement Tapes (and John Wesley Hardin’), like Une Saison En Enfer, give more than a hint of what occasioned this change. And The Tapes have an affinity with more distant figures, as mentioned above. Like Dante and Homer, The Basement Tapes are Epic, a modern Odyssey charting the journey of the soul.

What The Tapes, Rimbaud and Homer have in common is the charting of a quest for meaning. Homer’s Odyssey reads like a Rock ‘N Roll Circus – if you’re inclined to read it that way – and has plenty of sexual perversion, dominant women, vice and debauchery. It could be seen as a model for The Basement Tapes. (And maybe Sara is Penelope, (Odysseus’ wife) waiting for her own Odysseus by spinning, unraveling and spinning again to keep her husband’s enemies at bay. A very strong determined woman, Penelope, who didn’t see anything denigrating in cooking and sewing). But back to the songs.

Long Distance Operator might be seen as preceding You Ain’t Going Nowhere and Open The Door Homer charting the desperate feelings of trying to ‘connect’ get back from the edge, vulnerable and paranoid.

"Everybody wants to be my friend
But nobody wants to get higher".

The second stanza is not likely to contain a drug reference – Dylan is talking about moral/spiritual height here. And Nothing Was Delivered might be an elegy for the whole experience of touring, addressed to himself as much as to the sycophants and parasites which crowd the frames of Don’t Look Back, the ruthless management of Albert Grossman and C.B.S., which preceded Dylan’s withdrawal from public life and ‘change of personality’.

But the problem with the whole ‘Basement Tapes Odyssey’ is that, like Homer’s masterpiece, we don’t know when the songs were composed, in what order, whether they changed with performance, if there is a ‘definitive’ version of any song, etc. It seems unlikely that these problems will ever be solved, and it is surprising that such scant attention has been paid to The Basement Tapes.

In conclusion we would say that The Basement Tapes are Dylan’s Odyssey, an epic. Like the works of Homer, Dante and Rimbaud, which all contain scenes of debauchery, license, and despair, in these, as in Dylan’s work there are ‘songs of redemption’ and of warning:- This wheel’s On Fire, Down In The Flood, Too Much Of Nothing, Sign On The Cross, and I Shall Be Released the song of Dylan’s home coming, his testament of faith.

"I see my light come shining
From the west unto the east
Any day now
I shall be released".

Salvation, Individuation, has been won through complete surrender to the Shadow, a journey to the underworld, and thence to the heavens, from whence Wisdom is finally grasped and Meaning preserved in a tradition, in memory. Not the memory or history of one man, but of a people, which explains the worldwide influence of Dylan’s work.

A people without history is not redeemed from time”

T.S. Eliot

Out of this history, experience, and meaning, hope is sustained – to be grasped by “each unharmful gentle soul misplaced inside a jail” of an increasingly Dark Age.

Through all the excess and corruption, the ‘spiritual warfare’ and confusion, which assault us, Dylan’s songs offer an anchor rooted in Black, Poor White and immigrant experience. The ghosts of the slavery ships pass, and the spirits of Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Mance Lipscombe and a cloud of unknowns gain as much immortality as anyone can hope for and what they learnt, their wisdom, can be ours. This is the legacy preserved in The Basement Tapes, and in the whole corpus of Dylan’s work. This is Bob Dylan’s relevance to the present.


  1. Clinton Heylin, Dylan: Behind The Shades, 1991.
  2. Stephen Pickering Bob Dylan Approximately’ – A Jewish Poet’ In Search of God. A Midrash. 1974.
  3. Jenny Ledeen, Prophecy In The Christian Era, 1995.
  4. Protestant Christian Doctrine holds the view that once a person has declared that Jesus Christ is Lord and lives by this faith, accepting Baptism as a sign they cannot lose or forfeit their salvation. This doctrine is rooted in Calvin’s Institutes of Religion and is implicit in Lutheran & Evangelical Theology.
  5. Source, Larry Eden being coached for television to ‘express his feelings’ on Bob Dylan – several times. In circulation on video.
  6. As is Blowin’ ‘In The Wind. According to Ledeen. As far back as 1978, 1 attended an English Baptist Service and was surprised to hear the organist play Is Your Love In Vain? as a prelude to the service – but then as we left he played Art Garfunkel’s Bright Eyes.
  7. While we accept that the artist uses personae in his art, he usually draws from his own experience to give credibility to the part he plays, as a recent interview with Albert Finney made clear. Thus we use ‘Narrator’ and ‘Dylan’ in discussing the protagonist in the songs.
  8. Wherever a contentious interpretation of a word or phrase has been used, reference has been made to Dictionaries of Vernacular English & American language and Sexual Slang What hasn’t been at least heavily suggested has been deleted.
  9. Clinton Heylin Bob Dylan Recording Sessions 1960-1995.
  10. Neville Symington, Emotion and Spirit Questioning The Claims of Psychoanalysis and Religion, 1994.
  11. Christian Williams, Bob Dylan In His Own Words, 1994*.
  12. Enid Starkie, Introduction to Rimbaud A Biography, 1961.
  13. Arthur Rimbaud, Collected Poems, Penguin edition. Includes Letters quoted. (The Everyman edition of En Saison En Enfer translates the poem as beginning ‘If My Memory Serves Me Well’!
  14. Arthur Rimbaud, Illuminations. The Poem in French edited by Dr Nick Osmond, Formerly lecturer in French, Sussex University. Pub Athlone French Poets.

Dr Osmond’s edition provides extensive commentary on the Poem, Rimbaud’s Poetic. and ‘code’ and writes in his introduction “Rimbaud’s prose poems combine words in unfamiliar ways, startling us into an awareness of a new possible world…. He took what he needed (for his ‘new language’) from wherever it might be found”. He suggests that as French Academic Criticism has trouble with Rimbaud’s ‘cryptic’ writing any translation is unlikely to provide all that Rimbaud has to say in the way he said it. Dr Osmond also covers Rimbaud’s influences and life in a concise, critical ‘biography’ within his introduction. Dr. Osmond’s help in trying to understand Rimbaud was immeasurable as were others at Sussex in the Department of English & American Studies. K.H.

  1. Greil Marcus, The Basement Tapes. Due for publication August 1997. Meanwhile read his essay on Dylan as Historian in his appreciation of Blind Willie Mctell from The Dustbins of History, 1996.

*      Whilst the book by Christian Williams is a useful ‘quick guide’ to Dylan’s utterances, anyone wishing for a more thorough work should refer to The Fiddler Now Unspoke Vols. 1-3 (K.H.).

All quotations from T.S.EIiot from Four Quartets, Faber & Faber.


The following works were used, at one time or another, unconsciously or specifically.

  • Enid Starkie. Rimbaud Oxford A Biography.
  • Dr N Osmond, Ed. Illuminations, Arthur Rimbaud. Pub: AthIone Press 1976.
  • Reprinted 1993.
  • Robert Shelton, No Direction Home.
  • Clinton Heylin, The Recording Sessions.
  • T.S. Eliot. Tradition and The Individual Talent.
  • T.S. Eliot. Four Quartets.
  • Michael Gray, Song and Dance Man.
  • Anthony Scaduto, Bob Dylan An Intimate Biography, 1972.
  • The Complete Oxford Etymological Dictionary.
  • The Penguin. Dictionary of Slang and Venacular, 1984.
  • Websters Dictionary Of American Slang, 1975
  • Dictionary of Sexual Slang, Pub 1994, John Wiley & Sons Ltd
  • Alan Lomax, The Land Where The Blues Began, 1990
  • Paul Oliver, Blues Off The Record, 1994
  • Paul Oliver, Booklet from Blues and Roots CD. set.
  • Gillian Freeman, The Undergrowth of literature, Pan, Out of Print
  • Anthony Storr, Sexual Deviation, Penguin, Out of Print.
  • John Money, Gay, Straight and in Between, O.U.P
  • Anthony Stevens, Archetype, 1991.

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  1. “There are no truths outside the Gates of Eden” Dylan writes a couple of years before the Basement tapes stuff in the Blakean ‘Gates Of Eden’ – the Gates are forever sealed – the experiences of life be all that remains: any wistful hope of an actual heaven and bodily afterlife replaced by mortality and death; it doesn’t take a motorcycle accident for Dylan to realize that. Though they cannot be completey ignored, applying autobiographical events to the song lyrics that Dylan writes is not necessary, and perhaps dubious.

  2. Cheers Larry for taking the time to reply to our article but to be honest I never was one for following rules, particularly when it comes to others dictating what an author is permitted to think and write even if it doesn’t comply with the readers own opinions of the path the author should take, please kindly direct me to some of your articles that I’d be intrigued to read, all the best……………..

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