All directions at once: Bob in the basement. Episode 13.

by Tony Attwood

Just by way of reminder, this is how episode 12 ended…

“And then on July 29, 1966, Dylan crashed his motorcycle.  The reason for the crash, the details of the accident and the level of injuries are matters of dispute, but it is clear that Dylan did not go to hospital and no ambulance was called to the scene.  What is also clear is that he did not return to full-on touring for eight years.  Instead, life changed…”

Of course we all know what happened: The Basement Tapes.  But work did not begin on these compositions and recordings, or indeed on the notebook now known as the source of the lyrics for the “New Basement Tapes”, until the following year.   Bob crashed the bike (or at least he says he did) and then stopped completely.

And then when he did get going again via the work in the Basement, the new work came out in a rush.

In all there are around 70 musical works long enough for us to call them “songs” on the Basement Tapes complete set, excluding the notebook lyrics which I will turn to later.  Some are incomplete, and some are incoherent in terms of the subject matter of the lyrics, some are trivial in the extreme, and one is not even listed on the list of songs on the album itself.  But we can still get a sense of the what the majority of songs are about, and thus gain some insight into Dylan’s feelings at this time, as he emerged from this most difficult period of his life.

As far as we can make out, at their first sessions together the band and Dylan started out by playing old songs that they all knew.  There’s no surprise here; it’s a common activity for musicians getting back together – you play the old favourites just to get the feel of each other’s input, to “warm up” in the same way that athletes or footballers will jog around the park, getting the muscles going, kicking the occasional ball, pausing to talk to each other…

The creation of new compositions on the spot, and indeed the writing of songs that were offered to other artists, emerged from that short introductory exercise and among the highlights from these days of music-making we find such absolute gems as “I Shall Be Released”, “This Wheel’s on Fire”, “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)”, “Tears of Rage” and “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”.  We also find, rather interestingly, examples of songs where Bob wrote the lyrics but for which members of the Band wrote the music: “This Wheel’s on Fire” is perhaps the most famous example.

Maybe those earlier struggles with “She’s your lover now” where the tapes reveal that both the music and the lyrics are an insoluble problem, were now a thing of the past.  Or maybe Bob was once more just letting his mind range free.  Either way the difficulties he had experienced were being shunted aside, and like so many artists before and since, he really seems to have needed a break.

And anyway maybe the lyrics of Julie Driscoll’s hit didn’t have anything to do with the bike crash…

Wheel's on fire
Rolling down the road
Just notify my next of kin
This wheel shall explode

As for the subject matter of the Basement Tapes – I am not sure if anyone else has tried to classify those recordings, so here’s my attempt of some of the main themes…

  • Love: 13
  • Being trapped: 10
  • Life is a mess: 9
  • Change: 6
  • Moving on: 6
  • Lost love: 4
  • Slang: 4
  • Party freaks: 3
  • Nothing means anything: 2
  • Humour: 2
  • Surrealism: 2

I do think that given that the Basement songs could have been about anything, having subjects such as being trapped, life is a mess, change and moving on, making up between them 31 of the tracks, we can get quite an idea of how Bob was feeling.  It seems clear to me that even if at many other times in his life Dylan would encompass topics that were not directly related to him, while often writing songs around phrases that of themselves had no specific meaning, Dylan here was writing about the issues that he felt at this at this moment.

Indeed one doesn’t need to rummage through the dustbins – the reality is there staring us in the face.  When in a short period of time a man writes (to take just one combination) 19 songs about “being trapped” and “life being a mess” we have a pretty good idea how he is feeling.  Especially when he also wrote one saying

Just notify my next of kin
This wheel shall explode

This notion that the songs did indeed relate to Bob’s inner feelings at the time, does not mean that I am supporting the theory that every Dylan song is a personal message (either overtly or in code).  Some songs reflect how he feels and thinks, but (to reiterate the old message) one does not have to be a gunslinger to write a story about the wild west.

And yet, I would also argue that the way that Dylan worked on the same theme across several songs, one after another, does give us some insight into how he was feeling.  Not all the time, not every song, not every topic, but sometimes.

For example we first get four songs all about change; Edge of the Ocean suggests change is coming, innocence will be lost, One for the road tells us change is coming, let’s have a drink for lost times, Roll on Train  tells us to keep moving on, for there there is no choice and nothing else to do, while Under control stresses that she may stay, she may go, it is not decided yet.  Yes, a composer who specialised in writing about change throughout his/her career might focus on the topic without actually feeling an empathy for it (although one might consider this a little strange), but when the songwriter dips into this theme for the creation of consecutive songs, and then dips out again, it is a fair bit it was something on his mind, at least for a moment, and he used the songwriting as a way of getting rid of those thoughts.

Then Bob takes off on a new track.   Of the next ten songs, one has a meaning that cannot be deciphered as it is too short, one is about lust, one about relationships, one about party freaks, and six are about love.

Taking the next group, having had just one about party freaks and now we get two more, followed by a disaster song and three saying that everything is a mess.

One song that I spent quite a bit of time trying to disentangle is “Too much of nothing” which exists in two utterly different versions, one highly melodic, one a very strange mix indeed.  Here’s the former version

It was a song that allegedly caused a break between PP&M and Dylan, because of a change of the lyrics when they recorded  the piece.  I won’t repeat the whole saga which takes us back into TS Eliot land but you can follow it here if you wish.

My point is that the song can be heard as a piece that evolves out of a simple phrase, “Too much of nothing” or it can have a much, much deeper meaning concerning the poet Dylan was clearly already interested in.  Which of the two approaches you choose to believe will affect your vision of these songs.  Was “Wheels” a reflection on the motorcycle crash?  What “Too much” an attack on Eliot for the hypercritical way he dealt with his first wife?  Was Dylan writing quite interesting songs about nothing in particular or really drawing on his life and his interests?  We can each decide.

I won’t take us through the songs one at a time, but I do find it informative that suddenly we find a sequence of songs about being trapped:

A little later starting with Apple Suckling Tree we have four consecutive songs that use slang in a song.  The meaning in each song might not be as clear as it could, but sometimes the meaning is clear, sometimes less so, sometimes maybe there is no meaning.

But what is clear is that Bob was working in patterns.  For example eight of the songs following the group above include one that says life is a mess, and then starting with Wild Wolf we have four in a row in which the notion of life being a mess is at at the heart of the lyrics.  He gets an idea and explores it, and having explored, he moves on.

Then, as we approach the final run of 13 (excluding the hidden song which appears on the album but isn’t listed, and “The Spanish Song” which I find incomprehensible) there is a mixture of themes and we end with four songs of “moving on”.   Four songs about moving on, just as Bob was getting ready to quit the basement… a coincidence perhaps but maybe not…

Which leaves us with the notebook of songs written most likely in 1967, as a prelude to the John Wesley Harding songs.

If I have to select just one song from the notebook it has to be Kansas City, a song which says, “I am doing my own thing.”

And I love you dear, but just how long
Can I keep singing the same old song
And I love you dear, but just how long
Can I keep singing the same old song
I’m going back to Kansas City

Again if we are looking for deeper insights into Dylan we might well consider

My sweetheart left me for another one
And now I wait for the next rising sun
I got lost on the river, but I got found
I got lost on the river, but I didn’t drown
I got lost on the river, but I didn’t go down
I got lost on the river, but I got found

The topics of the lyrics in the notebook break down as

  • Lost love: 4
  • Moving on: 3
  • Randomness: 3
  • Leadership: 2
  • Doing my own thing: 2
  • Love: 2
  • Blues: 1
  • Betrayal: 1
  • Friendship: 1
  • Gambling: 1

20 songs and ten topics – a very varied approach.  And interesting that the three most popular topics, which constitute half of all the songs, cover the related topics of lost love, moving on, and randomness, which is to say, they are all primarily about change.  And that would most certainly fit in with Bob’s reality at this point.  He had created “Blonde on Blonde”, he had stopped touring and dropped out to create songs with his friends, and presumably he was now considering the future, sketching out ideas.

Almost certainly these sketches were written while others were having hits with his songs, so when he writes “Lost on the River” he is not talking about the failure of his career.  Of course the fact that Albert Grossman managed not just Bob Dylan but other artists (such as Peter Paul and Mary, the Band, Odetta, and Ian & Sylvia), helped Dylan have a series of hits via other people’s recordings.  But even allowing for Grossman’s double interest, the success of the Basement songs for other artists is extraordinary.  Just consider…

  • “I Shall Be Released”: The Band
  • “The Mighty Quinn”: Manfred Mann, Ian & Sylvia
  • “Million Dollar Bash”: Fairport Convention
  • “Nothing Was Delivered”: The Byrds
  • “Tears of Rage”: Ian & Sylvia; The Band
  • “This Wheel’s on Fire”: Ian & Sylvia; Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger and the Trinity; The Band
  • “Too Much of Nothing”: Peter, Paul and Mary
  • “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”: The Byrds

We are so used to Bob Dylan writing great songs one after another that sometimes this run of hits may be forgotten.  But when we do consider it, the only conclusion we can reach is that the desperation Dylan felt in trying to finish “Blonde on Blonde” was one where life events were simply piling on top of each other and stopping the creativity.  Removing the hassle of dealing with the outside world, and suddenly all the creative juices return.

So he poses the question “what to do next?”

The answer: something quite different.  He tries out a whole range of different ideas in the notebook.  And then decides to something he has never done before.  To write a series of songs all with exactly the same simple structure.

And that’s what we’ll look at next time.

12 years of Untold Dylan

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