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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