on 31 August 2014
This 1975 anthology of Bob Dylan & The Band's basement recordings was rightly hailed as a classic on its release. The sessions of 1967 in West Saugerties, NY had acquired an aura and mystique and their allure was only heightened further when bootleg recordings of these sessions escaped into the public, creating a demand for an authentic, official release. Much has been written, many have speculated as to why Dylan waited until 1975 to sanction the release. His involvement in the track selection was reputedly minimal or noncommittal, depending on who you believe. Following the release and huge critical and commercial success of "The Basement Tapes", fans and Dylanologists began weighing in with criticisms about the inauthenticity of the album. According to the liner notes, the 24 tracks were supposedly recorded in the basement of Big Pink during the summer of 1967. Of course, sharp-eared listeners could already discern a sharp contrast between the raw production of the Dylan/Band collaborations against the more obviously studio-produced sound of the Band only tracks. Naturally, fans felt duped and exploited. They wanted the authentic, original recordings and they wanted the lot. Over the years, fans have relied on fan-made bootleg releases and it would seem that all the recordings have been circulating unofficially for quite some time. And now, after a 47-year wait, an official release of all the original basement recordings is imminent in November 2014, 6 CDs worth in the deluxe edition of The Bootleg Series Vol. 11.
And what of the 1975 collection? Does anyone still listen to it? We know that Robbie Robertson compiled the 24 tracks, which makes him either a hero or a villain depending on who you talk to. A number of tracks were tarted up with overdubs or deliberately tampered with to make them sound as if they were recorded in the basement of Big Pink instead of a professional studio. For hardcore fans, "The Basement Tapes" is a commercial sham, a disappointment, tainted, ruined and dishonest, antithetical to the spirit of the original recordings. The deluxe Bootleg Series Vol. 11 represents the holy grail, collecting as many of the original recordings made in Big Pink, raw, undiluted and authentic.
I, for one, was utterly enchanted by The Basement Tapes album when I first heard it. It was during my first year at university in 1992. I became close friends with one of my tutors and upon discovering my love of 60s music was invited over to his house to check out his collection of vinyls and CDs. He made many tapes for me, including The Basement Tapes. The music was vibrant, varied, hallucinatory, haunting, mystical, hilarious, mystifying yet a crucial link in the lexicon of American folk, blues, country and rock that continues to hold a strong grip on me. I've never heard any of the bootlegs purporting to contain the original and authentic basement recordings. Even with all the revelations about how The Basement Tapes album was put together has never prevented me from listening to and enjoying the album. Whatever the origins of the 24 recordings, to my mind the album holds together remarkably well purely as a listening experience. The selections and sequencing have been well-judged and if some of the recordings were tarted up or manipulated then so what? Robbie Robertson, in putting the album together, made a judicious selection and rightly judged what needed to be done to polish, tidy up, overdub and enhance the recordings to tell a story. Perhaps the album should have been called "Music From Big Pink Part 2" or "Other Music From Big Pink". The Band's debut album was called "Music From Big Pink" but every single song was recorded in a studio, not the basement. Why? Because that was where the songs were originally written, rehearsed and nurtured. If we can accept the Band's debut album as Music From Big Pink, we can surely accept The Basement Tapes (1975) as a similar kind of collection. Robbie was likely not thinking wholly as an archivist or a scholar when he took on the task of compiling The Basement Tapes and certainly Dylan, when he sanctioned the album's release, wasn't thinking as a curator, unlike Neil Young, who seems to be the only rock artist with a sense of his own history and who has curated his archives with the care and dedication of a scholar. Rightly or wrongly, Robbie's motivation was partly to tell a story, to provide an impressionistic feel of that summer in 1967 and, foremost, to give listeners an exceedingly listenable album. This was not just for fans but for anyone interested in music.
A scholarly approach to compiling albums, particularly archival collections, can often be great musical/listening experiences. The Bootleg Series Vol 1-3 is an exceptional example. Each disc has an excellent selection of unreleased tracks. They are presented chronologically and listeners are able to trace Dylan's evolution as well as enjoy some enthralling music. Alternatively, they can become a tad boring, especially when there are multiple takes of the same songs. Only hardcore fans can really stomach these kind of releases and even then I wonder how many times they go back and listen to them. The Beatles' Anthology albums, spread across 6 CDs, tried a hybrid of a scholarly approach and a musical approach, sometimes creating an entirely new track by editing two or three takes together. I don't think I've ever gone back and listened to the Anthology albums from start to finish since I purchased them. I only listen to my favourite tracks. It's nice to have the outtakes but they're the equivalent of a reference book. You look them up from time to time to find something but you'll never read it cover to cover.
The Basement Tapes (1975) is an album, one that I can listen to from start to finish and enjoy. I'm sure I'll buy the 6 CD box set of the complete sessions when it comes out. I could react in one of two ways - I listen to the whole lot and then treat it like a reference book and dip in from time to time. Or, I could embrace it the same way that I embraced "Apocalypse Now Redux". I love the original version of "Apocalypse Now" and, if you like, "The Basement Tapes" (1975) is like that original 1979 movie. The complete and original Basement Tapes box could be the Redux version or it could be another Beatles Anthology.
The point of this review is: hold on to the original Basement Tapes album. Dig it out, listen to it, enjoy it for what it is. It's a wonderful album, a great experience and a primer for the Clubhouse technique of making music, overdubs and all.