Friday, December 26, 2014

Bob Dylan 57: Basement Tapes Complete

Only a year after one of its finest installments, Bob Dylan’s occasional Bootleg Series maintained its quality by revisiting one of the most beloved and mysterious eras of his career. Volume 11 served up two discs of unadorned recordings, alternates and true rarities from the series of sessions known as the Basement Tapes, in excellent sound, with no after-the-fact overdubbing and no Band-only tracks. And to beat that, a deluxe edition offered everything captured in those sessions with Bob present, 139 tracks in mostly chronological order. (The timing was particularly apt, as the project was revealed and released right around the time of another album involving long-lost lyrics.)
For those seeking only a taster, The Basement Tapes Raw is two hours of arguable highlights, focusing on completed songs and less on the “jam” aspect of the sessions. Here, finally, in one tidy package are some truly legendary tracks in pristine sound. Neither “Silent Weekend” nor “Get Your Rocks Off” seems finished, but Dylan’s laughter on the latter makes it worth the listen. The first take of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” sports a truly surreal batch of alternate lyrics, while take two of “Too Much Of Nothing” is more straightforward than the chromatic experiment that made the 1975 album. The amateurish trombone all over “Don’t Ya Tell Henry” makes it clear why it was left alone till now. “Sign On The Cross” manages to stay mesmerizing over seven slow minutes, and “All You Have To Do Is Dream” has the potential of a wonderful pop song, whatever “floor birds” are. And while “I’m Not There” made its legal debut in 2007, it’s great to have this fascinating tune back alongside its brothers (including the close cousin “I’m Alright”).
The armchair Dylanologist has to have everything, and The Basement Tapes Complete does offer hours of listening pleasure, though not everything deserves more than one play. A 12-string acoustic guitar is hard to get into tune in the first place, much less when it’s being strummed by someone for whom pitch is already elusive. The compilers did do us a favor by putting the “least listenable” of the tracks on the sixth disc; besides not being recorded as well, with a particularly distorted electric piano guiding the way, there’s little hidden treasure here. Also, these were a bunch of guys in their 20s, basically playing hooky, so some of the goofiness doesn’t translate. But when they do catch fire, its wonders to behold.
There’s already been a lucrative cottage industry based around picking these sessions apart, and many of the mysteries will never be solved—mostly because nobody was anal enough to note dates, times, locations, who was playing what, etc. Some insist that “Garth’s order” isn’t to be trusted, but there is some structure to it, as successive performances are heard to go increasingly off rails. We can also hear where the focus switched from playing whatever struck to trying to arrange brand new songs. Having multiple takes of several songs will inspire further argument as to which is “best”. (And to think “Tiny Montgomery”, of all things, was the earliest track considered worth selling, appearing a whole disc away from the next one, “Million Dollar Bash”. From there, he doesn’t let up until disc five.)
The mystique of the sessions remains, mostly because it’s still not clear why all this was preserved on tape in the first place. Remakes of “One Too Many Mornings”, “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “Blowin’ In the Wind” suggest possible preparations for a stage performance. His Nashville Skyline voice surfaces a few times. The preponderance of country & western covers puts Self Portrait in yet another light, and makes Robbie Robertson look especially petty for claiming that it was The Band who “taught” Dylan all this music, instead of the other way around. How come he never went back to “One Man’s Loss”, “Lock Your Door” or “Wild Wolf”? Was it all recorded before John Wesley Harding? And what the hell was his fascination with “Spanish Is The Loving Tongue”, anyway?
We can be thankful that this weary world can finally hold not only a completed Beach Boys Smile CD, but a Basement Tapes collection that surpasses even the most revered bootlegs. Now fans had a very wide bridge from Blonde On Blonde to John Wesley Harding, and it only took 47 years.

Bob Dylan & The Band The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11 (2014)—4

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