Coming on the heels of the triumphant Blood On The Tracks, the release of The Basement Tapes of 1975 was a double-whammy of brilliance for Bob Dylan. These mythic recordings had been bootlegged for years, but the official release confirmed that the music that Dylan and The Band made in Woodstock in 1967 sounded timeless and ahead of its time all at once, summing up everything good about American music in the 20th century. Here is a song-by-song review. (Just the Dylan-performed tunes, since he seems to have only a tenuous connection on The Band-led songs at best.)
16. “Tiny Montgomery”- All of the whimsy of the lyrics falls a bit flat without a little musical spark. I’m not sure if we should welcome Tiny’s arrival or fear it. Gas that dog, indeed!
15. “Yea! Heavy And A Bottle Of Bread”- I know this one has its defenders, but there’s no real tune on which Dylan can hang the Mad-Lib lyrics. It’s only funny the first time really, and then all you’re left with is silliness.
14. “Please, Mrs. Henry”- A drunken plea for some kind of mercy from the titular missus, this track has so many double-entendres that even Dylan has to laugh at song’s end about it. The stop-and-start nature of the recording is comical in its own way.
13. “Lo And Behold”- A round trip from San Antonio to Pittsburgh featuring Ferris Wheel taxis and flying moose? On The Basement Tapes, it somehow all makes perfect sense. Richard Manuel gives the song just the right bit of locomotive energy on piano, chugging it along like a rickety old train.
12. “Apple Suckling Tree”- The Band was known for shuffling instruments between themselves; on this track, Robbie Robertson plays drums and provides a crazed, hiccupping beat. The real star is Garth Hudson, whose organ solo at the end is worth the price of admission alone. “Underneath that tree” sounds like the funkiest place in the world to be.
11. “Crash On The Levee”- When they tackled it in concert years later, Dylan and The Band turned this one into a real barn-burner. On The Basement Tapes, it’s more of a relaxed stroll that fits into a long line of Dylan songs about ominous floods. The matter-of-fact way in which he delivers the news suggests that he knows “Mama” is doomed, so she might as well dance her way into the deluge.
10. “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”- The gentility of the music, a sweet country lope that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Nashville Skyline, belies the harshness of the wintertime setting that Dylan suggests. Everything sounds just fine once Dylan gets into nonsensical ramblings about Genghis Khan, especially when Rick Danko and Richard Manuel join in on the memorable chorus.
9. “Clothes Line Saga”- One of the funniest songs Dylan has ever delivered was allegedly a parody of Bobbie Gentry’s huge smash hit “Ode To Billie Joe.” What Bob really seems to be satirizing is a kind of linear approach to folk-song writing which, when taken to its extreme as it is here, can make the most trivial occurrences, like washing and drying clothes, sound strangely riveting. Meanwhile, the insanity of the vice president can’t compare to the necessity of getting those damn clothes off the line.
8. “Too Much Of Nothing”- Robbie Robertson had precious few leads on The Basement Tapes tracks, but he made the most of his chance here, delivering efficient, stinging licks. This is one of the more serious tracks on the collection, with Dylan warning of the dangers of wanting things that ultimately lack substance. An overload of such nothingness can lead to disastrous results, Bob suggests, and the intensity of the tune shows he’s not kidding around. Plus, one of my favorite rhymes in the Dylan canon: “Vivian” and “oblivion.”
7. “Open The Door, Homer”- The off-kilter wisdom that Dylan spins in this lilting track featuring Hudson’s swirling organ may not seem to make much sense on first listen, but it has a way of sinking into your consciousness if you let it. No word on when Homer got replaced with Richard in Bob’s refrains, but who cares when things turn out as charming as this one does.
6. “Nothing Was Delivered”- Richard Manuel delivers for sure on this one, in terms of the Fats Domino-inspired piano that leads the way and great backing vocals with Rick Danko. Dylan sings woefully throughout, a tear in his voice as he expresses indignation at the person who hasn’t come through. As with so much of the Basement Tapes, there is a bit of mystery to the proceedings, making this one worthy of revisiting again and again.
5. “Odds And Ends”- For all of its wild wonder, there aren’t too many times when The Basement Tapes truly rocks. The album-opener is a rollicking good time though, with The Band sinking into a Chuck Berry groove so that Dylan can cut loose with a tirade against his loose-juiced lover. The refrain’s profound warning that “Lost time is not found again” sort of sneaks into the craziness, adding a touch of weight to the inspired lightness around it.
4. “This Wheel’s On Fire”- I’ve always felt like this song was too much of a loner to truly corral, so that both The Basement Tapes version and that the one knocked out by The Band on their debut album come up just short of its true potential. The portent is practically stifling as the titular wheel prepares to blow and take all of the participants with it. Another one with layers upon layers of mystery, it’s still fantastic even if it hasn’t quite been solved by any of its performances.
3. “Goin’ To Acapulco”- Perhaps the greatest example of the mystical qualities of The Basement Tapes, this song reads a bit silly on the page. When Dylan sings it against the backdrop of Garth Hudson’s mournful organ and Robbie Robertson’s soulful licks, “Goin’ To Acapulco” practically oozes import. It’s a fantastic melody sung beautifully by Bob as The Band’s rhythm section of Danko on bass and Manuel on drums suspends the song in midair. Calling it haunting doesn’t do it justice, but there are really are no words for what went down in Big Pink anyway.
2. “Million Dollar Bash”- The singular achievement of The Basement Tapes might be the way Dylan and The Band made light-hearted music that still managed to have lasting impact. For example, “Million Dollar Bash” is at heart a surreal depiction of a wild party full of suspect characters. Yet the chorus provides an irresistible hook to keep the events from spinning too far out of control, the “whoo-wee” vocals of Dylan, Manuel, and Danko bringing a flash of beauty to the lunacy. You’d be a fool to sit out this bash.
1. “Tears Of Rage”- Richard Manuel didn’t write too often, but the songs he did write were always beautiful in undeniably sad ways. Dylan took Manuel’s wistful chords and delivered lyrics of understated, aching tenderness, telling a gut-wrenching tale of a father estranged from his daughter. The hurt and the anger are there in the verses, but those gorgeous refrains, abetted by Manuel and Danko’s ethereal backing vocals, clearly long for reconciliation. “Life Is brief” are the last words uttered, an urgent reminder that the generational gap shouldn’t be left to widen for too long a time.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Bob Dylan, check out the link below to my upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs.)
1974’s Planet Waves found Bob Dylan reuniting with The Band, his old buddies from the incendiary electric shows of the mid-60’s and the bucolic mystery music they made together in Woodstock subsequent to that. It marked a return to Dylan being a full-time rock star, as he scored his first ever #1 album and put together a huge arena tour with The Band behind it. While many of the songs still harkened back to the simpler pleasures of his previous few albums, a few pointed in the direction of the masterpieces to come. Here is a song-by-song review.
11. “Forever Young” (Side Two Version)- Even for Dylan, the decision to start Side Two of the album with a charmless, country-rock version of a song that he and The Band had done just about to perfection to send Side One was a bizarre one. The producers of the NBC drama Parenthood use this version for a theme song; they must have been in possession of a one-sided copy of Planet Waves growing up and missed out on the good one.
10. “Never Say Goodbye”- Each of the instrumentalists have nice individual moments but the music never quite coheres, while Dylan’s lyrics feel like an unfinished sketch. Somewhat interesting, but ultimately a bit of a misfire.
9. “Tough Mama”- There is a bit of an uneasy mix here between heady, impressive lyrics and the chunky rock conjured by The Band for the song. Dylan feels hemmed in and, as a result, this one never takes off like it might. Plus the phrase “a-hotter than a crotch” should have stayed within the bounds of Bob’s imagination.
8. “Hazel”- The sentiments are nice enough, but they are rendered in lyrics that sound like they could have come from a Dr. Hook single. The good news is that The Band would take the slow-song arrangement of “Hazel” and build on it for their classic “It Takes No Difference” a few years later.
7. “You Angel You”- Planet Waves might be Dylan’s most lovestruck album; at least six of the songs can be considered odes to captivating women. There’s not too much fancy going on in this one, but the players all sound so at ease on the recording that it’s hard not to get swept up in the effortlessness of it all.
6. “Something There Is About You”- At times awkward, at times revelatory, this song is intriguing for the unique ways that it pays tribute to the object of the narrator’s affection. The references to childhood in Minnesota in the wonderful second verse would seem to indicate autobiography. Dylan never makes it that easy though, muddying things up by making metaphorical references to sabres and batons that sound more like something from Don Quixote. The Band provides one of their inimitable, weightless performances that encase the singer in a gorgeous glow.
5. “On A Night Like This”- On the surface, it’s not all that different from songs like “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” or “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” in that it’s about shutting out the world and enjoying some alone time with a significant other. But swathed in Garth Hudson’s joyous accordion and containing references to reminiscences and déjà vu, it’s easy to hear this one as a celebration of the reunion of Bob and The Band, especially considering it’s the album’s opening track.
4. “Wedding Song”- Bob let The Band take five for the closing track, dusting off the acoustic and the harmonica and going to town on this testimonial to an all-encompassing love. There are just enough hints of darkness to keep this one from being sappy, and the focused intensity of the vocal is potent almost to the point of being harrowingly so.
3. “Dirge”- Whether Dylan is signing to a woman or to a drug, the intent is the same: To cast out the presence that is haunting him and revealing his worst self. Much of the song’s success comes from the mesmerizing duet between Robbie Robertson’s acoustic guitar and Dylan’s stutter-stepping, intuitive piano chords. Bob also provides a terrific vocal, all stark howls that strive for catharsis but end up simply baring more wounds. In its way, this song, perhaps more than any other on the album, signals the ultimate return to elite form that Dylan’s lyrics would take on his next album, Blood On The Tracks.
2. “Forever Young”- Now this is more like it. The magical, improvisational chemistry of The Basement Tapes met its logical, mature conclusion in this expertly-crafted, undeniably moving musical performance that can convey the intended message without a single word. Dylan steps up and delivers one of his most heartfelt set of lyrics. The placid wisdom of the verses is contrasted by the wailing vocals in the refrain, desperate and fearing like any sane father who sends his children into this unforgiving world rightfully should be.
1. “Going Going Gone”- This is one of Dylan’s most underrated classics, with nary an ounce of flab on it. The Band’s performance is both pristine and powerful, with special props going to both the herky-jerky rhythm section of Rick Danko and Levon Helm and to Robbie Robertson’s stinging licks that punctuate each verse. Dylan’s narrator seems to have reached a metaphorical point of no return, possibly driven by a break-up, but there is a certain amount of freedom in his banishment of all hope. (After all, as a wise man once said, “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”) That home-run call refrain could either be a final lament or a new beginning, or maybe both somehow.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Bob Dylan, check out the link below to my upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs.)
The Band took their own crack at this Basement Tapes track on Music From Big Pink, but they didn’t quite get the tone right. Speeding up the tempo and adding a clavichord that’s way too prominent in the mix, the song is drained of much of its mystery. Rick Danko’s frenzied vocal does pick up the slack somewhat, but this was one instance where Bob’s buddies missed the boat a bit.
They would have been better served trying to recreate some of that Basement Tapes mojo, although, if they could do that, I guess it wouldn’t have been that special in the first place. The recording of the song Bob & The Band created in Woodstock has a creeping menace to it, all the instrumentalists inexorably trudging down a path that leads to some dark end. Dylan, Danko, and Richard Manuel stagger through the chorus together, as if the words are too heavy to lift.
From music written by Danko, Dylan creates a tale that’s almost sinister in the way it insinuates and suggests but never spells the facts out. I’ve always heard the narrator as someone who has done a favor, likely something not quite on the up-and-up, for the person he is addressing, and he’s now come to collect his payment. Maybe he was an intermediary for someone even more dangerous (“You’ll remember you’re the one/That called on me to call on them/To get you your favors done.”) Someone even further down the ladder, so to speak.
His favored phrase (“If your mem’ry serves you well”) sounds like just the kind of thing a smooth-talker of questionable morals would say to partially hide his threatening nature. Even more ominous is his repeated suggestion that these two are destined to meet again. Where? I’m guessing that it’s a place where all those who have made self-betraying compromises must answer for them.
When the wheel does explode, all that is hidden will be revealed. “This Wheel’s On Fire” leaves scorched souls in its slowly-trodden path.
(E-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
It’s not even two minutes long, but “Odds And Ends” sure packs a lot of wallop and wonder into that brief time. It chugs right by before we even know what hit us, leaving us out of breath and bewildered in its wake, feeling just a tad confused even as a silly smile is pasted on our face. What better way to kick off The Basement Tapes, right?
“You know what I’m sayin’ and you know what I mean.” Well, actually, I don’t, Bob, but I love the song anyway. On the surface it’s a straightforward diatribe against a promise-breaking woman, but “Odds And Ends” throws in enough lyrical quirks to keep listeners eternally guessing. And, like other Basement Tapes tracks, it stops the silliness long enough to drop a cosmic truth on us in the refrain: “Lost time is not found again.”
And what about this girl’s propensity to spill juice? Considering the wicked humor prevalent in these recordings, I suppose there could be some sexual connotation in there. Then again, considering the out-and-out wackiness of these recordings, Bob literally might have been taking about a girl who’s just sloppy with her juice. I would think the general stickiness would become pretty annoying after a while.
The beauty of such songs is that we can debate such minutiae ’til the cows come home, or we can just get caught up in the barreling 50′s rock vibe of the music, propelled by Richard Manuel taking a raucous turn on drums. It’s over quicker than most horse races, yet “Odds And Ends” gloriously gives us more than we could handle.
It cannot be overstated how important The Band’s contributions were to Bob Dylan’s compositions on The Basement Tapes. The pixie dust that they spread all over those songs transformed them from quirky oddballs into mysterious beauties. When people say that music is timeless, they usually mean from the time it was recorded on forward. What’s on The Basement Tapes is infinite in both directions.
On “Nothing Was Delivered”, a Fats Domino-style stroll is banged out on the piano by Richard Manuel, allowing for Dylan to really emote his lyrics in a soulful manner, rising to the challenge of his musical cohorts. Garth Hudson’s spectral organ rises and falls in the mix intuitively, while Robbie Robertson picks and chooses his spots as well for some economically powerful licks. Just when all of that is too much to take, Manuel piles on with one of those harmony vocals that come from a dimension much sadder and more interesting than the one in which we all operate.
When you add all of that to “Nothing Was Delivered”, the hurt in Dylan’s voice as he calls out an unnamed person for shirking on his or her promises takes on new depths. Suddenly, it’s not just personal; the wrongs inflicted by this person have somehow reduced the world.
And yet, forgiveness mixes with sorrow in the chorus, as Dylan and Manuel wail out: “Nothing is better, nothing is best/Take care of yourself and get plenty of rest.” The sweetness mixed in with the pain is a mix that’s impossible to resist. Never was there a more ironic title than “Nothing Was Delivered,” because this one gives us much more than expected every time.
Our first foray into the Basement Tapes brings us this dark brooder about the dangers of empty rewards. While Dylan allegedly mentioned King Lear as a possible inspiration here, it was likely his own experience that served as a muse. Don’t forget that, as he was recording this song, he was in the midst of a hiatus from the merry-go-round that brought him fame, money, and exhaustion, and that experience seems to inform his lyrics.
In the verses, he outlines the consequences for those who aren’t careful what they desire. False pride, ignorance and meanness are all possibilities. In the worst cases, it’s impossible to predict the outcome and utter chaos reigns (“Oh, when there’s too much of nothing/No one has control.”) That sounds like a man who has lived through it.
When we get to the chorus, it becomes clear that the narrator has already made his mistakes, stranded as he is now on the “waters of oblivion.” Coming on the heels of the crescendoing verses, the choruses, sweetened by Rick Danko and Richard Manuel’s otherworldly harmonies, release the tension somewhat. But it is a release that only comes after the ultimate fall.
What’s ironic is the definition of “nothing” that Dylan chooses to embrace here. His idyllic time with The Band in Woodstock was filled with little more than bucolic living and making music, far removed from the fame game. To his fans, that life might have seemed like a lot of nothing.
In fact, he was recuperating, physically and mentally, by leading a more fulfilling life than the past several years had provided. Dylan’s “Too Much Of Nothing” era actually occurred in his mid-1960′s whirlwind phase, when he had much given to him and even more expected from him. It’s that lifestyle that he rejects with extreme prejudice here.