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 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.)
Dylan tried to take this song back from The Byrds with his own version that was released on his second Greatest Hits compilation. In truth, he could never take it back from the version found on The Basement Tapes, which will always be the definitive one for this listener and, I suspect, most others.
Loping along like a burro on Prozac, the pace of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” certainly is in keeping with the theme of the song. This easygoing nature is reflected in Dylan’s lyrics, full of strange asides about Genghis Khan and free-associative wordplay. Every time you seem to be getting somewhere in the narrative, you get sidetracked by something new. Again, you ain’t goin’ nowhere.
All of the various cover versions that have been released over the years can’t hope to catch the deadpan essence of the original by Dylan and The Band. This song, like many others on The Basement Tapes, is a plea to the entire God-Almighty world to slow down for a bit. If things don’t exactly make sense, so what? Best to “strap yourself to the tree with roots” and enjoy the scenery, which, in this case, is the effortlessly pretty music.
One thing about Dylan’s own version of the song that needs to be noted: The ribbing of Roger McGuinn for changing the words. I guess the whole no-stress vibe goes out the window when somebody messes with your lyrics.
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.
As amiable as it is enigmatic, “Open The Door, Homer” is The Basement Tapes in microcosm. On the one hand, the warmth of the music pulls you in. On the other, the weirdness of the lyrics keeps you at arm’s length. That dichotomy has kept fans enthralled by those recordings for all these years.
The Band plays a bog part in the specialness of this song. Had Dylan saved this for John Wesley Harding, and it does resemble the nature of the inscrutable parables on that album albeit with a lighter tone, it’s unlikely he could have pulled the same kind of magic from it. Even with the muddled nature of the Big Pink recordings, individual flourishes like Garth Hudson’s ethereal organ fills sneak to the surface before subsuming back into the beautiful whole. The chemistry between The Band and those songs is undeniable.
With that solid musical footing, Dylan could afford to take things in unexpected places and not lose the audience. Hence, the curveballs like calling the song “Open The Door, Homer” when Homer is nowhere to be found in the lyrics, or referring to a 40′s novelty song (“Open The Door, Richard”) despite no other real connections to it.
Even within the course of a single song, Dylan has a way of subverting expectations. The first two verses are light and somewhat silly, marked by verbal wordplay and pun-like tricks. Yet the third verse is almost cosmically profound: “‘Take care of all your memories” said my friend, Mick ‘for you cannot relive them/And remember when you’re out there tryin’ to heal the sick that you must first forgive them.’”
The harmonies of the chorus kick in at that point, those warm feelings rush in again, and any doubts about this strangely comforting track are swept away. And remember: No housing flushes.
I’m not sure to whom Manfred Mann did a bigger injustice. Was it Bruce Springsteen, for turning “deuce” into “douche” on his group’s version of the Boss’ “Blinded By The Light?” Or was it Bob Dylan, whose “Quinn The Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)” was transformed from a rollicking bit of Basement Tapes ephemera into a bizarre, piccolo-laced pop song. Either way, Manfred and his revolving sidemen laughed their way to the charts, scoring huge hits with both.
As for Dylan’s own versions, one of which was a live stab released on Self Portrait, the other a Big Pink recording with The Band unreleased until Biograph, they’re both prime bits of inspired lunacy. I won’t be presumptuous enough to speculate on the meaning of a song when Bob himself has admitted he’s not even sure what it is.
After all, the silly songs that take up much of the Basement Tapes always seemed like an end run around any sort of coherence anyway. While it’s impossible to say how much was improvised on the spot, it’s endless fun to dwell on the thought process (or stimulant intake) that unearthed phrases like “not my cup of meat” and “A cat’s meow and a cow’s moo, I can recite ‘em all.” It comes out sounding like Lewis Carroll singing on a back porch with his American cousins.
However Dylan’s neurons were firing, the character of Quinn The Eskimo is one tailor-made for some Pixar movie, don’t you think? Note to self: Talk to Bobby’s people and see who has the rights.
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.