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.