Forty Years of the Basement Tapes and "the force of reality"
Okay folks, 2009 is the 40th anniversary of the mysterious appearance of the Great White Wonder. In 1969, I found it in a record shop in Grand Rapids, Michigan and haven't stopped listening to the material since. The heart of the 2-LP bootleg was the first release of what has been since known as "The Basement Tapes" and if you haven't heard (or LIVED) with those songs, I feel sorry for you.
As much a product of the collaboration of Dylan with the Band than a "Dylan" album, nothing in my lifetime approaches the camaraderie, the spontaneity or the soul of the 128 tracks they recorded with a borrowed microphone over the summer of 1967. Garth Hudson ran the mike and played organ. Danko, Robertson, and Manuel did what they could, and they liked it enough to bring back Helm from the oil rig he was working on. For decades bits and pieces of the informal sessions leaked out and I listened the whole time.
This blog is about authenticity. There is an authenticity in these tracks we have not been privilege to since, and that's all I can say without seeming inflated, maudlin or even at this stage of my life, tearing up. Manuel is gone. Danko is gone too, that hit me the hardest. (In my life of listening, I have never heard anyone give all they had the moment the recording light was on more than Danko except maybe Elmore James, and he only knew one song)
Dylan, of course, has a new disc coming out this month. Levon, a gentleman I have had the honor to meet, survived cancer with memorable courage and hosts the now legendary "Midnight Rambles" a stone throw from where the basement tapes were recorded. Sometimes Garth shows up, he still lives nearby as well. Since the complete tapes have never been legally released, I might as well crib a bit of Dylan's latest interview as well. I'm sure there are enough copies floating around that no one is going to sue me, and since I have no money I'm not too worried. If you dig around, you will probably find all the tracks. It's a lot easier now than it was 40 years ago, and when the complete set is finally released, probably after all of us are gone... they'll take their place along the Hank Williams radio shows, Willie Nelson's solo work before he hit it big and Bob Wills Radio Transcriptions as some of the most authentic, joyous and honest recordings made in the 20th Century.
Let Mr. Dylan explain it for you:
Do you think of yourself as a cult figure?
A cult figure, that's got religious connotations. It sounds cliquish and clannish. People have different emotional levels. Especially when you're young. Back then I guess most of my influences could be thought of as eccentric. Mass media had no overwhelming reach so I was drawn to the traveling performers passing through. The side show performers - bluegrass singers, the black cowboy with chaps and a lariat doing rope tricks. Miss Europe, Quasimodo, the Bearded Lady, the half-man half-woman, the deformed and the bent, Atlas the Dwarf, the fire-eaters, the teachers and preachers, the blues singers. I remember it like it was yesterday. I got close to some of these people. I learned about dignity from them. Freedom too. Civil rights, human rights. How to stay within yourself. Most others were into the rides like the tilt-a-whirl and the rollercoaster. To me that was the nightmare. All the giddiness. The artificiality of it. The sledge hammer of life. It didn't make sense or seem real. The stuff off the main road was where force of reality was. At least it struck me that way. When I left home those feelings didn't change.
But you've sold over a hundred million records.
Yeah I know. It's a mystery to me too.
Bob Dylan, a Banjo, a Radio and Trout 2010
A simple life does not mean a trendy "return to basics" with shabby chic country deco, designer hemp rugs on the floor and rustic sourdough bread from your local equivalent of Balducci's... or even "cocooning" if you do it with a huge flat-screen not yet paid for. The average debt on a credit card is approaching $10,000, and even the average college student now carries a $2,000 balance on their card. (That coffee you "swipe your card" for is going to seem awful extravagant when you are still paying for a portion of it 10 years from now). I drive through middle class (umm...make that formerly middle-class) neighborhoods with so much junk in the garage neither of the cars will fit. In 1970, Bob Dylan stunned those who found some type of direction in his music by releasing "New Morning" containing the seemingly banal lyrics "Build me a cabin in Utah/Marry me a girl, catch rainbow trout/Have a bunch of kids who'll call me pa/That must be what its all about, That must be what its all about". Has he ever been wrong?
This tar paper looks nice and straight. The radio is free. Bring a banjo.
"Sister Mate" Real Photo Post Card Anonymous Itinerant c. 1915 Collection Jim Linderman
Woodstock, The Band, and the Anagram Photographer
Woodstock. It is curious to this day why the only band who actually both LIVED there and performed at the gig has to this day not had their set shown or released. Most folks don't even know The Band were there. At the same time plans were being made for the giant festival, The Band were living right down the road, practicing every day and in the woodshed with Dylan, another well-known, though reclusive resident I mentioned in an earlier post. Bob didn't make it, despite rumors he would. His backing band did...a full set of ten songs which have never been put on a compilation or added to endless reissues of "bonus" material on editions of the still essential film. In Levon's autobiography he claims it was because they forgot to turn Robbie's microphone off before the performance. (Personally, I like Robertson's voice, but he was no Levon Helm , Rick Danko or Richard Manuel) The set has been bootlegged, of course.
There is another angle to the story not told enough. While Dylan was healing up, drying out and raising a family nearby, very few pictures of him came out. Being fan, I was always glad to see the few that did, including a famous luminous shot of a 28 year old healthy gentleman Bob in pressed pegged pants leaning against an old car, surrounded by an aura of pink which ran on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. A few more trickled out, notably the striking, in fact now legendary photos of the boys in The Band. They were credited to one Elliott Landy. I always thought Landy, who happens to have a last name which is an anagram of Dylan...were one and the same. By that time, serious Dylan students were used to his attempts at preserving a life by hiding his under myth, I always just assumed he picked up a camera and took the shots himself. Whoever did certainly had Dylan's artistic skill (or extraordinary access)
Well, Elliott Landy is in fact a photographer, and a good one indeed. Many of his photos have become both iconic and emblematic of the era. The most comprehensive catalog of his work has just been released, shown here, and the photos are beautiful, colorful, crystal clear. Although of the time, they somehow manage to avoid the psychedelic claptrap of the period (something The Band did as well) The set? Not The Band's best, which is still to say better than almost everything else.
The woman above? Placed there by the photographer to make the boys smile, something they didn't do enough. It worked!
Elliott Landy's Website
The OTHER Bob Dylan Christmas Album (!)
In the mid-1970's, around the time of Dylan's Blood on the Tracks album, tape traders and fans of bootleg records such as the Basement Tapes were frantic about a set of tracks rumored to be a Bob Dylan Christmas Album. It even had the title "Snow Over Interstate 80" and track listings. Not only that, it was rumored he also recorded "Silent Night" which was to be the single release. A good story, but alas, years later the truth came out (and so does his REAL Christmas album) New Musical Express, that Brit rag which thankfully brought us the fabulous Sex Pistols only to end up forcing the abysmal "New Romantics" fad on us a few years later are to blame. In 1975 they reportedly ran a false article, a hoax...and the full story is reprinted HERE on Searching for a Gem, the great fan-run Bob Dylan recordings site which covers his rare records. If you don't want to read the entire article, the "lyrics" to the title track follow:
"Arabella talks so sweetly
Her Chevy's broken down
As the snow piles on her windshield
Winston's back in town ... "
Doesn't sound so bad! And the new Christmas disc? Well...it's for charity. And since many songsters release a Christmas album the third or fourth year of their success, at least he waited this long. What's not to like? Except that it fails to include "Silent Night" so I'm still waiting. The REAL disc (and all the Dylan you could want) is at his official website HERE. However, Searching for a Gem probably knows more about his music than the label does. That's what fans are for, after all.
Dull Tool Dim Bulb
Time for Bob Dylan to Record an Album of Charley Patton Covers
Bob Dylan once said "If I made records for my own pleasure, I would record only Charley Patton songs." For someone of his writing skills, that is a considerable proclamation and one I do not doubt. Gospel, Blues, Proto-Blues, Gut whoops and hollers, slide-finished words, gruff "voice masking" as old as Africa. Patton was so fugging good he could play 4 characters in one three minute song, make them all real and make every one of them sound like they were in a different room. His voice could be Man, Woman and God all at once and it was all done live in front of a primitive microphone while it was being etched into WAX. He could sing and talk to himself out loud at the same time! Nothing since has matched or met it. But Dylan keeps working at it and he increasingly SOUNDS like him, a compliment I am sure he would appreciate. It is no coincidence the most impressive song he has performed over the last few years is the one he specifically wrote for Patton. Like all his songs, he has played with it, shuffled it, jacked it up and down...even put a banjo in for a while. I've heard it scream with a guitar fed through a vocoder and a drum pound break Levon might be able to play, but with a sound he couldn't even imagine. I've heard a growl thrown at the song like Patton would, a genuine grit-teeth roar deep from inside somehow and as though each moment of the song was critical. A live version from 2003 was released on the Tell Tale Signs CD which spits and stutters to a fantastic finish. The song name-drops Big Joe Turner, another under-appreciated performer. They say Charlie Sexton's return to the band has brought vitality to the gigs. He certainly looks good from the audience clips I've seen.
Dylan's "never-ending tour" is an enormous misnomer, as musicians PLAY. I suppose it is born from his reclusive days, when he took time to start and raise a family, something which it is increasingly obvious he did well despite what must have been enormous pressure. I was shocked to read Sara turned 70 in October. I do not follow the offspring, but one is an accomplished performer and another a film maker who has been involved only in most laudable projects. That their father chooses to work is no surprise at all, and we should only HOPE it never ends. I recall when he did hit the road again (after what is now realized as only a brief respite) it was such an out-of-scale, stadium-filled steamroll no less than Bill Graham had to handle the ticket requests, millions of which were unfulfilled and the performers had to shout to be heard. Geffen bought the product and it set Dylan adrift a bit after, but he got back to Hammond's label and although there were some ups and downs, he's since had an artistic 5 disc run which has now matched the first one. And that is a considerable proclamation as well.
But this is about Patton. And that quote. It has been 8 years since the magnificent Charlie Patton box set by Revenant dropped. Literally. It is time to listen to it again. It is called "Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues" and it is with no question the greatest CD box-set ever released. From the pea-vine graphics to the erudite texts, it was as fitting a tribute one could create for this part Cherokee Black man who was born and died on plantations within 20 miles of each other in Sunflower County, Mississippi. It has taken me eight years to fully appreciate the box and Mr. Patton, though I first heard him in headphones in junior high school on an LP put out the year before I was born.
Dylan had a song on an album way back in 1978 titled "New Pony" which smells just a little bit like Patton. The tribute song "High Water" which refers to the floods that put Delta citizens atop the levee (the lucky ones anyway) is even closer. But to my knowledge, Dylan has never covered the master. It might be time. In fact, might I suggest an entire album of covers? I bet I could find him a label to put it out.