It must seem odd to people under a certain age to imagine a time when there was not immediate availability of every piece of music ever recorded. It was not so long ago mind you, that huge swathes of music, even stuff by major, important artists were out of print and unavailable. It seems strange in the age of ITunes and boutiqueing of cds, niche markets and everything at the touch of a computer key that crucial albums by f’instance Creedence, Buddy Holly, John Prine, Randy Newman, Ray Charles, anyone on Sun or Stax, a tonne of Atlantic soul were out of print only a scarce few years after they had been released. And classic jazz and blues albums? Good luck finding them baby. Putting together a record collection- because that’s what we’re talking about here- meant scouring the bins of second-hand record stores with a list of hard to find albums in your head and flicking through endless copies of crap in the hope of unearthing a gem. Growing up in Dublin, Ireland, that meant Freebird Records on Grafton St. (yes Freebird, I know, it was the Seventies). It was a rare day that I didn’t trek home from town with a white plastic bag with the swooping eagle logo under my arm with my latest discoveries. Over the years I’m sure I picked up records by everyone from Robert Johnson to the Replacements and loads more in between at that store. But this isn’t about Freebird records- it’s a short reflection on an album I picked up there- Bob Dylan and the Bands “Basement Tapes”.
Now books have been written about this legendary collection – Greil Marcus’ “Invisible Republic”, a great book of art and criticism is a mind-opening companion to the album and much more besides. The album itself must qualify as a forgotten masterpiece. Forgotten or overlooked- over the years I’ve mentioned this to one Dylan fanatic after another and got blank looks, uncomprehending frowns, pauses, questions, all sorts of tics and fits. I’ve yet to meet a self described Dylan fan who has more than a passing familiarity with the “Basement Tapes” brilliance. If it’s on their radar at all it registers as a piece of ephemera dropped in between “Blood on the Tracks” and “Street Legal”. Well maybe if it had been released when it was recorded in 1967 rather than 1975, people might see it as the missing link from “Blonde on Blonde” to “John Wesley Harding” and “Nashville Skyline”. That transition from balls-to-the-wall rock and roll to a quiter more reflective folk-country wouldn’t seem like such a jump.
Dylan, and the Hawks as they were still called, recorded most of this album while Dylan was recuperating from a nasty motorcycle accident and a bout of exhaustion brought on from the torrid tours of 1965-66. The songs are playful, funny tall tales and long pulls on the jug, ballads, rockabilly, fierce rock’n’roll and short sharp jabs of song. Great as the Dylan songs are here (“This Wheel’s On Fire” alone is titanic- if all you’ve ever heard is Julie Driscoll singing this over the credits on “Absolutely Fabulous” then you really need to listen to this), it’s the Band’s stuff that is revelatory. Dylan we know is an American artist of the first order, up there with John Ford, Twain, Chuck Berry, Louis Armstrong, Buffalo Bill Cody (I’ll explain that last one some other time). It’s the Band’s contribution here that serves to bolsters a reputation sullied by the artistic dead end they never could get out of after their second album.
Playing without restraint and sitting in for one another they are full partners here with Dylan, no mere backing band. Robertson especially, plays guitar with as much soul and as freely as he has ever managed. The ensembles playing is by turns sharp and sloppy, ratcheting up to their patented “push this to the edge of the stage before we fall off” style. Danko, Helm when he’s there and especially Richard Manuel have rarely sung better. Are there two more achingly beautiful songs in their repertoire than “Katie’s Been Gone” (Manuel) or “Bessie Smith” (Danko)? How much fun is “Don’t Ya Tell Henry”? How much solider, more cohesive would “Music From Big Pink” be if “Long Distance Operator” was included? How easy is it to see the old work song “Ain’t No More Cane” as of a piece with “Blind Willie McTell” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”?
It really is a shame that many people who can name the track listing for “Oh Mercy” or find excuses for “Street Legal” seem to miss the “Basement Tapes” and not just for the Dylan stuff. Then again if you can find excuses for “Street Legal” then maybe your not coming at things from the right angle……say down the stairs of Freebird Records clutching a bag of albums with a smile on your face, hurrying to catch the train home and get to a record player.