This week saw the release of a 6-CD set from Bob Dylan, The Basement Tapes Complete, which features 138 songs that he recorded with members of The Band in the late 1960s, some which have been circulating in bootlegged form for decades, and Dylanologists are rejoicing. Sasha Frere-Jones provides the context for these remarkable, freewheeling sessions – Dylan’s famous 1966 motorcycle accident, which spurred a relatively reclusive period of his career:
There is no official documentation of the accident, and it’s not clear what injuries Dylan incurred, though he said that he suffered a concussion and “busted” some “neck vertebrae.” It is also unclear how many people witnessed the accident—Dylan said that his wife, Sara Lowndes, was behind him, in a car. “It happened one morning, after I’d been up for three days,” he said. He told one interviewer, “I probably would have died, if I had kept on going the way I had been.”
After a short convalescence, Dylan tinkered with a tour documentary he was making, called “Eat the Document.” (It has never been commercially released, but bootleg copies have circulated for years.) In the spring of 1967, he began making music again. He worked in his house and in the basement of a house outside Saugerties, near Woodstock, with his touring band, a mostly Canadian group originally called the Hawks and later renamed The Band. He performed no live dates in 1967, made a single appearance in 1968, and played only three shows in 1969. He removed himself from public view for all of 1970, and then, in 1971, he appeared at the Concert for Bangladesh, a benefit in New York organized by George Harrison. That year, he told Shelton, “Until the accident, I was living music twenty-four hours a day.” In the summer of 1967, he was recording music without living it, or living it differently from before. The recordings he made in Woodstock are a document of Dylan determining where he and his songs and his audience and his country and his past overlapped, or didn’t.
Tom Moon offers advice on how to approach these recordings:
It’s best appreciated not as a collection of songs, but as a kind of audio documentary, a painstaking account of the daily song-chasing that went on for nearly seven months at Dylan’s house and then Big Pink.
It catches Dylan in a fertile writing period, and offers telling glimpses into his process — his use of absurd placeholder words (“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”) and nonsense syllables that would eventually become lyrics in subsequent versions. At the same time, it shows how resourceful his collaborators were as they cobbled together, often on the fly, a rustic and rarified textural landscape that could complement and enhance his images.
By all accounts, very little premeditation was involved: Hudson once noted that they were doing anywhere from seven to 15 songs in a day. Dylan worked constantly on lyrics, banging them out on an Olivetti typewriter sometimes right before tape rolled. He’d bring a page downstairs, and in a matter of minutes, a song would take shape. Not just any song, either: These sessions yielded “I Shall Be Released,” “Tears Of Rage (co-written with Richard Manuel), “Quinn The Eskimo,” “Northern Claim,” “This Wheel’s On Fire” (co-written with Rick Danko) and others.
Clinton Heylin adds:
[T]his banquet really needs to be savoured entire. After all, seeing the stack of reels that sat in a Toronto studio awaiting transfer to digital, one can’t help but be reminded the boys at Big Pink took their time. The Basement Tapes, which for years were seen as the work of a few summer days, turn out to be nine months in the life of a former boy wonder and a family man, at a time when he could still make music in the most idyllic of settings and count his blessings.
Even Dylan allowed himself to wax lyrical about those times when prompted to remember them by a young Wenner: “You know, that’s really the way to do a recording – in a peaceful, relaxed setting, in somebody’s basement, with the windows open and a dog lying on the floor.” No expectations, no commitments. Just for the love of it. Expect to spend a lifetime unravelling the mystery that is Big Pink. Dylan has.