Monday, April 19, 2010

Day 19: A song from my favourite album

My favourite album isn't really an album at all. Not the version of it I like, anyway. There was a double-album release in the mid-'70s, calling itself The Basement Tapes and containing at least some of the performances which make up the original set of Basement recordings, but it's a bastardised, second-rate imitation of the real thing, capturing very little of its ramshackle glory. Sure, some of the most notable compositions Dylan wrote during those pivotal few months in Woodstock are present, but too many others are bafflingly-absent, and the eight Band originals included, recorded separately and with no involvement from Dylan, are completely superfluous at best, distracting at worst.

Most damningly, by focusing solely on the more 'completed'-sounding material (and adding after-the-fact overdubs to clean much of it up for official release), it completely fails to capture the essence of those otherworldly tapes, that slapdash looseness, the jokey covers, the thrown-away jams, the half-formed skeletons of songs which would never be completed. The true worth of the Basement Tapes is far, far stronger than the sum of its frequently half-baked contents. Taken as a whole, these fragments of music take on a stronger life of their own, evoking what Greil Marcus so memorably termed "the old, weird America" in a mysterious voice which no other album I've ever heard has quite managed to replicate.

* * * * * * * * *

I should probably backtrack a little here, just to explain something of what I'm actually talking about for the benefit of any unfortunate souls who've never encountered The Basement Tapes.

By 1967, after spending most of the past five years turning the world of popular music on its head and becoming one of the most famous men in the world, Bob Dylan was in desperate need of an escape. Seizing the opportunity presented by a (relatively-minor) motorcycle crash in 1966, he cancelled all forthcoming concert dates, and disappeared from the public eye entirely for a prolonged period.
During his time off, Dylan spent a lot of time just hanging out with various musicians, mostly the members of his former touring companions The Band, in an isolated house in upstate New York (the house was, and remains, known as Big Pink - the bulk of The Band's debut album, Music From Big Pink, was recorded during this period).

They drank a lot, smoked a lot of pot, and most importantly, they played a lot of music - most of it comprising songs written on the spot, covers of standards both old and new, instrumental jams, drunken joke songs, and the like. Some of these performances were recorded, using whatever equipment happened to be on-hand, and it's these widely-bootlegged recordings which make up The Basement Tapes.

Dylan's absence from the public eye corresponded fairly directly to the height of the psychedelic movement, and - not by coincidence - his return to the public eye corresponds even more directly with its end. Indeed, it wouldn't be too much of an exaggeration to suggest that he was, to some extent, responsible for the dramatic shift back towards rootsy, folk-and-blues-infused music which began to take hold in late 1968. He was, and remains, openly dismissive of the more indulgent excesses of the psychedelic era, and the often-archaic material recorded at Big Pink constitutes a very conscious, deliberate counterpoint to that excess
(many of the songs covered are literally centuries old, and even the Dylan/Band originals hark back very deliberately to the styles and forms of traditional folksong).

A sampler of notable songs extracted from the Big Pink sessions was circulating in music-industry circles by the early summer of '68, and copies ended up in the hands of, among others, George Harrison and Eric Clapton - both of whom duly played them to their respective bandmates and other musical friends.

All of the Beatles have acknowledged that the tape was a massive influence on their change in direction between the psychedelic pomp of Sgt. Pepper and the back-to-basics nature of much of the White Album - and where the Beatles went, the world followed. Clapton's dissolution of Cream and subsequent move back to more traditional material. The Stones' 'Jumpin' Jack Flash', and the subsequent classic folk/country/blues triptych of Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers. Clapton's dissolution of Cream, Hendrix's post-Electric Ladyland change in direction. All seismic cultural landmarks, hugely-significant to the development of rock/pop for much of the next decade, and all directly traceable to the twin influences of Music From Big Pink and The Basement Tapes.

But of course, there's far more to the Tapes than dry academic interest or historical significance. First and foremost, they're an astonishing, unique collection of music - richly-varied, atmospheric, strange, and spontaneous. It's the sort of ad-hoc, rough-hewn primitivism which would, in the hands of most musicians, be barely-listenable, but thanks to Dylan's genius and the peerless chemistry he shared with Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson, they become something uniquely-special. They are, without a doubt, my favourite collection of music ever recorded by any group of musicians, and the fact that so much of this remain unreleased is truly baffling, particularly in light of the otherwise-splendid work done by the compilers of Dylan outtakes/rarities for the justly-lauded Bootleg Series.

Even before the release of 1975's bastardised, half-hearted official version, numerous Basement songs had been released in one form or another, either as covers or recorded by the Band themselves. 'Tears of Rage', 'Quinn the Eskimo', 'You Ain't Goin' Nowhere', 'This Wheel's On Fire', 'Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood)', 'I Shall Be Released' - all among Dylan's finest songs, and all originally recorded in the Basement. But plenty of significant recordings remain the sole preserve of bootleggers, and the sort of fanatical fans who eagerly seek them out (*ahem*). Chief among these was, until recently, the song I was hoping to choose today - 'I'm Not There', which finally saw the light of an official release two years ago, on the soundtrack to Todd Haynes' splendid film of the same name. Unfortunately, there doesn't appear to be a copy of the Dylan version of the song on youtube right now, although anyone who's particularly keen to hear it might consider checking out Sonic Youth's excellent cover version, recorded for the same soundtrack.

It's a half-finished song, with ambiguous, ad-libbed lyrics and a meandering, dreamy melody played with delicate looseness by the Band. Sonic Youth's version, while inevitably cleaned-up slightly for the studio, captures more of the original's evocative magic than I'd ever have imagined possible, but still, inevitably, falls short of its slapdash perfection. I'm actually quite glad that Dylan never went back to finish this song, as he did with a few of the other pieces recorded during the same period, because I can't imagine any polished, properly-completed version of the song quite living up to the sketch which survives.

In the absence of that song, then, I've cheated slightly, and dug out a couple of the rougher cuts from the full bootleg - jams and covers which, while lacking the sophistication of some of the more obvious highlights named above, illustrate the other side of the collection, the rough-edged looseness and low-fi charm which is such an important part of their timeless appeal. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.


Anonymous said...

I love The Auld Triangle, but I hadn't heard this version. In the versions by The Dubliners and The Pogues there's a lamenting quality (a whininess, actually, but in a good way) that has something to do with the timing. In this version the time signature is straightened out and it becomes a much more cheerful song about being stuck in prison. Which is fair enough, I think. Behan's lyrics can handle either interpretation.


Mark Patterson said...

Yeah - that's true of quite a few of the traditional songs on the Basement Tapes, actually. There are a few moments of darkness, but on the whole they err on the cheerful side, as befits a bunch of mates getting drunk and jamming together. I suspect that if Dylan had recorded the same song a few years earlier, back in his earnest-folkie period, it'd have been very different.

None of the Basement Tapes performances of trad material are anything like definitive, but most of them have some charm anyway - as you say, good folk music can handle being played in a variety of styles.