throwback thursday: december 4, 1969: fred hampton and mark clark are murdered by the fbi and chicago police
what i watched last week

music friday: the basement tapes

On Facebook earlier this week, my friend Charlie wrote, “Charlie Bertsch keeps getting tangled up in blues about Greil Marcus's Rolling Stone piece on the complete Basement Tapes, which rather brutally disenchants his own Invisible Republic and, by association, the film I'm Not There. It makes sense that Marcus would feel compelled to reassess the music now, but the collateral damage may be too high a price to pay for that honesty.” An interesting discussion followed in the comments, with a couple of people disagreeing with the idea that Marcus has somehow moved away from his original take. (“Original” is a dangerous word to use in connection to the Basement Tapes … Marcus and many others in 1969 were already writing about Great White Wonder, oft-called the first rock bootleg, which included seven “basement” tracks.) It is difficult to reduce The Basement Tapes to a status update on Facebook, or even to a short blog post … Marcus’ Invisible Republic is an entire book about the tapes. (More than a decade later, Marcus retitled the book The Old, Weird America.) And Charlie wasn’t attempting such a reduction. He was only offering a brief note about his feelings regarding Marcus’ new essay on the tapes. (You can read the essay here: “The Murk and the Mystique”.)

I’m not here to argue whether Marcus has created collateral damage with his new essay. I think it’s a sign of the depth of the Tapes that people like Greil Marcus and Charlie Bertsch are obsessed enough with them to spend a lot of time thinking about them. And everyone is allowed to change their minds. Marcus wrote one of rock criticism’s most famous opening lines when his review of Self Portrait began, “What is this shit?” (“I once said I'd buy an album of Dylan breathing heavily. I still would. But not an album of Dylan breathing softly.”) Yet when Dylan released outtakes from Self Portrait last year, Marcus wrote the liner notes. (In fairness, despite the famous first line, Marcus’ original review of Self Portrait was intelligent and nowhere near a complete diss.)

The Basement Tapes keep forcing us into a state of re-evaluation. On Great White Wonder, the seven Basement songs were surrounded by home recordings (actually “hotel” recordings) made in 1961, lots of studio outtakes, and a song from a Johnny Cash TV show. (Perhaps now is the time for a related sidebar. A couple of months after Great White Wonder appeared, Marcus wrote (and Rolling Stone printed) a review of a “super-group” bootleg featuring Dylan, Mick Jagger, Lennon and McCartney and the like. According to the review, their names weren’t listed on the cover for contractual reasons. The group was called “The Masked Marauders,” and of course they (and the album) didn’t exist. Lots of people missed the joke; interest in The Marauders rose quickly. So Marcus and some others went in a studio, cut an album, and Warner Brothers released it. It sold more than 100,000 copies.) The Basement sessions were in 1967; the Band released Music from Big Pink in 1968; Great White Wonder came out in 1969, by which time people had opinions not only about Dylan but about The Band.

1975 saw the first official release of The Basement Tapes. This release followed Planet Waves, a quickie, decent album Dylan cut with The Band, a 1974 Dylan/Band tour (the first time I saw Dylan live), and Blood on the Tracks, a Dylan classic. Prior to the tour, The Band had slipped from their first two irreplaceable albums in the 60s to an album of covers in 1973. The Basement Tapes fit right in with the acclaim Dylan was receiving in the mid-70s … along with the ‘74 tour, the Tapes also reminded us of The Band’s potential. For among the sixteen Basement recordings were eight songs by The Band, many of them very good. The impression was that The Band were active, almost equal participants in the Basement sessions. Robbie Robertson was arguably the primary artistic voice behind the compilation; some think this accounts for all of those Band tracks. Nonetheless, I can tell you that The Basement Tapes was welcomed in 1975.

Now? Well, we have The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete. They aren’t kidding about “complete” … as Marcus notes in “The Murk and the Mystique”, when he was writing Invisible Republic, he had access to what Garth Hudson said was “it all”, yet on the latest release, “there are 33 numbers that have never been heard before.” What do all of those “new” tracks reveal? For Marcus, “The unheard tracks remove the mystique of the basement sessions … and replace it with evidence of ordinary, everyday activity, pure termite art.”

This is something of a re-evaluation … when all you’ve got is “Tears of Rage” and “Million Dollar Bash”, you can believe in a particular kind of greatness, but when you toss in “a dozen or so half-formed songs”, you become aware of an artist at work. For me, that doesn’t detract from the greatness of “Tears of Rage”, and I don’t think Marcus is claiming that the Basement sessions are worse for our hearing “Jelly Bean”. It’s just that when you listen to Complete, you see behind the mystique.

When I first heard about Vol. 11, I was very excited indeed. And then came the release. I intended to buy the complete batch, even though I suspected I’d spend more time listening to the music on Spotify. Except … at least so far, all that Spotify has is a 15-track “sampler”. Meanwhile, besides Complete, you can buy The Basement Tapes Raw, a 38-track selection of highlights from Complete. Complete costs about five times as much as Raw. So The Basement Tapes are finally available to everyone in as complete a fashion as we’ll ever see, and even now, there are multiple versions. What happens to the mystique? Take “Tears of Rage” as an example. In 1968, it turned up on Big Pink. In 1969, a Basement version appeared on Great White Wonder. In the 1975 official release, the Basement version arrives in an official form. And Complete has three different versions, Raw has just one. Which is the “real Tears of Rage”? For many of us, the Big Pink version with Richard Manuel singing lead has never been topped. The song has been covered by other artists … maybe their versions are the “best”. Most likely, there is room for all of these versions. Big Pink may be the final word, but the Basement versions have plenty of merit. But where is the mystique? Maybe “Tears of Rage” never had it … by the time Great White Wonder came out, we already knew the song via Music from Big Pink, so it didn’t have the mystery of, say, “Open the Door, Homer”.

My point is that mystique and hard work can co-exist … the “unheard tracks” don’t remove the mystique, unless peering into the creative process somehow inherently demystifies. Nowadays, when every half-popular album seems to get reissued with extra discs of outtakes, it is easier than ever to see that creative process at work. The real mystique, for me, is the existence of those months Dylan and his mates spent in the basement, making music. A group of talented musicians goof around, helping a friend record some demos while that friend lies low. Great music ensues, and over the course of 45+ years and counting, that music reaches an audience. That people in 2014 can seriously obsess about music recorded in a basement in 1967 … that’s mystique. No one obsesses any more about The Masked Marauders.