PHAWKER: Anyone under 30 probably wonders what all the fuss is about. But there was a time when Dylan was the all-seeing eye atop the pyramid of rock, a razor-thin, wild-haired visionary speaking in stoned parables and meth- riddles about the nature of transcendental consciousness from behind impenetrable black shades. His every utterance was scrutinized for prophetic import. His status as generational oracle was earned by a triumvirate of hallucinatory folk-rock albums–1965’s Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited and 1966’s Blonde On Blonde–that he would spend the rest of his career simultaneously trying to live up to and live down, never quite succeeding on either count. In 1967, Bob Dylan, laid up from a backbreaking motorcycle injury, settled into a country squire convalescence in Woodstock, N.Y., for a summer of reefer-fueled woodshedding in the basement of his backing band’s residence, a pink-tinted domicile dubbed Big Pink. This new musical direction was a sharp turn away from surrealistic folk-rock into a stoned remembrance of all things past: murder ballads, milk cow blues, train songs.
THE GUARDIAN: The rough recordings Dylan made in Woodstock in the spring and summer of 1967 had a profound effect, widely held to represent the third time in as many years that he altered the course of music. The accepted wisdom is that when some of the lo-fi songs he’d taped leaked via a publishing acetate, his peers took it as a sign that Dylan was calling time on the experimentation of the psychedelic era, directing them to an earthier hue: he and the Band had cleared the path that led the Beatles from Sergeant Pepper to the Get Back sessions, the Rolling Stones from We Love You to Beggars’ Banquet and the Byrds from Artificial Energy and Dolphin’s Smile to Sweetheart of the Rodeo – an album that included not one, but two songs from The Basement Tapes.
Certainly the music was radically different from anything any other major artist was attempting at the time – tellingly, when Julie Driscoll and Manfred Mann covered two of Dylan’s new songs, they felt obliged to dress them up in the era’s sonic finery – and Certainly the singer-songwriter had earned a position as an avatar of taste: on the disc of outtakes that came with Let It Be… Naked, you can hear George Harrison blithely informing his Beatles that Dylan and The Band thought the best song on The White Album was Ringo’s countrified Don’t Pass Me By, although the audible skepticism of Paul McCartney’s response is something to behold. There’s so much diversity on The Basement Tapes Complete – stoned jokes, old folk ballads, covers of Hank Williams, Frank Sinatra, Bo Diddley and the Impressions – that it’s daft to try and make definitive statements about it. But listening to it almost 50 years on, one striking thing is how much they sound like the songs Dylan wrote before The Basement Tapes, how little they resemble a game-changing stylistic rupture destined to jolt any musician who heard them.
Sign on the Cross and I Shall Be Released do tap into a vein of Americana forgotten during pop’s headlong rush into the future in the mid-60s, but tapping into veins of Americana forgotten by others was pretty much what Dylan had been doing before he relocated to Woodstock: while the Beatles were playing tape loops backwards and inviting sitar players into Abbey Road, he was ensconced in Nashville, making Blonde on Blonde with country and western session men so deeply uncool that when the singer meaningfully enquired about recreational activities, one of them suggested a game of golf. It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to picture those same session musicians fleshing out You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere or Don’t Ya Tell Henry and the results slotting onto Dylan’s previous album, just as it’s easy to envisage Odds And Ends or Yea! Heavy And A Bottle Of Bread being reworked in the torrential style of Tombstone Blues. But there’s one sense in which the music on The Basement Tapes feels utterly different to what came before. Had Dylan recorded You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere a year or two previously, it’s hard not to imagine the vocals would have been delivered with his patent, bug-eyed derision, the words elongated until every syllable felt like a sneer. That was the sound of a man pouring scorn from a great height, and it’s entirely absent on these six CDs: the albums that preceded The Basement Tapes sound like works of supreme confidence, but these recordings sound rickety and strange. MORE