Back to the old, weird America

The Basement Tapes

The Basement Tapes.

NEWS this week that Bob Dylan is to release a drawer-emptying 138 track compilation of music from his Basement Tapes sessions brings me back.

Specifically to a damp room of a shared house on Dublin’s north side, sometime back in the mid-90s, and my first encounter with some of this material.

At the time I was a university student and, having plenty of time on my hands, spent a great deal of it strumming my battered Hohner acoustic guitar.

Most of the songs I played were either written by Dylan or connected to him in some tangential way: Hank Williams, The Band, Woody Guthrie, The Grateful Dead.

I’d picked my way through most of Dylan’s 1960s’ albums when, idling one afternoon in the since-departed Freebird Records on Eden Quay, I spotted the two-cassette The Basement Tapes.

A couple of hours later I was back in my room in Fairview, about to press play on a recording I’d read of in dispatches but knew little about.

What came from the speakers, from the first track (the aptly-named Odds and Ends), was nothing like the firebrand protest singer or the drug mystic of Times They Are A-Changin’ or Blonde on Blonde.

This was a different beast to those recordings, a sprawling circus in a swamp, populated with history-book figures, hustlers, blues singers, welcoming women and doomed men.

'A passport back.' Highway 61, 1955. Pic: Ontario Department of Highways

‘A passport back.’
Highway 61, 1955.
Pic: Ontario Department of Highways

Some songs covered a 200-year sweep of America history, some the hassle of placing a long-distance phone call. It was wider and deeper than any single set of songs I’d heard before.

Woody Guthrie had travelled and written America but songs like Clothes Line Saga – while quotidian on the surface – cut much deeper into the fabric of the country.

Slave songs sat beside surreal travelogues, hymns to personal freedom were followed by the Edward Lear-esque nonsense verse.

The critic Greil Marcus has pointed out that the Basement Tapes represent less an album or a genre than a country and it’s history – “the old, weird America”, another country whose story was distilled by six men in a home studio in 1967.

I’ve been playing, thinking over and reading about that country and these songs since I pressed play in that room almost 20 years ago.

Over the years I’ve heard other outtakes from the sessions – in addition to the 22 songs, 16 by Dylan and eight of The Band’s, on the official release – but I’ve never heard the bulk of the recordings.

Describing a different set of recordings, The Band’s second album, Greil Marcus suggested that “it felt like a passport back to America for people who’d become so estranged from their own country that they felt like foreigners, even when they were in it.”

Is it naïve to expect that The Basement Tapes Complete could provide something similar for those who listen now, in a another time and a different country?

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2 thoughts on “Back to the old, weird America

  1. Thom Hickey says:

    Thanks. For everyone it’s going to be the most enormous and surprising bran tub of delights! Someone, someday, must put together the complete works which will dwarf the achievment of virtually all other twentieth century artists.

    Regards Thom.

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