The Bootleg Series, Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Raw

The Bootleg Series, Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Raw

When Bob Dylan finished a worldwide tour in England in 1966, he was too exhausted to entertain The Beatles, passing out in the bathtub rather than talking tunes with his new famous friends. A month later, that enervation would come to a head when Dylan crashed his Triumph motorcycle on the twisting roads near Woodstock, an accident that purportedly almost killed him. The break that followed gave Dylan time to reckon with his head, and allowed the members of The Hawks—the band that had backed him during those brutally polarizing shows—to figure out a sound of their own at last. After struggling to find an affordable practice space in New York City, The Hawks decamped to a garish pink house with four bedrooms and a basement in West Saugerties, setting up a makeshift recording setup in that lower lair. They’d been there only briefly when Dylan arrived with Robbie Robertson and his dog, Hamlet. Dylan loved their amateur studio, and began returning almost every day between June and October 1967, feeling so at home with Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson that he began leaving his typewriter and Martin guitar there. They played new songs that he or The Hawks wrote on the spot, and dug into centuries of traditional music from the United States and Europe. These sessions were so unfettered and fun that they eventually lured Hawks drummer Levon Helm—who’d become disenchanted with working for Dylan—back into the fold. For nearly a decade, these recordings were whispered about among Dylan fans, existing only in pirated recordings. But in 1975, Robertson eventually compiled a 24-track set dubbed The Basement Tapes, beating the bootleggers at their own game. The album became a road map for the future of roots-rock—for just how far and how wild American music rooted in country, blues, and jazz could go. The origins of The Hawks’ titanic debut, Music from Big Pink, are here in a fitful take on “Tears of Rage” and a magnetic version of “Ain’t No More Cane.” (Of course, by the time Big Pink arrived, The Hawks had become The Band.) And Dylan reaches splendid new levels of experimental absurdity here, from the piano clap-along “Apple Suckling Tree” to the pun-rich “Open the Door, Homer.” Some of his most aching work is here, too, like the brooding testimonial “Nothing Was Delivered” and the haunted “Goin’ to Acapulco.” The sound quality of The Basement Tapes is often rough, and its focus is mostly nonexistent. The release of these songs would prompt existential questions about what it meant to make an album—and what right fans had to the material their heroes had made in private. But more importantly, The Basement Tapes threw the doors open to what folk, rock, jazz, and blues could do when they were treated like a single playground, open to everyone with an imagination and a little place to jam.

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