Talkin’ some Basement Tapes tunes.
Tears Of Rage – The spooky, enigmatic dirge that opens The Band’s Music From Big Pink appears on the BTs in several takes. The narrative voice in “Tears Of Rage” has fought or sacrificed for a cause that has proven hollow. Could it be the soldiers who return home from war to rejection and oppression? Or is it a metaphor for the guns fired in battle that are just thrown away (linking it thematically with Nas’s “I Gave You Power”)? It’s a political song, but we need to define Basement Tapes politics. The BTs are steeped in Folk Politics, which are different from Historical Politics or Gender Politics or Cablenews Politics or Meme Politics. Folk Politics draw from rural sources, from old slave songs and spirituals, full of vivid characters and narratives, with a real world pessimism colouring even the most hopeful air. Woody Guthrie is Folk Politics – listen closely to “Deportees” and you’ll hear how relevant old Woody still is. But it goes deeper than war – I hear echoes of the civil rights struggle in here, the incremental or symbolic measures that don’t address real injustice (“And now the heart is filled with gold as if it was a purse/But oh what kind of love is this that goes from bad to worse?”) First verse also references King Lear. Epic song. Take #3 is best.
Nothing Was Delivered – An easy one: Bob and the boys paid up front for a pound or so of some Woodstock Purple and the dealer never showed. They’re pissed.
(Be Careful Of) Stones That You Throw – The BTs are full of biblical allegory and allusion. We get funky bible rock in “Belshazzar,” playful satire of messiah figures in “Quinn The Eskimo,” the eerie reflections of the doubting athiest in “Sign On The Cross.” But in a way the BTs are a Bible themselves – here we have all the stories, morals, darkness and light we need to guide us. But we don’t pray – we pick up a guitar and play along. “(Be Careful Of) Stones That You Throw” is the best example of BTs-as-Bible stories, with the narrative of the gossipy woman whose daughter is saved from a carwreck by the neighbor who sacrifices herself, the same neighbor whom this woman had been slandering. Dylan intones the verses with the slow speaking voice of a preacher, while the sung chorus sums up the moral: “A tongue will accuse and carry bad news/The seeds of destruction it will sow/But unless you have made no mistakes in your life/Be careful of the stones that you throw.” This moralistic style would carry over into Dylan’s next proper album John Wesley Harding, a more sober reading of the wilder BT aesthetic.
You Ain’t Goin Nowhere – The BTs are not just a resource for American folk music – they will teach you what these songs are really all about. Listen to the country waltz “Still In Town” – the narrator can’t seem to leave after breaking up with his woman, and Dylan inflects the vocal with weary desperation, almost a whimsical sort of shame (“I’m still in town/I’m still around/I’m still in love with you.”) He inhabits the souls of these characters, like the prisoners in “The Banks Of The Royal Canal” and “Folsom Prison Blues,” the Buffalo hunters in “The Hills Of Mexico,” the fishermen in “Bonnie Ship The Diamond.” But “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” is probably the finest performance in the collection. I never cared much for this song before I heard this version, not the Byrds’ bouncy take from Sweetheart Of The Rodeo or Dylan’s later retakes. Why? Because they miss the point – the brutal uncaring voice of the narrator that Dylan nails on Take #2. In the guise of the overseer, he snarls: “Gate won’t close, railings froze/Get your mind off wintertime/You ain’t goin’ nowhere.” The chorus is the cry of one of the poor workers: “Tomorrow was the day my bride was gonna come!” Well, tough shit. You ain’t goin’ nowhere.
Joshua Gone Barbados – Eric Von Schmidt’s tune, best remembered for Tom Rush’s version. Joshua is the corrupt leader on the island of St Vincent. He incites the workers to go on strike, but the hired thugs violently beat them back so the bosses can bring in cheaper labor. The strike was in vain, the conditions have worsened, the overseers roam around the canefields with guns. Meanwhile Joshua’s in a big hotel in Barbados. But the workers fight back, so much that we are given a final image of one of the overseers, Sonny Child “in the hospital, pistol on his bed.” I wish Tarantino would make a film based on this song, it would be perfect for one of his violent morality epics. I suspect Tarantino’s version would build up to a bloody vengeful shootout at Joshua’s hotel. And again, Dylan finds the soul of these songs in his vocals – “Joshua gone Barbados, just like he don’t know/People on the island got no place to go.”
Million Dollar Bash/Lo And Behold!/See You Later Allen Ginsberg/Yea! Heavy And A Bottle Of Bread – So that pound that was promised in “Nothing Was Delivered” actually did show up. Just as we get biblical allegories and folk politics and character studies, we get a fair bit of stoned absurdity in the BTs. Absurd narratives were a staple of Dylan’s 60s work, from his “Dream” songs to the satirical non-moral in “The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest.” The BT songs are more like sketches, half-improvised stream of consciousness nonsense. But the goofy imagery is vivid: “I came in on a ferris wheel, and boys I sure was slick…” BTs almost remind me at times of early Ween with weirdness-for-weirdness-sake aesthetic, and as a whole the collection almost feels like greatest Guided By Voices album ever. Very high praise. Ahead of their time. But by withdrawing from the rock music scene and holing up at in the basement at Big Pink, Dylan and the Band uncovered this timeless sound. And despite the deep folk roots and haunting character studies, this music is fun. It’s goofy. The Basement Tapes are about the love of music, the communal vibe of a pipe passed around and a dog wagging his tail on the floor. This ain’t corporate rock. “Gonna save my money and rip it up!”
Silent Weekend – Uh oh, Bob’s wife is pissed.
Wheel’s On Fire/I Shall Be Released – Dylan’s brief fatalistic period. The height of his fame had boxed him in by the mid 60s. He was a rock poet, unquestionably the voice of his generation. He’d suffered media assaults, outraged fans over his changing styles, and hostility of friends who questioned his political commitment. All of this is documented in his music: “Ballad Of A Thin Man” satirized witless reporters; “It Ain’t Me Babe” addressed the fans; “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” and “Positively 4th Street” wriggled poetically out of political straitjackets. But by ’66 he must have realized that there wasn’t much further he could go artistically. Blonde On Blonde is the top of the mountain. You can’t live up there – you need a quiet valley, a little farm, a place to raise your family. So both “Wheel’s On Fire” and “I Shall Be Released” represent forms of ego death – “Wheel” is the suicide note and “Released” is the epitaph. The druggy Dylan-in-shades of the mid-60s was headed for the Jim Morrison route, destined for rock adolescence-as-immortality, forever embalmed on posters in freshman dorms. Instead, he grew up. That’s what the Basement Tapes are really all about.