The Basement Tapes are dragged up the stairs (again)
It’s deja vu all over again as Columbia announce a definitive version of Bob Dylan’s official bootleg
It’s not often we tip the hat to the (boo!) men in (boo!) suits who run the major studios and record labels. But it cannot be denied that the good folk at Columbia (by which we now mean Sony Legacy) have done a terrific job with their recent reissues. The treatment of Miles Davis’s great work had been particularly extraordinary: lovely packaging for remastered recordings and recently unearthed odds and ends. The continuing Bob Dylan “Bootleg Series” has been better still. That enterprise has been afoot for about 17 years or so. Yes, it really is that long since the first box of rarities arrived.
The Basement Tapes always offered something of a challenge to the archivists at Sony. After all, the original issue in 1975 was, in many ways, a forerunner of the Bootleg Series. The recordings made by Dylan and The Band in 1967 had long been circulated on unofficial vinyl and Letraset-decorated cassettes. Committed Dylanologists (already legion in those times) had pulled songs such as Tiny Montgomery and Nothing Was Delivered into bits and pieces. Some of those experts rather resented the fact that the recordings were now on an official album that ordinary people could play in their awful cars and wretched houses.
When the album did emerge there was some argument about the selections and the running order. What was going on with all these songs featuring a Dylan-free Band for starters? Nonetheless, The Basement Tapes LP really set in with fans and was (for good or ill) instrumental in inspiring grim movements such as Alt-country and the current interest in something called Americana.
The LP (and the bootlegs that preceded it) also managed to trigger one of the very greatest studies of Dylan as artist and force of nature. Greil Marcus’s Invisible Republic is as elliptical as anything by that captivating writer. It increases rather than dismantles the mysteries as it ploughs through the records in search of hidden energies and musical ley lines.
So, the news that, for volume 11 of the Bootleg Series, Sony is to tackle the Basement Tapes generates both excitement and trepidation. Given that The 1975 Basement Tapes was (were?) never a real album in the first place, does this mean that the new recording will batter it out of existence. They’re both retrospective compilations and the 2014 edition is the more comprehensive. Of course it is. As well as multiple recordings of songs such as Lo and Behold and I Shall be Released, we get covers of the Bells of Rhymney and Folsom Prison Blues. The Band’s Garth Hudson and music archivist Jan Haust have cleaned them all up and put them in order. Who will want The Basement Tapes now? Oh, who wants any sort of physical recording now? It’s only at times such as this that CDs start to matter at all. Old fools such as this one will buy the box, bring it home and discover (or imagine) unheard melodies from the times of the pioneers.
The six-disc set is released on November 4th and a complete track listing can be found here. Can’t wait.