Midway through the dark woods of the 1960s, Bob Dylan took his Triumph motorcycle for a country ride and lost his balance, or hit an oil slick, or (according to the mythopoetic account Dylan himself would give) stared too long into the sun and found himself momentarily blinded.

The specific circumstances are cloudy. But we do know that Dylan was burned out after nine months of a grueling, seemingly endless, still-ongoing tour; that the proofs of his first novel, Tarantula, had arrived and that Dylan, who seems to have written the book in a methamphetamine haze, recognized them to be unreadable and embarrassing; that there were hundreds of hours of films to edit for a forthcoming documentary, and constant demands for new recordings. Dylan’s responsibilities had multiplied exponentially, and vast sums of money were at stake.

We can only imagine the toll these expectations, and others, took on his central nervous system: “Different anachronisms were thrust upon me … ” Dylan wrote in his 2004 memoir, Chronicles: Volume One. “Legend, Icon, Enigma (Buddha in European Clothes was my favorite)—stuff like that, but that was all right. These titles were placid and harmless, threadbare, easy to get around with them. Prophet, Messiah, Savior—those are tough ones.” It’s worth keeping in mind that in 1966, Bob Dylan was 25 years old and, again, by all outward indications, something of a speed freak.

Dylan crashed his Triumph in July of 1966. His close friend, the folksinger and novelist Richard Fariña, had died in another motorcycle crash a few months earlier. The carousel was out of control.

Elliott Landy

Dylan would never again play the “thin wild mercury music” you hear on pre-motorcycle-crash albums like Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde; the two albums which followed—John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline—were countrified, conservative, and muted in comparison. Dylan wouldn’t appear in public again until January of 1968; by all outward appearances, he sat 1967 out entirely. And yet, in the spring, summer, and fall of that year Dylan and four or five members of his band (who were arguing over whether to call themselves “The Honkies” or “The Crackers”) retreated to the 12 foot x 12 foot basement of a nondescript, three-bedroom ranch house—“Big Pink”—located some ways down a dirt road in Saugerties, New York, and recorded well over a hundred tracks. The output dwarfed that of the seven studio albums Dylan had cut for Columbia Records (those albums contained a total of eighty-one tracks). And because the “basement tapes” were never released in anything approaching their entirety—never, that is, until earlier this month, when Columbia Records released a lavish, and lavishly priced, six-CD set—pirated versions of the recordings acquired the status of cult objects among collectors (it’s quite likely that the first records we’d describe as “bootlegs” were bootlegged copies of The Basement Tapes).

Greil Marcus, who sometimes functions as a critical arm of the Bob Dylan Industrial Complex, would see the results as a deep dive into the “old, weird America” of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. But The Basement Tapes weren’t quite a return to the amniotic, old-timey aesthetic that Smith’s Anthology epitomized. If traditional works like “Wildwood Flower” and “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” took pride of place, so did songs by Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, John Lee Hooker, and the Impressions. A number of the original compositions—“Nothing Was Delivered,” “Tears of Rage,” “Odds and Ends,” “Yea, Heavy and a Bottle of Bread,” “This Wheel’s on Fire,” “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” “Million Dollar Bash,” and quite a few others—were carefully reworked, and recorded multiple times. The results aren’t rough-hewn because they represent a stab at recapturing the ersatz authenticity of Dylan’s early, acoustic albums. They’re rough-hewn because they’re works-in-progress. So while there’s a great deal to recommend Greil Marcus’s take on The Basement Tapes (best expressed in his book Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, which Dylan himself provided a blurb for), it’s just as easy to see Dylan’s removal from the public eye as a tactical retreat—an attempt to conquer the pop charts via other means, through the auspices of other musicians.

A storekeeper’s son with a fine head for business, Bob Dylan knew that, as far as the market was concerned, Dylan albums weren’t as successful—or remunerative—as albums of Dylan songs recorded by other artists: Peter, Paul, and Mary, or the Byrds, whose debut album was named after Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” contained four Dylan songs and reached number 6 on the Billboard chart (the title track topped the charts in America and England both). When it came to singles, Dylan fared no better. The image had become ubiquitous—and the attention might have been oppressive—but the music itself sold best when smoother voices sang it. The Basement Tapes were “done out in somebody’s basement,” Dylan explained. “They weren’t demos for myself … I was being pushed again into coming up with some songs.”

And in this respect, The Basement Tapes succeeded beautifully.

Pressed to acetate, and passed out to members of the musical elite, the recordings weren’t quite pop songs. (The oddly affecting “Quinn the Eskimo,” which became a hit single for Manfred Mann the following year, was a notable exception; Solomon Burke’s cover of the song is especially good.) But they were remarkably influential: the Byrds included two songs—“Nothing Was Delivered” and “You Ain’t Going Nowhere”—on their 1968 country–rock cornerstone, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. That same year, the Crackers/Honkies rechristened themselves as the Band and released Music From Big Pink, which included three songs—“This Wheel’s On Fire,” “Tears of Rage,” and “I Shall Be Released”—written by or with Bob Dylan, and on her 1969 album To Love Somebody, Nina Simone turned “I Shall Be Released” into something like a spiritual. The transformation made sense: At their best, these demos suggested the majestic, devotional qualities of songs Dylan had yet to write. (“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” which appeared on Dylan’s 1973 soundtrack for Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, wouldn’t have been out of place on The Basement Tapes.)

But if some of the basement tapes were fully formed demo recordings, most were simple rehearsal tapes—accidental records of works-in-progress which never were fleshed out. This isn’t to say that they don’t have their moments, or that the moments aren’t exquisite. But the pleasures they afford are, in part, the pleasures of getting an informal, insider’s view of Dylan’s method. The demo recordings collected on the first few volumes of Columbia’ official Bootleg series might have been different from anything you’d hear on the radio (e.g., “Like a Rolling Stone,” played in waltz time) but the lyrics were more or less the lyrics we knew. On the unofficially bootlegged Basement Tapes we hear Dylan sing sounds which (do or don’t) turn into symbols: each one is an object lesson in just how intimate the relationship between words and music can be.

Which is also to say that the charm of The Basement Tapes might have less to do with the quality of the songs themselves than with the informal, experiential qualities of the recording: the false starts, botched verses, buried vocals, and muttered obscenities which mark any given set of home recordings, as well as the no-fidelity which gives home recordings an aura of low-rent, audio-verité authenticity. To hear The Basement Tapes was also to strike a bargain with Dylan and his band: listeners plowed through five-plus hours of intermittently brilliant material, not simply to pluck out the gems, but to get a sense of what it might have been like to sneak into Big Pink’s basement and eavesdrop a while. And so, the precise moment of Dylan’s withdrawal from the public eye was also the best chance yet to catch him at his most private and unguarded.

Many of those qualities went missing from The Basement Tapes that Columbia originally released—as a remixed, truncated, overdubbed two-album set, a third of which consisted of Band demos that Dylan had had little or nothing to do with—in 1975. But, by then, the laid-back Americana Dylan and his band pioneered at Big Pink had become its own idiom, and a core element of the overall rock 'n' roll aesthetic—a soundtrack, of sorts, to the nation’s own withdrawal from the promises and disappointments of the previous decade. (“That was some other era, burned out and long gone from the brutish realities of this foul year of Our Lord, 1971,” Hunter S. Thompson had written, four years earlier. “A lot of things had changed in those years”). Greil Marcus provided liner notes for the release; the self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics,” Robert Christgau, who graded records as if they were homework assignments, awarded it an A+; consumers turned out in great numbers, pushing The Basement Tapes into the Billboard top ten, and surprising Dylan himself. “I thought everybody already had them,” he said.

As for Big Pink, it’s still standing, ricky-ticky, at an address formerly known as 2188 Stoll Road in Saugerties (Stoll Road now has a new name, which the house’s current owners asked me not to disclose). The house spent years on the market (and went unsold), enjoyed visits from the occasional (Japanese) tourist, and served as the home base for a local DJ and importer of classical albums. For the past ten years, it’s been owned by a musician and audio engineer, who produces bands in the basement, on a project basis. It still looks very much like the house Dylan and the Band inhabited.

"The Basement Tapes (1967; 1975)” by Alex Abramovich in The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan edited by Kevin J.H. Dettmar.
Copyright © 2009 Cambridge University Press. Reprinted with permission.