|1966--underfed, under-slept, running on chemicals, influencing the world.|
|1967--Rested, fed, more or less healthy.|
I've been a fan of "The Basement Tapes" since I first heard them some time in my late teens. Never got into The Band's material (save "Orange Juice Blues" and "Katy's Been Gone") but was always completely intrigued, as many many have been/are/will be, by the whole "vibe" of Dylan's material on it--from the lo-fi sound, to the material--some finished, some half improvised; some serious and philosophical, some quite silly.
I've not read more than snippets of Greil Marcus' book on Dylan's 1967 output, but I have recently finished Sid Griffin's extremely comprehensive Million Dollar Bash, which inspired me to seek out the widely bootlegged, easily found "complete Basement Tapes" (sometimes known as "A Tree With Roots"--Googling is up to you..). I completely geeked out, listening to each track while following along with Sid Griffin's commentary (whose writing style, I might ad, made me feel a little better about my own fanboy-meets-"I'm more a musician than a journalist"-slant).
Long story short, I learned a lot from the reading/listening experience; and more of my earlier suspicions were supported than proven wrong. Basically, after so much mythologizing--and really, this is why I never wanted to read of of Marcus' book: I know he's surrounding Dylan's Summer of Love output in American history, and looking at what Dylan been and what he became and how he'll be seen among America's "weird" fabric--but I was more interested in the short-view. Namely, what happened to Dylan, through his art, between May of 1966, when, emaciated, addicted, exhausted, he completed a long, long tour in which he influenced the entire music world--with his music, yes, but also with his attitude, his hair, the stage volume of him and The Hawks, his elegant wastedness, and edge-of-psychedelia lyrics--and 1967, when, after a period of rest and relaxation following a minor motorcycle spill and detox from the hardest of the drugs he'd been taking daily in '66, he picked up with his '66 backing band and started making music again on the down low...and a TON of music at that. I mythologize ONLY in compiling what would have been Dylan's contribution to the Summer of Love.
Fictitious Album: Bob Dylan (with The Hawks)
-Tiny Montgomery Says Hello-
-released September 1967
Listen to How I would have compiled and released this album:
This album is a long letter from a secluded, but healthy Bob Dylan to himself, his old friends/lovers and to his fans. Dylan was living at home in Woodstock, NY, a young husband and father. His manager and backup band all lived near by. Upon completing an exhausting and stressful tour, marked by riotous crowds (half loving, half hating), and dealing with it by getting wasted on various combinations of whatever was around, Dylan was in need of a good, solid rest. But his manager, Albert Grossman, didn't seem to want to notice. Dylan had a lot of business demands on him (a new album/tour/book/movie) and the bike crash was very handy in clearing up his schedule. No one knows for sure, but it would seem, from what many have said (and what Dylan said himself in '69), that these sessions went from Dylan and his band (The Hawks/Crackers/The Band) just wanting to spend a few hours each day with some coffee and reefer and whiskey and old folk tunes. Inevitably, the vibe of these tunes influenced some original tunes--some improvised, some half improvised, some totally written and arranged.
See here, a tired, weary Dylan with The Band (then The Hawks), possibly plotting what would months later become "The Motorcycle Crash"--I'm not doubting there was a crash, but there's a lot of evidence to suggest it wasn't much more than bumps and bruises and a convenient way for Dylan to take some much needed time off...
This trajectory (from covering old folk tunes to writing new, timeless tunes which had nothing to do with the fashion of the day) resulted from manager Albert Grossman telling Dylan "look, if we're not gonna reap millions by doing another 90-date tour, and if you're gonna abort this Eat The Document film (which Dylan did have a go at editing and even adding new footage to), then at LEAST do what you do best: write some great songs and I'll sell them to other artists and we'll make some dough that way".
Thus, many of these 1967 songs were first heard performed by other bands, like The Byrds, Manfred Mann, Peter Paul and Mary and Brian Auger's Trinity.
Tapes of the original versions were circulated among rock's elite: The Stones, Clapton, The Beatles, etc...who saw the direct line between the drug-induced space-explorations they'd been undertaking--and Dylan's equally drug-addled (even if he was keeping it tame in '67, he was raving madly in '65-66 so he was surely still grappling with what he experienced) visions experienced within the confines of walks in the woods. What are we, but part of nature, etc....we aren't SPACE MEN, for god sakes! We aren't ELVES and GNOMES! And yet, this is indeed a very psychedelic album--but psychedelic in the way sitting outside watching groundhogs, bees, robins and squirrels frolic is psychedelic--it takes you out of your petty worries and plants you firmly in your place in the here and now. Psychedelic in the same way that The Kinks' Village Green Preservation Society is.
The "message" was passed along to Dylan's peers, but not to his followers, who were busy thinking of themselves as aliens and gnomes.
In any case, this album, which never came out, is the missing link.
HAD it come out, it probably would have made John Wesley Harding seem much less of a strange move. Blonde on Blonde (spring '66) to John Wesley Harding (winter 67-68) while skipping over what I'm calling Tiny Montgomery Says Hello (summer '67) is like, oh, say...skipping The Empire Strikes Back.
So, here it is:
Bob Dylan--Tiny Montgomery Says Hello
- Tiny Montgomery--quite aware of the "revolution" happening 3000 miles to the west, Dylan is giving a shout out to his fans. Possibly aware that his songs were being covered by new, local bands with absurd names like The Grateful Dead (who were covering "It's All Over Now Baby Blue" months after its release). Dylan throws in some faux-pych characters and phrases "Skinny Moo and T-Bone Frank..Suck that Pig...Scratch your Dad...Pink that Dream...Nose that Dope...Join the Monk...Gas that Dog...Three Legged Man in a Hot Lipped Hole (nice one!-ed)...Tell 'em all Montgomery says 'Hello!'". Meanwhile, The Band are answering with "Hello...Hello..." in falsetto and baritone after each verse, along with some excellent Garth organ swirls. If I was a Bay Area band and received a musical postcard like this from Dylan I'd feel very sure that he was on the side of good, and that his absurdist humor was very much in tact...just with more images out of country life and surreal readings of bedtime books to his kids. As well as less amphetamine paranoia/nastiness and fewer shallow city parasite fashionista poser characters.
- Too Much of Nothing--another postcard, this one to some ladies that might be on his mind while he's doing the dishes or scraping the windows of his wife's car. "Nothing" translates as the parts of his life he may sometimes miss, though nearly killed him mere months back. Here he is, reveling in being a parent and husband. But it must have been hard to wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and think "this is the same guy who had 20 women to choose from in every European city just last spring...had top of the line drug and drink and food (though apparently not much of the latter)". So, he's dealing with a bit of detox and psychological adjustment and would just like to say hello to all those "Valerie"s and "Vivian"s in all those towns. "Give them all my salary on the waters of oblivion"--pay them in the drugs he's not taking any more.
- On a Rainy Afternoon--The Sid Griffin book surmises that this jaunty number was actually written--or at least begun--during the previous year's European tour. It sounds it too. It's got definite 60's BritPop characteristics. Dig.Reminds me of the middle bit in Moody Blues' "Tuesday Afternoon" mixed with a Lovin' Spoonful vibe.
- Million Dollar Bash--The previous few years in Dylan's life had been marked by his meteoric rise to fame. He'd railed against it all on the surface, but obviously, he'd played the game to get where he got. He was cynical, but have a look at Dylan in '66 with his mod clothes and hair and babes and seriously rocking out on stage. He was into the pop star thing. Now in '67, reflecting on it at home, he can see it for what it all was. The "bash" in question is populated by a "Big dumb blond"...with her friend with his "checks all forged". Reflecting on himself, most likely, he states "the louder they come, the harder they crack"--just have a look at the famous Dylan and Lennon Limo Ride Footage. Dylan is cracking quite hard indeed, menatally and physically. The scene in the next verse switches to a barn--perhaps back in Woodstock. But "along came Jones/he emptied the trash/and headed on down to that Million Dollar Bash". Is this "Mr. Jones", the clueless, suspicious, uptight outsider looking through Dylan's trash for insight to what makes him tick? Interesting too, that in just a couple years, Dylan would in fact be dealing with such a character. Self-fulfilled prophesy. Or, it could be Brian Jones, the one-time pal of Dylan who was made up of the exact opposite stuff as Dylan. Brian Jones gave in to paranoia, the trappings of stardom, the empty promise of thoughtless escapism, the nothing within nothing world of pop...and was shattered to find that it caused a once ambitious, talented guy to destroy himself and leave nothing but a wasted image. In the end, Dylan fesses up to the folly of his old ways--"I'm hittin' it too hard...it's too early to wake...First it's hello goodbye, push and then crash/BUT we're all gonna make it to that Million Dollar Bash". We're killing ourselves, but shit, there's a great party we gotta go to! Finally, looking at his watch, he punches himself in the face--either to wake himself up and/or to say "you fool...really? another stupid party?"..and yet gets himself down to that party. A fond farewell to another, more self-destructive time.
- Nothing Was Delivered--Roger McGuinn, who covered this song with The Byrds, believes this to be about nothing more than a drug deal gone bad. I agree that that's HALF of what it's about. I see post-crash Dylan sitting at home nursing his wounds, tempted to revert to his old ways to relieve his physical and psychic pain. He gives an old source a call, who fails to deliver. The fact that The Band (as another character in the story) sing the chorus, "Nothing is better/Nothing is best/Take care of yourself, get plenty of rest" makes me think that Dylan's source in fact intentionally refused to "help out" and instead took a look at his recovering friend and said "no way...you need nothing but rest, relaxation, peace and quiet..". Dylan's a bit put off, but knows his friend is right. It's ambiguous really who is saying what, and if the chorus is the dealer or Dylan's conscience.
- Lo and Behold-- here we just have some silliness. One thing to remember about Dylan, even when he was "poet of a generation" was that there was SOME silliness on all his albums. Here, Dylan's going to meet some lover in San Antonio, but as soon as he tells the coachman who he is, he hangs his head in shame. The realization of "I came all this way to get some lovin'". And once he meets up with the lover, it appears she's not even in the mood! Thus we get some of the lewdest lyrics Dylan ever wrote: "What's the matter, Molly dear? What's the matter with your mound?" She answers "What's it to you, Moby Dick? This is Chicken Town". Ok, I'm a bit of a novice with the slang, so I have no idea what "chicken town" is supposed to mean. The rest is pretty obvious. The chorus is the pay off--pretty simple and very catchy and sing-along-able.
- Quinn the Eskimo--The big hit by Manfred Mann! Covered by the Dead and misquoted by millions of Deadheads (it's "DOZE" not "DOSE", you fuckers). Well, simply one of the most sing-songy choruses Dylan ever wrote. He said he may have written it for his kids. Not to harp on the drug thing, but this Quinn character seems to have some sort of sleep-inducing device for Dylan and all his friends who are wide awake. In related news, "Cup of meat"=classic.
- You Ain't Goin' Nowhere--another one of the classic singalong choruses in Dylan's book. Great words too, if probably nonsensical. They sing well. On the bootleg, he REALLY had no words to this in the previous take. Just bad improv. The chorus is bawdy--let's get it on before my bride gets home (perhaps this precedes whatever was the cause for the "silent weekend"?) Needless to say, despite this being the beginning of 3 years of domesticity, Dylan obviously still had some demons to exorcise. Or at least that's one way to read it. Again, there's some sort of drug innuendo in the Genghis Kahn verse, if that's what you want to hear. "He could not keep/all his Kings supplied with sleep/but we'll climb that hill/no matter how steep when we get to it."
- This Wheel's On Fire--easily one of the best, most timeless songs in the Dylan canon. Mysterious, haunting, impenetrable. Could have been initially inspired by the motorcycle accident, although no one ever said the bike caught fire. The blurry tine between future and past and present ("you know that we will meet again if your memory serves you well") suggests a dreamlike state, or even an afterlife where "all time is one". It's unclear who he's addressing, or even what his tone is. It's not angry, sad, definitely not joyous...it's, again, as if in a dream or some other "in between" state, just resigned and Zen. If we did want to look at this, like in other 1967 Dylan songs, as a reflection on the insanity of '65-66, then "This Wheel" could just be the ever-moving, ever-speeding, ever-creating Dylan. It's almost a suicide note to those back home. To his family, his manager. "I'm doing what you're telling me to do and look...I'm on fire and about to explode. I've done all the favors, all the petty deeds...and well, see you in another world".
- Goin' to Acapulco--Sort of like in "Lo and Behold", Dylan's traveling somewhere to get some satisfaction. This time to see Rose Marie, who apparently he calls "Soft Gut". Acapulco is no doubt a house of ill repute, since he's talking about waking up horny and wanting some instant gratification. He goes to the whore house and, apparently, sometimes she just watches him please himself. I'm not making this up. It's right there. "Sometime you know when the well breaks down/I just go pump on it some/Rose Marie, she likes to go to big places/And just set there waitin' for me to come.". You know, I just never really thought about this song that much. Mick Jagger hadn't even gotten there yet in '67. He was still too busy telling "girls" they were "stupid".
- I'm Not There--one of the crown jewels. Until the film of the same name was released, only the real diehards knew of this song and spoke about it only in hushed tones. Why? It's long, lyrical, moody, and above all melodically beautiful....it's the closest thing in this collection to a "Sad Eyed Lady" or "Visions of Johanna"...but to add to the allure, NO ONE HAS EVER DECIPHERED ALL THE WORDS. And HE NEVER FINISHED THE SONG, MUCH OF WHICH HE SEEMS TO BE IMPROVISING ANYWAY. Many have taken a crack at what it's about...which is a game, really. It's like finding a transcript with half the second chapter, all the fourth and fifth chapters and 2/3 of the eighth chapter missing and trying to tell someone what it's about. I would like to submit that it's about the same woman--or type of woman--Edie Sedgewick perhaps--that "Just Like a Woman" is about. Damaged, beautiful, impossible, muse-like. But whereas in "Just Like a Woman", she's a part of his life, in "I'm Not There", he's remembering her from his country home, wondering how she's getting by, and he's crying for her. It's a tender, shattered remembrance. And it seems she was the one who broke it off? ....this is not unlike something Leonard Cohen would do (but in finished form) in his first couple albums.
- Please Mrs. Henry (Henry Saga Pt 1)--another funny one. basically, it's the drunkard at the bar hitting on the barmaid. Many funny lines, some of which make Dylan himself laugh a bit. I saw Robyn Hitchcock do this song at the Basement open mic (shortly before I joined him on drums.)
- Don't Ya Tell Henry (Henry Saga Pt 2)--I Put these pack to back because they are both a) drunk and b) Henry. So it's the Henry Medley. BUT if taken together, you can say that Dylan got his way with MRS. Henry, who is now telling Dylan "Don't tell my husband, but you knocked me up" (or "the apple's got your fly") Is that a real phrase or did I just interpret it like that? I like this better than the Levon-sung one.
- Tears of Rage--Back to serious, back to anthemic and classic. And reflective and obscure and..Biblical? Dylan did start occasionally cracking the Bible during '67. I'm not going to start to decipher this song. Life is brief.
- All You Have to Do Is Dream--the only one here with Levon on drums (who was down south during most of these proceedings, not wanting to just be "Dylan's Backup Band") and the funkiness makes a big difference. That classic Band chemistry is there. Well, it seems, in this, one of the final tunes from The Basement Tape Era before Dylan flew down to start John Wesley Harding, that Dylan has completely shed his old skin. This song has no temptation, no lewd jokes...just fantasizing about down home domestic bliss.
- Yea Heavy and a Bottle of Bread--back to old school whimsey and not a whole lot of substance. But that title/chorus is just delicious word salad (if a title with the word "bread" can be considered thus). Highlights: "The comic book and me, we took the bus" are lyrics that could have been on any 1965-66 Dylan tune. "Bring me my pipe, we're gonna shake it": as Robbie Robertson famously said, The Basement sessions often consisted of "reefer run amok" . This is followed by the hilarious line, "Slap that drummer with a pie that smells!". Hee hee.
- Sign on the Cross--the other "Holy Grail" (in more ways than one) of this collection. No one knows why it's never been released. No one can agree if it's serious or a piss-take. What can be agreed is that it's beautiful. and lengthy and full of dynamics. Even if he's not entirely serious here, Dylan seems to have found it worth his time to write this lengthy song about the redemptive qualities of Christianity. Personally, I feel the spoken, Baptist Preacher bit is about as sincere as when Gram Parsons does it on the Burrito Brothers album. Which is still more sincere than Mick Jagger on "Far Away Eyes". And more sincere than your average meth-head homosexual evangelist. Anyway...I feel Dylan felt it was one possible road and was testing the waters. The water wasn't comfortable yet, but that didn't stop the writer from writing about it.
- Open the Door Homer--the last of the silly/catchy. But with one great verse which seems to bridge exactly where Dylan was in early/mid 1967: "Take care of all your memories, said Mick, for you cannot relive them/and remember when you're out there tryin' to heal the sick, then you must always first forgive them". It's looking back at his old crazy life, and contemplating this Holy road he's staring down (but wouldn't travel down for another 12 years).
- I Shall Be Released--Bingo. A champion chorus, a simple yet effective lyric, no jokes, no religion, just Dylan, old-school, singing about the down and out. I remember thinking "this was written in '67?" In my Dylan education years ago, I'd always assumed it was early 70's. Excellent excellent.
If you want all the rest, just search for "A Tree With Roots" and you'll find 4 CDs of Basement Tapes ready to download. Most of it is worth listening to. I'm just saying, if I made an album out of it, this is what and why....
It's the Best Dylan Album.