The Basement Tapes

Not Rated

There was a desert wind blowing that night, and the hot breeze that sighed through the open window had just enough muscle to swirl the smoke from the ghosts of a hundred cigarettes a single time around the solitary desk lamp before giving it up as a bad job.

I knew the feeling.

I had been sitting in the office for days, thinking and rethinking the case. It added up all right — hell, it had added up from the very beginning — but I just couldn't figure out why. The more I tried to analyze it, the more it resisted my efforts. I got that nervous feeling on the back of my neck that someone very close was telling me to lay off, that to get too involved with the quest for the white-hot center would be to miss the whole point.

Logic is a funny thing to a private detective. It has nothing to do with facts but rather with intuition — a kind of mathematics without damage. After a number of years, you learn to trust your hunches, to draw occasionally to that inside straight no matter what the book said. Especially if the people you were playing with — in this case, Bob Dylan and the Band — made up new rules each time out in the only worthwhile game in town.

What got to me was that I knew what they were doing but I couldn't explain it, not in words anyway. Arguably, I'd had some luck with Dylan before, was not unfamiliar with his circuitous, sporadic manner. He wasn't a classicist; instead he played spontaneously, from the heart, stringing together such disparate cards that only the force of his will held his ideas together. The results he got were amazing, often magical. He'd had some lean years in the late Sixties and early Seventies when he'd tried to run some more or less conventional bluffs, but now he was as personal and enigmatic as ever.

Or was he? I couldn't be sure.

The Basement Tapes seemed destined to remain a mystery, and I wasn't at all sure that Dylan hadn't planned it that way from the start.

The office was in the Arbogast Building on Embryo Street off Perelman Square, half a block from Coma Noodle Corporation, right next to the Ambergris Diner and the Dead Souls Church and Motel. It's in the basement — a little irony there — and that fact perhaps provides a peculiar perspective.

I swung my feet up on the desk, thumbed a match, set fire to a cigarette, stared at the phonograph and got ready to face the music again. I had always prided myself on being a professional, an eye who looked up straight into all that heaven allowed. In my life, there was always a new case, new clients, a few old ones who never left; thus far I managed to satisfy most of them — and myself as well — with the proper explanations at the proper time. This go-round, I didn't feel half so cocky.

Marcus, the Berkeley op who'd done some preliminary work on the case, had warned me. He'd said: "Do it quickly. If you listen too long and don't get out fast, you'll never get out."

He was right.

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: The Basement Tapes

All of the documentation was in order, plus a lot of inspired speculation. The music was eight years old, but it could have been made eight minutes or eight decades ago; it wouldn't have mattered. It had once been illegal, sold under the counter. Hell, even now it wasn't complete — these things never are. Nobody had even heard any of the Band's songs before — they were sapped before Music from Big Pink — and at least four of them ("Yazoo Street Scandal," "Katie's Been Gone," "Bessie Smith," "Ain't No More Cane") would have been as difficult to hide as a bosomy blonde under a bushel basket.

Missing from the Dylan file were "Get Your Rocks Off!," "Sign on the Cross," "I'm Not There (I'm Gone)," the celebrated "Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)" and "I Shall Be Released" and who knows what else. Added was an unheard ace in the hole, "Goin' to Acapulco," the kind of cosmic bawdy song that is so achingly beautiful it is about everything that it isn't about as well as what it is about, if you know what I mean. So was most of Basement Tapes, for that matter.

Marcus had pretty well let the cat out of the bag with his report, included in the total package. It's all there. You can read it. The facts, the camaraderie of equals, the notion of a hard testing ground, superb musicianship, randiness, roots, memory, archetypal American music and its obsession with mystery and death. All there and all true.

But the white-hot center remains laughing and unexplained.

Untouched.

I was on my fourth carton of cigarettes and time was running out fast. I knew I had to take a shot at it soon but no man likes to play the fool. Truths? There were no truths in this case. I had known that for a long time, that and little else. In death and matters of the heart, we are all of us amateurs, someone once said. Maybe it was me.

Down the hall came the eager footsteps of my partner, my alter ego. Something of a dandy, he once translated the complete works of Leonard Cohen into Canadian so he's probably not to be trusted. I usually take what he has to say with more than a shot of rye.

He opened the door and debauched in, a wolfish smile on his face as he polished a simile. He'd been out doing the usual legwork. He stared at the wax on the machine. "Tears of Rage," was playing.

"The traditional approach to Dylan is through his lyrics," he said. "Figuring out what those words mean is like trying to read a book with your ears."

"That's a metaphor," I said. "But it's not bad."

"Since all of these songs were recorded between June and October of 1967, they should logically provide an aesthetic link between Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding, not to mention Big Pink. . .

"They don't," I said.

He looked worried. His eyes, the color of unset rhinestones, darkened, lightened, got darker again.

"We are dealing with the real Bob Dylan and the Band here," he said. "Yet there is a hidden language, masks within masks. . . "

"No," I said slowly, rolling the syllable across my tongue like a billiard ball on the table of night. "No." I bit off the end of the word sharply.

He said: "You don't think . . . "

I stared at him. "The Basement Tapes are no more the real Dylan, the real Band, than are the 'official' recordings. They are no better and no worse than Highway 61 Revisited, et al., but surely very different. There's something to the hidden-language theory, but not the way you mean it — hell, the janitor, laughs at "Clothes Line Saga" and cries at "This Wheel's on Fire." There are no masks."

Nobody said anything for a while. I let a cigarette burn down between my fingers, until it made a small red mark. It had been that kind of caper. The end was very near. I could feel it on the back of my neck. Suddenly, I felt very sad.

"You've solved the case?" he said. He acted like a sulky child.

"No," I said thickly. My face was set hard and deeply lined. I could feel my eyes burning madly. "I haven't solved the case and I don't intend to. No one will ever figure out The Basement Tapes the way you want to; somehow it would be indecent. They're either King Lear or they're nothing — take your pick, then leave them alone. I respect them and I think I understand them, and that's enough for me."

"You're not serious," he said. "You don't expect me to think . . ."

"I don't care what you think," I said.

I nodded toward the inner office to indicate that I was going in there, and went in there. I picked up a book named Keep It Crisp and read a story called "Farewell, My Lovely Appetizer." I liked it fine. When a man's partner is routed, you're supposed to do something about it. I kept thinking. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him.

I said: "Listen. This isn't a damned bit of good. You'll never understand me, but I'll try once more and then we'll give it up."

"All right," he said.

"Listen. The songs on The Basement Tapes are the hardest, toughest, sweetest, saddest, funniest, wisest songs I know, yet I don't know what they're about. Friendship, sex, death, heroism, learning from others. I guess history and inevitability are in there too. And sorrow and longing. Second, they're as personal or impersonal as abstract paintings, but that doesn't make them difficult. You just have to go at them in a different way. Third, they're about survival with honor and without bitterness. If there are tests, they've all been passed, and what you're hearing are the results. Serious comedy. Deadpan tragedy."

He said: "I think. . ."

"Wait till I'm through and then you can talk. Fourth, the songs are home music, barroom music played for pleasure and for the hell of it by and for musicians with a shared experience outsiders may not fully understand. Nobody ever figured they'd be an album someday. Next, they're playful and competitive, the music and lyrics snarled and spit out of the corners of one's mouth. That's five of them. The sixth would be that these were inspired times, and Dylan and the Band could as well have been singing and playing the telephone book. Seventh, when somebody offers me a joke, I just say no thanks. I try to tell it like it is. And eighth — but that's enough. All those on one side. Maybe some of them are unimportant. I won't argue about that. But look at the number of them. Now on the other side we've got what? All we've got is the fact that you want one hard clean answer."

"I do," he whispered, "whether you do or not."

"I don't. I won't play the sap for you. As far as I'm concerned The Basement Tapes are the stuff of dreams, brass-lined maybe. I like them like that. You want to solve the case? It's yours."

From The Archives Issue 195: September 11, 1975
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