The Murk and the Mystique: Greil Marcus on 'The Basement Tapes'

Notes on tracks that have no reasons

Rick Danko and Bob Dylan in 1967. Credit: Courtesy of Arie De Reus

"They've got it all," Garth Hudson said to me almost 20 years ago, when bootlegs collecting more than a hundred Basement Tapes performances were circulating. I was writing a book on the sessions; we were in his storage space in upstate New York, near Woodstock, going through stashes of cassettes. For the afternoon gatherings that took place between the spring of 1967 and as late as the first month or so of 1968, in makeshift studios in various locations – really not much more than instruments, microphones and a tape recorder in Bob Dylan's house, then in the basement of the house Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Hudson were renting ("a clubhouse," Danko called it), which they named Big Pink; finally in one or two other spots after the three decamped – Hudson had been the engineer. He would know if anyone did. I took him at his word.

But there was a lot more. Of the 140 tracks of The Basement Tapes Complete (including two hidden tracks on the sixth and last disc of the set), counting two hilarious breakdowns that on bootlegs were mere fragments, there are 33 numbers that have never been heard before.

These are the leavings of people working in the dark. There are no formal masterpieces. There is nothing like the opening moment of "This Wheel's on Fire," with Dylan waiting as a minor chord comes down, opening the door to a hall of shame, rage and forgiveness wrapped in a sardonic curse. The unheard tracks remove the mystique of the basement sessions – the mystique generated by the prophecies of "I Shall Be Released," "Tears of Rage" or "I'm Not There," and by the gnomic comedies of "Lo and Behold!," "Crash on the Levee," "Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread," "Clothes Line Saga," "Please Mrs. Henry," "Tiny Montgomery" and "Million Dollar Bash" – and replace it with evidence of ordinary, everyday activity, pure termite art. With a laughing cover of Hank Williams' version of "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It" shot up with a scream on only the second number of the whole new set, on through a dozen or so half-formed songs such as "Any Time," "Jelly Bean" or "She's on My Mind Again" that take it to its end, any hint of the Voice of a Generation, Sage of the Age, is definitively done away with. 

You hear Dylan edging his way into the Fleetwoods' 1959 "Mr. Blue." Behind him, Danko or Manuel guffaws, or burps, to show how dumb the thing is, but Dylan is interested – he's singing to find out why he still likes the song. As on the cover of the Rays' 1957 "Silhouettes," which starts out as a goof and ends with Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Manuel and Danko screaming "Silhouettes!" at one another as if they've just discovered the meaning of life, the basement turns into Robert Zimmerman's upstairs bedroom in Hibbing, Minnesota, in 1958, where he and his guitarist friend John Bucklen would work up the likes of the Hollywood Flames' "Buzz Buzz Buzz" for their high school talent show. The same feeling is there in the newly complete "Bourbon Street," with a drunken strip-joint band without a strip joint trying to get drinks by playing a song it can't even begin to remember. "Ah, play it pretty now, boys," Dylan says, as Danko answers with the most painful trombone screeches in New Orleans memory. "Oh, sounds marvelous!" Dylan responds, and it does.

There is far more from corners like those, and a trio of what were already Dylan standards: "Blowin' in the Wind" as a grinding blues, played out over more than six minutes, as if to discover a world in the song that wasn't obvious in 1963; "One Too Many Mornings," with Manuel taking the first verse, making you wish he'd taken it all; and "It Ain't Me, Babe," which here swirls like Christine McVie's "Over My Head." It's a performance that makes it clear that for Dylan this song was never finished, that the situation it describes can never be resolved – or, at the least, that the song can't resolve it, which is why, whenever Dylan performs it, it sounds both new and as if he didn't write it all, as if the first lines he took from John Jacob Niles' 1930 "Go 'Way From My Window" both wrote the whole song for him and took it away. 

The heart of the unheard music is in what sound less like songs than song mines: people digging for songs. "[In] the unconscious state of mind, you get the rhymes first and then see if you can make sense in another kind of way," Dylan said in 1992. "You can still stay in the unconscious frame of mind to pull it off, which is the state of mind you have to be in anyway." He went on to talk about how a line like "The enemy I see wears a cloak of decency," from his own "Slow Train Coming" – "an intellectual line," he called it – "could be a lie." But lines that come without purpose, a mind speaking as if it's merely breathing, can't lie. If, as a character in Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game says, "What is truly dreadful is that everyone has his reasons," here there is no he, and there are no reasons.

That's what you can hear on Discs Five and Six of The Basement Tapes Complete, the latter where the recordings with the worst sound are brought together, and the murk creates its own mystique. What you catch is an exclamation, a phrase seeking a verse, brief snatches that offer a glimpse of a whole life. "If I've lost everything," says the singer in "Wild Wolf," a song that starts in the middle of the ruin of a life, an old man speaking, "yellowed teeth" dropping "one by one in the gutters of the West," in Jack Kerouac's words from On the Road, "but I—" the knowledge, the authority that Dylan finds in the words make this moment as indelible as anything here. The tone is despairing, the spectral melody cuts back against itself, and the song seems to stop, waiting for the thoughts in the singer's head to catch up with the slow but forward movement of the music. On "That's the Breaks," the singing is hard, extreme, the Blue Sky Boys' "The Sunny Side of Life" turned inside out – an old, common song that's gone wrong, that took the wrong road: "That's the breaks/On the other side of life." This might be the deepest mine here, where at the end of a tunnel John Henry finds the alchemist's cave where folk songs are made and found.

This feeling is strongest not in one of Dylan's own songs, but in two performances of "Ain't No More Cane," a Texas chain-gang song probably first recorded by Lead Belly. Dylan and the rest feel their way into the piece, stumbling into it, as if they're still shackled. "Shoulda been on the river in nineteen and ten" – when Dylan sang the song in the Gaslight Cafe in New York in 1962, it was so phony, so patently blackface, it was like a postcard. It would take years for him to disappear into the song, and now he has, and so have the rest. Here there is no Bob Dylan, no band, no basement. They're old men looking back, stunned that they survived, if they have, if they're not ghosts. "Shoulda been on the river in nineteen and four/They found a dead body in every single door." The traditional line is "at every turn row" – men and women worked to death. But here it's pure murder: bodies delivered like mail. Why? How? Do you have to ask? Does it matter? I was there, I saw it, my flesh still crawls at the thought of it, thank your God you weren't on that river, that you never heard of it. The singer is singing not out of anger but in regret, for what he's lost: He was on the river in nineteen and four, and he never felt more alive than when he passed those bodies and could prove to himself he wasn't one of them, because he could take one more step, a step you can feel, as the singers take them.

To find the song inside the song: Is this the trance Bob Dylan was talking about, that unconscious mind? Yes, and here – in "2 Dollars and 99 Cents," "Down by the Station," "Northern Claim," "Pretty Mary" – that's the treasure of the unheard Basement Tapes. Or, as Dylan says at the end of "Love Is Only Mine," the last of the unheard songs in this set: "OK – what key haven't we played in yet?"