Bob Dylan's Secret Masterpiece: The Story of 'The Basement Tapes' - Rolling Stone
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Bob Dylan’s Secret Masterpiece: The Untold Story of ‘The Basement Tapes’

How the Basement Tapes were made, lost, and finally released

Bob Dylan, outside his Byrdcliffe home in Woodstock, NY, 1968.

Bob Dylan, outside his Byrdcliffe home in Woodstock, New York, 1968

Elliott Landy/Getty

One day in late 1967 or early 1968, Sally Grossman was at her home near Woodstock, when Garth Hudson showed up at her door. Hudson, the full-bearded keyboard player with Bob Dylan’s backup band the Hawks, was carting around a long pine box that he had made himself. Inside was a stash of reel-to-reel tapes, each in a cardboard box notated with Hudson’s precise, fluid handwriting. “It was full of tapes, all lined up,” recalls Grossman, the wife of late Dylan manager Albert Grossman. “And Garth said I was to guard these tapes, because he was going away for a while.”

Hudson would go on in the coming months to record the landmark album Music From Big Pink with the Hawks, who would rename themselves the Band, and later hit the road to kick off their influential career. He told Grossman that she could listen to the tapes if she wanted, so she dipped into the box. What she heard shocked her. “It was ‘Lo and Behold!’ and ‘Quinn the Eskimo,’” she says. “They were great.”

Other Woodstock locals in Dylan’s orbit had similar moments around that time. Happy Traum — a musician and friend of Dylan from the Greenwich Village folk scene who had recently moved upstate — remembers one gathering where Richard Manuel of the Hawks sat down at a piano and started playing a gorgeous ballad that sounded like a gospel song. “People weren’t even listening at first,” says Traum. The song was “I Shall Be Released”; Manuel’s bandmate Rick Danko would chime in on harmonies. “Then everyone stopped,” says Traum. “It was, ‘Oh, my God, what is that playing?’”

Locals knew what Dylan had been through lately: burnout from touring and fame, a shadowy motorcycle crackup just outside of town, followed by a life makeover as an unassuming Woodstock family man. Dylan didn’t even look the same: The jittery wraith of 1966 now resembled an earnest rabbinical student with short hair and glasses. After Blonde on Blonde in May 1966, he had gone a year and a half without releasing new music — a lifetime in the Sixties pop world. But with these songs, he had been reborn.

Some of the tracks — “I Shall Be Released,” “This Wheel’s on Fire,” “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” — would go on to become some of Dylan’s best-known and most covered. But beyond a captivating but incomplete 1975 compilation, the majority of the recordings were never officially released. In the 47 years since those nearly 40 reels of tape were made, the so-called Basement Tapes have become one of rock’s worst-kept secrets: bootlegged, analyzed, written about, passed around. “If this were ever to be released, it would be a classic,” wrote Jann S. Wenner in Rolling Stone in 1968, the first report on the tapes. Neil Young was given a pristine copy made from the master tapes for his personal archives. Tom Waits has called the 1975 collection one of his favorite albums of all time. The mythology and lure of the recordings have also extended to a new generation of rockers. “I couldn’t believe how funny and sad the songs were,” says Jim James of My Morning Jacket, who owned a cassette of the 1975 album and played it relentlessly in his car stereo. “They weren’t scared to be funny and make mistakes. It’s like they opened the door and you got to go into their own little room.” Referring to the unreleased tracks, he adds, “Some lyrics are like, ‘What the fuck were you thinking?’ And others are so beautiful you’re like, ‘You fucking asshole — you let these sit in a box for 45 years?’”

The songs are finally out of the box. The Basement Tapes Complete marks the most extensive and exhaustive compilation of the music Dylan and the Band created, starting in the spring of 1967 and lasting as late as early 1968. Spread over its six discs are every extant song and alternate take they worked up and put on tape. Alongside the Dylan originals are covers of Johnny Cash, Curtis Mayfield, folk and country songs, bits of conversation among all the players, and jokey jams and throwaways. “It gives you something no one ever really gets — it lets you be a fly on the wall watching Dylan create,” says a source close to Dylan’s camp. “That doesn’t exist anyplace else.”

The set fills in, once and for all, a lost era in Dylan’s life. It’s the missing link between Blonde on Blonde and 1967’s unplugged John Wesley Harding — between his life as a raging international rock star and his subsequent country-squire period. The Basement Tapes also gave birth to the bootleg industry, the roots-rock movement in the late Sixties, and the low-fi recording rage that continues to this day. (A belated follow-up is also on the way: Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes is a collection of newly unearthed Dylan lyrics from the time, which Jim James, Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, and others set to music.)

Dylan himself, true to form, never saw what all the fuss was about. “I never really liked the Basement Tapes,” he told Rolling Stone in 1984. “They were used only for other artists to record those songs. I wouldn’t have put ’em out.” The sessions were loose. “We would do these songs and fall on the floor laughing,” guitarist Robbie Robertson said in 1998. But the music recorded in that basement in West Saugerties would become one of rock’s greatest lost-and-found stories.

Described in The New York Times that year as simply an “Ulster County art colony,” Woodstock in 1967 was the perfect place for Dylan. Arts-and-crafts makers and bohemian types had gravitated to the town, 100 miles north of New York City. Dylan’s friend Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary, who’d had a huge hit in 1963 with “Blowin’ in the Wind,” had moved to the area first, talking it up so much that Dylan’s manager Grossman soon followed.

Dylan needed an escape. On his infamous 1966 world tour with the Hawks, he had been greeted by hoots of outrage from crowds who hated his electric set. That stress, his life on the road and his celebrity led him to the brink of a breakdown. He was using speed, in part just to maintain his schedule. “It takes a lot of medicine to keep up this pace,” he told biographer Robert Shelton in 1966. John Lennon would tell Rolling Stone that he and Dylan were “both on fucking junk” when they met up in London in 1966; in a scene from the unreleased Dylan 1966 tour documentary Eat the Document, Dylan nearly vomits in the back seat of a limo with Lennon. Dylan would later claim that he was “never hooked on any drug,” but acknowledged the seriousness of the situation in a 1978 interview: “I was straining pretty hard and couldn’t have gone on living that way much longer. The fact that I made it is pretty miraculous.”

Back in the States, Dylan split his time between Woodstock and New York. One account has him staying at the Hotel Chelsea, partying with the likes of Robertson, model Edie Sedgwick and various Rolling Stones. During one party, Dylan wore black-and-white-striped pajama bottoms and a red, brown and gold polka-dot top. The downtime wouldn’t last: Grossman had scheduled another 64 shows for Dylan and the Hawks into 1967.

It all came to a halt in July 1966, when Dylan took his Triumph Tiger motorcycle out for a ride near the Grossmans’ home. When the back wheel on the bike buckled, Dylan flew over the handlebars and hit the ground. “I can’t even remember exactly how it happened,” he said later. “I was blinded by the sun for a second. … I stomped down on the brake and the rear wheel locked up on me, and I went flyin’.”

Driving behind him, Sara Dylan took her husband of just under two years directly to an area doctor, Ed Thaler, whose office was more than an hour away. No police or hospital reports exist, and no official statements on Dylan’s status were issued by Grossman or Dylan’s label, Columbia. The dearth of information led to rampant speculation that Dylan had been paralyzed, brain-damaged or, in one claim, “badly disfigured”; at the very least, he suffered from a broken vertebra in his neck. Dylan spent more than a month living in Thaler’s care, which fueled additional gossip that Dylan was detoxing as well. (Thaler, who long denied those stories, died in 2002.)

Many of the musicians who knew Dylan had no idea what was happening either. “We didn’t know anything more than the press was reporting,” says the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn. “That he broke his neck or something and was laid up in Woodstock for a while. He wasn’t communicating with people on the outside that much.” Those who were around Dylan at the time remain coy or elusive on the topic. “I didn’t see it,” says Hudson with a sly smile, adding, “He may have been more conscious about going up and down stairs.”

Traum, who moved to Woodstock after the accident, says, “It really happened. I know he decided afterward to completely clean up his life. He stopped drinking. He even stopped smoking for a while, which I don’t think lasted too long. Sara was cooking great meals, and he was very clear-eyed and very obviously sober.” Dylan spent family time with his and Sara’s son Jesse as well as Maria, Sara’s daughter from her first marriage, whom he would adopt. Robertson had moved up to Wood-stock to help Dylan edit Eat the Document, while Manuel and Danko were living at the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York, trying to record demos of their own songs while awaiting word on Dylan’s condition. The other Hawks were eventually called up to Woodstock (although drummer Levon Helm, shaken by the experience of being booed on tour, went on a hiatus, not to return until the fall of 1967) to appear in additional scenes in Eat the Document; since they were still on retainer, they hauled up in the middle of a snowy winter and took rooms at a local motel.

Dylan’s backup musicians weren’t fellow folkies but a seasoned, down-home bar band. “They were so different from Bob, who grew up middle-class,” says Sally Grossman. “Robbie had to quit school. Rick came from tobacco farmers. Levon had that funky Arkansas beat. They were the real deal. They didn’t have to make up that they were Woody Guthrie types like even Woody did.”

With Dylan off the road, the Hawks realized they couldn’t live and rehearse in a motel. Danko rented a split-level, three-bedroom house in West Saugerties with pink siding, complete with a chimney and a street-level cinder-block garage, for $125 a month. Set back in the woods, the house was private enough for loud rehearsals, and the Hawks — who also wanted to get back to their own recording — began setting up a studio in the cellar. But the concrete walls and floors were hardly ideal. “What if we put down a rug?” said Robertson to an audio-expert friend. The friend replied, “A rug? You need everything.

With his background in electronics, Hudson was in charge of a reel-to-reel tape deck set up on a bench behind his organ; he’d press “record,” then turn around to his organ to play. Hudson remembers the heating system as an issue. “The only problem might have been the furnace going on,” he says. “It was turned off during the recording.”

At first, Dylan invited the Hawks over to his Woodstock home to work up material in the so-called Red Room, a burgundy-walled family space. The Dylans were living in a funky house built in 1910 with high, wood-beamed ceilings, a natural pool, and a piano in the living room, which had a view of the Catskills. But soon it became clear that they needed a place apart from Dylan’s wife and children: “It was his house,” Hudson says. (One of the unreleased Red Room tapes features the sounds of the musicians toking up.) It was only natural they gravitated to the cellar in Big Pink, where Dylan availed himself of the Hawks’ gear. “Bob was taking care of all of us all this time,” Robertson has said. “We’re still on the payroll, and it was a way to do something, a gesture back.”

Starting in the spring of 1967, Dylan would stop by in the afternoon — “two or three hours a day,” a few days a week, Danko recalled — writing lyrics on an Olivetti typewriter upstairs and working up the songs downstairs. (Sometimes one of the other Hawks would add words of his own, resulting in collaborations like “Tears of Rage.”) Hudson says the looseness of Dylan’s songs was partly triggered by the Hawks. “Richard made up a song about going upstairs from downstairs,” he says. “A little song that has not been heard. Spoken word and little songs that were for the most part silly. Bob heard what we had done,” Hudson adds, chuckling, “and I remember him saying, ‘Oh, I see. …’”

The songs that poured out, whether originals or covers, found Dylan in a more relaxed voice and mood. “It was such a great time,” says Sally Grossman. “The band had so much energy. And obviously it really fell into Bob’s groove at that time too.” At some point, Dylan began playing tapes for friends. “They weren’t called ‘the Basement Tapes’ back then,” Traum says. “It was just ‘Here’s what we’re working on.’” Dylan played Traum a bit of “Crash on the Levee” and “Quinn the Eskimo.” “I think this is gonna be recorded by some guys,” Dylan told him of the latter.

As Traum recalls, “Frankly, I didn’t quite get it at the time because it was a bunch of guys messing around. But then you hear these gems.” The largely unplugged, scrappy arrangements signified another shift for Dylan: When everyone else in pop seemed to want to imitate Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released in June 1967, here was Dylan, who had gone electric so publicly, now unplugging himself and returning to his folk roots. The reverberations — from the country-rock scene that begat the Eagles and Americana — would be profound.

Even as he continued to write and record with the Hawks, Dylan cut an entirely separate set of songs in Nashville for an album to be called John Wesley Harding. It was released in December 1967, just as what became known as the Basement Tapes sessions were winding down. Dylan was already moving on.

Many of the Basement Tapes songs had a specific goal: additional income. With touring on hold, Dylan needed money. The source near Dylan’s camp jokes that Dylan made only “two cents a record” at the time.

To encourage other acts to record the songs, Albert Grossman, with Dylan’s British and American publishers, began sending out acetates of the songs to other artists almost as soon as the informal sessions were wrapping up. Hudson made a copy of 14 of the most accessible songs, including “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” “Quinn the Eskimo,” “This Wheel’s on Fire” and “Million Dollar Bash.” “We didn’t know what would be done with them, at first,” Hudson says.

Hudson earmarked copies for Johnny Cash and the bluegrass duo Flatt and Scruggs (who cut “Crash on the Levee” under the name “Down in the Flood” in 1968). Another was sent to Manfred Mann, leader of the British Invasion band. In Mann’s memory, the band was allowed to pick only one song, and he initially chose “Please Mrs. Henry.” After realizing it wasn’t the right fit, he and the band opted for “Quinn the Eskimo,” also known as “The Mighty Quinn,” even though he had no idea what it was about. “I never thought they were mysterious basement tapes,” says Mann. “It was a guy playing at home.” Their version made the Top 10.

While cutting Sweetheart of the Rodeo in Nashville in the spring of 1968, the Byrds were pleasantly surprised to be offered “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and “Nothing Was Delivered.” “We got a reel-to-reel demo from Dylan, and we put it on in the studio and said, ‘Yeah, we’ll record that,’” says McGuinn. McGuinn is still amazed at how well Dylan’s songs fit in with the trailblazing country-rock album the Byrds were in the midst of recording.

The recordings wouldn’t be secret for long. Although Hudson held on to the original tapes, nine of the songs sneaked out on what amounts to rock’s first bootleg: Great White Wonder, a two-LP set that began appearing in record stores in the summer of 1969. The exact origin remains a mystery. The bootlegs could have resulted from the acetates sent by publishers, but former Alice Cooper guitarist Michael Bruce has claimed the band’s managers, Joe Greenberg and Shep Gordon, got hold of the tapes through a contact at Columbia and used them to make some extra money. According to Bruce, Cooper roadies would bring them to local record stores on tour, resulting in a windfall of $60,000 for the band.

“When [the bootlegs] got out in the beginning, everybody was real uptight,” Robertson told Rolling Stone in 1998. “It was like somebody got your diary.” Columbia tracked down two Los Angeles record-store owners who were distributing Great White Wonder and ordered them to cease and desist, but the men skipped town, and variations on the album began popping up, sometimes with more songs cut at Big Pink or Dylan’s house.

In 1975, a portion of the tapes was given an official release. (As Dylan later told Rolling Stone, “Columbia wanted to put ’em out, so what can you do?”) To make the music more agreeable to Seventies music fans accustomed to more polished recordings, Robertson and engineer Rob Fraboni tweaked the tapes. The Band overdubbed additional instruments on songs like “Too Much of Nothing.” The Band also recorded all-new versions of the songs “Ain’t No More Cane,” “Bessie Smith” and “Don’t Ya Tell Henry.” Fraboni still feels chagrined that nothing in the LP’s packaging indicated those weren’t 1967 recordings. “It’s so obvious we faked them,” he says. “They have a different sound quality to the rest of the album. But it was good intentions. We were thinking, ‘We have to do what we can to make it a little better.’” Helm’s main complaint about the album was that it didn’t count toward the Band’s contract with Capitol, which had put them on suspension for failing to deliver enough albums.

The 1975 Basement Tapes reached Number Seven on the albums chart. Over the years, a few more songs, like “Santa-Fe” and the original “Quinn the Eskimo,” were included on official Dylan collections. But thanks to the slew of bootlegs, collectors and Dylanophiles knew so much more existed: Where was the beautifully logarithmic “I’m Not There” or the proto-punk rocker “Out of Control”? What else was on his tapes, and when would they finally be heard in pristine condition? Instead of silencing fans who’d demanded its release, The Basement Tapes album of 1975 only fueled the lust for more.

“That was Bob’s house,” Garth Hudson says as his driver wheels him around Woodstock one fall day, pointing to a white house set back from one of the town’s leafy, winding roads. The Band’s image always conjured the Old West, and at 77, Hudson now looks like a kindly old prospector, albeit one who’s sipping a cold drink from Starbucks. He’s visited Big Pink only a few times since the Band moved out in early 1968 — and those times he never went inside — but he’s agreed to one more trip. Hudson can be quiet, but when told that the house has attracted tourists from around the world, a crinkly smile overtakes his face. “Ain’t that something,” he says, not for the first time.

On his way to Big Pink, Hudson passes new sites (a chain drugstore — “nobody likes that,” he says) and many vintage ones: the motel (now boarded up) where the Band stayed before Big Pink; Dylan’s home in Woodstock (where Donald Fagen now lives); and a cemetery. “Rick and Levon are buried there,” he notes quietly. Robertson, who lives and works in L.A., and Hudson are the only surviving members of the Band: Manuel committed suicide in 1986, Danko died of a heart attack in 1999, and Helm succumbed to throat cancer in 2012.

The road to the final release of the Basement Tapes started in the 1990s. Jan Haust, a Canadian music archivist and producer who talks with the sonorous tones of a Seventies FM DJ, was in search of early, pre-Big Pink recordings for a Hawks box set. Knowing that Hudson had his own collection of Band and Hawks memorabilia — tapes, sheet music, gold records and photos — Haust reached out to the keyboardist. The two became close friends, with Haust even helping him move from one home to another.

During a visit around 2003, Hudson had a surprise for the archivist. On his front lawn, under an apple tree, while smoking a pipe, Hudson presented Haust with some cardboard boxes and an old leather suitcase. Inside were close to 40 reels of music, some of them Basement Tapes recordings. Hudson had stored them in Los Angeles when he lived there from 1973 to 1994, then presumably had taken them back with him when he returned to Woodstock. Haust recalls the unveiling: “It was a little overwhelming.”

Hudson wound up selling the cache of tapes to Haust for an undisclosed sum; one source says the figure might have been around $30,000, but Haust declines comment, even on the fact of the sale. “I have an arrangement with Garth Hudson, and we’ll just leave it at that,” Haust says. If that number is correct, it would have been the deal of the century, especially since the Dylan source says some in the singer’s camp would have paid much more. An agreement was eked out in late 2011 after Dylan’s office OK’d the project. (Hudson and now Haust may own the physical tapes, but Dylan’s ownership of the songs gives him right of approval for a release.)

Soon after, Haust and engineer Peter Moore began digitizing the tapes back in Toronto. (About 90 percent of The Basement Tapes Complete originated from those reels; the missing songs were located on quality tape copies made later.) The work was formidable. The original plastic reels were in good condition, but some of the reel-to-reel tapes themselves had darkened portions that suggested damage from lack of proper storage. Although most of the tape boxes included Hudson’s handwritten notations of which songs were included, dates and personnel were missing. To the producers’ dismay, it appeared as if someone might have recorded over a small portion of the original reels. One tape now featured the sounds of Danko at home. “He used one of them to lay down some song ideas, play piano, and he left the tape running while his gal came over to watch TV,” Haust says with a sigh. As far as what might have been recorded over, Haust says, “We’ll never know.”

Most of the quarter-track tapes, though, had held up better than expected. While untangling several crumpled feet of tape, Haust and Moore discovered a never-heard ending to one of the songs, the rollicking “Baby, Won’t You Be My Baby.” One dilapidated tape box had a list of rarities including “Minstrel Boy” and a Dylan-Hawks version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” — but no tape inside. Luckily, the reel was discovered in Dylan’s office, housed in a replacement box with Hudson’s notes inside. “I walked in the door of the studio and I could hear it down the hall, and it sounded wonderful,” Hudson recalls of one of his trips to Toronto to hear the tapes again. “You could hear the unusual instrumental work behind the vocal.” Hudson says other unreleased pieces from that era still exist, like a “light-hearted” two-part Band song. “It’s funny now to hear it,” Hudson says. “I won’t say the name of it. It has not been released.” Despite those loose ends, The Basement Tapes Complete marks the end of an era — for one of rock’s great lost relics, and for Hudson too.

The car driving the former Band member turns onto a tree-lined, single-car-width lane, and soon, Hudson finds himself inside the Big Pink garage for the first time since 1968. “It’s way bigger than I thought,” he says with genuine surprise. He reminisces for a moment: “We’d be around cleaning up and doing whatever, and Bob would come in. Bob liked to sing the same song over and over.”

Hudson makes his way to an organ — the current owners, who bought the place in 1998, sometimes rent the space out for recording — and sits down at the bench. He looks like a frailer version of Father Christmas, hunched over the keyboard. But when he begins playing, his fingers move easily into a gentle version of “I Shall Be Released,” followed by a soulful “One Too Many Mornings,” and for the first time in who knows how long, the basement is alive with Dylan’s music.

When it’s time to leave, Hudson kneels on the driveway, scoops up a rock and puts it in his pocket.

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