Two months before he went to Nashville to record John Wesley Harding, Bob Dylan spent some time in the basement of his upstate New York home. There he made a rough but very listenable tape with thirteen songs.
There is enough material — most all of it very good — to make an entirely new Bob Dylan record, a record with a distinct style of its own. Although it is highly unlikely that Dylan would want to go into the studio to record material that is now seven or eight months old, nonetheless these tapes could easily be remastered and made into a record. The concept of a cohesive record is already present.
Whatever the original intention of the session, what happened was that Dylan and his band made a demo, a collection of songs vaguely arranged and fitted to instrumentals, for other artists to audition to see if they would like to record any of the material. One of the songs on the tape — “Quinn the Eskimo” or “The Mighty Quinn” — reached the top position on radio surveys in a version by the English group Manfred Mann. Another of them, and one of the best —”This Wheel’s On Fire” — has just been released in England in a version by British vocalist Julie Driscoll and organist Brian Auger. Their version is supposed to be quite good and will probably be released shortly in the United States.
The group backing Dylan on this tape is called the Crackers. Formerly they were the Hawks. The band, which lives with Dylan at his home, consists of Levon Helm on drums, Rick Danko on bass and Robbie Robertson on guitar. They accompanied him at Carnegie Hall for the recent Woody Guthrie Memorial program. Robbie Robertson has been working with Dylan for the past three years.
The instrumentation is closest to Blonde on Blonde, including an organ, an electric bass, drums and two guitars, accoustic and electric. The singing is more closely related to John Wesley Harding, however. The style is typically Dylan: humorous, rock-and-rolly with repetitious patterns. One of the things peculiar to this tape is that Dylan is working with a group; there is more interaction between him and the instrumentalists than can be seen in any of his other efforts, plus there is vocal backup in the choruses from his band.
The quality of the recording is fairly poor, it was a one-track, one-take job with all the instruments recorded together. The highs and lows are missing, but Dylan’s voice is clear and beautiful. Additionally the tape has probably gone through several dozen dubs, each one losing a little more quality.
Here is a summary of some of the songs:
Million Dollar Bash: In the background of all Dylan’s material is the style of rock and roll, and in this song is the sing-songy tune and the “ooo-baby, ooohh-weee, ooo-baby oooh-weee” chorus. The song is just a funny one, about people who run around like chickens with their heads cut off (“I get up in the morning, but it’s too early to wake”) trying to get someplace or other, including a good party, like the Million Dollar Bash where everybody ends up anyway.
Yea Heavy and a Bottle of Bread: This will probably not be recorded by anyone, because it isn’t terribly good. The imagery is Highway 61, the melody non-existent. (“The comic book and me caught the bus, then the chauffer she was back in bed.”)
Please Mrs. Henry starts out like a Johnny Cash song, a tale about a poor cat without a dime and with too much to drink. (“I’m a sweet bourbon daddy and tonight I am blue.”) It is indicative of where Dylan was headed because it’s about a man who’s hit some hard times and needs a little help. The song is a sort of swaying “Rainy Day Women” number, but without all the laughing and hoopla.
Down In The Flood: Flatt & Scruggs did this song. In Dylan’s version the organist makes a lot of dancing figures around Dylan’s vocal. It has the potential of being a great swinging rock and roll song, capable of sustaining a lot of tension between the rhythm and the vocal. The potential for a rock and roll treatment is not at all coincidental, as the theme is very much reminiscent of “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Positively Fourth Street,” in that the subject is about a chick (“Mama”) who let the singer down and will have to “find another best friend now.” The statement and drama is not as harsh as those previous songs, in fact much milder in style, words and situation, but it is the familiar set-up.