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.
Tiny Montgomery: The lyric strategy here is rather diffuse, about telling everybody in “old Frisco” that “Tiny Montgomery says ‘Hello’.” “Everybody” is a collection of rather moderate freaks and non-descripts, and one can’t help thinking that Dylan is taking cognizance of some of the more publicized aspects of San Francisco. The organ in this song does several hard-to-hear electronic bits and the vocal is backed a continual high-pitched chorus.
This Wheel’s On Fire: A little Del Shannon piano in the beginning tips off the most dramatic and moving vocal by Dylan in this collection. The drums become clear for the first time on this song. It is a great number, possibly the very best by this group.
“This wheel’s on fire/Rolling down the road;/ Just notify my next of kin/This wheel shall explode.”
The song is a very passionate love story (“You know we shall meet again/If your memory serves you well”) about a woman who must inevitably return bound by a fate, to the man she has neglected but who has done everything he possibly can for her.
The style here is close to J. W. Harding, the aching and yearning is soul wrenchingly intense.
Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere: “Get your mind off wintertime.” This song like many of the others and much of John Wesley Harding could be characterized as part of Dylan’s continuing advice to calm down, smile on your brother, let’s get together . . .
I Shall Be Released: Curiously enough the music in this song and the high pleading sound of Dylan’s voice reminds one of the Bee Gees. It is one of the few songs on the tape with an instrumental break. “They say every man needs protection/They say every man must fall/ Yet I swear I see my reflection/Someplace so high above this wall.”
Tears of Rage: This is a very sad and a very confusing song. I’m sure you will understand it when it is recorded and released by some artist. “Why must I always be the one.”
Quinn the Eskimo is familiar to most in the version by Manfred Mann. Dylan does the song slower, does use flutes, but doesn’t make the great differentiation between the verse and the chorus. “Mighty Quinn” is the most obvious of these songs to give a full-blown rock and roll treatment.
Open the Door Richard: “Take care of all of your memories/For you can not relive them;/And re-remember when you’re out there/You must always first forgive them.” This is a light, swinging song.
Nothing Is There: If this doesn’t prove Dylan’s sense of humor, little will. This sounds like 1956 vintage rock and roll; the piano triplets (Dylan himself playing, I’m sure) are a direct cop from Fats Domino‘s “Blueberry Hill.” Dylan is one of the few rock and roll artists who uses both a piano and an organ.
The last song gives interesting insight into the nature of this unreleased Dylan material. Even though he used one of the finest rock and roll bands ever assembled on the Highway 61 album, here he works with his own band, for the first time. Dylan brings that instinctual feel for rock and roll to his voice for the first time. If this were ever to be released, it would be a classic.