Bob Dylan has always sealed his decisions with the unexplainable. His motives for withholding the release of the magnificent Basement Tapes will be as forever obscure as Brian Wilson‘s reasons for the destruction of the tapes for Smile. It’s hard to come to terms with the kind of genius who can create work of this calibre; but it’s nearly impossible to understand his refusal to share his triumph with an audience that truly cares.
Considered in that light, the decision to release the tapes (which were originally publishing demos) may be part of some sort of general good feeling that has seen Dylan opening up in an unprecedented fashion. In addition to his recent ramble around New York’s Greenwich Village, in the space of two years he’s also released four albums — Planet Waves, After the Flood, Blood on the Tracks and The Basement Tapes — as well as just concluded the recording of a new album at CBS studios in New York.
The release of The Basement Tapes revives questions concerning Dylan’s approach to the process of making records. His recording manner is more casual than that of any other rock musician. I’ve thought for some time his lack of interest in studio technique has seriously hindered his work. But this is as good a time as any to rethink that notion.
The modern recording studio, with its well-trained engineers, 24-track machines and shiny new recording consoles, encourages the artist to get involved with sound. And there have always been artists who could make the equipment serve their needs in a highly personal way — I would single out the Beatles, Phil Spector, the Beach Boys and Thom Bell.
Often, equipment can as easily function as a security blanket for musicians unwilling or unable to risk anything personal in the studio. Whether one catches the feeling on a record is a subjective matter. How can you be sure? The machinery can hold out the promise of at least mechanical perfection. Producer and musician alike can lull themselves into a mindset that aims for measurable accuracy instead of unmeasurable emotion.
Dylan’s greatest fear in the studio appears to be falling into the mechanical trap. In a recent interview, Rob Fraboni, who was the engineer for Planet Waves and has worked on other Dylan records, gives an amazing description of the lengths to which Dylan has gone to preserve the emotional integrity of his albums. Fraboni got the assignment in part because he can work quickly. Unlike most other musicians, Dylan avoids sound checks (which can run on for hours with musicians who can afford the time and money), presumably because they’re just another process that dilutes the freshness of a recording session. He doesn’t do run-throughs and only attempts two or three takes of most songs. Hence, the engineer has virtually no time to work on the sound. To compound the unusualness of the sessions, Robbie Robertson informed Fraboni that there would be either a minimum or no use of equalizers, limiting and tape editing — three techniques that are commonplace on contemporary rock records.
Eight of Planet Waves’ songs were recorded in three days. And individual songs were mixed in as little as half an hour, which is also unheard of for musicians of Dylan’s stature. The height of Dylan’s commitment to the emotional feeling of his music came in the recording of “Wedding Song.” There is a continuous noise evident on that record that sounds like the buttons of Dylan’s jacket banging against his guitar. Fraboni explains that that was indeed what the noise was. He assumed Dylan would want to retake the song. There is no other musician around who wouldn’t. But not only would Dylan not retake the song, he was uninterested in applying any of the mixing techniques Fraboni was familiar with in order to reduce the interference.
At his just concluded New York sessions, Dylan apparently functioned in the same way. Observers indicate that he spent little time bothering with tuning and mainly retook a song if, and only if, he wasn’t satisfied with his singing or phrasing.
None of this comes as a surprise. Dylan’s records sound like they’re made this way. The question that continues to intrigue me is whether this is a truly constructive approach to recording. In the past it has worked during individual moments, like “Buckets of Rain,” with its out-of-tune guitars and beautiful feeling, and failed more often, as on “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” which has the studio band mindlessly speeding up the tempo after each verse.
But The Basement Tapes is the album that transcends these concerns. It was made under amateur conditions, using a mere three microphones (about half as many as some engineers use to record just drums). But it stands up today not only in rock but in all of American music. Perhaps it’s the rare presence of the Band, who haven’t yet received sufficient credit, that makes the difference. Robbie Robertson is one who has traditionally fallen into the category of the musician who uses the studio instead of letting it use him.
More likely, it’s just that this album (that was never treated, planned or recorded as an album) did what Dylan wanted all his records to do better than the rest — to capture, not manufacture or shape the reality of where he was at a particular moment. In pop music, he is the last champion of the studio as passive instrument.
And on The Basement Tapes there was more for that instrument to record. So that when we listen to “This Wheel’s on Fire” it suddenly becomes apparent that if you subtract the tape hiss and the distant quality of some of the recording, the record itself sounds great. You can hear every instrument and, more importantly, you can hear what they are playing. And what they are playing and what Dylan is singing is a song of such power that it erases all residual doubts and subsidiary issues.
The Basement Tapes is, at the moment, the only Dylan music that can do that to me. Because in order to do it, the music has to be of such fantastic quality that it transcends all the normal standards that other people’s music is heard against. In retrospect it may truly turn out that The Basement Tapes is one of the two or three times that Dylan had at his disposal all the elements he needed — the songs, music, singing, style, energy and musical collaborators for support and inspiration — to paint his masterpiece.
This story is from the September 25th, 1975 issue of Rolling Stone.