The Basement Tapes Complete is by turns silly and funny, poignant and profound, rough round the edges and sharp at its centre. It is spare and stripped, and it is complex and complicated. It is the stuff of dreams and the makings of myth.
Of course, there is little here that we did not have before. Sitting with me is Great White Wonder and Troubled Troubador on vinyl, the too- polished 1975 double album on vinyl and CD, plus the 5CD The Genuine Basement Tapes which has 103 of the 138 (actually 140 – there are two hidden ones at the end of Disc 6) tracks featured on this latest official release, including the seminal I’m Not There, which prompted Kazuo Ishiguro to suggest that it should have been included in Lost, Stolen or Shredded, Rick Gekoski’s fascinating account of missing works of art.
Well, it is no longer missing. (Not that it ever was in this household!) And nor is this authentic record of Bob making music with four Canadians in the basement of Big Pink.
What strikes me, listening to them all again (and again and again) is how out of time they are. The year before we had marvelled at Bob’s electric music and the thrill of those 1966 shows still resound in my mind.
But in 1967? What were we listening to in 1967?
Despite – or perhaps because of – the banning of pirate radio, we were smoking to the Velvet Underground and Nico, rocking and rolling to the Stones, analysing Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But mostly, we were trippin’ out to the Dead and the Airplane. This was the psychedelic era: the Dead had already written Dark Star; the Airplane had released Surrealistic Pillow and After Bathing at Baxter’s; Hendrix was asking Are You Experienced?; the Electric Prunes went Underground; Syd and Pink Floyd debuted with The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.
So where was Bob while all this was going on? He was singing I’m Not There. Instead, he was holed up in Saugerties and bringing it all back home for those privileged to hear the original acetates. With the Band, he was moving effortlessly and spontaneously between genres, drawing on almost everything except psychedelia.
On these six CDs, you will hear folk, blues, nursery rhymes, Americana, surrealist improvisations. But nothing trippy, nothing spacy, nothing that reflected the zeitgeist. Or what we thought was the zeitgeist at the time.
As so often, Bob was right and he went on to demonstrate it in concrete form with John Wesley Harding later that year.
In Spring 1967 he re-invented music. We just didn’t know it. Listen to it all. Listen especially to Bourbon Street. “Ah! Play it pretty now, boys” he exhorts the Band. And Rick Danko responds with a melancholy trombone that would make Kid Ory cry.
Looking back (which he told us not to), I wish we had been aware of these songs and these recordings at the time.
They just might have changed my life.