Monday, 3 November 2014

The great, lost ‘60s’ album wasn’t “Smile” – it was Bob Dylan's "Bottle of Bread"

Today saw (yet another) release of highlights from The Basement Tapes, the recordings Dylan made with his old backing group, the Hawks, in Woodstock in 1967, when he'd dropped out of sight following a motorbike accident (at least, that was his story - his disappearance may simply have been the result of cumulative drug-induced frazzlement). I first heard some of the songs in, I think, 1969 when a friend who loved Dylan but didn't seem to enjoy or understand any other music bought the grand-daddy of all bootleg recordings, Great White Wonder. I wasn’t hugely impressed, but, then, it’s usually taken my ears a while to attune themselves to Bob Dylan’s stuff.

At that time, I’d only just got into Blonde on Blonde, from 1966, and had been immersed in Dylan’s late 1967 stripped-down countrified masterpiece John Wesley Harding (which was actually recorded after The Basement Tapes) for well over a year, as well as The Band’s glorious eponymous second album (they, of course, were The Hawks), and The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, plus a few (to my ears far superior) hit cover versions of some of the sloppily-performed and badly-recorded numbers on the Dylan bootleg (which, to be fair, were never meant to be released). It wasn’t until the first official release of The Basement Tapes in 1975 that I began to grasp the seismic effect those sessions had had on popular music.

I won’t be buying the new release (but you can, for a mere £16.99, here - or if you're an obsessive Dylanist, or mentally ill, you can buy the complete set for £126.93, here). I’ve listened to snippets of the songs on Amazon and I'm not sure the technical improvements would justify the outlay – or, indeed, that they'd ameliorate the lingering sense of annoyance that Dylan and The Band (for my money, the best American group of all time) didn’t follow up their protracted bucolic rehearsals with a properly-recorded album (well, as properly-recorded as Dylan generally managed back then) featuring the best numbers. The track listing of that great lost album pretty much picks itself:

You Ain’t Going Nowhere
This Wheel’s On Fire
Open the Door Homer
Million Dollar Bash
Lo and Behold
Quinn the Eskimo
Going to Acapulco
I’m Alright
Tears of Rage
Nothing Was Delivered
Yeah Heavy and a Bottle of Bread
Crash on the Levee
Please Mrs Henry
I Shall Be Released

I can just imagine that nestling between Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding. As for a title, I'd have gone with Bottle of Bread or Million Dollar Bash.

An old friend - a regular commenter on this blog (oh, the hell with it - ex-KCS) - recently remarked that he invariably preferred covers of Bob Dylan songs to the original versions (or something along those lines). Contrariwise, I almost invariably prefer Dylan doing his own stuff – but, for the reasons outlined above, I make an exception for covers of songs from The Basement Tapes. I’ll leave you with five of the very best:


  1. The shame. Outed by the blog that Britain's foremost thinkers, opinion formers and all round sensible types use as the basis for the views that tomorrow will be voiced in the House, postulated on BBC current affairs programmes that night and by the end of the week regarded as accepted global wisdom. Damn!

    Our mutual friend from 1969 also tried to convince me that the bootleg basement tapes - I think he had bought the album furtively from 'a head' in the embryonic Virgin shop up one flight of stairs above a groovy young woman's fashion store in Oxford Street - was a work of genius. As some one who has always been as much interested in the sound as the content, I found it painfully sloppy to listen to and said so. I think that's where, together with a love of the Byrds' harmonies and jangling Rickenbackers, I took the view that I would always look for the cover version by preference.

    There was another important point. If you gave an averagely bright chimpanzee a harmonica and 44 years to practice, you might reasonably expect some degree of increased proficiency at the instrument over that period. and yet Dylan actually seems to have disproved all accepted evolutionary theory, the Sheldrake morphic resonance principle and that uncertain belief that Grade 1 might with luck lead to grade 2 through practice, however untalented you are, by actually getting worse at every instrument he has ever played over the years.

    And another thing...

    1. I'm pretty sure you're right and that he got Great White Wonder from the Virgin Store (where the pleasure of listening to one whole side of an album on headphones was somewhat spoiled by invariably being squeezed up against two malodorous hairy wankers spastically shaking their barnets with their eyes squeezed shut (the same thing always seemed to happen at concerts). They're probably all in the House of Lords now.

      It always seemed a shame, when going electric, that Dylan himself took up the electric guitar. I remember one concert reviewer pointing out that, despite always being surrounded by brilliant electric guitarists, Dylan never seemed to have grasped what he was supposed to do with the instrument, instead flailing away at it pointlessly for decades on end.

  2. …if you have that much God-given talent, you sin against it if you throw it away. And that's what he did on the track listing you quote. Imagine if any degree of production discipline had gone into recording those songs properly. What an album! Too late, and it's not enough to say its low quality is because it was never intended for release. Good musicians will always try to play to the best of their ability.

    More to the point, there was a different drug in the air. I supported Dylan going electric but there was more electricity in the air when he sang with nothing more than an acoustic guitar and capo. The Band farewell concert film by Scorsese had to edit out frame by frame at least one set of nostrils with tell tale evidence of powder-based nasal intervention. And even before that, after a great first and a brilliant, all time classic second The Band ended up with the turgid Stagefright, where young engineer Todd Rundgren was chased round the studio by a furious Levon Helm for asking when they would actually start work on the album rather than get wasted all day. You can hear the decline.

    There were times when the great man got his muse back. Blood on the Tracks obviously. But since then what? For the last 15 years at least, Dylan has been playing on his audience's loyalty, leading a band of talented but bemused backing band artists like Tom Petty who want to play but barely know what the next song is going to be, let alone the next key, as Dylan redefines his back catalogue in different keys, tempos and degrees of low voiced curmudgeonliness.

    So yes. I won't be buying the Basement Tapes but I'll happily look out for cover versions, with a particular wish that a top band like the sadly missed Fulminators might show Mr Zimmerman what he needs to do to reactivate his muse.

    1. Wasn't it Neil Young whose nose allegedly ended up on the cutting-room floor?

      I know everyone else was disappointed by Stagefright - but I've always absolutely adored it.

      I've never actually been to a Dylan concert, but I imagine they must be deeply depressing affairs, with everyone in the audience watching their genius hero deliberately destroying his masterworks. Unfortunately, he seems to have been addicted to performing live - maybe it helped see him through long barren spells when his muse had evidently deserted him. I've got most of Dylan's LPs from the lean years, but it never occurs to listen to any of them, with the exception of... (see comment below)

  3. Hmm...where to start. After 'Blood' there were a few dogs...but even inside those poor efforts were some pearls in the cow-pat. Unplugged moved along nicely, and Time Out Of Mind, Love & Theft + Modern Times, frankly, stunned. One track to sum up his 'decline'? Try 'Red River Shore' from Tell Tale Signs. I would respectfully suggest that the reactivation of Dylan's muse is some way off yet.

    1. ...Love and Theft and Modern Times, hand on heart, are the only post 1973 Dylan album I listen to with genuine pleasure, perhaps because they're quite rockabilly-influenced and seem more musically playful than so much of his other later stuff: why, he almost sounds like he's enjoying making music rather than desperately scratching around searching for inspiration.

      To be honest, I was never a fan of Desire or Blood on the Tracks - I don't like his voice on them or the sound created by the musicians. I know this is an unfashionable view, and I've listened to both albums till I'm blue in the face trying to "get" them: there are a few good tracks (Romance in Durango, One More Cup of Coffee) - but I just don't like them.

  4. Wot, no Hendrix? All Along the Watchtower! Come on.....

    1. I've only included covers of Basement Tape songs, and only those I think are better than the original versions. Hendrix would make it onto my list of great Dylan covers, along with more Byrds tracks and some Joan Baez and Johnny Cash, but while some of them might be as good as the originals, I'm not sure any of them are actually better - whereas several of the Basement Tapes covers undoubtedly are.