In 1966, following an astonishing creative burst that found him transitioning from protest folk to electric rock, Bob Dylan suffered a motorcycle accident of debatable severity, and holed up with his family in Woodstock. The singer was fresh off a punishing tour in which he was backed by the players who would later be known as the Band, their strident performances seemingly made of fire. For their efforts on stages the world over, they were met with the boos and catcalls of philistines masquerading as folk purists.
The next year, Dylan summoned his players to Woodstock, where he had been licking his wounds surrounded by a growing flock of wee Dylans. As the seasons changed, the musicians hung around their homes recording reel upon reel of songs, at times accompanied by a dog — on evidence, the only audience who would not boo them.
Although not intended for public consumption, some of the recordings trickled out by decade’s end. In Rolling Stone, Jann Wenner called for their release as if demanding the freeing of a hostage. “The Basement Tapes,” as they came to be known, became the first rock bootleg: a notion that by now seems quaint. (Millennials may recognize an equivalent in the leaked sex tapes of celebrities — thankfully, none featuring Bob Dylan.)
In 1975, Dylan and the Band issued a fraction of the recordings as a proper album, but the majority remained vaulted. Now, nearly a half century after its creation, the full set gets a public unveiling in “The Bootleg Series, Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete,” a six-CD, 138-track collection. For the less fanatical — call it Reform Dylanism — there’s also a two-CD version.
The 1975 release presented its selections with occasional overdubs, and included songs of the Band sans Dylan. But the new collection drops its mother lode without such frills. Here is the songwriter steering the Band — the Roots of the rock ’n’ roll era — through an avalanche of newly written and often still-gestating songs, alongside a smattering of works that inspired them.
Oldies in the set include country and blues classics, rural music of unknown origin, gospel pop, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash hits, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and children’s standards — in other words, American folk music. Hour upon hour, the set plays as a private rejoinder to the nudniks who had heckled the singer for supposedly abandoning of folk.
Dylan cut stronger records, before and since. But the “Basement Tapes” sessions have always held an eavesdropper’s allure; even now, to hear them is to feel privy to a secret. Dylan is a hungrier, shrewder showbiz figure than many realize; Joan Rivers herself surfaces 11 pages into his autobiography. “The Basement Tapes” find him unguarded, freed of the urge to appease or irk any particular clique. The recordings present the exact image one desires of an entertainer in his downtime, mining his craft for the hell of it.
As songwriters’ demos, the stated intent of the sessions, the recordings might appear the work of lunatics. Employing the Band’s organ coils and Dylan’s abstruse poetics to hawk potential pop hits is akin to selling Miró sketches as architecture plans. Yet the open-ended nature of both the performances and songs immediately led to untold covers: Manfred Mann topped the British charts with “The Mighty Quinn”; the Byrds bookended their country-rock classic “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” with “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and “Nothing Was Delivered”; and both the Beatles and Elvis took aborted stabs at “I Shall Be Released.”
Likewise, even more so than other Dylan records, “The Basement Tapes” have proved catnip to obsessives, scholars, and that guy who used to comb through the singer’s garbage. These songs provide a blank slate on which to scratch one’s favored lore. The grandest treatise, Greil Marcus’s beautiful, baffling “Invisible Republic,” employs “The Basement Tapes” as a springboard to explore any number of American myths; others have invoked “King Lear.”
Listening to this full set, however, the overwhelming takeaway is its domesticity. Ultimately, Dylan was pushed into the woods by neither poor motorcycling nor ill-mannered folkies; he was there for his wife and kids. At the height of his fame and the fabled Summer of Love, he became the first major rock star to make such a retreat into family. Freed of the 1975 set’s overdubs, these recordings are surprisingly tender; it would not be surprising to learn that they were arranged around a baby’s napping schedule. One could easily carve from the sessions a sweet, if mildly bawdy, kid’s record.
Because of his age and aura, Dylan has always been rock ’n’ roll’s upperclassman, the dude who wrote poetry and introduced the Beatles to marijuana. “The Basement Tapes,” especially, have been credited with a number of firsts, helping to popularize bootlegs, home-recording, and alt-country. The singer’s relocation to Woodstock also predated the current round of arty-New-Yorkers-moving-upstate trend pieces — whether Dylan bided his time making artisanal pickles remains unknown.
But there’s another thread that arguably started here before winding its way through the rock canon, most conspicuously on John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Double Fantasy.” In 1967, the wild-haired firebrand of yore had been supplanted by a weary young man with the appearance of a vaguely hip graduate student, watching over his kids while working out songs with friends in the basement. Behold: Bob Dylan’s “The Basement Tapes,” the birth of Dad Rock.
Jay Ruttenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.