Review #335: The Basement Tapes, Bob Dylan & The Band

Karla Clifton
3 min readDec 5, 2022

#335: The Basement Tapes, Bob Dylan & The Band

Or, Music From Big Pink: The Sequel. Most of this was recorded in the same house near Woodstock, NY. And fun fact, it wasn’t supposed to be released! Dylan freaking gave “Nothing Was Delivered” away to the Byrds first, after lifting the melody from Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill.” Bootleggers essentially bullied them into it, which must have been annoying. (Dylan himself has some fascinating, ever-evolving opinions on bootleggers.)

But anyway, it’s a bit ironic that my favorite Bob Dylan album is technically one he released begrudgingly. I think that much like Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night, this is a record that feels really private. I love the quote from Dylan to Jann Wenner, “That’s really the way to do a recording … in somebody’s basement. With the windows open … and a dog lying on the floor.” Man, I wish it wasn’t December so I could write with my windows open.

This record, performed with the nascent Band, has a big mix of everything. You have down-to-earth character studies (“Bessie Smith,” “Ruben Remus,” “Too Much of Nothing”) and busy landscapes (“Yazoo Street Scandal,” “Clothes Line Saga”). My favorite line on the record comes from the last of these, actually: Have you heard the news? he said with a grin/ The Vice President’s gone mad … Well, there’s nothing we can do about it. If that don’t sum it all up.

Then you have Dylanesque nonsense: “Lo and Behold!” seems to be about delusions of grandeur, and “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” about rural malaise, but it’s hard to tell, what with all the metaphors about moose and Pittsburgh and whatnot. “Yea! Heavy And A Bottle of Bread” is about … beer, maybe? And I won’t even guess at what must be the disgusting subject of “Tiny Montgomery.” At the same time, mood, right?

There’s the forward-thinking war elegy “Tears of Rage,” which is nice but not my favorite of Bob’s social commentary. I much prefer “This Wheel’s On Fire,” which seems to blame humanity for the eventual undoing of space-time. Again: mood.

Dylan’s warbly voice works for me more than it doesn’t here. I think he sounds more violent than usual, if that makes sense — in “Odds and Ends,” he shakes his fist at someone who breaks their promise all over the place, and then he punches himself in the face on “Million Dollar Bash.” (Stop hitting yourself, Bob! Stop hitting yourself!) And on dirge “Goin’ to Acapulco,” he sounds doubled over in pain from sadness.

RS calls the songs “deeply weird.” I think that’s a bit dramatic. In fact, I thought a lot of this was quintessential Band. Richard Manuel’s voice was consistently more in-tune than Dylan, particularly on jammy “Orange Juice Blues” and folky “Katie’s Been Gone.” Meanwhile, my favorite Band member, Levon Helm, sings like a dog rabid with the blues on “Don’t Ya Tell Henry.”

What I like most is that Dylan and the Band sound like they are just having a nice time together. My favorites are the ones that are a little dirty, like “Apple Suckling Tree” (which was apparently recorded in just two takes) and “Please, Mrs. Henry” (a drunken pass at a landlady). Dylan cracks himself up the way you only can when you’re surrounded by friends. So glad they were bullied into sharing it with the world!

Covers & Vice-Versa:

(Note: Some of the above are covers, too! Covers abound, as was the style at the time.)

“Ain’t No More Cane” is a traditional prison song, linked to hard labor camps in Texas. (Fun fact, it’s sometimes mistakenly attributed to Lead Belly, even though there’s literally no recordings of him performing this song.)

“Open the Door, Homer” interpolates Count Basie’s “Open the Door, Richard.” But they didn’t change the chorus, only the name. Guess there can only be one Richard.

“Long Distance Operator” is a riff on Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee.”

“Crash on the Levee” is actually not a cover (Haha, I’m a liar!) but it is kind of a response to “When the Levee Breaks” by Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe. (Later recorded by You-Know-Who.) Again, not a cover, but a fun connection!

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