On Sunday afternoon I was writing a post about the Great White Wonder when I got an email from my friendly bootlegger about a new release of the the Basement Tapes called The Safety Master. Listening to this new version made me skip forward in my series on bootlegs to write immediately about the Basement Tapes.
In the history of bootlegs, there is no more important music than these songs that were recorded in 1967 by Bob Dylan and The Band in Woodstock, NY. The timing was perfect. Dylan was hiding out in Woodstock after the 66 World Tour and his motorcycle accident. The Band was getting ready to record their classic Music From Big Pink. In the meantime, there were songs being written and music being played that would have a major influence on the music world for years to come.
The existence of this tape was first revealed in a front page article in the June 22, 1968 issue of Rolling Stone. Written by editor Jann Wenner, the headline reported: "Dylan's Basement Tape Should Be Released." My first exposure came in early 1969 when seven of the songs were on the tape that I describe in my post from March 16th. Later, five of the same songs plus I Shall Be Released and Open the Door Homer were included on the Great White Wonder, which was the record that began the bootleg era when it was released in 1969.
Over the last 40 years, I have listened to these songs a million times. I have owned them on cassette tapes, on the very underwhelming official Robbie Robertson/Columbia Records 1975 version, and more recently on the excellent three disk CD A Tree With Roots. You might wonder why I need another copy of the same songs. After some very close listening, I can say that this new CD is a real improvement in fidelity and worth picking up.
It is hard to accurately describe the power and influence of these songs which were recorded over 40 years ago. I will not try to write about the global musical significance of these songs. Greil Marcus has done that in his excellent book Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes. Another book by Sid Griffin called Million Dollar Bash recreates the history of the sessions and the songs in great detail. I will leave most of the commentary to the experts.
All I can add is that these sessions were recorded under the best possible creative circumstances. Completely removed from the pressure of the studio or the influence of music industry executives, Dylan and The Band, who were at the peak of their creativity, recorded a body of work that shines today. These songs are among my favorites of the entire Dylan song book. Tears of Rage, I Shall Be Released and This Wheel's On Fire are beautiful songs and these early recordings are the definitive versions.
If I were trapped on that proverbial desert island with one CD, it would be the Basement Tapes. My apologies to Merle, Hank, REK, and Chris, but this is the one I would never get tired of. Here are two of my favorite tracks:
I SHALL BE RELEASED
THIS WHEEL'S ON FIRE
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