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Thursday, November 06, 2014

I can't say that The Basement Tapes was ever a favorite of mine, although, sure, it's a pretty good album. I haven't gone out and bought my copy of The Basement Tapes Complete yet, but we all know I will. I won't buy the six CD set, because I'm not so crazy as to think that I'd ever sit down an listen to the whole damn thing, but I will buy the 2 CD edition, and I will spend a few Sunday afternoons listening to it. For me the idea of The Basement Tapes was always that whatever Dylan and the Band were laying down was supposed to be underground, and if I couldn't have it in the original, bootleg, Great White Wonder version then I was really not sure I wanted it at all.

Of course, you really need it all if you are to make heads or tails out of Greil Marcus's Invisible Republic, but actually I'm not so sure that I think Marcus has it right about Dylan in that very readable, very enjoyable book. Bob Dylan obviously lives in a very different world than we do-- he lives in a world where he's Bob Dylan, and only he can really know what that's like. Bob Dylan gets it, of course, and he's even willing to open the door a crack to let us see what that's like, but I do not agree that the world he is describing is some vision of "the weird, old America," not a bit. That world may inform him, but he lives and writes about being Bob Dylan right now, and I think that's one of the other ways we tend to misunderstand him. Bringing It All Back Home, or John Wesley Harding,  or Nashville Skyline,  or whatever-- those are sides that are about that Bob Dylan, back there, back then. The Bob Dylan in front of us is always a different cat. Hell, he even sounds different.

I've written before about how I fell off the Dylan train, and how I got back on, and the key artifact was The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1-3. The Complete Basmement Tapes is Volume 11 of this series, which has been a fascinating alternate way to listen to Dylan. As happens with a lot of music that we love, repetition has worn smooth a lot of the songs that we think of as "Bob Dylan songs", but he's written a ton of them, and an amazing number of them are great. In the Bootleg Series we get to hear Bob Dylan fresh, and it is startling to realize that he would still have been Bob Dylan even without "Hard Rain" or "Like A Rolling Stone", or "All Along the Watchtower". I'm not so sure that The Complete Basmement Tapes offer the same sort of insight. Certainly it fits into a different category: this was Dylan as collaborator, something he'd really not done to that point. (I except his attempts at singing with Joan Baez, as anyone would.) This is, I think, a worthy subject for study, but it seems to me that in considering Dylan as collaborator what we have to keep in mind is that when he has successfully collaborated as a member of a larger collective it is because he has managed to submerge himself in the project. The Traveling Wilburys works. Dylan and the Dead does not. It seems to me that The Basement Tapes is closer to the former than it is to the latter, and I'd even go further and say that The Basement Tapes is more of an album by The Band than it is a Dylan side. This is not an empty distinction: The Basement Tapes was  compiled and produced by Robbie Robertson, and the new set was produced by Steve Berkowitz. It is, I think, unquestionably more Dylan-centric than the original album, although I suppose that may mean that it is somewhat truer to The Great White Wonder-- a collection of demos. 

UPDATE: I love the headline on this review: The Basement Tapes Complete Gives You All The Bob Dylan You Can Stand

| Comments:
Bill Wyman has a review of the Basement Tapes Complete on vulture.com in which he argues strongly for the 6CD version.

That said, I have recently been favoring my turntable, and I'm not sure that they are issuing the 6CD version in vinyl, nor do I think I would ever sit down and listen to 16-18 album sides if they did.
 
Thanks for the tip. Ol' Bob has a tendency to drop something close to indispensable on the expanded versions of these sets: I damn near went for the Deluxe edition of Tell Tale Signs because I wanted attempt parsing why, out of three versions, he didn't include "Mississippi" on Oh, Mercy. I snapped out of it when I remembered that nobody pays me for writing about Bob Dylan. (Tell Tale Signs may be the Dylan stuff I listen to the most at the moment, but even now I don't feel the need for more of it. So yeah, I understand why someone might go for the six CD set in this instance: I don't need to hear their take on "Comin' Round the Mountain" but "Wild Wolf" makes it tempting.
 

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