Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Basement Tapes:
Bob Dylan Goes Public

It might be said that over the past few weeks Bob Dylan has gone public. He has shown up to see Paul Smith and Muddy Waters and Ramblin' Jack Elliott; he has sat in at the Other End; he has hung out. One night around three in the morning, after Bobby Neuwirth's club set, Dylan sat and performed new material for over an hour at the Other End bar--a song about Joey Gallo, a song about marrying Isis--and except for Muddy Waters all of the aforementioned musicians were part of an audience that included more than one journalist and several hundred gawkers. Also present was that old Dylan imitator, Ian Hunter, who was having his head blown off--not only had Dylan identified him as a member of Mott the Hoople (which he's not any more, as if Hunter could care) but he'd known all the tracks on Hunter's (or was it Mott's) first album. Unbelievable.

This is news. For almost a decade, Dylan's need to armor himself against the attentions of his admirers has played a large part in the way we think about him--even though sightings have been common sine early 1968, it has been the alarming 18-month period of complete seclusion just before then that's stuck in our minds. Of course, all that began to change subtly after his 1974 tour with the Band. If it's going too far to say that Dylan has been demythified, then at least what remained of his divinity has dissipated, with all his party scenes and benefits and rumors reduced to the goings-on of a Major Rock Star who can almost keep his co-stars' groups straight. But since for his acolytes from the folk days these hootenanny visitations seem to portend a New Eden, old friends singing songs of innocence and experience together once again, it is well to remind ourselves that the beginnings of the change were quite unelevated--commonplace almost by definition, sine they served to reintroduce Dylan to the commonalty.

The process began with the tour itself, a Major Rock Event of a familiar kind, and was accelerated by reports of breaches in that magical domestic fortress that had long separated Dylan from ordinary mortals. But it has also involved a fact that is arguably as much economic as it is artistic: a sudden profusion of recorded material following three years of near-drought, years that yielded a total of eight new tracks, a movie score, and a corporate rip-off. In contrast, the past 18 months have brought forth five discs (not counting two halves by the Band)--four albums, two of them doubles: Planet Waves, Before the Flood, Blood on the Tracks, and the newly released Basement Tapes.

The critical front-runner among these albums is clearly Blood on the Tracks. I myself called it Dylan's best since John Wesley Harding when it came out in January--and then didn't play it three times before I began to write this piece. Listening now, I am stirred once again by the tact and persistent musicality of "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts" and by the dovetailing delicacy of "Tangled Up in Blue" (lost love recalled) and "Buckets of Rain" (love's loss foreseen)--stirred, in fact, by the sheer craft of the whole endeavor. Dylan has never been a confessional writer, but this control of aesthetic distance on Blood on the Tracks is a small coup: "Tangled Up in Blue," which cannot describe the facts of his life, and "You're a Big Girl Now," which can, are both enlivened by the same seemingly autobiographical intimacy, but both are without question comely objects first and foremost.

That's the critic in me talking, of course, the same fellow who's always making deadline judgments before the listener in me has a chance to live with the music. The listener admires Blood on the Tracks, likes it a lot, but he thinks: it's meaningless to call it Dylan's best album since John Wesley Harding when he never feels like putting it on. To the listener, Blood on the Tracks sounds suspiciously like product, and when it comes to product he happens to prefer Steely Dan to Dylan just as he prefers Hydrox to Oreos or Lorna Doones.

Not that Dylan is capable of putting out product in the manner of a Major Rock Professional. He has always resisted that. It has been his practice to just go into the studio and cut, so that a lot of what gets onto the LP you buy in the store is first and second takes. Chuck Berry and the early Beatles were recorded this way, but over the past decade it has become customary (if not compulsory) to put more quality control into the manufacture of rock and roll, and Blood on the Tracks sounds as if it consents to what is best about such standards. It has pace, flow, variety; it tolerates few if any gaffes; it is well made. This is partly because Dylan decided to re-record some of the original Eric Weissberg sessions with other musicians in Minneapolis, which enabled him to combine two different musical moods on the same disc. Much more telling, though, is the way the record shifts vocally, from a mock-callow whine to variants on the rounder and juicier rock and roll voice of New Morning and Greatest Hits Volume II.

Dylan's alacrity in the studio hardly commits him to spontaneity, especially to spontaneity as it is commonly understood--the free play of the undefended self and so forth. On the contrary, Dylan is always guarded--he knows almost exactly what will happen when he records. Each release is intended to objectify a preordained concept that is both quickened and preserved for posterity by his instant studio technique. Particularly since Blonde on Blonde, the vehicle of each concept has been a voice that in some way exemplifies it, the most extreme example being the high lonesome tenor of Nashville Skyline. This is to say that Dylan has continually and deliberately remodeled his singing voice, with a dual purpose: to project himself into the world and to armor himself against it. For him to relax this control on Blood on the Tracks is yet another kind of going public. But it also relinquishes the obsessiveness that makes eccentric records like Planet Waves and Before the Flood so compelling for me.

Unlike many people I admire, I've never played my Dylan records repeatedly or even regularly. Their conceptual strictness has discouraged both easy listening--even Nashville Skyline, for all its calculated pleasantness, never fit smoothly into my days--and full personal identification. And so the listener in me subconsciously vetoes the critic; there are times when I crave a specific Dylan record with a fervor of the will no other artist can arouse in me, and I value him immensely for that, but only rarely can he just be part of a stack. Lacking the totally committed professionalism of meaningful/listenable masterpieces like Layla and Exile on Main Street, Blood on the Tracks fails to achieve what I suspect was intended for it--a place in the stack with just such records, all of which it melts or freezes just because it is so distinctively Dylan. I could make up reasons explaining why it's as precise conceptually as anything he's done--the many voices of love, something like that--and there's no way it won't rank high in my year-end top 10. But it's a half-measure.

The Basement Tapes, on the other hand, is no kind of measure at all, and that is its secret. These are the famous lost songs recorded with the Band at Big Pink in 1967 and later bootlegged on The Great White Wonder and elsewhere. Of the 18 Dylan compositions included, 12 have by now been heard in legitimate commercial versions by other artists, and another, "Down in the Flood," was recut by Dylan himself for Greatest Hits Volume II; one of the remaining five, "Going to Acapulco," has never ever been bootlegged, and neither have any of the six Band songs, which I would adjudge to be among their very best work. Sound quality has been greatly improved. Greil Marcus, who wrote the notes, tells me he hears instruments that are entirely inaudible on his second-generation tape. All of which begins to sketch in the complicated recording history of work that was never meant to be reproduced at all.

Well, not quite. The Band songs are relatively polished; it is said that the scaricomic "Yazoo Street Scandal" was presented as a demo to Clive Davis, who rejected it. But the Dylan songs are work tapes at best, first stabs at arrangements barely roughed out, preliminary even by Dylan's abrupt standards. The main reason they were taped was so that they could be transcribed and copyrighted by Albert Grossman's office. They weren't ever supposed to go out to other artists, much less be circulated among the faithful as proof that the avatar was alive and creative in Woodstock. So the music is certifiably unpremeditated, a candid shot from a hero who has turned to his friends and coworkers after coming too close to death to enjoy the arrogance of power any longer. The concepts that are to arise from this interaction among equals will eventually take form as the dry, contained John Wesley Harding and the supercharged, eccentric Music From Big Pink; at this juncture, however, artist and group have arrived at a more moderate synthesis, merely simple and quirkish, and couldn't care less whether they're only passing through. No organizing principle keeps the music in line.

The basement tapes were the original laid-back rock, early investigations of a mode that would eventually come to pervade the whole music. Not that they suggested any of the complacent slickness now associated with the term--just that they were lazy as a river and rarely relentless or precise. In 1967, this was impermissible. Even the Grateful Dead, who were also trying to meld individualistic musicians into a rocking flow while rummaging through the American mythos with an antirealistic aesthetic, were so fixated on the triumph of Sgt. Pepper that they forsook the sweet relaxation of their debut album for Anthem of the Sun, a technologically brilliant failure. An inspired artificiality was the rule. I suspect that both Dylan and the Band were afraid, if not consciously then instinctively, that their concepts had to be strong and pure if they were to survive this heady competition. So instead of nurturing the basement music, they transformed simple into dry and contained and quirkish into supercharged and eccentric. And maybe they did right. Remember that the bootlegs didn't show up until 1969; I wonder how they would have been received in late 1967.

But I wonder primarily for purposes of argument. I find this music irresistible, and I can't believe that any slicking up to which Dylan and his boys might have succumbed would have harmed it. Like a drunk falling out of a first-story window, it's just too loose to break much. Over the years it's been the more writerly "serious" songs that people have talked about--not only "I Shall Be Released" (omitted here), but "Tears of Rage," "This Wheel's on Fire," "Too Much of Nothing," "Nothing Was Delivered"--and to this group can now be added "Going to Acapulco," which I would describe (roughly) as the lament of the singer-songwriter as gigolo, so mournful about "going to have some fun" that he anticipates the watchtower: "Now when someone offers me a joke I just say no thanks/I try to tell it like it is and keep away from pranks."

Like the others, this is a richly suggestive piece of work, and like the others--especially "Tears of Rage"--it's all the richer for being surrounded by pranks. The many nonsense songs here are unequalled in Dylan's work; even Greil Marcus's comparisons to the likes of "Froggy Went A-Courtin'" falls a little short. Could Pecos Bill boast: "I can drink like a fish/I can crawl like a snake/I can bite like a turkey/I can slam like a drake"? Could Carl Perkins tell Sam Phillips: "Gonna save my money and rip it up!"? What are we to make of Turtle, "With his checks all forged/And his cheeks in a chunk"? And why don't you get that apple off your fly?

These songs are too contemporary to be subject to pop notices of timeliness. Just as "Going to Acapulco" is a dirge about having fun, so "Don't Ya Tell Henry" is a ditty about separation from self, and when the complementary irony of these two modes combines with the Band's more conventional ("realistic") approach to lyrics, the mix that results can be counted on to make as much sense in 1963 as it did in 1967.; The power of melody-lyric-performance transcends petty details of sound levels (which vary enough to shock any well-respected studio technician) and shifting vocal styles. We don't have to bow our heads in shame because this is the best album of 1975. It would have been the best album of 1967, too. The music is so free I bet it can even be stacked, but I've been playing it too repeatedly to find out.

What is most lovable about the album, though, is simply the way it unites public and private, revealing a Dylan armed in the mystery of his songs but divested of the mystique of celebrity with which we has surrounded his recording career for almost a decade. It would be impossible to plan such exposure, and however much the album's release has to do with generous royalties from CBS or the supposed sagging of the Band, it 's nice to know that he feels secure enough to do it. There he is, folks. When he giggled at the beginning of "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" he was just being coy; the mishap ceased to be a mishap once it was pressed and released. But when he almost breaks out laughing in the middle of "Please, Mrs. Henry," he's really there.

The night after Dylan's impromptu bar concert, I checked out the Other End, not so much for the listener in me as for the critic/journalist, who didn't expect Dylan to show and would have felt like an asshole to miss him. What all of us got instead was some good music--Jack Elliott and Mick Ronson backing Patti Smith on "Angel Baby" qualifies as a blessed event--and much okay music and Bobby Neuwirth scratching his own back. I found the vibes insular and self-satisfied. But Dylan is reported to be happy to be back on the street again, and if it makes him happy then I'm happy too. Good music happens there.

When I talk about Dylan going public, though, that won't be what I mean. I'll be talking about The Basement Tapes, the singer-songwriter exposed in front of hundreds of thousands--I hope millions--of listeners. What a friendly thing to do.

Village Voice, Aug. 4, 1975