A few years back I was listening to music from a fairly well-known metal band. I choose not to mention their name but rest assured they have enjoyed international success. While listening through my ear buds a friend asked what music was playing. I just took off one of the buds and allowed him to hear. After a few minutes of listening he handed me back the ear bud and said, “It sounds like something someone recorded in their basement.” Of course, that statement was derogatory in nature, but without taking offense, I found it interesting. If anyone does not appreciate music from a particular artist or genre, they might be inclined to respond negatively. It is human nature. Even as a music blogger with a wide appreciation of many musical styles, I have, albeit not in print, echoed an unkind opinion of certain music at times.
Nevertheless, upon further thought much music has been created and even recorded in places other than a music studio. I know of some fantastic live recordings at concerts as an example. In this day and age much pre-production for major artists is done in homes of musicians and producers. Therefore, the statement about music being recorded in the basement, may accurately describe much of the music in all of our MP3 libraries. Today, I chose to feature music created almost fifty years ago – you guessed it, in basements. I am speaking of the extremely popular Basement Tapes of legendary musical artist Bob Dylan.
Bob Dylan, born Robert Allen Zimmerman, May 24, 1941 is an American singer-songwriter, artist and writer. He has been influential in popular music and culture for more than five decades. Calling him iconic is an understatement. Bob Dylan music is still covered by artists the world over. Just a few years ago a young man I was mentoring found Bob Dylan’s music and immediately fell in love with it. I was pleasantly surprised to hear him speak of Bob Dylan as if Dylan just started out in the music business. I really love when very young people discover historical music and musicians. Well, it’s hard to speak of Bob Dylan as historical with the music he created correctly described as “timeless“.
On November 4, 2014, Columbia/Legacy issued The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete, an official 6-CD box set containing 139 tracks which include all Dylan’s basement recordings, including 30 never-bootlegged tracks. A companion 2-CD set containing highlights from the recordings, The Basement Tapes Raw, was also released. Why there is so much discussion about music recorded in a basement almost a half-century ago? In fact, most of the music was released before 1975. Perhaps a look back at when the music was created would help us appreciate the value more.
On July 29, 1966, Dylan crashed his Triumph motorcycle near his home in Woodstock, New York, suffering cracked vertebrae and a mild concussion. The concerts he was scheduled to do had to be canceled. In a 1969 Rolling Stone interview with Jann Wenner, Dylan said, “I had a dreadful motorcycle accident which put me away for a while, and I still didn’t sense the importance of that accident till at least a year after that. I realized that it was a real accident. I mean I thought that I was just gonna get up and go back to doing what I was doing before … but I couldn’t do it anymore.”
Rick Danko recalled that he, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson joined Robbie Robertson in West Saugerties, a few miles from Woodstock, in February 1967. The three of them moved into a house on Stoll Road nicknamed Big Pink; Robertson lived nearby. Dylan and the four Hawks (the band name at the time) began a series of informal recording sessions that months later moved to the basement of Big Pink. Dylan would later tell Jann Wenner, “That’s really the way to do a recording—in a peaceful, relaxed setting—in somebody’s basement. With the windows open … and a dog lying on the floor.” Hudson set up a recording unit, using two stereo mixers and a tape recorder borrowed from Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman, as well as a set of microphones on loan from folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary. Even by 1967 recording standards the equipment was considered somewhat crude. However, these sessions were more about the songs than the recordings. That atmosphere in the basement of Big Pink was just what Dylan and The Band needed to successfully create good songs.
Many music historians speak about the intimate “feel” of the recordings. I have listened to some of the recordings for a couple of weeks and you are left with a feeling of being in that basement while Dylan and the guys just play and write songs. I remember when I started work in the recording studio; many engineers and older musicians spoke about the benefits of analog recording instead of digital. Digital recording was quite new at that time but even then many experts stated that analog captured something that digital recording could not. I understand that now. These Basement Tapes have really captured something special. Hopefully all of you will get a chance to hear some of this wonderful music Bob Dylan made in the basement.