They are perhaps rock's most mythical treasure trove of performances, more than 100 songs recorded on low-quality tape rolling on a 2-track recorder by six musician friends mostly fucking around in 1967.
But the legend and impact of the so-called "Basement Tapes" (actually recorded in three different locations) would way outstrip the casual way in which they were recorded. In the process, they would turn the Hawks into the Band, drive Bob Dylan to a new direction (John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline) and, years later, help give birth to the alt-country movement.
After his 1966 motorcycle crash and relocation of his family to pastoral Woodstock, New York, Dylan found pleasure in simply enjoying nature or walking his daughter to the school-bus stop while rumors of his death and disfigurement swirled. Eventually, he wanted to do some playin' and singin', and gathered the then-Hawks (still on retainer as his backing band) for some musical messing around.
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From Dylan and Band originals to covers by Hank Williams and Johnny Cash to more obscure old-timey American and English songs, these six men covered a wide gamut of material. Griffin's exhaustive book looks at every aspect of events surrounding the recordings, as well as notes on the individual takes themselves. And while Greil Marcus' similar book Invisible Republic muses more essay-like on the material and its connection to the "old, weird America," Griffin's take is more factual and a boon for both casual and committed Dylan/Band fans. The sessions were never meant for release, but demos nonetheless began to find their way into the hands of music-industry movers and shakers and eventually collectors who clamored hungrily for more. A 1968 Rolling Stone cover story "demanded" their release. Covers by the Byrds, Manfred Mann and Peter, Paul, and Mary began to appear. Eventually, a 1969 two-LP set, The Great White Wonder, would contain some of the material, helping to found the bootleg industry in the process. When Columbia finally released an official, two-LP Basement Tapes in 1975 (with a charming cover photo of the boys recreating the atmosphere), it hardly put an end to fans' desires.
Where was all the other stuff? Later, it came to light that a number of songs featured overdubs, the Band without Dylan or were recorded years later. Purists also bemoaned the exclusion of stellar material like "I Shall Be Released," "The Mighty Quinn" and "I'm Not There" (which would finally surface on the soundtrack of Todd Haynes' recent Dylan-inspired movie of the same name). Griffin rightfully gives props to Band keyboardist Garth Hudson, the unsung hero of the Basement Tapes saga. Without his motivation and attention to recording -- and storage of the more than three dozen reels for years - few would ever have known or heard what sonic magic they created on a whim. Still, that leaves scores of unheard songs and alternate takes of others left ripe for official release. Though an occasional track has trickled out, a "real" Basement Tapes release would be a no-brainer for Dylan's continuing Bootleg Series. Whether that happens or not, of course, remains to be seen. Until then, you can search around for the bootleg 10-CD A Tree with Roots, the most complete version of the Basement Tapes out there. Rattling heater noise and barks by Dylan's dog Hamlet optional. Jaw Bone Press, $19.95, 336 pp.