Bob Dylan: The Devil and Americana in The Basement Tapes

On November 4th, a lot of Bob Dylan fans’ prayers will be answered, mine among them, with the release of The Basement Tapes Raw. Those songs, which sat in a vault for ages, taunted fans. These are the last remnants of the master before he went off on an excursion, for a little while, at least, into mediocrity. The fascinating thing about The Basement Tapes, at least the 1974 ones that The Band guitarist threw together, is that they show that Dylan, post accident, didn’t need hallucinogens to be Bob Dylan. Granted, the manic nature of the Blonde on Blonde album was no longer evident, but this is a  man who was recovering  from a motorcycle accident, nervous exhaustion and coming off a drug dependency. This was the first time Dylan stopped. He was more subdued, but nonetheless still full of inspiration and meaning.

The idea that concept albums came into being with The Beach Boys Pet Sounds or The Beatles Sgt. Pepper is misleading. Songs are the earliest form of storytelling. While they have changed over the centuries, they still remain fundamentally stories about someone’s adventure, with a beginning, middle and end. In their way, albums are essentially a book. Unless the songs were written decades apart, there are threads that hold even the most disparate pieces together. Even if there are several writers, a collective identity emerges that creates a backbone. For Dylan, that backbone began with the 1964 release Another Side of Bob Dylan and ran to 1967’s John Wesley Harding, though there were little peeks in even in John Wesley Harding. The one thing The Basement Tapes saw was a more succinct Dylan. The brilliant song Million Dollar Bash, showed to the world that Dylan could still paint the dystopian societies and fill them to the brim with lunatics, con artists and connivers. Everyone is going to this big party. Whereas with Blonde on Blonde, there was a mania present, a swirling cacophony of the mania the world was in, The Basement Tapes still had that mania to it, but it was a bucolic one, from the suburbs instead of the city.

With Clothes Line Saga, Dylan showed the insanity of everyday life bore into his brain. Gone was the vitriol of previous albums, but not the irony or the humor, as Clothes Line Saga proved. The subtlety wove its way throughout Dylan’s contributions to The Basement Tapes. Dylan was at the domestic point in his life. It is a fascinating balancing act for a writer. How to deal with your life changes and still live up to people’s expectations.  Dylan would drift into mediocrity after that, but it could very well be argued that was of his own choosing. His song writing became less cinematic and more arduous, as if he no longer enjoyed it.

The joy would reappear.  It would just take a little time to do so.