Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Basement Tapes Part I: Great Jones Street Revisited

The Basement Tapes, Released June 26, 1975
The Basement Tapes still sound as if they materialized from some future age looking back at a distant time fading away into dusty history books. The next couple of posts will offer some thoughts on their mystery and influence through the decades.

The Basement Tapes were recorded over the summer of 1967 in Woodstock, New York during Dylan's so called retirement from touring. Fragments of the sessions appeared on the 1968 bootleg The Great White Wonder.  Some of the songs were given to The Byrds and a few other bands.  Eight years after the original recordings Dylan allowed Columbia to release the first official version.

Two years before the official release, the legend of The Basement Tapes partly inspired Don Delillo's third novel Great Jones Street, which follows Dylanesque rock star Bucky Wunderlick in his quest to escape the trappings of fame and excess.

The novel opens with Dylan's doppelganger quitting his tour and taking refuge in a run down New York apartment.  He spends his time by having surreal interactions with hangers on, his drugged out girlfriend, underground revolutionaries, and various media types in bits of biting satire on mass culture. Like the "real" Dylan portrayed in the D.A. Pennebaker documentary Don't Look Back, Great Jones Street captures the paradox of both being worshiped and treated like a tool.

Descriptions of Bucky's concerts parallel Dylan's 1966 tour of Europe, as he explains to an interviewer:

We make noise. We make it louder than anybody else and also better. Any curly haired boy can write windswept ballads.  You have to crush people's heads.  That's the only way to make those fuckers listen (104).

With ongoing media speculation about his disappearance, Bucky's pressured to release The Mountain Tapes, a set of songs he recorded on the fly with no commercial considerations in mind:

They were something unexpected, undreamed of, a whole new direction.  But I can't go out before crowds and do those same songs.  The effect of the tapes is that they're tapes. Done at a certain time under the weight of a certain emotion. Done on the spot with many imperfections.  The material can't be duplicated in a concert situation.  So the tapes can be released, sure.  But how do I get released?  (Delillo, 188)

I suspect Delillo invented part of Bucky's persona from Dylan's 1966 interview with Playboy. During the interview Dylan spun webs of non-sequiturs and verbal riddles to fend off Nat Hentoff's sincere questions about his transition from folk to rock. When asked about the commercial considerations that went into his songwriting, a question prompted by Dylan's recent disavowal of protest music as a catalyst for change, he gave a defiant answer to the media's attempt pin him down as a sellout: 

All right, now, look.  It's not all that deep.  It's not a complicated thing.  My motives, or whatever they are, were never commercial in the money sense of the word.  It was more in the don't-die-by-the-hacksaw sense of the word.  I never did it for money.  It happened and I let it happen to me.  There was no reason not to let it happen to me. I couldn't have written before what I write now anyway. The songs used to be about what I felt and saw. Nothing of my own rhythmic vomit went into it . . . My older songs, to say the least, were about nothing.  The newer ones are about the same nothing - only as seen inside a bigger thing, perhaps called the nowhere (101).

As the Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis dramatized, Dylan arrived on the folk scene as a destroyer. From that point on the so called purity of folk would mutate into something else entirely. 

Dylan would move so fast through the 60s, progressing from Woody Guthrie to T.S. Eliot in a few short years and leaving his peers and a portion of his audience in the dust. Yet the pressure to keep producing brilliant albums took its toll. As the Martin Scorsese documentary No Direction Home suggests, Dylan came very close to the abyss.

A recurring theme in Great Jones Street is the unending pressure the marketplace places upon the artist, really all of us in the end.  Eddie Fenig, a troubled writer who befriends Bucky delivers a powerful soliloquy on the demands of the market:

There's a cruel kind of poetry to the market.  The big wheel spins and gyrates and makes firecracker noises, going faster and faster and throwing off anybody who can't hold on. The market is rejecting me and I'm not blind to the cruel poetry in it.  The market is phenomenal, bright as a million cities, turning and turning, and there are little figures everywhere trying to hold on with one hand but they're getting thrown off into the surrounding night, the silence, the emptiness, the darkness, the basin, the crater, the pit (Delillo, 141).

Fenig's rant remains poignant in our fragmented/social media obsessed/market yourself/brand yourself capitalism of the new millennium.  

I like to think of The Basement Tapes as a defiant statement against such expectations, a path off the revolutionary road leading to something more tangible.

The songs recorded by Dylan and The Band conjure images of the 19th Century, or "the old weird America" as described by Griel Marcus.  They are all Gothic madness and Romanticism, ideas to foment liberation from a modern society devouring everything, anti-commercial music in the grandest sense.

If Great Jones Street imagines the future as a quiet nightmare, The Basement Tapes envision a sojourn into the past, not necessarily to escape the present, but to salvage it.

Works Cited:

Delillo, Don.  Great Jones Street.  New York: Penguin, 1973.

Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews. Ed. Jonathan Cott. New York: Wenner Books, 2006.

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