Even before Rock geeks obsessed about such great lost recordings as The Beatles’ “Get Back” tapes and The Beach Boys’ SMiLE, they frothed over the tapes casually cut over the summer of ’67 in Woodstock by Bob Dylan and The Hawks (soon to be The Band). This is likely because some of the recordings that would eventually become known as “The Basement Tapes” were gathered on the first widely distributed Rock bootleg. These sessions, which both Dylan and the ex-members of The Band regarded as relatively minor points in their respective careers, yielded a wealth of great songs, some of which would be made famous by Manfred Mann (“Quinn the Eskimo”), Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger (“This Wheel’s on Fire”), The Byrds (“Nothing was Delivered”, “You Ain’t Going Nowhere”), and The Band, themselves (“Tears of Rage”, “I Shall Be Released”). A scoop of these songs was eventually released officially in 1975 as a double LP called The Basement Tapes (it received a long-overdue re-mastering last year). But somewhere in the realm of 100 other songs recorded in Woodstock remain in the can, which naturally has kept fascination with The Basement Tapes stoked for over 40 years.
Count Sid Griffin, whom you may know as the frontman of the great garage/alt. country group The Long Ryders, among the stoked. His obsession comes through loud and clear in Million Dollar Bash: Bob Dylan, The Band, and The Basement Tapes. Griffin’s book reads like the most thorough box-set liner notes ever written (and indeed, it makes a spectacular companion to the high-quality four-disc bootleg A Tree with Roots: The Genuine Basement Tape Recordings). Griffin maintains a lively yet informative tone as he takes a brief jog through the six-year period prior to the “Basement Tapes” sessions before settling down in Woodstock, first to painstakingly recreate the events surrounding the motorcycle crash that kept Dylan out of the public eye during his most prolific year, then to ruminate on how six men gathered together at each others’ homes with a rudimentary recording set-up and a stash of exceptional songs, and basically, had fun. Dogs and children wandered in and out, noisy furnaces caused a little easily overcome trouble, everyone mellowed out with a joint or got their pulses racing with the high-octane coffee Dylan guzzled all day long. Griffin renders a portrait of low-key domesticity that couldn’t be further from the crazed psychedelics in which Dylan’s peers indulged while he and his buddies were getting rustic with their mandolins and acoustic basses. He also marshals his investigative skills to suss when and under what circumstances each recording was made. This massive feat is accomplished during his ambitious track-by-track exploration of the 100-something recordings: the good, the great, and the drunkenly haphazard. The writer finishes off with looks at the diluted (but wonderful) 1975 album, some of the more high-profile covers the sessions inspired, and what other artists—including Nick Lowe, Billy Bragg, and a refreshingly critical Al Kooper—thought of it all. No Dylan education is complete without Million Dollar Bash.
Get Million Dollar Bash: Bob Dylan, The Band, and the Basement Tapes at Amazon.com here.