I’ve written now about the Basement Tapes on two occasions. Once during 1967, writing about A Tree With Roots and about Greil Marcus’s book, and once when excerpts from the tapes were released commercially. Then in November 2014 Sony finally released the “complete” Basement Tapes, which was something that Jann Wenner called for more than forty years ago. Sometimes you have to be patient.
There is a lot that can be said about this release. At a base level, the sound quality is much better than any bootleg of this material that I have heard. There are so many versions of these songs: Great White Wonder, the remixed and over-dubbed commercial release, A Tree With Roots, Genuine Basement Tapes, Genuine Basement Tapes Remastered. Now this. This is the best. There is no question about that.
First things first. We’re talking about the Complete set here – which is six CDs. There is also a Raw set of two CDs, which was also released as three LPs, and, bizarrely, as a set of reel-to-reel tapes (limited edition of 100 copies). The reel-to-reel revival is on the horizon, people! I can’t recommend the Raw set. Some fans were upset that the Complete set is not available on vinyl, though it would probably be a dozen LPs and about $300. Other fans were upset about the pricing – the two CD set was $20, but the six CD set was $150. Sony has made gouging Dylan fans an art form.
That said, the six CD set is the only way to go. For one thing, they didn’t put “Wild Wolf” on the two CD set, and that is the best unheard song here. So that settles that.
I would actually love to know the sales on the two sets. Given how specialized the interest in The Basement Tapes is I might even guess that the six CD set outsold the two CD set. Anyone who really really wants this stuff wants it all – I think that there’s likely to be very little casual interest in a “best of” sampler.
One of the things that is really interesting here is the fact that Sony has given Dylan fans exactly what they want. There seems to have been very little grousing about this release (other than about the price). If you listen to CD 6 here, you know that they didn’t hold much back (this set runs into “sonically challenging” material at the end). They have admitted that there are a couple of tracks that are “pure distortion” that didn’t get included. Sony’s new strategy seems to be just to overwhelm the completists – give them everything if they’re willing to pay. They hired Garth Hudson as producer here, and they got tapes that I’m not sure that even the hardest of the hardcores even knew were out there.
I’m not going to run through the new material here, partly because I don’t see much of it posted to places I can link to it for you. The countrified version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Wild Wolf” are my two favourite discoveries here.
One thing that I found interesting is that there are a couple of promotional videos here. This first one uses Dylan experts like Clinton Heylin and Greil Marcus to give the history of the music and talk about how things have been cleaned up. It’s twenty-five minutes, but I think it is an interesting mini-documentary.
In some ways even more interesting is this video produced by Rolling Stone of Garth Hudson returning to Big Pink. Hudson looks old and not well. In the reporting about this released it has basically come out that Hudson had the tapes for all those years and is the one who had been selling them off because he was in financial hard times. I hope that’s not the case – he deserves a lot better.
Maybe the most interesting thing about this release, though, is the lack of Dylan in promotion. I know that Dylan doesn’t really promote albums – he hasn’t done a talk show interview in fifty years – but there’s just nothing. He sends his proxies to talk about the Basement Tapes, and during his concerts in November he completely ignored the material contained here. It is entirely possible that Dylan still doesn’t understand why people even want to hear this stuff.