Tag Archives: The Basement Tapes

My Roots With The Band

Much to the chagrin of some of my closest friends and one of my siblings, I did not own a copy of Music From Big Pink until recently.  I’ve always liked The Band, but it’s taken me awhile to really get into them and understand them.  They’re not an easy group to get into, because with a few exceptions they’re so engrained in Americana.  I feel (and perhaps I am being presumptuous here)  in order to understand the genius of The Band, you have to know a little bit about Americana and where their influences came from.

The Band first came to my attention about 10 years ago, when my brother introduced me to them.  (This is also the same brother who introduced me to Bob Dylan, though at first I didn’t know the two had a deep connection.)  When I heard the sound blasting of the speakers, it sounded like a group of guys playing together on a porch, whiskey bottles at their feet.  This was not my idea of what I thought was “rock music” and I kept hoping that he would turn on something else.  (I imagine what this what a lot of listeners thought in 1968 at the height of psychedelia.)

When I became obsessed with Bob Dylan (by this time I knew of their connection), my brother recommended to The Basement Tapes to me (probably hoping that I would grow to like The Band as a result.)  That sounded weird, out of time  – just like the music by The Band that he played me before, but this time with Bob Dylan singing.  Suffice to say, I didn’t get it and was particularly keen to try either.

As I started listening to more and more of Dylan’s early folk albums, I became interested in his influences.  I got a copy of The American Folk Anthology (aka The Harry Smith Anthology), and became fascinated by how much could be said with just a voice and guitar.  And it wasn’t just the lyrics that blew me away, but it was the way these guys sang.  These were stories of America, and not just guys sitting around on a porch.  This was a way of life, and it was soon to be forgot.

For me, The Band suddenly made a lot of sense. They took Americana and roots music and made it contemporary.  Yet, even now it sounds like its existed for all time, and does not exist in any particular time.

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Bob Dylan – A Reflection & Personal History

(Since it’s Bob Dylan’s birthday, I decided to write about him – again.)

Say what you want about greatest hits collections, but one greatest hits collection changed my life.  On a break from college freshmen year, my dad decided to take me out to Borders to buy me some music to cheer me up since I was having a hard time adjusting to college-life.  My dad never quite understood my obsession with music, so it was significant that he would want to take me out to get music.  I couldn’t think of a CD to buy, and on a whim I decided on The Essential Bob Dylan. My dad looked at my selection and asked me if I was sure.  He may not have understood rock and roll, or my obsession with music, but I could tell that he knew who Bob Dylan was.

Once I got back to school and started listening to the CDs, I decided to do some research on Dylan.  If my dad knew of him, surely his influence must have been vast.  Once I started looking around, I realized that most of the other artists that I liked practically worshipped Dylan.  How had I been missing out on him all these years?

It wasn’t until I discovered “Visions of Johanna” that I became obsessed after hearing in it in English class. (This is what majoring in English is good for us let me tell you.)  My professor told us the line about the jelly-faced women sneezing is actually referring to a painting.  (For the life of me, I wish I wrote down the name of the painting, but you don’t really think about those things at 20.)  I knew Dylan was literate, but that little bit of information totally changed my view of him.  Here was a guy who was basically taking my love of literature and poetry and putting it to music.

I quickly when out and bought both Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited, and to paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, Dylan’s music opened up a whole new world for me.  It’s a world full of circus freaks, historical figures doing absurd things, literary figures trapped by their sins and lifeless, and quite often having the upper-hand in relationships.  It’s also a world where civils rights and protest is brought to forefront. While Dylan never played punk-rock, he retains its spirit in being anti-authority.  In Dylan’s world, nothing stays the same, and going against the grain is not just a credo, it’s a way of life.  Just when you think you’ve understood him, he turns the other way.  (For instance, lots of people were expecting Christmas in the Heart to be a very absurd take on the Christmas tradition, but by making a traditional Christmas album, Dylan  managed to go against people’s expectations of his version of Christmas.  In that way, it is very Dylan.)

Before listening to Dylan, I thought I knew a lot about music.  As it turns out, by listening to Dylan, I found out how little I knew and have to learn.  Nashville Skyline gave me a further introduction to Johnny Cash and traditional country music. The Basement Tapes provided me insight into Americana and folk music.  After listening to The American Anthology of Folk Music (which if you haven’t listened to, I highly recommend it) I began to understand where Dylan fit in with folk music.  To those who says they can’t stand his voice, his first few albums were sung in the voice that was part of a tradition of old folk music – he was just the first to truly popularize it.

By taking cues from folk singers and creating his own stamp on that world, Dylan recreated musical history.  So many of his early songs such as Blowin in the Wind, The Times They Are A-Changing, and A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall have been such standards and are so rich, it’s almost hard to believe that they aren’t traditional.  When Dylan and the Band recorded “Apple Suckling Tree”, many of the members of The Band, thought it was in fact, a traditional, and not a Dylan original.  Ultimately, unless you’re a folk-purist it’s almost impossible to listen to American folk music, without conjuring up Bob Dylan into your mind.  To many, he is American folk music personified.

American Folk music isn’t just the only type of music that Dylan has influenced vastly.  Almost every single genre of popular music has been filtered through Dylan in one way or another.  The Beatles began to shy away from songs about girls after listening to The Freewheeling Bob Dylan.  The great soul legend Sam Cooke covered “Blowin’ in the Wind”, Dylan himself dabbled in gospel during his Christian-period, and along with The Band, he single-handedly created alternative country.  And while Dylan has written many songs better than “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, with its quick barrage of lyrics and accompanying promotional film was a forerunner to rap, and MTV.

Besides his vast catalogue of songs, I think tend to think part of the appeal of Dylan is his attitude and mystique.  I’ve read quite a few books about the man, and I still don’t know that much about him.  Whether they admit it or not, almost every single person who listens to Dylan wishes they could take off for New York, erase the past and start a new life.  While many writers and artists try their best to subvert the system and attempt to say “fuck it”, Dylan did just that several times throughout his career.  It didn’t always work (think the Christian-period). But when in the mid 60’s Dylan took the attitude of, “fuck it, I’m going to do what I want, consequences be damned” and went electric, the world came around to him.

As much as I (or others) would love to have Dylan’s attitude and constantly be on the move, to paraphrase Bono – we’d all just be happy carrying his guitar-case.   So happy birthday, Bob.

(Also if you’re interested, check out my literary comparison between Dylan and James Joyce.)

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Exile on Main St.

Exile on Main St’s legendary status surrounding its conception is probably only surpassed by The Basement Tapes. (Both also by the way, are about the only two rock and roll records that seem to have a deep understanding of American music.  Dylan with American folk music, and the Stones with blues, gospel and soul.)  The story is well kn0wn – that The Rolling Stones fled England to France to escape high taxes.  They wrote songs, drank and did a lot of drugs.  But what makes Exile so special?

For me, it’s the rock and roll album.  It embodies everything that is great about rock – it’s dirty and dangerous.  On Exile, The Stones take almost every single blues, country, soul and rewrite it as their own.   If Exile has one flaw, it would be that a lot of the songs make little sense on their own.  There’s no “Gimmie Shelter” or “Sympathy For the Devil” here.

If you’ve never listened to Exile on Main St, do yourself a favor and buy the remaster.  Turn up the stereo and get lost in one of the greatest albums ever put to record.  Here’s a few of my favorites from the album.

Rocks Off

Second to “Like a Rolling Stone” for greatest opening song on an album.   There’s a short opening riff by Richards a quick drum snap, followed by Mick’s jubliant, “Ooooh yeah.”   And then they’re off.  Whether the song is about masturbation, or doing heroin (or both) is up to debate.  You can barely hear Jagger’s vocals during the verses, but the screams of “I only get my rocks off while I’m sleeping!”  is pure rock and bliss.  To add to the insanity, none of the background vocals are in sync – there’s a lot of inaudible shouting.  The background horns don’t seem to fit in either – it’s a loud glorious ramshackle of sound that only ends when the song fades out.

Sweet Virginia

The ultimate camp-fire rock and roll singalong.  It starts off as a country song, with just an acoustic guitar and harmonica. When the drums comes in, the song sounds fairly standard for the Stones of this time.  The true virtue of this song is the chorus – “Come on. Come on down, Sweet Virginia.  Come on honey child – beg you.  Come on, come on down  – you got it in ya.  Got to scrape the shit right off your shoes”.  If it weren’t already catchy, the background singers (again not quite in sync with Jagger or each other) turn the song into a full fledged party.  If you listen in on your head-phones you can hear people talking, laughing, and just having a great time.  The saxophone solo provides a slight break, but on the second chorus, Jagger possibly realizing what is taking place, encourages the party.  On the third chorus, Jagger is barely heard at all, and it becomes the best drunken singalong you’ve never been a part of.

Shine a Light

The absolute masterpiece of Exile, and the saddest as well.  Again taking a genre that isn’t their own (in this case soul), The Stones breathe new life into a lament about a dead friend – Brian Jones.  While the Stones had previously explored gospel on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, “Shine a Light” truly embodies soul and gospel.  It feels less forced, and more natural – which is saying something considering that “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was recorded a few years earlier.  The chorus of “May the good Lord shine a light on you/may every day your favorite tune” seems to come from a gospel song as well.  It’s kind of hard to believe that this is the same guy that wrote, “I can’t get no satisfaction”.  Mick Taylor provides a fantastic solo, bringing one of the Stone’s finest ballads to a shining close.

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Bruce Springsteen – The Seeger Sessions

Most albums have a particular feel that makes them feel seasonal.  For the springtime, I always like to bust out Bruce Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions. Like the songs that the album was based on, The Seeger Sessions plays like a group of musicians getting together on a porch, drinking beer and whiskey between takes.  And despite the weighty topic of (most) of the songs, it’s a fun sounding album.

Despite his constant perfection, Springsteen picked up the spirit of these folk songs popularized by Pete Seeger.  It sounds like the group of musicians just got together and decided to play with very little rehearsal.  And that’s not a criticism at all – in fact that is part of the album’s charm.  Springsteen can be heard calling out chord changes as he leads his band through rowdy takes on folk-classics.  On “O Mary Don’t You Weep” the female backing singers come in too early during one of the verses – but the rest of the band keeps playing like nothing happened.  It’s as they were making the music for just for fun – forgetting that the tape was rolling.  Taking out these mistakes would be equivalent to taking out the laughter at the beginning of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream.”

While the songs are taken from Seeger’s versions of folk-songs the album certainly couldn’t have existed with Bob Dylan and The Band- especially The Basement Tapes. Bruce and his Seeger Sessions band are diving deep into Americana just like Dylan and the Band did during the Summer of 1967, but giving it a refreshing spin and making something truly unique.  (Of course, The Seeger Sessions will never be as legendary or as influential as The Basement Tapes.)

While Springsteen has always had an interest in Americana (and you could argue the fact that he created his own version of America) the Seeger Sessions is an album that the 50-something year old Springsteen could make.  He doesn’t seem concerned with making a big bold statements and seems content to make music for the sake of music.  Early in his career Springsteen got compared to Dylan a lot – and on the Seeger Sessions he comes as close as he can get without even realizing it.

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