TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Bob Dylan's career was interrupted in 1966 when he crashed his motorcycle while riding near his home in upstate New York. He wasn't badly injured but used the occasion to disengage from the grind of touring he'd been doing to relax and hang out with his band. During this hiatus, some tapes surfaced of new songs he'd been writing - the infamous "Basement Tapes." On the occasion of the entire archive being released, rock historian Ed Ward has these thoughts.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MILLION DOLLAR BASH")
BOB DYLAN: (Singing) Well, a big, dumb blonde with her wheel all gorged, and Turtle, that friend of hers with his checks all forged, his cheeks in a chunk, with his cheese in the cash, they’re all gonna be there at that million-dollar bash. Ooh, baby, ooh-ee. Ooh, baby, ooh-ee. It’s that million-dollar bash.
ED WARD, BYLINE: The first thing to know is that "The Basement Tapes" weren't entirely recorded in a basement. Some were recorded in a room in Bob Dylan's house known as the red room, which of course wasn't red. Some were recorded at a house rented by Rick Danko and Levon Helm, and some, yes, were recorded in the basement of the big, pink house in Saugerties, New York, that the band used as their clubhouse. As far as can be determined, this all started around February 1967 and continued at odd intervals for about a year.
The red-room tapes were - for want of a better term - folk-jam sessions. Dylan hauled out old favorites, and the band improvised arrangements around them. There were Hank Williams songs, Johnny Cash songs, Irish songs learned from Dylan's friend Tommy Makem, a couple of Canadian songs the band would know and a few rather undistinguished Dylan originals. The whole thing just gives the impression of friends fooling around, far from the intensity of Bob Dylan and The Band on their 1965 and '66 tour.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I DON'T HURT ANYMORE")
DYLAN: (Singing) I don't hurt anymore. All my teardrops are dry. No more walking the floor with that burnin' inside. Just to think it could be. Time has opened the door. And at last, I am free. I don't hurt anymore. I used to deny I wanted to die the day that you said we were through. But now that I find you're out of my mind, I can't believe that it's true. I forgot it somehow.
WARD: His physical convalescence was long over, but Dylan was in no rush to engage with the public again. He got married, started a family and liked the unhurried life he was living. But he was also a songwriter, and he was writing songs. That summer the jam session moved to the basement, which was probably cooler, and the faithful tape recorder, manned by keyboardist Garth Hudson, followed along.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS WHEEL'S ON FIRE")
DYLAN: (Singing) If your memory serves you well, we were going to meet again and wait. So I'm going to unpack all my things and sit before it gets too late. No man alive will come to you with another tale to tell. And you know that we shall meet again if your memory serves you well. Wheel's on fire, rolling down the road. Best notify my next of kin. This wheel shall explode. If your memory serves you well...
WARD: Here, they recorded the songs that formed the legend. These were better crafted than the variations on folk songs they'd recorded in the red room and were originals. It was apparently Dylan's plan to write songs for others for awhile, thereby providing him with an income without having to hit the road. His publishing company, Dwarf Music, would circulate a demo tape of them to bands Dylan specified - Manfred Mann with "Quinn the Eskimo," Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger & The Trinity with "This Wheel's On Fire," The Byrds with "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere." The band, too, record a healthy number for their debut album "Music From Big Pink," which featured a cover painting by Dylan. These demo tapes circulated widely. I first heard these songs on a reel-to-reel tape a guy I knew in college lent me - given to him by his father who worked at Columbia's Screen Gems which administered Dwarf Music's copyrights. And a few months later, there was the first of the infamous bootlegs "Great White Wonder." Dylan's lawyers tried to find the bootleggers, but Dylan dismissed this remarkable body of work as stuff written for others which he certainly wouldn't have released himself.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I SHALL BE RELEASED")
DYLAN: (Singing) They say everything can be replaced, yet every distance is not near. So I remember every face of every man who put me here. I see my light come shining from the West unto the East. Any day now, any day now, I shall be released.
WARD: Well, he wrote them, so of course his opinion matters. But I can't help but think that beyond the deeply rooted lyrics and the folk-based melodies, what people responded to was the sound of a star at his most relaxed, making music he had no intention of releasing - in short enjoying himself amidst other musicians doing the same. No matter who the artist - no matter what the era - that's rare and welcome.
GROSS: Rock historian Ed Ward reviewed Bob Dylan and The Band, "The Basement Tapes Complete." If you want to listen to our show on your own schedule, you can subscribe to our podcast on iTunes. I'm Terry Gross.