Before there were music phenomenons like Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber, there was Bob Dylan. But wait. He is still here. Most likely he’ll be going your way and then mine real soon. Tuesday he is coming to Washington, DC, his 29th visit to the area in the last 26 years, in what many call the Never Ending Tour.
Dylan’s on stage visibility today is in sharp contrast to the disappearing act he did in the late 60’s after his motorcycle accident. That period, when he holed up with The Band in Woodstock, NY, is back in the news with the release of yet another version of The Basement Tapes. This six-CD set comes with a title like a PBS documentary: “The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 11” and a $93 price tag. The 139 songs were recorded back in 1967, released as a double album in 1975 and have been bootlegged for years as the “secret” sessions have been analyzed by critics and fans for years. Greil Marcus devoted a 2011 book to the recording sessions, Old Weird America.
The questions raised about the sessions have often overshadowed the music. Was Dylan hiding out to lick his wounds after the turbulence created by the switch from acoustic to electric in 1966? Were they designed as a ploy in a battle with record labels? Was he trying to reinvent himself? Or return to his roots? Or just goofing around with the boys?
As always with Dylan (and with other great bodies of work like The Talmud or The Bible) there are more questions than answers and an army of interpreters ready to jump on the train and ride it as far as possible.
John Howells writing his dissertation for punkhart.com. called this Dylan’s “greatest body of work.” Sasha Frere-Jones, in The New Yorker (Nov. 3), wrote, “Better to approach it as a toolbox than as a serial listening experience…For every moment of revelation there are five throwaways.” He noted that the 1975 album showed that Robbie Robertson (who produced it), “with some exceptions knew which the good songs were.”
Football has its fantasy leagues, baseball has the hot stove league and Dylan keeps dishing out old audio recordings for us to dissect and debate. For holiday shoppers, it is a perfect marketing tool. For music mavens it is the gift that keeps on giving as they chart the tributaries of the Americana music catalog.
And finally, this revival gives well-deserved credit to the boys from Canada who represented the power behind the throne. Robbie Robertson co-wrote “Tears of Rage” and Rick Danko co-wrote “This Wheel’s On Fire.” They went into these sessions as “The Hawks” and after Levon Helm joined them, emerged with “Music From Big Pink” and the start of a Hall of Fame career.