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Sunday, April 1, 2018

Master Blueprints # 12: “Now, I’ve had Enough, My Box is Clean. You Know What I’m Sayin’ and You Know What I Mean”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Odds and Ends”
Album: The Basement Tapes
Release Date: June, 1975 (recorded in late winter, 1967)

Anyone who has ever loved Rock and Roll has likely imagined what it must have been like to be in one or more of the genera’s greatest bands during their peak.  To that end, perhaps you rock-god wannabe’s envisioned being a member of the Rolling Stones in the early 70s, cobbling together songs like “Ventilator Blues” and “Loving Cup” in the wee hours down in the subterranean labyrinths of Keith Richards’ French Riviera mansion-of-exile.  Or maybe you’ve imagined being part of the four-ringed circus-act that was the Who in 1969, on the stage at Woodstock performing Tommy as the sun rose over the massive, awe-inspired crowd.  Or as a Beatle in 1967, surrounded by adoring peers and an orchestra to sing “All You Need Is Love” to the world on live simulcast TV.  Or maybe as a member of Pink Floyd in 1973, listening back to the final master cut of Dark Side of the Moon for the first time. 

All amazing moments in incredible bands, but I’d trade any of them to be a member of The Band in 1967, creating music with Bob Dylan in that immortalized West Saugerties, New York “Big Pink” basement (or at least witnessing it all play out as a fly on the wall).  I’d go even further and say that I have to agree with an enlightening statement Eric Clapton once made.  He stated in so many words that when taking in the whole ball of wax, there was no band more true its namesake than The Band…..and therefore no band he’d rather have been in.  This ensemble was unique in how perfectly balanced their musicianship was and how complimentary they were to each other. They were also students of American roots music. Together, they bridged a vast American musical divide like no other band I know, and in doing so, blended our past with our then present. 

The names of The Band members alone have a certain throwback rustic allure:  Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson, and Richard Manuel; one from the Deep South (Helm) and the other four Canadians.  All quality multi-instrumentalists who could play on strings, keys, wind instruments, plugged in or out, banging on things, you name it.  All with a Huckleberry Finn like story of breaking off from home at a very young age.  All straight out of the school of hard knocks.  And all with a soft, endearing side that made you root for them as individuals (to get a quick sense of this, I suggest you read one of my favorite passages in any book, which is Robertson’s touching “God only made one of those” closing remarks about each of his bandmates in his tremendous auto-biography Testimony - pages 488-490).

These 5 musicians became a significant part of music history through their connection with Bob Dylan, first as the backing band on his inharmonious/at times glorious first ‘electric’ tour in 1966 (receiving more jeers from the crowds than cheers) and then in splendid “Big Pink” isolation in the Catskills in 1967 (arguably these are the two most fascinating years in Dylan’s illustrious career).  But what’s really amazing about their story was how they evolved with Dylan in that 2 year period and, how the massive amount of Americana-style music they all wrote, performed and recorded together in ‘67 would not see the light of day until many years –even decades – later.  When The Band would finally emerge back in the public eye with a masterful album all their own in 1968 (Music from Big Pink), a reputation, shrouded in mystery and mystique, would precede them. Such a reputation can be hard to top from the eyes of a fellow musician, a musical historian, or a fan. 

Bob Dylan and The Band did not only write songs in the basement of Big Pink that sounded steeped in America’s past.  They wrote song narratives that fit the mold as well.  These were simple narratives about simpler lives, simpler times, and simpler notions that cut to the core.  They also had a lot of fun, Dylan often tossing into his lyrics what first comes across as amazing randomness.  But that wordsmithing fit the mold too, because Bob Dylan was trying to get into the heads of the quirky characters he was creating in his songs, complete with local dialects, odd rituals, head-scratching priorities and hilarious colloquialisms (to get a nutshell perspective on what I mean, just read the lyrics to “Tiny Montgomery”).

The Basement Tapes re-opened all sorts of doors for me. When I first got into Rock and Roll, the goal in my life was to broaden my horizons, turn over stones that had not been turned.  Satisfy that wanderlust.  All well and good.  But as the saying goes, a rolling stone gathers no moss and so, however fascinating that world of discovery is, there’s something to be said for ‘bringing it all back home’ and reconnecting with the familiar after all is said and done. 

My hometown of Franklin Massachusetts was an idyllic rural community to grow up in during the 60s and 70s (it’s now unfortunately quite built out).  “Gooey Louie” sold eggs down the street from our first home, straight out of his chicken coops.  Another neighbor, “Brett”, dropped off the milk bottles from his cow farm up the road, and picked up the empties in the process. The train tracks opened a world of woodsy exploration to myself and a group of outlandish lifelong friends (often the dogs who would accompany us would also outnumber us).  Mom and Pop shops were the rage in our small town, be it the hobby shop, penny candy store, news store (which included comic books) sub shop, drug store, diner, or department store, all replete with an assortment of eccentric owners and clerks. Not-your-average-Joe types roamed the streets, including Big Butch, a benign veteran of war casualty who walked around town with sunglasses on, and a radio held to his ear. 

The Basement Tapes also had a kin-folk angle, as intertwined in the narrative is the quirkiness associated with small town family life (which also comes alive in The Band’s Music from Big Pink).  The love is there for sure, but it comes at the listener from this rather odd angle.  One great example is how Bob Dylan and The Band manage to make the entirety of a song, “Cloths Line Saga”, focus on the simplicity of a kid taking clothes off the line for his Mom.  They do this by inserting whimsical whit into the equation; the type of whit that can only be applied to a day in the life of a healthy, happy, albeit whacky family.  I could relate to that. 

It’s not all fun and games on The Basement Tapes though.  Lines get sprinkled in on virtually every song that has you contemplating life’s moral value system. The refrain in “Odds and Ends” (this week’s Master Blueprint) includes the line “Lost time is not found again”.  “Open the Door, Homer” is laced with reflective lines, including “And remember when you’re out there trying to heal the sick; that you must always first forgive them”.  “Too Much of Nothing” is about the pitfalls of one of the seven deadly sins; sloth.  And then there’s “Tears of Rage” about a parent being abandoned by their child.  Yeah, and so, although there was plenty of the genuine and the pure to romanticize on in regards to rural America, Bob Dylan does not shy from what can tear that idyllic fantasy world apart either.

The Basement Tapes has plenty of magical musical moments, with the loveliest for me being Garth Hudson’s Lowrey organ lead during the bridge of “Bessie Smith”.  Rick Danko’s bass is pretty funky in “Yazoo Street Scandal”.  Richard Manuel’s singing on “Orange Juice Blues” is quite stirring as well. For the most part, however, nothing ever really stands out on its own.  The ‘instrument’ is the entire sound of a band playing as if one person, or a well-oiled machine.  The greatest thing about the instrumentation though is trying to guess who was playing what instrument on each song.  Manuel, typically the keyboardist, added a remarkably peculiar style of drumming to his repertoire in the heady early months at “Big Pink”, when Levon Helm had abandoned ship for a spell.  Various members picked up a mandolin or standup bass, or whatever else was lying around for different songs.  The liner notes in the booklet that comes with the 2014 The Bootleg Series, Volume 11: The Basement Tapes Raw includes the comment “harmony and instrumentation are unknown because all involved were multi-instrumentalists and vocalists. No written documentation remains.”

On multiple levels, Bob Dylan was trying to connect with a more authentic period in American history, which included writing songs simply for the fun of it.  In fact, if not for Garth Hudson’s obsession with reel-to-reel preservation, not a one of the multitude of The Basement Tapes songs would have ever been recorded for posterity.   I find this fascinating.  It’s as if Bob Dylan were trying to channel the simplicity of a time that no longer existed.  A time when story and song only made its way from one generation to another through word of mouth and imitation.  Robbie Robertson mentions in his book a serious moment he had with Dylan when they contemplated burning the hundreds of hours of tapes.  These were not their tapes though.  Rational minds prevailed, thank goodness.

The Basement Tapes had something to do with my desire to seek out another 70’s Franklin for my children’s upbringing.  That wish came true 14 years ago, when the family moved to Pepperell, Massachusetts.  Here was a throwback town to my youth.  Not entirely, but close enough.  No traffic lights.  No lines at the bank.  Woods all around to explore.  And quirky characters galore, including a number of the great buddies our children became friends with.  This was a town you could slip The Basement Tapes or Music from Big Pink into the cd player, drive around, and think…. ’oh, yeah!’

Coming at The Basement Tapes on the back side of discovery and exploration is I believe the only way to do so: That experienced rolling stone perspective is most certainly a prerequisite for such self-awareness. It’s what Bob Dylan and The Band did after touring the world, pushing new horizons on what Rock and Roll could accomplish.  Dylan made the right choice after that experience though…. he turned back the clock for a spell, completely going against the Sgt. Pepper psychedelic grain of the times.  The Band responded in kind, and in doing so appealed greatly to Bob Dylan’s musical sensibilities and his vast wealth of creativity. 

Nearly two decades later, it’s what I did too: I reconnected with my American roots after setting off to see what else was out there.  I mostly have my upbringing to thank for finding home base again.  But there’s a piece of gratitude there as well for Bob Dylan and The Band.  For that matter, you can toss in Tiny Montgomery, Missus Henry, Silly Nelly, Rose Marie, Sadie, Lou and Lester, Valerie and Vivian, Half-track Frank and Skinny Moo too.

Pete

8 comments:

  1. Lovely article, miss the Band

    ReplyDelete
  2. Brilliant, once again. Your ability to weave old and new, Franklin and Pepperell, music and life keeps me in the moment. Thanks

    ReplyDelete
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