Behold Bob and the Band: Hijinks in the Basement and “Lo and Behold!”
Good times below stairs
Once upon a time, a bunch of musicians, their families, their dogs, and their neighbors and friends all lived in, or near, Woodstock, Bearsville, and Saugerties, New York. I begin “once upon a time” because that’s how legends and fairytales all start — and the creation of The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and (by the later sessions) Levon Helm, has become legend to music lovers, so far away it seems more like a fairytale now.
Legend, yes, but the fairytale was — and is — real. Get ready for it: on the 4th of November you will be able to listen to those well-known and oft-bootlegged Basement Tapes in the flesh, and complete. The scratchy bones of songs in the previously available recordings, from Great White Wonder to A Tree With Roots to the official Columbia release (in 1975) of The Basement Tapes, have glorious meat on them now. Those known in only one version can now be heard in several. Best of all, of course, many of the tracks have never been released before at all.
The various bootlegs of the “genuine Basement Tapes” are much beloved by fans of Dylan, of the Band and of American music and its history. The subterranean music the men were making was old and new, traditional and experimental. They’d segue from an old Scottish Highland ballad or a Caribbean lament or a sea chantey into something that sounded like one of the ancient songs, but wasn’t. They sang the songs of contemporaries and friends, like Johnny Cash and Pete Seeger and Eric Von Schmidt, and the music royalty of the recent American past like A.P. Carter and Hank. Then, miraculously, you’d hear some delicate instrumental from Manuel or Hudson, or a tickle of strings from Robertson, or perhaps Dylan, or who knows who, really, since they all could play any instrument from the harmonica to the guitar to the keyboards to a washboard….and you would be led into a song that sounded familiar and comfortable, but wasn’t. “Tears of Rage,” “This Wheel’s On Fire,” “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.”
Yesterday, Sony/Legacy made available an alternate version of “Lo And Behold!” via Vice/Noisey Music. This song, on the 1975 Basement Tapes, is — despite its Biblical title — a not particularly reverent caper by Dylan. He’s always liked train songs — both singing others’ and writing his own — and this is a train song of sorts. It’s also a song about women and how easy it is to meet them, and also evade them, when you’re a traveling man. Most of all, it’s a song that’s having fun with words, internal rhymes, and the concept that — as the Band would put it a few years later — life is a carnival. Trains aren’t the only way to travel:
Now I come in on a Ferris wheel,
And boys, I sure was slick
I come down like a ton of bricks
Laid a few tricks on ’em
Dylan himself is obviously having fun, too, and this will make “Lo And Behold!” popular. His fans love it when he laughs because, on records and on stage, this is not something for which, to put it mildly, Dylan is noted. The little snickers in “All I Really Want to Do” and the laughter in “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” are still infectious after a thousandth hearing. He laughs a lot more on bootlegs. When, on an early take of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” Dylan dissolves in giggles after a matter of seconds, it’s a gleeful riot for everyone in the studio. In concert, he occasionally grins, but I’ve only seen him guffawing once. No one in the front rows of the arena in Moncton, New Brunswick had any idea what Donnie Herron said at the end of “Beyond the Horizon,” but Bob, Donnie and, eventually, Tony Garnier were all near helpless with laughter as they started “Highway 61 Revisited.” Instead of focusing on the sober, violent start to the song, you were swept straight into the biting ridiculousness of a God who must be putting you on, and shoestrings and telephones, and a bored gambler wanting to create the next world war. I listened to the song like I’d never heard it to be before, as Dylan leaned into his keyboards, shook his head, and laughed.
“Lo And Behold!” will whack you on the funnybone, even as you’re hearing the singer, at the end of every verse, asking someone to get him out of here. And as Rick’s and Richard’s voices soar above Dylan’s on the refrains, you know they don’t want to be anywhere else but where they are — right then, in that remarkable, fraternal, musical moment.
“Lo And Behold!” From The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11, to be released November 4, 2014.
Album cover with image by Elliott Landy via bobdylan.com