Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Million Dollar Bash: a must-buy new study of The Basement Tapes

The story of The Basement Tapes is well known: in 1967, in upstate New York, away from mounting pressures, Dylan and his allies, the Hawks/Band, recorded well over 100 songs, without access to a proper studio.

The best of the songs leaked out of the music biz and onto the first rock bootleg, Great White Wonder. By 1975, Columbia decided they needed a piece of the action and released The Basement Tapes as a 24-track double LP, interspersing 16 Dylan performances with eight by The Band.

The feelgood album was well received, by fans and critics alike. And it has stood the test of time. But, as subsequent bootlegs like The Genuine Basement Tapes demonstrate, the album could have been twice the length – the official release ignored many notable Dylan performances.

Sid Griffin’s new book, Million Dollar Bash: Bob Dylan, The Band, and The Basement Tapes, retells the story of this key period with the insights of professional musician and the style of an accomplished writer.

Million Dollar Bash is a lovingly researched, richly detailed, accessible piece of work. It mixes exhaustive lists (what was recorded, where; who later covered the songs … ) with informed musical judgement (why they do/don’t work … ). Interviews with some key players, notably Robbie Robertson (whose work on the 1975 album is often criticised), a graphic evocation of the ambience of a place and time, and some telling photos make Million Dollar Bash a fine book.

Whether you agree with the author’s soaring judgment of the importance in the Dylan story of these 1967 recordings is a matter of opinion, but it’s a pleasure to engage in the debate.

Griffin’s dissection of the contribution of each of the Hawks/Band members (especially Garth Hudson) shows how this was rather more than Dylan plus backing musicians – the three lots of sessions in Woodstock in 1967 were genuine collaborations. And Griffin’s location of the sessions in their historical context establishes that these strange recordings didn’t just spring from nowhere.

You can read Million Dollar Bash as an extended, closely argued memo to Sony to persuade them to re-release a proper, more complete, version of The Basement Tapes. It’s very persuasive; Columbia Legacy would be bonkers to ignore it.

Million Dollar Bash is an engaging, handsome volume which will grace your Dylan bookshelf. A must-buy, then? You bet.

Million Dollar Bash: Bob Dylan, The Band, and The Basement Tapes, by Sid Griffin, Jawbone Press, Sept 2007, 400pp, isbn 978-1-906002-05-3, £14.95/$19.95


Gerry Smith