Graded on a Curve:
Bob Dylan & The Band,
The Basement Tapes

Well, here I am at last, in a deserted warehouse on Desolation Row, about to realize my lifelong dream of interviewing the legendary Bob Dylan. It’s a rather odd place to meet, I know, but I got absolutely nowhere with Dylan’s PR people, so I decided to exercise my First Amendment rights by abducting him, duct-taping him to a rickety wooden chair, and shining a very bright light in his eyes. It’s an unorthodox arrangement, to be sure, but then Dylan is a famously uncooperative interviewee.

“Okay, Schmylan,” I say, opening the interview on a light note. “You’re going to spill or I’m going to shave Vincent Price’s mustache right off your face.”

“You don’t like it?” says Bob in that unintelligible frog-with-emphysema croak that makes his present-day concerts such wonderful exercises in collective audience incomprehension.

“Not really. I think it’s creepy. And if it’s creepy I want, I can always listen to Saved.”

“Vince bequeathed it to me in his will,” says Dylan, unfazed by my criticism. “And I happen to like it. It’s so Dr. Goldfoot and The Bikini Machine. I kept it in the freezer for years, on top of a box of Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks. Hey, would watch the parking meter?”

“Quoting your old chestnuts will get you nowhere,” I say. And to prove it, I slip a cigarette between his lips and smack it out again.

“No, I mean literally. I only fed it enough quarters for two hours. And the last thing I need is another ticket.”

“You’ve got bigger worries than a parking ticket, Zimmerman. Like your legacy. You’re the guy who put out Bob Dylan at Budokan. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way that album blows.”

“Hey, where’s your sense of humor? That LP’s a howl. Backup singers, easy-listening arrangements—I felt like the ghost of Fat Elvis haunting Japan. Besides, I only did it as a personal favor to Hideki Tōjō.”

“You’re a real funny guy, Bob. And it just so happens that’s what we’re here to talk about, namely the amazing and hilarious wordplay on 1975’s The Basement Tapes, and why you killed and buried it and never looked back. But first I want to know why you let that smug prick Robbie Robertson pick the songs for the album. Not only did he leave a whole slew of brilliant basement songs like “The Mighty Quinn” and “I’m Not There” on the cutting room floor, he threw on eight Band demos that weren’t even made at Big Pink in 1967, but were in fact recorded years—perhaps as many as 8 years in several cases—later. And in so doing knowingly committed a blatant act of historical fraud that not only makes him the Carlos Ponzi of rock, but has misled people for years.”

“I dunno,” shrugs Dylan, obviously bored by the question. “I guess I was busy.”

“Busy doing what?”

“Playing mahjong. Wishing I were Gerard de Nerval walking his pet lobster on a blue silk ribbon through the Palais Royal gardens. Walking down Bleecker Street feeling bleaker. Burying my dreams in the cold, damp earth of the Mesabi Iron Range…”

“Dreams??” I say, sensing a journalistic coup. “What dreams?”

“I dunno. I never remember my dreams.”

Point Dylan.

“Okay,” I say. “Enough small talk, Zimmerman. Here’s what I want to know: why you recorded the most brilliant—the funniest and most poignant—music ever made by man in that basement in the Catskills in 1967, then walked away from it and never looked back. You were on fire, lyrics erupting directly from your subconscious in a surrealistic spew. And at first glance they appear to be nothing more than hilarious gibberish. Yet they mark perhaps the greatest advance in the English language since Chaucer. You created a mysterious codex of signs and symbols that comes closer than any poetry ever written to plumbing the secret wellsprings of America’s collective unconscious.”

“You’re beginning to sound like Greil Marcus, and it’s really creeping me out.”

“My apologies,” I say. “I get carried away sometimes. But here’s what really gets my goat about The Basement Tapes. Instead of delivering on their promise you went and released that faux-biblical bore of an album, John Wesley Harding. Which doesn’t have so much as a single laugh line on it. Then followed John Wesley Harding with five consecutive stinkers, not one of which showed the slightest trace of a sense of humor, or talent for that matter. It was as if you’d forgotten everything you learned during the time you spent with The Band at Big Pink.”

“What, you didn’t like Self-Portrait?”

“There isn’t a sane human being on the face of the earth who likes Self-Portrait. Although as a blatant fuck you to your legions of impossible-to-satisfy fans, it had its uses. It thinned the herd. And I’ve gotta admit to a fondness for your cover of Rhymin’ Simon’s “The Boxer.” That was a stroke of genius, dueting with yourself like you were both Simon and Garfunkel. “The Boxer” was the perfect metaphor for that album. Dylan boxing Dylan for the championship belt of musical mediocrity. Who won, by the way?”

“I did. I never had a chance. I TKO’d myself in the 11th round. I was knocked out loaded.”

“As an act of atonement?” I ask.

“For what? There’s nothin’ I have to atone for. Although I do feel kinda bad about knocking that bald kid with cancer out of his wheelchair at that Ronald McDonald House.”

“You knocked a bald kid with cancer out of his wheelchair?”

“He wanted me to sing “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Wouldn’t shut up about it. I finally said, ‘Look, little bald kid with cancer, I’m not your personal fucking human jukebox.’ And he punched me. Right in the nuts. One thing led to another…”

“You’re a sweetheart, Mr. Tambourine Man. But let’s talk about The Basement Tapes. Take “Clothes Line Saga.” It’s the best song ever written about the banality of small-town life. You natter on about nothing in a deadpan voice and in so doing manage to alchemize the dross of empty conversation into pure comedic gold.”

“Then there’s the perky and surreal “Million Dollar Bash,” where you sing, “Well I looked at my watch/I looked at my wrist/I punched myself in the face with my fist/I took my potatoes down to be mashed/Then I made it on over to that million dollar bash.” And “Lo and Behold,” where you promise your lover a herd of moose and deliver those immortal lines, “What’s the matter, Molly dear?/What’s the matter with your mound?/What’s it to ya, Moby Dick?/This is Chicken Town.”

“What do you expect me to say?” says Dylan. “I don’t know who wrote those songs. I change during the course of a day. I wake and I’m one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I’m somebody else.”

“And your pyjamas still fit?”

“Usually,” says Dylan cryptically. “Sometimes they’re a bit loose around the waist.”

“Let’s get back to The Basement Tapes. And the great “Please Mrs. Henry,” a song about a bar mooch that’s so funny I laugh every single time I hear it. Especially at the lines, “Now, I’m startin’ to drain/My stool’s gonna squeak/If I walk too much farther/My crane’s gonna leak/Look, Missus Henry/There’s only so much I can do/Why don’t you look my way/An’ pump me a few?” Face it—even you cracked up singing it!”

“Then there’s “Apple Suckling Tree,” that rough and impromptu-sounding little love ditty infused with such camaraderie, high spirits, and crazy drumming that it makes me want to stand up and cheer. And the plaintive “Goin’ to Acapulco,” which is easily the most depressing song ever written about having a good time. When you and The Band sing, “Goin’ to Acapulco/Goin’ to have some fun,” you make it sound like you’re going before a firing squad. And then there’s “Open the Door, Homer,” that weird and wonderful song filled with such inscrutable words of wisdom as “Now, there’s a certain thing/That I learned from my friend, Mouse/A fella who always blushes/And that is that ev’ryone/Must always flush out his house/If he don’t expect to be/Goin’ ’round housing flushes.”

“What do you want me to say?” says Dylan. “It was all a goof. We were just fucking around, getting stoned and trying to figure out what to do next. None of us expected those songs to go anywhere, except maybe to other musicians.”

“Don’t interrupt me again, Zimmerman, or you’ll find yourself sitting on a barbed wire fence. Or listening to Street Legal, an album so bad it’s not actually street legal. I’m on a roll here and I want to say a word about “Tiny Montgomery,” that lark whose lyrics are sheer nonsensical genius. “Now grease that pig/And sing praise/Go on out/And gas that dog/Trick on in/Honk that stink/Take it on down/And watch it grow.” I mean, I’m in awe. Where does a line like “Honk that stink” come from?”

“I dunno. My alter-ego, comedian Shecky Bleu. Like the cheese. Died in a motorcycle accident. Look, you’ve got to belive me. I’m not a genius, I’m a noise. Besides, we were all hanging out at the candy store—”

“Drugs, bah,” I say. “I’ve done every drug under the sun, and I’ve never written anything like the rollicking “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread,” that wonderful song about God knows what. I love the opening lines, “Well the comic book and just me we caught the bus,” and the way Richard Manuel hangs on for dear life to the song’s final in the lowest register he can muster, and the lines “Now, pull that drummer out from behind that bottle/Bring me my pipe, we’re gonna shake it/Slap that drummer with a pie that smells/Take me down to California, baby.” Or the sublimely romantic “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” with its lovely melody and ecstatic chorus, “Whoo-ee! Ride me high/Tomorrow’s the day/My bride’s gonna come/Oh, oh, are we gonna fly/Down in the easy chair!”

And what about “Odds and Ends,” your hard-rocking contradiction of everything Marcel Proust wrote in his seven-volume novel À la recherche du temps perdu? Or that dark existential parable “Too Much of Nothing” with its opening lines, “Too much of nothing/Makes a man ill at ease.” And its cryptic chorus, “Say hello to Valerie/Say hello to Vivian/Give her all my salary/On the waters of oblivion.”

“Listen to me,” pleads Dylan. “It was a magical time, I admit it. But nothing lasts forever but the grave. Life, love, poetry—it’s all the dream of a man staring into a hole in the ground. Anyway, I don’t owe you nothin’. What’cha gonna do, kill me? I’m not afraid of dying. Death is just the icing on the birthday cake of Life.”

“Bravo,” I tell him. “Now you sound like the Bobby D. of old. Talking in riddles. I hate to use your own words against you, but it’s like you sing in the mysterious and sublime “Nothing Was Delivered”: “Now you must provide some answers/For what’s been sold and not received/And the sooner you come up with them/The sooner you can leave.”

“You want me to explain myself,” says Dylan. “But I don’t even know who I am. I don’t think I’m tangible to myself. If I wasn’t Bob Dylan, I’d probably think Bob Dylan has a lot of answers myself.”

“All I want to know is why you walked away from your sense of humor. And if you don’t come up with an answer, and soon, I’ve got this Edge razor, from which Bono’s guitarist took his name, and I’m prepared to use it. Unfortunately it’s a bit rough-edged, because I use it to shave my legs, and I forgot to bring any shaving cream, so things could get a bit… uncomfortable.”

“You want the truth? The truth is that all the truth in the world adds up to one big lie. Maybe I quit being funny and put out John Wesley Harding because I was still attached to the idea of people thinking of me as some kind of prophet. And ain’t no such thing as a funny prophet. Or maybe I quit being funny because I was happy. I’d married Sarah, had kids… and everybody knows it’s impossible to be happy and funny at the same time. Or maybe I quit being funny because I just quit being funny. In the end, your guess is as good as mine.”

I excuse myself for a moment to go to the bathroom. Have I just gotten the answer I’ve been seeking? It’s impossible to know. All I know is that when I return Dylan is gone, vanished, disappeared, chair and all—like a wraith or a conjuring trick, or the phantom singer of “I’m Not There.”

So that’s it. I’ll never know why Dylan quit writing the cryptic and hilarious lyrics that made The Basement Tapes so wonderful, spirited, and—in my humble opinion—the greatest rock album of all time. I doubt Dylan himself knows why either. It’s a mystery that will never be solved because Bob Dylan isn’t just a genius, he’s the D.B.Cooper of rock’n’roll, forever slipping through our fingers as he leaps from the airplane we’re all riding into the black and starless sky on his way to Mrs. Henry, Valerie and Vivian, Mouse, Tiny Montgomery, Genghis Khan, Turtle, Molly dear, Moby Dick, the big dumb blonde, the herd of moose, and all the rest of the throng at that million dollar bash.

As ambulances sound their sirens in the distance I am forced to acknowledge that Dylan is no different from the rest of us. We’re all unsolvable mysteries to ourselves. We’re not there—we’re gone. And as I stand in the stillness of that empty warehouse I’m left to wonder whether Bob Dylan was ever really there in the first place. Then I spy a scrap of paper lying on the floor. I pick it up and read, “The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind. The answer is blowing in the wind.” Point and match Dylan, I think, and the only sound that’s left after the ambulances go is Cinderella, sweeping up a discarded parking ticket on Desolation Row.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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  • Derek Christian

    Honk the stink

  • petesh

    I am sane and I have always enjoyed Self-Portrait, and still like it better than the revised Another, except for the complete Isle of Wight, which is actually better than I thought it was at the time. Also, too, JWH & NS & PG&BTK. But I’m shoulder to shoulder with you on the Basement Tapes. Nicely done, sir.

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