The originals were intended for other artists, solicited via music publishers. That’s when the bootlegs began circulating a couple years after the demos were recorded, teasing a fascinated record-buying public with oodles of previously unheard Dylan music. Beginning not long after the ragged, lo-fi recordings and continuing right up until present day, Dylan collectors have been trying to get it all. In 1975, a double-album was official released, but that initial The Basement Tapes offered only 16 Dylan tracks plus eight by The Band that weren’t part of the legendary original demo sessions (there was also overdubbing and additional production applied to the original recordings).
While some of the reel-to-reel tapes have degraded to the point of uselessness, all the existing material (including, for the sake of completeness, some recordings of very rough fidelity) has been carefully transferred and issued as The Basement Tapes Complete. For the purposes of making this assemblage as authentic as possible, Band member Garth Hudson was involved in the transfer process. This means we get multiple takes of some songs, incomplete versions of others—a real fly-on-the-wall listening experience. The “relatively chronological” sequencing (as stated in the liner notes) was based on Hudson’s numbering system.
While 117 of the 138 tracks assembled here were previously unreleased in an official capacity, some 30 or so have not even previously appeared on any bootlegs. Several of these are included on disc six, technically referred to as a “bonus disc.” This is where the roughest audio quality tracks were collected, and yes, some of these recordings are quite abrasive in terms of distortion, tape hiss, and other anomalies. Among the previously unheard material is the haunting “Wild Wolf,” found on disc five. Also unheard prior to this collection are fascinating re-visitations of “One Too Many Mornings,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “It Ain’t Me Babe.”
Of course, only the most dedicated collector’s of previously-circulating “Basement Tapes” bootlegs will know all the other stuff. For many Dylan fans, most or all of the tunes outside of the ’75 Basement Tapes will be new listening material to pore over. Three takes of “Nothing Was Delivered,” each featuring distinct differences. Two takes of “Quinn the Eskimo,” with the second featuring particularly inspired keyboard work by Hudson. Three takes of the Richard Manuel collaboration, “Tears of Rage,” the second of which a 6/8 experiment. The third was released on the ’75 album, but here it’s stripped of any extraneous production. The highpoints are so numerous the hours of music must be carefully digested over time. A song like “Don’t Ya Tell Henry,” released on the ’75 album with a then-new Levon Helm vocal, is one of many classics that might slip past upon first listening.
All that said, it’s worth re-emphasizing the “historical document” aspect of this set. With such a widely varying degree of audio quality, these are recordings that take patience. Even some ardent Dylan buffs may find this material too rough and ramshackle to inspire frequent listening, and that’s fine. These recordings were not arranged or performed with a mass audience (or any commercial audience, for that matter) in mind. They are bare, elemental, stripped-down, and casual, but for those wanting a long look at the creative process Dylan and The Band underwent, they are also invaluable.
The heavy-duty packaging goes a long ways toward further justifying the set’s premium price tag. The discs are housed in pockets within a hardcover book. This book contains illuminating new essays that tell the story behind the music, including some particularly terrific notes by Clinton Heylin (“What’s Reel & What is Not”). Producer Jan Haust also offers some excellent notes, as does music writer Sid Griffin (“The Importance of the Basement Tapes”). In addition to the extensive liner notes, an additional hardcover book (120 pages) is loaded with a treasure trove of rare photographs.
This is obviously the gift for Bob Dylan fans this holiday season. For the budget-minded, there is a fantastic alternative to The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11. Not to be confused with the 1975 Basement Tapes, The Basement Tapes Raw is a two-disc distillation that offers no less than 38 highlights from the big box.