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Bob Dylan’s complete ‘Basement Tapes’ surface for the first time

In the late '60s, Bob Dylan retreated to upstate New York to recover from a motorcycle accident and the exhaustion of touring. In the basement of a house called Big Pink, he recorded with the musicians who would form The Band. Known as "The Basement Tapes," only a limited number of cuts have been available until now. Jeffrey Brown learns more from Anthony DeCurtis of Rolling Stone.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Bob Dylan's been one of the most influential voices in music for more than five decades now and an artist frequently considered an enigma all his own.

    One of the big mysteries surrounding his work and biography is a series of recordings he made that were never fully made public, the so-called Basement Tapes. Now they're about to be released in their entirety.

    Jeffrey Brown looks at what they tell us about Dylan and the era…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    By 1967, Bob Dylan had dropped from public view, retreating to a house near the town of Woodstock, New York, to recover from a motorcycle accident and the sheer exhaustion of years of touring and, it seemed, to regain a sense of mission in his life and music.

    He was already credited with altering the course of popular music at least twice, first popularizing the folk and protest songs of the early '60s, then turning electric, helping to launch the folk rock era.

    In the basement of house called Big Pink, joined by a group of musicians who later came to be known as The Band, Dylan recorded songs that have intrigued fans and critics ever since.

    (MUSIC)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Until now, only limited, often bootlegged portions of the sessions have been able, but, tomorrow, Sony's Legacy Recordings will release "The Basement Tapes Complete," containing 138 remastered tracks, along with a companion book.

    And we turn to Anthony DeCurtis, contributing editor at "Rolling Stone" magazine, who has written widely on Bob Dylan.

    Anthony DeCurtis, thanks for joining us.

    So, what are the Basement Tapes exactly?

  • ANTHONY DECURTIS, Rolling Stone:

    The Basement Tapes are a series of recordings that Bob Dylan made in 1967 and into the beginning of 1968.

    When he retreated to Woodstock, New York, there was a sense in which, you know, Dylan had so much cultural heat around him. And he went up to this area. He went 90 miles north of New York City and disappeared. But who disappeared along with him were the members of his backing group, and in the basement, they would just record.

    They would record old folk songs. They would record new songs that Dylan was working on. They would record really anything that came to mind. And that sense of relaxation and fun and just the sheer enjoyment of making music with your friends in a casual way is something that really comes through on the Basement Tapes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And why have they come to be considered so important?

  • ANTHONY DECURTIS:

    The Basement Tapes are important because they reveal a side of Dylan that really is impossible to find anywhere else, which is Dylan just relaxing and making music.

    You know, ever since — you know, certainly after he made "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" in 1963, he was a figure, the voice of a generation, somebody who was looked at all the time, whose every move was analyzed.

    Well, this is a situation where, because he was essentially in hiding, there was a — he was just doing what he wanted to do. And so that element of getting a peek behind the screen, getting a look at this iconic figure just having fun with music is something that is — simultaneously seems very down to earth and extremely mysterious.

    The nature of the music, the nature of the types of songs he was writing, their meaning is very hard to pin down, but it was also very different from what was going on at the time. I mean, the Beatles were doing "Sergeant Pepper" at this time, whereas Bob Dylan is in somebody's basement in Upstate New York recording old folk songs and new songs that sound like old folk songs.

    It couldn't possibly have been more out of tune with the times, and consequently has only gained meaning as time has gone on.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Well, there's a lot of music on these tapes. What do we hear? What kind of music? What does it sound like?

  • ANTHONY DECURTIS:

    Well, the music that's on the Basement Tapes, in a certain way, it's unlike anything else throughout Dylan's career.

    Some of it is — are traditional folk songs that he and members of the band would try out. They would play some of them, they would start them, they would stop them, they would do variations on them. But then Dylan started writing a lot. He started writing with members of the band.

    And so that's when you start getting songs like "Tears of Rage, "The Mighty Quinn," "This Wheel's on Fire." Now, these aren't necessarily — casual Dylan fans might not know all these songs. But for people following Dylan's career, there's a kind of antic element that is going on in the Basement Tapes, a sense of fun.

    Dylan is restoring himself, in part by turning back to folk music and by music that is informed by the traditions of folk music. And that's what really comes across in these recordings. It's a sense of mood and fun and just sheer delight both in your own talent and in the joys that music can bring.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And, you know, to this day, Bob Dylan remains I guess this enigmatic figure of rock 'n' roll. And every aspect of his history, all these transitions are looked at, right, still to this day.

  • ANTHONY DECURTIS:

    Exactly.

    Oh, yes, absolutely, and very much hidden in plain sight. Dylan tours every year, does between 120 and 125 dates. He's out there all the time. But, still, like, what's motivating him, what's driving him, what he's thinking about, what he's going to do, even now as he's well into his 70s, there's a sense in which none of those questions can really be definitively answered.

    And back to the Basement Tapes, that was really one of the most mysterious. The songs themselves are very mysterious. There's a kind of genial surrealism about them. They have a fun, mysterious aspect that's very difficult to pin down, but that's of course one of their joys. It's the kind of thing that Dylan fans revel in, is interpreting all these songs.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Anthony DeCurtis on Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes, thanks so much.

  • ANTHONY DECURTIS:

    Thank you.

    Photographs used in this broadcast © Elliott Landy.

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