Updated: Thursday, October 30, 2014, 10:04 PM
The Basement Tapes have finally come upstairs.
In their entirety, that is. On Tuesday, all 138 tracks recorded in 1967 by Bob Dylan & the Band, mostly in the basement of a house known as Big Pink in West Saugerties, N.Y., will be issued in a six-CD boxed set.
It's officially called The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 11 (Columbia ****), and it's the cornerstone of a Bob Dylan November.
It will be followed a week later by the release of The New Basement Tapes: Lost in the River, an intriguing collection in which Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes each put music to unfinished Dylan lyrics from the Basement Tapes era that the Bard, for reasons known only to him, handed over to producer T Bone Burnett with his blessings this year.
And later this month, the real-life, now 73-year-old Dylan will bring his "Never-Ending Tour" to Philadelphia for a weekend stand at the Academy of Music for three consecutive nights, beginning Nov. 21. Chances are, he will not acknowledge either of the releases calling attention to his illustrious past, and will carry on choosing to do whatever he pleases.
That's what he did in 1967, when at the height of the counterculture - the year of the psychedelic Summer of Love - he recoiled from being appointed the oracle of his generation. While recovering from a mysterious motorcycle accident that plays a mythic role in the Dylan career narrative (Did he almost die? Did it actually even happen?), he went into domestic seclusion with his young family in Upstate New York.
The sprawling Basement boxed set is a fully immersive chronicle of the creative burst that followed. Gathering with friends in West Saugerties, just outside of Woodstock, and playing, as he later recalled to Rolling Stone's Jann Wenner, "in somebody's basement, with the windows open and a dog on the floor," he wound up making the most deeply relaxed - as well as some of the most profound, and profoundly funny - music of his life.
It was created in fully collaborative spirit with Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, and Levon Helm. As the Band, the well-traveled, mostly Canadian rock-and-roll quintet would release two brilliant albums of their own that also grew out of the Big Pink wellspring.
But back in the summer of 1965, known as Levon & the Hawks, they were a bar band in residence at Tony Mart's in Somers Point, N.J., when Dylan asked them to join him on his first electric tour. Enraged folk fans pilloried him nightly after he plugged in at the Newport Folk Festival.
The Basement box is just one example of the undying staying power - or, depending on your point of view, refusal to go away - of the first generation of rock and soul stars. It's not only Dylan. Neil Young, who played two nights at the Academy of Music last month, has an album recorded with orchestra and big band called Storytone coming out on Tuesday, as well as a book, Special Deluxe: A Memoir of Life & Cars. And in what's likely to be the most scintillating show of the month, Stevie Wonder will play his 1976 masterpiece Songs in the Key of Life from start to finish at the Wells Fargo Center on Nov. 16.
Dylan's case, though, is particularly remarkable. He remains an extremely active presence on the road, despite a voice that on a bad night can sound like he's been gargling with battery acid, and he continues to record at a productive rate. If you count the 2009 holiday album Christmas in the Heart, he has released five full-lengths this millennium, and another is expected, thought to be called Shadows in the Night, which may or may not be a set of Tin Pan Alley covers.
Besides all that, Dylan's past is a gift that keeps on giving. The Basement box is part of an ongoing series of rarities and outtake releases that has created a shadow career arc. It follows last year's Another Self Portrait, which offered stripped-down (and better) versions of tunes consigned to infamy when they were horribly overproduced on his 1970 album Self Portrait.
Unlike that reclamation, The Basement Tapes Complete - also available in condensed two-CD or three-LP form - doesn't alter Dylan's history so much as expand it.
What's always been mind-boggling about the West Saugerties sessions is that even though they produced so much memorable material that combined absurdist humor ("Million Dollar Bash," "Apple Suckling Tree") and spiritual yearning ("I Shall Be Released," "Tears of Rage") and spawned hits for other artists ("Quinn the Eskimo" by Manfred Mann), Dylan didn't release any of it at the time. It was only after bootlegs like The Great White Wonder surfaced that a fraction of the prodigious output was let loose on a 1975 Basement Tapes double LP.
Never having chased down those boots myself, diving into the Basement box I'm having a grand old time rummaging through this mother lode. It's true, as Elvis Costello has said, that the Basement Tapes sound "like they were recorded in a cardboard box," but much of their power is communicated in the simple informality of the approach.
Among the scads of gems are the goof "See You Later, Allen Ginsberg" and a heartrending duet between Dylan and Richard Manuel on "One Too Many Mornings." The innumerable memorable covers include Hank Williams' "You Win Again," Ian Tyson's "Four Strong Winds," and Dylan's own "Blowin' in the Wind," rearranged as a blues.
There's talk about how the Basement Tapes invented the Americana or alt-country genre, and along with Gram Parsons' work in the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, that's true enough. But what really comes across from the maximalist experience is how the wisdom and whimsy of Dylan's songs are inhabited by the spirit of the old country shuffles and ballads and blues songs they stand alongside.
The songs don't seem to be performed so much as lived, escaping the hurly-burly of expectation that Dylan the cultural prophet became so burdened with in the mid-'60s. Nearly a half-century after they were recorded, The Basement Tapes remain the best argument for getting away from it all in the history of rock-and-roll.