The Riff
Published in

The Riff

You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere

Bob Dylan, The Band, The Basement Tapes and the story behind the myth

July 29, 1966, was a beautiful day in the Catskills, one that would have stayed unnoticed in history if destiny wouldn’t have intervened most unexpectedly. What happened in Woodstock along or near Striebel Road, — even that fact isn’t clear — sealed the fate of the musicians who would become The Band.

Upon leaving the house of his manager, Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan crashed his motorcycle. Amazingly, the mystery surrounding this accident still endures today. Despite all the contradictory stories told by Bob’s entourage, the consequences of the accident are undeniable; the upcoming Dylan’s tour, a week away, was canceled. The months that followed the accident are now iconic. They are inseparable from the pink ranch-style house that would be a haven for Bob Dylan and four of the musicians from The Hawks, who had backed him up on his chaotic World Tour.

Like most stories behind a legend, the change was not perceptible immediately. It took a few months to impact the lives of Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Robbie Robertson. After his accident, Bob Dylan worked with Howard Alk to edit Eat the Document, the movie that D. A. Pennebaker had shot during the tour in the UK. Bob’s health had improved and his friends came to Woodstock to help with the film.

Yet, after a while, as Rick said in This wheel’s on Fire: “Then we got tired of the motel, and I went house hunting and found Big Pink.” Rick, Richard and Garth rented it for $125 a month, while Robbie and his girlfriend, Dominique, settled into a house on the Glasco Turnpike. The guys moved their musical sessions from the Red Room at Hi-Ho-La, the house where Bob was living with his wife Sara, to Big Pink.

It was the year of the summer of love, of the emblematic Sgt. Peppers, of beautiful people with wild hair, wearing pearls and flowers. Less poetically, it was also the year of racial riots in big cities across the United States, among them the infamous ones of Detroit.

Protected by all the agitation of that time, five young men found a refuge in the Catskill Mountains. Bob, Richard, Rick, Garth, and Robbie created their own universe protected from the modern world. Listening to The Basement Tapes — especially The Bootleg Series — we can imagine them jamming in the basement while Rick’s dog, Hamlet, lies on the rug. We can almost feel the warmth of the sun coming timidly through the dusty windows.

In Woodstock, they were protected from the Vietnam War, from the riots. And from their ghosts and their past. The songs they played in the basement were so far from the music of that summer. They got back to basics, to old tunes that reflected a world that no longer existed, interspersed with songs written by Bob Dylan that contained enigmatic lyrics.

Immersed in that cozy world, they forgot they had toured the world the previous year. They rediscovered the satisfaction of playing music without pressure. As Garth Hudson told Barney Hoskyns: “We were doing seven, eight, ten, sometimes fifteen songs a day. Some were old ballads and traditional songs, some were written by Bob, but others would be songs Bob made up as he went along.”

Their pieces were an incredible blend of roots music, country, traditional, bluegrass. One of them, I’m your teenage prayer, written by Bob Dylan, is a doo-wop parody sprinkled with laughs and false starts. Rick Danko’s tenor voice is delightful, and Richard Manuel singing mischievously in the background captures the essence of The Basement Tapes. The lively Apple Suckling Tree is another example of the good time they had in Big Pink.

Yet, they also wrote poignant songs, like Tears of rage and I shall be released, that would end up on Music From Big Pink by The Band in 1968. The chorus of I shall be released is now a classic: I see my light come shining/From the west unto the east/Any day now, any day now/I shall be released. Concerning Tears of rage, Richard co-wrote it with Bob. Dylan asked him if he could write lyrics for a melody he had just composed. Richard remembered: “I had a couple of movements that seemed to fit, so I just elaborated a little. I wasn’t sure what the lyrics meant, but I couldn’t run upstairs and say, What’s this mean, Bob?’”

In addition, they played timeless songs like Ol’ Roisin the Beau, along with new Bob’s compositions like You ain’t going nowhere. I don’t care/How many letters they sent/Morning came and morning went/Pick up your money/And pack up your tent/You ain’t goin’ nowhere.

Old songs popped up too, like the almost desperate rendition of One too many mornings, with Richard singing the first verse. It echoes the distress of This wheel’s on fire, which the slow tempo is distinct from the frenetic one of the version from Music From Big Pink.

According to Rick, the sessions in the basement lasted until the end of 1967. “For ten months, from March to December 1967, we all met down in the basement and played for two or three hours a day, six days a week. That was it, man. We wrote a lot of songs in that basement. It was incredible!”

Levon Helm joined them in the last months. He had left The Hawks in the middle of Bob’s tour and was working on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico when he received a call from his old friends, who wanted him back with the band. During those months when Levon was absent, Richard and Robbie alternated behind the drums. Richard was the most talented, and even after Levon’s return, he would be known as the second drummer of The Band.

We can hear him on drums on many songs from The Basement Tapes, including Goin’ to Acapulco, a gem written by Bob, and Ain’t no more cane, a prison work song that sounds like it was recorded along the Brazos River rather than in a basement in the Catskills.

Unconscious that they were inventing the Americana Sound, they devoted themselves to the music they loved, the music they wanted to play. It offered them a sanctuary from the troubles that were going on in the United States.

In the basement, the Vietnam War was forgotten, as were their obligations and personal struggles. They drove cars from the 1940s, wore vintage hats, and played traditional songs in a pink house. It wasn’t the hippie dream, but it was their dream. A dream different from the one of the flower children, yet no less significant. Those afternoons in Big Pink marked a path in their lives, a welcomed intermission that pushed their creativity to new heights.

As Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone Magazine in 1969, “You know… that’s really the way to do a recording — in a peaceful, relaxed setting — in somebody’s basement. With the windows open… and a dog lying on the floor.”

We feel a whole range of emotions with The Basement Tapes, which is perhaps the reason these songs still have an impact today. The life Bob, Richard, Rick, Garth and Robbie led in Woodstock during those months appears like a pastoral scene. We are drawn to that image of comfort and — relative — quietness, of living surrounded by trees and mountains. The Catskills triggered the inspiration of Bob Dylan and The Band, and the town’s spirit slipped into their compositions.

What happened in Big Pink during those magical months was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It shaped Bob Dylan and the members of The Band. The influence of Woodstock is present on the first albums by The Band and on the next Dylan’s albums — Nashville Skyline and John Wesley Harding among them. It was a total contrast with 1966, where they were almost punk.

A year later, they had changed. The world around them had changed, as well. The trepidation of a world tour gave way to a peaceful lifestyle set in an artistic town. Robbie described that atmosphere in his memoir, Testimony. “There was a real family feeling between Bob and The Hawks up in the Catskills. He was a very special friend and co-conspirator. We were already survivors from our year of living dangerously on one of the craziest tours in history.”

Listening to the sessions in Big Pink is a rift in time that brings us back to 1967. We don’t feel the riots, and the war, and the bad acid trips. Indeed, these five men were protected in Big Pink, and with the recordings made by Garth Hudson, we shared that oasis with them. Did they feel they missed something living in the Catskills rather than in San Francisco? Probably not. They knew they were finding their own voice. Although they weren’t conscious that their music would still live decades later, the shelter they created at Big Pink should have seemed like a benediction. It was exactly what they needed at that moment in their lives. And it’s exactly what we still need now.

Barney Hoskyns — Across The Great Divide

Barney Hoskyns — Small Talk Town

Levon Helm with Stephen Davis — This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band

Robbie Robertson — Testimony

Sid Griffin — Million Dollar Bash

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store