So, I got a couple of highly-acclaimed box sets from some of my favorite artists ever for the holidays. Between them, the two boxes have 10 CDs, so it’s taken a while to listen a few times before writing about them.
Don’t get me wrong, I really appreciate the depth and breadth of both Wilco’s Alpha Mike Foxtrot: Rare Tracks 1994-2014 and Bob Dylan and the Band’s The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series Vol 11. But as much as I love these artists, and as much as I believe that Dylan and Jeff Tweedy are two of the greatest songwriters who have ever lived, I feel like both compilations are vastly over-rated.
The 4-disc Wilco set really shows what an outstanding job Tweedy & Co. have done over the years placing their best songs on regular releases, while relegating lesser songs to B-sides, movie soundtracks, or the back shelf. I may change my mind once I listen to it more, but except for the cover of the Byrds’ “One Hundred Years From Now,” I didn’t hear a single rarity that matched the power of the average song on any of Wilco’s albums. Some rarities I’ve loved live, such as “The Good Part,” paled in comparison on record.
The Basement Tapes is a whole another animal. Supposedly, none of these versions of these songs cut in 1967 was ever expected to see the light of day. So many (“Quinn The Eskimo,” “Nothing Was Delivered,” “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” etc.) became classics in the hands of others. But given the mystique of the back story (Dylan’s motorcycle accident and seclusion in Woodstock, the Band moving to Woodstock to work with him) and the success of Dylan and the Band’s joint 1974 tour, everyone was ecstatic when a 2-LP, (at the time not-known-to-be studio-sweetened) version of The Basement Tapes came out in 1975.
These six discs are raw. Songs start in the middle. They end abruptly. Some fragments are less than a minute. Some are very basic, and sound like they could have been performed by a bar band. Dylan laughs on several songs. I can see why it attracts completists and historians. It shows the workshopping process; it shows Dylan has a sense of humor. But again, it shows mostly works in progress. Out of six CDs, very few songs transcend the versions we heard polished by other artists, or by Dylan or the Band themselves.
But I’m obsessed with one song. It’s odd. Until I saw the (also vastly over-rated) 2007 Dylan biopic “I’m Not There,” I didn’t realize he had a song of that name. Since I have all his important ’60s albums, plus Blood On The Tracks and all the great late career albums starting with Time Out Of Mind, I just assumed the song was on one of his gospel albums or weak ’80s albums I was just remotely familiar with.
The song starts with Dylan in mid-word. The original tapes that Garth Hudson kept for 47 years, that were turned into this box set, either started rolling late, or were clipped later. The lyrics are a jumble of images — even for Dylan (if you look for them online, you’ll see no two people transcribe them the same.) But it’s not about clarity, it’s about feel. In the same oxymoronic way that the murkiness of Exile on Main Street IS its clarity, the phrases that poke their head out of “I’m Not There” and it’s baleful minor chords give you a distinct, pit-of-the-stomach feel.
No, I don’t belong to her, I don’t belong to any choir
She’s my Christ-forsaken angel but she don’t hear me cry
She’s a lone-hearted mystic and she can’t carry on
When I’m there she’s alright but then she’s not when I’m gone