Wednesday, December 3, 2014

This Wheel's On Fire, Woodstock and Marketing the Basement Tapes

It's been a month since release of The Bootleg Series #11: The Basement Tapes, and though I've yet to weigh in I'm tilling the soil and planting seeds. There's plenty of chatter these days with almost everything Bob Dylan does. He's become an icon of our culture (though he famously disdains labels, so as soon as I wrote that I wanted to take it back.)

For the past month I've been listening to RAW, the 2-CD version of this bootleg collection, as opposed to Complete, the full 6-CD version. Simultaneously I have been paying attention to the reviews, some in surprising places. I've already noted the New Yorker feature, and I can't imagine a release of any Dylan music without a Rolling Stone feature. I suspect that marketing data is available to show that any time they can find an excuse to get a Dylan cover they increase sales by 10%. Just guessing, because those are the only ones I buy.

What's interesting about the Rolling Stone cover and the New Yorker piece is that they both rely on photos which originally appeared as part of a Saturday Evening Post feature in which a photographer and journalist went up to see what was happening with regard to Dylan's recovery from his motorcycle accident. I have had a copy of that Saturday Evening Post for so long that you can see how faded the ink has become when you compare the two pictures here. Perhaps the Rolling Stone photo looks richer because it's been re-mastered somehow. You can certainly see that it's been recycled from the same shoot.

Well, as I was saying above I've been prepping to weigh in on this latest Bootleg Series and one of the ways I've been gearing up is by reading Levon Helm's This Wheel's On Fire, a book that I will also review during another space of time. Helm was one of the original members of The Hawks, the band recruited to join Dylan in his new "electric" phase. You may recall from Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966 how these concerts generally unfolded. The first half of the concert would be Dylan solo, acoustic guitar strapped across his should, with a tight hold on his audiences. Part two would be Dylan pugged in, The Band (formerly The Hawks) producing a blistering sound that had the same effect in town after town: loud boos. The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert in Manchester culminated in one fan famously bellowing "Judas."

The tour began in the U.S. though before Dylan took it abroad, and with the exception of Texas, the results were the same everywhere, and Levon Helm really disliked it. He and the Hawks were accustomed to crowds embracing and loving their performances. Suddenly they were being disdained, almost violently. Ironically, Dylan loved it. Helm didn't say it this way but Dylan seemed to consider the publicity from this insulting treatment to be equivalent to writers who get tagged as "Banned in Boston."

Before they left the country Helm split the tour. Helm skipped about passing time in various ways including briefly bussing tables in Florida and working oil rigs off the Gulf coast. After Dylan's motorcycle accident Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko and gang were invited up to Woodstock, as was Levon Helm, and something magical happened. The creative energy was uninhibited, channeled into a different kind of sound independent of performance driven material. Whereas the Hawks cut their teeth as performers, this was a whole different gig, hanging with Bob and just letting the juices flow.

Fast forward. One of the tunes Dylan and Rick Danko co-wrote was "This Wheel's On Fire." It later became the title of Helm's book about the history of The Band (and his personal history). It also became the selected song from The Basement Tapes for this promotional video narrated by Jeff Bridges and released today to promote the Bootleg Series Volume 11. Watch it here.

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