Thursday, March 5, 2015

Bob Dylan - Songs For Dwarf Music

Bob Dylan - Songs For Dwarf Music
(soniclovenoize reconstruction)

Side A:
1.  Million Dollar Bash
2.  Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread
3.  Please Mrs. Henry
4.  Crash on The Levee
5.  Lo and Behold!
6.  Tiny Montgomery
7.  This Wheels On Fire

Side B:
8.  You Ain't Going Nowhere
9.  I Shall Be Released
10.  Too Much of Nothing
11.  Tears of Rage
12.  Quinn The Eskimo
13.  Open The Door, Homer
14.  Nothing Was Delivered

This is a reconstruction of the 14-song acetate compiled in January 1968 of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes recordings for his music publishing company, Dwarf Music.  Intended for distribution to recording industry insiders in order to shop the songs around for other artists to cover, it was this acetate that was used to create the very first bootleg album, Great White Wonder.  Many believe this specific collection is the closest official word to a vintage, proper Dylan album compiled from the 1967 Basement Tapes recordings.  This reconstruction of that acetate uses the very best sources (namely the Bootleg Series vol 11) uses the correct takes in correct sequence and is presented in a unique mono mix.  As opposed to the overdubbed 1975 Basement Tapes album or even the 2014 Bootleg Series vol 11 box set, this reconstruction is how the material was originally presented and meant to be heard in early 1968.   Note that this is not necessarily an upgrade from my previous Basement Tapes reconstruction Big Pink, even though the sound quality certainly is an upgrade and they share 13 of the same 14 songs; both Songs For Dwarf Music and Big Pink attempt different goals through the same body of music. 

Infamously concluding his electric, amphetamine-fueled 1966 World Tour with a “debilitating” motorcycle accident, Bob Dylan was left to retire from the public eye and become the family-man he allegedly always wanted to be.  But his old desire to make music eventually crept in, which amounted to Dylan placing phone calls systematically to the members of The Hawks, his backing band for his previous tour.  Being on retainer, Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel—whom themselves were thinking about regrouping and renaming their own outfit into The Band—arrived to Dylan’s Woodstock home in the summer of 1967 and began simply jamming to old country, gospel and traditional standards while the world around them snacked on psychedelic pop.  Hudson recorded the highlights of the proceedings for posterity to two-track tape and the quintet quickly amassed a pile of reels, unsure exactly what to do with them.  The Basement Tapes were born.

But without a new Dylan album or tour on the horizon, manager Albert Grossman needed new product.  Thus the gears eventually shifted and the daily basement jams evolved into demo sessions for new Dylan compositions, intended to be sold to other artists.  Even though Dylan tailor-wrote each serious original for a specific artist, his originals were very different during this period, informed by the structure of the folk standards the quintet had jammed on during the previous months.  Dylan’s lyrics were paired down from the verbose poetics of Blonde on Blonde to be concise, with every singular line being important and justified; many songs became structurally and even thematically similar to sea shanties and drinking songs.  But the most notable characteristics are the full band arrangements, which often included: Dylan’s 12-string acoustic guitar and idiosyncratic voice; Rick Danko’s electric bass keeping the rhythm in Levon Helm's absence, reminiscent of Sun Records' drumless recordings; Richard Manuel’s piano keeping the backbone with Dylan’s acoustic; only Robbie Robertson’s tasteful electric lead guitar and Garth Hudson’s celestial electric organ remained from the previous year’s 'wild mercury sound’.  Remarkably, some of Bob Dylan’s most cherished songs spawned from these sessions and the Basement Tapes set the standard for Dylan’s concise songwriting method and style for his following albums, from John Wesley Harding up to Planet Waves. 

The first collection of demos was compiled by Hudson (who was acting as impromptu producer) in October 1967, a set of ten songs from Reels 8 & 9, sequenced in the order they were recorded (although “Tiny Montgomery” from Reel 4 was stuck in-between): Million Dollar Bash / Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread / Please Mrs. Henry / Crash on the Levee / Lo and Behold! / Tiny Montgomery / This Wheel’s On Fire / You Ain’t Going Nowhere / I Shall Be Released / Too Much of Nothing.  It was this original tape that secured the initial covers of the Basement Tapes material, including Flatt & Scruggs take on “Crash on the Levee”, Brian Auger & The Trinity’s take on “This Wheel’s On Fire”, The Byrds take on “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” and Peter, Paul & Mary’s take on “Too Much of Nothing.”

With The Byrds and Peter, Paul & Mary charting with Dylan originals, Albert Grossman asked for more songs.  A second, five-song tape was compiled in January 1968 with the best songs from Reels 10 & 13 that included: Tears of Rage / Quinn The Eskimo / Open The Door, Homer / Nothing Was Delivered / Get Your Rocks Off.  Eventually the final song was dropped, and the remaining four songs were tagged onto the end of the previous 10-song reel, creating the final 14-song acetate that lead to Manfred Mann’s take on “Quinn The Eskimo” charting as well as The Byrds take on “Nothing Was Delivered”.  It was this 14-song configuration that made the most rounds in the inner circles, arriving not only in the hands of both music industry professionals and curious musicians, but in the hands of Jann Wenner who famously published an article about the great unreleased Bob Dylan album in Rolling Stone.   It also arrived in the hands of Ken and Dub who pressed their own  vinyl run of the material (coupled with recordings from 1961) and sold their wares under-the-counter to drooling Dylan fans starving for the originals of his currently-charting originals otherwise were unavailable to the general public.  Eventually dubbed The Great White Wonder, this was the first bootleg record. 

The mythology of The Basement Tapes grew throughout the 60s and 70s, largely due to the notoriety of those specific Dylan songs he never released, Wenner’s Rolling Stone article and the emergence of bootleg recordings.  Meeting the demands for an official document of the Basement Tapes recordings, Robbie Robertson with Levon Helm (who did not appear in the Basement Tapes sessions until the 14-song acetate was completed) compiled and then overdubbed a double album of the recordings in 1975.  While a great listen, the inherent faults of the album (anachronistic overdubs, poor sound quality of some source material, inclusions of unrelated Band material, exclusion of “I Shall Be Released” and “Quinn the Eskimo”) did not quench many Dylan fans’ thirst for the vintage Basement Tapes recordings.  Since then, a number of bootlegs including A Tree With Roots and The Genuine Basement Tapes offered a more vintage anthology of the available material.  Both sets were finally trumped by the official 6-CD box set The Bootleg Series vol 11: The Basement Tapes Complete, remastered (mostly) from the master reels, presented as a modern centralized stereophonic mix.  The epic box set was everything a Basement Tapes aficionado would desire, but it lacked one thing: a remastered reproduction of that original fourteen-song acetate for Dwarf Music, the recording that started it all, what many Dylan fans believe is the true missing Dylan album from 1967. 

Recreating the original 14-song acetate—what  I have titled here as Songs For Dwarf Music—is a much easier task than it appears to be.  All the source material is available on Bootleg Series vol 11 at the highest sound quality possible.  The one kink is that it is in stereo with an overly-centered vocal track, while the original acetate is in mono.  Furthermore, I propose the Basement Tapes were meant to be heard in mono all along for a few reasons:
1) All of the tapes were tracked live to two-track tape, with Dylan’s acoustic and vocal in one track and all of the remaining instruments in the other track.  The end result, if mixed to stereo, is a difficult listen, akin to the awkward mixes of early Beatles albums in which the vocals are trapped in one channel and instruments in the other.  The logical solution is to make a final mix in mono and I believe that was Hudson’s intention while recording it. 
2) Any compilation of this material would have been used for industry insiders and played mainly in corporate offices, professional locations with no concern for stereophonic setups. 
3) In 1967, mono was the standard anyways; it would take a couple more years for stereo to become the predominant format

But how would have these mono mixes have been prepared in 1967?  Luckily we have fairly decent audio samples of “Million Dollar Bash” and “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread” sourced from John Peel’s copy of the original acetate.  Using those mixes as a guideline, we can take the correct tracks from BS11 and split the left and right channels into separate tracks.  From there, the right channel (Dylan’s vocal/acoustic track) is reduced in volume by 28 dBs and the two tracks are remixed to mono.  The result is a mono mix with Manuel’s piano driving the song and Hudson’s organ up front in the mix, right behind Dylan’s voice.  This matches the levels found on John Peel’s copy of the acetate, which was how Hudson originally mixed the songs.  Making the assumption that all 14 songs were mixed this way, we apply these settings to all 14 songs (with the exception of “I Shall Be Released” which was already mixed with both channels at an equal volume on BT11; I instead created a mono fold-down that seemed to match the instrumental balance of the other 13 tracks). 

What songs should be included?  Luckily there is a lot of documentation that clarifies which takes were used and in what order, and we will follow that template (for better or for worse).  Side A of my reconstruction begins with take 2 of “Million Dollar Bash”, followed by take 2 of “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread”, “Please Mrs. Henry”, take 2 of “Crash on the Levee”, take 2 of “Lo and Behold!”, “Tiny Montgomery” and “This Wheel’s On Fire”.  Side B begins with take 2 of “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” followed by take 2 of “I Shall Be Released”.  Take 1 of “Too Much of Nothing” was used on the acetate (as opposed to take 2 featured and overdubbed on the 1975 Basement Tapes album) and Peter, Paul and Mary’s cover version logically reflects that arrangement.  Likewise, take 1 of “Tears of Rage” (as opposed to take 3 on the 1975 Basement Tapes album) and take 1 of “Quinn The Eskimo” (as opposed to the superior take 2 on Biograph and The Essential Bob Dylan) were both featured on the original acetate.  This reconstruction concludes with takes 1 of “Open The Door, Homer” and (regrettably) take 1 of “Nothing Was Delivered”.  While I don’t totally agree on these take selections (notably for “Nothing Was Delivered” and “Quinn The Eskimo”) we will concede to present an accurate artifact. 

The final touch is the cover art, inspired by the blank, generic Emidisc sleeve that often housed these type of acetates, featuring only a typewritten title and tracklist, with some tracks even mistitled!  Also included are scans of three (of the reported eight) copies of the actual acetate disc labels as well as a tapebox scan of the master reel of Hudson’s initial 10-song configuration from October 1967.  So while BT11 is an amazing document of the entire Basement Tapes, presented here is what the genuine article was originally meant to be, if anything at all.  

Sources used:
The Bootleg Series vol 11: The Basement Tapes Complete

flac --> wav --> editing in SONAR and Goldwave --> flac encoding via TLH lv8
* md5 files, track notes and artwork included