On July 29, 1966, Bob Dylan was riding his Triumph motorcycle outside of Woodstock, New York, when he lost control and crashed, cracking a vertebrae, suffering a concussion, and spawning a new era of mystery for a man who, at the age of 25, was already a legend.
Before the accident, Dylan had been in the public eye almost constantly, but he didn’t tour again for another eight years after the crash. He spent the bulk of 1967—his most prolific songwriting year ever—recording hundreds of song demos with members of the Band in the basement of the band’s rental house in West Saugerties, New York. The recordings were done with a two-track, reel-to-reel system, for fun, and were never intended for public consumption. But in 1975, 16 of the songs were released in an album called The Basement Tapes, which is generally regarded as one of the most important and iconic recordings in the history of American music.
On November 4, 2014, Dylan will play a potentially historic three-night run of concerts at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis—a building he famously used to own. But these concerts won’t be historic simply because Dylan will be haunting his own building. They will be memorable because on that very day, November 4, Dylan will be releasing a six-CD set of material that includes every salvageable recording from the legendary Basement Tapes sessions, adding more than 10 album’s worth of material to his catalogue, including 30 songs that have never been heard before.
As if that weren’t enough to give Dylanologists the spins, the following week, on November 11, Harvest Records will be releasing an entirely new album, Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes, featuring songs based on lyrics Dylan wrote back in 1967 but never recorded. The album was produced by T Bone Burnett, and features, among others, Elvis Costello.
Given that the first 16 songs on The Basement Tapes fueled more than 40 years of obsessive speculation and analysis from Dylan fans, it’s a fair bet that at least a few heads are going to explode in November: “No, Bob! It’s too much! Please go back to pelting us with your genius in small, tolerable doses!” (Mercifully, a two-CD version of “highlights” will also be released, so that listeners don’t have to sit through three versions of “Open the Door, Homer.”)
It’s impossible to overstate the historical significance of these albums. Many a Ph.D. in musicology will be devoted to them. Without hearing either one, however, I can tell you that Lost on the River is going to sound a lot better than those salvaged recordings, no matter how much archival retouching they’ve received. The first time I heard The Basement Tapes, my initial reaction was, “The sound kind of sucks.” It was the mid-1970s. Steely Dan had just recorded Pretzel Logic, and the dynamics of pure studio perfection were all the rage. Dylan’s album had the sort of sound that some people call “crappy,” and others—the folky intelligentsia, mainly—call “authentic.” That was part of its charm, of course. It sounded like what it was: a recording of stuff you probably shouldn’t be listening to—and wouldn’t, if that adenoidal howl in the mix wasn’t our good friend Bob.
But I digress. If you are lucky enough to have tickets to any of the Orpheum shows, you will be witnessing a cosmic convergence of circumstances usually reserved only for comets and lottery winners. At this point, Bob Dylan is far more than a living legend; he is somewhere between a man and a myth. After November 4, he will be more myth than man, and there are only a lucky few who will still get to see him in his physical form, before he ascends to his rightful perch with the gods.