Sunday, May 2, 2010

Robbie Robertson, Basement Tapes and the Velvet Underground

Two guitarists styles who have influenced my sound are the superbly understated Curtis Mayfield soul of Robbie Robertson and the Bo Diddley, hypnotic drone/ manic Ornette Coleman free jazz of Lou Reed(I should probably credit Sterling Morrison most of the time). So you can imagine how excited I was when I heard the complete Basement Tapes with Dylan & the Band and found a few songs that, to my ears sounded like the Velvets gone folk and fronted by Dylan.
Around the same time I borrowed the book Million Dollar Bash by Sid Griffin, a song by song account of the basement tapes, from Jake –I still haven’t given it back, and found that Griffin had made similar connections to the Velvets. That book is one of the best, well-researched, detailed inquiries into the Basement Tapes sessions. The best part of his analysis was a sentence about the story of Robbie Robertson walking out of a 1965 Velvet Underground concert after 5 minutes. So in a lovely ironic turn here is Robbie with Dylan on these 1967 tracks which overload the VU levels (hahaha word play):

Sorry I don’t know how to upload music on here so I am linking to youtube clips.

“I can’t Come in with a Broken Heart”(1) is the song where Sid Griffin points out the Velvet Underground comparison and relates it to the Velvets “I can’t Stand it” pointing out the irony. It certainly has the overloaded piano clunking reminiscent of “Waiting for The Man,” the tambourine has got that cool Maureen Tucker vibe just smacking round, and the guitar has got the sort of riffing similar to the Velvet’s 80’s albums VU and Another View. It’s that messy Velvet Underground Pop-Slop all the way.

“I can’t Come in with a Broken Heart” (2) is from what I can make out of the lyrics actually based on the traditional “come all ye fair and tender ladies” (check out this Maybelle Carter Version). I guess mislabeling is the price you pay for Bootlegs. Anyways, according to Griffin this is some “rudimentary mandolin” by Richard Manuel, the droning guitar sound is Dylan, and those meandering guitar licks are Robertson. All in all, it sounds like a folksy Velvet Underground drone that overdrives the tapes.

“Come all ye fair and tender ladies” (3) looks like another mislabel. It’s probably just another random instrumental with a typical blues guitar riff but in my opinion is like a slowed down version of “run, run, run” off the first Velvets album. I always laugh when Dylan says at the end "this guitar ain't made to do this type of thing you know."

“The Hills of Mexico” (4) wasn’t a comparison I stumbled upon by myself, it’s straight out of Griffins book. It’s hard to see the connection at first, in fact I thought of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at first which is unwarranted as their records came out twenty years later and thus should be compared in reverse. Sid Griffin points out that this is what Velvet Underground folk music would sound like “if the early Velvet Underground were told by Tom Wilson to forget Warhol and the drugs and to try playing this old cowboy ballad instead.” Like I said it’s hard to see at first but compare this to “Venus in Furs” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and you can start to see it.
The Tom Wilson reference is of interest to crazy geeks like me because besides producing the first two Velvet Underground albums (the first one it was more like post-production as Warhol was the “producer”), he produced Dylan’s “The Times They are A’Changin,” “Another Side of Bob Dylan,” and “Bringing It All Back Home.” If you wanna hear what a real folksy Velvet Underground would sound like check out this pre-Warhol “Waiting for The Man” demo with Cale harmonizing and Reed doing his best nasal cowboy, ahem Bob Dylan, imitation.

Check out the Blog Misha4Music, for more on the remastered Genuine Basement Tapes "Tree with Roots".

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