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The quest for completion: on Bob Dylan and the Basement Tapes

Bob Stanley explores two six-disc sets: Bob Dyland’s the Basement Tapes, released at long last, and a super-deluxe issue of The Velvet Underground’s eponymous third album.

Bob Dylan in London in 1966. Photo: Express Newspapers/Getty

In 1987 I had just started working at NME. A collection of Byrds outtakes called Never Before came out. It was horrible. David Crosby had apparently got hold of the master tapes, pushed his voice way up in the mix, and – worse yet – added clattery Eighties drums to the recordings. I thought it was unlistenable, thought it may as well have been a Ben Liebrand remix, but deputy editor Danny Kelly – who I had, and have, the utmost respect for – didn t seem bothered: “I’ve waited so long just to hear these songs”, he reasoned.

You got what you were given in the olden days, when the music industry was fat. In 1975, CBS released Bob Dylan and the Band’s Basement Tapes, a selection of the legendary sessions recorded in a house called Big Pink in 1967. Coming across this album in the Eighties, I was confused by how Seventies they sounded, and nothing like the missing link I’d expected between Blonde On Blonde and John Wesley Harding. That was because Robbie Robertson had tampered with the originals, finishing them off, turning them into an album – “improving” them, I’m sure he thought.

The full set of Basement Tapes just issued by Sony – every variation, every scrap – is quite the opposite. The Basement Tapes were recorded over a whole year, a lifetime in Sixties pop, the difference between “Then He Kissed Me” and “You Really Got Me”, between “Drive My Car” and “Strawberry Fields Forever”, between “Barbara Ann” and “Good Vibrations”. It shouldn’t be a surprise that there are six discs’ worth of recordings; what is quite shocking is that Dylan allowed himself to be so entirely cut off from pop’s contemporary progression that there is no real aesthetic, melodic or structural difference between the music recorded in March ‘67 to that recorded in March ‘68.

Unlike almost everyone else recording pop music in 1967, Dylan cherished a means of escape more than a way forward. He wanted to know how to get out of being “Bob Dylan”, the prophet, seer and sage. Partly he worked this out by playing at being other people – John Lee Hooker on “Tupelo”, Johnny Cash on “Big River” – but the magic of this all-encompassing set is that you can hear Dylan and the group formerly known as the Hawks working together, at first tentatively, through all of their influences until, several months in, they hit a peak on originals like “This Wheel’s On Fire” and “Tears Of Rage”.

It goes something like this: disc one is made up of pussyfooting demos cut at Dylan’s home; disc two sees them messing about at Big Pink with a load of stoned covers (“See You Later Alligator” recast as a tribute to Allen Ginsberg); then suddenly on the third disc, their visions flow into one another – “This Wheel’s On Fire”, “I’m Not There”, “I Shall Be Released”. Midway through the fourth disc they revert to pissing about – blues jam “Get Your Rocks Off” makes “Rainy Day Women” sound deep, and “Bourbon Street” is dull enough to put you off touching another drop. A run through some of Dylan’s greatest hits on disc five (“Blowin’ In The Wind”, “It Ain’t Me Babe”, “One Too Many Mornings”) suggests the sessions had reached their natural conclusion (the final disc is made up of the poorest quality audio recordings that have survived), though it ends on an extraordinary high with the soulful, Curtis Mayfield-like “All You Have To Do Is Dream” and two deeply atmospheric tracks, “Goin’ To Acapulco” and the previously undocumented “Wild Wolf”. I’m no Dylan omnivore, but I imagine that for a true devotee, a brush with “Wild Wolf” would be like hearing “Tangled Up In Blue” for the first time. 

The six-disc set comes with a hardback photo book containing Elliot Landy’s pictures that resulted in the Nashville Skyline cover, as well as intriguing paraphernalia like acetate labels, picture sleeves of cover versions by everyone from Julie Driscoll to Jonathan King, and press releases. Everything, in fact, except a song by song breakdown. For that, you need to buy the two-disc edited version, though this lacks the essential “Wild Wolf”, and – of course – it only talks about the highlighted songs. Sid Griffin’s main essay furrows my brow, too: of 1967, he says “The hit parade showed a popular music full of incense, peppermints, tea parties with the vicar, white rabbits, grandly orchestrated musical backdrops fraught with ruffles and flourishes.” This is the kind of conservative sniffiness that led to cat-calls when Dylan dared to introduce strings and black female backing singers on Self Portrait in 1970. Griffin’s notes use words like “truth” and “passion”, rather like Mark Hughes discussing Stoke City’s footballing philosophy. By 1967, he gasps, “even Buck Owens had bought a Moog synthesiser”. Good God! Where’s Pete Seeger’s axe when you need it? Call me a closet librarian, but I’d love to have an idea – even a rough one – of when the songs were recorded and in what order, rather than one man’s assassination of psychedelia and progressive pop. No matter. This is an essential, and surprisingly undersold, set.

It has always felt like something of a cop-out to say that the Velvet Underground’s third album is your favourite; it suggests you prefer the easy melodic charms of “Femme Fatale” to the abrasion and darkness of “Heroin”, or that the now-departed John Cale had been somehow problematic. Then again, you’re always going to get the grit and dissolution of “Waiting For The Man” on first listen – whatever terrors of loneliness might lurk behind Mo Tucker’s breezy barstool piece “After Hours” are more subtle but no less dark, nor is the album’s gently delivered opening couplet: “Candy says I’ve come to hate my body/And all that it requires in this world.”

The super-deluxe issue of The Velvet Underground’s eponymous third is another six-disc set, another major excavation, though it throws up less surprises and variation than The Basement Tapes. Here’s one thing, though – I might be very late to the party, but I never knew that there were two totally different takes on “Some Kinda Love”, depending on which pressing you owned. One has a characteristically bored sounding Lou Reed explaining how some kinds of love are “like a dirty French novel”, but the eager, breathing-in-your-ear version I knew from my mid-Eighties vinyl copy was apparently part of the rarer “closet mix” of the album. This is how the album was originally released, a version of the album on which Reed had pushed the vocals higher in the mix than they were on producer Val Valentin’s first attempt. There are no other alternate versions but the difference between the “Val Valentin Mix” and the “Closet Mix” is pronounced enough that both are given a disc each on this new set, as is a promotional mono mix.

The real treat for Velvets nuts is that the 1969 session tapes – the bulk of which were first issued as VU in 1985 – have been revisited on disc four. These fourteen songs would have been the basis of their fourth album had they not been dropped by incoming MGM president Mike Curb (he went on to become Republican Lieutenant Governor of California in 1979. Hardly surprising he dropped them, really). Like the ‘75 Basement Tapes, someone with clown gloves on had remixed these in ‘85 – for the first time we now get to hear “Foggy Notion” as it was originally mixed in 1969, without the perceptible mid-Eighties studio air that thinned out the VU version. Better still is a new mix of “I Can’t Stand It”, another one-chord wonder that was rendered unrecognisable as a product of the Sixties by an engineer whose guiding light was presumably Bob Clearmountain. The gated snare and orange-grey air of the VU mix is gone, leaving something that sounds rattier, but much more in keeping with late ‘68.

It’s odd to note the influences coming through, post-Cale. “She’s My Best Friend” shares the vocal descent of the Beatles’ “All I Gotta Do”. Elsewhere, I hear the lust of Buster Brown’s” Fannie Mae” and, more surprising, the almost ghostly but very white and suburban harmonies of a trio called the Fleetwoods. One of the earliest covers on The Basement Tapes (and a surprise, given Dylan’s poo-pooing of Fifties teen pop) is the Fleetwoods’ 1959 US number one “Mr Blue”. There may have been a desire amongst both the Band and the Velvet Underground to cut through the undergrowth and find a clearing in 1968, but there was also the pull of music from their teenage years, not so long ago, when things seemed less complicated. The Fleetwoods as an influence – it’s a surprising, and very sweet coincidence.

Bob Stanley is a writer and a member of the pop group Saint Etienne. His book, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop is published by Faber & Faber.

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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era