Elvis Costello was a teenager in London in 1968 when several UK hit songs piqued his interest: "The Mighty Quinn," by Manfred Mann; "This Wheel's on Fire," by Julie Driscoll; and "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," by the Byrds. All were written by Bob Dylan, but his original versions were not well-known until the release of The Basement Tapes in 1975. That album, of course, consisted of sessions Dylan had recorded with the Band years before, in 1967.
"I was attracted to the mood of those songs, because I loved the Band and I loved [Dylan's] John Wesley Harding," says Costello. "Those records are the product of the work shopping that they were doing." The recently released six-disc set The Basement Tapes Complete (Columbia/Legacy) documents how Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, and Levon Helm worked up well over 100 songs in Dylan's den and in the basement of the house they called Big Pink. "You hear a group of musicians trying stuff out," Costello says, "fooling around, playing half-finished songs, songs that sound like they've been made up on the spot, covers by other people."
Those lo-fi demos, never intended for public release, have been a touchstone for generations of rock and roots musicians. Last year, Costello was one of five artists given the extraordinary opportunity to extend the legacy of that era of Dylan's songwriting, thanks to the discovery of a box of forgotten lyrics he wrote at the time of the Basement Tapes sessions. Dylan's publisher shared the lyrics with producer T Bone Burnett, who in turn invited Costello, along with Marcus Mumford (Mumford and Sons), Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes), and Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops), to write new songs based on Dylan's words, and to record them as an ad-hoc band.
The result is Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes, which, apart from its Dylanological significance, is simply a great album — frisky and fun, stylistically varied yet unified, too. The five artists not only rose to the challenge of making songs from Dylan's 47-year-old scribbling, but they stayed true to the freewheeling spirit of the original basement sessions.
"It was our good fortune that these lyrics came to light and we were given them to play with," says Costello. "it was a playground."
Setting the stage
It's hard to imagine a better guide for The New Basement Tapes than Burnett, who played in Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue in the '70s and has helped shape the contemporary Americana scene as producer of such albums as Gillian Welch's Revival, Alison Krauss and Robert Plant's Raising Sand, and the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.
When presented with the lost Dylan lyrics, Burnett's first thought was to not think too much. "I decided not to analyze it or break it apart, but just find some collaborators who could relate to it spontaneously," he says. "I didn't want to get a lot of ideas."
Burnett wanted to assemble a diverse group of songwriters who could also back each other on multiple instruments. He had worked with Mumford, Giddens, and his longtime friend Costello at a 2013 concert celebrating the music of the Coen Brothers' movie Inside Llewyn Davis (for which Burnett was music supervisor), and saw them as natural collaborators. He felt similarly about James, who had already been through the same process, creating new songs from Woody Guthrie lyrics for the 2012 album New Multitudes. Mumford suggested bringing in Goldsmith, whom Burnett describes as an "all-around threat" with his chops on guitar, bass, keyboard, and vocals.
Unlike Dylan and the Band, who in 1967 were hanging out in Woodstock and made The Basement lives over the course of a year or so, the biggest window of time that Burnett could find to get his busy artists together was 12 days. The tight schedule ruled out recording in a house that would have to be set up from scratch, so the sessions were booked instead at the expansive Capitol Studios, on the lower level of the Capitol Records tower in Hollywood. "It was a basement, too," Burnett says with a chuckle, "so it had that going for it."
Burnett supplied the songwriters with transcriptions of the Dylan lyrics in advance, so they could work up ideas to bring to the sessions. Once in the studio, Burnett wanted everyone to do what Dylan and the Band did, swapping instruments as they wrote, arranged, and recorded on the fly.
With all the musicians working off the same set of lyrics, the sessions could have felt like a songwriting competition to see whose version of a particular lyric would get picked for the album. The best strategy, Burnett decided after a slow first day in which they recorded just one song, was to record all of the ideas that everybody had and sort through them later. "So we put the pedal to the metal and started working fast," he says.
The group wound up recording 48 songs in the 12 days they worked together. And out of those 48 tracks, Burnett picked 20 for the album.
"Because T Bone made the decision to record everything, we didn't know what was going to happen with these recordings, and nobody really cared," Giddens says. "It was just like, 'We're making awesome music. Let's make as much as we can.'"
Follow the lyrics
Keeping the sessions fast and loose was appropriate for the spirit of Dylan's lyrics. "The words are very playful from that time," Goldsmith says. "It's not like he's trying to get after `Visions of Johanna' or 'Chimes of Freedom' or stuff like that. It's really like, 'What's a good way for us all to have a good time today?'
The silliness heard in original Basement Tapes songs like "Lo and Behold" and "Tiny Montgomery" (Costello calls them "drunken pirate songs") carries over to The New Basement Tapes on songs such as "Married to My Hack" and "Card Shark."
Costello recalls performing Goldsmith's "Card Shark" at a concert in Los Angeles after the album release, with everyone off mic and harmonizing in the footlights. "There's a line in it that says, 'Stick it in the rear and roar for a bit / And waddle down the road like a brick,' and we all had difficulty getting to the next chorus without bursting out laughing," Costello says. "There's nothing wrong with playing with words for sheer mischief. You don't always have to be looking for some kind of deep and hidden meaning in the song."
Not all the lyrics are so irreverent. "Spanish Mary" written in the stark style of a traditional ballad, builds to the haunting couplet, "Beggar man, beggar man, tell me no lie / Is it a mystery to live or is it a mystery to die?" That song was a natural for Giddens, the most trad-oriented artist of the group, who accompanied her interpretation on a 19th-century-style minstrel banjo. The low-and-lonesome album opener, "Down on the Bottom," ponders being "down to the last drop in the cup" and got an R&B treatment by James, while "Kansas City" is a rueful farewell to a fickle lover that Mumford (with an assist from Goldsmith on some of the chord changes) turned into a folk-rock anthem.
One of the keys to the project was that the artists could edit the lyrics however they wanted. Dylan himself was strictly hands off. "We weren't seeking his endorsement or approval," Costello says. "I think it would be very strange for him to get involved, as somebody who's moving forward all the time."
Editing and adaptation were necessary in many cases. Some lyrics were incomplete or in progress, as became obvious when the songwriters got to examine the original handwritten pages. "You could see where things had been crossed out and where there were alternate rhymes and word choices and things like that," says Costello. "That made you feel that these were in an unedited state, so you could do a little work of your own."
Within the group, the songwriters often came to very different conclusions about how to make a lyric work. A case in point, Costello says, is "Lost on the River": James' version (not on the CD) included every word Dylan wrote. Giddens reduced the original lyrics somewhat and also changed the gender, while Costello added a verse to complete a story he felt was implied.
With all those editorial changes, the artists tried to retain the voice and intent of Dylan's words. With "Liberty Street," Goldsmith found he had to move some lines around and add a few words (for instance, he wrote "another victim of the heat" in order to rhyme with the title phrase). But, he says, "I didn't want to make it about words that I was writing. I just wanted a little bit of glue to hold it together."
Even when the songwriters used the exact same words, it's fascinating to hear how differently they interpreted them. On the album, James' "Hidee Hidee Ho" is light and swingy, while the version by Giddens and Costello is decidedly darker, with Giddens' opera-trained voice trilling over an insistent rhythm reminiscent of "The Other One" by the Grateful Dead. More examples of such contrasts can be seen in the Showtime documentary about the sessions, Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued.
Since the release of The New Basement Tapes, the artists have returned to their own bands and projects. But the creative lessons of that unique collaboration linger on. Even for Costello, who has one of the most wide-ranging songwriting resumes in contemporary music, the group experience was unlike any other.
"The pleasure of doing it in a cooperative endeavor like this with other songwriters was to not have the arrogance to say, 'Well, this is how it goes and this is definitive' — because nothing's definitive," Costello says. "There are all these other versions. So that really changed the nature. I couldn't compare it to writing songs with Allen Toussaint or Burt Bacharach or Paul McCartney or anyone else I've ever written with."
For Goldsmith, the sessions were a reminder of "how fun recording and music can and should be. We really learned how to let go and not worry too much about how good something is going to be or how to cultivate our own comfort zones. I feel like the result ended up being so great because of that. It's very easy to get precious about records that you make, and the music is often better served not to do that."
Giddens was so moved by the experience that, right before the sessions ended, she stayed up all night writing a song about it. The track, "Angel City" closes her new solo album, Tomorrow Is My Turn, which was produced by Burnett. She says that making music with Costello, Mumford, James, and Goldsmith, with Burnett's gentle encouragement, transformed how she looks at songwriting.
"Sometimes you have to just do," Giddens says. "Later maybe you go, 'This was not a good song — I'm going to tear it up now,' but when you're in the act of creating, you can't second-guess yourself because then you just stop the creativity. With The New Basement Tapes, there was so much creating going on, you had to just rip away that self-consciousness. That was a really great opportunity, because I think as an artist, eventually you have to kick that to the curb in anything that you do."