‘Basement Tapes’ Syllabus: An Essential Bob Dylan Reading List

If you’re seeing more Bob Dylan than usual on your reader or social media of choice, it’s not by accident; we just saw the release of The Basement Tapes Complete, the 11th volume of his official “bootleg series,” and one of the most legendary recordings to bear that stamp. But this six-disc, 139-track epic might be a little overwhelming if you’re a Dylan neophyte, or even just a casual admirer. So as a public service, we’ve assembled a syllabus of required Dylan-inspired reading, with links to those available online for your immediate perusal.

"Invisible Republic" by Greil MarcusInvisible Republic (aka The Old, Weird America) by Greil Marcus

If you’re curious about what makes the “Basement Tapes” — a group of loose, informal recordings made by Dylan and The Band up in Woodstock in the summer of ’67 while he was recuperating from a motorcycle accident — so special, go to the definitive text on the tapes, this mesmerizing 1997 book from Dylan’s most reliable and eloquent analyst. Marcus calls the tapes “a talisman, a public secret, and then a legend, a fable of retreat and fashioning,” but considers them something much more than a lark or a simple bootleg. This thrilling volume draws the line from that basement in Woodstock to the field recordings of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, noting that these recordings “can begin to sound like a map; but if they are a map, what country, what lost mine, is it that they center and fix?”

“Self Portrait No. 25” by Greil Marcus

Few writers have written as frequently and insightfully about Dylan, but Marcus is no yes-man — witness this, one of the most notorious record reviews of all time, a brutal dismissal of Dylan’s 1970 album Self Portrait. Yet it’s not just some sneering “takedown,” immortal opening line (“What is this shit?”) aside; it is a thoughtful and searching examination of disappointment and expectation, and of the trickiness of considering Dylan’s tossed-off efforts (which would become a continuing theme among Dylan fans and critics in the years to come). “I once said I’d buy an album of Dylan breathing heavily,” Marcus writes. “I still would. But not an album of Dylan breathing softly.”

“The Sound of Bob Dylan” by Ellen Willis

This 1967 masterpiece from feminist rock critic Willis wasn’t just a crackerjack piece of cultural consideration; the lengthy essay, originally published in Cheetah, was a career-maker, leading directly to her gig as the New Yorker’s first rock critic. Reading it now, you can see why; not only is the writing as sharp and energetic as the best of her work, but she also nails one of the most oft-commented-upon elements of Dylan’s image: shifting persona. “Not since Rimbaud said, ‘I is another’ has an artist been so obsessed with escaping identity. His masks hidden by other masks, Dylan is the celebrity-stalker’s ultimate antagonist,” she writes. “As his songs become more introspective, the introspections become more impersonal, the confidences of a no-man without past or future. Bob Dylan as identifiable persona has disappeared into his songs. This terrifies his audiences. They could accept a consistent image in lieu of the ‘real’ Bob Dylan, but his progressive self-annihilation cannot be contained in a game of let’s pretend. Instead of an image, Dylan has created a magic theater from which his public cannot escape.”

“The Crackin’, Shakin’, Breakin’ Sounds” by Nat Hentoff

Hipster icon Hentoff was the right choice to profile Dylan for The New Yorker in 1964 — he tunes in to Dylan’s wavelength, and manages to keep in the background while observing an extraordinary recording session for Another Side of Bob Dylan. He ended up with one of the earliest pieces of penetrating writing about Dylan, and one of the most influential. “His vocal sound is most often characterized by flaying harshness,” Hentoff writes, setting the template for decades of retorts to the “Dylan can’t sing” argument. “Mitch Jayne, a member of the Dillards, a folk group from Missouri, has described Dylan’s sound as ‘very much like a dog with his leg caught in barbed wire.’ Yet Dylan’s admirers come to accept and even delight in the harshness, because of the vitality and wit at its core. And the point out that in intimate ballads, he is capable of a fragile lyricism that does not slip into bathos.”

“A Short Life of Trouble” by Sam Shepard Bob Dylan and Sam Shepard

Most of the best writing about Dylan has been in the expected forms of criticism or commentary — prose, in other words. But Shepard is no ordinary writer, and “A Short Life of Trouble” is no ordinary piece of work. The actor and playwright, who toured with Dylan as part of the legendary Rolling Thunder Revue, wrote this one-act play (originally published in 1987 in Esquire) as a kind of mash-up of theater and interview. It features two characters, “Sam” and “Bob,” discussing music, women, God, James Dean, angels, death, and the motorcycle accident. “I just started thinkin’ about the short life of trouble,” “Bob” says, of the period he spent recuperating. “How short life is. I’d just lay there listenin’ to the birds chirping. Kids playing in the neighbor’s yard or rain falling by the window. I realized how much I’d missed. Then I’d hear the fire engine roar, and I could feel the steady thrust of death that had been constantly looking over its shoulder at me.”

“Love or Confusion?” by Lester Bangs

The trio of gospel recordings Dylan made after his conversion to Christianity prompted some of the most divided and befuddled writing of his career. But the most interesting piece from that period may be Bangs’ consideration of the third in the trilogy, 1981’s Shot of Love, “the one where he begins to move away from Bible thumping,” and thus “finally begins to sound like he might have been touched by or be singing to someone or something outside himself.” And in the sparse but rich review, Bangs also tackles the key conundrum of these occasional periods in the music wilderness: “If people are going to dismiss or at best laugh at Dylan now as automatically as they once genuflected, then nobody is going to know if he ever makes a good album again.”

“It Ain’t Me Babe” by Carl Wilson

And while we’re on the topic, give a look to this consideration of Dylan’s much-reviled ‘80s output, by Let’s Talk About Love author Carl Wilson. URL notwithstanding, his thesis that “Dylan’s other vaunted late-resurgence albums are actually mixed bags, too. To me the 1980s records sound no less enjoyable alongside them now” is no mere #SlatePitch. Wilson picks apart the “deep cultural structure” that contributed to their reception, and lands on the icon’s reliable tendency to keep “doing the only thing he’s built to do, which is to mulch all incoming data into symbol, rhetoric, jape, and patter. In the 21st century, he’s applauded for it again, but in the 1980s his audience wanted more, and Bob Dylan’s never really taken requests—ask him for a shovel and he’ll give you an armadillo, shrugging, ‘Look, man, they both dig.’”

“The Wanderer” by Alex Ross

Ross’s 1999 profile is perhaps the definitive consideration of Dylan’s late period, a never-ending blur of tour dates and tributes for a man who “presents himself as a traveling musical salesman.” Contemplating Dylan’s status as an icon, a musician, a performer, and a mystery, Ross comes up with this: “America is no country for old me. Pop culture is a pedophile’s delight. What do do with a middle-aged, well-worn songwriter who gravitates toward the melancholy and the absurd?… Even at his most confessional, he withdraws his personality from the scene — usually by becoming beautifully vague — and lets the music rise. The highest emotion hits late, in the wordless windups of his greatest songs — from ‘Sad Eyed Lady’ to ‘Not Dark Yet’ — when the band plays through the verse one more time and language sinks into silence.”

"Bootleg" by Clinton HeylinBootleg by Clinton Heylin

Not a Dylan book, strictly speaking (though author Heylin wrote one, Beyond the Shades, and a good one at that), but one undoubtedly of interest to fans and admirers — and one, again, particularly relevant to this most recent release. Heylin examines “the secret history of the other recording industry,” one kicked off, to a great extent, by the unofficial Dylan recording Great White Wonder (a mishmash of Basement Tapes, studio outtakes, and private recordings). It’s a terrific read in general, but also a snapshot of the fervor for Dylan recordings at the zenith of his fame.

Chronicles Volume One by Bob Dylan

Of course, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the best insights into Dylan are offered by the man himself. Yet there was no reason to assume his first memoir, released in 2004, was a slam-dunk — his only previous book of note was the gibberish poetry collection Tarantula, and he didn’t exactly have a reputation for forthright clarity in interviews. But Chronicles is breezy, poetic, and insightful, while studiously avoiding memoir clichés; rather than marching through the chronology of his life, Dylan hopscotches, dwelling on periods of relative obscurity and albums of lesser acclaim, and reserving his most eloquent writing for thoughts not on his music, but the music that inspired him. “Highway 61, the main thoroughfare of the country blues, begins about where I came from,” he writes. “Duluth to be exact. I always felt like I’d started on it, always had been on it and could go anywhere from it, even down into the deep Delta country. It was the same road, full of the same contradictions, the same one-horse towns, the same spiritual ancestors. The Mississippi River, the bloodstream of the blues, also starts up from my neck of the woods. I was never too far away from any of it. It was my place in the universe, always felt like it was in my blood.”