Saturday, November 21, 2020

Neil Young - Mediterranean (1974)

Neil Young released his sixth album, On the Beach, in July 1974. The third chapter of the so-called Ditch Period, it was released right before Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young's 1974 Reunion Tour, which reunited Young with his estranged bandmates for the first time in four years. During this period of his career, his now-infamous marital issues with wife Carrie Snodgress were beginning to show, with these issues becoming a strong source of inspiration for him, and the main focus of the latter period Ditch albums. This can be clearly seen by the fact that, despite him having just finished recording a full studio album mere months ago, he spent the rehearsals for the tour (held at his own Broken Arrow Studios, no less!) writing and recording some new songs. The seven sparsely-arranged songs he recorded during these sessions divided themselves into happier songs, with lighter themes, and moodier, more depressed about his failing marriage and infidelity. The tour itself saw the live debut of three of those songs, and the writing and incorporation into CSNY's live set of a couple other tour-written songs as well. By the tour's end in August, he had about enough material for a good studio album in the can, but had no plans of recording in the near future. Instead, ahead of CSNY's planned London concert at Wembley Stadium, he traveled to Amsterdam with a couple of friends and a Dutch journalist named Constant Meijers, who documented the whole trip for a piece he would be writing on Neil and his trip to Amsterdam.

There, he got a closer look into Neil's creative process than anyone ever before. A new writing spree in September gave birth to some brand new songs, with most of them having two things in common: their aquatic theme and sad, brokenhearted nature, due to the state of his marriage to Snodgress. He claimed to have already written fourteen songs based on this theme and to have 37 new songs in total, with nine of those being discussed by them, and later recorded as well. The common themes of those new songs made it so that Young decided to put them all together in an album, to be titled Mediterranean. Those nine songs were its' prime contenders, and the album would be recorded in an island (Neil wanted to do it in Ibiza, Italy), and produced by Elliot Mazer. Of course, as we all know the rather volatile nature of Mr. Bernard Shakey, "technical problems prevented such sessions from ever happening. By the first few days of October 1974, he was already back home, and by November, was already recording a wholly different batch of songs, which obviously went on to become Homegrown. This new batch of songs abandoned the slightly more positive water-themed aspects of the Mediterranean material in favor of diving face-first into his divorce, with some of the most personal writing of his career. When he didn't release Homegrown either, it became a much more famous Lost Album than its immediate predecessor, which besides a passing mention in Johnny Rogan's Sixty to Zero book, is still pretty much unknown.

So, the central question to today's reconstruction is: What if Neil Young had finished the Mediterranean album? And to answer this question, we'll have to set up some ground rules first. This album will basically consist of a best-of of the post-On the Beach, pre-Homegrown period. And since about 18 songs were either recorded or written during the May 1974/September 1974 period we will be working with, we'll need to whittle our list down to a more reasonable and album-sized twelve songs. That means no songs that were eventually made a part of the Homegrown album are to be included, as these two albums should be companion pieces, NY's own Rubber Soul and Revolver, if you will. Obviously, no songs written after our cut-off date of September 1974 are to be included, and all songs included have to fit into the album's considerably loose theme and sound, that being a sad, tropical, and acoustic album about water and Carrie Snodgress. And luckily for us, all known songs but one from this very prolific period were recorded in the studio, and most of them were tracked a mere two months after their writing, in November 1974. However, two of the songs were recorded in early 1976, almost two years after the fact. We will make an exception for that, seen as those two are a vital part of this period, and we will explain how a 1974-recorded version of those would sound later on. Well, not to stretch this out any further, let's take a look at what our take on Mediterranean would look like:

Long May You Run (Long May You Run)
Mediterranean (Archives Vol. 2)
Daughters (Archives Vol. 2)
Pardon My Heart (Archives Vol. 2)
The Old Homestead (Hawks and Doves)
Hawaiian Sunrise (Archives Vol. 2)
Love/Art Blues (Archives Vol. 2)
Homefires (Archives Vol. 2)
Frozen Man (Archives Vol. 2)
Deep Forbidden Lake (Decade)
Bad News Comes to Town (Archives Vol. 2)
Through My Sails (Archives Vol. 2)

Bonus tracks:
LA Girls and Ocean Boys (Archives Vol. 2)
Pushed it Over the End (Archives Vol. 2)


Stills, Nash, Crosby, and Young rehearsing at Broken Arrow, June 1974

The nine songs known to have been considered for Mediterranean are "Star of Bethlehem", "Vacancy", "Daughters", "Through My Sails", title track "Mediterranean", "Love/Art Blues", "Hawaiian Sunrise", "Frozen Man" and "Deep Forbidden Lake", of which we will remove the first two, seen as they were later added to Homegrown. Of the June 1974 songs, we will get rid of "Love is a Rose" for being a part of Homegrown, and relegate "LA Girls and Ocean Boys" to an outtake. As much as I like it, it's simply unfinished, and if he was uncomfortable with the personal nature of Homegrown, there's no way in hell he would ever release this, which is almost confessional in its starkness. That leaves us with "The Old Homestead", "Homefires", and "Pardon My Heart". Of the tour material, we have "Pushed it Over the End", "Long May You Run", and "Bad News Comes to Town", which despite never being performed during the tour itself, was written alongside "Star of Bethlehem", and typed down in the very same manuscript as it, which means it too was written sometime in July 1974. Of those, "Pushed it Over the End" is removed, since it has almost nothing to do with the rest of the material, both in sound and in lyrical content, being a hard-hitting electric song about a serial killer. Both it and "Long May You Run" were premiered during his famous Bottom Line gig, in May 1974. That leaves us with twelve songs, and all we need to do now is sequence them in a way that manages to both flow well and make sense.

So, how would the two 1976 songs I mentioned earlier change? For both, we see that the lyrics and melody would remain virtually the same, as evidenced both by the Bottom Line version of "Long May You Run", and the hotel room demo of "Mediterranean", both from 1974. The only changes I can see happening to them are related to arrangement. The former would sound more like "Star of Bethlehem", with Neil on acoustic, Ben Keith on the lap steel playing Stephen Stills' lead part, and no congas or organ. It's backing vocals would be provided by Emmylou Harris and Ben Keith, the way they sang on "Daughters". "Mediterranean", however, would probably only lose its overdubbed electric guitar part, and be a solo acoustic number, sounding more in line with something like "Frozen Man". We're also not using the Zuma versions of either "Pardon My Heart" or "Through My Sails". We're using the original 1974 mix without the 1975 overdubs for the former, and a solo, acoustic version for the latter, both from Archives Vol. 2. And seen as "Love/Art Blues" has three different versions on the box set, we use the second version, which is honestly the best of the three. When sequencing this album, I tried my best to open both sides with more upbeat material, and balance out band tracks and solo numbers in both sides, as to not make them sound too repetitive, and had the side with "The Old Homestead" be two songs shorter, due to time constraints and the length of the song. And I think this sounds pretty good!

I picture such an album to have been rush-released in December 1974, just in time for the Christmas shopping season. With "Long May You Run" with the potential to become his first real hit single since Harvest, it's certainly more commercial than other Ditch-era albums, but under the cuter and straighter surface is a collection of songs as deeply rooted in sadness and heartbreak as any other of those albums, with some of his greatest writing being found here. Because of that, Mediterranean is as good as any of his 1970's "golden age" albums in my view, seen as Neil could virtually do no wrong at this point in his career, writing masterpiece after masterpiece after masterpiece. With two evenly-timed 21-minute sides, this slightly less lethargic and more countryfied sequel to On the Beach fits in like a glove in between OTB and Homegrown, providing some context to where his mind was during the CSNY tour, and what happened between "Motion Pictures" and "Separate Ways" that finally made his marriage collapse. To further drive the point home, I used a photo of Neil at Malibu Beach in early 1975, taken by Henry Diltz, as my cover, connecting it to both the aquatic and tropical theme of most of the songs and to the album that came immediately before it. With Neil's mid-1970's Archives finally open to all of us, we are finally able to take the deep dive into his unreleased gems that we've been wanting to for so long, and I'm thankful for that, especially when we are able to uncover such gems as these.

Neil Young - Archives Vol. 2
Neil Young - Decade
Neil Young - Hawks and Doves
Stills-Young Band - Long May You Run
Johnny Rogan - Sixty to Zero

Friday, November 06, 2020

Bob Dylan - The Basement Tape (1967)

Bob Dylan suffered a motorcycle accident on July 29th, 1966. He was riding his 1964 Triumph T100 in Striebel Road, just on the outskirts of Woodstock, when an oil slick caused him to lose control of his bike and crash. The full extent of his injuries is still unknown to this day, but apparently, he wore a neck brace for a while after the accident, and he has since claimed to have had broken a few vertebrae on his neck. Are his claims believable? We will never know, which is probably what gives the accident the mystique it has. His tour in support of Blonde on Blonde, which was due to begin at the Yale Bowl on August 6th was canceled, and Dylan spent the rest of the year recuperating at home, not writing songs or playing music. The only work he did for the rest of the year was to edit the "Eat the Document" movie, a documentary shot by D.A. Pennebaker about his early 1966 World Tour, which ended up unreleased, mostly due to the nonsensical and abstract way Dylan edited the film. With the tour canceled, for the time being, his backing band was kept on a retainer, and moved to Woodstock to be close to Dylan. The Hawks, as they were then known, all moved into a pink house, which had a cellar (not a basement, a cellar!), where they put their instruments and rehearsed. Finally finding the will to play music again, he started playing a selection of cover songs, semi-improvised original tunes, and parodies sometime in March '67, with the still drummerless Hawks accompanying him. 

At first, they just played for the fun of it, with "serious" songwriting still not a worry of Bob's, as one can tell by listening to the first seven or so reels of the basement tapes. But, after a break in the sessions in July 1967 due to the birth of Dylan's daughter Anna and a visit from his parents, the very intent of the sessions seemed to have changed. Pressured by his manager Albert Grossman to come up with new material, he then decided to use the basement recordings as publishing demos for other artists to record his songs. With that in mind, the eighth, ninth, and tenth reels of the tapes feature fourteen new songs recorded between late July and August 1967, his effective return to songwriting after the accident. Nine of the ten songs from Reels #8 and #9 were pressed into a 10-song acetate in October 1967, with "Tiny Montgomery" from Reel #4 also added in. It was from this acetate that Peter, Paul, and Mary, whose live PA system was being used on the cellar recordings (courtesy of Grossman, their manager), learned "Too Much of Nothing", the first basement song to be released, in December 1967. With interest in the songs high in the industry, the earlier 10 song acetate was expanded into a 14-song acetate with the addition of the four Reel #10 songs, making up the famous Dwarf Music Acetate, which famously kick-started both the bootleg industry with its many copies and reproductions, and invented the concept of Americana, alongside The Band's first LP, of course.

After those fourteen tracks were recorded, things seemed to go back to how they were before the July break, with many, many covers and parodies being recorded in an offhand, casual fashion. Original songs were still being written, mind you, as seen in Reel #13 and some of the other reels, but those were clearly not serious attempts at songwriting, and mostly just goofs. By mid-October, drummer Levon Helm had finally returned to the fold after leaving the Hawks in late 1965, and the basement sessions seemed to stop, with the Hawks (now tentatively titled The Crackers) looking into getting a recording contract and become their own songwriters, and Bob going to Nashville on the 17th for the first of three recording sessions for the John Wesley Harding album. He impressively wrote most of the songs on the album during the three train trips he took from New York to Nashville to record, with none of the JWH songs even being attempted during the Big Pink recording sessions. With the album set to be released in January 1968, Dylan appeared live one final time, backed by The Hawks to perform three songs at a Woody Guthrie tribute concert that same month, before both went their own separate ways. The Band to become one of the biggest bands in the world, influencing everyone from the Beatles to Eric Clapton, and Dylan to take a year off, only to come back a year later with a full-on country album and a very different voice and look, both literally and figuratively speaking.

So, the question we will be trying to answer today is: what if Bob Dylan had released The Basement Tapes in 1967? To be able to piece together the elusive missing link between Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding, we need to set up some rules first. To start off, it's quite obvious that if we want to make an album out of the basement sessions, we'll have to make up a 14-track album, since we don't have any "epics", like Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde on Blonde did, and there's plenty of room for all of those songs. The fact that both the original Dwarf Music Acetate and virtually all other assemblies of this material are 14 songs long certainly helps, too. Obviously, no cover versions will be included, as much as I love take two of "Big River", and neither will any songs from after the original acetate's first assembly, which means most of reels 12 and onward are excluded. Controversially, this record will be called "The Basement Tape" (yes, Tape in the singular form!), as that's how the album was known at the time, and how it was referred to by Jann Werner when it was reviewed favorably in Rolling Stone, in June 1968. That's also the time period I see such an album being released in, as there wouldn't be the time to release it before JWH, and releasing it in mid-1968 would compensate for his total lack of activity that year, keeping the suits over at Columbia Records happy. Anyway, not to stretch this out any further than I already have, here's our tracklist:

Tears of Rage (Reel #10, Take 3)
Million Dollar Bash (Reel #8, Take 2)
Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread (Reel #8, Take 2)
Please Mrs. Henry (Reel #8)
Lo and Behold! (Reel #8, Take 2)
This Wheel’s on Fire (Reel #9)
I Shall Be Released (Reel #9, Take 2)
You Ain't Goin Nowhere (Reel #9, Take 2)
I'm Not There (Reel #8)
Down in the Flood (Reel #8, Take 2)
Too Much of Nothing (Reel #9, Take 2)
The Mighty Quinn (Reel #10, Take 2)
Open The Door, Richard (Reel #10, Take 1)
Nothing Was Delivered (Reel #10, Take 1)

Bonus tracks:
Tiny Montgomery (Reel #4)
Get Your Rocks Off (Reel #13)

Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson, and Bob Dylan in the basement, March 1967.

Though many consider the 14-track Dwarf Music acetate the be-all, end-all album to be culled from the sessions, I see many flaws in it. The first is the fact that it wasn't sequenced, only being put together in chronological order. That means even though some song batches work pretty well together (the closing three of "Quinn", "Open the Door" and "Nothing Was Delivered" sounds great), others not so much. Add to that the fact that "Million Dollar Bash" isn't a fantastic opener, and that a fantastic side closer such as "I Shall Be Released" is buried in the middle of side two, quite a lot can be improved on when sequencing this particular collection of songs. Yet another problem comes with the inclusion of "Tiny Montgomery", which doesn't fit in well for a number of reasons. It comes from a different period than the rest of the songs, and sticks out like a sore thumb to me. I'm not alone in thinking this, as some have used "Odds and Ends" from Reel #13 as an alternative to it, but my solution is quite simpler: use the remaining unused song from Reel #8: "I'm Not There". It's honestly inexplicable that this wasn't included in the first place, as it is a fantastic song, and even in its unfinished form, you can tell how great of a song it is. Its addition helps keep the album concise and centered on a particular batch of reels, which is definitely an advantage when trying to create the ultimate BT album, also removing one of the more whimsical songs on the album, replacing it with a darker, more serious one.

We start off the album as Music from Big Pink did almost a year later, with take three of "Tears of Rage" providing an unusual opener with its slow, dirge-like quality. It being easily one of the best songs on the whole record helps start on a good note, too. I find take three of "Tears of Rage" to be superior to the more common take one, which is found on the acetate, so that will be the version used here. From then, we more or less follow the acetate sequence with take two of "Million Dollar Bash", later recorded by Fairport Convention, demoted to the second track on the album after being the opener to the original acetate. From then, it's business as usual with take two of "Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread", which no one was crazy enough to cover, following as track no. 3. The sole take of "Please Mrs. Henry" we have, and take two of "Lo and Behold!" also take up their usual spots in the album's sequence, with the former being popularised by a Manfred Mann cover. Instead of closing side one as it would normally do, "This Wheel's on Fire" is used as the second to last track on it, with the honor of wrapping things up going to take two of "I Shall Be Released", which used to be sequenced in the middle of the second side of the album. Then again, we are taking a sequencing cue from Music from Big Pink, and we also add two more "serious" songs to a side that had a disproportionate amount of the more "sillier" songs on the album, solving two problems at once.

Side two begins as it does on the acetate, with take 2 of "You Ain't Going Nowhere", later popularized by the Byrds on their Sweetheart of the Rodeo album. Our new inclusion, "I'm Not There", replaces "I Shall Be Released" as the slower, more serious second track of side 2, and manages to do it justice. It's still a decidedly unfinished song, but it's simply too good to be left out, even in its current state. And I just wish that, since Bob gave "Tears of Rage" for Richard Manuel to finish, and "This Wheel's on Fire" for Rick Danko, that he'd given "I'm Not There" for Robbie Robertson to put in the finishing touches. Up next is take two of "Down in the Flood", which received a great version by Flatt & Scruggs in 1968. It originally was on side one, but I moved it down here since I feel it fits in better with the songs on my side two, and with "Lo and Behold" and "Please Mrs. Henry", there were already too many similar songs on that side. The slower and much prettier take two of "Too Much of Nothing" comes next, replacing the inferior take one used in the Acetate, and on which Peter, Paul, and Mary based their version. And from now onwards, we stay on the same sequence as the Acetate, but we have two take switches. Take two of "The Mighty Quinn" replaces the slightly weirder take one, we still use take one of "Open the Door, Richard", and finally, take one of another future Byrds tune, "Nothing Was Delivered" replaces take two, being the superior, slower version of the song.

As an album, The Basement Tape is as much of a masterpiece as any of his 1962/1967 output, second to none. No matter which way you sequence this, the songs are much too good, making for a really good transitional album between the thin, wild mercury sound of Blonde on Blonde and the stark minimalism of John Wesley Harding. As for its release, another question is raised: Would CBS have released such a lo-fi recording? In my opinion, the tapes sound good enough that they might consider it, and since Bob was already such a cultural phenomenon by then, I think they'd release just about anything he gave out his okay to. I mean, they did release Self Portrait, didn't they? With two 22 minute sides, making up a nice 44-minute record, no singles would be released, partly because other artists would already have scored hits with them, and partly because Dylan would've wanted so, not pulling any singles from JWH either. As for the cover, I used a still from a short piece of film shot in summer 1967, of Dylan and the Band playing cards, without an artist name or title to mimic Blonde on Blonde. Most people, as well as Dylan himself in The Bootleg Series, use a series of photos of him to represent this period that's just inaccurate, as they come from early 1968. So, we finally have an accurate cover, too. It would've been interesting to see what ripples a more widespread release of this would've sent through the music world, while Dylan retreated for a full year, to take care of himself and get plenty of rest.

Bob Dylan - The Bootleg Series, Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete