Sid Griffin is eminently qualified as a tour guide through the huge Basement Tapes box set that has recently been unleashed as the Bootleg Series Volume 11. Griffin of course is musician in his own right. He was a leader of the Long Ryders in the 80's and more recently founded the Coal Porters in the 1990's. He is equally well known as a knowledgeable and informed music commentator who has "tackled" Dylan in various career stages not least his excellent summary of the Rolling Thunder Revue in 2010's "Shelter from the Storm". The book "Million Dollar Bash" is actually older than the latter as it was first published in 2007 it has however been revised and updated to coincide with the complete release of the legendary recordings by Bob Dylan and the Band.
The author is a passionate chronicler of this key 18 months in Dylan's development from the "mysterious" motorbike crash and the consequent outcome that for the duration of this period "His Bobness" effectively disappeared and dropped out. Griffin completely eschews the dense impressionistic, (pseudo) intellectual trappings of Greil Marcus's "Indivisible Republic" and instead concentrates on the songs attempting in effect a work of musical archaeology aimed at identifying through the reels track-by-track who plays on which song. This is backed by a level of detail that charts when Dylan bumps "his guitar on a chair" or plays a "clumsy lead guitar solo'. The book is concise yet full of detail, and Griffin's style is readable if sometimes a little repetitive. He is particularly good on the genesis of the Basement Tapes from the most famous bootleg ever "Great White Wonder" to the tantalising but horribly shortened 1975 CBS double steered by Robbie Robertson and finally to 2001's "Tree with Roots". He also touches on the wider context. The fact that Dylan was holed up in up state New York with a bunch of musicians no one had really heard of (The Band were of course still The Hawks at this point), recording music harking back to traditions of musicians like Harry Smith and essentially reinventing an alternative folk music for America that undoubtedly reinforced his timelessness as an artist. As Griffin states "any barroom musicologist could make an argument for the entire Americana/No Depression/Alt Country scene beginning right there in Woodstock n the first half of '67". In the same year that "St Pepper', "Are You Experienced" and 'Surrealistic Pillow" were released, Dylan managed to have no association with either the best or the worse of the Hippie movement as his biographer Ian Bell states "Dylan would not have been seen comatose, far less dead, in Haight Ashbury". This 'strategic distance" served again to cement his reputation for doggedly following his vision and accelerate his legendary status.
With 13,000 new words detailing every single Basement Tapes song this revised version of Sid Griffin's "Million Dollar Bash" is an excellent companion to the Bootleg Box Set . Also discussed are all forty songs from T-Bone Burnett's "Lost On The River" project with luminaries such as Elvis Costello and Jim James (see separate review) which fully adds to the Basement Tapes bountiful legacy. For those of you not wanting to fork out for this book the December 2014 edition of Uncut also contains a brilliant contribution by the renowned Dylan scholar Clayton Heylin telling the story of the tapes in a detailed article. It is a fascinating tangled story infused with myth, mystery, interpretation and counter fact. In "Million Dollar Bash" Sid Griffin has produced a fascinating and insightful volume which peels away more of the layers of this period and you emerge from its reading armed with greater clarity. Yet in the in the last analysis only Dylan can properly tell the story of his most productive year; whether he ever gets around to it is another matter entirely.
Reviewed by Red on Black