One way the story goes, Bob Dylan called members of The Hawks who were still on salary with him but living in New York, and he had them come to Woodstock, at first to work on a film and then to back him on some demos of new songs.
Robbie Robertson has a different version. As Robbie tells it, the guys moved up to Woodstock and rented Big Pink and set up the basement for recording. Then Dylan came over, saw it, and wanted to record there. and asked the guys to back him.
The only problem with Robbie’s version is that before anything happened in the basement, there were sessions with members of The Hawks in the Red Room at Dylan’s house, Hi Lo Ha, in Byrdcliffe Colony, not far from Woodstock.
Still, it’s interesting to hear Robbie tell his version of the Basement Tapes story.
Here’s a transcript:
We had moved up to Woodstock, New York because in New York City we couldn’t find a place that we could work on our music without it being too expensive or bothering people or something.
We go up there, and Albert Grossman says, “Up there you can find a place, you know, that’s there no people around and you can do whatever you want.” We’re thinking, “Oh, my God, we desperately need that,” and there was some stuff that I was working on then with Bob Dylan up there, too, some film things that we were messing around with.
Anyway, we went up there, we found this ugly pink house out in West Saugerties, just on the outskirts of Woodstock on a hundred acres and there’s nothing around and we think, “All right, we can do this.” We get this place. Some of the guys live there and, in the basement of this place, I think, “Okay, we’ll set up our equipment here and this is where we’ll work on our music.”
I have a friend of mine who knows about acoustics and recording and microphones and all kinds of things, so I say to him, “Take a look at this place and see, because we’re going to use this and we just want to make sure that it’s going to work.”
At this time, you’ve got to remember, nobody was doing this. It didn’t exist, that people would set up and now everybody does it. Back then, this was very rare. It was like Les Paul did that. Everybody else, if you were going to make a record, you went and made a record where they make records, right?
Anyway, I had this friend of mine, this guy that I know, look at the thing in the basement and he said, “Well, this is a disaster.”
He said, “This is the worst situation. You have a cement floor, you have cinder block walls and you have a big metal furnace in here. These are all of the things that you can’t have if you’re trying to record something, even if you’re just recording it for your own information, your own benefit. You can’t do this. This won’t work. You’ll listen to it and you’ll be depressed. Your music will sound so bad that you’ll never want to record again.”
I’m like, “Holy, jeez.” I said, “Well, what if we put down a rug?”
He said, “A rug?” He said, “You don’t need a rug, you need everything here. This is impossible.”
I thought, “God, well that’s pretty depressing,” but we’d already rented the place. We didn’t have a choice. I was thinking, should we set up upstairs in the living room? What should we do here?
I thought, well, the hell with it. We have no choice. We don’t have the flexibilities, and we got this old rug and we did put a rug down, and we got a couple of microphones left over from the tour. We had this little tape recorder and we were going to start writing and making this music for our record.
Then Bob Dylan comes out and he sees this and he says, “This is fantastic!” He said, “Why don’t we do some stuff together?” He’s like, “I want to record, I need to make up some songs for the publishing company for other people to record.”
In the meantime, Bob is taking care of all of us all of this time. We owe him to do something just to, because the idea was we were going to go into another tour but he broke his neck in a motorcycle thing and we couldn’t do that. We’re still on the payroll and it’s going on and on and on, so it was a way to do something, a gesture back.
I said, “Yeah, okay, we’ll do these things and then we’ll work on our stuff.”
He starts coming up and he comes out all the time. It’s like the clubhouse, now, this place. We love it and we’re laying down these things on tape and, in their own way, they’re like field recordings.
They sound fantastic in their own way. I think, you know what? There is something about bringing the recording experience to you in your own comfort zone, as opposed to going into somebody’s studio that has a huge clock on the wall and the guys in the union there saying, “Hey, it’s about dinner break.” You make your own atmosphere. There’s something very creative about this.
We do the stuff with Bob, we do all kinds of stuff ourselves, everything, the whole thing. It’s like nobody’s ever going to hear this thing. It becomes the first huge bootleg Rock ‘N Roll music record ever. It was like, that wasn’t the idea. That was only for the publishing company and the artists that might want to record that particular song. It became a whole other phenomenon, and it’s okay.