Like their old boss Bob Dylan, The Band kept one booted foot in a previous century, playing antique instruments and singing uncynically about old-fashioned topics, creating a “campfire” atmosphere at “Big Pink” and their other studios.
Nothing like a group that’s 80% Canadian singing about The War of Northern Aggression. Fortunately, the other 20% is Levon Helm, whose dramatic performance here turns a period piece that could have been a “Schoolhouse Rock” episode into a mournful piece of folk-rock. Helm’s vocals alone are perfectly evocative of the song’s character, but subtler and more crucial is his simultaneous drumming, skipping like a heartbeat whenever he gets to the really sad parts. With the rest of the Band bobbing and weaving within that perfect John Simon production, they get closer than ever to achieving their goal of escaping to a sepia-toned past.
So it came to pass that a Canadian wrote a song about the Civil War, recorded it in a Rat Packer’s Hollywood Hills home, and made it a hit with millions of anti-war hippies.
Making the Basement Tapes was so much more enjoyable than any experience we’d ever had in the studio before, so we thought there must be something to that concept. When you look at it objectively, this [basement in Big Pink, located in Woodstock, New York] is the worst recording circumstance, scientifically, known to man. We’re in a place that has a cement floor, concrete walls and a furnace in the middle of it. This is exactly what you don’t do in a recording studio. But there’s a whole eye contact thing going on there when you set up close together in this sort of horseshoe with a tape recorder at the end. You get to use the whole silent lingo of playing music — where you look at the guy next to you and you indicate, “I’m going to go up here,” or “I’m going to come in here with this vocal,” or “I’m going to that weird chord change now”; all the signals that you use in music. You could really see one another, and there was something about that that was great. It was like some kind of mountain music setup or a living room thing. That’s how we were most comfortable.
So that was the philosophy that sent us in that direction, and that’s why we eventually ended up in Sammy Davis Jr.’s pool house to make our second album.
That house was a fifteen-minute drive from the home where Sharon Tate would be slaughtered that August — a twisted act of revenge against a long-gone former resident, the record producer Terry Melcher, who’d snubbed a would-be folk rocker named Charles Manson.
The Sixties might not have been that bad, in light of previous eras, but hell, they were bad enough — and would soon be on permanent life support, after crashing at the intersection of Cielo Drive and Altamont; some would say, not a moment too soon.
Maybe even Levon Helm. As he noted when looking back on the making of the album, it was an era of:
Tune in turn on drop out that kind of thing. Hate your mom and dad and don’t trust anybody over thirty and a bunch of other stuff that didn’t make a lot of sense. We just steered clear of all that..