"You know, that's really the way to do recording—in a peaceful relaxed setting, in somebody's basement, with the windows open and a dog lying on the floor." (Bob Dylan)
The recording sessions at Big Pink that spawned the Basement Tapes were the height of informality and "reefer run amok." The songs that made it onto Garth Hudson's reel-to-reel recorder were most often the result of loose jams either on traditional songs and covers or around the lyrics that Dylan would bring to the Band.
Hudson recalls "doing seven, eight, ten, sometimes 15 songs a day" and that many were truly improvised on the spot. Dylan often used a typewriter at the sessions and the present manuscript certainly has the ink and pencil edits to the typewritten lyrics and final chorus as recorded that would suggest that this is one of those that evolved lyrically in the moment in the Big Pink basement. (There are two hands at work on the changes and writing the famed chorus, the second presumably Danko's who was unusually co-credited with the song).
The speculation that the lyrical content was at least somewhat in reference to the Triumph motorcycle accident that kept him out of the public eye and in upstate New York would seem to fit the chorus in particular in this original version: "Wheel on fire—rolling down the road.... wheel's gonna soon explode" has a slightly more visceral feel than the final lyrics as recorded (present here in edits) of "This wheel shall explode."
But whatever inspiration he took from the tumultuous events of his life, Dylan also returned to using the French Symbolist Rimbaud, the opening line "If your memory serves you well" a very direct allusion to the latter's opening line of A Season in Hell.
The present was retained by Levon Helm's then girlfriend, Bonnie Diamond.
The song went from strength to strength, becoming one of most-covered works from the sessions, with artists ranging from Julie Driscoll, Siouxsie and the Banshees and eventually the theme for the vodka-soaked characters of Absolutely Fabulous.
A true working draft of a Dylan classic
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