I recently read Bob Dylan’s beautifully written autobiography, “Chronicles: Volume One” and Andy Gill and Kevin Odegard’s “Simple Twist of Fate” and recommend Dylan fans read both. The quotes in this presentation are from these books unless otherwise noted.
When he arrived in New York’s Greenwich Village just over 50 years ago, Bob Dylan quickly became a staple performer at Café Wha and the “basket-houses” and later The Gaslight and Gerde’s Folk City. He originally performed American folk and country standards, many of which were penned by his hero Woody Guthrie. Dylan said when he first heard Woody Guthrie, “It was like a million megaton bomb had dropped.”
However, Dylan soon got the itch and started to write his own songs. Once he did, he seized the torch from his forebears and took it further.
Inspired by Guthrie’s protest songs, Dylan took a broader lyrical approach and started singing about other topics that hit a lot closer to home. As he relates in his autobiography, “What I did to break away was to take simple folk changes and put new imagery and attitude to them, use catchphrases and metaphor combined with a new set of ordinances that evolved into something different that had not been heard before.”
Upon hearing Dylan, Joni Mitchell remembers thinking, “The American pop song has finally grown up.” She recalls, “When I heard ‘Positively 4th Street’, I realized that this was a whole new ballgame; now you could make your songs literature.”
The cynical personal revelations and observations in his radio hits such as ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and ‘Positively 4th Street’ changed the fabric of pop and rock music forever. In my ears this also positioned him not only musically but lyrically and characteristically as one of the original punks, a sentiment also expressed when he went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in ’65, angering the indignant folk fans who thought he had sold out and become a commercial rocker/pop star or in a “beat band”.
Whether he was a topical songwriter, a folk artist, a rock star, a protest singer or a confessional songwriter can be argued endlessly and as an elusive trickster Dylan isn’t going to offer us clear-cut answers (if there indeed are any).
However, one thing is for certain and that is ‘Blood on the Tracks’ did mark a lyrical turning point and portrayed a Dylan dealing with the more adult themes of heartache, loss, regret and a world-weary acceptance of the ways of love and life.
After a retreat from the public eye and touring, 1974 was a professionally busy year for Dylan – released his 14th studio album ‘Planet Waves’, after eight years he returned to the stage with a comeback tour supported by The Band. He also returned to Columbia Records and his original A&R discoverer and mentor John Hammond after a brief and ultimately underwhelming stint at David Geffen’s Asylum Records.
Amidst all of this, he found the time to study painting for a couple of months with Norman Raeban. Raeben taught through intuition and feeling – asking his students to view an object for a few seconds and then asking them to paint it. Dylan allegedly said Raeben renewed his ability to compose songs after his motorcycle accident in ’66 saying “he taught me how to see”.
Dylan: “I had met magicians, but this guy is more powerful than any magician I’ve ever met. He looked into you and told you what you were and he didn’t play games about it. If you were interested in coming out of that, you could stay there and force yourself to come out of it. You yourself did all the work. He was just some kind of guide, or something like that…”
Raeben changed the way Dylan thought of time and point of view releasing him from a strictly linear perception which is evident throughout ‘Blood on the Tracks’ especially on ‘Tangled Up in Blue’.
Raeben’s teachings not only affected Dylan’s art but also changed his outlook on life and as he told Pete Oppel, “Needless to say, it changed me. I went home after that and my wife never did understand me ever since that day. That’s when our marriage started breaking up. She never knew what I was talking about, what I was thinking about, and I couldn’t possibly explain it.”
His wife was Sara Lowndes, a beautiful, quiet, and zen-like woman who had been his emotional anchor for nearly a decade. Her natural inner strength made Dylan want to marry her shortly after they first met, they secretly wed. After his motorcycle accident, he retreated into domestic life in Woodstock with her, his adopted daugther from her first marriage and their ensuing four children.
He retreated from touring and public eye as he related in his autobiography, “The events of the day, all the cultural mumbo jumbo were imprisoning my soul – nauseating me – civil rights and political leaders being gunned down, the mounting of the barricades, the government crackdowns, the student radicals and demonstrators versus the cops and the unions – the contra communes – the lying, noisy voices – the free love, the anti-money system movement – the whole shebang. I was determined to put myself beyond the reach of it all. I was a family man now, didn’t want to be in that group portrait.”
Dylan was also was trying to escape fanatical fans who were intruding into his personal life so he kept on moving and tried to confuse them. For reasons most likely including the return to a busier professional life, personal changes and later an affair with Columbia A&R woman Ellen Bernstein, Bob and Sara’s marriage was on the rocks. Dylan retreated to his Minnesota farm and began writing the songs that would find their way onto ‘Blood on the Tracks’.
In September, Dylan returned to the familiar A&R recording studios now owned by engineer/producer Phil Ramone but previously Columbia’s recording studio where Dylan had recorded some of his early work such as ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. A&R was a big airy room where history had seeped into the walls that had witnessed recording sessions from the likes of Sinatra, Streisand and more. The session musicians booked in were Eric Weissburg and his band Deliverance who had just had a big hit with their cover of ‘Dueling Banjos’.
Work commenced at a quick pace as they didn’t have time to scribble down charts or chords or arrangements. Dylan would run through a new tune once or twice and then would quickly record. This was frustrating for many of these seasoned session musicians who were used to getting everything down perfectly. However, for Dylan this method captured the spontaneity he desired as he didn’t seem to like the process of recording much anyways.
In the book ‘Simple Twist of Fate’, producer Phil Ramone related, “Bob doesn’t rehearse; Bob just starts creating! These songs start pouring out of him, and the bass player’s looking at me like ‘What’s wrong with you? Excuse me but can I write these charts down?’ I said, ‘He won’t do it the same way twice.’”
Dylan did not want to interfere with pointless interruptions and believed it was a question of “how you manage to stay out of the way as the music is coming in.” He continues, “At the time, ‘Blood on the Tracks’ was an outpouring of the man’s life, in a very troubled time for him, and this was almost cathartic for him in the studio. It was incredible. Nobody stopped, nobody said anything, nobody talked very much. It certainly wasn’t a social gathering; it was more of a soul being revealed directly to tape.”
They listened back to the takes quickly and according to session musician Richard Crooks, “He’d say things like ‘it’s too refined’ or ‘I can’t come off that shiny.’ He’d prefer to be a little more roguish or devil-may-care…he just doesn’t seem to want to come off sounding so musically brilliant – and he really is!”
However, maybe it wasn’t polished enough. After the week long session the masters were sent to Columbia Records who quickly pressed up some tests, but they delayed the release because of the encroaching Christmas season. This meant Dylan had the time to sit, reflect and ultimately question his work.
He went to Minnesota in December and his brother David convinced him the album did need more of a commercial sheen. He secured Sound 80 studios and engineer Paul Martinson and enlisted some local musicians who were largely unrecorded. Their regional flair gave a markedly different sound.
This is where the album’s final version of ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ was recorded. The ‘Simple Twist of Fate‘ authors relayed what the session players were going through. “They were enraptured by the voice of a generation, and now here they were in a small room in south Minneapolis, surrounded by fellow dreamers, watching Dylan himself singing live into their headphones. and not singing just anything, but a song they all recognized was a classic, a future standard, something that would become a vital part of millions of lives.”
The other songs from the Minneapolis session that made it onto the final platter were ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’, ‘Idiot Wind’, ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ and ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’. Even though these recordings constituted half of the album’s ten songs, the engineer and musicians on this session were not credited as packaging had been printed. They also were never credited on the subsequent represses and reissues.
There is great debate as to which recording sessions were better and this is the source of some arguments amongst Dylanologists who compare song by song. But what we do know and need to ultimately realize is that this is the way Dylan wanted to represent these songs in album form. Personally,I feel his use of songs from both sessions gives the album more dynamic.
Another source of debate is the subject matter. Is this album his “separation” album about the break-up of his marriage? Or is it inspired more by the stream of consciousness technique employed by his favorite writer Anton Chekhov as he elusively alludes to in ‘Chronicles‘?
Bob and Sara’s son Jakob has been quoted as saying, “The songs are my parents talking”. Does this mean the album is an example “confessional songwriting” (a term hated by many of his contemporaries like Joni Mitchell)? Or are the characters mainly fictional and inspired by Chekhov who felt role of artist was to ask questions and not answer them. Chekhov did not like moral finality in traditional story-telling and felt people don’t really say what they are thinking but tend to dance around it.
Rodger Jacobs of Popmatters believes this is more the case as he wrote, “Chekhov often expressed his thoughts not in speeches,” writes constantin Stanislavski, famed Russian theatre director, in his autobiography my life in art, “but in pauses and between the lines or in replies consisting of a single word … the characters often feel and think things not expressed in the lines they speak.”
The ten songs that comprise blood on the tracks represent, in classic literary form, a journey taken by a shadowy protagonist who has “paid some dues gettin’ through”; by the end of the journey of self-discovery, Dylan’s protagonist observes that all of the people he “used to know” are an illusion to him now and he has been profoundly changed, for better or worse, by the experience (‘Tangled Up in Blue’).
Compare and contrast the above with the following passage from Anton Chekov’s the wife…:
I recalled all the details of that strange wild day, unique in my
life, and it seemed to me that i really had gone out of my mind
or become a different man. it was as though the man i had been
till that day were already a stranger to me …
Maybe more a combination of both as it would be difficult for personal crisis to not creep into the lyrics of a creative and sensitive writer even if he was not consciously aiming to do so whatever the case, this is the grown up Dylan showing his more emotionally darker and conflicted side; it’s more personally poetic yet does employ the more impressionistic style he learned from his mentor Raeben especially ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ about which he states, “I wanted to defy time, so that the story took place in the present and the past at the same time. When you look at a painting, you can see any part of it, or see all of it together. I wanted that song to be like a painting.”
Dylan frequently reworked his lyrics in concert. The words were not settled and constantly evolved. Whilst talking about the two different versions of the sharp-tongued ‘Idiot Wind’ (which was recorded in both New York City and Minnepolis with the latter making the final cut) Dylan remarks, “If you’ve heard both versions you realize, of course, that there could be a myriad of verses for the thing. It doesn’t stop . It wouldn’t stop. Where do you end? You could still be writing it, really.”
When the album was released in January of 1975, it flew out of stores and fans got a chance to spread the word before the critics could bang their gavels and pass their judgements. The album got a gold disc in just three weeks after its release and it became the fastest-selling Dylan album until that time.
The press were initially a bit more skeptical and Jon Landau wrote in Rolling Stone that he felt Dylan’s approach to recording made him more of a flawed genius as he wrote, “It does matter whether or not the sum total of Dylan’s talents has added up to the making of great records. By and large I don’t believe that they have and if the unit of rock & roll art were only what survives on vinyl, exclusive of anything else and undivided into its component parts, then I don’t believe that Bob Dylan would qualify as a great rock artist.”
I feel the recording may not be overly polished and refined but nevertheless, it moves you emotionally and successive listens reveal deeper and deeper layers of emotion and reveals that spontaneity that Dylan desired.
Novelist Rick Moody called the record “the truest, most honest account of a love affair from tip to stern ever put down on magnetic tape.”
Speaking about ‘Blood on the Tracks’ in a radio interview with Mary Travers of Peter, Paul & Mary, Dylan himself noted, “A lot of people tell me they enjoyed that album. It’s hard for me to relate to that – I mean people enjoying that type of pain…”
Despite all of the heartache, the album ends on a philosophical note with some kind of resolution or maybe resignation: “Life is sad, life is a bust / all you can do is do what you must. You do what you must do and ya do it well, I’ll do it for you honey, baby can’t you tell.”