Bob's Big Box

Bob's Big Box
As a music lover who just turned 40, I thought it was about time I explored the back catalogue of Bob Dylan, an artist I'd largely ignored previously. Right then...

Saturday, 23 May 2015

16. Blood on the Tracks (1975)

In the last week or so since I started listening to Blood on the Tracks, not a morning has gone by when one or other of its ten songs hasn't been going round in my head upon waking.  In my previous post I remarked at how it seemed that on Planet Waves, Dylan's songwriting mojo was beginning to return.  BOTT confirms that it has indeed, fully-fledged and with a new, more mature edge, resulting in a set of songs whose intensely personal lyrics and captivating melodies have a universality that has seen them becoming one of the best-loved albums of the 20th century.

It didn't come easy, though.  The excesses of Tour '74 put a strain on what was now an already fragile relationship between Mr and Mrs Dylan.  That summer Bob went to stay on his Minnesota farm with mistress Ellen Bernstein, where he spent the mornings working on a well of 17 songs, from which BOTT was drawn.  Now back with Columbia, he recorded the album in New York in September with just bassist Tony Brown accompanying him (organ and pedal steel were overdubbed later), but following his brother's advice, several were re-cut in December with local Minnesotan session musicians providing a more commercial, full-band sound.

Through dealing with the torment of his private life, it's clear that Dylan's creative spark returned with a new potency.  On this album he looks at human relationships through the prism of his foundering marriage, and the result is a wealth of stories, characters and predicaments fashioned into some of the most heartbreaking songs of loss you're ever likely to hear.

It begins with the Minnesota re-cut of Tangled Up In Blue, one of Bob's most well-loved songs and one with which even this Dylan neophyte was familiar.  His voice is more gluey than ever, and across seven verses that fracture time and hop between perspectives, the wistful reminiscence of a doomed love affair unfolds over shuffling percussion, mandolin and ringing guitars.  It has the feel of Dire Straits' Romeo and Juliet, or an epic Springsteen story-song, nothing is resolved and we leave the narrator "...still on the road, headin' for another joint".

This restless feeling is still with us for the next track, Simple Twist of Fate, which also shifts between first and third-person narrative, to remember an encounter that meant everything to the author and little to the mysterious, unknowable woman for whom he still longs.  This is from the original NY sessions, featuring beautifully sympathetic bass from Brown that adds to the feelings of emptiness and loss.  The calmness of Dylan's voice makes it sadder still as he both curses and blesses the fate that brought the lovers together and then separated them, as does the tiny pinprick of hope that someday he'll meet her again.

He sounds painfully vulnerable on You're A Big Girl Now, where the object of his desire has moved on without him.  The cheerful arrangement contrasts sharply with the aching lyrics, where the wretched plea "I can change, I swear" pulls at my heart almost as strongly as the tortured "ohhhh"s in the middle of each verse.  These are almost a howl at times, and when he describes his pain as "like a corkscrew to my heart", I can almost feel it myself.  I've heard one of the New York outtakes of this song, i.e. in it's rawer, stripped down form, and it really is lovely, with Buddy Cage's glorious pedal steel working particularly well.  This is the only instance where I can't choose between the NY and Minnesota approaches; in all other cases of the re-records I prefer the do-overs.

In the case of the next song, I'm firmly in the officially released version camp.  There's no introduction to Idiot Wind; we're plunged straight into the opening verse with the memorable "Someone's got it in for me, they're planting stories in the press", before a wounded Dylan cocoons himself in a protective layer of anger over almost eight spitting, venomous minutes. Whether this tirade is entirely aimed at Sara is unclear.  He berates his "sweet lady" for not understanding him anymore, which is a bit rich considering it was he that had changed (and not to mention shagged around).  His ire also seems to be aimed at others unknown for being unable to relate to him - rather ironic for the creator of his own myth - and for double-crossing him.  Of course it's not necessarily autobiographical (certainly not the bit about shooting a man, marrying his wife and inheriting a million bucks, although the "I can't help it if I'm lucky" makes me laugh), but I can't help feeling that much of it is.  It recalls the bite of Positively 4th Street but with the added bonus of a chorus, where his pronunciation of "Eyeeeerdiot wiyend" fascinates and irritates me in equal measure.  It's a brutal catharsis on which muffled organ underlines his anger and accusations, as opposed to the bubbling organ that supports his much wearier singing on the NY original.  Right at the end the snarling "you" changes to "we".  If this is Bob finally taking some of the blame, then perhaps there is hope.

There's little hope to be found on You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go, supposedly about Bernstein.  The inevitable end to their affair seems to have come, and Dylan sounds pretty chipper considering, although there's a resigned air about the way he sings lines like "Flowers on the hillside, bloomin' crazy, Crickets talkin' back and forth in rhyme", recalling Nashville Skyline, but more contemplative.  His harmonica outro closes out Side 1 of the original LP.  Side 2 opens with the smooth, Clapton-esque blues of Meet Me In The Morning.  It's a fine song, with a laid back mood and some great electric guitar licks, but it suffers in comparison to the rest of BOTT by just merely being very good, and so is the weakest track here.

Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts follows, acting as a refreshing palate cleanser.  I've missed these epic story-songs over the last few albums, and this nearly nine-minute tall tale is that of an intriguing cast of characters set in the Old West, with a grand cinematic sweep. Dylan's ability to use language economically is thoroughly demonstrated here as he conjures up all manner of scenes, personalities and confrontations with no superfluous descriptions yet with a painter's eye for detail.  It's a fast-paced, entertaining affair and I love the slight gruffness in his voice.  Although the song sounds pretty jovial, it shares the sense of loss that runs through BOTT, and I must disagree with those that would award it the title of weakest or odd-one-out.

My favourite song on the album is If You See Her, Say Hello, a tender ballad of quiet desolation over a lost love, backed by acoustic guitars and subtle organ.  Its longing and desperation are perfectly expressed in the line "...the bitter taste still lingers on from the night I tried to make her stay".  Ouch.  It's so, so sad, and it boggles the mind to know that the lyrics were altered to temper an even rawer first draft.

Shelter From The Storm sounds as though he's acknowledging the debt he owes to his wife. Over scratchy guitar and gentle bass, and using Biblical references, he remembers the one who protected him from the battleground of the outside world, regretting the carelessness with which he treated her love.  He hints at an emotional betrayal, but coupled with his regret is a huge sense of gratitude for the time they had together, despite the way it finished.

Buckets Of Rain is a suitable sign-off (or sigh-off) to BOTT.  Whether the woman in question is his wife or a rebound affair, it sounds like he is accepting that a relationship has come to end, despite the agony.  The middle verse sums it up beautifully - and painfully:

Like your smile
And your fingertips
Like the way that you move your lips
I like the cool way that you look at me
Everything about you is bringing me

Musically, BOTT is a very consistent album.  The music is warm, gentle and has a clean 70s production that doesn't overwhelm the all-important words.  I'm glad that Bob listened to his brother over the re-records as they prevented it from sounding 'samey', which given the subject matter and tone might have been wearing (although this didn't do Springsteen's Nebraska any harm).  Dylan claims that the songs are based on a set of short stories by Chekov, and in no way linked to his personal life.  Whether this is true or not (not!), I wouldn't expect anything less from the jokerman that is Mr. R. Zimmerman, and it really doesn't matter anyway.

For me, BOTT is his most human album yet, and although the view from the bottom of the chasm is bleak, there's no real self-pity on display.  Nothing is resolved; love may morph temporarily into anger and hurt, but it remains, and in a world where little is permanent, love is the only thing that never disappears, whatever form it is currently taking.  In the case of Blood On The Tracks, Dylan's loss is our gain.

Life is sad,
Life is a bust,
All ya 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?

Note: I'll be able to listen to the next three albums in the BobBox on vinyl as well as CD, because they were all bargain LPs found at car boot sales.  Two of them were quite recent finds which I've been saving up, so I've yet to hear a note of them. (Take a look at my other other blog, Car Boot Vinyl Diaries here: ).

*****BobBox price check***** - £138.85 (free postage)
Discogs - from £107.78
Spin CDs - £119.99 (free postage)
Bob Dylan Official Store - £175.99

All prices correct on 23/05/2015


  1. Blood On The Tracks is one of those albums that gets in your head and under your skin (Quadrophenia, Never Mind The Bollocks and The Wall are other prime examples for me). You fell you know every note, every word, every syllable. One track MUST follow the next or the world may implode.
    My knowledge of Bob Dylan is patchy - most of the 60s releases and this album, and then just "bits" of the rest.
    Looking forward to the next installment of the Guided Tour (still searching for the funds to get my own Box, but in the meantime this Blog will fill the hole)

    1. Now you've got a more sensible car, perhaps you'll be able to afford it soon ;)