Exclusive Features
Anniversaries, Cover Stories, Editorials,
Interviews, Lists, and Comprehensive Rankings

Wait, You’ve Never Heard: Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde

on October 06, 2009, 3:15pm

We’ve all been there: That moment when you just realized, “Oh, my god. I’ve never listened to that.” It happens once in a blue moon for music enthusiasts, especially journalists, but it does indeed happen. Most won’t admit it, and they’ll probably just squeeze through the moment dumbfounded (and absolutely silent), but we’re a bit honest here at CoS. I mean, have you seen some of our Guilty Pleasure articles (mine included)? So, we’re back with a new feature, one that captures that awkward, tail-between-your-legs moment. It’s called “Wait, You’ve Never Heard”, and editor and writer Megan Ritt really gets the ball rolling with an all too honest confession. So, be nice… we’re only human.

-Michael Roffman, President/Editor in Chief

Imagine your life if you’d never heard Bob Dylan.

No, seriously. Imagine what it would be like if you hadn’t grown up with the angst of his growl, his gravelly voice pouring through your iPod speakers after a hard day of high school or a long day at work. What if you’d never heard a whole Dylan album, not even accidentally?

Well, until a week ago, that was me. Please don’t stone me. I realize I’m a music writer, but a person can’t know everything. As a kid, I was educated by my mom’s personal preferences, so ask me anything about Jim Croce, but as for Dylan, I had nothing. I’d heard “Like a Rolling Stone”, of course — I have ears — but I’d never heard a whole record through, and I’d never heard a song off what many consider to be his magnum opus, Blonde on Blonde. In the name of science-not to mention furthering my musical education-I gave Blonde on Blonde an introductory listen, and agreed to document it for this column.

My very first impression was, wow. People who tease Dylan for being hard to understand will get no arguments from me in the future. But the more I listened, the more the lyrics began to slip out. It’s not that he’s impossible to understand, so much as that you have to be inside the music before you can hear him. It’s like reading a book in a slightly foreign language, a la A Clockwork Orange. On my second listen, I found myself catching many more of the lyrics.

The other major thing that caught me was the delightful folk-pacing of the rhythms. The Jim Croce fan in me delighted at the way the guitar wove and played with the other sounds. Blonde on Blonde really sets up a certain vibe-sitting on paisley pillows in the back of a beat-up van, smoking cigarettes on the way to a live show. The atmospheric quality of the music was really something to experience. I wish I’d had this record in high school.

The album opens with harmonica over walloping, big-band brass, on “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35”. Laced with drug references and with hearty laughs in Dylan’s vocals, it’s the appropriate beginning to a long, strange party. The harmonica-heavy “Pledging My Time” follows, and while it’s not my favorite track, there’s little room for criticism here (except perhaps the extreme prominence of the harmonica).

On the third track, “Visions of Johanna”, Dylan’s versatility really shines. A quieter song, “Visions” rhymes and rolls along quite comfortably, but with a certain quiet beauty that makes it stand out. Even at 7:33, this song never feels too long. “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” picks up the pace a bit, as well as giving us an apology of sorts: “I didn’t mean to make you so sad/you just happened to be there, that’s all”. Reflecting the split responsibilities at the end of a relationship, Dylan’s protagonist airs a guilty conscience here.

“I Want You” picks up next, much quicker in pace and lighter in subject. One of Dylan’s true strengths is mixing up the emotions and paces of his songs, and the contrast here gives greater effect to each track. “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” really seems to give feeling to its name. “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat” mixes extremely light and somewhat amusing lyrics with a heavier guitar line that lends a more serious feeling to the music.

“Just Like a Woman” follows, and my research for this column indicated that this track was rife with controversy. Is Dylan a misogynist? I listened to the track without reading in depth about the lyrics in question, and this woman has to admit that she doesn’t feel the slightest bit offended. I didn’t find anything exceptional in those lyrics. Just in case, though, Dylan lightens up again with “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)”. The next track, “Temporary Like Achilles”, has a slower beat and a quieter rhythm. Again, Dylan’s mixing talents come in handy.

“Absolutely Sweet Marie” is a prime contender (along with “Visions of Johanna”) for my favorite track of the album. The punchy rhythm and light lyrics are carried nicely by the grit of Dylan’s voice, making the experience entirely enjoyable and endlessly sing-along-able. “4th Time Around” slows things down again, this time over a driving rhythm that keeps the overall pace up. “Obviously Five Believers” is quick and sassy, with a repetitive line that jazzes things up one last time.

Lastly, “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, an 11:23 minute mountain of a song, rolls along romantically and plaintively, containing the classic Dylan quote “Who among them do you think could resist you?” Written for his then-wife, “Lowlands” would be a lovely song to have written about oneself. I can only imagine how she felt, hearing this for the first time some forty years ago! The haunting, poetic imagery makes this song truly a classic, obvious to even the uninitiated.

Blonde on Blonde represents many of Dylan’s most famous songs, and after a few listens, the reasons for fans’ devotion to it are obvious. The man is a master of composition, balance, and mixing, and the album shines even forty years after its original 1966 release. Bob Dylan, I’m not sure how I got along without you this whole time, but now at least I know what I’ve missing.

Check Out: