As anyone who’s ever watched I’m Not There will tell you, Bob Dylan contains multitudes. It’s a rock cliche by now, but sometimes cliches get that way because they manage to capture something so essential that it’s impossible not to wind up repeating them to death. Of course, the man himself has never been shy about stoking his own capacity for reinvention.
When he told Rolling Stone interviewer Mikal Gilmore that he’d been transfigured by his 1966 motorcycle accident, part of us really believed it. When he went on 60 Minutes and claimed magical, received wisdom to explain his legendary early ’60s output, part of us didn’t want him to be speaking metaphorically.
Dylan the folkie. Dylan the rock star. Dylan the ramblin’ born-again preacher. Like Whitman before him, Dylan’s artistic life hinges on his ability to reflect, refract, and recombine the disparate pictures of American culture and chaos that shared the journey with him. Any conversation about Dylan’s guises naturally makes a stop on Blood on the Tracks, the 1975 record on which Dylan announced himself as a comeback kid, a faltering husband, and an undisputed master of confessional songwriting.
Instead of excavating those well-known roles one more time, we’ve assigned the task of making meaning out of Dylan’s many moods to a few of our favorite artists who also share our penchant for the record and the man who made it. Over the course of the next few essays and interviews, we’ll discover which Dylan they think speaks the loudest, which songs on Blood on the Tracks still break their hearts, and which lessons from the record’s songcraft still crop up in their own work.
More Blood, More Tracks, the latest installment in Dylan’s enduring Bootleg Series, is currently on sale. The deluxe edition includes more than 70 previously unreleased recordings from the sessions behind Blood on the Tracks, specifically outtakes, studio banter, false starts, and alternate versions of “Tangled Up in Blue”, “Simple Twist of Fate”, and “Shelter From the Storm”. Stream a preview of the collection below via Spotify.
Dylan the Confuser of Children
With Robbie Fulks
Who’d be convinced by a symposium of chin-scratching exegetes in Rolling Stone magazine to buy a rock record or else risk exclusion from the in-group and a slide into cultural illiteracy? Me, age 11. I recall digging up the $4, walking to and from Charlottesville’s Back Alley Disc, feeling the coarse record-jacket texture — all value-adding experiences alien to a 21st century music consumer.
But after getting Blood on the Tracks home and absorbing it, I was disappointed that I didn’t feel very hot toward the material. Many of the lines seemed to me shaggy and off-the-mark, with rushed-in rhymes and conveniently fuzzy meanings. The performances felt loose — sometimes groovily loose but sometimes just loose. I knew the fault was in myself, not the record. Dylan’s genius was an established fact, clinched by the bewildering essay on the back cover. I was in over my head.
I’ve returned to BOTT many times since, hoping to crack it open and cure my coolness. My success in this venture has been strong, though not total. Couplets like “He went to get the hanging judge but the hanging judge was drunk/ As the leading actor hurried by in the costume of a monk” haven’t dislodged my idea that a rhyme should register as a small miraculous coincidence in the course of a focused stream of language. I doubt whether “If You See Her, Say Hello” would be less magical if they’d stopped, tuned the guitars, and took one more swing. Cutting a couple verses from the album wouldn’t trouble me either.
But I do like all 10 songs, for different reasons, which I can’t say of many records. The three songs that could be considered the slightest — “Meet Me in the Morning”, “Buckets of Rain”, and “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” — are also the lightest, and altogether badass. The unchivalrous “Idiot Wind” isn’t one I race to rehear, but its splenetic howl (“I can’t even touch the books you’ve read”) and anti-poetic diction (“you’re an idiot”) make for a kind of landmark in performative laying-bare. Then there’s “Tangled Up in Blue”, a masterpiece of past-mining, indirection, and phrase detail. To relate to the song, it helps to be older than 11.
BOTT shows how to design a set of songs to make an album. Lead with a knockout (“Tangled”), follow with breadth — bitter/sweet, light/heavy, epic/brief. The sum: a representation of a human mind, including contrarieties, id-fueled demons, and a whirlwind of pungent particularities.
Might more cautious drafting and better-tuned guitars lessen this representational power? Possibly the fanatics wouldn’t have pored over the lyrics (and garbage) of a slicker technician, and an insecure kid would have felt no pressure to make sense of this strange record. But if you come to enjoy a thing after a club of pretentious, old windbags say that you should, the enjoyment is still real.
Dylan the Mapmaker… and Dylan the Enigma
With Shooter Jennings
Dylan was always on the outskirts of my life until I really dove head-in. I had heard songs from Blood on the Tracks here and there — my mom used to play “Meet Me in the Morning” when I’d visit her since she’s also quite an aficionado of his music — but there was definitely a moment when I sat down with that record. It was around the time that my relationship with the mother of my children resolved, and … fuck. To dive into it in that kind of a place was really tough. Every lyric to that album just made so much sense; it was almost too hard to listen to. I started learning to play those songs on the piano. I’d sit around like a sad sack by myself in my underwear and play fuckin’ “Simple Twist of Fate”. It had such a profound effect on me.
There’s a very compassionate angle to the record. There’s so much admission of his own wrongdoing in the story and so much admission of him realizing that he had something special and he blew it. It’s really lacking arrogance. The second half of the record has this healing quality to it. It’s like there’s some closure, but it’s not the closure you’d expect, which is exactly how it happens with any relationship that dissolves. Two people split and become two other people again. It’s almost like learning how to walk again.
BOTT is kind of like a road map; if someone cares to use it, the record offers an example of how to get through that heartache. Now, I can put it on at any time and go back to a place in my life and look back on it in a positive light. It’s fused to that part of my life, and I think that’s why it will always be my favorite. It’s a safe way of reaching those feelings and knowing you’re going to get out of it ok.
Being obsessed with Bob Dylan is being obsessed with all aspects of Bob Dylan. If you’re hooked on Bob Dylan, you want to listen to everything to try and understand this guy who seems superhuman, as both a songwriter and a storyteller. My old manager, who passed away, was named the Colonel Jon Hensley, and he and I had this obsession about Bob Dylan together, especially the current Bob Dylan. When Dylan did “The Night We Called It a Day” on his last appearance on Letterman, during the solo, he’s just kind of wandering around on stage. Jon used to say he was wandering around like he’d lost his goddamned mind.
There was also that Rolling Stone interview that he did around Tempest, where the interviewer’s talking about perception, and Dylan’s talking about how the interviewer has a Bloody Mary. He says something like, “So I say to Bob Dylan, ‘This isn’t a Bloody Mary. It’s a water,'” and Dylan says, “Well, that’s just your perception.” I’m so infatuated with those kind of moves. Later, in that same interview, he talks about having the motorcycle accident and transfiguration and how he became another person after the accident. It’s like, “Holy shit! What is he talking about?” It’s so out there and so confusing that it makes him an enigma. At this late stage in his career, you don’t know what he’s thinking. That’s almost as powerful as his music.
Consequence of Sound and Sony bring you an exploration of legendary albums and their ongoing legacy with The Opus. Hosted by Paula Mejia, the first installment starts Friday, November 16th and revolves around Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks in conjunction with the new Bootleg Series release, More, Blood, More Tracks. Subscribe now.
Dylan the Heartbroken
With Martin Frawley
I probably heard Dylan most when I was in my early teens. My dad was a songwriter, and there’s nothing he liked more than to sit around and drink hundreds of beers with his friend and try to learn to play all the songs. Whenever I heard “Like a Rolling Stone” or even “Tangled up in Blue” or “Shelter from the Storm”, I was like, “This is a huge track.”
I think I relate most to Dylan as the heartbroken man trying to rebuild who he is, because that’s what I’ve been recently. Before, I never really got this record, and my friend Jack was so into it. He’s had a lot of relationships, and he was always like, “This is the great one.” It’s incredibly sad. There’s a pent-up aggression or emotion. You can feel it in the guitar playing, when the acoustic guitar is hard panned. It’s really impulsive and really beautiful. When I heard “If You See Her, Say Hello”, I just wanted to cry. I don’t know if I’m just an incredibly emotional person, but with my ex-partner, I’ve found the detachment very hard. I’d say that’s the most honest song on the record. There’s so much sadness in “Idiot Wind”, as well. It’s almost like he’s howling it to the roof. It’s really him talking about himself and just getting all of that emotion out.
When you’ve gone through a huge breakup, you’re being so many different people. You’re confident one day and broken the next, and you’re going through all these emotions. When you’re in a stable relationship, you’re with someone. You’re on the train track together, and you simmer down. When you break up, you go out on your own path and you try to find yourself again. People on the outside don’t know how to deal with you. They’re like, “Hang on. You seemed good yesterday, and now you’re really hard to deal with.” That is really well translated on Blood on the Tracks.
You also realize how many great songs are on this record. You hear Dylan so often and in so many different contexts that you don’t realize where it all lays and how it lays out. I’ve been really enjoying listening and unpacking. The other day, I was in the kitchen with my headphones in, listening to “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” and I was just in it. I was that guy. I was watching the story unfold. That’s never happened before.
I’ve just recently made a breakup album, and it’s hard, because I’m definitely in the stage right now of going back and looking at the songs and trying to unravel them and be protective of my own self and the people I’m talking about. Without giving too much away, I’ve made a record to get someone back. I’m really happy with my songwriting. I kind of went through a rut, going through being in a band and then having a breakup and losing confidence. I worked really hard to pen how I felt, and I think people like my honesty.
At one point, I did think, “I’m gonna cover ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’,” but you can’t cover Dylan, my dude! You couldn’t be more of a cliche. You might as well have the Ray-Bans on then, you know?
Dylan the Reformed Punk… and Dylan the Radio DJ
With The Watson Twins
Leigh Watson: I think that we experience early Dylan coming out of the gate as, really, a punk. He’s got this kind of F-U attitude of “this is what i’m doing, this is what i’m singing, and this is who I am. No apologies, this is Dylan and I do what I want to do.” For me, the songs on Blood on the Tracks feel more exposed. He gives shadows of that intimacy on previous releases, but this is the first release where I think we really see him exposed and vulnerable, and the fuck-you attitude is kind of dissipated. It’s almost like he’s got his head down going, “Where do I go from here?”
Chandra Watson: Bob Dylan is a poet. His writing completely transcends any time period. With this record, he dances between the playful and the really thought provoking, from simple things like “Tangled up in Blue” to songs like “Idiot Wind”.
Leigh: In the old days of answering machines, we had a friend who lived in San Diego, and “Tangled up in Blue” was her favorite song. We would call and leave this song on her voicemail, like, weekly. It was our way of saying hi. We’d pick different verses and choruses to sing, but it was a song that we knew every single word to. As time rolled on, one of my favorite tunes on the record became “Buckets of Rain”. It’s heavy without being heavy.
My sister and I just released a record a few weeks ago, and one of our major things that we focused on in writing material was realizing that we can write heavy material, but that we can’t deliver it in a cast-iron box that is so hard to get into that you can’t feel it. We tried to go the “Buckets of Rain” direction. Instead of going super metaphoric and heavy, we wanted to go in a more playful, lighthearted direction while still delivering more emotional content.
Chandra: Reflecting on Dylan now, we’re lucky, because we get to look back at his full catalog. Now, it’s weird to think about Dylan fans listening to his earlier folk stuff and the shock and horror they felt when he went electric, because we’re looking over this entire catalog going, “Wow, what diversity.” You’re kind of awestruck by it.
Leigh: We had the honor of being played on his radio show, Theme Time Radio. He played our song “Big Guns”, from the Rabbit Fur Coat record with Jenny Lewis, on the episode about guns. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
Chandra: We were on tour, on the bus.
Leigh: The show was on a CD that they mailed to us. It was Jenny and Chan and I on the bus, and we put it in the CD player, and there’s Bob Dylan, and he goes, “And now, here’s Jenny Lewis and The Watson Twins singing ‘Big Guns’.”
Chandra: And we all screamed.
Leigh: The whole radio thing felt like a part of his evolution, too. He became this curator, diving into the world of other people’s songs. I think that was one of his ways of still remaining prolific: by sharing the things that inspire him. He has the musical knowledge to do it.