#3. BLONDE ON BLONDE – Bob Dylan 1966
The story so far: scrawny Jewish kid from grimy mining town Hibbing Minnesota, in the thrall of a muse shared by Woody Guthrie and other patriotic American dissidents, flees to NYC and instills himself in the burgeoning “folk explosion.” Writing and performing his protest vision to increasingly enthusiastic folkies and recording three albums of great folk purity, he wears his folk troubadour mantle with appropriate dustiness.
Under the sway of big city life and its denizens, he transforms easily into dandified street hipster, tousle-haired and poetic, his new muse the Symbolists, Rimbaud et al. This new electrified personality demands a different music, electric, bluesy and peopled with his strange new friends and their antics. He creates two albums (Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited) of blues-pierced rock and roll with snarled chaotic images ranging from street scenes to bible stories, almost hits #1 on the pop charts and, unfazed, continues his transmogrification.
To create the third album in his rock and roll trilogy – an unintended trilogy as history would demonstrate – Dylan went to Nashville taking just Robbie Robertson of the Hawks, and Al Kooper on keys. Everyone else is a veteran Nashville studio musician. And the result: Dylan’s masterpiece.
As a Zen master put it, “When I heard the sound of the bell ringing, there was no I and no bell, just the ringing!” This is the ringing. The levels of invention on this album are astounding. Seasoned Nashville session musicians mix with raw young rock players under Dylan’s hallucinatory wand to create four sides of inspired new music. Blonde on Blonde scratched into the wall a new meaning for the term rock & roll.
It was the first double rock and roll album ever released. It changed the way musicians, fans and the music industry felt about LPs. It shockingly expressed, for the first time that a song could take up a whole side of an album and that was okay.
From the howling homage to the Beatniks – Rainy Day Women #12 & 39 – that opens this creation to the final notes of the stoned epic to his new wife Sara as of 1965, Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands that consumes all of side four, there is seldom a moment not awash with musical and/or poetic eloquence. This was the album where Dylan demonstrated he thoroughly understood rock and roll, too.
We’d heard the evidence of his folk roots and those understandings. We’d listened along as he grew into a relatively comfortable blues player. Like a Rolling Stone became an unlikely Number Two hit and established Dylan’s rock & roll wrinkle, a wild cascade of images and vitriol over the raw shriek of bastard guitars and clamoring keys. Like a Rolling Stone’s visceral form left vast areas of refinement available for Dylan to explore. Blonde on Blonde was the earnest beginning of that exploration.
An even more unlikely hit for Dylan opens the album, Rainy Day Women #12 & 35, got to Number Two! Here we have a whorehouse full of Beat poets, all very horny, high on wine and pot, yowling their mantra for a generation “Everybody must get stoned,” backed up by a German mariachi band, also drunk and high. It’s a marvelously ridiculous introduction to the subtleties that follow.
Next is the lowdown blues of Pledging My Time, teeth-filling-rattling harp in the forefront throughout while a concoction of musicians simmers away behind him.
There are several songs I absolutely love from this album and Visions of Johanna is the first to appear. It is my favourite track here. This is the newly transplanted urban poet keenly observing the crazy strangeness that the city produces in people, cautiously dipping his body and his mind into relationships but always ruled by an infatuation with Johanna, a vision of unattainable beauty and his life’s fulfillment. He’s having fun with it though.
“See the primitive wallflower freeze,
When the jelly-faced women all sneeze
Hear the one with the moustache say, “Jeez,
“I can’t find my knees.””
(Sooner or Later) One of Us Must Knowis another of my faves, an edifying, almost hymnal organ/piano rant with Dylan trying to “explain” a relationship, even taking some responsibility for the way it turned out. The spookiest line in this tune is “You told me later as I apologized, you were just kiddin’ me, you weren’t really…from the farm.” At once accusative and spiteful yet loving, there is something about how he says those three words that is still wonderfully enigmatic in meaning and delivery. So ends Side One. Three to go. This is vinyl, remember.
I’m convinced Dylan either worked on or spent way too much of his youth on midways. There is a carnival atmosphere to some of his material. I Want You, follow-up single to Rainy Day Women, getting to #20 on Billboard, is stoned Bobby Vee meets the guy who plays the organ at hockey games. The candid title seems to justify every strange thing that happens in the song, all because “I want you.”
Southern music, cool, smooth and sublime, describes (Stuck Inside of Mobile With the) Memphis Blues Again. Some of Dylan’s most surreal images and characters emerge in this song. It’s sticky with desire, murky with symbols transforming into concepts. And I love the ending!
Barroom brawls are happening in the background of the haute Chicago blues number Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat; snaky guitars feed a hungry piano being chopped in two with a dull axe. Add another full measure of vitriol! This was a single, peaking at #81!
The fourth and final single from the album ends side two, Just Like a Woman, peaked at #33. Who could possibly resist “her fog, her amphetamine and her pearls?” The song is about a small increment of his personal evolution that happened, to Dylan’s surprise, at the end of a relationship.
Those eight songs would have comprised any normal album of the time. But we have two more sides that expand on the themes and format of the first two. Back to the carnival for Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine, another cranky ending to a relationship, another favourite.
Temporary Like Achilles follows the second track/blues format. It’s a slow, crisp number with the great line “I’m trying to read your poetry but I’m helpless like a rich man’s child.” The organ in the break is bubbling up from a very deep pool, likely played by Al Kooper.
Absolutely Sweet Marie follows, a bouncy rocker with another mystery tableau peopled by Marie and friends. Dylan’s harmonica break is, simply, nuts.
The most delicate setting backdrops another tale of a bizarre relationship with 4th Time Around. The floppy melody carries a yarn about a one-night stand with some serious drug use and the morning after; off-kilter observations and events flow in and out of the collage. (Legend has it Dylan played this tune for Lennon and McCartney before he had recorded it. Soon after he got a thematic re-write of it on Rubber Soul (#16) called Norwegian Wood. Legend has it.)
Obviously 5 Believers is the album’s last romp, clangy guitars, blues harp and honky tonk piano conspire in this yearny tune.
Side Four is all Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, about 11 minutes of Dylan at his hallucinogenic best. In an album full of such moments, here he manages to evoke in a dream a hovering feminine wraith that haunts his consciousness to the point that “a warehouse eyes my Arabian drum.” Now that’s serious fantasizing! Pour on the churchy organ, tap out a rhythm on a wastebasket, refer to “the farm” again in an eerie nostalgic way and keep the joints lit. (This was when drugs were still fun for Bob.) The song, the side and the album end with another harrowing harmonica blow from Dylan.
The next step on his journey is complete.
Favourite Track: Visions of Johanna