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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Bob Dylan: Blonde On Blonde

BOB DYLAN: BLONDE ON BLONDE (1966)

1) Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35; 2) Pledging My Time; 3) Visions Of Johanna; 4) One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later); 5) I Want You; 6) Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again; 7) Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat; 8) Just Like A Woman; 9) Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine); 10) Temporary Like Achilles; 11) Absolutely Sweet Marie; 12) 4th Time Around; 13) Obviously 5 Believers; 14) Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands.

Usually, whenever I get the urge to fantasize about yet another version of a shortlist of the «Greatest Al­bums Ever Recorded», I tend to exclude albums from solitary singer-songwriters or «dictatorial bands» dominated by one towering figure (like Jethro Tull). As phenomenal as any one particular mind may be, two phenomenal minds, properly coordinated with each other, are unquestionably even better. Pet Sounds is a fantastic album, yet it is fundamentally the product of not simply one mind's (Brian Wilson's), but one vision's, one purpose's, one creative vector's: almost any random song off it already has the seeds of every other song's inside it. Not so with a truly great record from, say, a peak period of the Beatles or the Stones, where thoughts and aspi­rations ran in different directions, and the way they interlocked opened up a virtually limitless number of combinations. Perhaps this could come at a certain expense of coherence, or perhaps some of the ideas could get a wee bit dissipated or out of focus, but I never see this as a real pro­blem — a great idea that makes its point in two minutes rather than forty is still a great idea.

However, every rule knows its exceptions. «I get your point about Pet Sounds, but it speaks to me on such a fundamental level that I really don't care if all of its songs are essentially about the same thing. What really matters is that they are about THE THING, and nothing is greater in the whole world than THE THING». That is certainly a respectable position — and that, more or less, is the way I feel, and have always felt, about Blonde On Blonde. Except I could argue, perhaps, that, unlike Pet Sounds, it is not all about the same thing, but for the sake of simplicity, and equ­ality of argument, let us assume and agree that it is. For the moment.

One thing that Dylan shared with the Beatles around late 1965 / early 1966 was this uncanny, rationally inexplainable ability to progress in the face of all odds. The more they all became bur­dened with «public duties» — never-ending touring, ridiculous press conferences, excessive so­cializing, not to mention groupies, sycophants, girls, drugs, and whatever else might be coming that way — the more their creative juices seemed to overflow and pour out in a completely dif­ferent direction. Revolver had Paul's finest odes to loneliness and John's strongest hymns to the transcendental; Blonde On Blonde almost completely dispensed with the aggressive rock'n'roll spirit and dived into the introspective and the ephemeral. It would have been one thing if Re­volver were recorded after the band's decision to quit touring and retreat into their private worlds, or if Blonde On Blonde were created after the infamous motorcycle incident that temporarily cut off Dylan from the outside spheres. But history stubbornly insists on the reverse, «unnatural» or­der of these incidents, and this should, if anything, enhance our respect for — and our enjoyment of — both these sonic wonders of 1966.

Formally, the crucial difference between Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde was due to Bob's decision to move to Nashville for the main sessions. He had made several attempts to record with his new touring band, The Hawks, in Columbia's New York studios, but nothing seemed to work the way he wanted — and it is relatively possible to follow Bob's train of thought on that one if one listens to a selection of outtakes from those sessions that have since been made available on the various Bootleg Sessions (ʽI Wanna Be Your Loverʼ, ʽShe's Your Lover Nowʼ, etc.): most are listenable, but sound like somewhat uneasy transition pieces from the blazing rock of Highway 61 to the moody sounds of Blonde. In the heat of the moment, the Hawks and Robert Zimmerman just wouldn't gel in the studio — it would take the motorcycle incident, a relaxed peri­od of Woodstock seclusion, and a name change to The Band to make them under­stand each other so much better.

Meanwhile, the move to Nashville in February '66 turned out to be a genius move. Dylan took only two musi­cians from his then-current retinue — Al Kooper on organ (a very wise choice, since the organ parts are essential ingredients in many of these songs) and Robbie Robertson on guitar (maybe not so wise a choice, since Robbie, with his still very «rock-oriented» style of playing, does not seem to always understand what is going on. "It's not hard rock", Bob would later say about ʽVisions Of Johannaʼ, "the only thing in it that's hard is Robbie", and I am not sure that the statement was not actually meant as a slight critique. On the other hand, some of the songs here do require small amounts of hard rock guitar, so the decision to bring the lead Hawk along was not entirely pointless, either).

The rest of the band was all picked up at Nashville, including the already well-known guitarist Charlie McCoy and the soon-to-be well-known artist Joe South on bass. None of them were bona fide «rock'n'roll» players, so, in a way, one could argue that Dylan's personal «roots revolution» had already begun well prior to John Wesley Harding, or, at the very least, that the seeds for those roots had already been planted in early 1966. But that would be a moot argument anyway, because Blonde On Blonde goes beyond these petty discrepancies — its world transcends the limits of «rock music», «roots music», whatever. Somehow, during those sessions, something, some sort of sound was captured, the likeness of which I have never, ever heard on any other re­cord. Out of a complex bunch of ingredients arose a once-in-a-lifetime combination that, for a brief moment, opened the doors to a completely befuddling dimension. The motorcycle crash slammed those doors back shut — but, in all honesty, I highly doubt that they would be kept open by themselves even without the crash: the moment was simply too good to last.

So what's up with that «thin, wild mercury sound», the way Bob himself described what was hap­penning here a decade later? In individual terms, the closest equivalent to a «thin mercury sound» that my ears tell me about here is probably Kooper's subtle organ lining for the basic melody of ʽVisions Of Johannaʼ — very thin indeed, and trickling down from your speakers like mercury, though, hopefully, with less lethal consequences. Not coincidentally, this is also the album's stand-out tune par excellence, a thoroughly «nighttime» song compared to the louder, brighter, generally more «active» or, sometimes, more «ceremonial» performances elsewhere, but still, in most of its ingredients, very typical of the general approach of Blonde On Blonde. The lyrics themselves subtly hint at nocturnal impressions — "ain't it just like the night to play tricks when you're trying to be so quiet?", "lights flicker from the opposite loft", etc. — and the whole song ultimately becomes a musical seance, and leave it to Al to come up with the perfect ghostly whistle of an organ tone to complete the picture (whereas Robbie's sharp, piercing licks, as I already said, rather detract from the atmosphere than add to it — fortunately, not a lot).

There was nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, that even hinted at this kind of material earlier on in 1965. There is no anger here, no irony, no condescension, no pissed-off feelings, and it even looks like there ain't that much in terms of «shock value»: ʽVisions Of Johannaʼ is not set to stun, its only way of working is to gradually crawl under the skin, which partially explains its running time of seven and a half minutes. I have no intention of saying that this is «Dylan at his most sin­cere» or «as close to the real Dylan as it gets», because by early 1966, what with drugs, touring, pressure, and, above all, Bob's complete slide into the realm of self-mythologization, he himself may not have been entirely secure of what was real and what was, well, a «vision». But there is a very special kind of magic running through the air every time the chorus comes to a resolution.

"These visions... pause... of Johanna... pause..." ...note the ultra-short punch of the first i in "visions" and the first a in "Johanna", they are like two rhythmic hammer blows, sharply con­trasting with the generally drawn out stressed syllables in the verses — that obligatory conscience modulator, without which our senses might have simply been lulled to sleep. This type of careful, meaningful enunciation is something decidedly new: there just wasn't time, space, or opportunity for it on Highway 61. Nor were there any similar tricks, in fact, on any of Dylan's early acoustic albums. He'd learned to turn the weakness of his voice into a powerful communicative tool alrea­dy prior to entering the recording studio — but I think that it wasn't really until these Nashville sessions that the knife became truly jagged.

In fact, it is the Blonde On Blonde voice, I think, that usually falls victim to all sorts of «Dylan parodies», be it Adrian Belew on Zappa's Sheik Yerbouti or Weird Al Yankovic on his own ʽBobʼ (with an accompanying video that parodied Dylan's original clip for ʽSubterranean Home­sick Bluesʼ — which Bob certainly did not rap out with that kind of voice). On many, if not most, of the tracks, Bob sings here in a significantly lower register than he'd used to before; and since so many of the songs are taken at relatively slow tempos, this gives him the opportunity to draw out, twist, mutilate, and make otherwise suffer as many syllables as he wishes to — including that odd manner of adding a rising tone to everything that's stressed: "but you-OO said you knew-OO me and I too-OOk your wo-OOrd..." ...in fact, he even manages to push it over to the fast tracks, like ʽI Want Youʼ — "the gui-II-lty underta-AA-ker si-II-ghs...". Why the heck does he do it? What's to be gained, other than mockery and parody?

Perhaps — simple explanation — it all has to do with the side effect of mind-expanding sub­stances. Perhaps — slightly more complicated, but I actually like this more — it's all about scree­ning himself and his output from outsiders: by putting on this half-theatrical, half-mental guise Dylan instinctively protects the songs from being adopted, adapted, misconstrued, and desecra­ted by outsiders. Indeed, how many notorious covers of songs off Blonde On Blonde do we know of? Other than ʽJust Like A Womanʼ, which the ubiquitous Manfred Mann immediately latched on to (but even the Byrds, who only attempted to do it around 1970, dropped it from the official relea­ses of Untitled and Byrdmaniax) — almost nothing. Not that people didn't try to do it — they did, and usually failed, not «getting» the original spirit of the song and not succeeding in imbuing it with a different one, either. Of all Dylan collections, Blonde On Blonde is arguably the least pliant when it comes to the art of plundering — and there are good reasons for that: its strength is not in the «melodies» per se, but in the fortuitous combination of its sonic structures. The «mer­cury sound», the «Nashville orchestra» bent to carrying out the will of the Minnesota genius, the ridiculous — and ridiculously unforgettable — singing manner, and the endearingly nonchalant spontaneity of it all. How does one improve on such a cocktail?

At this point, it would probably make sense to talk in more details about the individual songs, which places the reviewer in an awful condition: brief blurbs would be redundant and uninfor­mative — thorough analyses would turn the review into a monograph, and for that we already have Clinton Heylin and a host of less prolific Dylanologists. Consequently, instead of going one way or the other, I will try the «random observation» route. If you have not yet had your required listen to Blonde On Blonde, stop reading this stuff already; if you have, and wish to compare impressions, you might want to think about the following:

— how is it possible, on the part of so many people, to rail against ʽRainy Day Women # 12 & 35ʼ? It is the perfectly expectable Dylanesque shocker: after the mindblowing explosions of ʽSub­terranean Homesick Bluesʼ and ʽLike A Rolling Stoneʼ, to open up your next album with a super­ficially dumb, deranged, plodding carnival freakout. But if it sounds stupid, that does not neces­sarily mean that it is stupid — if anything, it might be the best ironic pun on the double mea­ning of the verb ʽto stoneʼ ever offered by anybody, and Bob's totally triumphant intonation on the verse-closing "everybody must get stoned!", as he turns the tables on his imaginary oppressors, reveals that he is perfectly aware of his own greatness in the matter;

— don't the rhythmically counterbalanced guitar and organ flourishes, framing Bob's vocals on the verses of ʽStuck Inside Of Mobileʼ, remind you of relentless, unchanging, unyielding cogs inside a machine, enhancing the «stuck inside» feeling? No conventional depression or despera­tion here, despite the lyrics' obvious debt to old-timey plaintive blues poems — but, somehow, the song still manages to pass for Blonde On Blonde's pinnacle of depression;

— what's up with all this odd passion for long-winded adverbs? ʽAbsolutely Sweet Marieʼ, ʽOb­viously 5 Believersʼ, "anybody can be just like me, obviously... but not too many can be like you, fortunately..." It's one thing to be head over heels in love with words, and another, much less comprehensible one, to be obsessed with complex derived adverbials. Maybe it was just a kind of intellectual mockery, especially considering how these adverbs usually seem to be employed in the «wrong» context. On the other hand, the longer any particular word is, the more fun you can have with it while mouthing its syllables — let us not forget that, at this point in time, phonetics was just as important to Bob's act as semantics;

— if there is a single «anti-sexiest» manner of pronouncing the words "I want you" than Dylan doing so on ʽI Want Youʼ, I have yet to hear it. Much has been said about how sweet and senti­mental the song is, but if so, it is being all that only by having all the sweetness and sentimenta­lism «purged» from its chorus, much like Robert Bresson preferred to purge all signs of «acting» from his actors before casting them in his movies;

— there is only one occasion on the whole album where I am truly grateful to Robbie Robertson for his presence: the maniacal garage-style solo during the instrumental break on ʽLeopard-Skin Pill-Box Hatʼ. Sure, the song, recorded while still in New York rather than Nashville, is formally a bit of filler, but it does feature one of the funniest sets of lyrics Bob ever wrote ("you might think he loves you for your money, but I know what he really loves you for — it's your brand new leopard skin pillbox hat!" remains one of my favorite cliché inversions in the world), and Robbie's break has him rising to the screechiest of heights, crazier and punkier than he'd ever get anywhere else, be it backing Bob, fronting The Band, or even flash-duelling with Clapton on The Last Waltz. This is just to note that these Dylan albums do not generally have filler per se: there are simply more and less ambitious tracks, that's all;

— regarding ʽJust Like A Womanʼ, my favorite part has always been the final instrumental verse, which I regard as the album's most beautiful moment: not coincidentally, perhaps, it is the only instrumental verse that does not count either as a «fade-out» (since it does not fade out) or as a «break» (since it terminates the song) — that way, it draws additional attention, and for a good reason, since the guitar / organ / harmonica trio is simply out of this world. Regardless of what the song's lyrics are supposed to mean, and whether they are «misogynistic» or merely «risqué», it is the music that truly counts here, not the words, and the music is a tender, dreamy serenade with just a tiny, but an important, bit of sarcastic sorrow (look for the meaningful harmonica note change at precisely 4:08, among other things) beneath the surface;

— ʽSad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlandsʼ is basically an Eastern, Persian/Arabic/Jewish-type tapestry of verse, crossed with a streak of beatnik influence and set to the «mercury sound»: be­yond its obviously innovative surface there actually lies a grand archaic tradition, which is the exact reason it works so well, or else it would have been simply perceived as a spout of boring nonsense. Consequently, I think this is the only song on the whole album where his new singing style fits in perfectly — because this is not really even beginning to approach «singing», it is grand-style rhythmic poetry declamation set to a rich accompanying soundtrack, and the only things that are missing include a turban, a long beard, and a flying carpet, though it wouldn't take a whole lot of imagination to put them all together, because the music already supplies the re­quired magic fuel. My only complaint at this point: the song could have used an extra three or four verses, since 11:20 is kind of a pitiful length for an entire LP side, don't you think?

It's always been a little funny to me, to talk to people who don't «get» Blonde On Blonde (much as it has probably been equally funny for lots of people to talk to myself, not «getting» Miles Davis or, say, Radiohead, so this should not be taken as a snobby remark), an album that has always connected to my psychic radar like no other — yet, somehow, there still remain lots of those who wouldn't even agree with the thumbs up, much less with such pompous, but sincere appellations as «greatest Bob Dylan album ever» or «one of the greatest albums ever re­corded», etc. On the other hand, the very fact that, unlike, say, any given Tim Buckley or Scott Walker al­bum, Blonde On Blonde has never been awarded a «cult status», but has continued to enjoy an unbroken world-wide reputation ever since its release, should also speak volumes to at least those of the unconverted who do not suffer from acute bouts of conspirology and can be persuaded to think about the impact of this album outside of the «Great Dylan Hoax» theory.

At the very least, here is my own sincere testimony: at one time, these songs — heard around the age of 13-14, still in Soviet times, thoroughly disconnected from any potentially accompanying reviews, praise, hype, etc., and not even fully understood as far as the actual words were con­cerned — somehow managed, nevertheless, to rock some of the foundations of my personal world. And in a way, that old feeling still remains. This is one of those very few albums that occasionally reminds me — listening to music, after all, is not such a silly way to spend one's time as one's logical reasoning might suggest.

Check "Blonde On Blonde" (CD) on Amazon
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14 comments:

  1. Excellent Write-up. Has your opinion on Temporary like Achilles changed or is it still the 'Achilles Heel" of this album?

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  2. Is I Want You the first Dylan song so far with a middle-eight?

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  3. Ballad of a Thin Man had one as well.

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  4. So do 'Just Like A Woman' and a couple of other songs on side 3 of Blonde.

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  5. I think one of the keys to this album is the sense of meaningfulness out of meaninglessness it gives off, much like "Astral Weeks". The music is so intense, so full of "direction", that when one listens to these songs one feels that somehow, somewhere, in some other world perhaps, all these incomprehensible lyrics "actually" make sense.

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  6. I just wanted to pretentiously and pointlessly say that my favorite moment, maybe in rock history, is the last chorus of "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands", in which Dylan's voice flies off the handle at its most unlistenable, on the "My-y-y WA-are-HOU-ouse EY-eyes MY-y A-RAB-i-an..." and then suddenly his voice becomes the most gorgeous thing I've ever heard with the way it twist on "dru-u-u-u-ummmm..."

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  7. George, the heartfeltness of the last paragraph makes up for the pretentious dribble of the first two.

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  8. Come to think of it, Dylan's middle-eights are amazing when he employs them. On the two mentioned above plus "Just Like a Woman." (I assume that's eight bars; doesn't matter.) This was the second Dylan album I owned. (Don't laugh: "Empire Burlesque," the contemporaneous new record when I was 15, was my first.) And I knew I loved Dylan when I heard that ear-piercing, ridiculously long and shrill harmonica note on "Pledging My Time" and thought, "This is awesome!"

    My only complaint about the album is that I desperately wish he'd finished "She's Your Lover Now" and included it. It could have made Side 4 a respectable length.

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  9. "Visions Of Johanna" may be my favorite song in Dylan's entire catalog (at least on some days). As far as Miles Davis goes, I agree with every word Mark Prindle wrote about him.

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  10. Wow. Just when I thought no more could be said about this album, you managed to do so.

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  11. 'She's Your Lover Now' is fantastic, but might have sounded a bit redundant on an album which already has 'One Of Us Must Know'. But I would trade it indeed for all of side 3, which is really weaker than the rest of the record.

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  12. I think Robbie's playing on Visions Of Johanna, rather adds to the atmosphere of the song. That's as subtle as his playing got on those days. I'm looking forward to the "Live 66'" review. If you don't like Robertson's playing here you must hate that album, where Dylan allows him to strecht out and he plays the same boring solo on every goddamn song.

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  13. Good review, but I admit I'm with Mark Prindle here. The only think I like is the sound, wich by the way is worse than in 'highway 61'. Songwriting? Mediocrity all over the place. Half of the songs are 'just like tom thumb's blues' photocopies, wich sure was't the best song in "highway". High-quality a la 'like a rolling stone' or 'ballad of a thin man'? Forget it. I'd save 'I want you', 'just like a woman', 'Sad eyed lady' from fire and little more.

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  14. Just wondered if you have any comment on the bowdlerisation/'radio edit' whereby my original UK vinyl release has the line:
    'it balances on your head just like a strip actress balances on a bottle of wine'
    this line is not on any CD release I have found.

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