Bob Dylan’s finest hours?


WHEN considering subjects for this column, the usual yardstick is the more obscure the better. However this week I’m making an exception for the mighty Bob Dylan. And in particular his monumental album Blood on the Tracks.

It took me a long time to ‘get’ Dylan. Like many, I used to feel that he was a great songwriter whose work was better performed by others such as Jimi Hendrix (see Like A Rolling Stone

and All Along the Watchtower).

I also had an aversion to the CBS label brought on by hearing too much jazz rock. A friend bought Blood on the Tracks when it came out in early 1975 and lent it to me soon afterwards. I thought it was OK but couldn’t agree with those who hailed it as a masterwork.

Everything changed one beautiful sunny morning in June, 1980. I was strolling by the waterside on the Greek island of Symi, waiting for a ferry to take me back to Rhodes for the flight home after an idyllic holiday. I looked into a little arts and crafts shop hoping to find some gifts and, as I passed through the doorway, the owner pushed the ‘play’ button on a cassette player to start Tangled Up In Blue, the opening song of Blood on the Tracks. The shivers went down my back. In that moment I realised no one does Dylan like Dylan.

Converted to the cause, I went on to amass His Bobness’s entire back catalogue although there is little after 1978’s Street-Legal that I really cherish and his lurch towards the middle of the road (Dylan sings Sinatra? Really?) is disconcerting. And I have to take issue with the pseud who wrote in the Sunday Times some years ago that the 41 best albums of all time were Bob Dylan’s 41 albums.

The reason I am blathering on is the recent emergence of More Blood, More Tracks – the Bootleg Series vol 14. As all Dylanophiles know (to their financial cost), this is the latest in a long line of albums released officially after having been available for many years in dubious quality through underground sources. There is a single CD which equates largely to the bootleg Blood on the Tapes and, for those of us fools prepared to shell out north of £100 for umpteen versions of the same song, a six-CD box set consisting of 87 tracks.

The story is that in September 1974, Dylan went into A & R Studios in New York to record his 15th studio album. Although he has since denied it, the consensus was that the songs were inspired by the disintegration of his marriage to Sara Lowndes, mother of four of his children. Most of the numbers were recorded with the simplest of instrumentation. After four days of work, the LP was regarded as complete, it was mastered and some review copies went out.

In the liner notes for More Blood, More Tracks, Jeff Slate observes that ‘Dylan cut each of these amazing performances – some of the best he ever committed to tape – one after the other, live in the studio, without headphones, and without the types of overdubs that most performers rely on to make their records sound finished. Instead, on these tracks, we find Dylan – just a singer with a guitar and a harmonica and a batch of great songs – delivering performances that thrill you when they’re supposed to and break your heart when they need to. The performances are also in the purest state we’ve ever experienced them.’

One after the other, eh? So not even King Robert in his pomp could do two songs at once.

The single CD comprises what are regarded as the definitive original versions of the Blood on the Tracks songs. It’s all great but the high points are Tangled Up in Blue; Simple Twist of Fate; Shelter From The Storm; You’re a Big Girl Now; If You See Her, Say Hello and Idiot Wind. One song not featured on Blood on the Tracks is the lovely Up To Me (I’ve only smiled once in 14 months and I didn’t do it consciously), perhaps because it is slightly too similar to other songs. The six-album set, which comprises every note recorded in New York, also includes Call Letter Blues, which is somewhat pedestrian in my view, and a cover version of Spanish Is The Loving Tongue, which is well worth a listen if a little shouty. Sadly, I am unable to provide links to these tracks because Sony seem to have a less charitable attitude to YouTube than other record companies, but you can sample the single CD at Amazon. Younger and more tech-savvy readers will no doubt access the complete songs while standing on their heads zapping aliens on the Xbox.

Some weeks after the New York sessions, Dylan decided he was not happy with the record when his brother David Zimmerman apparently opined that the sound was too stark. In December 1974 the Bobster began a new version at Minneapolis Sound 80 Studios, with much more instrumentation. The finished version can similarly be sampled here.

The lyrics throughout are amazing but Idiot Wind is something else – the most powerful and vitriolic putdown I’ve ever heard.

You hurt the ones that I love best and cover up the truth with lies
One day you’ll be in the ditch, flies buzzing around your eyes
Blood on your saddle.

Idiot wind, blowing through the flowers on your tomb
Blowing through the curtains in your room
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth
You’re an idiot, babe
It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.

I noticed at the ceremony, your corrupt ways had finally made you blind
I can’t remember your face any more, your mouth has changed, your eyes don’t look into mine
The priest wore black on the seventh day and sat stone-faced while the building burned
I waited for you on the running boards, near the cypress trees, while the springtime turned
Slowly, into autumn.

I can’t feel you any more, I can’t even touch the books you’ve read
Every time I crawl past your door, I been wishin’ I was somebody else instead
Down the highway, down the tracks, down the road to ecstasy
I followed you beneath the stars, hounded by your memory
And all your ragin’ glory.

I been double-crossed now for the very last time and now I’m finally free
I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline which separated you from me
You’ll never know the hurt I suffered nor the pain I rise above
And I’ll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love
And it makes me feel so sorry.

‘I can’t even touch the books you’ve read.’ Blimey! She certainly rubbed him up the wrong way.

For me it is impossible to choose between Blood on the Tracks and More Blood, More Tracks – they are equally brilliant in different ways. What I do feel is that this is rock’s greatest artist at the pinnacle of his powers.

If you still haven’t ‘got’ Bob Dylan, I’d suggest this might be where to start trying.

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