Blonde On Blonde by Bob Dylan

WITH BACKING GROUP The Band on board, Bob Dylan set off to terrorize the civilized world. Established as a bonafide pop star, Dylan played nearly 50 shows between May and July 1966, but diehard Dylan fans still couldn’t take the idea of their idol fronting a pop group; it seemed to them that Bob was debasing himself before the false gods of money and fame. 

Only Dylan could inspire such devotion and provoke such feelings of betrayal. If you went to a concert by Cliff Richard, you didn’t go to boo. Crispian St Peters never aroused such hostility in his fans. This was only the second generation of rock’n’roll, the amplification in halls was primitive, achieving a sound balance was nigh-on impossible… but the overriding feeling left by that incendiary 1966 concert tour was of betrayal. 

Loyal fans who had stood by Bob and put up with all the disparaging comments (“Can’t sing for toffee, what are his songs about..?”) went along and heard their hero drowned out by a pop group. Pop groups were Freddie and The Dreamers, not Bob Dylan and The Band. Guitarist Robbie Robertson recalled: “You get off the plane and play — people booed you. We thought, ‘Jesus, this is a strange way to make a living!’” 

The head-on collision between Dylan and The Band has been one of rock’s great mysteries. The reality is that a secretary in Dylan’s manager’s office took Bob out to see the boys somewhere in the swamps of New Jersey, sometime in 1965. In Dont Look Back, when asked why he had other musicians on his record, Dylan smiles and says they’re his friends… “And I have to give my friends work, don’t I?” It’s a theory Marianne Faithfull enthusiastically explored in her 1994 autobiography. She gives a compelling fly-on-the-wall account of Dylan at the height of his pop star adulation: “When he came back… with The Band… he was so happy… and it made you realise just what a drag it must have been being out there all by himself with an acoustic guitar, just moaning away. This was exacerbated by being in England, where all the musicians he was meeting were in groups… All that boys’ club stuff that makes it so much easier.” 

Out on a limb, Dylan was also under pressure to deliver a novel — he couldn’t let John Lennon be the only literary pop star. He was touring, his manager had committed him to a TV special, his contract with CBS was due to expire. And there was the question of that new album… The pressure was on. Begun in New York at the end of 1965, Blonde On Blonde was wrapped up in Nashville by February 1966. 

Nashville didn’t have a skyline in 1966. Nashville was where country & western was diluted to taste, in studios light on atmosphere but heavy on time-is-money. The Nashville Sound was lush, wraparound strings, drowning out any real emotion on production-line pop songs, which were only made “country” by virtue of a weeping steel guitar. It wasn’t quite what Bob Dylan had in mind… 

Blonde On Blonde is a dark and brooding collection. As rock’n’roll’s first double album, it beat Frank Zappa’s Freak Out by a clear two months. Recorded with the cream of the Nashville session aces and a little help from “mathematical guitar genius” Robbie Robertson, the album’s 14 songs were quixotic examples of where Dylan’s Medusa-like head was at during those punishing first months of 1966. 

From the scowling, unfocused Bob on the cover, through to the 10-minute homage to his bride Sara on ‘Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands’, Blonde On Blonde just teems and overflows. The bulk of the songs were busked in the studio; Dylan only had shadows of what he wanted. His outlines were given flesh by the musicians, initially wary of the wiry-haired pop star, and a sort of camaraderie emerged in the Nashville bunker. 

In the past, it had been relatively easy for Dylan to scat his way through an album, when there was only him, his guitar, harmonica and occasionally piano to satisfy. With Blonde On Blonde, Dylan had to try and convey the sounds inside his mind not only to other musicians, but to session men with precious little sympatico. Remarkable then that for Dylan, Blonde On Blonde came the “closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind… It’s that thin, that wild mercury sound. It’s metallic and bright gold…” 

Touring, though, was taking its toll. Dylan sounded as hazy on vinyl as he looked on the album cover. Hindsight again lends a different perspective on the album; knowing that it was to be his last original work for 18 months — a lifetime in rock’n’roll back then — there seem all manner of omens and portents within Blonde On Blonde. 

Some of Dylan’s best work is to be found among the autumnal hues of Blonde On Blonde, but the relentless pressures of an increasingly successful career meant that, for the first time since his début, he was too busy to be original. He was now to be found borrowing from those he had previously left far behind. ‘Fourth Time Around’ is an engaging rewrite of The Beatles’ ‘Norwegian Wood’, which had appeared on Rubber Soul six months before, while ‘Temporary Like Achilles’ and ‘Obviously 5 Believers’ sounded like Bob Dylan trying to ape the Bob Dylan of a year before. 

There is no real “country” on the first album by a rock star to be recorded in Nashville. ‘I Want You’, ‘Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35’, ‘Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat’ were lightweight pop, although the refrain, “Everybody must get stoned” (from ‘Rainy Day Women…’) found easy favour at the time. 

‘Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again’ was another of those great Dylan songs about places. Few American songwriters have conveyed the space and variety of their nation as well as Dylan, the poet of the place-name. He manages to convey the full awfulness of being marooned in Mobile, Alabama, burning with the blues from Memphis, Tennessee. It doesn’t mean a lot, but with a talent as blazing as Dylan’s, his vagueness is frequently far more satisfying than the precision of others. 

‘Just Like A Woman’ is a song with English overtones and images (fog, royalty, pearls), and one that sits uneasily on today’s ears, with its litany of selfish, sexist slurs. Of its time though, its smoky melancholy slots neatly into the weary and resigned world Dylan created in Blonde On Blonde. 

‘Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)’ and ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’ rock along best without much scrutiny (surely, if you live outside the law, you are, perforce, dishonest?). There is the usual, utility cast of Dylan characters — Persian drunks, guilty undertakers, neon madmen and the Queen of Spades. 

Bowled along by the composer’s relentlessness, much of Dylan’s stuff at this time was swallowed without scrutiny. 

At his best, though, he could carry you along on the strength of his performance and the conviction of his lyrics. The magnificently wasted ‘One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)’, is a bitter farewell played out against desolate landscapes beneath glowering, leaden skies. However, the whole side devoted to ‘Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands’ suggested Dylan was out-reaching his grasp. ‘Desolation Row’ was longer and still managed to squeeze three more songs alongside it, on Side 2 of Highway 61 Revisited. 

Of all Dylan’s atmospheric songs of the period, ‘Sad-Eyed Lady…’ weaves its own world around Dylan, sounding as world-weary as Humphrey Bogart in the neon-lit Rick’s Bar in Casablanca, as Ilsa quits him, again. There is a lot of puff here (what, please, is a “geranium kiss”? Describe a “cowboy mouth”) but there is also a rolling hymn of devotion with some extraordinarily intense commitments and pledges contained therein. 

The masterpiece of the set is ‘Visions Of Johanna’. A New York song cut in Nashville — that estrangement lends atmosphere to the work. The first verse is perhaps Dylan’s finest evocation of time and place. Wide-ranging and ubiquitous, ‘Visions Of Johanna’ switches from a clammy attic room to a courtroom where Infinity is judged; from empty parking lots on West 4th Street to a no-show Madonna, prowling an empty cage. 

A mournful harmonica plays, a drug-induced nightmare follows halfway through the fourth verse: women with faces like jelly and missing knees, a donkey standing draped with “jewels and binoculars” (an image The Rolling Stones would borrow three years later for the cover of their 1970 live album, Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out). 

‘Visions Of Johanna’ has Dylan sounding wise as leader, old as Time. Few have attempted cover versions of this impossibly convoluted song. At his iconoclastic best, Dylan explains Mona Lisa’s inscrutable, enigmatic smile as a bad case of the “highway blues”, but there aren’t many laughs to be had here. This is mystery and imagination, with an organ playing skeleton keys in the wispy background and, near the end, Dylan’s conscience explodes and he is gone, while all that remains are his ‘Visions Of Johanna’, ambiguous and dazzling images that he has entertained over a lifetime. 

The summer of 1966 saw The Beatles unleash Revolver, their most mature album to date. The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds sounded like the only American album to tackle the Fabs head-on. Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, had scheduled 60 more concerts for the remainder of the year, significantly including a date at Shea Stadium. The Beatles had played the New York baseball stadium the previous year, establishing a record for the largest-ever attendance at a pop concert. Grossman was now determined to put Dylan on a commercial par with The Beatles. 

Dylan had established a base at the artists’ community of Woodstock, north of New York. It was while riding his motorcycle around the muddy, tree-lined paths of Woodstock that the back wheel on Dylan’s machine locked, and he was hurled over the handlebars. 

The few people who had been close to Dylan in the weeks before the crash remarked on the singer’s ghost-like pallor. You could hear how weary he sounded on record and in interview. There was a tragic inevitability to the crash, the legend of James Dean loomed large. Youth needed another martyr. 

Dylan’s legendary status was enhanced by the crash, marking as it did a period of withdrawal, when the only stories to emerge from Dylan’s Woodstock retreat were rumours. As pop convulsed during the summer of 1967, Bob Dylan sat far away in upstate New York, looking out at the trees and staring at the sky.

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