Opinion | The making of Bob Dylan’s masterpiece is unveiled
A six-CD box set lays bare how popular music's most feted bard created one of his finest albums
By the time we laid our hands on Blood On The Tracks, Bob Dylan’s masterpiece album of 1975, it was well into 1976. Growing up as a teenage rock music fan in Calcutta (long before it was renamed Kolkata) was hard. Getting new music wasn’t easy-peasy as it is now. Record stores wouldn’t stock the albums you wanted; All India Radio’s western music programmes would play only the chart-topping sort of mostly crappy songs; and unless you had a “connection", you had to wait a long time before you could hear what you wanted to. In this instance, the album arrived courtesy a friend’s father, a professor who’d returned from the US after a visiting lectureship or something.
We devoured it. Dozens of cassettes were recorded off that vinyl. And the album became the soundtrack of our lives for many months. It was instantly appealing from the first listen. I still remember the first time we spun the vinyl in my little room, which after school would become a den for friends, on an old HMV stereo record player. The first song opened with a jangly guitar and bass and then after a few seconds, Dylan began singing: “Early one mornin’ the sun was shinin’/ I was layin’ in bed/ Wondrin’ if she’d changed at all/ If her hair was still red…" The song was Tangled Up In Blue and we were in thrall. Quickly, all of us knew the lyrics to that and the nine other songs on the album by heart.
Almost all the songs on Blood on the Tracks had a theme: it was about devastated love, deeply emotional, sad and angry. Much later, we would learn about how Blood on the Tracks may have been a breakup album about Dylan and his first wife Sara’s disintegrating relationship. They’d divorce eventually and although Dylan has denied that the songs were confessional, his musician son Jakob, has described the album as a dialogue between his parents.
For me, with the common theme running through its songs, Blood on the Tracks has always sounded like a concept album. Not a concept album like, say, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s or Pink Floyd’s Wall but one that is complex and intimately emotional about the impending collapse of love between two individuals. Yet, despite its intensity, Blood on the Tracks is an album that anyone who has survived devastation in love or a breakup of a relationship can easily identify with. That’s probably why its appeal has stood the test of years—43 to be precise.
Two things happened recently to bring the focus back on the album. First, Luca Guadagnino, the Italian film director (who made last year’s acclaimed Call Me By Your Name), announced that he would be doing a film adaptation of the album. And second, the release on 2 November, of a six-CD box set (as part of Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series) titled More Blood, More Tracks comprising 87 songs, all of them recordings done by Dylan in 1974 when he was making Blood on the Tracks. The songs are multiple versions of the tracks that appear on the commercially released album in 1975 and most of the takes have not been previously released.
The six-CD box set, with more than six hours of music with several versions of each track—there are twelve of You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go, nine of Idiot Wind, eight of You’re A Big Girl Now, three of Tangled Up In Blue—is exhaustive but can also seem overwhelming. But, it is not—because in those multiple versions lies a story. In September 1974, over four days at producer Phil Ramone’s studio in New York, Dylan recorded the songs with different sidemen accompanying him. During one of the sessions, Mick Jagger dropped by, suggesting the use of a slide guitar, which Dylan is said to have rejected. By the time he wrapped it up, Blood on the Tracks was a spare, mostly acoustic album, which the record company (Columbia, later taken over by Sony) finalized for release that December.
That’s when the twist in tale occurred. Carrying the final recordings, Dylan retreated to his home state of Minnesota to spend Christmas with his brother, producer David Zimmerman. Both weren’t enthused by the recording. Dylan called the record company and stopped the release of the album, gathered a bunch of local musicians and re-recorded most of the songs over two days to make what became the album that was released in January 1975. He speeded up many of the songs; tinkered with the lyrics of some; and tweaked the mood in some of them. But the just-released box set captures the real evolution of the final set of songs. On some of the tracks on the six CDs you can hear Dylan’s coat buttons brushing against his guitar as he plays solo and sings; on others you can hear him experiment by replacing words and phrases. It’s like an aural annotation for a landmark album and a must-have for Dylan aficionados.
If you’re not a fanatic, there’s a single-CD version of More Blood, More Tracks that is far less formidable. It has 11 songs that, like a well-crafted movie trailer, provide a sneak peek into the legendary musician’s creative journey to make one of his finest albums. It also has a nearly 10-minute-long gorgeous version of Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts, a complex short story where the characters take part in a deliciously mixed-up plot. My first listen of More Blood, More Tracks gave me the same thrill that I got in 1976 when I heard Blood On The Tracks.
THE LOUNGE LIST
Five tracks from Dylan’s ‘More Blood, More Tracks’
1. ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts (Take 2)’
2. ‘Simple Twist of Fate (Take 3A)’
3. ‘Idiot Wind (Take 6)’
4. ‘Tangled Up In Blue (Take 3, Remake 3)’
5. ‘If You See Her Say Hello (Take 1)’
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.
Sanjoy Narayan tweets @sanjoynarayan