Ken Regan/Courtesy of the artist
Sorry if I've been hard to reach lately, I've been in the studio listening to Bob Dylan recording Blood On The Tracks and it is an experience far greater than I ever could have imagined.
Let's get one thing straight. I am neither a Dylanologist nor a super fan. My interest in Dylan has gone up and down as he has gone through his phases. His initial success as a folk singer and songwriter placed him at the pinnacle of his craft. Then he went electric, a golden age of sorts.
Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde On Blonde, John Wesley Harding, the amazing albums kept coming. "Positively 4th Street", "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again", "Subterranean Homesick Blues", etc., this was the good stuff in the middle 60s. As the sixties came to an end, I was hooked. I enjoyed Nashville Skyline, even if "Lay Lady Lay" seemed kind of slick. I stayed on the bandwagon for Self Portrait even though others were jumping off. I loved that double album, even the artwork, maybe especially the artwork. I was excited a few years back when the bootleg series opened up the vaults from the Self Portrait sessions and gave us Another Self Portrait.
I liked New Morning but from my vantage point, the 1970s had more significant ups and downs for Dylan. Planet Waves and Rolling Thunder Revue didn't get it done for me. I left the movie Renaldo and Clara scratching my head. Amongst all that madness came my all time favorite Dylan record, Blood On The Tracks, released in early 1975. At the time of the LP's release, John Hammond (who signed both Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to Columbia Records) talked about Blood On The Tracks. The following video also includes Don DeVito talking about the album's marketing.
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If this project interests you, don't delay. All the press says that "quantities are strictly limited".
A couple of things hit me right off the bat about this. Even after 40+ years of casual listening to Blood On The Tracks, I had some serious misconceptions about the album.
Misconception #1: I knew that the album had some great songs on it. I worked as an FM radio DJ then and I couldn't get enough of "Tangled Up In Blue", still can't.
Talking about Blood On The Tracks, I must describe one magic night on Vin Scelsa's Idiot's Delight radio show on WFUV, around fifteen years ago. Vin's guest in the studio was Mary Lee Kortes. Her band, Mary Lee's Corvette, had just released a live album of them covering the entire Blood On The Tracks album, the performance of which was part of a series of special nights at one of NY Lower East Side nightclub's, Arlene's Grocery. As I recall, the story was that someone recorded the show on a cassette and they were able to successfully create a master, which was released on CD. Scelsa's plan was to discuss each song and then play it from either her album or Dylan's. The conversation flowed so easily and was so animated that Mary Lee began playing the first song live there in the studio. Completely unplanned, the talking and the singing continued until the entire album, save for one pre-recorded song, had been performed and dissected and the two hours had slipped by in record time. I've heard a lot of great radio shows, but that was one of the most special that I have ever heard.
Skip to November 2018 and the release of More Blood More Tracks. I knew that there were some amazing songs on there, but I was unprepared for the sheer excellence of every single song, including one that was left off of the original album, "Up To Me". These songs are so good in fact, when he does multiple takes of the same song here, the brilliance is unrelenting.
Listen to "If You See Her Say Hello" (Take 1)
Misconception #2: I always thought of Blood On The Tracks as a band record. Therefore, I was a little shocked to discover that these songs all began life in the same manner as Dylan's earliest folk records: just him with an acoustic guitar and an harmonica. The New York sessions for Blood On The Tracks had remarkably simple production. He first recorded solo acoustic. Then, there was a session with a band, Eric Weissberg and Deliverance, then Dylan dismissed all of the musicians but one and recorded a session using only the bass player. There were a few more sessions in which Dylan adjusted his lyrics and vocals. There were also a few organ overdubs. The final result was personal, intimate, and almost austere.
The story goes that at the last minute, as the album was being manufactured, Dylan changed his mind and rerecorded five of the songs with pickup musicians in Minneapolis. In his fine piece in the New York Times, Jon Pareles describes what happened, "When 'Blood on the Tracks' was released in January 1975, half of the New York City recordings were replaced with the Minneapolis sessions (although with album covers already printed, that studio band went uncredited)." I guess those five songs colored my perception of the album. Those New York sessions are nothing short of revelatory.
Listen to "You're a Big Girl Now" (Take 2)
Misconception #3: I was not aware that the original album had adjusted audio. In the introduction to the deluxe edition, Jeff Slate wrote that all of the recordings had a wash of echo and were slightly speeded up. Slate explained, "During the production of Blood on the Tracks, Dylan asked [producer Phil] Ramone to speed up many of the masters by 2-3%, a common practice in the 1960s and ’70s, especially for records sent to AM radio. It was thought that doing so would give the songs a little extra bounce to better engage listeners." When preparing More Blood More Tracks they restored the correct tape speed and removed most of the echo.
I decided, after listening to the first three discs, that I would have a listen to the original album as a reference. I was thinking in terms of arrangements and lyrics, not sound quality. Then I listened to the rest of box set. The difference in sound quality was mind bending. The session tapes in the new package were so dramatically better than what we've been listening to all these years, the difference is astounding. All of the nuance and texture in the sound can be heard clearly; it's like the difference between conventional and high definition television. The recordings in More Blood More Tracks are so good that you don't want them to end.
Listen to "Simple Twist of Fate" (Take 1)
Misconception #4: I initially thought that a set of complete session tapes would be filled with false starts, stops, studio chatter, and experimentation. Yes, there is a little of that. But, I was unprepared for the degree to which More Blood More Tracks is filled with complete performances and although I generally avoid repetition, these tracks are all basically good. About that, read this from Jeff Slate's liner notes: “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."
There is one more article I would like you to read. It's a piece by Alex Ross from November 13, 2018 in The New Yorker, "Bob Dylan’s Masterpiece Is Still Hard to Find." In an astute article, Ross explains how the preliminary version of the album was recorded in New York and went to the test pressing stage before Dylan rerecorded five tracks with a pick-up band in Minneapolis. If you like this album, the article is essential, fascinating stuff. Ross even gives directions on how to recreate the preliminary Blood On the Tracks 1 album that very few have ever heard... until now. And, just in case this article should ever go offline, I am reproducing it below.
Listen to "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" (Take 5)
Bonus Video: Hear a bit of the New York version of "Tangled Up In Blue" as you watch this trailer for the deluxe edition of More Blood More Tracks
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Bob Dylan’s Masterpiece Is Still Hard to Find
By Alex Ross
The New Yorker
November 13, 2018
In September, 1974, Bob Dylan spent four days in the old Studio A, his favorite recording haunt in Manhattan, and emerged with the greatest, darkest album of his career. It is a ten-song study in romantic devastation, as beautiful as it is bleak, worthy of comparison with Schubert’s “Winterreise.” Yet the record in question—“Blood on the Tracks”—has never officially seen the light of day. The Columbia label released an album with that title in January, 1975, but Dylan had reworked five of the songs in last-minute sessions in Minnesota, resulting in a substantial change of tone. Mournfulness and wistfulness gave way to a feisty, festive air. According to Andy Gill and Kevin Odegard, the authors of the book “A Simple Twist of Fate: Bob Dylan and the Making of ‘Blood on the Tracks,’ ” from 2004, Dylan feared a commercial failure. The revised “Blood” sold extremely well, reaching the top of the Billboard album chart, and it ended talk of Dylan’s creative decline. It was not, however, the masterwork of melancholy that he created in Studio A.
For decades, the first “Blood” circulated on a bootleg called the New York Sessions. The compact disc that I picked up in a basement Greenwich Village store had a pleasant overlay of vinyl noise—the result of a transfer from a test pressing. Although several of the tracks have shown up in Columbia’s long-running Bootleg Series, the perennial absence of the full album has made fans wonder whether Dylan is wary of revisiting a turbulent time of his life, when his first marriage, to Sara Lownds, was dissolving. Dylan has denied that “Blood” is autobiographical; in his memoir, “Chronicles: Volume One,” he suggests that the songs were based on Chekhov. Artists tend to dislike personal readings of their most personal work.
Last month, Columbia issued “More Blood, More Tracks: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 14.” Available both as a single-disk compilation and as a six-CD “deluxe edition,” it is both more and less than what Dylan obsessives have been tiresomely clamoring for. The logical move would have been to include the entire album in its initial guise. Yet the single disk gives you only two of the test-pressing tracks, alongside some admittedly riveting outtakes. The box set has all of the discarded tracks, but they are scattered through a complete chronological survey of the four days of sessions—five and a half hours of Dylan at the height of his powers. You will have to study the track listings to assemble the original record. The elusiveness of “Blood on the Tracks” has been integral to its allure, and so it remains.
The Morgan Library, which owns the autograph manuscript of “Winterreise,” also possesses a five-inch-by-three-inch red spiral notebook in which Dylan wrote down lyrics for “Blood on the Tracks.” A hardback book included with Columbia’s “deluxe edition” reproduces forty pages of sketches. Some of them are sung more or less as written on both incarnations of the album:
He woke up, the room was bare
He could didn’t see her anywhere
He told himself he didn’t care,
pushed the window open wide
Then felt an emptiness inside
to which he just could not relate
Brought on by a Simple Twist of Fate
Other lyrics never saw the light of day, and are brutally confessional: “Doomed (led) by a heart that wanders astray / Trapped by a brain that I can’t throw away . . . Was it really 12 years ago, well, it seems like just the other day . . . And it’s Breaking me up with only myself to blame.”
Clichés about heartbreak feeding genius fail to explain the singular potency of “Blood on the Tracks.” The rawness of feeling is certainly there, but it is joined to meticulous craftsmanship in the working-out of words and music. The notebook shows constant, obsessive revision—a sort of perfectionism of disaster. “Idiot Wind,” the extended primal scream at the heart of the album, is seen in drafts so crowded with marginal additions that they are hardly legible. Often Dylan doesn’t cross things out, instead superimposing alternatives:
The priest wore black on the seventh day and waltzed around on a tilted floor
stepped all over me
After you (came down on me) you said you never saw my face before
did me in
(After you stepped all over my head, you said ya never wanted to see my face no more)
I BEG YOUR PARDON MADAM
(thru the circles round your eyes)
IDIOT WIND – BLOWIN EVERY TIME YOU MOVE YOUR JAW
FROM THE GRAND COOLIE DAM TO THE MARDI GRAS
(blowing thru the hot and dusty skies)
Such collisions of hallucinatory images and dour realism—the waltzing priest, the marital argument—are common in Dylan’s work, yet here the literary touches seem less an artful device than a form of extreme emphasis. What’s more, the writing process is open-ended: images are shuffled around through successive drafts and, later, through successive takes in the studio. That priest waltzes on a tilted floor; then he waltzes while a building burns; then he sits stone-faced. The wind blows from the Grand Coulee Dam to the Mardi Gras, then to the Capitol.
The music that Dylan wrote for these lyrics has a chilly, clammy air. His guitar is in open-E tuning, meaning that all six strings of the guitar are tuned to notes of the E-major triad: E, B, E, G#, B, E. As a result, the tonic chord rings rich and bright. But each verse begins with a jarring A-minor chord, which tends to land awkwardly. The middle note easily strays off center, souring the sound. Occasionally, a stray F-sharp bleeds through, adding a Romantic tinge. The unwieldiness of the progression is at one with the fraught atmosphere of the text.
The emotional violence is troubling. The word “idiot” is flung down twelve times. Some lines are openly assaultive: “One day you’ll be in the ditch, flies buzzing around your eyes, / Blood on your saddle.” Here, Dylan’s original approach makes a substantial difference. He made four complete takes in New York, plus several rehearsals and false starts. Each time, he has only a quiet bass guitar backing him. (A ghostly organ was later overdubbed.) The tempo is slow, the delivery subdued. All this is at odds with the song’s smoldering rage, and the contradiction gets resolved in the final chorus, where Dylan shifts from the second person to the first-person plural: “Idiot wind, blowing through the buttons of our coats / Blowing through the letters that we wrote . . . We’re idiots, babe, it’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.”
Many Dylanists will disagree with me—the second “Blood” has eloquent defenders—but to my ears the later version, recorded with six pick-up musicians in Minnesota, cuts out much of the complexity. Mannerisms overtake the singer’s delivery. “Idiot” becomes “yidiot,” and a goofy pirate yowl periodically intrudes: “I woke up on the roadside, daydreaming about the way things sometimes aaahhhhhrrrre.” (When he does this on one of the New York takes, Tony Brown, the bass player, laughs out loud.) The admission of shared responsibility at the end doesn’t register: you’re carried away by the momentum of the band.
All through the New York sessions, you hear a persistent downward tug in the voice, a grimace of regret. Even the album’s livelier numbers, such as “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” can be wrenched into the abyss; on one take, the tempo drastically slows, giving an almost tragic tinge to a line like “I’ve only known careless love.” The potential downside is a tendency toward relentlessness: one piece after another in the key of E, spiralling through love and loss. The final album offers more variety. The Minnesota band gives a rollicking energy to the cinematic yarn of “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.” Arguably, that song suffers under the austere New York style, though I love it anyway.
Ultimately, the long-running debate over the competing incarnations of “Blood on the Tracks” misses the point of what makes this artist so infinitely interesting, at least for some of us. Jeff Slate, who wrote liner notes for “More Blood, More Tracks,” observes that Dylan’s work is always in flux. The process that is documented on these eighty-seven tracks is not one of looking for the “right” take; it’s the beginning of an endless sequence of variations, which are still unfolding on his Never-Ending Tour. In an article from 1999, I notated some of Dylan’s live revisions of “Simple Twist of Fate.” The “More Blood” book reproduces alternate lyrics that were written on stationery from the Hotel Drei Könige am Rhein, in Basel. Dylan is still at it. The other night, in Durham, North Carolina, he sang:
He woke up and she was gone
He didn’t see nothing but the dawn
Got out of bed and put his shoes back on
Then he pushed back the blinds
Found a note she left behind
What’d it say? It said you should have met me back in ‘58
We could have avoided this, ah, little simple twist of fate.
To assemble the original “Blood on the Tracks” from the eighty-seven takes on “More Blood, More Tracks,” select tracks 69 (CD 5, No. 3), 71 (CD 5, No. 5), 34 (CD 3, No. 3), 76 (CD 5, No. 10), 48 (CD 4, No. 2), 16 (CD 2, No. 5), 11 (CD 1, No. 11), 59 (CD 4, No. 13), 46 (CD 3, No. 15), and 58 (CD 4, No. 12).
Alex Ross, The New Yorker magazine’s music critic since 1996, is the author of “The Rest Is Noise” and “Listen to This.