"I always hear other instruments, how they should sound. The closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind was on individual bands in the "Blonde on Blonde" album. It's that thin, that wild mercury sound. It's metallic and bright gold, with whatever that conjures up. That's my particular sound. I haven't been able to succeed in getting it all the time. Mostly I've been driving at a combination of guitar, harmonica and organ, but now I find myself going into territory that has more percussion in it and rhythms of the soul." Bob Dylan 1978
Bob Dylan is on record as saying that at the time of "Blonde On Blonde" he was "...going at a tremendous speed." This was of course a huge understatement, and it is testament to his constitution and his recuperative powers that this album is as good as it is. Dylan was very much the wasted speed freak in early 1966 to the point that when biographer Robert Shelton told a colleague that he was starting a book on him, the response was "You better hurry." "Blonde On Blonde" is the third album in the trio of mid sixties classics, and although the two predecessors had come relatively easily, this had a frustratingly long and difficult gestation. Begun in New York in October 1965, the album was completed (at producer Bob Johnston's behest) in Nashville in February and March 1966 where the unlikely clash of two very different musical cultures produced what is arguably Dylan's finest album. Because "Blonde On Blonde" has been a part of the public consciousness for so long and is such an integral part of Dylan's immense body of work, it is worth stopping for a moment and remembering just how good this album actually is. The astonishing writing on the classic tracks "Visions Of Johanna" and "Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands," the depth of emotion on "One Of us Must Know," "I Want You" and "Just Like A woman," the verbal playfulness of "Stuck Inside Of Mobile...," "Temporary Like Achilles" and "4th Time Around." It's all here, and the sound that Dylan achieved was presumably the "...thin wild mercury" sound that he was looking for. Coming only nine months after "Highway 61 Revisited," comparisons were obviously going to be made, but "Blonde On Blonde" is neither superior nor inferior to its predecessor, it is just different and one has to wonder how Dylan would have followed it, but that decision was made for him. In the meantime, "Blonde On Blonde" would not only be the first double album of the rock era, but quite possibly also the best.
The opening track is hardly representative of the album. "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" was recorded in the early hours of March 10th 1966 at what was effectively the final "Blonde On Blonde" session. By this time, Dylan had brought the "straight" Nashville musicians around to his way of thinking, "I'm not going to do this with a bunch of straight people" he had instructed, and the song comes across as little more than a Salvation Army band on acid. This raucous, rousing bar-room stomp has at its heart the punning of the word stoned as often as possible, which is quite fitting given the obvious condition of those who played on it. "Every body must get stoned" laughs Dylan and his band of happy compatriots, although he may have been referring to the stoning he was getting in the media. The song was (not surprisingly) recorded quickly, Robbie Robertson recalls that he went out to buy a packet of cigarettes and on his return, it was complete! "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," with its nonsense title and equally nonsensical lyrics was released as a single, and despite the predictable radio bans, it was a hit (#2 in the States and #7 in the UK).
"Pledging my Time" is a brilliant slow blues number that sounds as if it was improvised in the studio, which would add weight to Dylan's claim that this was how much of the album was recorded, "...I wrote out all the songs in the studio." he said in 1968, "The musicians played cards, I wrote out a song, we'd do it, they'd go back to their game and I'd write out another song," and although that comment contains a grain of truth, it stretches credibility a little. On this, Dylan sounds more world-weary than should be possible for a twenty-five year old, but he's not going to let it get him down "Well early in the mornin'/'Til late at night/I got a poison headache/But I feel alright." The claustrophobic atmosphere of just about the whole album is summed up with "The room is so stuffy/I can hardly breathe," and the ominous lyric "Somebody got lucky/But it was an accident" in the final verse is strangely prophetic in light of Dylan's "accident" some months later. "Pledging My Time" comes from the penultimate Nashville session, a prolific few days (March 8th, 9th and 10th) that produced no fewer than nine of the album's final fourteen tracks.
Several attempts had been made to record an acceptable version of "Visions of Johanna" during the New York sessions under the working title "Seems Like a Freeze-Out," indeed, much of the November 30th session, the one that produced the single "Can You Crawl Out Your Window?" was devoted to it. This version comes from the February 1966 sessions in Nashville, (the session was on Valentine's Day for the romantics among us). This is one of those songs that demonstrates Dylan's amazing ability to create images and visions with an economy of language "Lights flicker from the opposite loft/In this room the heat pipes just cough/The country music station plays soft/But there's nothing really nothing to turn of." The use of the word "cough" in this context is just about perfect, as is the audacious rhyme of "deny it" with "quiet" in the opening couplet. Images pile upon images in the second verse with the "...all night girls" the "night watchman" and the Dylan favourite, "the D-train," and there is more daring rhyming - "mirror" (another Dylan favourite) with "near." The only person missing from this tableau is of course Johanna herself, and each of the five verses ends with a reference to this illusive creature who may or may not be a figment of the narrator's imagination. The way Dylan draws out the vowels, particularly in the third verse with lines like "He's sure got a lot of gall to be so useless and all/Muttering small talk at the wall while I'm in the hall" with a rich, confident voice makes for compelling listening. Apart from verse four with it's humorous rhyming of freeze, sneeze, Jeeze and knees the pace is unrelenting as we are drawn into this haunting and almost hallucinogenic search for this person who seems even in her absence to be controlling everyone's destiny. "Visions of Johanna" has been referred to as Bob Dylan's most perfect song, and it's certainly up there with the best of them. It also serves as a major illustration of just how far away he was from the three minute pop songs that were flooding the air waves at the time.
"One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)" is the only song to have survived from the New York sessions, and because only the Nashville musicians are named on the album cover, the musicians who played on this track do not get a mention (they included Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko on guitar and bass respectively, and Paul Griffin on piano). This comparatively upbeat number with it's apparently simple theme is a shift from the previous song; "I didn't mean to treat you so bad/You shouldn't take it so personal" sings Dylan in a voice that is almost taunting. This is one song where the printed words do not do justice to the lyrics as they are sung, listen to Dylan's emphasis, particularly on the three syllable words as he tries to make up for whatever typically vague misunderstanding has occurred. He handles the one sided conversation with masterful ease and the implied sexual indiscretion of "When you whispered in my ear/And asked me if I was leaving with you or her/I didn't realize just what I did hear/I didn't realize how young you were" brings a smile to your face. I always think that its a pity that Dylan discarded several of the better songs from the New York sessions, he complained at one point how unproductive they had been and hinted that the fault may have been with the backing musicians. "One of us Must Know" however is a strong song and such an integral part of "Blonde On Blonde" that one has to wonder how well "I'll Keep It With Mine" or "She's Your Lover Now" would have replaced some of the weaker material (not that there's much of it) that made the album.
"I Want You" was the original title for the album and Dylan said that the sound he achieved on this track was exactly the sound he was looking for the whole album. The song typifies his mid-sixties work with its playful and chaotic lyrics and all those wonderful adjectives; the "guilty undertaker," "lonesome organ-grinder" and "drunken politician" are the friendlier relatives of the grotesque images that populated "Desolation Row" on the previous album. "I Want You" was released as a single (June 1966) and was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, proving that Dylan could write a three minute pop song if he wanted to, albeit with far more surreal lyrics than anyone else was writing. Bizarrely, there were those who could not accept Dylan as the composer of hit parade material and saw this as an admission and acceptance of his heroin addiction! It seems far more likely though, that like many of the songs on this album, it was written to or inspired by new wife Sara.
"Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again," one of the finest tracks on the album, is perhaps one of the songs that Dylan meant when he spoke of the musicians playing cards while they waited for him to finish writing. One can only imagine what these seasoned Nashville session men must have thought of the lyrics that Dylan was coming up with, from Shakespeare with his "...pointed shoes and his bells" to the preacher with "...twenty pounds of headlines/Stapled to his chest" and the railroad men who "...drink up your blood like wine." The snatches of conversation are some of the wittiest Dylan has ever written, and its hard to believe he can sing the lines "Oh, I didn't know that/But then again, there's only one I've met/An' he just smoked my eyelids/An' punched my cigarette" with his tongue so firmly in his cheek. Listen to the emphasis on "Oh" and "know" as this shrewd and streetwise raconteur turns himself into a wide-eyed innocent. The exchange with Ruthie, while cryptically amusing, is also blatantly sexual, "An' I say, Aw come on now/You must know about my debutante/An' she says, Your debutante just knows what you need/But I know what you want," and the timing, something at which Dylan has no equal, is perfect. The seventh verse, with its "Texas medicine" and "railroad gin" is an indication of sixties over indulgence, and the lines "An' like a fool I mixed them/An' it strangled up my mind/An' now people just get uglier/An' I have no sense of time" suggest the dangers therein. The song leaves us in a thoughtful mood, sitting patiently "Waiting to find out what price/You have to pay to get out of/Going through all these things twice." Paul Williams sees a link between this and the preceding song that I must confess I don't (other than both vocals being superb - but that goes for the whole album), but I do agree with him in calling them "...indispensable."
Not so for the next track, "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat," this is a throwaway number that has never been a personal favourite. Ostensibly about a fashion accessory, Dylan manages to throw in several jokes at the expense of the wearer, "You know it balances on your head/Just like a mattress balances/On a bottle of wine" gets the point across perfectly, as does the verse about watching the sunrise "Me with my belt wrapped around my head/And you just sitting there in your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat," both of which illustrate the foibles of a decade that was fashion conscious for all the wrong reasons.
"Just Like a Woman" is one of Dylan's best known songs, but not without its controversy, with some people being upset by what they saw as sexism. The title could be seen as a put down, but it has also been referred to as Dylan's finest poem, and listening to the vocal reminds one of how unique his voice was in those days. The intensity of "And she aches just like a woman/But she breaks just like a little girl" in verses one and two suggest an emotional weakness, and the paradox of "It was raining from the first/And I was dying there of thirst" an equally emotional need. It is interesting that in the final verse "she" becomes "you" in a typical switching of third person to second by Dylan, and the line "I was hungry and it was your world" gives a hint of the inner strength that "she/you" possesses. "Just Like a Woman" may have been inspired by Edie Sedgwick*, an aspiring actress that Dylan had a brief relationship with in the mid sixties, and the thing that stands out about the song is the way Dylan concentrates his attention on the apparent frailty of his subject. Apart from the chorus reference to her breaking "...like a little girl," he twice refers to her as "baby" but not in the conventional, love-song sense. All this comes to nought in the final chorus with the disdainful, almost contemptuous use of the word "fake," where perhaps his true feelings are exposed. Incidentally, the version of this song on the "Live-Albert Hall 1966" album is quite superb.
*To many people, Sedgwick was also the inspiration for "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat," and because of her colouring, the album title as well
There is a similarity in structure between "Most Likely You'll Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine" and "One of us Must Know," in that both reflect one half of a conversation. Dylan reinvented the former for the 1974 tour, but that version (it opens the double live album "Before The Flood") bears scant resemblance to this. "I just can't do what I done before/I just can't beg you any more" is how he describes the break down of this relationship and (ever the gentleman) "I'm gonna let you pass/And I'll go last." The girl is trying to soften the blow, but he sees through her duplicity "You say you disturb me and you don't deserve me/But you know you sometimes lie," and he can't resist getting his barb in "You say my kisses are not like his/But this time I'm not gonna tell you why that is," but none of this will matter "When you go your way and I'll go mine." One of the album's minor songs sure, but still full of great writing and more of Dylan's bizarre and chaotic humour, "But he's badly built/And he walks on stilts/Watch out he don't fall on you."
I don't know why I like "Temporary Like Achilles" so much. It's a long way from being a great song, but Dylan's half stoned, half drunk delivery over a bawdy-house piano backing turns this slow blues number into hypnotic listening. Uncharacteristically, he is the one doing the begging and there is a certain shadowy eroticism in the last couplet of each verse "You know I want your lovin'/Honey why are you so hard?" Again his use of words is remarkable "Kneeling 'neath your ceiling" has a great ring to it, and similes like "...helpless like a rich man's child" and "...hungry like a man in drag" have a wonderfully elusive quality that Dylan was to make so uniquely his own. It was songs like this that had people trying to copy or parody Dylan in the sixties, but no-one came close to this sort of writing.
The same can be said of "Absolutely Sweet Marie," this is a great song, totally different in tempo to its predecessor but with the same unique Dylan phrasing and rhyming. Listen to the way he rhymes half-sick with frozen traffic, and the telling pause before the last word in "Well, anybody can be just like me, obviously/But then, now again, not too many can be like you, fortunately." This song also contains the often quoted "To live outside the law you must be honest," Dylan's version of honesty among thieves, but much more expressive. The narrator has after all been in jail, but of course it wasn't his fault "Now, I been in jail when all my mail showed/That a man can't give his address out to bad company," now he sees himself as a modern day Romeo "In the ruins of your balcony" but still looking for his illusive Marie. This song has it all, excellent writing, humour (albeit self-deprecating), dynamite delivery and a killer harmonica solo before the last verse.
Many saw "4th Time Around" as Dylan copying the Beatle's "Norwegian Wood" (John Lennon using a song to inform his wife of his infidelity), and when Lennon first heard it he said he didn't like it, but later described it as "...great!" Al Kooper was so concerned about the similarity that he asked Dylan "Aren't you worried about getting sued?" but Dylan insisted that the song was his first. In some ways this is an uncomfortable song with its (unusually for Dylan) blatant use of sexual innuendo and double entendre. The ostensibly simple storyline of non-communication "Don't waste your words, they're just lies" and lack of emotional commitment "Everybody must give something back/For something they get" is turned into a mysterious love triangle in Dylan's hands. The first four verses are devoted to the "she" character until "She threw me outside/I stood in the dirt where everyone walked," at which point, the "you" character is introduced "And you, you took me in/You loved me then/You didn't waste time," and he's not going to make the same mistake this time "And I, I never took too much/I never asked for your crutch/Now don't ask for mine." Not an altogether satisfactory song, I just feel that more could have been done with it, but there is no denying the quality of the music. Dylan's vocal is of course superb, and the twin acoustic guitars (Wayne Moss and Charlie McCoy) are perfectly complemented by Kenny Buttery's mesmeric drumming. Kooper again, "Those guitars playing in harmony, that's pure Nashville. People don't think like that anywhere else."
The penultimate number on the album is "Obviously Five Believers," a stomping blues number featuring the blistering harmonica of Charlie McCoy. A pretty unremarkable song, it achieves what it sets out to achieve, and closes with the line "If I just did not feel so all alone," a reprise from "Rainy Day Women." More than any other track on the album (including the two lightweight numbers) this falls into the category of filler.
The final track is of course "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" considered by many to be Dylan's finest moment of this particular era; in fact, he told biographer Robert Shelton at the time that he regarded it as the best song that he had ever written. Almost certainly inspired by his wife Sara, whom he had married some three months earlier, this song was astonishingly recorded in one take. With the possible exception of the song "Sara" on 1976's "Desire" (in which he makes reference to this song), Dylan has never spoken so openly about a real person, apart from those in the public domain. He speaks of her "...eyes like smoke" and "...voice like chimes" and delivers intensely personal lines like "And your flesh like silk, and your face like glass." Each of the five long verses in this achingly beautiful love poem ends with "My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums/Should I leave them by your gate/Or sad-eyed lady should I wait?" This was obviously a very important song to Dylan, and one that he possibly felt that he had revealed too much feeling or emotion in. To the best of my knowledge it has never been performed in concert which would suggest that he saw the recorded version as complete and unique. Much was made of the fact that it filled one entire side of the vinyl album despite being only slightly longer than "Desolation Row" which shares side two of "Highway 61 Revisited" with three other tracks. It may be that he wanted to make a statement by setting it apart from the rest of the album and thus could account for "Blonde on Blonde" being a double album. "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" is a song that John Hinchey in "Like a Complete Unknown" called it a "...fascinating failure," but to many, it is the definitive sixties Dylan song. It was mainly written in New York (as attested to in "Sara") but this was another time that the Nashville musicians had to wait for the song to be finished before they could record it, apparently spending their time playing cards and drinking beer. Kris Kristofferson, who was a janitor in the studio at the time remembers, "I saw Dylan sitting out in the studio at the piano, writing all night long by himself. Dark glasses on. All the musicians played cards...while he was out there writing." Kenny Buttrey for one was amazed at the length of the song "I was playing one handed, looking at my watch, and it just kept on and kept on. We'd never heard anything like this before," he says as he recalls how he thought that the end of each verse was the end of the song! "Sad Eyed Lady..." and "Desolation Row," the two consecutive album closers were at the time the longest songs that Dylan had written, and would remain so until 1997 when "Highlands," which clocked in at a massive seventeen minutes would be used to end another classic album, "Time Out Of Mind."
"Blonde On Blonde" was released in May 1966 while Dylan was on the infamous world tour of that year with the Hawks/Band and brought to an end an impossibly hectic period, and it is probably fair to say that the much hyped motor cycle accident that occurred on his return to the States, did more to save his life than it did to end it, forcing him to slow down and re-evaluate. The album was a huge commercial and critical success, made more popular by the enforced silence of nearly two years that followed its release, it reached number nine in the States and number three in the UK. The popularity of "Blonde On Blonde" and its undoubted place in Dylan's impressive catalogue continues to this day, with most people regarding it as one of his finest albums. Paul Williams is typically exuberant in his praise,"...a raucous farewell to bachelorhood...a memorable, amazingly successful work of art - and a bookend to the great album that came out of the other end of the marriage, Blood On The Tracks." is how he describes it, and the more restrained Michael Gray calls it "...Dylan's history-making achievement." Praise was no less muted at the time of the album's release, with Dylan being compared to among others, Rimbaud, Auden and Picasso, and Jack Newfield, in The Village Voice enthused that "If Walt Whitman were alive today, he too would be playing an electric guitar." Jon Landau, writing in Crawdaddy described it as "...one of the most brilliant rock performances ever recorded." and it became the benchmark by which other artists of that period were measured. Dylan's trio of mid sixties classics spawned an emergence of singer/songwriters, many of whom headed for Nashville to try and recreate what he had achieved. Guitarist Wayne Moss was eager to thank Dylan for the part that he played in getting session musicians recognised, "One of the things I would like to thank Dylan for...is putting names on albums," he said. "That didn't happen before he got here." "Blonde On Blonde" is a fine album that any musician would be proud of, but its real triumph is how well it has stood the test of time, in November 1998 Mojo said "It remains one of the most influential rock records in history," and if you ask any Dylan fan to list his favourite albums, it will almost certainly be in the top five or the top three or even the top one.