"Norman Raeben taught me how to see...in a way that allowed me to do consciously what I unconsciously felt. And I didn't know how to pull it off. I wasn't sure it could be done in songs because I'd never written a song like that. But when I started doing it, the first album I made was "Blood on The Tracks." Everybody agrees that it was pretty different, and what's different about it is there's a code in the lyrics and also there's no sense of time." Bob Dylan 1978.
Few people could question the significance of "Blood On The Tracks" in Bob Dylan's catalogue. Effectively recorded twice, this album was the one with which he would finally dispel the myth that he would never again reach the heights that he had attained in the mid sixties. The revival had begun with the January 1974 release of the often underrated "Planet Waves" and continued with the barnstorming tour of that year (his first for nearly eight years) which renewed Dylan's credibility as both a studio artist and a live performer. A series of classes with art teacher Norman Raeben in the spring and summer of 1974 had apparently taught Dylan to refocus his energies on what he did best, and although he admitted that "I went home after that and my wife never did understand me since that day. That's when our marriage started breaking up," his problems probably ran deeper. There can be little doubt that the album had a cathartic effect on Dylan, he would not be the first or last creative person to use his art in this way, although he strenuously denied that the songs were in any way personal. The New York sessions were over in a matter of days in September, with Dylan using the talents of Eric Weissberg's band Deliverance as back-up musicians. Their hit single "Duelling Banjos" had been part of the soundtrack for the movie from which they took their name. Columbia, with whom Dylan had signed a new, more lucrative contract, were keen to release the album before Christmas, even though it would have been the third Dylan album of 1974, but he himself was not as happy with the finished product. He shared his misgivings with brother David, and they decided to rerecord several of the tracks in Minneapolis during the December holidays, using session musicians that David Zimmerman (a producer himself) was familiar with. The result of this was that Dylan was able to distance himself, both chronologically and emotionally from some of the more raw and personal songs. The final finished product was released some three weeks later on January 17th 1975, and the unity of sound that the album has gives no indication that it was recorded in two different locations some months apart, using two different sets of musicians. It received almost unanimous acclaim, going to number one in the album charts and remains one of Dylan's finest albums, even though Rolling Stone while awarding it five stars called it "...impermanent."
The opening track "Tangled Up in Blue" deals with the complexity of relationships and how they are impacted on by outside influences. Whether Dylan is referring to one or many such relationships here is open to question. "Early one mornin' the sun was shinin'/I was layin' in bed" is how the song opens as the narrator wonders if his ex-lover has changed and he muses on an affair that was doomed from the start because of their different backgrounds. We are taken on a journey involving various liaisons with different partners or the same partner in different guises. Dylan portrays himself as a drifter both in terms of his casual approach to employment "But I never did like it all that much/And one day the ax just fell" and his attitude towards his relationships "I seen a lot of women/But she never escaped my mind" (a different emphasis on the word "she" would change the meaning of the song completely). The strength of this song lies in the way that Dylan is able to weave the different time scales into one flowing narrative, and when we hear "So now I'm going back again/I got to get to her somehow" we can be fairly sure that he is referring to the woman in the first verse, and not the others. As he wonders about the "...people we used to know" and their various activities, we can be sure that he is going to carry on his search "But me, I'm still on the road/Headin' for another joint" for this woman who sees things "...from a different point of view." "Tangled Up in Blue" was originally recorded at the end of the first New York session, and that version can be heard on "Bootlegs Vols.1-3." It is interesting that on this, the Minneapolis version, the lyrics of the sixth verse change significantly, the reflective "He was always in a hurry/Too busy or too stoned" and the lines about not being impressed with material things are replaced with the more cryptic stanza dealing with revolution and slaves. This has always been a personal favourite, but perversely, Dylan maintains that he prefers the version on 1984's "Real Live."
"Simple Twist of Fate" is a much less complicated song that still manages to maintain the standard of writing set by the first track. "She looked at him and he felt a spark tingle to his bones" is how Dylan describes the beginning of this somewhat one sided relationship. There is some great writing here, "He felt the heat of the night hit him like a freight train/Moving with a simple twist of fate" is about as descriptive as it gets, and "He told himself he didn't care, pushed the window open wide" fools nobody. We never really get to know this woman or the strength of her commitment, but "Hunts her down by the waterfront docks where the sailors all come in" does suggest a lady of easy virtue. Interestingly, "he" becomes "I" in the last verse, a typical Dylan ploy where defences that have been raised for most of the song are suddenly dropped as he reveals the intensity of the affair from his point of view. "I still believe she was my twin, but I lost the ring/She was born in spring, but I was born too late" is particularly poignant. This is one song that Dylan chose not to re-record at the Minneapolis sessions, and gives some indication of the sparse nature of the original New York recordings.
One of the most poignant tracks on the album, both in lyrics and delivery is "You're a Big Girl Now," a song that Dylan vehemently denied was about the break up of his marriage. Whatever the truth is, there is no doubting the raw emotion with which he delivers this song "And I'm back in the rain/And you are on dry land" tells us just how far apart these two people are. The pleading tone of "I hope that you can hear/Hear me singin' through these tears" comes across very strongly, as does the typical lovers promise of "I can change I swear", and the sadness of having to accept the moving on of a partner "Oh I know where I can find you/In somebody's room/It's a price I have to pay." The song ends with a plaintive "...a pain that stops and starts/Like a corkscrew to my heart/Ever since we've been apart," and the irony is that his cries are falling on deaf ears as the "big girl" is totally free from him.
The blistering tirade that is "Idiot Wind" is an updated "Rolling Stone" or "Positively 4th Street," and is one of Dylan's angriest songs. The two interpretations of this song that exist in Dylan's official catalogue could hardly be more different. The original New York version, available on "Bootlegs Vols. 1-3, is sad rather than bitter, and its poignant, reflective tone is very much at odds with the intense and merciless outpouring to be heard here. After his opening swipe at "the press" (one of Dylan's least favourite institutions) we get "People see me all the time and they just can't remember how to act/Their minds are filled with big ideas, images and distorted facts" telling us how he has been misquoted or misrepresented and the even stronger "You're an idiot, babe/It's a wonder that you still know how to breathe." Lines like "I haven't known peace and quiet for so long I can't remember what it's like" and "You hurt the ones that I love best and cover up the truth with lies/One day you'll be in the ditch, flies buzzin' around your eyes/Blood on your saddle" illustrate the level of his angst. And the song takes on a more personal flavour with "...your corrupt ways have finally made you blind/I can't remember your face anymore/Your mouth has changed your eyes don't look into mine" and "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've been wishing I was somebody else instead." If, as one imagines, this song is aimed at one person, then the relationship is a thing of the past "I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline that separated you from me," but it's passing is not without some regret "And I'll never know the same about you/Your holiness or your kind of love/And it makes me feel so sorry." Typically, in the last chorus the "you" becomes "we" as Dylan shoulders some of the responsibility for this breakdown, he even concedes "It's a wonder we can even feed ourselves." This is a very personal and deeply bitter song and in an interview with Mary Travers the following year Dylan said that he found it hard to relate to people enjoying hearing that type of pain.
Few things could offer more of a contrast than "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go," the track that follows. This is a gentle, almost whimsical Dylan, philosophically admitting that a relationship is over and accepting it with good grace. There was some speculation that this song was written to or about Ellen Bernstein, a Columbia executive that Dylan was involved (possibly romantically) with. Bernstein may have been instrumental in Dylan returning to CBS, although she has consistently denied any involvement. Dylan concedes that this affair is more than just a passing infatuation, "This time round it's more correct/Right on target so direct/You're gonna make me lonesome when you go." The fourth verse gives an indication of the regret he is feeling "Flowers on the hillside bloomin' crazy/Crickets talkin' back and forth in rhyme/Blue river runnin' slow and lazy/I could stay with you forever/And never realise the time". There is also a flash of typical Dylan humour as he comes to terms with his new status "You're gonna make me give myself a good talkin' to," and I particularly like the change in pronunciation of Honolulu to make it rhyme with Ashtabula, which is incidentally, Bernstein's home town.
Similar in theme but markedly different in delivery is "Meet Me in The Morning," a blues number that Dylan performs in a voice quite different from the rest of the album. Recorded on the first day of the New York sessions, this is in effect the only track on the album that uses the Deliverance musicians. Weissberg was tactfully informed that his and his band's services were no longer required, and only bassist Tony Brown was retained. Dylan used virtually the same backing for the out-take "Call Letter Blues" a song that was dropped in favour of this, probably because it was too personal. The clichéd line about being darkest before dawn is followed with "But you wouldn't know it by me/Every day's been darkness since you been gone" giving some idea of the pain he is feeling. Robert Shelton calls this "...some of the finest blues singing that Dylan has ever done," and although an attempt was made to recut it, the original was (probably wisely) retained.
If any Bob Dylan song is ripe for cinema treatment, it is surely "Lily, Rosemary and The Jack of Hearts" which contains Dylan's best (if slightly baffling) narrative work. We are introduced to the main protagonists early on and are aware of a crime in progress by the "...drilling in the wall," but why "Anyone with any sense had already left town" is never made clear. The enigmatic and mysterious character of the Jack of Hearts (another Dylan outlaw) is quickly established as he "...moved into the corner, face down like the Jack of Hearts." Dylan's physical description of Big Jim is razor sharp, and the line "He took whatever he wanted to and he laid it all to waste" gives us an insight into his character. Both of the girls are fragile and flawed and their hatred (or fear) of Big Jim is as much a catalyst for the sequence of events as their love for Jack. Big Jim's recognition of Jack "I know I've seen that face before Big Jim was thinking to himself/Maybe down in Mexico or a picture upon somebody's shelf" is probably from a wanted poster, and after all he is "...no one's fool." The "...fair-skinned and precious" Lily sees Jim as a stepping stone, another one of her "...strange affairs/With men in every walk of life which took her everywhere," while Rosemary is "...tired of playing the role of Big Jim's wife" and looking to her future "...riding on the Jack of Hearts." By the time the tableau is set and the back-stage manager realises that there is "...something funny going on" neither he nor the hanging judge is in a position to act, because "There was no actor anywhere better than the Jack of Hearts."
Inexplicably, verse twelve is omitted from the recorded version of this song, not that it would add much by way of clarity other than to introduce the emotions of jealousy and fear. When "The door to the dressing-room burst open and a cold revolver clicked" I think we are to assume that it is Jim's gun that clicks, presumably emptied by Rosemary who then stabs him with the penknife. The Jack of Hearts (in the spirit of all anti-heroes) beats a hasty retreat to join his bank robbing colleagues who are waiting for the "...member who had business back in town." The next day Rosemary shows no contrition "And Rosemary on the gallows, she didn't even blink" and Lily's thoughts are certainly not with her murdered lover "But most of all she was thinkin' 'bout the Jack of Hearts." Although not an easy song to fully understand, "Lily, Rosemary and The Jack of Hearts" works on many levels, not least of which is the way that the Jack of Hearts' role is kept to a minimum while he manipulates all the other characters, much like the central character in "Visions of Johanna" some years earlier. The narrative format used here is one that Dylan would use with songs like "Black Diamond Bay" and "Romance in Durango" on his next album. Pete Hamill's description of this song in the album's liner notes is perhaps most pertinent, "To state things plainly is the function of journalism; but Dylan sings a more fugitive song: allusive, symbolic, full of imagery and ellipses, and by leaving things out, he allows us the grand privilege of creating along with him."
Like most of the writing on this album, "If You See Her Say Hello" deals with separation, and the narrator acts as the third person relating the story in true folk style. His attempts at nonchalance are quite transparent as he is obviously still hurting "Say for me that I'm all right though things get kind of slow/She might think that I've forgotten her, don't tell her that it isn't so," and he has to admit his feelings "She still lives inside of me, we've never been apart." The vocal on this track is among the best on the album, the way he sings "Though the bitter taste still lingers on from the night I tried to make her stay" is indicative of his emotion, but he also accepts that he may be mellowing "Either I'm too sensitive or else I'm gettin' soft." But in the end, he can't get over her "Sundown, yellow moon, I replay the past" and he lives in hope of her returning "If she's passin' back this way, I'm not that hard to find/Tell her she can look me up if she's got the time." This was another of the songs that was re-recorded in Minneapolis, and in the process lost some of its pain and sadness. Some minor lyrical changes were made, "If you're making love to her" became "If you get close to her" in a move that Clinton Heylin said "...stepped back from the intimacy and real hurt of the original." Interestingly, when Pete Hamill quotes from this song on the liner notes, he quotes from the original version.
A much more complex song is "Shelter From the Storm," rich in imagery and following a by now well established theme. Surprisingly, on this track the almost off-hand manner of the vocal belies the gravity of the lyrics. "I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form" describes the male character, while the female, the temptress, the goddess greets him with "Come in, she said/I'll give you shelter from the storm" The storm is the emotional turbulence that he is experiencing and he is looking for sanctuary "Try imagining a place where it's always safe and warm." A theme that was to become familiar in Dylan's writing is his empathy with Christ's suffering, and that is particularly strong here "She walked up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns" and "In a little hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes," but ultimately his feelings are not reciprocated "I offered up my innocence and got repaid with scorn." He's philosophical about this and says that he "...took too much for granted, I got my signals crossed," and there is a lovely perceptive contrast in "I've heard newborn babies wailin' like a mournin' dove/And old men with broken teeth stranded without love." He is thoughtful at the end of the song "Beauty walks a razor's edge, someday I'll make it mine," but he can't help recalling the past "If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born." Throughout this often overlooked song, Dylan's voice is confident and assured, and he thankfully did not attempt to recut this one. An earlier (and inferior) take from the same session that produced this version was used in the movie Jerry Maguire and appears on 1997's "The Best Of Bob Dylan."
If "Tangled Up in Blue" is a great way to open this album, then "Buckets of Rain" is an equally wonderful way to close it. This beautifully understated little piece showcases Dylan's mastery at meshing humour and emotional pain, you can almost hear the wry smile when he sings "Got all them buckets comin' out of my ears" and the sly irony of "I like the cool way you look at me/Everything about you is bringing me/Misery" is marvellous. He accepts that life (and in the case of this album, love) doesn't often deal you a fair hand, but you have to make the best of it "Life is sad/Life is a bust/All you can do is do what you must." Again the vocal is wonderful, Dylan's voice still had the clarity and purity that would soon be damaged by years of punishing touring. Bette Midler recorded a version of this for her 1976 album "Songs For The New Depression," with (amazingly) Dylan singing back-up vocals. Very different, but nowhere near as bad as one would imagine.
"Blood On The Tracks" is an important album in Bob Dylan's catalogue, not only in terms of excellence but also because it portrays a mature artist (Dylan was thirty-three when it was released) unafraid to bare his soul. It also served to dispel any notion that his mid-sixties peak was as good as he was ever going to get and cemented his position as the best lyricist in rock music. Reviews were predictably very good, and Michael Gray was not alone in pointing out that Dylan, in making what he called "...the most strikingly intelligent album of the seventies" was no longer only being measured by his sixties output. Comparisons with that era were of course inevitable, and Jon Landau writing in Rolling Stone made the odd point that "It's his best album since "Blonde On Blonde" but not nearly as good," before going on to say, "...I like everything about it; the good, the bad and the ugly...He stands alone." In The Village Voice Robert Christgau gave the album an "A" rating, saying "Dylan's new stance is as disconcerting as all the previous ones, but the quickest and deepest surprise is in the music...On the whole, this is the leader's most mature and assured record" Jim Cusinamo, writing in Crawdaddy saw the album as a progression, saying that it was "...the logical step after Planet Waves. Where that album investigated the contradictions of domestic love and life, this resolves them - through separation." Dylan was certainly an artist on the move, he appeared at the SNACK benefit concert in San Francisco late in March, and then took an extended holiday to France, before beginning work on his next studio album "Desire" which would prove to be one of his most successful. This was followed by the highly acclaimed Rolling Thunder Review as Dylan reinstated himself as rock music's premier performer. "Blood On The Tracks" remains, to many, his definitive album and there is very little to touch it even in a decade that saw him reach new creative heights.