Ten Albums: Bob Dylan, Blonde on Blonde (1966)

blonde

At long last, we have reached the top of my personal Top Ten.  To recap:

10. Too Much Joy, Cereal Killers (1991)
9. R.E.M, Document (1987)
8. They Might Be Giants, Flood (1990)
7. Dire Straits, Making Movies (1980)
6. Simon and Garfunkel, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (1966)
5. The Who, Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy (1971)
4, The Beatles, Rubber Soul (1965)
3. Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run (1975)
2. The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds (1966)

…and, at #1, it’s Bob Dylan, Blonde on Blonde (1966).

Sure, this seems like a safe choice. You find this album on most everyone’s top list. But this one is particularly important for a lot of reasons and several stories are attached to it.

First, about the LP: Blonde is the third in what I call “the electric trilogy” of Dylan’s work. His period from March 1965 to May 1966, when he released Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde represents one of the most prolific periods for any artist in such a short window. Were it not for my rule about “one album per artist,” at least one of those others would have made the list. But only one can be here, and it’s at the top. Blonde represents Dylan’s move to Memphis to record at Columbia, where he captured what he called “that wild mercury sound” that made up the album. His backup band, who went on to become The Band, perform the backing melodies that go behind the amazing lyrical stories that Dylan weaves across two vinyl LPs.

That’s right – Dylan invented the double album with this release.  Never before did records come out of both halves of the gatefold until Blonde. Frank Zappa’s Freak Out! came shortly thereafter, and soon other bands followed suit. While some LPs went the extra length to tell a story, Dylan simply had a lot of material to pass along in this release. And, it was a good thing that he did: shortly after the release, on July 29, 1966, Dylan damn near broke his neck in a motorcycle accident that kept him sidelined until the release of 1968’s John Wesley Harding, marking his move to country music. (I know, he worked on The Basement Tapes during the recovery, but we don’t get to hear that until later in the 1970s.

So how did this come to be my favorite? To tell the story, I have to share what has become a rule for me when I hunt for antiques, or shop for records, or anything: If you pick it up three times, you have to buy it. By the beginning of 1985 I had my father’s original copy of Highway 61, and I found a used copy of Bringing It All Back Home. I didn’t have Blonde. So, I made a trip to the Musicland store in Orland Square Mall to find a re-release copy.  I didn’t realize that it was a double LP that would have cost me $10, which was more than I planned on spending that day. I left it in the store. The next time in, I picked it up, but again decided not to take the chance. Finally, on the third visit – probably in February or March of ’85, possibly right after my 16th birthday – I decided to pony up the ten bucks and bring the album home.

I immediately realized that I had been missing out. I played the whole thing – all four sides – all the way through. Then, I did it again. And again. It immediately became a favorite. I had become lost in the stories that Dylan weaved throughout the album. It was around this time that I was writing poetry, and this encouraged me to break up my verse a touch and make my word choices and imagery a little more complicated. Try as I did, though, I couldn’t write that wild mercury prose. I think that’s one of the reasons I love it – I have deep respect for artists who create things that I cannot fathom. This is two LPs full of them.

Side 1 opens with “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35.” This actually tied “Like a Rolling Stone” as Dylan’s biggest chart hit, reaching #2. It’s one piece of Dylan that non-fans know – the “everybody must get stoned” song. The odd sound of the music came from the members of the band all moving one chair over and playing an instrument that was not their specialty. It’s also my least favorite song on the LP, and – to be honest – I often skip it and go right to “Pledging My Time.” It’s got a bluesy feel and a strong harmonica behind it. It’s also an interesting link between the novelty song that precedes it and the pure masterpiece that follows it, “Visions of Johanna.” At seven and a half minutes long, “Johanna” wasn’t going to get airplay, but it should have. Here Dylan is at his best telling the story of Louise and Johanna. One has his attention and the other has his heart. It’s a country song at heart, if country music in 1966 was so well written. Find me anything else done in Nashville that goes like this:

The peddler now speaks to the countess who’s pretending to care for him
Sayin’, “Name me someone that’s not a parasite and I’ll go out and say a prayer for him”
But like Louise always says
“Ya can’t look at much, can ya man?”
As she, herself, prepares for him

I, for one, will never be able to write like that, no matter how much practice I put into it.

(Edited to add: “Johanna” almost wasn’t a country song after all. Check out this version from The Cutting Edge bootleg collection, and – damn.)

Side 2 is the side with the hits on it. It opens with “I Want You,” a catchy tune that should have been a bigger hit than the #20 peak that it hit. It’s also a favorite among anyone trying to do a Dylan impression. It’s followed by another long track, “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again.” This is one of the ones that caused me to pay close attention to the lyrics – there’s an awful lot of imagery packed into seven minutes. here.  It’s followed by “Leopard-Skin Pill Box Hat,” a song I chose to play on my very first college radio show and on several shows after that. The side comes to a close with another song that cracked the Top 40 in a position lower than it should have, “Just Like A Woman.” Here Dylan seems to be sending a thinly veiled insult at a former lover – that is, until we get to the last verse:

I just can’t fit
Yes, I believe it’s time for us to quit
But when we meet again
Introduced as friends
Please don’t let on that you knew me when
I was hungry and it was your world

Just exactly who’s in control here after all?

Side 3 is the side with all of the adverbs in the titles. Nothing from this side hit the charts, nor was released as a single. But it’s a side full of great songs. “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine,” “Temporary Like Achilles,” “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” and “Obviously 5 Believers,” are all fantastic pieces of writing. In the middle is the gem of the side – the fourth track, “4th Time Around.” I referenced this one when writing about Rubber Soul and “Norwegian Wood”, because this is the answer song – and for my money, a much more thorough story. The feel of the songs is the same, but from the first line – “When she said ‘Don’t waste your words, they’re just lies,’ I cried she was deaf.” If the couple in “Norwegian Wood” hooked up, this is the aftermath. Once he tells her to spit out the gum, you know it’s all over. If you’ve ever watched a couple break up and felt that uneasy sort of voyeurism, you understand what it’s like to listen to this track.

That brings us to Side 4, which contains one song – “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” It checks in at eleven and a half minutes. What’s it really about? Supposedly, it’s the love song that Dylan wrote for his wife, Sarah. It’s chock full of description of a beautiful woman at peace. For me, the symbolism is very different. In May of 1985 a friend of ours from Andrew High School’s Art and Photo Club named Janet died in her sleep. It’s not often that a fourteen-year-old just doesn’t wake up one morning, but that’s what happened – and the news of her passing hit us like a shot. No one felt like doing anything for days. I went to the wake and to the funeral mass, and that morning, just before church, I had a moment to myself where I just lost it. It weighed heavily on me all that was lost: all the things that Janet would never get to do, to become, to experience. It was the first time I’d lost someone I’d known who wasn’t, well, expected to pass, and it wouldn’t be the last. For the three or four days between her death and the funeral I kept “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” on repeat. The peaceful images that Dylan sang about took on a different meaning for me:

With your mercury mouth in the missionary times
And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes
And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes
Oh, who among them do they think could bury you?

…and that’s just the first quatrain. There’s ten of them in total, surrounded by choral refrains and a lot of harmonica. Each one of them alone would stand out as remarkable examples of writing, and together – well, it’s just amazing. It’s a powerful piece of music that, even today, I can’t hear without thinking about what should have been a gorgeous day in May that was instead spent at a funeral.

There’s more than enough fantastic songwriting here, but there’s one story song that I skipped over to save for last.  The final track on Side 1 is called “One Of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later).” It was released as a single but failed to crack the Billboard Hot 100 despite charting in the UK. If Blonde ends with Dylan finding his love, there’s plenty of story of losing loves throughout the album. “Just Like a Woman” is the breakup that has its stage set by this track. “One of Us” is a song that opens with an apology:

I didn’t mean to treat you so bad
You shouldn’t take it so personal
I didn’t mean to make you so sad
You just happened to be there, that’s all

There’s a breakup, and Dylan wasn’t expecting it, despite acting in a way that likely caused it.

When I saw you say “goodbye” to your friend and smile
I thought that it was well understood
That you’d be comin’ back in a little while
I didn’t know that you were sayin’ “goodbye” for good

Oops. Now you did it. But he seems confident that he’s getting another shot. Or is he? He just wants it known that he’s not a bad guy – that “sooner or later one of us must know that I really tried to get close to you.” It’s not me, it’s you. Contrast this with the maturation we see at the end of “Just Like A Woman,” and the young man is figuring out how relationships work. And so it was with a sixteen-year-old who hadn’t dated anyone for any length of time the first time that he heard this song. But even without the firsthand experience, I could relate to the pain that Dylan felt in this record. That smug “yeah, but what about you?” is universal when you are below a certain age. Dylan was 25 when Blonde came out, but he sounded like he had lived an awful lot beyond those years. “One of Us Must Know” is a simply fantastic record that anyone who has ever gone through an unpleasant breakup can relate to, sing along with, and think that “I never tried to do you any harm” will get the eye-clawing to stop. (Now we know why the breakup in “4th Time Around” is so final.) The lyrics aren’t the whole story, either. The rising and falling chords – akin to “Like a Rolling Stone” – take the listener on an emotional up-and-down of a roller-coaster ride. Couple that with the piano and organ accompaniment, and it’s a perfect record.

52 years after its release, Blonde on Blonde is still that powerful a record, and – surprisingly – I still find things in it I never noticed before. I’ve owned several copies over the years, seeking out original vinyl copies in mono when I can find them. That first copy I took the $10 gamble on?  I don’t have it anymore.  When I departed Lewis University’s WLRA in 1989 to take my chances on a radio career, I left it in the music library there.  I took a marker and scrawled on the cover: “Do not remove. This is the greatest album of all time” and signed it. I felt that thirty years ago, and I still feel that today.

You can hear “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later}” by clicking here.

 

 

One thought on “Ten Albums: Bob Dylan, Blonde on Blonde (1966)

  1. Pingback: New this week in ’69: July 12 | 45 Ruminations Per Megabyte

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