Blood On The Tracks: Dylan Looks Back

Bob Dylan surprised a lot of people in September, including some at Columbia Records, by deciding to cut his third album this year

Bob Dylan.
Alvan Meyerowitz/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
November 21, 1974

New York — It looked like old times at Columbia's A&R Studio September 16th. John Hammond Sr. was there, Phil Ramone was working the board. Eric Weissberg and Barry Kornfeld, two old Gaslight regulars, were unpacking their guitars. And sitting out in the cavernous studio, acoustic in hand and harmonica holder in place, practically hidden behind a battery of six microphones, Bob Dylan was creating another album. And it was almost as if Dylan were consciously conjuring up the ambience of the early Sixties, surrounding himself with the same familiar faces, attempting to exorcise, as he put it on Planet Waves, "the phantoms of my youth." And by all accounts, he was eminently successful.

"This is his first definitive LP in a long time, it's a return to 1965," Barry Kornfeld commented. "The songs are great — lyrically he's writing stories again, little vignettes about himself," said Weissberg. "I'm bereft of words to describe it, it's the best material I ever heard him do," added New Riders steel man Buddy Cage. "Is Dylan back?" asked a Columbia executive.

"Where's he been?"

Hammond heard of the session the day it started "and I could hardly believe it," he said. "So I went over there. I said to Bob, 'This is a strange day to start recording,' because it was Rosh Hoshanna and it was hard to get musicians. And Bob said, 'Well why not today? It's the new year, isn't it?' I have never heard Bob so assured and so musically unsophisticated. There's folk and classical influences on the new stuff. He's got four or five incredible singles. I'm still absolutely stunned."

The album, scheduled for rush release November 1st, is tentatively titled Blood on the Tracks (Columbia PC 33235) and judging from the cuts it appears that he has reimmersed himself in the world of carnival people, energy vampires, and karma hustlers and they're all out there, back on Highway 61. There are several opuses on this album, "Idiot Winds" for one ("Everytime you open your mouth/It's idiot winds/It's a wonder you breathe at all"), a nine-minute foray into the phenomenology of fame. There's "Jack of Hearts," a song that Dylan told Mick Jagger, who dropped by during the sessions, was unlike anything he'd ever heard, but then again unlike anything he'd ever written. It's murky, compressed, like a 14th century narrative poem, really more like a show than a song as it unfolds an impressionistic tale of carnivals and saloons and those that live on the underside of life.

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'Blood on the Tracks'

There are also love songs, cuts like "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome (When You Go)," "If You See Her, Say Hello," "You're a Big Girl Now" and "Tangled Up in Blue." Dylan also recorded titles like "Shelter from the Storm," "Buckets of Rain," "Meet Me in the Morning," "Twist of Fate" and "Up to Me."

The music is sparse, with a minimum of drums, a lot of bass, a bit of organ, some pedal steel and, of course, Bob's acoustic guitar and harmonica. The scheduled cover is a shot of a huge red rose on a white background. And Dylan was reportedly hunting for old photos of himself performing at Gerde's Folk City for the back sleeve.

This album, like most of Dylan's previous sessions, was recorded with a minimum of preparation. According to Columbia sources, Dylan flew into New York around the middle of September, called up the company and said, "Let's do a record." On such short notice, engineer Ramone was unable to secure the New York studio musicians he routinely employs, people like Pretty Purdie, Kenny Ascher and David Spinozza. Ultimately, Eric Weissberg (half of the famous banjo duel) brought along his band Deliverance, but the scenario sounded like Weissberg's 115th Nightmare:

"I had seen Bob on the street about a year ago and we talked for a while and he said he wanted me to work with him but then I hadn't heard from him. All of a sudden, a year later, I get a call from his office saying what's your availability next week. Then I didn't hear anything for a while and on the following Monday I had one date, a jingle from 10-11 a.m. and I happened to be home at two in the afternoon which is amazingly unusual and the phone rang and a woman says hi, can you be at Bob's session at 4 p.m. I said no because I had to have a meeting with my band, but I'll be there at six, where is it? She says Studio A. I said there's only about 1400 Studio As in New York but by then it dawned on me it was Columbia's studio so I asked her what did Bob want me to bring. She said what do you play. Well, I play about eight or nine instruments, but she said she didn't know what he wanted. So I told her to get in touch with Bob and call me back.

"After an hour, I called her and she said Bob left for the studio and was unreachable. So I asked who else was on the date but she didn't know. So I packed two or three guitars in my car and drove down. I finally reached Ramone on the phone and asked him who he got. He said he tried everyone but it was too short notice and it looked like no one was coming. So I said I got a band and just then Bobby walked into the studio and Phil asked Bob and he said sure bring the whole band over."

Dylan had been recording alone for a few hours. He played back those songs but then wanted to do some new ones, and Deliverance was forced to pick up the tunes cold.

"He seemed to be having a good time," said Charlie Brown, the electric guitarist. "His whole concept of making an album seemed to be to go ahead and play it and whichever way it comes out, well that's the way it is. It's what happens at the moment. He didn't want to do a lot of takes, and I don't blame him 'cause some of the songs are so long. We'd just watch his hands and pray we had the right changes."

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