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
Bob Dylan.
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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."

Hammond said, "Bob said to me, 'I want to lay down a whole bunch of tracks. I don't want to overdub. I want it easy and natural.' And that's what the whole album's about. Bobby went right back to the way he was in the early days and it works."

Weissberg was a bit more sardonic: "It was weird. You couldn't really watch his fingers 'cause he was playing in a tuning arrangement I had never seen before. If it was anybody else I would have walked out. He put us at a real disadvantage. If it hadn't been that we liked the songs and it was Bob, it would have been a drag. His talent overcomes a lot of stuff."

Once he got under way, Dylan seemed deadly serious. Security was extremely tight and visitors were few. However, Mick Jagger dropped by a few nights, unwinding from work in a nearby studio where he was editing Stones tapes. He danced and drank champagne straight from the bottle, and occasionally huddled with Dylan between takes, offering a production suggestion or two. There was no producer.

Dylan used Deliverance on a few tracks and brought bassist Tony Brown back on succeeding nights for additional work. New Rider Buddy Cage was then flown in to sweeten some of the more countryish tracks.

"Ellen Bernstein from Columbia played this tape of us doing 'You Angel You' for Bob and he told her to call me for his sessions," said Cage. "I felt knocked out and real nervous especially because he didn't use many people. Bob played the tapes for me and said listen to them and play on whatever tracks you want. Frankly, there wasn't that much room on many of them for me. Anyway, I started working on the first song and after four takes I was disgusted, it just wasn't right and Bob came over and said, 'Well shit, this is so difficult,' which was exactly what I was thinking. I think we were both kinda shy with each other.

"But Jagger, he was there, like, I'd rub elbows with him any time, it's so easy. It was like I had gone to high school with him. He was asked to do background vocals but he didn't. The second night we were all drunk and Jagger was gonna play drums, but he never did. I finally asked him if he had Charlie's number and he said, 'Charlie who?' I wound up cutting three tunes, two of which Bob kept. The album's a beauty. All those songs, they're all hits."

It may seem strange that Dylan would record an album so soon after the back-to-back summer release of Planet Waves and Before the Flood, especially in light of his past habit of releasing an album a year. The immediacy of Blood on the Tracks may be due to the relative lack of impact, especially critical impact, of the last two albums. It is more likely that Blood on the Tracks is the beginning of a new cycle implicitly promised with Planet Waves. Pete Hamill, columnist and novelist, who Dylan asked to do the liner notes, viewed Dylan's current output in terms of Yeats's famous observation, "We make out of the quarrel with others rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves poetry."

"Dylan has gotten into the self and with the situation poets should deal with," Hamill said. "The whole notion that he should write 'Like a Rolling Stone Meets the Wolfman' or 'Gates of Eden Goes to Japan' — what the fuck does he want to do that for? What I love about Dylan is what he leaves out because then he gives us a chance to help create it. It's the most democratic form of art there is. Totalitarian art tells you every fucking thing. Dylan leaves the spaces. Listen, what I love about these love songs is that there's a terrific sophistication of feeling in them and a generosity of feeling. You know it's not just like 'You left me, you cunt,' or 'Come mother me, you bitch,' it's not at that level at all.

"Look, in my experience, when you've been with a good woman for a long time and it breaks up for whatever reason or other the generous human being remembers what was good about that and thanks himself and the woman and the world and fate for having had the privilege of having that long run, which is not like opening and closing a one-night stand with somebody. I can't really find the language to describe these songs. The album is just fucking wonderful."

And Dylan's art of late has been democratic, almost anarchistic, in its impressionistic quality. There is a thread that runs directly from the fragmented mysticism of Planet Waves's "Never Say Goodbye" to the sketchy watercolors of Blood on the Tracks, a thread that suggests that Dylan is perfecting his craft, going back to, as Charlie Brown puts it, "being a poet again, which is exactly where he is, and a real great one." The criticism of late had to hurt, had to make Dylan more vulnerable. He had to smart if he read comments like that of glitter-rocker Todd Rundgren (RS 170): "Dylan doesn't seem to be saying anything. He isn't doing anything sociologically, artistically, politically or spiritually important."

Planet Waves, an examination of the competing demands that complacent domesticity and mystical vision place on an artist, had less creative impact than was expected. Before the Flood was simply a live tour album. And to top it off, there are the gossipmongers, searching for one more rumor blowing in that idiot wind. There's a line in that new song that says, "Those people in the press are saying terrible things about me, I wish they'd stop." But maybe it's understandable. When the times are hollow, you can easily lose perspective.

This is a story from the November 21, 1974 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 174: November 21, 1974