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Bob Dylan: Blood on the Tracks

Back inside the rain

Singer, Songwriter, Bob Dylan

Singer/Songwriter Bob Dylan performs in San Francisco, California on March 23rd, 1975.

Alvan Meyerowitz/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

I dreamt that a great war had come upon the world, and they called me up to fight. I swore a solemn vow to God that if I returned from the war unharmed, whoever came out of my house to greet me when I returned I would offer up as a sacrifice. I returned unharmed, and it was myself who came out to greet me.
–S.Y. Agnon

I

After years of cold war and cold poetry, Bob Dylan, in the appropriately titled Bringing It All Back Home, decided to earth the lightning in himself. Following the homeopathic poetic principles of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, he absorbed and refined the poisons of subterranean homesick life, inculating himself with the disease in order to protect himself from it. In “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” Dylan was “mixing up the medicine,” and in songs like “Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “Stuck inside of Mobile” he upped the dosage and described the scene and the results:

Now the rainman
gave me two cures,
Then he said, “Jump
right in.”
The one was Texas
medicine,
The other was just
railroad gin.
And like a fool I
mixed them
And it strangled
up my mind,
And now people just
get uglier
And I have no sense
of time.

Like few other persons of the mid-Sixties, however, Dylan was right in time with the times. People used his poisons as a tonic and elixir, finding safety in his sickness. The fact that some even took enough courage from his songs to explore new ways of dealing with the world led them to picture Dylan as a bellwether for the Sixties counterculture.

But Dylan, unlike Rimbaud, did not want to transform the human condition – “giving blind advice to unknown eyes,” as he once wrote in 11 Outlined Epitaphs. Having become his own sacrifice, he was both “exposed” and a subject of countless exposés. And in response to one too many slanted questions and reporters’ whims – as Dylan himself complained in Epitaphs – he made his famous pronouncement: “My songs don’t mean nothin’.” (They had, of course, come to mean “everything” to his admirers.) And it was just at the moment of his greatest cultural (if not commercial) influence that Bob Dylan rejected the poison, sheared himself of his Blonde on Blonde personality, and – choosing neither to build bombs (like the Weathermen) nor to run guns (like Rimbaud in Africa) – withdrew in the style of the landed gentry to Woodstock, New York.

Dylan had learned that in order to bear the word, one must be totally bare: “A poem is a naked person,” he had written on the liner notes for Bringing It All Back Home. And it is interesting – especially for someone whose songs meant nothing – that during this period of retreat or reintegration (depending on your perspective), Dylan, in my opinion, must have been meditating on the images and themes of Shakespeare’s King Lear, the play in which “something” comes exactly from “nothing”: on the naked king and his wheel of fire, who banished the true and preferred the false; on blind Gloucester, who ended his life between joy and grief; and on the loving Cordelia, a soul in bliss, whose word of rejection – “Nothing” – ultimately reveals the world of truth. In extraordinary songs like “This Wheel’s on Fire,” “Too Much of Nothing” and “Tears of Rage” (on the now legendary “Basement Tapes”), Dylan revealed an unmistakable and deep understanding of this play: “Too much of nothing/Can make a man abuse a king” or “Oh what dear daughter beneath the sun/Would treat a father so/To wait upon him hand and foot/And always tell him, ‘No’ ” (“Tears of Rage”).

As Dylan himself disappeared from public view, he sacrificed his “public” poetic voice, turning not like King Lear to silence, but to a kind of audible muteness. Concerning the idea of perception in King Lear, it has been said that in order for one to see clearly, one has to be seen through. Self Portrait, released about this time, is an album whose title is ironical in the extreme, revealing, as it does, a portrait of a claustral and demilune self fading into mostly borrowed songs whose words – in the saying of a great teacher – “are only like a window that has no light of its own, but only shines forth out of the light that it admits”; and whose moods and performances shifted from enervation, at worst, to mellowness, at best. Since Dylan’s “self” had itself become absent, there was nothing in Self Portrait to see through.

For those who had valued Dylan for his attentiveness, for the exacting ways in which he described and charted the feelings, as Kafka put it, of being “seasick on dry land,” his change of heart, as represented by Self Portrait, signaled Dylan’s contraction and withdrawal from the world and from himself – much as Jewish mystics had pictured God withdrawing from his creation, leaving both himself and man in exile. This cosmic drama took a turn for the comic when someone like A.J. Weberman began to rifle the husks of Dylan’s garbage, thinking he could redeem Dylan from his exile.

II

Poets, of course have a singular path to travel. In his brilliant and haunted new song “Tangled Up in Blue” – a song of longing for the vanishing beloved, as well as for the lost spirit of the Sixties – Dylan says: “And when finally the bottom fell out/I became withdrawn/The only thing I knew how to do/Was to keep on keepin’ on.” Dialectical thinking reveals that an awareness of contradictions can guide one on the path to truth. But, equally, poets intuit the fact that truth contains its own contradictions, and that nothing can be seen except in a context that transcends it. Rimbaud’s “alchemy of the word” – or what Herbert Marcuse calls the “permanent imaginary revolution” inherent in the work or art – depends for its efficacy on the power of the negative, for “illusion is in the reality itself,” as Marcuse profoundly remarks, “not in the work of art.”

What this means is that the power of the “negative” – not to be confused with the “negativity” that, as Dylan tells us, couldn’t pull him through in “Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues” – is the keeper and witness of the “positive.” Dylan has always understood the contradictory nature of the truth and his best songs resulted in part from the acceptance of this awareness, his worst from his denial of it. Those songs mostly took the form of pictures of a world of family and country solitude that he called peace. There is, of course, a great pastoral poetic tradition that succeeds in conveying exactly this kind of repose, but Dylan’s extraordinary gifts as a romantic and visionary poet often went against the grain of this gentler mode.

It would be both foolish and untrue, however, to say that songs concerned with love and family are by their very nature products of illusion. Aside from the charmingly inane, sometimes bucolic fête champêtre atmosphere of Nashville Skyline (“Peggy Day stole my poor heart away/By golly, what more can I say”), Dylan created two songs that ineradicably affirm the power of love both as a concrete and a theoretical reality (“Why wait any longer for the one you love/When he’s standing in front of you” – “Lay Lady Lay”; “Love is all there is, it makes the world go ’round /Love and only love, it can’t be denied” – “I Threw It All Away”). And it is this second song, of course, that gives an idea of how the power of the positive can be contained within the negative.

But the song which most clearly illustrates how this “power” can give expression to an awareness of nonillusory love is Dylan’s “I Want You”: “Now all my fathers, they’ve gone down /True love they’ve been without it/But all their daughters put me down/ ‘Cause I don’t think about it.” In an extraordinary way, these lines suggest that the knowledge of one’s being without love should never lead to a self-deluding and false nostalgia for it, since in that way lies nothing less than love’s betrayal. Conversely, in the light of this awareness, when Dylan sings about a world of “guilty undertakers” and “drunken politicians,” the words “I want you” simply affirm the fact that it is desire itself (not pornography or pretended love) that can be seen as the key to a connected social and spiritual universe.

In the love songs on New Morning, however, Dylan’s conception of desire as an irreducible reality showed signs of being betrayed by a confused intermingling and entanglement of the notions of contentment and need. For as the album veered from the lightly anxious (“If not for you /Babe, I couldn’t find the door /Couldn’t even see the floor”) to the dramatically lethargic (“Build me a cabin in Utah / Marry me a wife, catch rainbow trout /Have a bunch of kids who call me ‘Pa’/That must be what it’s all about” – “Sign on the Window”), it was obvious that – in this second song especially – the ironical mask and the tone of nostalgic weariness adopted by Dylan to present this little confession was straining to preserve a drained out sense of the present.

When we feel removed from the present, we can either remember and recollect the past or enter the spaces of memory. Memory, of course, is deep within us – a place where things that are separate and cut off from our sense of the present always find a home. This is the world of the “night playing tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet” (“Visions of Johanna”), a world of ghosts between things and of imaginary conversations with parts of the self (as in John Wesley Harding), a world in which what was asleep is now awake and what was once ordered and real is now disconnected and illusory:

All the people we
used to know
They’re an illusion
to me now
Some are
mathematicians
Some are
carpenters’ wives
Don’t know how it
all got started
I don’t know what
they’re doin’ with
their lives

(“Tangled Up in Blue”). But just as we have seen that the power of the negative bears witness to the positive, so the awareness of the illusory – discovered in rapturous and unsettling moments in the disintegrating world of memory – communicates nothing less than an ecstatic celebration of what is really real.

Needless to say, one has to enter the world of memory before any such celebration can take place. It is interesting that the psychologist Theodor Reik once concisely drew a distinction between remembrance and memory – a distinction made by everyone from Aristotle to Proust. “The function of remembrance,” Reik wrote, “is the protection of impressions; memory aims at their disintegration.” And if Dylan totally entered the world of memory in Blood on the Tracks, in Planet Waves he was still placing himself in between the realms of remembrance and memory.

While memory provides many of the images and moods of “Something There Is about You” (“All that shaking to wonder”), there is still a protective nuance in lines like: “I was in a whirlwind/ Now I’m in some better place.” More than any other song on the album, it is Dylan’s seemingly throwaway “Never Say Goodbye” that glimmers with the aura of rediscovered places: “Footprints in the snow/And the silence down below.”

Planet Waves has usually been spoken of as a collection of songs that specifically glorify Dylan’s sense of family happiness. But there was an uneasy, diseased buttress lodged within the generally rhapsodic framework of this album. In “Dirge,” Dylan presented a half-bitter, half-pained threnody to a “painted face on a trip down suicide row” and to the singer’s own feelings: “I hate myself for loving you and the weakness that it shows,” followed later by the self-justifying lines: “There are those who worship loneliness/I’m not one of them/I’ve paid the price of solitude/But at least I’m out of debt.”

And if “Dirge” was supposed to demonstrate the consciousness of bad faith, then “Wedding Song” pushed irony over the line, revealing as never before in Dylan’s songs the entanglement of illusion and reality. For here is a love song – seemingly in the poet’s own voice, reputedly to his wife – in which Dylan affirms that he loves his wife more than time, love, madness, blood and even more than life itself. “Dirge” would be a more appropriate title for this song of death (“I’d sacrifice the world for you to watch my senses die”), for love is the law of life, and to love more than life is to negate both life and love, banishing them into an area of illusion and death. The wage of this attitude is the title of Dylan’s magnificent and memorable new album, Blood on the Tracks.

III

“If your memory serves you well/You’ll remember you’re the one,” Bob Dylan has sung on “This Wheel’s on Fire.” And when Dylan gave his nationwide tour last year, his performance of older songs like “It’s Alright, Ma” and “Gates of Eden” must have reminded him of that person who, in writing those songs, had warned and criticized others not to become what he, in part – like most of us – had become. Now the songs themselves had become reminders and warnings to the soul. “How does it feel/To be without a home/Like a complete unknown/Like a rolling stone?” The audiences at Dylan’s concerts sang out the chorus as if it were a national anthem. And what had once been an aggressive and admonitory sneer was now, in 1974, simply an invitation to reexplore a world of inhabited solitude and memory which Dylan had turned his back on for many years.

“Shelter from the Storm” is a parable of the meeting of two interfused worlds that had been split off, one from the other, in Dylan’s songs since John Wesley Harding: the formless, primordial creature of darkness, doom and rejection embraced by the merciful sister of unquestioning love. “Well I’m livin’ in a foreign country/But I’m bound to cross the line/ Beauty walks a razor’s edge/Someday I’ll make it mine.”

It is this “foreign country” whose presence we feel in almost every song on Blood on the Tracks. It is a world of signals crossed and of times out of joint (“Shelter”), of soul mates losing their way and each other (“Simple Twist of Fate” and “If You See Her, Say Hello”), of love that betokens separation (“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome when You Go”), of separation that betokens pain (“You’re a Big Girl Now”), of the breath no longer of life but of corruption and deceit (“Idiot Wind”), of barbed wire, hail and a never rising sun (“Meet Me in the Morning”) and of a night journey in search of the beloved – “Looking for her everywhere in hope of finding her somewhere,” as the mystics say about the Eternal Beloved (“Tangled Up in Blue”).

It is generally known that Dylan broke up with his wife – or she with him – last year. (Reports say that he is back with her again.) And there was probably some kind of separation that must have set Dylan off back on the road and “back in the rain,” as he says in “You’re a Big Girl Now” – an image overflowing with associations from Dylan’s older songs: “Lost in the rain in Juarez” (“Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues”) or “Nobody feels any pain/Tonight as I stand inside the rain” (“Just like a Woman”). In Dylan’s world, “rain” is another word for “memory,” where persons from the past and present and where love and pain reflect and merge with each other as in “buckets of rain/buckets of tears.”

Considering the interflowing world of memory, it would be a mistake for the listener to assign names and places to the songs on Blood on the Tracks. Most people like to confuse the singer with the song in any event. In this way, Shakespeare becomes Hamlet, and Joni Mitchell turns into a free man in Paris. Hamlet can deny any resemblance to Hecuba, but the audience, even within the play within the play, will persist in drawing conclusions on the wall.

Dylan’s new fable “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” presents a mirrored cabaret as the theater of the world in which you can see: backstage women playing cards, a hanging judge and Lily and Rosemary, both in love with a diamond-mine tycoon (“in” on a bank robbery) who is soon to be stabbed to death by a jealous Rosemary who winds up hanging on the gallows. Hovering over and around this scene is the Jack of Hearts – perhaps a playing card like all the others, an actor beyond compare (as the song informs us), a mysterious, almost transparent presence – whose power reveals as it conceals – much like Bob Dylan himself. And like much of Dylan’s work, this song becomes a parable whose meaning must be worked out in each listener’s head: “He moved across the mirrored room/’Set it up for everyone,’ he said/Then everyone commenced to do/What they were doin’ before he turned their heads.”

Rimbaud said: “I is another,” and Bob Dylan, in “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome,” sings about how his relationships have been like the one between Verlaine and Rimbaud (the “foolish virgin” meets the “hellish bridegroom” is how Rimbaud described Verlaine and himself in A Season in Hell), concluding: “But there’s no way I can compare/All them scenes to this affair/You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go.” This is Rimbaud filtered through the melody and gaiety of “I don’t care if it rains or freezes/As long as I’ve got a plastic Jesus.”

But the grace and humor of this song is as much a foil as is the poison and spleen of “Idiot Wind” – which exemplifies, in Rimbaud’s elegant phrase, “the refraction of grace crossed with a new violence.” While “Idiot Wind” is the most obviously explosive and bitter work Dylan has released since “Positively 4th Street” and “Can You Please Crawl out Your Window?,” it is also the first such song in which he incriminates not only the person he’s singing about but himself as well: “We’re idiots, babe/It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.”

Any emotion lived out in full, it has been said, is a form of love. And in “Idiot Wind” Dylan does nothing less than materialize, as in Japanese legend and plays, a personalized subsistent moment of wrath which, if not made visible and exorcised, will feed on the souls it destroys: “I kissed goodbye the howling beast/On the borderline which separated you from me” – while also seeing political evil as an extension of interpersonal hatred: “Idiot wind/Blowing like a circle around my skull/From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol.”

But while “Idiot Wind” is particularly searing, it is neither stronger nor weaker than any of the other songs, each of which has its own style – sometimes returning to previous periods of Dylan’s career – its own setting and its own mood. And while each of the songs can be seen as just one of ten facets of Dylan’s mind, each side of the album reveals a careful structural duplication of the other: Each band is paired with its “double” on the other side: “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Meet Me in the Morning” – two songs of longing and ecstatic despair; “Simple Twist of Fate” and “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” – the first being a lover’s dream of a city like Amsterdam, the second a gambler’s dream of a deck of cards; “You’re a Big Girl Now” and “If You See Her, Say Hello” – the two most direct and poignant songs about rejection and the two least mediated by a narrative foil; “Idiot Wind” and “Shelter from the Storm” – songs which answer each other, in name and in spirit, as mercy tempers anger; and “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome” and “Buckets of Rain” – both traditional in form, the first influenced by Buddy Holly and folk song, the second by Mississippi John Hurt, Mance Lipscomb and country blues.

Rarely has Dylan’s presence seemed so full and moving as on Blood on the Tracks. No matter what the mood, Dylan’s voice sounds as alternately rich, gentle, haunted or exacerbated as each song demands. The musicians on five of the album cuts – Eric Weissberg and Deliverance, Tony Brown, Buddy Cage and Paul Griffin – are low-keyed and almost inaudible in their accompaniments to quieter numbers like “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome.” The Minneapolis session musicians (Bill Peterson, Ken Odegard, Bill Berg, Greg Inhofer and Chris Weber) who, with Dylan, rerecorded five of the songs, provide what Robert Christgau has aptly called “a certain anonymous brightness.” But their clean, gleaming, impersonal sound is perfectly suited as a functional support for Dylan’s candent and wonderfully phrased harmonica, mandolin and guitar work and for his beautifully articulated and glowing lyrics – whose strengths are much like those of the 13th century poem whose book of verse he reads in “Tangled Up in Blue” (“And every one of them words rang true/And glowed like burnin’ coal/Pourin’ off of every page/Like it was written in my soul/From me to you/Tangled up in blue”).

Could it have been the verse of Guido Cavalcanti the singer was reading, the verse in which images become particles passing through the chambers of the mind; or the poetry of Dante, written when he was in exile both from his home and from his rejecting lady – knowing that sublunary love itself is a form of exile – and inescapable:

I find no shield she does not
shatter,
no place to hide from her
look;
because, like the flower on
the stalk,
she takes hold on the
summit of my soul:
she seems as worried by my
suffering
as a ship by a sea that lifts
no wave;
and a burden founders me
no poetry is equal to.*

*Dante, “Cosi nel mio parlar”

In This Article: Bob Dylan, Coverwall

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