Blood on the Tracks has left a 40-year blood trail back to the moment when rock’s most celebrated singer/songwriter released what stands as arguably the finest album of his career. Bob Dylan hardly faced an impossibly high bar when the album was released on January 20, 1975, since he’d been on an artistic downturn since the mid-‘60s, as far as his most demanding fans were concerned. But he blew expectations out of the water with the release — not with a barrage of electric guitars, as in his “How does it feel?” heyday, but with acoustic instrumentation that somehow made his snarl seem even more vital and indelicate.
For the landmark album’s 40th anniversary, here are 40 facts about Blood on the Tracks:
As the years go on, more and more fans and critics regard it as Dylan’s best album.
When Rolling Stone magazine’s editors made a list of the 500 Greatest Albums of all time in the early 2000s, Blood on the Tracks came in at a mere No. 16, trailing top 10 choices Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited. But in a 2012 reader poll, fans voted for Blood as his finest work.
Prior to Blood on the Tracks, Dylan hadn’t had a critical success since 1966.
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His late ‘60s work was described as “pastoral,” which was not what most fans wanted from rock’s greatest fire-breathing poet. His first proper studio album after years of reclusion, Planet Waves, had reestablished him as a commercial force in 1974, debuting at No. 1, but “Forever Young” was the only classic that stuck.
Rolling Stone initially ran a mixed review of the album.
Then-critic Jon Landau, later to be Bruce Springsteen’s producer/manager, praised Dylan’s vocal work but not the instrumentation, saying it “would only sound like a great album for a while” and was “impermanent.”
Is the album really a secret tribute to a Russian playwright?
In his memoir, Chronicles, Dylan was assumed to be referring to Blood on the Tracks when he wrote: “I would even record an entire album based on Chekhov short stories. Critics thought it was autobiographical – that was fine.” No one was certain whether he was serious about the Chekhov.
Novelist Rick Moody is an evangelist for the album, frequently proclaiming it the greatest album ever recorded.
In a 2001 speech that was subsequently anthologized, Moody rhapsodized: “Of thee I sing, best album ever made, or that’s my hypothesis, best rock &roll record ever — more heroic than The Sun Sessions, more consistent than Exile on Main Street, more serious than Never Mind the Bollocks, better than Revolver because there’s no ‘Good Day Sunshine’ on it, more discerning in its rage than Nevermind, more accepting than What’s Going On, less desperate than Pet Sounds, and more adult than Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited.”
Another huge fan: Miley Cyrus.
Cyrus released her version of “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” in 2012 and subsequently made the song a staple of her touring. No longer was the focus on which lost love Dylan wrote the song about. Hollywood Life spotlighted Miley’s cover version with the headline: “Is She Singing About Liam Hemsworth?”
Miley may not be the strangest artist to have covered one of the songs from the album.
In 2002, Great White released their version of “Tangled Up in Blue.”
“Tangled Up in Blue” also has a special honor in the Rock Band 2 game.
It’s the Mount Everest of Rock Band 2 songs, being the last hurdle to overcome in the “Impossible Vocal Challenge” section.
Hootie and the Blowfish paid serious tribute to the album… and paid for it.
Their 1994-5 smash “Only Wanna Be With You” offers nearly nonstop homage to Blood on the Tracks: A reference to “a little Dylan” is followed by a quote from “You’re a Big Girl Now,” a much longer quote from “Idiot Wind” (“Said I shot a man named Gray / Took his wife to Italy / She inherited a million bucks / And when she died it came to me / I can’t help it if I’m lucky”), and finally a reference to a third song as Darius Rucker adds, “Ain’t Bobby so cool… Yeah, I’m tangled up in blue.” Surely they’d gotten permission? No, and flattery got them nowhere with Dylan’s legal team. In August 1995, the band and Dylan’s publishing company reached an out-of-court settlement that reportedly resulted in an immediate six-figure payout, ownership of half the publishing, and a co-writing credit. (Rucker didn’t hold the legal action against his hero, as he subsequently had a No. 1 country hit with the Dylan co-written “Wagon Wheel.”)
Plenty of other songs sound a little like “Tangled Up in Blue,” though no one’s wanted to go so explicitly down the Hootie path.
Just in case anyone missed that the acoustic strumming at the opening of Elvis Costello’s “King of America” has a resemblance to the beginning of “Tangled,” Costello would sometimes start off his concert versions of his tune with a snippet of the Dylan classic.
Jack White took part in the belated live premiere of the album’s least loved song.
“Meet Me in the Morning” has always been the least celebrated song on Blood on the Tracks. But its blues-based form was right up White’s alley. In 2007, Dylan and the White Stripes’ former leader did a duet of the song at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium — astonishingly, the first time Dylan had ever sung it live, and still the last up to this point.
David Duchovny sang a snippet of “If You See Her, Say Hello” on Californication.
His character describes Blood on the Tracks as “a real heartbreak album.”
Jakob Dylan has acknowledged how the album brings up memories of his parents’ marital discord.
In a New York Times profile of the younger Dylan, former Wallflowers manager Andrew Slater recalled a revealing conversation. “I said, ‘Jakob, what goes through your mind when you listen to your father’s records?’ He said, ‘When I’m listening to ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues,’ I’m grooving along just like you. But when I’m listening to Blood on the Tracks, that’s about my parents.’ I never asked him again.”
Shortly after the album’s release, Dylan seemed to acknowledge that it was a personally painful work.
Dylan did not do many interviews to promote the album, per usual. But in an April 1975 radio discussion with Mary Travers (of Peter, Paul & Mary fame), he said, “A lot of people tell me they enjoyed that album. It’s hard for me to relate to that—I mean, people enjoying that type of pain.”
Later, he repeatedly scoffed at the idea that the album is the slightest bit “confessional” or “autobiographical.”
In a 1985 interview with Cameron Crowe that accompanied the Biograph boxed set, Dylan expressed his displeasure with the wisespread belief that the Blood lyrics were rooted in his real life. “’You’re a Big Girl Now,’ well, I read that this was supposed to be about my wife. I wish somebody would ask me first before they go ahead and print stuff like that. I mean, it couldn’t be about anybody else but my wife, right? Stupid and misleading jerks these interpreters sometimes are…I don’t write confessional songs. Emotion’s got nothing to do with it. It only seems so, like it seems that Lawrence Olivier is Hamlet… Well, actually I did write one once and it wasn’t very good—it was a mistake to record it and I regret it… back there somewhere on maybe my third or fourth album.” (He was referring to 1964’s “Ballad in Plain D,” an exploration of his breakup with Suze Rotolo, which he claimed was the one time he ever overtly mined his own emotional trauma for a song: “That one I look back and I say, ‘I must have been a real schmuck to write that.’”)
But at one point he at least acknowledged being able to see how other people could see Blood on the Tracks as his personal breakup album.
“I’ve read that that album had to do with my divorce,” he told interviewer Bill Flanagan in 1985. “Well, I didn’t get divorced till four years after that.” (Actually, his wife filed papers just over two years after the album was released.) “I thought I might have gone a little bit too far with ‘Idiot Wind’… I didn’t really think I was giving away too much; I thought that it seemed so personal that people would think it was about so-and-so who was close to me. It wasn’t… I didn’t feel that one was too personal, but I felt it seemed too personal. Which might be the same thing, I don’t know.” Flanagan pressed and said the album “must at least be somewhat about that.” Dylan’s reply: “Yeah. Somewhat about that. But I’m not going to make an album and lean on a marriage relationship. There’s no way I would do that, any more than I would write an album about some lawyers’ battles that I had. There are certain subjects that don’t interest me to exploit. And I wouldn’t really exploit a relationship with somebody.”
A girlfriend who lived with Dylan on and off during a 1974 marital separation acknowledged that “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” was about their relationship.
Ellen Bernstein was an A&R executive for Columbia Records who embarked on a relationship with Dylan in 1974 while he was living on an 80-acre farm in Minnesota, separated from his wife. The geographical references in the lyrics all pertained to Bernstein, as did, apparently, a particular flower. In Clinton Heylin’s biography, Behind the Shades, Bernstein said, “I remember… when we were walking out in the fields somewhere and I found a Queen Anne’s lace, and he didn’t know that’s what it was called… This was in Minnesota. I would come up there for long weekends and then I would leave. I did say I was planning a trip to Hawaii. And I lived in San Francisco, Honolulu, [her birthplace of] Ashtabula—to put it in a song is so ridiculous. But it was very touching.” Of the relationship, she said, “It felt sorta like ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’ I was a very young 24… This was brand-new stuff to me, so I never thought to ask, ‘So, what’s going on with your wife?’… I didn’t want to get married, and I wasn’t being asked to leave.”
One outtake may have been cut from the album’s final track list because it really would have invited speculation about Dylan’s failing marriage.
The cut song “Call Letter Blues” (which was finally issued in 1991) included the lyrics: “Well, your friends come by for you/I don’t know what to say/I just can’t face up to tell ’em/Honey, you just went away… Well, children cry for mother/I tell them, ‘Mother took a trip.’”
Both the album and Dylan’s marital breakup were apparently influenced by an octogenarian art teacher.
Dylan fell under the artistic sway of a mercurial painter, Norman Raeben, who taught classes high above Carnegie Hall. He said that Raeben’s artistic methods were the impetus behind him writing time-jumping songs like “Tangled Up in Blue.” “It changed me,” he recalled in an interview with the Dallas Morning News in 1978. “I went home after that and my wife never did understand me ever since that day. That’s when our marriage started breaking up. She never knew what I was talking about, what I was thinking about. And I couldn’t possibly explain it.”
At one point Dylan wanted the album to be less acoustic and more of a return to the Highway 61 Revisited sound.
He paid a visit to Michael Bloomfield, the electric guitar hero identified with Dylan’s most rousing mid-‘60s triumphs, and played the some of the new material he was eager to record. But Bloomfield felt confused and unable to follow Dylan’s lead, so the reunion and that sound were not to be.
The one musician credited by name on the album is acoustic multi-instrumentalist Eric Weissberg, who was then famous for his hit “Dueling Banjos,” as heard in the movie Deliverance.
“Eric Weissberg and Deliverance” are officially credited as the sole backing musicians on the project. Yet the album’s recording history was tumultuous enough that Weissberg only appears on one track on the finished album, “Meet Me in the Morning.”
A version of the album that was recorded in New York City was finished and even pressed as a test acetate before Dylan grew displeased with it at the last minute. He decided to postpone the release by a month so he could re-record half the songs.
That original acetate was widely bootlegged, and some fans still insist the five recordings that were scrapped are superior to the replacement versions he came up with. Most Dylanologists think the call to re-do half the album was the right one, however. Those five tracks he got rid of have never been officially released on any of his subsequent Bootleg Series archival albums, although numerous other alternate takes have.
The musicians at the initial New York sessions felt baffled when Dylan wanted them to record songs he hadn’t taught them yet.
Weissberg’s band grew flummoxed when Dylan not only didn’t have charts but didn’t seem interested in even doing a complete run-through of songs before the tapes rolled. “I got the distinct feeling Bob wasn’t concentrating,” Weissberg told Uncut magazine, “that he wasn’t interested in perfect takes. He’d been drinking a lot of wine; he was a little sloppy. But he insisted on moving forward, getting onto the next song without correcting obvious mistakes.” While they were listening to the playback of the first song they’d performed, “Simple Twist of Fate,” Dylan interrupted it to begin teaching them another tune. “He couldn’t have cared less about the sound of what we had just done. We were totally confused, because he was trying to teach us a new song with another one playing in the background… I was thinking to myself, ‘Just remember, Eric, this guy’s a genius. Maybe this is the way geniuses operate.’”
The initial New York sessions took place over four evenings, but after the first night’s chaos, Dylan stopped inviting the full band and started working with an increasingly stripped down, drumless lineup, creating a particular intimacy in the recordings that made it to the final product.
By the time they got to “Shelter from the Storm,” it was just Dylan and bassist Tony Brown.
Engineer Glenn Berger, now a psychologist, wrote a fascinating and widely circulated account of the New York sessions that corroborated the musicians’ tales.
“He called off a tune. ‘Let’s do “If You See Her, Say Hello.”’ He barely rehearsed the song when he told us to record,” wrote Berger. “The players were just beginning to figure out the changes and what to play. On the third try, he threw everyone off by playing a different song. The musicians stumbled… Barely having recovered from the shock, after a run-through or two of the new song, Dylan changed songs midstream, again, without letting anyone know… One by one, the musicians were told to stop playing. This hurt. You could see it in the musicians’ eyes as they sat silently behind their instruments, forced not to play by the mercurial whim of the guy painting his masterpiece with finger-paints… We cut an entire album’s worth of material like that in six hours.”
Berger had even less regard for producer Phil Ramone’s management style than Dylan’s.
“How did (Ramone) get it so good that the heaviest cats in the world flocked to his door?… Between takes, I asked him how he did it,” Berger wrote. “Without warning, he twirled around and was an inch from me, his face purple and trembling with rage. ‘Who do you think you are, asking the great Ramone a question? You don’t question what I do, you just obey… You’re nothing! To you I am a god!’” The engineer concluded: “I know it’s Dylan’s blood on those tracks and that’s what makes them great. But I take some small measure of solace for my pain and limitations by telling myself that along with his blood, there is also a little bit of mine.”
After the album was supposedly finished, and tens of thousands of LP sleeves already printed, Dylan’s brother, David Zimmerman, convinced him that it would be a flop if released as it was… and came up with a plan to salvage it.
Dylan and his brother were set to spend the holidays together in Minnesota, and David suggested getting a band of locally based musicians together right after Christmas to re-record some of the material. On Dec. 27 and again on the 30th, some of the top session players in Minneapolis gathered to re-cut five songs, and they clicked as a band in a way that the New York players had never been allowed to. A critical difference: Since Dylan had little patience for teaching a full band all the chords and changes of a song at great length, he ended up teaching the tunes to a local guitar shop owner, Chris Weber, who then taught the other musicians. Still, they rarely ran the songs all the way through before recording them. The nine-minute “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” is so much a first take that you can hear Dylan realizing in the opening bars that his harmonica is in a different key than he thought and adjusting on the fly. Four of the five tracks they cut, including “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Idiot Wind,” are basically live recordings mixed live to two-track on the spot, with almost no overdubs.
After 40 years, the Minneapolis musicians who made the album come alive have still never been credited for their work.
In the book Simple Twist of Fate, the anonymous players expressed varying attitudes about never receiving the due they were promised. Said Weber, who came up with the key change and licks that brought “Tangled Up” to life, “We were told that there were 100,000 jackets already printed with Eric Weissberg and Deliverance credited, but if the album was a success and they printed more, they would give credit to the other musicians who were on the album.” The album went double-platinum, but the cover was never altered, despite David Zimmerman’s alleged promise to do so as the sessions ended. Nor did they ever receive thank-you calls, gold records, or even a free copy of the record… just union scale. In 2002, Gregg Inhofer wondered “what might have happened if we got credit… Any time I hear a Dylan song, whether I played on it or not, it just sticks in my craw and I go, ‘Man, what if, what if, what if?’ Why was I so stupid? Why was I so naïve?… I was taken advantage of, totally.”
Not that even the guys who did get credit walked away happy. Weissberg wasn’t thrilled about having him and his team replaced on much of the album.
“We could have done what he wanted, given a fair shake,” Weissberg told Andy Gill in Simple Twist of Fate. “I would say that we were all somewhat bummed about it. But I feel absolutely no bitterness about it.” Charlie Brown was not so sanguine: ““I was pissed, frankly!… You’ve got some of the best damn players on the planet playing on your record, and you replaced it?”
For his next album, Desire, Dylan put aside the vituperation of songs like “Idiot Wind” and recorded songs that seemed expressly designed to win his estranged wife back — including the inescapably autobiographical “Sara.”
On July 31, 1975, the couple seemed to be exploring the idea of getting back together, and Sara was visiting the studio when Dylan had the band go in and play the new song “Sara” as she watched. As an observer noted in Bob Spitz’s biography, “Bob obviously wanted to surprise her with it… He turned and sang the song directly at Sara… He was really pouring out his heart to her… It was obvious she was unmoved.” But reconcile they did, for a short time.
The marriage had begun to unravel again by the time Dylan made “Idiot Wind” a focal point of the Rolling Thunder Revue tour.
In the early part of the tour, he focused on the more upbeat material from Desire, but eventually shoved that aside in favor of angrier stuff. As Uncut put it, “At a televised gig in Colorado on his 35th birthday, with his wife and children watching, he sang it into a howling gale. Released on Hard Rain (the 1976 live album), it beats even Blood On The Tracks’ version for paint-blistering bile.” Among the lyric changes that night: “Visions of your chestnut mare” became “Visions of your smoking tongue.”
Blood on the divorce papers?
Sara filed on March 1, 1977, and the divorce was finalized on June 30, with a reported $36 million settlement, seeming to establish that it’s more of a Blood on the Tracks world than a Desire one.
Three of the songs have only been performed live by Dylan once.
Besides the aforementioned duet of “Meet Me in the Morning” with Jack White in 2007, there are two other songs from the album that only merited a single live performance from Dylan. The epic “Lily, Rosemark and the Jack of Hearts” was never played again after he did it as a duet with Joan Baez in Salt Lake City in May 1976. “Buckets of Rain” had to wait for its live premiere (and possibly final appearance) until November 1990, when Dylan shocked fans by opening a Detroit show with the album-closer. Others have also counted as concert rarities, like “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” which he hasn’t performed since 1976.
On the other hand…
He’s sung “Tangled Up in Blue” in concert over 1,400 times.
A lot of other artists seem to like “Buckets of Rain” more than Dylan.
Neko Case included it on a live album, and it’s also been performed by David Gray, Coldplay’s Chris Martin, John Mayer, Beth Orton, and even Dave Van Ronk.
The band Mary Lou’s Corvette covered the entire running order of Blood on the Tracks for a live album.
She can be heard expressing her nervousness about tackling all 15 verses of “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.”
Mary Lou’s Corvette still missed a verse.
Dylan’s original/discarded New York recording of “Lily, Rosemark and the Jack of Hearts” included a 16th verse, which Joan Baez did include when she covered the track.
Dylan recorded a goofy duet with Bette Midler of “Buckets of Rain.”
She recorded the track for her 1976 album Songs for the New Depression — a version despised by many Dylan fans but beloved for its off-the-cuff silliness by a few. For reasons never properly explained, the lyric in her version is rendered as “nuggets of rain.” At the end, she says, “Bobby, Bobby, hey there Mr. D, you set me free.” His final line: “You and Paul Simon should have done this one.”
The most covered song?
Possibly a tie between “Tangled Up in Blue” (besides Great White: Baez, Jerry Garcia, the Indigo Girls, Ani Difranco, the String Cheese Incident, KT Tunstall, Leftover Salmon, the War on Drugs) and “Simple Twist of Fate” (Diana Krall, Bryan Ferry, Sarah Jarosz, Coldplay, Wilco, Concrete Blonde, etc.)
In 2012, a movie version of Blood on the Tracks was announced.
Brazilian-based RT Features made the trades with news they’d acquired rights, saying, “As longtime admirers of one of the greatest albums in the history of music, we feel privileged to be making this film. Our goal is to work with a filmmaker who can create a classic drama with characters and an environment that capture the feelings that the album inspires in all fans.” The company was undaunted by the fact that Blood on the Tracks has no plot, although that may have sunk in during the last four years of apparent inaction.