Essential Music: Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks

dylan-blood.jpgIf you follow my writings, you’ll have noticed that Bob Dylan is one of my favorite musicians. I’ve got all of his albums, and listen to his music a lot. In this recent article, The Music I Listen To Most, you’ll see that Dylan comes up in fourth position, behind The Grateful Dead, Franz Schubert and Johann Sebastian Bach; that’s by play counts in my iTunes library.

There are lots of great Dylan albums, from Highway 61 Revisited to Blond on Blond, but the one that stands out most for me is Blood on the Tracks. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store) It’s not just that it has many great, memorable songs, but there’s a unity in this album that doesn’t exist in most of Dylan’s other records. Many of my most-loved Dylan songs are on other albums – Desolation Row, Visions of Johanna, Forever Young, Cold Irons Bound, etc. – but Blood on the Tracks is an album that you listen to in extenso, because it tells a story.

When I wrote iPod & iTunes Garage, back in 2004, I asked a number of writers and musicians what their “essential music” was. My friend Peter Robinson, author of the Inspector Banks series of mysteries, wrote the following:

“Much as I love all kinds of instrumental and orchestral music, at the end of the day I’m a word guy, and if you’re a word guy, Dylan’s your man. We were spoiled by an embarrassment of riches until the infamous motorcycle accident in July, 1966, and after the stark surprise of 1968’s John Wesley Harding we seemed to be stranded in a wasteland of ersatz Americana. There were great songs, of course, Lay, Lady, Lay and Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, for example, and Planet Waves has many fine moments, but nothing could quite match the shock and pleasure of that moment in early 1975 when I set the needle gently on Blood on the Tracks for the first time and heard Tangled Up In Blue. Even better, it wasn’t a fluke. Next came Simple Twist of Fate, You’re a Big Girl Now and Idiot Wind, his most vicious song since 1965’s Positively 4th Street. The only disappointment is an overlong Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, which never quite seemed to fit, to my mind, but that’s a minor quibble, especially as it’s followed by the incomparable melancholy of If You See Her, Say Hello and the eerily redemptive Shelter from the Storm. There may be other contenders, but Blood on the Tracks surely remains the classic adult break-up album of all time.”

Peter nails it; it is the classic break-up album, but it’s so much more. If only for Tangled Up in Blue and Simple Twist of Fate, this would be a memorable album, but add the other tracks, and it’s a pure masterpiece. I’ve long felt that Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts was the weak song on the disc, but I’m starting to change my opinion, especially after hearing the original New York recording of it. (I’ll get to that in a minute…)

9780306812316_p0_v1_s260x420.jpgBlood on the Tracks has an interesting history, which is well documented by Andy Gill and Kevin Odegard in the book A Simple Twist of Fate: Bob Dylan and the Making of Blood on the Tracks (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). Dylan first recorded the album in New York, with a group of session musicians, in September, 1974. He recorded all the songs in just four sessions over ten days, but after playing it for his brother, decided he wanted to re-record five of the songs.

He went to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where his brother booked studio time, and found a handful of excellent musicians, and did two sessions in December. The New York sessions yielded the following songs:

Simple Twist of Fate
You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go
Meet Me in the Morning
Shelter From the Storm
Buckets of Rain

And the other five tracks come from the Minnesota sessions:

Tangled Up in Blue
You’re a Big Girl Now
Idiot Wind
Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts
If You See Her, Say Hello

It’s interesting to listen to the original versions of some of these songs; many of them have been released on various official Bootleg Series volumes, and Biograph also contains two songs that didn’t make it on the album, but that are also brilliant compositions: Call Letter Blues and Up to Me. (See the list below for details of all official releases.)

The original New York session test pressing is fairly easy to find as a bootleg. Listening to that original version – the one that Dylan first planned to release – makes me wonder if he should have just gone with the first recordings. In particular, Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts works much better in its acoustic form than in the later Minneapolis recording. And there’s more unity in the mostly-acoustic recordings from the New York sessions.

Here are the tracks that are available on official releases, but not the final album versions. They include alternate versions from the New York sessions, as well as two tracks that weren’t on the album from the same sessions. (Links are to the iTunes Store.) If you haven’t heard these tracks, and like Blood on the Tracks, you should definitely get them.

I hope that Dylan will release another Bootleg Series with all the New York recordings, and other outtakes from this period, similar to the recent set from the period of Self Portrait.

Coming Soon: Bob Dylan, The Complete Album Collection Vol. 1

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Do you have all of Bob Dylan’s music? 35 studio albums, 6 live albums, and more, will be available on November 5, in the Complete Album Collection Vol. 1. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) This massive collection, optimistically entitled Vol. 1, includes 14 remastered albums, and the first North American release of the 1973 Dylan album.

It does not, however, include the Bootleg series, which is up to Volume 10, and those releases will presumably be in Vol. 2 of this series, together with whatever future albums Bob releases.

At around $255, or £150, this is not a cheap set, but if you don’t have all of Dylan’s music, it’s worth it.

There’s also a limited edition set available from the Official Bob Dylan Store, which includes a “harmonica” USB stick case, and the USB stick contains all the music in 320 kbps MP3 and 24-bit FLAC files.

I know what my birthday present will be this year…