The challenge of finding something original to say about Bob Dylan
's Blood on the Tracks
(1975), the mother of all comeback albums, baffles even the most steely-eyed critic. But Sony has made the task easier with More Blood, More Tracks
, the unfortunately titled, overpriced, but nonetheless revelatory fourteenth entry in the Bootleg Series
. The six-disc Deluxe Edition
contains all extant tracks for the album, recorded in 1974 over four September days in New York and two late December days in Minneapolis. When, in late January 1975, needles all around the world dropped on the first song, "Tangled Up on Blue," there was no doubt the fiery Dylan of the mid-60s was back, but with almost a decade's worth of experience in his voice, which grows increasingly impassioned as the first verse nears its conclusion: And I was standin' on the side of the road
Rain fallin' on my shoes
Heading out for the East Coast
Lord knows I've paid some dues gettin' through
Tangled up in blue
Those who wanted to know what band was backing Dylan on this songwith three buoyant acoustic guitars, organ, a bass that bobbed and weaved around the guitars, and a drummer whose playing sounded, if you were a jazz fan, like Tony Williams
'sfound "Eric Weissberg
and Deliverance" listed on the album sleeve. But "Tangled Up in Blue," "Idiot Wind," and three more of the album's ten songs featured a group of musicians far outside the orbit of New York City's elite session players, and who, until More Blood, More Tracks
, have never received proper credit for their contribution to Blood on the Tracks
The album's status as ne plus ultra
has long been complicated by its existence in two forms. The version that producer Phil Ramone readied for release in the fall of '74, after he and Dylan had selected the tracks and sequenced them in late September, was so far down the pipeline that test pressings of it had started to make their way to disk jockeys and other taste-makers. Of the ten songs on the test pressing, all recorded in New York, only one featured a full band; the rest are built around Dylan's voice, guitar, and harmonica and Tony Brown's electric bass, with occasional assists from Paul Griffinwhose piano had enlivened many of Dylan's mid-60s classicsand steel guitarist Buddy Cage. This version was evidently too subdued, not radio-friendly enough, and, commentators have long speculated, too revealing for Dylan. So with his brother David's help, between Christmas and New Years of '74 he went rogue and assembled a group around the jazz rhythm section of Billy Peterson
on bass and Bill Berg
on drums in Minneapolis's Studio 80, where they recorded full-band versions of half the album's songs. In March, the album spent two weeks at number one on Billboard's Top 200 chart, vindicating Dylan's decision to take over the project.
Nevertheless, key players like Ramone, who died in 2013, and Glenn Berger, his assistant engineer at the Blood on the Tracks
sessions, clung to their preference for the New York version of the album. In an interview for More Blood, More Tracks
, Berger expressed his frustration with Dylan's revisions: "I was really into the very raw production. I thought everything was sort of over-produced at that time, anyway, so I was loving the honesty of the original [New York] recordings. So when he went and re-recorded some of it in Minneapolis, I was crushed." Jeff Slate's liner notes, however, reveal just how produced the New York sessions actually were: "Dylan asked Ramone to speed up many of the masters by 2-3%, a common practice in the 1960s and '70s, especially for records sent to AM radio." In addition, Ramone added reverb to the New York songs, like "Buckets of Rain," that now sound surprisingly unadorned with the reverb stripped away on More Blood, More Tracks
. We now hear, Slate promises, "the songs exactly as Dylan recorded them." Listeners can make out the contact of Dylan's pick with the guitar strings, his breath entering the harmonica, and the clack of his jacket's buttons against the guitar. (Evidently everyone was too awed by Dylan to ask him to take his jacket off.) This writer dug out his old copy of the bootlegged New York acetate, and found it to be evidence of Ramone and Dylan's confusion about how the album should sound. On the very first song, a bare-bones rendition of "Tangled Up in Blue," Ramone's wash of reverb collides with the vérité
quality of the buttons' clack. No wonder Dylan felt he had to revisit the material.
The test pressing of these New York recordings was widely bootlegged almost simultaneously with the album itself and became a kind of phantom Blood on the Tracks
. The differences between the five songs initially recorded in New York and re-recorded in Minneapolis are significant. The narrator of the New York "Idiot Wind" wields intimacy like a rapier. In this quietly harrowing portrait of a failing marriage, backed only by his own guitar and harmonica, Brown's bass, and an unobtrusively swirling, spooky organ part overdubbed by Griffin, Dylan sings "sweet lady" as both a taunt and an endearment. The song's quality of withheld but potent antipathy emerges in the last verse, which Dylan almost whispers with devastating tenderness: You close your eyes and part your lips, and slip your fingers from your glove
You can have the best there is, but it's gonna cost you all your love
You won't get it for money
On December 27th in Minneapolis, however, the song morphs into a ferocious domestic jeremiad, with a full band anchored by Peterson and Berg supporting Dylan. He sings with a newfound fierceness, almost in competition with a driving Hammond B-3 organ part (that he overdubbed later in the session) which explicitly connects "Idiot Wind" to his "truth attack" songs of the mid-60s, such as "Positively Fourth Street," in which his narrators' invective rode on waves of organ played by Al Kooper
and Garth Hudson. Despite its aural "ragin' glory," it's this second, more tempestuous rendition of the song that, in the final verse, implicates the narrator in the relationship's failure: You'll never know the hurt I suffered nor the pain I rise above
And I'll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love
And it makes me feel so sorry
Both three-line passages quoted above occupy the last three lines of the final verse in their respective songs. Listen to how the rhyme scheme "love/glove/money" survives as a verbal specter in "above/love/sorry," making the two versions inextricable from each other, even if only one made it onto the album.
The existence of two distinct but overlapping versions of the album has fostered a long-simmering debate about which is the "real" Blood on the Tracks
. More Blood, More Tracks
makes the debate pointless by providing a surfeit of alternate takes for every song on the album. Dylan performed his then-new songs with such fire, dedication, and invention that most of the alternates are not throwaways, but legitimate versions in their own right. Of course, jazz provides the model for this mode of composition and performance. There is no "definitive" version of Charles Mingus
's "Fables of Faubus" or John Coltrane
's interpretation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "My Favorite Things." Neither is there any "definitive" "Tangled Up in Blue," which Dylan performed with Brown alone in New York in a rendition that shifts between first-and third-person narration and then, with heavily revised lyrics that stuck to first person, with the impromptu Minneapolis band in the well-known version that makes the New York version sound positively inert. On concert stages, he has famously continued to refine and transform the song in the ensuing decades. Some of the songs on More Blood, More Tracks
have three distinct incarnations, while many have two. And Dylan would continue to rework much of the album on his 1975'76 Rolling Thunder tour. There is no final version of Blood on the Tracks
. You can create your own vision of the album out of More Blood, More Tracks
's 87 tracks, with the second side of the 1976 live album Hard Rain
thrown in for good measure.
Eighty-seven songs are a lot to absorb at once, though. For the listeners put off by the prospect of paying $150 to sit through seven different takes of "You're a Big Girl Now," Sony has also released a one-disc sampler. Over a few days, this writer sat down and listened to the whole boxed set sequentially and found that Dylan's obsessive return to the same twelve songs partakes of the songs' own obsessiveness. Blood on the Tracks
dramatizes the impulse to return to a mythologized but no less powerfully experienced past: "But all the while I was alone / The past was close behind," "So now I'm goin' back again," "Sundown, yellow moon, I replay the past / I know every scene by heart, they all went by so fast," "If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born." By starting the sessions with just his guitar and harmonica for the first time since Another Side of Bob Dylan
(1964), he was also reaching backward into his musical past. Alone with his acoustic guitar in the cavernous A&R Studios (formerly Columbia's Studio A) on September 16, 1974, Dylan tries out five new songs, singing and playing as if his life depends on it. To a certain extent, it did. In the New York version of "Idiot Wind," the narrator complains how "imitators steal [him] blind." Dylan was battling not only his younger, more vital self but the legion of "new Dylans" eager to take the crown he had ceded with uneven product like 1970's Self Portrait
To get back to those seven takes of "You're a Big Girl Now"except for one rehearsal take, any of them was strong enough for the album. In fact, the take that did make it onto the album, from the Minnesota sessions, may be the weakest of them all. By the time he reached A&R Studios, Dylan had clearly been working on the material for some time. As the first disc shows, he has the lyrics down, he knows his guitar parts and harmonica breaks, and he switches from one song to the next, and back again, with ease and fluidity. In the control booth, all Ramone has to do is switch on the intercom and say, "Great song, man." Dylan's commitment to "You're a Big Girl Now"which he re-recorded in Minneapolis and re-worked yet again on the Rolling Thunder tourshows through in each of the takes and makes the song a microcosm of the album. Like Blonde on Blonde
, Blood on the Tracks
anatomizes bitter breakups. But where Blonde on Blonde
's narrators initiate those break-ups"I believe it's time for us to quit"Blood on the Tracks
's speakers are, for the most part, the ones left behind. In contrast to headiness of his mid-60s lyrics, in which Arthur Rimbaud and Allen Ginsberg collided with Harry Smith
's Anthology of American Folk Music
(1952), the language Dylan uses to evoke abandonment has a stark simplicity. He is willing to run the risk of cliché, as in this verse: Love is so simple, to quote a phrase
You've known it all the time, I'm learnin' it these days
Oh, I know where I can find you, oh, oh
In somebody's room
It's a price I have to pay
You're a big girl all the way
The refrain "You're a big girl" demeans the song's female addressee in much the same way that his '60s refrains like, "She breaks just like a little girl" do; but there's a plaintiveness in Dylan's delivery, as if his narrator has finally recognized that his beloved is, like him, an adult who can make the choice to leave. Where some of Dylan's mid-60s lyrics, like "The peddler now speaks to the countess who's pretending to care for him / Sayin,' 'Name me someone that's not a parasite and I'll go out and say a prayer for him,'" sound almost like tongue-twisters, the words of "You're a Big Girl Now" work because of the space around them that Dylan allows.
In each of his new songs, the lead instrument is Dylan's singing voice, which goes from coruscating to caressing, sneering to worshipful, anguished to bravado-filled. He can shift from that familiar Dylan-nasal-sound to a desperate huskiness. Like Otis Redding
, Dylan can stretch out a one-syllable word as he does, in another song, with the last word of the line, "And to think of how she left that night, it still brings me a chill." In "You're a Big Girl Now," his voice trails off from words into pure sounds"mmmmmmm mmmmmmmm's" and "oooooh's" and, by the song's third take, some amalgam of the two that sounds like "uuuuuuh-mmmm." In the song's ending, I'm going out of my mind, oh, oh
With a pain that stops and starts
Like a corkscrew to my heart
Ever since we've been apart
"oh, oh" cannot really articulate Dylan's wordless vocalizations, which come close to the sound of moaning, as if that "pain" is not simply an emotion the songs describes, but a presence in the song itself. The next day, Brown and Griffin accompany Dylan in a no less potent version that made it onto the test pressing and, later, onto Biograph
(1985). (Cage overdubbed his steel guitar part a day or two later.) One can sense why Ramone took the omission of so many New York tracks from the album personally: with his sidemen showing the wisdom of restraint, Dylan, his guitar part almost identical to the previous day's, gives the song all he has. "I can change, I swear," he sings with palpable desperation on "You're a Big Girl Now," in a moment when the distance between Dylan and his song's narrator narrows to a sliver.
Because the engineer at Minneapolis's Studio 80 apparently wiped all but the master takes of the songs Dylan recorded there, the boxed set is heavy on the New York sessions. This writer has largely skipped over the disc's worth of songs on which Dylan is backed by Eric Weissberg and Deliverance, because, except for a brutally candid "Call Letter Blues" and its less revealing double, "Meet Me in the Morning," which made it onto the album, the session was pretty much a wash. Not so with the two full discs of Dylan alone with bassist Brownthe only hold-over from Weissberg's bandperfecting songs, like "Simple Twist of Fate" and "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go," that sound effortless on the album. They nail all four takes of the archetypal "Shelter from the Storm," one with Paul Griffin, whose up-tempo piano playing recalls his contributions to Highway 61 Revisited
. (On the Rolling Thunder tour, Dylan, Mick Ronson, and company transformed the nimble, acoustic song into a skull-rattling, electrified attack.) Despite the sense of telepathy between Dylan and Brown, the latter told Andy Gill and Kevin Odegard, authors of A Simple Twist of Fate: Bob Dylan and the Making of
Blood on the Tracks (Da Capo Press), "He couldn't have been more remote. I can't remember any words that were spoken. He was concentrating entirely on the songs, nothing else." Dylan brought a similarly intense focus to the Studio 80 sessions when, as he'd done in the Nashville sessions for Blonde on Blonde
, recently chronicled in Daryl Sanders's definitive That Thin, Wild Mercury Sound: Dylan, Nashville, and the Making of
Blonde on Blonde (Chicago Review Press), he cut timeless songs with musicians he'd just met hoursor even minutesbefore.
Even if they didn't go on to such storied careers as some of the Nashville or New York session musicians, the Minneapolis players had what it took to make the songs Dylan heard in his head come alive. Slate asserts, "the [Minneapolis] band is fantastic. Although their playing has long been derided by fans of the 'New York acetate,' it's clear now that guitarists Chris Weber and Kevin Odegard, keyboardist Gregg Inhofer
, mandolin player Peter Ostroushko, and, especially, bassist Billy Peterson and drummer Bill Berg, were absolutely the right men for the job. Dylan is on fire, and they meet his intensity note for note." Slate's roll-call of the players' names goes a little way toward redressing the wrong Dylan and Columbia committed by never giving credit to the Studio 80 team on vinyl, then CD, releases of Blood on the Tracks
. It does not seem a mistake that Dylan re-recorded the album's three longest songs in Minneapolis, where the players give each one a different, but spot-on, sense of momentum that's missing from the New York sessions. Even Berger now avers that the New York acetate needed some variation: "I thought those performances were so emotionally powerful. I wasn't hearing that they were all in the same key, and that it was monotonous, and the [buttons] clacking." On "Idiot Wind," Berg's drumming, anything but monotonous, matches Dylan's ferocity, while he brings a toe-tapping briskness to the almost nine-minute story-song set in a cabaret, "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack Of Hearts."
In his review of Blood on the Tracks
, Dylan's longtime champion Ralph J. Gleason wrote, "Dylan now competes only with himself, as is the fate of all original artists. And that competition is strong and it is a measure of the weight of this album that it can stand up to that competition. I heard it right after Blonde on Blonde
one day, and it stands up." Once Blood on the Tracks
hit the stores in 1975, it, not Blonde on Blonde
, became the record for Dylan to beat. Over the decades he has seemed almost to disdain the contest by releasing such sub-par albums as Saved
(1980) and Empire Burlesque
(1985). This writer would enter "Love and Theft"
(2001) in the "best Dylan album since Blood on the Tracks
" sweepstakes, but the two albums are so different a comparison does not seem fair. In any case, if one has made an album as transformativefor both singer and listenersand achingly intimate as Blood on the Tracks
, why should one have to top it? Blood on the Tracks
stands on its own, with no follow-up needed. After he and Tony Brown wipe out halfway through a take of "Buckets of Rain," the usually reticent Dylan muses, "This is hard, makin' records like this. You gotta keep three or four things goin' at the same time. Just like life." Then, with barely a pause, the two of them launch into the take that will become the album's last song on which, over Brown's languid bass and his own eloquent finger-picking, Dylan sings, Life is sad
Life is a bust
All ya can do is do what you must
You do what you must do and ya do it well
I'll do it for you, honey baby, can't you tell?
Tangled Up in Blue (9/19/74, Take 3, Remake 3); Simple Twist of Fate (9/16/74, Take 1); Shelter From The Storm (9/17/74, Take
2); You’re a Big Girl Now (9/16/74, Take 2); Buckets of Rain (9/18/74, Take 2, Remake); If You See Her, Say Hello (9/16/74, Take
1); Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts (9/16/74, Take 2); Meet Me in the Morning (9/19/74, Take 1, Remake); Idiot Wind
(9/19/74, Take 4, Remake); You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go (9/17/74, Take 1, Remake); Up to Me (9/19/74, Take
2, Remake). Deluxe edition includes six discs of outtakes and alternate tracks.
NEW YORK CD 1: If You See Her, Say Hello (Take 1); If You See Her, Say Hello (Take 2); You’re a Big Girl Now (Take 1) You’re a Big Girl Now (Take 2); Simple Twist of Fate (Take 1); Simple Twist of Fate (Take 2); You’re a Big Girl Now (Take 3); Up to Me (Rehearsal); Up to Me (Take 1); Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts (Take 1); Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts (Take 2).
CD 2: Simple Twist of Fate (Take 1A); Simple Twist of Fate (Take 2A); Simple Twist of Fate (Take 3A); Call Letter Blues (Take 1); Meet Me in the Morning (Take 1); Call Letter Blues (Take 2); Idiot Wind (Take 1); Idiot Wind (Take 1, Remake); Idiot Wind (Take 3 with insert); Idiot Wind (Take 5); Idiot Wind (Take 6); You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go (Rehearsal and Take 1); You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go (Take 2); You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go (Take 3); You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go (Take 4); You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go (Take 5); You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go (Take 6); You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go (Take 6, Remake); You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go (Take 7); You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go (Take 8).
CD 3: You’re a Big Girl Now (Take 1, Remake); You’re a Big Girl Now (Take 2, Remake); Tangled Up in Blue (Rehearsal)Tangled Up in Blue (Take 2, Remake); Spanish is the Loving Tongue (Take 1); Call Letter Blues (Rehearsal); You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go (Take 1, Remake); Shelter From The Storm (Take 1); Buckets of Rain (Take 1); Tangled Up in Blue (Take 3, Remake); Buckets of Rain (Take 2); Shelter From The Storm (Take 2); Shelter From The Storm (Take 3); Shelter From The Storm (Take 4).
CD 4: You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go (Take 1, Remake 2); You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go (Take 2, Remake 2); Buckets of Rain (Take 1, Remake); Buckets of Rain (Take 2, Remake); Buckets of Rain (Take 3, Remake); Buckets of Rain (Take 4, Remake); Up to Me (Take 1, Remake); Up to Me (Take 2, Remake); Buckets of Rain (Take 1, Remake 2); Buckets of Rain (Take 2, Remake 2); Buckets of Rain (Take 3, Remake 2); Buckets of Rain (Take 4, Remake 2); If You See Her, Say Hello (Take 1, Remake); Up to Me (Take 1, Remake 2); Up to Me (Take 2, Remake 2); Up to Me (Take 3, Remake 2); Buckets of Rain (Rehearsal); Meet Me in the Morning (Take 1, Remake); Meet Me in the Morning (Take 2, Remake); Buckets of Rain (Take 5, Remake 2).
CD 5: Tangled Up in Blue (Rehearsal and Take 1, Remake 2); Tangled Up in Blue (Take 2, Remake 2); Tangled Up in Blue (Take 3, Remake 2); Simple Twist of Fate (Take 2, Remake); Simple Twist of Fate (Take 3, Remake); Up to Me (Rehearsal and Take 1, Remake 3); Up to Me (Take 2, Remake 3); Idiot Wind (Rehearsal and Takes 1-3, Remake); Idiot Wind (Take 4, Remake); Idiot Wind (Take 4, Remake) – with organ overdub; You’re a Big Girl Now (Take 1, Remake 2); Meet Me in the Morning (Take 1, Remake 2); Meet Me in the Morning (Takes 2-3, Remake 2).
CD 6: You’re a Big Girl Now (Takes 3-6, Remake 2); Tangled Up in Blue (Rehearsal and Takes 1-2, Remake 3); Tangled Up in Blue (Take 3, Remake 3); MINNEAPOLIS: Idiot Wind; You’re a Big Girl Now; Tangled Up in Blue; Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts; If You See Her, Say Hello.