(Note: This, with a few minor changes, is a piece I wrote back in 1983 for a series my hometown paper, The Reading Eagle, ran entitled “Album Classics.”)
“I’m the first person who’ll put it to you and the last person who’ll explain it to you.”
–Bob Dylan, 1978
It’s kind of a don’t ask/won’t tell situation. You don’t ask, he won’t tell. And for those who did ask, more often than not, Bob Dylan has elected not to tell. At least not too much.
A clue to his press behavior was crystallized in the following exchange between the erudite Jonathan Cott and the enigmatic Dylan in a ’78 Rolling Stone interview:
Cott: I guess there’s no point in asking a magician how he does his tricks.
Elsewhere in their discussion, Dylan likened himself mediumistically to his mentor, Woody Guthrie, who said that he pulled songs out of the air.
“That meant,” said Dylan, “that they were already there and that he was tuned into them.”
Cott’s magician-parallel was a good one. Overall, Bob Dylan has been a musical magician–a singing sorcerer who has summoned up his own spirits, conjured songs out of the air, and transformed pieces of shiny black plastic into something indeed quite magical.
Like Blonde On Blonde.
“One of the most pleasing things about Blonde On Blonde,” wrote then-critic Jon Landau in a ’68 article for Crawdaddy magazine, “is that by shifting the focus from the impossible epics of earlier works to subjects which were closer to himself personally, Dylan was able to create a more powerful and lasting artistic tension than he ever was out of things like ‘With God On Our Side.’”
Blonde On Blonde was rock’s first double-album and the last album Dylan recorded before his breakneck pace of living climaxed with him literally breaking his neck in a motorcycle accident in July of ’66.
“At the time of my Blonde On Blonde album,” he later said, “I was going at a tremendous speed.” In life and, apparently, on his motorcycle, though he has never gone into much detail.
Dylanesque as it sounds, the album’s title was not a Zimmy (well, he did say we could call him that, didn’t he?) invention. As Dylan recollected—or failed to—in a ’69 Rolling Stone interview, “I don’t even recall exactly how it came up, but I do know it was all in good faith. It has to do with just the word. I don’t know who thought of that. I certainly didn’t.”
(While it may purely be coincidental, ever notice that the first letters acronymically spell BOB?)
Lyrically, musically, thematically and emotionally, Blonde On Blonde was a milestone in contemporary music. Dylan’s incomparable phrasing was played against the spare, soulful and eloquently simple (or simply eloquent) musical backing of Nashville Cat Charlie McCoy’s band, augmented by the likes of Al Kooper and Joe South.
Amusingly, the significance of the album’s kickoff, “Rainy Day Women Numbers 12 and 35,” wasn’t quite as high-minded as those who gleefully latched onto the catch-phrase “Everybody must get stoned.” Of course, the double-entendre is there. But if one listens to the verses of this Salvation Army-gone-awry number, clearly the song’s operative word “stoned” refers not to a euphoric condition, but rather to the act of being knocked, kicked, harassed, oppressed, criticized, slandered, maligned, beaten down or tangled up in blue.
Likewise, the “They” refers not to turned-on friends, but to those who wish ill will toward men (and women). In fact, the chorus is the only section of the song which can be (mis)interpreted as a paean to altered states. The smoky connotation doesn’t hold up beyond that.
(Dylan’s line, “They’ll stone you when you’re sent down in your grave,” rings forever true—evidence the heartfelt Mommie Dearest and Albert Goldman’s endearing The Lives of John Lennon.)
As for the cryptic title, Dylan psycho-analysts—preferring to sniff between the lines—failed to consider the possibility of a happenstance explanation. It has subsequently been revealed that Dylan either wrote or recorded (or both) the tune on a rainy day with two females, aged 12 and 35, present. Honest to Bob.
Similarly, “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” is “just about that,” admitted Dylan. “I think that’s something I mighta taken out of a newspaper. Mighta seen a picture of one in a department store window. There’s really no more to it than that. I know it can get blown up into some kind of illusion. But in reality, it’s no more than that. Just a leopard-skin pill-box. That’s all.”
“It balances on your head like a mattress balances on a bottle of wine,” sings Dylan of the millinery monstrosity. (Note the similarity of John Lennon’s guitar solo in “Yer Blues” to the stinging Dylan-fingered lead guitar licks of this blues-rocker.)
“Stuck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again” is inspired nonsense—an irresistible, funny, surreal tour de farce. Displaying his absurdist agility and a superlative vocal, Dylan delivers such wonderful lines as:
Shakespeare, he’s in the alley
With his pointed shoes and his bells
Speaking to some French girl
Who says she knows me well
And I would send a message
To find out if she’s talked
But the post office has been stolen
And the mailbox is locked
When Ruthie says come see her
In her honky-tonk lagoon
Where I can watch her waltz for free
‘Neath her Panamanian moon
And I say, “Aw come on now
“You know you know about my debutante”
And she says, “Your debutante just knows what you need
“But I know what you want”
While Dylan’s unpolished and rough-around-the-etches harmonica playing has been disparaged by some over the years (virtuoso mouth organist Larry Adler felt his blowing and sucking, well, sucked), many more consider it beautifully soulful and spirited. As such, it lends an ingenuous charm to the songs so graced.
“Temporary Like Achilles” marries the two predominant elements of the album; it is a love song performed in the blues idiom. Love, lost or found, is all around Blonde On Blonde: “Just Like a Woman,” “I Want You,” “Visions of Johanna,” “Sooner or Later (One of Us Must Know),” and the epic “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” another gift from the gods.
“(‘Sad-Eyed Lady’) started out as just a little thing,” said Dylan, “but I got carried away somewhere along the line. I just sat down at a table and started writing. At the session itself….I just started writing and I couldn’t stop. After a period of time, I forgot what it was all about, and I started trying to get back to the beginning (laughs).”
Speaking of his work in general, Dylan stated, “The words are just as important as the music. There would be no music without the words. Indeed, despite its haunting melody, the lyrics of the 12-minute “Sad-Eyed Lady” (which accounts for one of the LP’s four sides) stand on their own as gorgeous poetry:
With your silhouette when the sunlight dims
Into your eyes where the moonlight swims
And your matchbook songs and your gypsy hymns
Who among them would try to press you
In The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, Bob Dylan’s legacy is summed up thusly: “Bob Dylan’s importance to the development of rock is rivaled only by that of The Beatles. His influence went much further than the innovative qualities of his lyrics, his semivisionary songs effecting a change in the consciousness of an entire generation and opening up a general awareness of attitudes, both personal and political, that, without him, might still be stifled and denied today.”
If by some simple twist of fate you’ve never heard Blonde On Blonde—whether you’re too young to remember it or you’ve spent the mid-‘60s in a coma—by all that is wholly superior, listen to this magnum opus. Everybody must get milestoned.
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