Years Later! Bob Dylan’s Tracks Gloriously Bloody
by Ron Rosenbaum
What could be better? A major Dylan moment in the culture. And a new Dylan
mystery to obsess over.
The moment: Christopher Ricks’ book (Dylan’s Visions of Sin), hailed
by Jonathan Lethem in a dazzling Sunday Times Book Review cover
story, gives Dylan’s literary stature the imprimatur of the Oxford Professor
of Poetry, for those who still had their doubts. (And helps put last year’s
profound embarrassment—that Seinfeld alum’s dimwit Dylan film,
Masked and Anonymous—deeper into the oblivion it so richly deserves.)
I tend to agree with Tim Riley (in Slate) that great songs are a
different (not lesser) sort of art than poems; like theater, they are meant
to be heard as well as read, heard as music, and it can be reductive to
think of them only as poetry. But Mr. Ricks’ work is filled with
offhand Empsonian brilliance, uncanny erudition and a belief in literary
value that will, hopefully, finally shut up the poorly read types who waste
time questioning whether Dylan’s works have earned the "right" to be called
poetry. What a useless argument: Of course they have earned the right,
but we have the right to think to them as songs as well.
Other aspects of this particular Dylan Moment: the apotheosis of Blood on
the Tracks as THE quintessential Dylan album. A consecration signaled by
an entire book devoted to the making of the album (A Simple Twist of Fate),
told mostly from the point of view of the session players who backed up Bob
An apotheosis paradoxically re-enforced by the selection of Blood on the
Tracks as the one Dylan album to be attacked in an entertaining new
anthology, Kill Your Idols, in which younger rock critics seek to
slaughter the sacred cows of older rock critics.
And then there was the "Blood on the Tracks Project," a concert
celebrating the 30th anniversary of the album by a group of younger
musicians who admired the tracks on Blood. (One of them, Mary Lee
Kortes, had a surprise success with a track-for-track cover of the entire
album that she recorded at the downtown club Arlene’s Grocery. Ms. Kortes’
cover is a fascinating effort. I’d always thought of Blood as the
ultimate Sad Guy album, but hearing the whole thing sung by a woman made it
suddenly seem a less parochial document.)
It was the concert that triggered my obsession with the lingering mystery of
Blood on the Tracks: the "lost" song left off the album, to my mind
one of the greatest Dylan songs, the missing link, the skeleton key to
Blood on the Tracks: "Up to Me."
"Up to Me" is back—well, back on my mind, at least. I’ve written about my
obsession with the song in these pages before: It’s a thrilling,
exhilarating epic that (uncharacteristically for Dylan) ruefully—but
joyfully—celebrates taking responsibility rather than placing blame. But
I’ve discovered a new mystery involving the song. O.K., he left it off
Blood on the Tracks—but why, for 30 years, according to all available
evidence, has Dylan refused to sing this song in public? What has made it
the redheaded stepchild of the Dylan repertoire?
Needless to say, being redheaded myself, I have a theory. But first let me
talk about the restoration of "Up to Me" in the context of the coronation,
you might say, of Blood on the Tracks. When I learned a couple months
ago (from Dylan aficionado Robert Levin) that there was going to be a
30th-anniversary concert for Blood on the Tracks, I had this idea: I
would write a column pleading with the concert organizers to include "Up to
Me," the orphaned masterpiece left off the album, in the program. This was,
it seemed to me, a make-or-break moment for "Up to Me": Would its greatness
be recognized, and would it be reunited with the rest of Blood on the
Tracks? Or would it continue to wander in the limbo of the lost,
apocryphal Dylan songs, an anomaly included only on his Biograph
compilation, with no connection to its origin on Blood on the Tracks?
But then I found out that they were a step ahead of me. David Spelman, the
producer and artistic director of the concert, I learned, had already made a
decision to include "Up to Me." Later, after the concert—a memorable evening
at Merkin Concert Hall on June 29—Spelman e-mailed me to say he’d never
heard "Up to Me" until very recently, when someone sent him outtakes of the
song from the Blood on the Tracks sessions, and he realized it was "a
Mr. Spelman also disclosed that there was some backstage drama over "Up to
Me" the night of the concert—it almost didn’t make it onto the
program after all. Mary Lou Lord was supposed to sing it, but lost her voice
the day of the concert and, at the last minute, they called upon Marc
Anthony Thompson (a.k.a. the "Chocolate Genius"), who was already on the
program, to do a song he’d never sung before. A major challenge, since "Up
to Me" consists of some dozen complicated verses. Watching the concert, not
knowing it was the first time that Mr. Thompson had performed the song, I
would never have guessed it—his slow, jazzy take on it was that good.
Anyway, it was after I learned that "Up to Me" was going to be included that
the mystery crystallized for me. Surfing Dylan sites, I came upon a list of
songs that Dylan had never done live in concert, a list that included "Up to
Me." So there wasn’t even a live bootleg—the song was beyond bootlegging.
There were just the outtakes from the Blood on the Tracks
recording-session tapes, one of which surfaced on Biograph. What’s up
Before I get to my Wild Conjecture about "Up to Me," let me step back and
examine the Blood on the Tracks moment.
Is the consensus that has crystallized (congealed?) about Blood—that
it is THE Dylan album, the very peak of his art, against which all the rest
must be measured—justified? I’m not sure I completely agree. I’m more a
Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, Live 1966, Hard
Rain, Robbie Robertson and Rolling Thunder
searing-electric-guitar-period Dylan fan. Sometimes I wonder whether
Blood on the Tracks is a bit like "Lay, Lady, Lay" and "Born in the
U.S.A."—the favorite Dylan and Springsteen songs for people who don’t really
get Dylan and Springsteen.
Sometimes I think Blood on the Tracks is E-Z-listening Dylan. I mean,
there are clunkers on Blood: I just refuse to concede that "Lily,
Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts" is much more than an overextended pastiche,
or that "Buckets of Rain" isn’t just leaden whimsy.
I know it’s a risk saying this. You risk the wrath of the "Bob-olaters," a
term I coined in my critique of Masked and Anonymous (see "Bob Dylan
Undone" in The Observer, July 28, 2003)—an analogy to those
indiscriminate Shakespeareans, the "bard- olaters." The Bob-olaters have
reached the point where they can’t bring themselves to say that Bob has ever
done anything less than sublimely perfect, and it’s our job to point out
just how perfect everything he’s done is. That is, if you want access to the
Dylan organization’s resources—maybe even a nod from Bob—and want to avoid
becoming, as I have, a leper in Bob-land.
That’s why it was refreshing to see someone try to debunk Blood in
Kill Your Idols. It’s just unfortunate that the chosen debunker took
such a limited, literal-minded point of view in his critique: The words
don’t always make sense! They’re ambiguous! Dylan contradicts
himself! He doesn’t even tell us what finally happens to the relationship!
(The fallacy that sees everything through the lens of rumors about Dylan’s
marriage and assumes that all the songs are "about" the same people or the
same relationship.) Perhaps it’s because the writer works in an ad agency,
where he must have learned to prefer the absence of ambiguity in
Still, cult-like worship of every word Dylan wrote or sung may be worse: It
does a disservice to the many genuinely astonishing peaks of his
achievement. It can’t all be peaks, guys—not without some valleys in
But then there are times I realize how wrong this caviling is, times when
nothing but Blood on the Tracks—Blood on the Tracks played
repeatedly, obsessively—will do. It’s like Gatsby in that respect: an
American classic, a romantic icon which—every time you think you must
have overrated it in retrospect—you experience it again and realize there’s
even more to it than you realized.
And then there’s "Up to Me," the unheard music, the missing track from
Blood on the Tracks. The mystery of "Up to Me" begins here in New York
City in September 1974, when Dylan recorded 12 songs for Blood on the
Tracks. Only 10 made it onto the "test-pressing" that Columbia was about
to mass-produce and release. "Up to Me" was dropped from the test-pressing.
And then, just before its scheduled release, Dylan decided to re-record much
of the album in his native Minnesota. It was this version that was
eventually released and almost immediately hailed as a unique,
self-lacerating, heartbreaking, remorse-inducing, anger ’n’ agony–venting
"Up to Me" was omitted from that one, too. A whole mythology has grown up
about the unreleased New York versions of some of the Blood on the Tracks
songs (such as "You’re a Big Girl Now," "Tangled up in Blue" and "Idiot
Wind"), how they supposedly cut even deeper than their counterparts on the
Minnesota release. One of the great disappointments of my life was to
finally hear the New York "test-pressing" and find myself underwhelmed by
the hype, under-impressed by the differences.
In fact, a far more important distinction is the absence from both
versions of "Up to Me." Why was a song so great omitted? Why has it survived
despite that? Sure, it survived on the margins, but some people just knew.
Roger McGuinn, the founder of the Byrds and a great Dylan interpreter and
friend, knew. I’ll never forget the first time I heard "Up to Me,"
when somebody played me a tape of Mr. McGuinn’s ecstatic electric version of
the song on Cardiff Rose, one of his solo albums.
I remember thinking, "What the … ?! This may be the greatest Dylan song I’ve
never heard, maybe the greatest Dylan song I’ve ever heard." Or
something like that. Standing alone, without any reference to Blood on
the Tracks, it had that casual, tossed-off, bitter and joyful anthemic
genius that make "Positively 4th Street" and "Like a Rolling Stone" such
I know this will really outrage the Bob-olaters, but I still like Roger
McGuinn’s version even better than Dylan’s own version—at least the
one with his Blood on the Tracks backup band. Maybe because Mr.
McGuinn does it as an electric rave-up, while the Blood backup
band—though capable of beautiful melancholy—can sound too mopey at times for
material like this. McGuinn’s exhilarating rock sensibility makes it an
ecstatic anthem about the sometimes romantic, sometimes tragic sense of
possibility. It makes you wish Dylan would re-record it himself with
McGuinn or Robbie Robertson. But that’s the mystery: Why won’t he give "Up
to Me" the glorious multiple afterlives that his live performances give his
other great songs?
I hope he hasn’t listened to the rock-critic consensus. With a few
exceptions, most Dylan writer types have ignored or marginalized "Up to Me."
I attribute it, again, to Bob-olatry: the inability to believe the Master is
capable of making anything but absolutely perfect choices, and that our job
is to explain why they are so perfect. So any decision Dylan makes—such as
leaving "Up to Me" off Blood on the Tracks—must have been prompted by
his impeccably sublime wisdom.
You can see this reasoning in its most misguided form in A Simple Twist
of Fate, that book on the making of Blood on the Tracks. It’s a
strange hybrid of a book by two authors that combines the recollections of
the session musicians from the New York and Minnesota Blood recording
sessions (such as Buddy Cage, who was there to play pedal steel guitar at
the June 29 concert), interlarded with the exegesis of a British rock
critic. The latter fellow goes out of his way to slag off "Up to Me" to
prove that the All Wise and Powerful Bob always made the right choice.
The first time it’s mentioned, we’re told that "Up to Me" is "effectively
the same tune as ‘Shelter From the Storm,’ with a different lyric."
In fact, it’s the brilliant mirror image of that song. "Shelter" is all
about desperate dependence on a woman or women: "I came in from the
wilderness, a creature void of form / ‘Come in,’ she said / ‘I’ll give you,
shelter from the storm.’"
Set next to "Up to Me," "Shelter from the Storm" might be called "Up to
Her." Big diff.
Then we’re told that "Shelter from the Storm" was "chosen instead of ‘Up to
Me,’ whose tune was strikingly similar. It’s not hard to see why: With its
references to blame, betrayal, and regret, ‘Up to Me’ would just have
prolonged the reproachful mood of the album, whereas ‘Shelter from the
Storm’ brings a more considered, reflective quality to the song cycle’s
concluding stages, leading smoothly into the sense of closure imparted by
the recently written ‘Buckets of Rain.’"
Um, excuse me—it’s hard to imagine anything so wrongheaded about everything.
Don’t you love the phony gentility of the "considered, reflective quality"
attributed to "Shelter"? Especially when it’s off by about 180 degrees:
dazzling, puzzling, jagged disjunctions are the burden of that song.
And then there’s the praise for the tediously casual "Buckets of Rain," with
its "sense of closure": Come on! "Closure," that tired grief
counselor’s cliché, is the last thing you get or want from Blood on the
Tracks. Then we’re informed that "Up to Me" "confuses matters, leaving
the narrator’s attitude toward what are clearly life-shattering events far
too coded and unresolved." Can’t have that! Death to all unresolvedness! (Of
course, that would mean the death of most great literature). Give us
certainty instead, however false to life and art.
Sorry for the vituperation, but I feel strongly about this question—I feel
that this sort of misconception about "Up to Me" must be countered if the
orphaned song is to be restored to its proper place in the Dylan realm.
What is that place? Well, for one thing, I think it is one of those songs
that marked an important stylistic shift in Dylan’s songwriting, from the
psychedelic surrealism of Highway 61 and Blonde on Blonde.
From the feverish and glittering "wild mercury sound" (as Dylan once
described it to me in an interview) to something less hectic and at once
more grave and comic. (The comedy of gravity? Somewhere over gravity’s
A shift from a surrealism of image ("Now the bricks lay on Grand Street /
Where the neon madmen climb … " from "Stuck Inside of Mobile," for instance)
to the casual narrative surrealism of Blood on the Tracks and
thereafter. In "Up to Me," you get the Raymond Chandleresque ("Oh, the Union
Central is pullin’ out and the orchids are in bloom / I’ve only got me one
good shirt left and it smells of stale perfume. / In fourteen months I’ve
only smiled once and I didn’t do it consciously, / Somebody’s got to find
your trail / I guess it must be up to me") juxtaposed with the Raymond
Carveresque ("Well, Dupree came in pimpin’ tonight to the Thunderbird Café /
Crystal wanted to talk to him, I had to look the other way … ") to the
comical/metaphysical ("We heard the Sermon on the Mount and I knew it was
too complex … "). By the way: "In fourteen months I’ve only smiled once and
I didn’t do it consciously": Is that great or what?
Each compressed five-line vignette in the song is called to order by the
concluding rueful, joyful line, "I guess it must be up to me" or some
variation. It’s Dylan’s way of returning to the pleasures of narrative. It’s
his way of transcending complicatedness for complexity. Going from the
gloriously messy absurdity of Blonde on Blonde to a different kind
of absurdity, the absurdity embedded in ordinary language and cliché—one
that is conveyed not with linguistic pyrotechnics but with parable-like
I know I’m not going to succeed in doing justice to the beautiful,
liberating spirit of this song; you’ll have to hear it yourself. That’s all
I’m asking, that’s all I really want to do: return it to the repertoire, get
more people to cover it if Dylan won’t do it again himself (which is what
I’d really love to see happen).
And why won’t Dylan do it? Here’s where my Wild Conjecture comes in. What if
"Up to Me" had something to do with the tragic death of his friend and
rival, Richard Fariña? Many of you may be familiar with the Dylan/Fariña
relationship from David Hajdu’s lovely study, Positively 4th Street.
A book about the exhilarating period in the 60’s when Dylan was seeing Joan
Baez, while Joan’s sister Mimi Baez married the musician and novelist
Richard Fariña. A tale which makes Fariña something like a Marlowe figure to
Dylan’s Shakespeare—the wild, doomed genius that Dylan was both inspired by
and threatened by. (I’m comparing the relationships—not saying that
Dylan is an equal of Shakespeare.) Hajdu’s story, you’ll recall, comes to a
close when Fariña dies young in a motorcycle accident just two months before
Dylan survives his notorious, life-changing motorcycle-accident brush
with death. Survivor guilt, envy that Fariña made the bolder (if less
successful) challenge to death—who knows what mixture of emotions such a
fate might have evoked. "If we never meet again," he begins the last verse
of "Up to Me." He knew they never would.
Far-fetched? Some will recall the title of Richard Fariña’s only published
novel: Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. "Up to me"! Dylan’s
song captures the spirit of Fariña’s novel perhaps all too well.
Like I said, it’s a wild conjecture, but perhaps the song was a kind of
posthumous tribute that still brings up unbearably complicated feelings for
Dylan, and that’s why he dropped it from Blood on the Tracks (perhaps
the title evokes the blood on the tracks of Fariña’s motorcycle). And
perhaps that’s why he won’t sing it again.
I could be wrong, but I figure no one else is likely to make such a
connection. So I guess it must be up to me.