The Great Albums

Music of America past, present and future

June 15, 2003


As a precocious young punk in the early 1980s, I didn't have much use for Bob Dylan. "That folkie crap" just didn't stand up in comparison to the Ramones, the Sex Pistols and the Clash--or so I thought.

The older and wiser singer in my garage band at the time set my thinking straight with two gifts on the occasion of my 19th birthday: a videocassette of "Don't Look Back," D.A. Pennebaker's classic documentary following Dylan across Europe in 1965, and a virgin vinyl copy of "Blonde on Blonde," the singer's first epic rock record, recorded in Nashville the following year.

Skeptical at first, I promised to give both the cursory once-over. What I discovered was an artist who sneered and snarled with more venom and conviction than Johnny Rotten, and finally it dawned on me: Dylan was a punk, in attitude if not necessarily in musical style, though it was hard to deny that "Blonde on Blonde" rocked most righteously.

"The closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind was on individual bands in the 'Blonde on Blonde' album," Dylan said in 1978. "It's that thin, that wild mercury sound. It's metallic and bright gold, with whatever that conjures up."

BOB DYLAN 'Blonde on Blonde' (1966)

The track list:

1. "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35"

2. "Pledging My Time"

3. "Visions of Johanna"

4. "One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)"

5. "I Want You"

6. "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again"

7. "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat"

8. "Just Like a Woman"

9. "Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine"

10. "Temporary Like Achilles"

11. "Absolutely Sweet Marie"

12. "4th Time Around"

13. "Obviously 5 Believers"

14. "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands"

Half a year after causing a schism in the folk world by going electric and hot on the heels of the searing "Highway 61 Revisited" ("the first Dylan record to posit protest as a way of life," in the words of critic Tim Riley), the singer and songwriter began recording his next album in New York with the backing of his new touring group, the Hawks. But he couldn't seem to find his groove.

It was producer Bob Johnston who suggested moving the sessions to Nashville. There Dylan formed an accomplished ensemble of local session men (people like drummer Kenny Buttrey, guitarist Wayne Moss and bassist Henry Strezelecki, who had played on hits by the likes of Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley), augmented by two of his New York cronies, organist Al Kooper and Hawks guitarist Robbie Robertson.

Dylan-worshipping critics always obsess over the lyrics, but it was the sound of the album that hooked me in--a brilliant tour through the music of America past, present and future, touching on everything from Chicago blues to country waltzes to New Orleans marches, all delivered with a voice that was full of rock 'n' roll passion, and the ferocity, scorn and lust of a man at the end of his rope.

"Nobody has ever captured the sound of 3 a.m. better than that album," is how Kooper sums up "Blonde on Blonde" in Howard Sounes' Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan. "Nobody, even Sinatra, gets it as good."

To achieve this vibe, Dylan insisted on recording live, and Johnston removed all of the sound baffles separating the musicians so that they could record in a circle, playing off one another during a series of gloriously sloppy extended jams. Most of the 14 tracks were captured on the first or second take, shortly after Dylan finished writing them. "The musicians played cards, I wrote out a song, we'd do it, they'd go back to their game and I'd write out another song," the artist said in 1968.

For all of the parsing of his lyrics, the thing that's most often overlooked is that Dylan is having fun. "Well, Shakespeare, he's in the alley/With his pointed shoes and his bells/The judge, he holds a grudge/He's gonna call on you/But he's badly built and he walks on stilts/Watch out he don't fall on you/Fifteen jugglers, 15 jugglers/Five believers, five believers/All dressed like men/Tell your mama not to worry because/Yes, they're just my friends."

Dylan is playing with words as much for the way they sound as for what they mean--he originally planned to use a photo of some of his Beat poet heroes before opting for the slightly out-of-focus portrait that has become one of rock's most famous album covers. It's been suggested that the album title was a reference to bleached-blond beauty Edie Sedgwick, the Andy Warhol "superstar" with whom he was briefly infatuated, but Kooper reports that the name, like so many of Dylan's song titles and lyrical couplets, was just "free association and silliness."

In this spirit, the moment that epitomizes the album comes early in the first track, which bears the similarly absurdist title "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35." Over a delightfully ragged march (the loose feel was achieved by forcing all of the musicians to switch off from their regular instruments), Dylan opens the tune by singing, "Well, they'll stone you when you're trying to be so good/They'll stone you just like they said they would/They'll stone you when you're trying to go home/And they'll stone you when you're there all alone."

Between the third and fourth lines, he breaks character, unable to stifle a short but sardonic laugh. The song is at once a devilishly playful and unapologetic pro-drug anthem (one of rock's first, and most daring for the time, with its recurring refrain of "Everybody must get stoned"); a sarcastic and cautionary tale of how society demonizes outsiders and rebels (the line "They'll stone you when you're tryin' to keep your seat" can be heard as a reference to the bus protests in Montgomery, Ala.), and a giant, Dadaist joke.

The album continues to veer wildly between the silly, the serious and the surreal--sometimes all in the same song. But if there is one recurring theme at its heart, it isn't politics or spirituality (the topics the folkie purists hoped the sage would tackle), but something much more familiar yet elusive.

A romantic masquerading as a cynic, Dylan approaches the concept of love from several different angles, equating eroticism with spiritual transcendence in "Visions of Johanna"; pleading for satisfaction like a clumsy, hormone-crazed teen in "I Want You"; summoning his full powers of poetry as a tool for seduction in "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" (Dylanologists debate whether this one was about Joan Baez or his then-wife, Sara), and finally giving up with near-misogynistic disgust in "Just Like a Woman" and comic resignation in "Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine."

The swirl of musical and lyrical ideas is dizzying and nearly overwhelming; endless essays have been written and entire classes taught on the contents of this album. "As a grand cosmic farce, 'Blonde on Blonde' strings along half-baked plots and ramshackle discourse not only for the thrill of getting away with it--a key rock principle--but to demonstrate, like Picasso or Braque, how rife with implication nonsense can be made to sound, how seemingly slapdash methods can field unforeseen express vitality," Riley writes in Hard Rain: A Dylan Commentary.

Such vitality does not come without a price. Dylan had been pushing himself too hard and moving too fast for years, and on July 29, 1966, less than two months after the release of "Blonde on Blonde," he wiped out on a motorcycle near his manager Albert Grossman's house in upstate New York. Though it's now believed that the accident wasn't nearly as serious as it was built up to be at the time, it either prompted or was used to justify an 18-month sabbatical from public appearances.

Plenty of great music followed when Dylan returned to the spotlight, and he continues to deliver today at the age of 62. But while the attitude behind that laugh on "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" can still be glimpsed onstage and heard in the grooves of his latest recordings, it hasn't been present with such sustained force, vigor and brilliance since "Blonde on Blonde," the parting gift from the first phase of one of rock's most significant careers.