After half the music world finished singing Bob Dylan songs in a famous one-shot concert at Madison Square Garden in 1992, Dylan and many of his colleagues kept the good times rolling through the wee small hours by repairing to Tommy Makem’s midtown restaurant.
At some point guitars came out and a song circle began.
When the guitar worked its way around to Dylan, as the late Liam Clancy told the tale, Bob declined. According to Clancy, the conversation went like this.
Dylan: “I don’t do that any more.”
Clancy: “Cut out that rock star — — ! Play a f — -ing song!”
How many people talk to Bob Dylan that way? There’s a chance, I’d say, that none is the number. If there are exceptions, I’m betting Liam Clancy was one of them. As Clancy tells it, Dylan took the guitar and played.
Whether Clancy’s was a precise recounting of that early morning minidrama, he got one part dead right: However many different things Bob Dylan may have been over the years, he has never not been a singer and songwriter.
We know he dislikes labels. Who doesn’t? At a 1965 San Francisco press conference, when someone tried to pin him down on “what you are,” he slipped away by saying, “I think of myself more as a song and dance man, y’know?’
We do, too, plus or minus the dance part. In any case, let’s agree he writes songs and he sings songs, and that’s the main reason why, over the last couple of weeks, I’ve fallen in love all over again with Blood on the Tracks.
Unlike in 1975, when I fell in love with the original album, this time it’s with More Blood, More Tracks, acoustic versions that Dylan recorded before he re-did the songs with the fuller instrumentation that became the Blood on the Tracks we all know.
More Blood, More Tracks, which for those keeping score at home is number 14 in Sony’s Dylan Bootleg Series, itself comes in two forms: a six-CD set with multiple out-takes of every song, and a single CD whose tracklist follows the original release and adds “Up To Me,” which Dylan left off.
My new affection is based on listening to the single CD. I’m going to need a minute before wading into 12 takes of “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.”
I should stress that I’ve never stopped listening to the original Blood on the Tracks. I’m not tired of it. I’ve never found anything wrong with it. As a thousand critics and millions of listeners have already noted, it’s a masterpiece. I was talking with a fellow Dylan fan last week who said it’s his favorite Dylan album. If it weren’t for Blonde On Blonde, it would probably be mine, too.
Blood is one of those records from which you never need a break and which you don’t ever need or expect to fully understand. After 43 years I may never figure out exactly what’s happening in “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” and I’ve made peace with that. I can say with some confidence that when they hang the perp less than 24 hours after the crime, we’re in a hard-core town.
There’s a library’s worth of high-toned literary analysis surrounding Blood on the Tracks, including Pete Hamill’s original liner notes. I wouldn’t be surprised if all that scholarly analysis had provided significant impetus toward Dylan eventually being awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.
Dylan has earned that level of academic analysis. But this new version of Blood on the Tracks doesn’t require an Ivy League symposium. It’s a great record because it has indelible melodies and incisive lyrics.
“Beauty walks a razor’s edge,” he sings in “Shelter From the Storm.” “Someday I’ll make it mine.”
Someday is here.
A nanosecond after the original Blood on the Tracks was released, fans started calling it a “breakup album.” It would have been just too coincidental if all these stark chronicles of trouble, love, heartbreak, memory, yearning and pain were unrelated to the fact he had just split from his real-life wife Sara. Sara, parenthetically, had been the inspiration for several earlier and sometimes happier but more often mysterious songs like “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”
In his book Chronicles, Dylan wrote that Blood on the Tracks is not a breakup album, that he was mostly riffing off some Chekhov stories he’d been reading.
With all due respect, of course it’s a breakup album. Whether it’s about Dylan’s own breakup or not, great chunks of it deal with two people uncoupling.
The caveat, a most important caveat, is that it’s not only a breakup album. It roams through the broader mortal experience, the human heart, the nature of relationships, the finality of loss and other stuff like the distortion of our lives by institutions.
Musically, these acoustic versions include five tracks with just Dylan on guitar and harmonica. On the other six tracks, Tony Brown adds an unobtrusive bass.
This makes them all sound different from the original Blood tracks, to about the same extent a live version of a song often sounds different from the recording. That said, what’s here isn’t even close to the total overhaul Dylan often gives his songs in concert.
Most tracks have few or minor lyrical variations. In “Shelter From the Storm,” there’s “no risk involved” instead of “little risk.” “Idiot Wind” gets the most revisions and if it’s not exactly angrier than the album version — that would be almost impossible — the acoustic recording pushes his vocal more to the front.
“Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” becomes slightly less of a freight train just because there’s not as much sheer sound. Fans will appreciate the fact this version includes the notorious 12th verse and are also likely to conclude Dylan was right to snip it out of the original release. That verse gives us a glimpse into how the Jack of Hearts is feeling, which is interesting but counterproductive. Let him keep all of his mystery. Kind of like, uh, Bob Dylan.
Similarly, the original Blood on the Tracks didn’t need “Up To Me.” Yet oddly, More Blood, More Tracks feels like it does. It’s a perfect fit and a perfect coda.
The softer “Buckets of Rain,” already the gentlest song on the record, plays even more clearly here as a love song. As in most Dylan love songs, naturally, that means love feels fragile, perhaps slightly out of reach.
The terrible truth that love can be wrenching shimmers across multiple tracks here, placing them solidly into the larger pantheon of Dylan love songs.
“If You See Her, Say Hello” echoes themes he was exploring a decade earlier in a song like “One Too Many Mornings” or “Boots of Spanish Leather.” They foreshadow songs a quarter century down the road, like “Mississippi.”
Staggeringly creative as Dylan is, he didn’t invent new themes. He just addresses them with a diamond cutter’s verbal precision and a clear, true sound that settles into your ear. Welcome back to Blood on the Tracks.
Like Dylan, we listeners can’t help it if we’re lucky.