Monday 10 December 2018

Blood On The Tracks: The end of love saw Bob Dylan at his most personal

The release of Dylan's out-takes from Blood On The Tracks only serve to show why this is his most painful album ever

Bob's family in the early Seventies: Bob and Sara Dylan, Anna in her father's arms and Sam in his mother's arms. Jesse Dylan had by this stage learned to stand alone
Bob's family in the early Seventies: Bob and Sara Dylan, Anna in her father's arms and Sam in his mother's arms. Jesse Dylan had by this stage learned to stand alone
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Looking like a Mississippi riverboat gambler as he approached the stage to receive the MusiCares Person of the Year 2015 award, Robert Allen Zimmerman delivered a wonderful acceptance speech that ended thus after 30 glorious, madcap minutes: "I'm going to put an egg in my shoe and beat it."

Eggs in your shoe being eggs, there probably isn't enough time in the world to sit down and actually listen to the out-takes in chronological order of every track from the 1974 recording sessions of Blood On The Tracks, released on January 20, 1975... But that's probably what I'll do over Christmas.

Find time for 12 different takes of You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go, and nine versions of Idiot Wind. I'll also find time for a take of Tangled Up In Blue.

And because this is a Bob Dylan review, I will continue the theme by saying I'll also find time to hear the brooding troubadour who grew up in Eisenhower-era Hibbing, Minnesota, a grown-up Huckleberry Finn, sing of real-life pain on Shelter From The Storm: "Now there's a wall between us/ Something there's been lost."

Precisely why I will find six hours of my life over Crimbo is primarily because it is Bob Dylan. And listening to these 87 tracks on the new six-CD deluxe edition of More Blood, More Tracks: The Bootleg Series Vol. 14 will give more insight into how Bob Dylan paints (complete with imperfections) his masterpieces than any writer - including Bob Dylan - ever could.

It is best not to believe anything out of the mouth of Bob Dylan unless, of course, he sings it. Dylan's claim in his 2004 memoir Chronicles that the lyrics on Blood On The Tracks were inspired by Anton Chekhov short stories should be taken with a pinch of something white and crystalline as the often self-flagellating soliloquies on Blood On The Tracks were less about the tales of an 18th Century Russian playwright and more about Bob's nine-year marriage to Sara Lownds, dying painfully before his eyes. Their son Jakob described Blood On The Tracks as "my parents talking". The bitterness in Bob when he sings on If You See Her Say Hello, "If you're making love to her, kiss her for the kid" is almost too much to listen to. Imagine what it was like for Jakob.

So, to get a chance to peer behind the curtain and see the great master at work - on the fly, stopping, reworking, changing his mind, changing the verse, changing the beat, adding this, taking out that - is worth the price of the entrance fee alone, for that intimacy.

Not least when the emotional subject matter is so wrenching, so personal. And all the while holding back something of himself - or "how to suggest only shadows of my possible self", as he puts it in Chronicles.

Blood On The Tracks is not only one of the greatest Bob Dylan albums, it is also one of the greatest albums ever... an exercise in pain and agonising loneliness, regret and hurt.

A version of the album was recorded in New York scheduled for late December 1974 release. Not long before the record was due at the pressing plant, David Zimmerman heard the songs and suggested to his famous brother that Blood On The Tracks, as it was, was doomed to commercial and artistic failure.

Bob heeded the warning, withdrew the album from the schedules and re-recorded five of the 10 songs in Minneapolis the week after Christmas with a swiftly put together gang of local musicians who added a looser aura to the songs; others felt they made a holy hames of the previous versions, preferring the earlier New York sessions.

Jon Pareles, writing in in the New York Times believed, perhaps rightly, that "in the end, Dylan knew best. The Minneapolis versions unleashed the suppressed anger in Idiot Wind and brought the momentum of a band to the long quasi-narratives of songs like Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts. The New York versions of the songs were monochromatic and slightly forbidding, and they played down Dylan's dry humour."

You decide. Not that Dylan cares either way. He is too busy gigging somewhere, reminding the world, as he did on his 2012 album Tempest: "I ain't dead yet. My bell still rings, I keep my fingers crossed like the early Roman kings."

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