Thursday, September 8, 2011

Dylan Album Project: Blonde on Blonde

Blonde On Blonde (1966)

As far as I know, this was the first double album in rock, and it was certainly the first double album by a mainstream artist. White it is, like the best double albums, a hodge-podge of styles, there is nothing so experimental as, say, “Revolution No. 9,” which means that the album isn’t marred by any obvious failures. Some days “Obviously Five Believers” seems a bit repetitive, “Pledging My Time” is plodding, or the side-long “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” a bit overly indulgent, but then “Temporary Like Achilles,” “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” or “Visions of Johanna” comes on and all is forgiven. While it isn’t my favorite of Dylan’s electric albums, it certainly does feature the apex of what he called his “thin, wild mercury sound,” that melancholy joy that rises up from the swamp of organ when the guitar lines pierce through it. Sadly, this was the first album since Freewheelin’ not to have self-penned liner notes filled with strange visions. Instead, the gatefold cover featured a long picture of Dylan in a coat – the same coat he’d wear on John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline – and the inside pictured what seemed to be people at a party, though the pictures of the women at the party disappeared after the album’s initial pressing.

Best Song: (Sooner or Later) One of Us Must Know – The first of the album’s five singles, and its second least successful, “One of Us Must Know” was the only song cut in New York, though it is believed that a minority of The Band plays on it. The song seems to change its attitude every few bars, alternately seething, sweet, bitter and bucolic.

Worst Song: Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 – This song isn’t so bad as it is silly. It features some interesting, complex chords that Dylan wouldn’t use again until “Love and Theft. Also, I still contend that, at least on one level, it is about stoning sinners to death, which is a more interesting interpretation than that it is about weed. Whatever it is about, the party-like atmosphere seems a bit sardonic, as though Dylan is really saying no one should get stoned. I have heard two potentially apocryphal stories about this song’s formulation, so I will combine them here. A 35-year old woman who was kind of obsessed with Dylan tried to break into Columbia Studio A in Nashville, where recording was taking place. She had brought her 12-year old daughter with her, and both of them were stoned out of their minds. Supposedly, Dylan was annoyed and angrily had security escort them out before writing this song about how all stoned people want you to be stoned too. To record it, he decided it would be interesting if he just described the chord progression then got them high and had them attempt to play on an instrument they weren’t very familiar with. The musicians, who were normally a bunch of straits but who had smoked up for the session, fiddled around for awhile on the instruments. When one asked Dylan when they were going to make a real attempt at the song. Dylan told them they had just recorded it. He overdubbed his vocals later. I think this story is false for two reasons: Dylan doesn’t really do overdubs and though the song sounds sloppy it sounds too intentionally sloppy for it to be because it is a bunch of baked stiffs who don’t know their instruments. That said, funny story, and the first half might be true.

Best Outtake: She’s Your Lover Now – This is from the early aborted sessions Dylan did with The Band. No complete takes of the song exist from those sessions. As soon as a note was flubbed, Dylan broke down the whole thing. This version breaks down halfway through the last verse. By the time Dylan decided The Band was not a good match for him in the studio, he was more excited by the other new material he was working on. It’s a shame, too, because this may have been the best song on Blonde On Blonde and I’m sure it would have been featured in each category below. By the time The Band would finally work with Dylan in the studio on a project that saw release, several of the songs would be half-cooked and most of the arrangements would underestimate The Band’s abilities.

Notable live rendition: Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat – In Dylan’s 1966 sets the acoustic half of the show featured seven songs, including three from the as-yet-unreleased Blonde On Blonde and none from before he went electric. The electric set featured some songs off of his acoustic albums refigured in order to piss off the folkies who were booing him. Then there was this, the one song off of “Blonde On Blonde” to show up on those lists, and Robbie Robertson tears up the lead guitar in all its ragged, barrelhouse glory.

Rhymes: freeze/sneeze/jeez/knees; showed/corrode/flowed/road/owed/loads/explodes (1-2 from “Visions of Johanna”); interrupt/cup (“I Want You”); debutante/want (“Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again”); see/me/Marie/be/penitentiary/agree/key/company/balcony (“Absolutely Sweet Marie”)

Images: “jelly-faced women;” “the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face;” (1-2 from “Visions of Johanna”); “your scorpion who crawls across your circus floor” (“Temporary Like Achilles”); “geranium kiss;” “sheet metal memory of Cannery Row” (4-5 from “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”)

Axioms: “Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues” (“Visions of Johanna”); “The preacher looked so baffled when I asked him why he dressed with twenty pounds of headlines stapled to his chest” (“Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again”); “Baby can’t be blessed ‘til she finally sees that she’s like all the rest” (“Just Like A Woman”); “I’m helpless, like a rich man’s child” (“Temporary Like Achilles”); “To live outside the law you must be honest” (“Absolutely Sweet Marie”)

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