Rock’s Back Pages that lists their new posts and promotes what they want to promote. Since most of my music writing has long been part of their excellent archive, I was surprised to see something new of mine on yesterday’s list, and even more surprised that it was a review of Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde written for the NME in 1976. 1976? What the fuck was I doing reviewing a ten year-old album? Things could get pretty weird around that paper back them, but this was kinda singular. A tenth anniversary appraisal? I couldn’t even remember writing it. But then I checked the issue date and all was explained. It was December 25th – a Christmas issue when editors struggle to fill pages while nothing is going on except drunkenness and shopping. So here’s this odd blast from the 20th century. It’s a little longer than the usual Doc 40 post, but what the hell. Enjoy.
"IT'S AN almost impossible opening sentence. There can't be anyone reading this who needs to be introduced to this record. It is certainly Bob Dylan's finest hour, and there are less than a handful of other works that can seriously challenge it for the title of the greatest rock album of all time. (And it was also, of course, the first serious rock music double-album.) Shortly after the idea of this project came up, a bunch of us were sitting in the pub. All kinds of ideas were thrown about. Pieces of information were laid out on the table. Theories flowed almost as fast as the beer.
Did anyone know that the mono mix was appreciably different? Did Dylan sit up nights in the Chelsea Hotel writing the songs, or was the rumour true that he cobbled it together right there in the CBS studios in Nashville? What was the man's drug consumption at the time?
The speculation and the technical secrets only led to one single ultimate question. Where was Bob Dylan's head at when he put down these tracks? We all know now that that is the question, and we also know it just isn't going to be answered. For ten years there have been books, articles, pamphlets, mimeographed broadsheets, wall graffiti and a million conversations worrying at the question like terriers round a rat.
One of the main problems about approaching Blonde On Blonde after all this time is the temptation to take the whole thing far too reverently. It's become entwined with the experience of so many of us, all the trips, the jagged late nights, the girls, the friends, that it's almost impossible to separate the music from the decade of one's own stacked-up responses. The only profit that could possibly come from the whole exercise would be to pin down what the initial impact was. I looked up some of the contemporary reviews and comments. There was a lot of verbiage about "a contemporary poet", how Dylan "knew", how he was "telling it like it is".The one thing they said nothing about was the music.
This kind of loose talk still goes on today. (Of course, the clichés are new.) It comes trippingly from the pen. Shit, I've done it myself, more times than I care to remember. If Dylan was really "telling it like it is", we'd all know exactly what he was talking about. We wouldn't have been sifting through his symbolism, the rare interviews and even his garbage in the vain attempt to find his particular Rosebud. If we all knew, there wouldn't be any Michael Gray or A. J. Weberman, and everyone could put a precise definition on "The ladies that treat me kindly/and furnish me with tape."
So, if it's not the language that grabs you, maybe it's just the sound that gets you.
Could it be that Blonde On Blonde was one of those records like 'Heartbreak Hotel', 'Cathy's Clown' or 'Tracks Of My Tears' that bypassed the mind and got directly to the hairs on the back of your neck?
Well, Kooper's organ was oft copied, and the combination of guitars, harmonica and keyboard had a definite impact. In things like 'One Of Us Must Know' the ponderously, ascending cathedral chords do, at times, grab me by the gut in non-verbal uplift.
o, for that matter, do some deodorant commercials. If all of Dylan was in his voice and sound, we'd be treating Self Portrait with the same reverence. It ain't just the noise. There's a whole lot more to it than that. When Blonde On Blonde came, out, a lot of us had been with Dylan for some time. It wasn't anything radical and new.
We'd been sticked and carroted progressively into it. We'd followed an observant protest singer away from the externals of society and down a corridor of increasingly unresolved movie images. They had that real dreamlike quality (as opposed to Dali or Hollywood dream sequences) in which things understood gradually become confusing. The dream gave glimpses of heaven, right next door to the hints of nightmare. In a way, Blonde On Blonde was in the pits. It was the deepest shaft rock and roll had ever sunk in its journey to the centre of the psyche. Either consciously or unconsciously, Dylan performed a neat trick. He gave the illusion that through the time space of the double-album, he was finally stripping down his head, turning himself inside out so that we could actually see into the mind of this individual who had been throwing up such tantalising, familiar images.
We bought ourselves a ticket and sat down in the front row. While we watched like geeks, the whole thing was switched on us. We weren't watching Bob Dylan's interior movie. We were seeing a series of distorting mirrors. While trying to puzzle our way through the symbolism we were, in fact, being led through previously uncharted, often suppressed and frequently twisted passages of our own brains.
All Dylan gave us were some complex cat's cradles, uncompromising structural diagrams of the way relationships operate. (Although a lot of people tag Dylan as a social commentator, the great majority of his songs are about personal relationships, not those of society. This holds true for all the songs on Blonde On Blonde. They're love songs, if you like.) We took these relationship sketches and busily fitted them into our own frames of reference. I guess that was where all the trouble started. You've probably noticed how dope fiends claim he's singing about dope, homosexuals tell you they're gay love songs and women know for sure that they're all about women. I even met a paranoid once who claimed that 'Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands' contained the truth about the Kennedy assassination. Everyone fits Dylan into his own framework. Why exactly I'm not sure. Certainly the operation involves a certain amount of self-perception that wasn't quite the rage.
Maybe the response to Dylan at that time, both violent hostility and psychotic adulation, was the audience attempting to come to terms with some of the things they'd stumbled across in their own minds.
So Blonde On Blonde was a giant therapy group?
I had a feeling when this started that it might wind up far fetched. I really did try to keep it on the rails. But...
Anyhow, now I've come to this point we come to another version of the Big Question.
Was Dylan, the therapist, Machiavelli messing with our heads or just an unwilling catalyst? As I said earlier, that's the one we don't get an answer to.
Blonde On Blonde is a mnemonic for Bob."
The secret word is Infinity
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