I could write a million words. I really could. Not just on this album, obviously, but on the phenomenon of the human race that is Robert Allen Zimmerman. Lots of people don’t like him. Because he can’t sing. Bollocks to them, they’re morons. They’re the same people who say that Ringo was a crap drummer and Noel can’t play guitar. Sometimes virtuosity is not important. Maybe you should stop listening to people who chuck shit against a wall and just listen to words and melodies, because that is what makes a great song. And in the history of popular music, there has never been a greater exponent of the song. Not Lennon, McCartney, Ray Davies, Neil Young or Van Morrison.
Blood On The Tracks is Bob Dylan’s divorce album. He was at a low creative ebb in 1974, Planet Waves had (I think) been his lowest seller for quite a few years and he appeared to be coasting. He hadn’t toured since 1966 and his lyrics, once the inspiration for almost cultish adoration, had become rather lack-lustre, toothless. Where once he sang the head-spinningly brilliant litany of socio-political insults that is It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding, now he crooned of domestic bliss and farmyard animals. And in comparison to his run of six albums that started in 1963 with Freewheelin’ and burnt out three years later with Blonde On Blonde, arguably the hottest streak any musician has ever hit, at this point in his career he had released a string of average to awful records, with only John Wesley Harding and New Morning garnering anything more than a six out of ten review. So, in a classic shit or bust scenario, two things happened; firstly, he took up painting, which he claimed put him back in touch with his creative powers; and secondly, he started touring again, probably with a rocket up his arse having signed the biggest recording contract in history at that point. And obviously, he found himself knee-deep in groupies, drink and drugs within a very short time. Not unreasonably, his wife found this rather contrary to their wedding vows, and gave him the sack. And there is the premise of the greatest document of human relationships ever set to music.
It starts with Tangled Up In Blue. It’s like a drug hit. He tells a story of several years in less than six minutes. There’s a strip club, adultery, a spliff, a job fishing, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and a girl who sold everything she owned. It is a story beyond comparison, and arguably the best opening track of any album ever. You’ll notice here that the most famous bad singer of all time has actually found his voice, and he is no longer sneering as he had done so many times before. For the remainder of the album he sings with as much passion, conviction and melody as any soul singer, as much venom as a punk singer and as much eloquence as any poet you could ever hope to find.
It is an album that is not so much crafted as intuitive. The group of musicians Dylan assembled had been hand-picked over a period of time, he thought nothing of sacking session players within minutes if they couldn’t keep up with him. He was in deadly focus, and ruthlessly pursued his vision. There is a fascinating bootleg of the studio sessions called Blood On The Tapes, in which he is singing certain lyrics to the melodies of different songs on the album. It’s as if he knew he had something, he just couldn’t quite piece it together. But when he finally did, it was quite magnificent. It is an album of stark contrasts, the music switches between warm and aggressive, the words between hateful and regretful. Simple Twist Of Fate and Shelter From The Storm are gorgeously intimate songs about looking back wistfully on past relationships, and You’re A Big Girl Now and If You See Her, Say Hello are two of the most heartfelt confessionals of not being able to maintain a relationship you’ll ever hear. Indeed the latter may well be the saddest song in rock music’s entire cannon.
There are two great blues songs where Dylan actually shows his musician’s chops for once, Meet Me In The Morning and Buckets Of Rain, the latter featuring the line “Everything about you is bringing me misery.” There is the customary nine-minute storytelling-epic in Lily Rosemary and The Jack Of Hearts, and a wonderful throwaway folk song called You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go which has a harmonica intro that sounds like an old steam train setting off. And then there’s Idiot Wind. Oh Hell’s bollocks. Idiot Wind.
The centerpiece of the album, Idiot Wind is an eight-minute howl of pure hatred. It is a vicious diatribe of ill-will that is purveyed through one of the most poisonous vocal performances in history. It is the bitterest song ever written by someone that isn’t called Alanis Morrisette. Listen to it now, and hear the screaming, see the spit flying from Bob’s lips and take in some of the most remarkable lines ever committed to tape:
“I can’t remember your face anymore, your mouth has changed, your eyes don’t look into mine.”
“I can’t feel you anymore, I can’t even touch the books you’ve read/ Every time I crawl past your door, I been wishing I was somebody else instead.”
“I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline that separated you from me.”
The next time people heard music this confrontational, it was being made by the Sex Pistols.
There is a version of Idiot Wind on a live recording of the subsequent tour called Hard Rain. He finished the set with it. The gig was lashed by torrential rain and the band kept getting electrical shocks from the stage. Our hero was hungover to fuck, having spent the past few days gorging on groupies and booze. His wife was at the side of the stage, with the kids, demanding to know what was going on. It is intense to the point of being voyeuristic.
I will write extensively about some of the staggering feats of innovation and musicianship from this point upwards on this list. There are albums that I will talk about from here on in that encompass creative talent that I can’t possibly comprehend. But in many ways, great songwriting is simply about putting words to music. And if you can put the most exquisite poetry into those words, and such beautiful melody into the music, then you are a great songwriter. And if great songwriting really is about just words and music, then Blood On The Tracks is the greatest album ever made.
Best Tracks: Tangled Up In Blue, Idiot Wind, Shelter From The Storm
Best Moment: Two moments in Idiot Wind that show what a genius Dylan is:
The booming last verse: “You’ll never know the hurt I suffered, or the pain I rise above
And I’ll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love
And it makes me feel so sorry….”
And the very last line where he tips the story on its head and manages to blame himself for the whole thing:
“We’re idiots, babe, it’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.”
Like this? Try: American Recordings by Johnny Cash, 1994
Allen Miles is 33 years old and lives in Hull. He is married and has a 3 year-old daughter who thinks she’s Elsa from Disney’s Frozen. He is a staunch supporter of Sheffield Wednesday FC and drinks far too much wine. He spends most of his spare time watching old football videos on youtube and watching 1940s film noir. He is the author of This Is How You Disappear, which is widely recognized to be the best book ever written. It is available here. http://tinyurl.com/disappear2014