Bob_Dylan_-_Blonde_on_Blonde

ALBUMS OF OUR LIVES: BOB DYLAN’S BLONDE ON BLONDE

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I’m seventeen, and my Dad and I are on a train between Boston and New Haven. We’re visiting colleges, and we’ve rented a car to drive up and down the Eastern Seaboard. This plan, however, has been derailed by a snowstorm, which is how we’ve ended up on a train between Boston and New Haven one desolate, snowy February afternoon. In Boston we stopped at a record store where I bought a Counting Crows album while my Dad made friends with the Nick Hornby character working at the register and I, being a teenager, did my best to ignore them. Now, on the train, my dad hands me a stack of CDs he’s bought. “Here,” he says. “This is important. Don’t talk to me again until you have an opinion about Bob Dylan.”

I had never listened to Bob Dylan before except in the way that it’s impossible not to have listened to Bob Dylan. His unfriendly, indecipherable whine and mumble is ubiquitous to American culture, to the air and sky and car radio and malls and Starbucks of the nation and probably the world. But if I’d listened before, I’d never noticed. I took the Counting Crows out of my portable CD player, and put in Blonde on Blonde. My Dad had also bought me Highway 61 Revisited, Blood on the Tracks, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Bringing it All Back Home, and Desire, and I’d get to all of them, eventually, each one its own singular obsession and backdrop to a particular section of my life. But during that train ride, the rest of that year, and in a way the rest of my life, I never really got past Blonde on Blonde.

Blonde on Blonde is, admittedly, kind of a weird album to give to your teenage kid. Although I know I’m not the only child of the I-Had-Tickets-to-Woodstock-But-Didn’t-Go generation whose parents put Bob Dylan and Lou Reed and the Stones on the You Need To Know This list along with great literature and Carl Sagan and geometry and how to drive.

But my main memory of that first listen is of being plunged into the depiction of experiences I had never had. As the album begins, the harmonica and the guitar and the rest of the band, exhausted, high out of their mind and fed up with this byzantine ritual of a recording session, assaults you with the opening of “Rainy Day Women Nos 12 & 35.” Dylan, according to legend, wrote the songs on Blonde on Blonde in a minute-beyond-the-last-minute speed-fueled race, locked in the studio after the time they were supposed to start recording had come and gone. He didn’t emerge until around 4am, and the session men chain-smoking and playing cards while they waited for him had never seen the songs before playing them. They had no idea how long these tracks would be, no idea Dylan would, in the era of the three-minute radio barrier, ask them to record five and eight and ten and twelve minute songs. Much of the energy and noise of this first track on the album, the giddy, drunk-parade build of it is the sound of a bunch of the best and most famous session-men in Nashville growing more and more confused as yet another verse comes after the last verse they played, as one more time the song, for some reason they can’t understand, doesn’t end but insists on repeating its nonsense. The album is the sound of a bunch of people trying to learn how to do something while doing it for the first time, baffled at what it asks of them.

The first words Dylan utters are about getting stoned. So is the rest of the four minutes and thirty seconds of the opening track. Everyone was getting stoned — Dylan, Dylan’s band, the people they were singing about and the audience they were singing to. I was a very sheltered teenager and had never done any drugs at all. If everybody was getting stoned, I wasn’t everybody. The album reminded me that I was waiting to enter the experiences everyone else in the world was already having.

In the thirteen other tracks that follow, Blonde on Blonde moves through lust, regret, adultery, love, marriage, divorce, and why it’s a bad idea to mix whiskey and gin. I had never done any of these things. I wanted to be the person singing, and I wanted to be all the people Dylan sang about, all the begging and heartbreaking and abject and unfaithful women. I wanted to be all the train-jumping cowboys and drunks and liars and poets passed out in alleyways as whom Dylan disguises himself. I wanted to be Joanna and Louise and Marie and the debutantes and chambermaids who betrayed him and lied to him and bummed cigarettes from him, and were such crazy bitches that he had to write a song about them. I wanted in. The album was the warm yellow window of someone else’s house as you walk by on a cold night. Listening to it was the feeling you get when you look into this stranger’s window and wish you lived there.

I liked the complexity of the songs. I liked that I didn’t get it. I liked that it didn’t seem to want me to get it. I liked that Bob Dylan didn’t seem to like me and seemed annoyed that I liked him so much. I listened to that album every night as I fell asleep the entire year before I left for college, not to mention in my car and in my room and on my headphones walking around while awake. It became the language for the new world of adulthood that was approaching,that as far as I was concerned couldn’t come fast enough.

Arguably, the defining experience of adulthood is falling in love. Dylan is disdainful of or resigned about or angry at all the Louises and Joannas and Maries and women-who-are-probably-Joan-Baez in the first thirteen songs on the album. He launches a whole host of emotion at women, in general and in specific, but it’s not until the final track that he deals with the central experience of maturation: Falling in love. Knocked on your ass, whole life given up to another person. Gone, surrendered, fucked, whatever you want to call it. Falling in love.

“Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” is eleven minutes and twenty seconds of infuriating, boring, indecipherable music that has been accurately described as the greatest love song of the 20th century. For the length of an entire side of a record (as it was originally released), Dylan does nothing but list nonsensical attributes of the woman to whom he’s singing.  The lyrics are even more opaque than most of his songs. The music has no variation, dragging around and around in a circle. It feels like the end of the night, after the party’s been dismantled and the bar’s been closed and everyone’s gone home except one last drunk couple, half-asleep and slow-dancing to music only they can hear. The song is a closed experience, and feels the way it does when, in loving one person, you are happy to shut down and ignore the rest of the vivid, pointless, crowded world that isn’t them. It’s not for the people listening, the people buying the album, playing it in their homes, playing it at parties and on the radio. It’s for one woman. The list is an accounting; in love we want to gather the object of our feeling to us, as though if we could know them well enough, could list them comprehensively, we could finally fully possess them. The repetition, starting over again and again, shows how we never quite do, how we always fail.

I grew up, got into college, left home, moved to New York, got laid, got stoned, fell in love, betrayed people, left people and was left, hurt people and was hurt. Eventually I did all the things Dylan whines about on Blonde on Blonde. I never stopped listening to the album. When I finally did get stoned, it never felt enough like “Rainy Day Woman No.s 12 & 35.” Every time I take any kind of drug, I hope this time it will. But it never has, and being in love has never felt quite like “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” either. Not that the songs were incorrect about the experiences, and not that the experiences have been unspectacular or lacking. But that, spectacular as they may have been, they never lived up to the Dylan songs that had first imagined them for me.

I tend to share albums and songs with the people I date, and therefore tend to lose a lot of music in breakups. I have ruined every single song and album and band and artist I have ever loved by associating it with a relationship. Every single one except Blonde on Blonde.  Perhaps that’s happy accident, but I don’t think so. My relationship to the album is already a complete relationship, in and of itself. Not only does it not need a flesh-and-blood relationship to link itself to, I don’t think it has space for one. I think the things we love most, we don’t want anyone else to understand. We are selfish with them as with the people we love, feeling that we will dilute their importance through sharing.

The way Blonde on Blonde sounds is what we miss about the people we love but choose to leave anyway, what we never get over about them. A friend of mine would say, much later, Bob Dylan made her feel like she’d known her Dad when he was young. When she told me this, I’d realize, perhaps just a little, why my Dad had bought six CDs on a train ride from Boston to New Haven and told me not to talk to him until I had an opinion about them. This is literally the music of my parents’ past, but it’s also the music of the things we can’t quite share with people, the attempt to make someone part of your past despite the fact that they can’t ever quite understand your past because they weren’t there. This album makes me feel like I knew my parents when they were young, and at the same time reminds me how much I didn’t, how much I can’t ever know what their life was like before me. When you love someone, it becomes painful that you weren’t part of their past, that they weren’t part of yours. This album is the attempt to make someone part of a past experience by telling them about it, the attempt to enter someone’s past by listening closely enough to the stories about it. We build our expectations of love, of getting stoned, of any life experience, from someone else’s stories. Those stories are always fictions. When we encounter the actual experience in our own life, the distance between it and the expectation is always present. This album manages to be an expression of that omnipresent distance, the ache and comfort at the center of it, raucous and elegiac, passed down imperfectly through generations.


Helena Fitzgerald is a featured contributor with, and former editor of, The New Inquiry. In addition, she has published fiction and non-fiction with Vice, The Rumpus, Bookslut, Brooklyn Based, The Brooklyn Rail, the Notre Dame Review, and Soon Quarterly, among other places. Find her on twitter @helenavonsalome. More from this author →