The news cycle is such that the world, it seems, has entirely turned over since late autumn, when Bob Dylan released the various anthologies (plural because of multiple formats) entitled More Blood, More Tracks: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 14, and yet for me, time has stopped still, because I am as yet wrestling with the new versions of these songs that have been so important and so influential in my life. That is often the sign of something musically important—that it can’t easily be depleted.
The “New York Sessions” of the Blood on the Tracks recordings in 1974, of which only a few bits made it onto the canonical edition of the album, have long been traded, and known about, and revered, but their release has only deepened the mysterious artistic reasoning that called them into question in the first place. Was the original recording too honest, too vulnerable, too naked, too confessional, not commercial enough, not rock and roll enough, or too much like the acoustic Dylan, jettisoned so memorably in 1965–1966? Did Bob Dylan not want to appear to be a singer-songwriter as this was understood circa 1974 though he appeared to be setting himself up for it?
We are unlikely to get a direct answer to these questions, which leaves the matter of More Blood, More Tracks, and its first guise, up to the listeners to assess. I have been listening to both versions a lot in the last several months, never quite giving up on a bunch of questions about the double bind of the competing conceptual visions of these two albums. In the end, I really do think the “bootleg” version, which is to say the newly released version, is more artistically powerful and coherent than the one that everyone so loves—the 1975 original release. Make no mistake: I love the 1975 release too. But I think this naked, acoustic version, Dylan and bass player, has an immense gravity.
I decided, therefore, to talk with a bunch of friends, briefly, a sampling of people I knew or suspected had some connection to the Dylan recording, whether in 1975 or now, but that catch was that I wanted immediacy, lack of critical apparatus, and casual engagement—not rock criticism. And thus I settled on the idea of texting with various parties, where the language is not so labored, and the opinions more unbuttoned, as befits the condition of the New York Sessions. What follows, then, is a sort of first-thought-best-thought discussion of More Blood, More Tracks.
Our protagonists include:
Adam Braver, novelist
Jonathan Brown, musician, songwriter, and expatriate
Steve Gunn, singer, songwriter, and guitarist
Peter Blauner, author, journalist, and television producer
Jolie Holland, singer, songwriter
Joe Dizney, guitarist, writer, polymath, and mushroom expert
Catherine Bowman, poet, professor, and radio personality
The Rumpus: I’m so into the New York Sessions of More Blood, More Tracks. Right now I’m really really into “Up to Me.” Hard to imagine why it wasn’t included, except that it’s ever so slightly like “Tangled Up in Blue.” Or maybe “Shelter from the Storm.” The lyrics are amazing though.
Adam Braver: I ended up downloading the full six CDs. Although I don’t imagine listening to them in order as a regular thing (will make a playlist), I’ve been finding them—even the multiple versions of the songs one after the other—completely mesmerizing. It’s amazing the precision with each take. Especially when it is just voice and guitar. A slight inflection or emphasis on one line or one word over the other completely shifts the emotional tenor.
You can completely see and feel how much he is experiencing in that moment, and how critical it is for him to express it just the right away.
So moving throughout.
Rumpus: I was kind of amazed that Jon Pareles, the other day, said in the New York Times that having listened to all of it he decided that the released version was better, and that Dylan’s instincts were good. Because I am finding the nakedness of the solo takes really incredible. I mean, the released version is great, but in the ongoing discussion about whether the bootlegs are better, there is a real argument to be made that the New York Sessions are equally valid and in some cases remarkable (and I haven’t listened to all the takes you have). “Tangled Up in Blue,” e.g., is just excellent, even though the canonical version is also very good. I just think when he plays alone something really great happens. I wish he would do it more. Makes you realize why the World Gone Wrong period was so rewarding and good for his career.
Braver: One of my Dylan-phile friends of the “Uncle Bob/Expecting Rain” variety asked what would be the next Bootleg series I’d like to see, and that World Gone Wrong era was my choice (provided there is material there).
And I agree. It seemed a little simplistic to say: “Bob chose best in the end.” Some of those takes are equally magnificent and inspiring, and likely would have been classics in their own right.
Rumpus: Apparently [Robert] Christgau savaged the New York Sessions, having heard a boot or something. Bluster!
Braver: What I keep finding is that the New York Sessions feel so complete when I am listening to them. That is, taken together, each song (on a visceral level, as opposed to the lyrical level) is like a section of an essay, or a chapter in a book—as though sonically and emotionally it is one single piece. Maybe at the time some people (and later, others like Christgau) saw that as a one-note sameness. In fact, it is subtle. But a subtlety that is so powerful.
I’ll also add to this that two of my least favorite songs on the original release, “Meet Me in the Morning” and “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts,” really shine through here. They actually feel like part of the song cycle in way they never felt like before. “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” is almost easy to imagine among the acoustic set of one of those 1966 concerts. It seems so sincere, and its language so striking, in this acoustic version.
Rumpus: I agree, though, about “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts”—always a filler song, I thought.
“Meet Me in the Morning” is bad because of the arrangement.
Braver: Completely. The New York Sessions arrangement of just a single spare blues guitar—a la someone on the back porch—really bring out the song.
Jonathan Brown: Hey Rick. Jonathan Brown here. Wasn’t sure if you had trouble texting me. Well, here I am.
Rumpus: So what was your relationship to the prior version, the “canonical” version, of Blood on the Tracks?
Brown: Great first question. In my case it might be a make or break it one, actually! You see, in all honesty, I’d never been a fan of that album. I mean, I’d heard it a few times but I’ve never really liked the sound of what I heard. I’d always preferred the first five Dylan albums the best. Desire is an exception. But this version I absolutely love! Can’t get enough of it!
Rumpus: How does Desire differ in terms of sound from Blood On the Tracks?
Brown: Well, for me Desire was such a departure for him in the feel of the album—I guess due to the violin and the almost ethnic vibe at times, you know what I mean?
Desire is like a show to me, where Dylan is performing in a detached sort it way. The songs don’t seem personal, except for “Sara” of course. And I’m okay with that on that album. But maybe it’s that he seems to me to also be performing that way—at least most of the time—on Blood On The Tracks, but those song all seem to be personal in one way or another. On More Blood, More Tracks those songs really come alive. Most of them for the first time, for me. Maybe because his delivery is so raw. Pure. As well as his guitar playing, at times.
Rumpus: Can you describe what’s good about the guitar playing from your point of view? I agree—just curious what it means to a real guitar player.
Brown: Well, it’s not that the guitar playing is especially good, but it just seems so heartfelt. Vulnerable. One great example is the first instrumental break in “Simple Twist of Fate” with that guitar lick—wow. It’s kinda sloppy, but so powerful and real. It gets me every time.
And the dynamics in the playing on the album are so nice—as if he and his instrument are one thing. The playing on “Buckets of Rain” really stands out, I think. Part of that is the strong picking (which he doesn’t do much of elsewhere on the record), but it’s also the connection of voice and guitar. It’s pretty clear these songs were all first or second takes—and I mean that in a good way.
Rumpus: I’m interested in the picking because I feel like he did sort of have to be a guitar player here, in the usual expressive and non-technical way, which he would thereafter ignore by employing just a rhythm guitar prop for a long while, maybe until Good as I Been to You. For me, as you’re suggesting, the primitive guitar technique is a sign of the feeling overall, which is feelings first.
Is there a song on this version whose transformation is most dramatic for you?
Brown: “Idiot Wind.” This version is so much more powerful than the one on Blood on the Tracks. It’s almost a different song. It comes alive for me for the first time. Talk about feelings first! In the Blood on the Tracks version Dylan seems to hide behind all the instrumentation and his voice dances all around in that “performing” way I mentioned earlier. In this version, he’s almost sitting there in the room with you naked.
Same with “You’re a Big Girl Now.” So much nicer this way, in my opinion! Touches me in a way the other version doesn’t.
Rumpus: I’ve been having the same reaction with “Idiot Wind,” and let me run this hypothesis past you: So one reason I like this version better is that it foregrounds the line, “we’re idiots, babe / it’s a wonder that we still know how to breathe” in a way that I can really hear it. There was a period where I listened to the canonical Blood on the Tracks almost every day for a while. An entire novel by me was very nearly written listening to it all the time. But in all those listens to the old version, it was always “YOU’RE an idiot, babe / it’s a wonder that YOU still know how to breathe.” My hypothesis is that the lyrics here, on this song, are not changed in a substantial way; I was just hearing what that incredibly angry older version wanted me to hear, and that that was a fact of arrangement, as you point out, the general density of the mix. So easy for the song to be misogynist in those days! We were hearing that stuff all the time. (If you think of Blood on the Tracks as a California singer-songwriter album, e.g., there’s all those incredibly misogynist Eagles songs, and/or the really nasty songs by Lindsey Buckingham about Stevie Nicks, to compare.)
But in this far more naked treatment, the guilt has to be more evenly distributed. And it’s more honest. If he’s talking about Sara and the dwindling away of his marriage, he is taking responsibility for it here, or at least more than he seemed to take on the canonical version.
I could go further and really dig in on the line “I can’t help it if I’m lucky.” It’s always been a really funny line to me. On the original version, it’s cocky as hell, unrepentant, but in this acoustic rendering, where he’s not fighting to be heard, it’s both ironized and also far from clear that he’s lucky at all.
Brown: Yep! This version still has an anger to it but also a real sadness comes through which makes it much more interesting. Like you say, the “WE’RE idiots“ bit, the “lucky“ line, are great. And I think the line about “you’ll find out when you reach the top, you’re on the bottom” is so nicely vague—maybe it’s in the way he sings it on Take 4 (the one I have) where he draws out “you’re” it seems to be both an insult (if you take it as two separate lines) and a confession (as one line). Maybe he was playing with that, at least on that particular take.
Take 4 also ends with a long harmonica solo. Beautiful and sad.
Rumpus: I was preoccupied with that “top/bottom” line this morning, as well. I was thinking of it as premonitory of a hatred-of-fame formulation that became really popular in post-punk, and then up through grunge, etc., but which was much less frequent in counterculture. Like John Lydon saying “Our cause will be lost, but that’s not so bad,” about Public Image Ltd.—that was a revelation for me of this same kind.
What do you think of “Up to Me,” the song left off the original version of the album?
Brown: Yeah, I don’t know why he didn’t want it on the original album. I think it’s a pretty good way to end the album. It sounds somewhat hopeful—as if after reflecting on all all this sad stuff throughout the album, he’s able to make peace with it in the end, take responsibility. Maybe I’m reading too much into it—I don’t know…
If nothing else, the last words of the song (and the last words on the album) are both a perfect farewell and perfectly sum up the reason I feel that this version of the album is the best of the two: “If we never meet again, baby remember me / how my lone guitar played sweet for you that old-time melody / and the harmonica around my neck, I blew it for you for free / no one else could play that tune, you know it was up to me.”
Rumpus: Steve, Rick Moody here. So the song I was most curious about on More Blood, More Tracks was the stripped-down “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts.” It’s possibly the only song on the original recording that I resisted. I knew some of the original New York Sessions recordings of “Tangled Up in Blue,” etc. But I was really curious to hear the less perfect stuff. And I really, really love “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts.” Less is more is the lesson throughout.
Steve Gunn: Hi Rick! “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” was the one song from the original album that I could never really connect with. There is something about that upbeat tempo and overbearing organ that never worked with the lyrics for me. The song starts out with a shiny harmonica melody and upbeat rhythm, and after a few bars I always felt compelled to move on to the next song. It also sits right in between “Meet Me in the Morning” and “If You See Her, Say Hello,” which is tough billing in my opinion.
The starkness on the bootleg version changes this song completely for me. Bob’s solo guitar with a slower, more spirited vocal delivery shed a whole new light—there is more weight to this story now. It feels like a new discovery for me, even though it’s that same song. Less is more is definitely the lesson for me on this track, too.
Rumpus: How do you feel about the guitar playing on the New York Sessions? I recollect that Robert Christgau heard the New York Sessions when they were first done, and basically said that Dylan had unlearned everything he had learned from going electric, but I find the really simple guitar sound on these songs very powerful. Part of why it doesn’t bother me is the tuning, I think. “Tangled Up in Blue” really orbits around this strange place that the chords go now, like there are a lot of ninths in it or something. I assume they are there in the canonical release, too, but it feels more obvious in the context of this man-and-his-acoustic-guitar version.
Gunn: I really like the guitar playing on these sessions, and I can hear more emotion in his singing. It’s so great to hear these songs unadorned, with all of the excess peeled off of the album version. The tuning for “Tangled Up in Blue” is in open D, and it’s all out in the open on this session. I love being able to hear that, with the other chords strummed out in a loose rhythm that really matches the sentiment. Maybe Christgau was right in that perhaps he unlearned his way of playing electric, but for me these new recordings get to back the core of Dylan. Especially with this song, there is so much more fragility and depth with him simply sitting there with his acoustic.
Rumpus: How are you feeling about the songs lyrically now that you can hear them really clearly and the lyrics are up front with less reverb (and slowed down to the actual pitch)?
Gunn: Dylan’s slow and clear delivery on this session help the lyrics feel more significant to me. I think these versions really capture where Dylan was at emotionally when he was writing these songs. You can feel these tracks being a cathartic process for him, and it’s really palpable on songs like “Tangled Up in Blue” and “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.”
Rumpus: Do you have a Dylan period that most speaks to you? And where does this sit in the larger body of work now?
Gunn: I remember getting the Live 1966 CD set at Tower Records about twenty years ago, and listing to that nonstop until the discs were scratched up and worn out. There is a solo acoustic set on Disc 2 from Manchester that sounds astounding. I drained a lot of AA batteries on the Discman with that one. I think the recording is from the night before he went electric at Royal Albert Hall in London.
There is something particularly spirited in his vocals at this concert. His guitar and harmonica playing also push the intensity of the singing. Knowing that he went electric at the next gig also gives these versions a particular urgency. It’s a really good recording, also, and you can hear the echo of his vocals across the silent theater—with heavy applause in between the song breaks.
This was the first of my many Dylan phases. Since then I have moved through so many different periods that are all pretty important to me. My obsession moved from those discs to Blonde on Blonde, then to Blood on the Tracks, The Basement Tapes, Planet Waves, The Rolling Thunder Revue, New Morning, Time Out of Mind, and more recently to some of the newer material.
The More Blood, More Tracks session gives me another opportunity to hear one of my favorite Dylan albums in a different light. These stark versions of the songs give them a newness and renewed significance. I can feel the emotion with the voice up front and simple arrangements to hold them out in the open. The intensity of these sessions makes this one a new favorite.
A side note: It’s so great to see that Dylan is still changing things up and progressing at seventy-five. I saw him play in Philadelphia last night, and he and his band sounded incredible. It was a super inspiring night. Some people don’t realize that he’s been on the road all of this time, too—constantly pushing the limits of what he can do as a performer. He seemed happy last night, smiling from the piano as they closed the show with an insane fifteen-minute band version of “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
Rumpus: I had the same feeling about the authorized 1966 album. Really crystallized something for me. There’s so much orthodoxy about the “going electric” period, and I admire this “really fucking loud” way of thinking, but I also find the acoustic songs on the 1966 boot really amazing. It’s when I realized how great “Visions of Johanna” is; it’s a startling and magnificent performance of that song, which is itself among my very favorite songs on earth. And some of what I love about the More Blood release is that it shares some terrain with “Visions of Johanna.”
Rumpus: Hey Peter, I’m just wondering what kind of headway you have made with More Blood, More Tracks. I have been thinking a lot, the last few days, about Dylan’s assertion that the songs are not autobiographical at all, but are in fact based on Chekhov. Any feelings there?
Peter Blauner: Didn’t he also say, “My Heart’s in the Highlands” wasn’t autobiographical? Yeah, right. With Dylan, there’s always a fine line between sincerity and chicanery, but when you hear that first version of “Simple Twist of Fate” it’s hard to believe he’s not completely emotionally present. Okay, he probably never had a parrot. But that’s the real guy, at least for a few minutes.
By the way, I got some more detail about the Jagger visiting the studio story. Part of it is my friend asked Dylan what Jagger said to him that day, and Dylan said, “He told me the lyrics are great but the music sucks.” More to come.
This would have been at an early New York Sessions recording. And then Dylan obviously shuffled some of these melodies.
Rumpus: I was sort of digging into Stones albums of the same period—the New York Sessions would have been perhaps between It’s Only Rock n Roll and Black and Blue, two albums that aren’t exactly on the most highly regarded list. So would I have trusted Mick Jagger to be able to evaluate what was good and what sucked? Not exactly!
But I guess he was not alone, because other people were kind of down on the New York Sessions for Blood on the Tracks. I think real acoustic music, in this case, guitar bass and voice, was in low regard in the period. Even artists that were allegedly acoustic, like James Taylor or Cat Stevens or Joni Mitchell, were using all the tracks available to them.
Blauner: Not to go off on a Stones tangent, but I found it interesting that Keith skips over It’s Only Rock n Roll in his book, after casually mentioning Mick did it with Bowie. Makes you wonder if he’s on the album very much.
Anyway, back to Blood on the Tracks. The story I heard was from Pete Hamill, who was at a session and saw the Jagger/Dylan exchange. He said the way they were talking to each other reminded him of a photo he’d seen of Jackie Robinson talking to the Detroit Tigers slugger Hank Greenberg. He asked Dylan what Jagger said and Dylan said, “He told me the lyrics are great but the music sucks.”
I’d sort of built up a resistance to the album from hearing certain cuts over and over on WNEW-FM in the 70s. I got the emotional impact when I first heard it and then I needed to go away from it a while. Or maybe, I just needed to grow up a little to understand what he was talking about.
Then I heard that version of “You’re a Big Girl Now” from Biograph and the varnish came off the wood. You could really feel the splinters again. I love it. I think it’s a great album. But does any of it make you laugh?
Rumpus: I agree about Biograph planting the seeds for More Blood. They teased out the expectation for a long time, and then they delivered on it. The question of what is funny about it is an interesting one. That comical aspect in Dylan only comes out sometimes, episodically.
I was saying to some other correspondents here that I used to really resist “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts,” whose length and density reminds me of that song on the first Traveling Wilburys album (“Tweeter and the Monkey Man”), much in Dylan’s register, that is supposed to be, according to legend, a parody of Springsteen’s wordiness in the early part of his career. It’s allegory of a kind that doesn’t lift off like, e.g., “Isis” does later, or “Visions of Johanna” does. And yet: on this splintery, to use your word, version on More Blood I can finally see into it some.
I think maybe “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” was a little bit funny before. But now it feels richer and more complex.
Blauner: I didn’t quite get how funny Dylan could be until I heard Love and Theft and read Chronicles: Volume One. There was something on every other page that either made me laugh or grind my teeth in envy.
I forget, did you review it anywhere? What did you think of it?
Rumpus: I did no reviewing.
Blauner: I’m also intrigued by what he chooses to reveal and not reveal in successive versions of the same song. Not just in the words but in his delivery. How conscious do you think that is for him? As I was writing that, I had a version of “Tangled Up in Blue” on in the background and it just got to the verse about how he was always stoned and her plans were postponed. That’s not autobiographical? Well, it’s pretty persuasive if it’s not.
So, why do you think he’s put out all this material now?
Rumpus: I think almost everything is autobiographical because on what other basis is an artist committed? I think Gwar is autobiographical, and Cannibal Corpse is autobiographical, and Marilyn Manson is autobiographical. Saying your album is about Chekhov is just saying that the indelible specifics of your life are like a Chekhov story.
Blauner: Absolutely. And I especially love the idea of the Gwar guys pouring their hearts out. You gave me occasion to look up their song titles. “Womb With A View.” “Slaughterama.” “Penguin Attack.” They don’t write ‘em like that anymore.
Rumpus: Hey, have you been listening to More Blood, More Tracks at all?
Jolie Holland: It’s not my favorite bunch of his songs, so you could use me as a critical/crabby voice if you might want that. I like many of these recordings better than the original record. Looser, unhinged, more to my taste. They feel less neurotic and tight.
What was the criteria with those songs? Were they somehow less well recorded?
Rumpus: It’s a long story!
Joe Dizney: Speaking of Blood on the Tracks, did you ever read this piece? Kinda swell.
Rumpus: Hey this is great. The revelation of the piece is that those songs were written on piano!
Dizney: I love that Truscott piece and know the exact building he’s talking about. It’s about a block from where I’m sitting right now and just the thought of dragging a chair into the hall and sitting outside the door hearing those songs develop is a lot like the experience of More Blood, More Tracks—just watching Bob hold each one up to the light and look at the refractions.
Rumpus: So what were your feelings about Dylan as a young musician? Any particular relationship to Blood on the Tracks then?
Dizney: What were my feelings about Dylan as a young musician? Well, never having really considered myself a musician… I was one of those kids who picked up a guitar following The Beatles after having been immersed in music from a young age (a supreme shout out at my good fortune to have been born in South Louisiana and immersed in New Orleans music, country, Cajun and gospel), and that included folk, of the Joan Baez, Kingston Trio, hootenanny-era and that very much included Dylan so some of the first real songs I learned on guitar were his—”Blowin’ in the Wind,” “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” like that. So that was early—early me (fan, “musician,” person) and early Dylan. Those first half dozen or so albums were such a reflection of my teenage years on into early college years and his progression through that time to Blonde on Blonde was staggering.
Feelings about Dylan? Oh God, where to begin. But then he kind of disappeared and came back with the “country” stuff, which I realize was and is so much more than that, but I couldn’t help feeling those next few albums (John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, New Morning), as great as they were and as deeply as I listened to them then and as much as they still bring up so many other thoughts, were somehow mannered and “distant” (emotionally?) or protected. I mean, Bob-the-poet was/is always a bit obscure or oblique in communicating the living and breathing humanity. That’s not a criticism by any means—the places he went with language were worth the distance. And then there was another break, until Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (a soundtrack album, fer chrissake) and Planet Waves, which, as much as The Band meant to Bob’s history and legend, and to my own “development” or whatever as a human and fanboy, and again as fine as some of those songs are, still felt like primarily a commercial venture. (Listening to it again while thinking about all of this, Robbie’s guitar sound seems so dated to me now, but I was a huge fan in the day).
Blood on the Tracks just felt and still feels like something else. It’s a fully mature and totally human voice speaking and carrying and communicating the weight of deep emotions and life. Blood, meat, and viscera—and love, hurt, pain, anger—on the tracks for sure. Then and now. And the musical setting seemed equally human and mature while at the same time referencing everywhere he’d been before. If I had to pick the ones I couldn’t do without, it would be Blood on the Tracks and Blonde on Blonde.
Rumpus: So can you talk a little bit about how you hear the New York Sessions, the More Blood, More Tracks stuff, in comparison to the Blood on the Tracks of your youth?
Dizney: I honestly think More Blood, More Tracks is qualitative deep dive into the feelings I always had about Blood on the Tracks. Blood on the Tracks was absolutely the most emotionally accessible thing Bob ever did—you could tell he was feeling it in every crevice of his being and while Poet Bob was still present the language and voice was amazingly accessible, honest, and heartfelt for a guy who had always been a chameleon and cypher. The musical and thematic palette were both familiar from his previous work but his singing and phrasing seemed to me to be less studied and more direct. He wasn’t an artist trying on personas, he was actually a man—flesh and blood human—feeling stuff.
More Blood, More Tracks exposes that even further (with a couple of exceptions) and the variations of individual songs reads to me more as someone looking for the most honest expression of what he was feeling, holding each sweet and painful moment up to the light and finding the right setting for the jewels so many of those songs are. The musical embellishments on some tracks, contrasting to more stark versions of others, on the original Blood on the Tracks, made for a richer work and its just plain swell to hear him working it all out in real time. And I really have to add that I am not one of those Dylan completists who has to have everything—I bought the deluxe set for my brother-in-law for Christmas (he’s by day a Boston banker but in “real” life a singer-guitarist who named his first son Dylan). I bootlegged his discs and have been wallowing in them ever since. Just beautiful.
Rumpus: More Blood, More Tracks makes a different, and a qualitative, statement about how to be genuine in a song, for me. And I already really liked those songs. But the new version—which is a previous version—chisels away anything that smacked of strategy and leaves just the songs and the emotions attendant thereupon. There’s a de facto statement being made about the dialectic which has professionalism at one end and expression at the other. Often Dylan seems to want to tweak an elitist idea about “nakedness” and “genuineness” in songwriting; maybe the electric period was all about that—fuck you and your folk purism—and then later he’s tweaking professionalism at the other end of the spectrum with the Sinatra covers: beautiful, shimmering, perfect accompaniment, and then one-take vocals, cut live, where the mistakes are all left in.
These approaches thumb the nose at whatever redoubt in the critical community thinks it has found a reliable formula for human expression in song. The original Blood on the Tracks was a stealth project as far as expression goes, because it had the vocals mechanically altered, and then a bunch of band tracks (which I have already discussed in this forum) that hew closer to the popular music of the time, more simulated than you think, but the songs themselves were much braver. More Blood, More Tracks recalibrates the professionalism, and sets down its foot firmly in the expressive camp, warts and all, and, furthermore, it makes a case for acoustic music.
Now you can sort of make a through line from “Visions of Johanna” to the New York Sessions version of “Tangled Up in Blue” to the songs of Good as I Been to You or World Gone Wrong, in which it becomes apparent that acoustic music really does make the songs more emotionally accessible somehow, at least for this artist. That’s not to say that his studio enhancements over the years haven’t resulted in great songs (I really love Oh Mercy, and some of Time Out of Mind), but there’s a home terrain, a motherland, and it’s the man and his guitar and his own compositions (as opposed to, e.g., songs written for Frank Sinatra). In this way, it feels sort of punk, according to the New York model. Just a year or two ahead of Horses and Marquee Moon.
Dizney: Still, for me, it’s in some ineffable quality in even the band performances—this is really his most “mature” work in that there is a shiny but effectively really thin surface of professional production applied to even the band songs. (Really. Compare this to the previously mentioned Planet Waves. Maybe that was the drugs speaking and maybe the relative Blood on the Tracks reserve was the return to Columbia, the real home of the Dylan canon.)
I got my OED word-of-the-day email today which mentioned in passing that “Dylanesque” was among the most recent updates to the official dictionary. It seems fitting to this discussion. Pardon the full entry, but it’s worth discussion:
Resembling or reminiscent of Bob Dylan or his work, esp. his songs or records, which are characterized by poetic, often enigmatic, lyrics, a distinctive, abrasive vocal delivery, and music rooted in traditional American styles, such as folk, blues, and country; (sometimes) spec. typical or redolent of the folk music of his early records, which combined lyrics of social protest with acoustic guitar and harmonica playing.
Re: “poetic, often enigmatic, lyrics, a distinctive, abrasive vocal delivery,” the official Blood on the Tracks release, while poetic, is one of his least enigmatic (or vocally abrasive) showings, before or after. I know what you’re saying about More Blood, More Tracks being the “new version,” but seeing it that way is somewhat a fallacy—it’s actually revisiting or re-editing (by expansion) what I/we must assume was his statement at the time. It is truly “music rooted in traditional American styles, such as folk, blues, and country; (sometimes) spec. typical or redolent of the folk music of his early records” but so much more, and the poetry and presentation is direct and emotionally expansive—loving, vitriolic, uncertain, resigned, accepting—and clear and unmannered about it to an extent and consistency he never before or again achieved (yet) in such a solid showing.
I will probably never see the point of either the Christmas album or the Sinatra covers—they seem very cynical and mannered to me. But the sheer mass/totality of everything else he’s done always seemed a worthy exercise in looking at the world/life/humanity through different lenses and acting those perceptions out in different voices—distinctive and abrasive sometimes, but also occasionally sincerely.
More Blood, More Tracks’s strength, to me, is watching the fully mature Dylan sift through all that depth of perception and communicate it intellectually and emotionally in the least-mannered performances of his career.
Rumpus: So a first question would be: Dylan says the songs on Blood on the Tracks are based on Chekhov stories. Believe? Or disbelieve? Does this revelation (which comes from Chronicles: Volume One) have resonance with your early reckonings with the songs?
Catherine Bowman: Which stories, I wonder?
Rumpus: I think the assumption at the time of release of Blood on the Tracks was that it was about his failing marriage and/or his affair with a record executive. Now, after Chronicle, we have to decide whether it was based on Chekhov (and/or the ideas of time he learned from taking painting lessons).
Bowman: I believe him. May I offer “purple clover” and “Queen Anne’s lace” as Chekhovian proof? I guess I’m referring to the atmosphere, earthiness, and weather of the album.
So what do you think? Do you believe him? You know, saying that the songs were based on Chekhov after making the record feels kind of tidy and evasive—the songs seem to be influenced by a mix of so many things. I do believe him, though. It’s also a kind of funny thing to say. I do hear Chekhov’s horses sloshing in the muddy margins in “Buckets of Rain.”
Finally, a special bonus interview with Mary Lee Kortes, singer (Mary Lee’s Corvette) and author of the recently released anthology Dreaming of Dylan: 115 Dreams about Bob (BMG Books, November 2018).
The Rumpus: So have you personally been dreaming of Dylan as variously and intensively as some of the other contributors to Dreaming of Dylan? (As an aside, I must personally say that as far as rock dreams go, I have always mostly dreamed of The Feelies, though with some Sonic Youth dreams popping up occasionally.)
Mary Lee Kortes: I just had a dream of Dylan two nights ago. Short in duration and detail, we were going to court. I don’t know who was suing who, or even if we were suing each other. Maybe we were part of some precedent-setting class action suit. I was waiting in the hallway outside the court room, worried I hadn’t dressed cool enough to be seen by him. (Aha. “Suits”—a persnickety dream pun.) Then I realized there was no way he’d be coming to court himself. And that was that. But more to the point of your question, I’m not sure my dreams have been as varied or bizarre as many of those in the book. I had the one recurring dream where we’re out to dinner and never order food and he keeps telling me how great he thinks I am. Classic wish fulfillment. I started having more dreams in the last year and a half after I got back to work on the book. Dream 106, “Wrong Key,” is an example. So is dream 109, “It’s Time,” where I’m out at sea on a big cruise ship in some luxury suite, sleeping on a mattress on the floor, dreaming that Dylan is calling me on my cell phone to tell me it’s time to get up. And then my real life cell phone alarm goes off. More proof that he knows everything.
Rumpus: I like the idea that the Dylan book actually causes dreams. It means you can have abundant sequels, because the project will help generate them. So what do dreams mean to you, as a compiler thereof? Do you have a theory of dream work that animates this project? Has it changed as a result?
Kortes: What do dreams mean to me? I confess I haven’t asked myself this question in a very long time, which might sound surprising. I certainly used to think of dreams as giving me a peek into my own mysterious psychic machinations and maybe to provide clues for relief. I don’t feel that way so much anymore. The advantage of time (i.e., aging) is that you do have the opportunity to know yourself better and, hopefully, work some things out. I’ve been fortunate in that regard. I now view dreams as a kind of elementary school playground where the conscious and unconscious meet and chase each other around, throwing feelings and images back and forth to one another and changing them with each toss. They of course reveal our wishes and desires, and sometimes fulfill them. Other times they work out some very basic logistical aspects of life while integrating some entertaining flourish that reflects other things on our minds (as in my dream 109 “It’s Time” about an alarm clock, which I had after I’d found a publisher for the book and was in the design stages). I also see dreams as gifts we give ourselves because they can be very nourishing, provocative, informative, and give the opportunity for emotional experiences and glimpses into ourselves we might not have had otherwise. The book reinforced that perspective.
What remains so interesting to me about dreams and what I marvel at is the impact that can have. The recurring dream I had about Dylan that got me thinking about what other people might be dreaming was so real that it satisfied something in me. Maybe then I didn’t need it to happen in real life, or not quite so much. Other dreamers in the book also commented on how real their dreams felt, which isn’t news, of course. But it makes me wonder what neuroscientists would say about that aspect of dreaming. Are our brains changed by our dreams? I’m reading a great book by Louis Cozolino called Why Therapy Works. He theorizes that through therapy and remembering things in a different context, we can change our narratives surrounding our memories, and that that can create new synaptic connections in the brain, which changes our brains. Maybe dreams do the same thing. I’ve done some cursory searches and only find information on how our brains create dreams, not how our dreams impact our brains. But I’m assuming there’s stuff out there somewhere.
Rumpus: So if everyone is dreaming about Dylan, who do you think Dylan dreams about? I have often wondered if super-effective and successful people really dream in the same way at all. My dad, for example, who counts as super-effective, alleges to have no significant dreams, except the occasional didn’t-study-for-the-test dreams. What would Dylan dream about?
Kortes: I have no idea what he dreams about, of course. It’s a fun exercise in speculation, but futile if we’re looking for any truth or illumination. I suspect that, if he dreams, he dreams about the things that are important to him: his family, the objects of his desire, maybe about music. He clearly remains very driven both creatively and commercially, changing the lyrics to his songs in ways that are interesting, entertaining, substantive, and relevant. And there’s always some new endeavor around the corner. He might be dreaming about whiskey these days. It’s always tempting to think that people at his level are self-satisfied and don’t have much fear or anxiety. But Paul McCartney recently made it clear that that isn’t necessarily the case.
Rumpus: He does have a couple of songs that traffic in dreams, and even one that is incredibly open about cataloguing them, “Series of Dreams,” the track left off of Oh Mercy. In perfect Dylan tradition, it’s a monster track, unaccountably overlooked, for being so great. Lyrics are here.
The verse that may relate to our thread is this one:
In one, the surface was frozen
In another, I witnessed a crime
In one, I was running, and in another
All I seemed to be doing was climb
Wasn’t looking for any special assistance
Not going to any great extremes
I’d already gone the distance
Just thinking of a series of dreams
I really love that in the first quatrain I’m quoting here, the disturbances in the dream field are pretty simple, but they are all, too, really familiar Dylan tropes. The outlier would seem to be “the surface was frozen,” which seems to have a sort of interstellar quality that I don’t know well from the man. And: I love that even here (in what year, 1989?) he has already gone the distance. Here we are thirty years later. He has apparently gone the distance two or three times over.
How does the dream cataloguing relate to your own singing and music career? Do they seem like similar impulses? Does this book indicate a further interest in writing?
Kortes: I absolutely love “Series of Dreams.” For some reason, the lyrics remind me of dream 25, “Swimmingly,” from my book. It’s not an association that makes immediate sense. Maybe it’s just something about the way I picture that dream in my head:
I am in a large body of water, sort of treading and holding on up against a large rock. I can see a sandy beach off to the left and want to swim there, but there are large, black, pointed metal-looking objects jutting up just under the surface of the water. Then I realize they are hippopotamus sculptures. Then I realize they are actual hippopotamuses, and one of them swims to me and wants me to pet its head. I oblige, and it licks my hand like a cat. All of a sudden, Dylan swims by, stealthily, athletically, skimming across the top of the water, oblivious to the danger lurking below. Thomas Rowley, Caterer, Sarasota, FL.
How does the dream cataloguing relate to my singing and music career? Perhaps this: I’ve always approached songwriting from an unconscious point of view, i.e., I think that drawing on the unconscious gets at a more direct truth, a more interesting reality, and more original imagery. Stuff that comes up through the unconscious can make sense on an emotional and psychic level without necessarily having a straight-line logic to it. Sometimes, if I’m stuck on a lyric, I’ll lay down and take a fake nap, set the melody to the song running in my head, or just the lyrics if that’s all I have, and take a virtual running leap at the end of the lyrics that I do have and see where I land. I love how that works.
I have also written songs based on my dreams. I once had a dream with the phrase “keeper of the flame” running through it. I ended up writing a song with that title, got it to Phil Ramone, who I was doing some session work with at the time, and who happened to be about to produce Barbra Streisand. Phil really liked the song. Streisand not so much, although she agreed to record it. She didn’t put it on the album. I did get to hear it and I agree with her choice! She didn’t seem comfortable with it.
I’ve also written from daydream states a lot where I just let my mind go and free associate. Without being overly self-promotional, I have a song called “Learn from What I Dream” which seems appropriate to mention. I suspect I took a fake nap to finish this one. All in all, dreaming has been very good to me. Very often when I write, I get into a sort of possessed state—possessed by the song—and then don’t really remember writing the song all that clearly. I used to think that was weird. Then I heard Springsteen say that if he remembers exactly how he wrote a song, it’s probably not that good. And no, I don’t see myself as a channel! I believe in taking credit for what you write.
Speaking of series, my book does obviously beg the question of a series. But I have other writing in the works now that I think I should focus on: a novel that I’ve been working on for a while and I’m also considering doing a fictional biography of a character I’ve created.
Feature image by Rowland Scherman [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.