Blood on the Tracks
Columbia Records, 1975
Of course it was love—me and the boy who gave me the album, I mean. It had just come out, and I was young; I didn’t have money, and he didn’t either. He said he’d won it in a card game. Likely he stole it, and stealing an LP—well, you couldn’t just slip it in your pocket like a compact disc; it was hard work stealing music back then. The kind of thing a guy would do for a girl he loved. So for me, this was a love album. I played it in my room on my portable record player over and over. Eighteen days later, when the boy tore my heart out, I knew it was a breakup album. One of the greatest.
Many years later, Marianne Faithfull told me a story about Dylan. It was the ’60s; she was in his hotel room, and Bob was sitting at a typewriter. “What are you writing?” she asked him. “A poem,” he said—a pause and a burning look—“about you.” Excellent seduction technique, but it didn’t work. I asked what the poem was like, and she said that she had no idea. When she turned him down, he tore it up.
Blood on the Tracks is a masterpiece of torn-up love, the shreds of Dylan’s marriage. The hours I spent with that album in 1975, gouging its life out, rubbing its salt in my wound. The intensity of its emotion, the depth of its pain seemed the very essence of what I thought romantic love was meant to be: theatrical and hyperbolic, a Romeo and Juliet with an alternative ending, odium instead of (the far preferable) death.
So here we are again, almost forty years later. I still have the original LP, but it spits and jumps—half of “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” was rendered unplayable after a bead of burning hash fell on it—so I’m listening on CD. Nothing of it has faded. I could feel tears welling up during “If You See Her, Say Hello.” There’s something about that spare, acoustic melody, its timeless North Country Fair–ness, the words that are all the more effective from being plainspoken, direct, and unfeigned. At least he sounds heartbroken. But pick a track, any track, and he might sound exhilarated.
So many colors in this painting. Where once I only saw darkness and pain, there’s spleen—glorious, gleeful spleen—and liberation where I just saw loneliness. “I haven’t known peace and quiet for so long I can’t remember what it’s like,” Bob sings in the least-heightened (and probably least-quoted) lyrics of “Idiot Wind,” and though they might refer to the horror of being a public figure, or an abandoned husband, they can also turn a harrowing song of love and hate into a “Positively 4th Street” filtered through the clichéd line of a long-suffering spouse. It wasn’t that long before this album that life in Woodstock with his wife, Sara, and the kids and a paintbrush seemed so congenial—listen to “The Man in Me” on New Morning or “You Angel You” on Planet Waves. But their straightforward, unheightened, almost mundane lyrics only lulled us into a false sense of coziness that was shattered by Blood on the Tracks.
Dylan could be as scathing as all fuck about women in his songs (“Like a Rolling Stone” is an instant example), but in his love songs (“Love Minus Zero, No Limit” in 1965; “Beyond the Horizon” in 2006), he elevated them, idealized them, treated them with great courtliness. He and Leonard Cohen had that in common—although Dylan’s chivalry and worship didn’t come with the carnality of Cohen’s. (I do have to say that Leonard’s unmade bed seems a far livelier proposition than Bob’s big brass one.) And if both of them could turn on a woman if she should fall from grace, Cohen would find it hard to beat Dylan’s rapturous contempt and irresistible causticity.
Blood on the Tracks is all mood swings: It’s love, it’s hate, he wants her back, he doesn’t, he respects her for going, he sends his love through a third party, he crawls past her door, pities the next stranger or poor blind bum to whom she hands a dime, and then goes off and writes that rambling, “Rocky Raccoon”−like script to a TV Western, “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.” And all of it feels true. The popular view is that it is true, that this is Bob putting his black and bleeding heart on display for the world to see. His marriage had hit the rocks (this much can be verified), and Blood on the Tracks was the revenge porn video, the divorce-court transcript in which Dylan admits to having faults (“I can change I swear”) though nothing as numerous and vile as his wife’s, apparently (“I bargained for salvation, she gave me a lethal dose” is one of my favorites).
But in reality, the album is so full of false leads and riddles and characters—Jesus on the cross, a rich heiress, a gang of bank robbers, Verlaine and Rimbaud—drifting from first-person to third-person (and both in “Tangled Up in Blue”) that Dylan’s supposed most personal album might really be about anyone, or lots of people, or no one at all.
But I wasn’t a rock writer then; I was a kid, and none of this mattered. No, all of it mattered, and mattered so much that Blood on the Tracks became one of those records which I have, which we all have, in our armory or in our medicine cabinet or under our bed, and go to whenever we need it, whatever we might need it for. And of course it will always be the first album that a man I slept with won for me in a card game. Maybe the only album a man I slept with won in a card game; I’m not saying.
Sylvie Simmons is one of rock & roll’s greatest and most prolific journalists. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Sounds, Creem, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, and MOJO. She has written album liner notes for the likes of David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, and Johnny Cash, and has also published several acclaimed books, including the biographies I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen (2012) and Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes (2001) and the short story collection Too Weird for Ziggy (2004). Born in London, Simmons lives in San Francisco. Her debut album Sylvie was released in 2014 on Light in the Attic Records.