Excerpted from Bob Dylan In America by Sean Wilentz (excluding footnotes; images slightly modified for online publishing). Copyright © 2010 by Sean Wilentz. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Chapter 4: The Sound of 3:00 A.M.: The Making of Blonde on Blonde, New York City and Nashville, October 5, 1965 – March 10 (?), 1966
A memory from the summer of 1966: Across the Top 40 airwaves, an insistent drumbeat led off a strange, new hit song. Some listeners thought the song too explicit, its subject of madness and persecution too coarse, even cruel. Several radio station directors banned it. Yet despite the controversy, or more likely because of it, the record shot to number three on the Billboard pop- singles chart. The singer-songwriter likened the song, which really was more of a rap, to a sick joke. His name was Jerry Samuels, but he billed himself as Napoleon XIV, performing “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha- Haaa!”
That spring, an equally controversial single, with an eerily similar opening, had quickly hit number two, and by summer “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” had reappeared as the opening track on the mysterious double album Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan, who said the song was about “a minority of, you know, cripples and orientals and, uh, you know, and the world in which they live.” Over Coppertone-slicked bodies on Santa Monica Beach and out of secluded make-out spots and shopping-center parking lots and everywhere else American teenagers gathered that summer, it seemed that the ba-de-de-bum-de-bum announcing Dylan’s hit about getting stoned was blaring from car radios and transistor radios, inevitably followed by the ba-de-de-bum-de bum announcing Jerry Samuels’s hit about insanity. It would be Samuels’s only big recording, and in July, Dylan suddenly left the scene and retreated into seclusion in Woodstock.
Such were the cultural antinomies of the time as Bob Dylan crossed over to pop stardom. Blonde on Blonde might well have included a character named Napoleon XIV, and the album sometimes seemed a little crazy, but it was no joke (not even the frivolous “Rainy Day Women”), and it was hardly the work of a madman, pretended or otherwise. At age twenty- four, Dylan, spinning on the edge, had a well ordered mind and an intense, at times biting rapport with reality. The songs are rich meditations on desire, frailty, promises, boredom, hurt, envy, connections, missed connections, paranoia, and transcendent beauty—in short, the lures and snares of love, stock themes of rock and pop music, but written with a powerful literary imagination and played out in a pop netherworld.
Al Kooper and Bob Dylan in 1966
Blonde on Blonde borrows from several musical styles, including 1940s Memphis and Chicago blues, turn-of-the-century vintage New Orleans processionals, contemporary pop, and blast-furnace rock and roll. With every appropriation, Dylan moved closer to a sound of his own. Years later, he famously commended some of the album’s tracks for “that thin, that wild mercury sound,” which he had begun to capture on his previous albums Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited—a sound achieved from whorls of harmonica, organ, and guitar. Dylan’s organist and musical go-between Al Kooper has said that “nobody has ever captured the sound of 3 a.m. better than that album. Nobody, not even Sinatra, gets it as good.” These descriptions are accurate, but neither of them applies to all the songs, nor to all of the sounds in most of the songs. Nor do they offer clues about the album’s origins and evolution—including how its being recorded mostly in the wee, small hours may have contributed to its 3:00 a.m. aura.
Publicity photograph of the Hawks, circa 1964. Left to right: Jerry Penfound, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson
Reminiscences and scraps of official information have added up to a general story line. During the autumn and winter of 1965–66, after his electric show at the Newport Folk Festival in July and amid a crowded concert schedule, Dylan tried to cut his third album inside of a year at
Columbia Records’ Studio A in New York with his newly hired touring band, Levon and the Hawks, which until 1964 had been the backup band for the rhythm-and-blues and rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins. The results were unsatisfactory. Blonde on Blonde arose from Dylan’s decision to quit New York and record in Nashville with a collection of seasoned country-music session men joined by Al Kooper and the Hawks’ guitarist, Robbie Robertson. But that story line is incomplete.
From the time he began recording regularly with electric instruments, Dylan, his palette enlarged, fixated on reproducing the sounds inside his mind with minimal editing artifice. The making of Blonde on Blonde combined perfectionism with spontaneous improvisation to capture what Dylan heard but could not completely articulate in words. “He never did anything twice,” the album’s producer, Bob Johnston, recalls of Dylan’s mercurial manner in the studio, “and if he did it twice, you probably didn’t get it.” Making the record also involved happenstance, necessity, uncertainty, wrongheaded excess, virtuosity, and retrieval. One of the album’s finest musical performances, maybe its finest, unfolded in New York, not Nashville, perfected by a combo that included three musicians—Rick Danko, Bobby Gregg, and Paul Griffin—who have never received proper credit for working on the album. Some of the other standout songs were compact compositions that took shape quickly during the final Nashville sessions. And what has come to be remembered as the musical big bang in Nashville actually grew out of a singular evolution that turned one grand Dylan experiment into something grander.
At the discotheque Ondine in Manhattan on the evening of the first recording session for Blonde on Blonde, October 5, 1965. Left to right: Rick Danko, Bob Dylan, Bob Neuwirth, David Blue, and unidentified [Venetia Cunningham?]
Left to right: Dylan, Johnny Cash, unidentified, and Bob Johnston, Nashville, Tennessee, 1969
The producer Bob Johnston, a Texas-born protégé of John Hammond’s, had overseen the last four of the six Highway 61 sessions (replacing Tom Wilson, Dylan’s record producer since The Times They Are A- Changin’), and Johnston was back for Blonde on Blonde. Not surprisingly, Dylan had not written any new material that approached “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Desolation Row.” This first day’s efforts included two takes of “Medicine
Sunday,” an early version of what would evolve into “Temporary Like Achilles,” and two takes (separated by a good deal of sketchy instrumental riffs) of another song that became two songs with very different lyrics: the first, a downtown hipster joke given the title “Jet Pilot”; the second, a quasi- parody of the Beatles’ “I Wanna Be Your Man.” The parody morphed, later in the session, into six takes of what Dylan, on the session tape, calls “I Don’t Wanna Be Your Partner, I Wanna Be Your Man,” and was later labeled “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” The parody improved during the session and had some intriguing lines—fragments from the entire day’s work would later reappear on Blonde on Blonde—but the results, maybe intentionally, amounted to musical warm- ups. The session ended with an untitled instrumental, later called “Number One,” also unreleased on Blonde on Blonde but later bootlegged. The date’s bright spot was recording new takes of “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” a single left over from the Highway 61 sessions.