Bob Dylan in America

by Sean Wilentz

7 October 2010


And the Booing Resumed

Over the next two months, Dylan and the Hawks resumed touring—from Toronto, Canada, to Washington, D.C.—and the booing resumed, though not in Memphis. On November 22, Dylan married Sara Lownds, née Shirley Noznisky, a recently divorced former actress and fashion model whom he had met privately in New York through Albert Grossman’s wife, Sally. Eight days after the wedding, two days after the Washington concert, and one day before flying off for a West Coast tour, he was back in the studio with the Hawks, minus the leader, Levon Helm, who had wearied of playing in a backup band and quit; Bobby Gregg played drums in his stead. The newlywed now carried with him a masterpiece he had to record right away. “This is called ‘Freeze Out,’ ” Dylan announced with a note of triumph as the tape started rolling for the first session take.


Bob Dylan and the Hawks at the War Memorial, Syracuse, New York, November 21, 1965

“Stop… That’s not the sound, that’s not it,” he breaks in early on. “I can’t… ’at’s not… bauoom... it’s, it’s more of a bauoom,bauoom... It’s nota, it’s nota, it’s not hard rock. The only thing in it, man, that’s hard is Robbie.”

“Freeze Out” was “Visions of Johanna,” virtually intact, but Dylan was even less certain about how he wanted it played than he was about the title. On the session tape, he and the Hawks change the key and slow the tempo at the start of the second take, if only to hear more closely. “That’s not right,” Dylan interrupts. He speeds things up again—“like that”—and bids Gregg to go to his cowbell, but some more scorching tests are no good either. “Stop… That’s not the sound, that’s not it,” he breaks in early on. “I can’t… ’at’s not… bauoom... it’s, it’s more of a bauoom,bauoom... It’s nota, it’s nota, it’s not hard rock. The only thing in it, man, that’s hard is Robbie.” A broken attempt features a harpsichord, possibly played by Garth Hudson. “Naah,” Dylan decides, though he keeps the harpsichord in the background. Out of nowhere comes the idea for a new introduction, starting off with Dylan on harmonica, preceding a slower, hair-raising, bar-band rock version. But Dylan doesn’t hear “Freeze Out” that way either, so he quiets things down, inching closer to what will eventually appear on Blonde on Blonde—and it is still not right. Dylan had written an extraordinary song—he would boast of it at a San Francisco press conference a few days later—but had not rendered its sound. Over the coming months, starting in Berkeley, he would perform the song constantly in concert, but in the solo acoustic half of the show. (The first “Visions of Johanna” date did yield, in an evening session, a forceful final take of “Crawl Out Your Window”—but the single’s ill-timed release, just after Christmas, generated mediocre American sales.)

Dylan became frustrated and angry at the next Blonde on Blonde date, held three weeks into the new year during a break from touring. In nine hours of recording, through nineteen listed takes, only one song was attempted, for which Dylan supplied the instantly improvised title “Just a Little Glass of Water.” Eventually renamed “She’s Your Lover Now,” it is a lengthy, cinematic vignette of a hurt, confused man lashing out at his ex-girlfriend and her new lover. Nobody expected it would be recorded easily. (Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, interjects on the tape, just before the recording starts, that there is a supply of “raw meat coming up for everybody in the band.”) The first take rolls at a stately pace, but Dylan is restless and the day has just begun.

On successive takes, the tempo speeds, then slows a bit, then speeds up again. Dylan tries singing a line in each verse accompanied only by Garth Hudson’s organ, shifting the song’s dynamics, but the idea survives for only two takes. After some false starts, Dylan says, “It’s not right… it’s not right,” as if something just keeps eluding him, and soon he despairs: “No, fuck it, I’m losing the whole fucking song.” He again changes tempos and fiddles with some chords and periodically scolds himself as well as the band: “I don’t give a fuck if it’s good or not, just play it together… just, just, make it all together, you don’t have to play anything fancy or nothing, just… just together.” A strong, nearly complete version ensues, but Dylan flubs the last verse. “I can’t hear the song anymore,” he finally confesses. He wants the song back, so he plays it alone, slowly, on the tack piano he has been playing for the entire session, and nails every verse. He reacts to his own performance with a little “huh” that could have been registering puzzlement or rediscovery. But Dylan would end up discarding “She’s Your Lover Now,” just as he would abandon a later, interesting take of an older song, originally written for the blond European chanteuse Nico, “I’ll Keep It with Mine.”

For better or worse, Dylan had become used to honing his songs and then working quickly in the studio, even when he played with sidemen. He had finished Bringing It All Back Home in just three studio dates involving fewer than sixteen hours of studio time. It took five dates, one overdub session, and twenty-eight hours for Highway 61 Revisited (along with the single “Positively 4th Street”). After three dates and more than eighteen hours in the studio on this new endeavor, Dylan had one unrealized tour de force, one potentially big song, and one marginally popular single, but little in the way of an album. One way to move forward was to bring in veterans of earlier Dylan sessions. Four days after failing on “She’s Your Lover Now,” Dylan recorded with Paul Griffin on piano, William E. Lee on bass, and, fortuitously, Al Kooper (who stopped by to see his friend Griffin but wound up sitting in on organ). Bobby Gregg returned once again to substitute for Levon Helm on the drums and was joined this time by the Hawks’ guitarist, Robbie Robertson, and bassist, Rick Danko. Dylan also brought two new songs: the funny, jealous put-down blues “Leopard- Skin Pill- Box Hat” (based in part on Memphis Minnie’s “Me and My Chauffeur Blues,” and in part on Lightnin’ Hopkins’s“Automobile Blues,” but laid aside temporarily after two strong takes) and “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later),” recorded simply as“ Song Unknown” after Dylan pondered in the studio but could not come up with a title. The results on “Song Unknown” were stunning.

The lyrics are straightforward, even ordinary, tracking a burned-out love affair’s misunderstandings. Dylan shifted tempos and pieced together the lyrics section by section inside the studio, working off the line, later abandoned, “Now you’re glad it’s through”; the title chorus only began to emerge on the fifth take. But the sound texture that makes “One of Us Must Know” so remarkable was built steadily, late into the night and into the next morning. After take seventeen, Dylan heeds the producer Johnston’s advice to start with a harmonica swoop. Crescendos off of an extended fifth chord, led by Paul Griffin’s astonishing piano swells (“half
Gershwin, half gospel, all heart,” an astute critic later wrote), climax in choruses dominated by piano, organ, and Bobby Gregg’s drumrolls; Robbie Robertson’s guitar hits its full strength at the finale. Intimations of the thin, wild mercury sound underpin rock-and-roll symphonics. Johnston delivers a pep talk before one last take—“it’s gotta be that soul feel”—there is a false start, then Gregg snaps a quick click opener, and less than five minutes later the keeper is in the can.

“After That, It Went Real Easy”
“We knew we had cut a good ’un when it was over,” Al Kooper remembers. But despite the successful experiment, the next day’s recording was canceled, as were two other New York dates; during the one completed session, on January 27, Dylan played around with words and driving melodies and tried to nail down some songs, but the work produced nothing of lasting consequence for the new album. A change in venue had been in the works, and despite the results on “One of Us Must Know” it would go forward. During the Highway 61 sessions, Bob Johnston had suggested that Dylan try recording in Nashville, but according to Johnston, Grossman and Columbia objected and insisted everything was going fine in New York. Dylan, though, finally went along with Johnston. He had been listening to Nashville- recorded music since he was a boy and knew firsthand how Johnston’s Nashville friends might sound on his songs. At Johnston’s invitation, the multi-instrumentalist Charlie McCoy had sat in on a Highway 61 session and overdubbed the borderland acoustic guitar runs that grace the released version of “Desolation Row,” strongly reminiscent of the great session guitarist Grady Martin’s work on Marty Robbins’s “El Paso.” It was an impressive calling card. “After that,” McCoy remembers, “it went real easy.”

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