[27 April 2010]
As a child I used to accompany my father as an observer on his hunting expeditions. He was not a trophy hunter; except for occasional pheasant feathers for his children, he killed strictly for food. I never took a single shot at anything other than empty cans during those trips. I think he just wanted me to be with him and for me to learn how to find game. I learned everything a hunter would need to know during those trips: how to look for claw marks on trees, droppings on trails, bite patterns on bushes, and blood on the tracks.
Blood on the Tracks, Bob Dylan’s 1975 album for Columbia Records, is the musical equivalent of claw marks and bite patterns on the heart, droppings on trails where the past and the future are linked to a simple twist of fate, and the spot where the ellipse of red dots on the paw prints of the hunted meets the hunter with one common goal: find shelter from the storm.
I was 19 years old when this collection of songs first arrived in music stores. Stockton, California’s University of the Pacific had a railroad car on campus that had been converted into a record shop where customers could pay cash or swap old recordings for something new. Stockton’s AM rock station KJOY had been playing new Dylan songs about being tangled up in blue, an idiot wind, and a mysterious character known as “the Jack of Hearts”, all of them markedly different from the then-current musical diet on American Top 40 stations. This music did not sound like ABBA, Bad Company, or Jive Talkin’. It was the vinyl equivalent of food and I was famished.
The back cover of the album jacket for Dylan’s 1967 album John Wesley Harding includes a self-penned fable about three kings, one of them convinced that “the key is Frank”. During my initial exposure to Blood on the Tracks I was convinced that the “key” was the Jack of Hearts, who weaves in and out of “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” like a Muhammad Ali jab, floating like a butterfly (“starin’ at the butterfly who just drew the jack of hearts”) and stinging like a bee (“be careful not to touch the wall, there’s a brand-new coat of paint”). The song is a brilliantly constructed tale of mystery, power, robbery, sex, and murder, drawn with the finest of strokes, each character delivered with the absolute minimum of details, and performed by a singer who sounds—as he does on every one of Blood’s songs—like someone who knows every secret and is willing to drop a few hints regarding some of them. A masterpiece.
But not the key.
If there is a key to understanding Blood on the Tracks, rain may provide the most useful clue in unlocking the collective mystery of its songs. Where “everyone is making love or else expecting rain” in Desolation Row, Blood’s songs deliver the latter as an “emotional weather report” (thank you, Tom Waits) beginning with “Tangled Up in Blue” and carried through to, naturally, “Buckets of Rain”. The only exception (and I am including by proxy the verse cut from an earlier version of “Idiot Wind” that begins with the phrase “we pushed each other a little too far and one day we just fell into a raging storm”) is “If You See Her, Say Hello” which tends to generate its own precipitation from listeners.
To illustrate the above point, mash-up all but one of the rain-associated references from the Blood songs in sequential order, which results in something kind of like Verlaine and Rimbaud: “Rain fallin’ on my shoes / As the evening sky grew dark / And I’m back in the rain, oh / One day we just fell into a raging storm / Dragon clouds so high above / Felt the hail fall from above / The sky was overcast and black / Buried in the hail / Buckets of rain.”
The missing reference from this construction, of course, is the true “key” to Blood on the Tracks: the refrain “Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”
“Shelter from the Storm” begins with four seconds of unaccompanied acoustic guitar strumming, lively, purposeful, and then it is joined by the voice. “’Twas in another lifetime,” Dylan begins, “one of toil and blood,” immediately establishing this song as one cut from the same musical cloth as the traditional folk tales, gospel songs, and murder ballads Robert Zimmerman was learning before he “came in from the wilderness”, only not as “a creature void of form” but as “Bob Dylan”. It is a song that, 35 years after its original release, remains both contemporary and as timeless as one of the most basic archetypes of human experience: the hunter.
History and myth reveal three basic types of hunter: first, the hunter/gatherer who operates strictly to sustain life on either a personal or group level; second, a warrior whose primary motivation is destruction; third, a seeker whose interest lies in finding Holy Grails or a heart of gold.
The hunter in “Shelter” is not akin to the one in traditional Scottish ballads like “Horn of the Hunter” or “Do Ye Ken John Peel”. He is not a mythical figure like ancient Greece’s Orion, destined to roam the night skies in constellation form for eternity as punishment for threatening to kill all of the world’s animals during a hunting expedition with the goddess Artemis. He is, instead, a seeker with no interest in destruction but reconnection. Despite being “burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail, poisoned in the bushes an’ blown out on the trail, hunted like a crocodile (the hunter becomes the hunted), ravaged in the corn”, this quest will continue until she is found or the hunter is dead. “Nothing really matters much,” the narrator in “Shelter” states, “it’s doom (destiny, fate) alone that counts.”
Blood on the Tracks, in summation, is the classic story of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wants girl back. But it is not going to happen. There will be no shelter from the storm.
There would, however, be numerous performances of “Shelter from the Storm” by Dylan following the release of Blood, beginning with the one that remains my personal favorite to this day: the televised 1976 electric version with the Rolling Thunder Revue that was broadcast on CBS TV in the US as a concert special titled Hard Rain, along with the subsequent album of the same title.
Forget the football stadium audience drenched with rain when Dylan opens the concert with “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, forget the three stunningly gorgeous acoustic duets he sings with Joan Baez (“Well, I’ll be damned,” she says before they begin, echoing the opening line from “Diamonds and Rust”, her song about their past relationship as the King and Queen of Folk Music), forget the goofy hand-held camera swoops, the broadcast transcends all expectations when Dylan straps on a white guitar that looks like a psychedelic geometric exercise gone horribly wrong, pulls an amber-colored bottleneck slide (apparently made, in true bluesman tradition, from a broken beer bottle) from his left coat pocket, puts it on his left pinkie, and proceeds to coax a series of lubricious notes from his fretboard.
The entire band, reassembled into an electric format, falls in with a three-chord groove as Dylan begins to sing, “’twas in another LIFE-time, one of toil and BLOOOOOOOOOD!” I have a video recording of this performance, still watch it from time to time, and never fail to get chills from this segment of the program. The white guitar, incidentally, has “CAMUS” printed on it in black capital letters; Pete Hammill’s original liner notes for Blood mention “the Oran of Camus” in the second sentence, an obvious reference to Albert Camus’ The Plague, another “world of steel-eyed death, and men who are fighting to be warm.”
Then there is the matter of the lines “she walked up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns” and “in a little hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes.” Allusion to literary or historical references is not the same as claiming the reference as factual. The songs of Blood on the Tracks were surely inspired by the ending of Dylan’s marriage to Sara Lowndes; the reference to a “crown of thorns” was a metaphor for a high (some would say “the highest”) form of suffering, not The Last Temptation of Zimmy or The Passion of the Bob.
I had hoped to hear “Shelter” when I saw one of Dylan’s first Slow Train Coming concerts at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater in 1979. It would have fit in as well, if not better, as the gospel-flavored version I saw him do a year earlier in Oakland. Didn’t happen. Maybe he wanted to distance himself from his previous body of work. Maybe, as in “Shelter”, there was little risk involved.
In modern times “Shelter from the Storm” has regularly found its way onto the set lists of the Never-Ending Tour, the ongoing concert series of Dylan performances that began in 1988. The last time it was performed was on June 23, 2008 in Zaragoza, Spain during the ExpoZaragoza2008, an international water festival designed to highlight the importance of clean and reliable water supplies. Buckets of rain, anyone?