Of Love, Loss, and the Song: Blood on the Tracks
In receiving this assignment of articulating my favorite album, the editors of PopMatters have explicitly instructed me to “forget for a moment about being stranded on a desert island”. Yet in the process of selecting my favorite album of all of the albums that I’ve heard, loved, owned, and pined for, I found myself reflecting on the principle of the “Desert Island Disc”. The Desert Island Disc embodies the simple, yet profound, relationship that we may all have with our favorite songs and albums above its commonplace consumption. This implies a kind of a special engagement with music that is far-removed from the everyday ways in which music accompanies us in our routine activities: on the subway while commuting to and from work; or in the cozy comfort of our cars; or as companionship for the long road trip; or something to move us along as we begrudgingly do the dishes; or perhaps to be slowly lulled into sleep by a familiar song. The very idea of the Desert Island Disc imposes a severe limitation that tests our relationship to music and the vital role that it may play in our lives. You are stranded—that is, alone—on a deserted island with little else more than your vulnerable body. And with you, you have nothing else but your thoughts and memories, your hopes, survivals skill and acumen, and, lastly, a handful of songs to remind us of our sealed fate as well as our lasting connection to the human community. No, there is no wireless network so all-encompassing that it can reach you on a deserted island.
After serious consideration, revisions and indecisions, there was only one that emerged: Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan.
Blood on the Tracks is the one album that rises above all other contenders, obscuring them in its titanic blaze, because it is, at once, so familiar as well as mysterious, and so seemingly simple and yet unruly. At its most blunt and congruent reception, Blood on the Tracks is a fully sustained work that expresses rage, pain, and, at times, cruelty. Undoubtedly, a product of Bob Dylan’s own struggles to come to grips with the dissolution of his 8-year long marriage to Sara Dylan, the album is deeply rooted in the dark side of life through themes of love lost, being lost, revenge, and regret. If there are any moments akin to exuberance, they invariably occur in moments of absolute contempt, as in one of series of lyrical crescendos from the epic “Idiot Wind”: “One day you’ll be in the ditch, flies buzzin’ across your eyes / Blood on your saddle”. As such, in its most assertive moments—for Blood on the Tracks is mostly a subdued affair of discreetly wavering impressions—the albums is either a concoction from a sorcerer’s brew of ill content or the ugly remains from an unruly carnival. I wondered to myself whether I would really wantto be in the company of such a dark and troubled album through an indefinite period of solitude such as my imaginary sojourn on a deserted isle? Or to paraphrase Bob Dylan’s own appreciation of the album: why would anyone want to celebrate an album that is rooted in so much pain? Should Blood on the Tracks be the one album that I would want with me as I am helplessly cooking in the sun?
The answer is a resounding, “yes”, despite all of these factors and in direct opposition to the potential facile appraisal of the album. Blood on the Tracks is not an easy-listening album. It offers no clean morsel for instant gratification. It is too quiet, too contemplative, and too methodical for casual consumption. There are no radio-friendly sing-along choruses. Even in its only plausible candidate for a crowd-pleasing anthem, “Tangled Up in Blue”, Dylan offers very little to excite the brutish impulses in us all. If the songs on Blood on the Tracks evoke colors at all, the canvas would be soaked in crimson red with monochromatic streaks of gray and black.
Yet in their unity, these 10 songs of Blood on the Tracks are each wonderfully rich and affecting stories that grow on you through repeated listening. Nothing is ever quite what it seems, as it is foretold in “Idiot Wind”: “Everything is a little upside down”. The songs reveal their dormant meanings when we least expect them to. Sometimes the meanings jump right at you but later you just might change your mind and be led in an entirely different direction. Or these songs will speak to you like distinct and evocative episodes of a lesson learned. They seemingly talk directly to us, offering their pearls of wisdom, consolation, and comfort without making demands on us. Like a profound memory or thought, these songs are familiar and foreign in the same. The songs bend, twist, overlap, and reshape what may have been there originally. And we may be the better for this. The question is: Why wouldn’t I want to be in the company of this album when I am most needful? For in the Desert Island scenario, the last thing that I would want is for the objects around me to remind me of my sad marooned status. I would want riddles and mysteries to help pass the time, a buttress to facilitate the preservation of memories, a source of healing, and an unwavering image of hope despite the grim and mute reality of extreme solitude. I would want all this and more: I’d want Blood on the Tracks.
Contrary to what we often demand from art and artists, Blood on the Tracks hardly provides any significant insight into the life of Bob Dylan. I know a thing or two about his story, as I have been an astute reader of his numerous biographies, but there is scarcely anything in Blood on the Tracks that smacks of autobiography. From the first-person narrative position, this is an album of tales that are told in song by a motley cast of fools, drifters, infidels, cuckolds, criminals, lovers, and dreamers. For all I know, Bob Dylan could be any number of these characters or none of them at all. But if there is any place in which Bob Dylan emerges as himself in Blood on the Tracks, he is found in the opening lines of “Shelter from the Storm”: “‘Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood / When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud / I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form”. That is, if he emerges at all, it is only for this brief moment as the artist, the creator as the creature from the wilderness who is “void of form”. Real life and real heartbreak are doubtlessly the original impetuses for the creation of the album, yet Blood on the Tracks ultimately achieves its singular universal greatness by stripping away the layers of specific and local pain (of the singer and the songwriter Dylan) that have been accumulated from private experience and by connecting these loose foci along the colossal and timeless themes of Love and Loss. In this imaginary journey from real life to that of art, Blood on the Tracks creates and refashions an unworldly world that is full of wonder, treachery, buffoonery, mystery, and reward; in short, the human condition.
And throughout Blood on the Tracks, Dylan keeps us constantly on our guard. Sometimes, as in “Simple Twist of Fate,” the narrative lapses from its third person perspective to the first person: “They walked along by the old canal / A little confused, I remember well”. Or, as in “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”, Dylan floods the story with a ceaseless parade of characters and curiosities for there to be just one meaningful appropriation. And what is the significance of the rooster crowing in “Meet Me in the Morning”? There is no answer given but like the great blues tunes, the song raises this question for itself: “Little rooster crowin’ / There must be something on his mind”. Even the seemingly straightforward tales provide elusive details of their very nature. Is “Simple Twist of Fate” about a single titanic love affair or is it a couched confession of a night of infidelity? In “If You See Her, Say Hello”, the real reason for the breakup with the lover (whose fault was it, really?) is stated rather offhandedly: “We had a falling-out, like lovers often will”. Everything is a little upside down, indeed.
For that matter, most often the words in this album do not offer clear indications of their true meaning. At their best, the words retain their elusive quality, which can register as a bitter sound off or a mark of wound, depending on how one hears it. “I couldn’t believe after all these years, you didn’t know me any better than that, sweet lady”, he sings in “Idiot Wind”. The “sweet lady” that trails and lingers in this line places the listener in an uncomfortable region that is caught between scathing irony and a plea for tenderness. Upon its 4th incantation (4th time around?), the refrain to the song “Idiot Wind” suddenly switches from an accusatory second person (“You’re an idiot, Babe ”) to a reflexive first person plural, from “you” to “we” (“We’re idiots, Babe / It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves”). At its lowest, Dylan’s lexicon reverts to arcane expressions that are better suited for a drunken conversation: “A change in the weather is known to be extreme / But what’s the sense of changing horses in midstream” (“You’re a Big Girl Now”). But everything here is fascinating and captivating, nevertheless.
What is to be communicated in the end is left to the voice of the singer. This is where Blood on the Tracks (as well as the entirety of Bob Dylan’s career) reveals its deference to tradition. The songs themselves are strangely mysterious tales that are steeped in the basic themes of the popular vernacular music that preceded it in all places in all times: Love, Loss, and a third, the Journey, takes us from one to the other, and back again. And just like the traditional songs from the country, folk, and blues vernaculars, the continued life of the song is literally given wind by the manner in which it is sung; that is, how the human voice transforms a seemingly haphazard mess of incomprehensible, if confused, thoughts and sentiments into a resonating story—flawed and entirely human. Ultimately, we find meaning in these words and tales in the way that we hear Bob Dylan singing them. What we hear isn’t determined by a fixed ratio between two terms: if we arrive at meaning from what we hear (based on the tone, the inflection, and the various stylistic nuances of the vocal performances) then there is never a stable source of predetermined meaning. What we hear is often what we thought we heard and what we would want to hear. At times we may realize that we once thought turns out to be completely wrong, but no matter, we move on without discouragement: “We always did feel the same / We just saw it from a different point of view” (“Tangled Up in Blue”). This is why Blood on the Tracks, like any great surviving recordings from the pre-modern era (the Carter Family, Dock Boggs, Clarence Ashley, to name of few), feels both familiar and foreign, personal and detached, for everyone and for no one at the same time. Blood on the Tracks is no more about Bob Dylan’s experiences as they are about yours or mine. There is feeling and real emotions, both raw and meditative, involved here. They’re just neither yours nor mine, not his either. In the original liner notes to Blood on the Tracks, Peter Hamill articulated this phenomenon ever so poignantly: “Dylan’s art feels, and invites us to join him”.
I cannot bear to sit through a single complete listening of Blood on the Tracks when I am dealing with my own impoverished episodes of Love and Loss. If I am ever to be heartbroken again, I will, like most other times, turn to the soothing melodies of the Beach Boys as an escape. Nevertheless, Blood on the Tracks has a special place potentially for all of us because in creating an unreal world, Bob Dylan has allowed us to think about the real world as it is reflected back from these stellar songs. There are no messages, no truths, no direction or home: Dylan merely provides us with a shifting looking glass which forces us to look harder and more patiently at ourselves at ever discreet turn. Thus—ironically enough—I turn to Blood on the Tracks every now and then when things are seemingly quiet and innocuous in order to be reminded of the fine yet brittle ideas, sentiments, and emotions that are always in danger of being obscured or wiped out entirely. In “Simple Twist of Fate”, Dylan sings, “People tell me it’s a sin / To know and feel too much within”. He might have been speaking for us there, we who are intricately caught up in the web of a technological and rationalized society. Whenever I revisit Blood on the Tracks it reminds there is still a place for mystery, awe, and wonder even in this world of incessant calculations, paltry predictions, and instantly attainable information (“Their minds are filled with big ideas, images, and distorted facts” from “Idiot Wind”).
In closing the album with a quiet lilting lullaby, “Buckets of Rain”, the album reveals something about its own journey, purpose, and discovery: “Life is sad / Life is a bust / All you can do is do what you must / You do what you must do and you do it well”. It was there all along: Love and Loss, and the long Journey between, and repeat. Or had we simply forgotten that this was stated ever so plaintively in “You’re a Big Girl Now”? “Love is so simple, to quote a phrase / You’ve known it all the time / I’m learning it these days”. We knew all this already; we’ve known it all along. Stuck in our transparent and stagnant ways, we need to experience this journey between Love and Loss from time to time. Bob Dylan furnishes us with the cart and the company.
And finally, if real, lived life is necessarily stripped away in art; it nevertheless retains its integrity as the original impetus for the journey of self-discovery. These parting lines say so much about where it all began, that is, from a simple sentiment intended for another: “I’ll do it for you / Honey baby, can’t you tell”?