Images and Distorted Facts: The 35th Anniversary of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks
Our look at Bob Dylan's classic Blood on the Tracks continues with how the album progresses through a Kubler-Ross model of grief and a look at Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and Dylan's mid-'70s revival.
Edited by Rodger Jacobs and Anthony Lombardi and Produced by Sarah Zupko
Introduction by Rodger Jacobs
What can be said about Bob Dylan’s tangled and complex masterwork Blood on the Tracks that has not already been written, hypothesized, and rumored? Since the landmark album was released by Columbia Records in January 1975, the album has been dissected and examined with the sober seriousness usually reserved for lost scrolls of the Talmud or the prophecies of Nostradamus.
It has often been speculated – and speculation is the operative word here – that Blood on the Tracks was the artistic expression of the emotional fallout that rained down on Dylan’s anointed head following the heartbreaking dissolution of his twelve-year marriage to Sara Lowndes. Dylan’s 15th studio album has been hailed as “the ultimate divorce album” and a highly autobiographical work, a claim that session musician Kevin Odegard boldly asserts was “put forth and supported” by his 2004 book about the making of the record, A Simple Twist of Fate.
Odegard, who played back-up guitar on the fabled Minneapolis sessions, scoffs at Dylan’s insistence in the memoir Chronicles, Volume One that the lyrics for Blood on the Tracks were inspired by the short stories of Russian writer Anton Chekhov, Dylan’s favorite author. There is more truth, however, in the songwriter’s statement than Odegard and his supporters choose to believe or comprehend.
In execution and effect, Blood on the Tracks bears a direct lineage to the works of the celebrated author and playwright. In his experimental stories and theatrical dramas Chekhov explored dialogue in which the true emotional action ran beneath the surface of the text, operating on the belief that human beings rarely express what is on their minds and dance around the matter at heart in trivial conversation.
“Chekhov often expressed his thoughts not in speeches,” writes Constantin Stanislavski, famed Russian theatre director, in his autobiography My Life in Art, “but in pauses and between the lines or in replies consisting of a single word … the characters often feel and think things not expressed in the lines they speak.”
The ten songs that comprise Blood on the Tracks represent, in classic literary form, a journey taken by a shadowy protagonist who has “paid some dues gettin’ through”; by the end of the journey of self-discovery, Dylan’s protagonist observes that all of the people he “used to know” are an illusion to him now and he has been profoundly changed, for better or worse, by the experience (Tangled Up in Blue).
Compare and contrast the above with the following passage from Anton Chekov’s The Wife as Raymond Carver interpreted a verse from the story in his poem Two Carriages from the 1989 collection A New Path to the Waterfall:
I recalled all the details of that strange wild day, unique in my
life, and it seemed to me that I really had gone out of my mind
or become a different man. It was as though the man I had been
till that day were already a stranger to me …
Virginia Woolf observed in her essay The Common Reader that Chekov’s psychologically and spiritually complex stories shattered “the assumption that stories ought to conclude in a way that we recognize”; so, too, in 1975 did Chekhov devotee Bob Dylan forever alter the way we approach lyrics in popular music. As Dave Tilton writes in his original essay for this retrospective, One of Blood and Toil, Dylan’s compositions on Blood on the Tracks were “markedly different from the then-current musical diet on American Top 40 (radio) stations. Thus music did not sound like ABBA, Bad Company, or Jive Talkin’. It was the vinyl equivalent of food” for the undernourished mind and imagination.
With Blood on the Tracks, writes Gregg Lipkin in Bob Dylan: The Voice (another of six original essays in the first volume of our two volume tour through the heart of Dylan’s darkness), “(Dylan) pens the thoughts of an angry man kicking and screaming his way to the end of a relationship he can’t wait to get out of.”
Lipkin’s interpretation could be 100 percent on the money or it could be complete speculation. Who the hell knows? I don’t know and neither does Kevin Odergard or any other critic or Dylan hagiographer. Only Bob Dylan knows the truth to the lie and thus far he stands steadfastly by what he wrote in Chronicles: Blood on the Tracks was inspired by the literary works of Anton Chekhov.
“You are right in demanding that an artist should take an intelligent attitude to his work,” Chekhov wrote to Russian publishing magnate Aleksey Suvorin on 27 October 1888 (Letters of Anton Chekhov), “but you confuse two things: solving a problem and stating a problem correctly. It is only the second that is obligatory for the artist.”