Listening to Our Parents Talking: ‘Blood on the Tracks’ and the End of Dylan’s Pastoral Fantasy

Bob Dylan
Blood on the Tracks

“The songs are my parents talking.”

Jakob Dylan on Blood on the Tracks

As an Australian teenager in the early ‘90s, I went to my friend Billy Silvers’ house in a neighbouring suburb and surveyed the relics of his boomer parents’ early interests and aspirations. On the bookshelves next to The Atkins Diet, Future Shock, I’m OK-You’re OK, The Gulag Archipelago, The Hite Report, and Erich Segal’s pop culture phenomenon Love Story, we found The Greening of America by Charles A. Reich, The Drifters by James A. Michener, and Rod McKuen’s Fields of Wonder.

Hidden away in some drawer — possibly forgotten — was The Joy of Sex. By then Billy’s parents were replacing their choice vinyl with CDs. Billy and I played the LPs they weren’t replacing: the first Paul McCartney solo album with the picture of the baby inside Paul’s jacket; Michel Legrand’s soundtrack to Clint Eastwood’s Breezy; Elton John’s songs for the movie Friends, which celebrated a love affair between nubile teens in the Camargue. Lots of Cat Stevens. John Denver’s hippie-Christian Rhymes and Reasons and his uxorious marshmallow-and-hot-chocolate Rocky Mountain Christmas. Also squeezed in there was Bob Dylan’s New Morning from September of 1970, a fine record but just about the most inconspicuous Dylan album imaginable. And it was the Silvers’ only Dylan album. Were they nuts? No Blonde on Blonde or Highway 61?

My first impression was that New Morning was Dylan for people who didn’t really like Dylan. Billy and I played it and heard why. A revelation! It’s Dylan in love. Optimistic Dylan. Nice-guy Dylan. New Morning was much more interesting than the Silvers’ other records — idiosyncratic and funny and sloppy as ever — but thematically consistent with the rest of that watered-down post-Woodstock commercial pastoralism.

On the title track of New Morning, Dylan sings: “Can’t you feel that sun a-shinin’ / Groundhog runnin’ by the country stream / This must be the day that all of my dreams come true / So happy just to be alive / Underneath the sky of blue / On this new morning, new morning / On this new morning with you.”

It sounded pretty ideal. I found out later that Dylan had started the whole back-to-nature vibe and shifted the cultural mood with the bootlegged Basement Tapes and Nashville Skyline. Well, the Silvers’ record collection chronicled that pastoral sentiment from The White Album (upgraded to CD) and Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey (ditto) to the soft-focus meadows beyond Bread’s “Baby I’m-a Want You” (not upgraded).

Since Blood on the Tracks is almost universally known as Dylan’s divorce album, New Morning should be equally known as his happy family album. But maybe happy families are all alike. Certainly, for all of New Morning‘s pretty visions of walking beside fountains in the mountains, it has no such resonant line as “I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline which separated you from me.” But it provides an important angle if you want to grasp Tracks.

Dylan’s Walden

New Morning is best known as the record that chased after the self-destructive Self-Portrait and reassured everybody that Dylan hadn’t completely lost his talent or his mind. Still, it came to be seen as no more than a stop-gap between the heights of Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks. The album is casually thrown together (but not as casually as Self-Portrait). We get a couple of songs from the botched Archibald MacLeish musical project Scratch, some silly studio jams (“When Dogs Run Free”), a few conspicuously slick radio-friendly love songs (“If Not For You”, “The Man in Me”), and some rougher performances built around Dylan’s piano track (“Went to See the Gypsy”, “Time Passes Slowly”). The overarching vision? “I don’t know what everybody else was fantasizing about,” Dylan later wrote in Chronicles, “but what I was fantasizing about was a nine-to-five existence, a house on a tree-lined block with a white picket fence, pink roses in the backyard. That would have been nice. That was my deepest dream.”

New Morning is Dylan’s Walden. It evokes a pastoral fantasy life in a time when the much-hounded celebrity Dylan saw American cities “in flames, the bludgeons coming down… it seemed like every day there was a new riot in another city, everything on the edge of danger and change — the jungles of America being cleared away.” Well, they were being cleared away. This was not just race riots and anti-war protests; this was the legacy of white flight suburbanization, the corrupted slum clearing projects of urban renewal, and the rotting away of inner-cities.

The generation who came of age in Australia just before Gough Whitlam’s government (1972-1975) was absolutely pro-marriage. Any other kind of arrangement was unthinkable to the mainstream. Young people were founding nuclear families run by housewives and funded by nine-to-five dads. They still went to church. Many built houses in the ever-expanding suburbs of the capital cities, when that was still affordable.

But in a lot of ways these newly middle-class boomers broke away from the outlook of their working class parents. There was a desire to add an enviro-spiritual dimension to suburban life, no matter if it had to be expressed in the acceptable language of bourgeois consumption. Firstly they decorated everything in shades of earthy 1970s brown: chestnut, auburn, mahogany, tan, coffee, russet, chocolate, ochre. On weekends they took picnics in local parks. During annual leave they went camping, or rented beach houses up the coast. They listened to records like New Morning.

Andrew Jensen’s parents were different. Andrew was the only one of my schoolmates who did not live on a quarter-acre block in the suburbs. He lived on his parents’ country property outside Ourimbah on the New South Wales Central Coast. The Jensens were Danish immigrants. On the night of Andrew’s fourteenth birthday, while my friends were huddled around a computer playing Doom, I was upstairs talking to Andrew’s mother. Things often turned out this way when I went to Andrew’s place. The living room shelves were packed with yellow-spined Deutsche Gramophone records and large-format art and photography books. You could inspect Mrs. Jensen’s line drawings of gloomy pines and windbuchen beeches. There were photos of the Jensens on skiing holidays in Kitzbühel and Zermatt, or in autumnal New York Central Park circa 1973. The family had come to Australia sometime in the late ’70s and built this big house in the bush. The afternoon sun came down over the creek where we skimmed stones. The light hit the tall dry grass and made it glow like fired magnesium. Out in Ourimbah the Jensens had created the pastoral escape evoked so vividly in the early cultural interests of our parents.

Mrs. Jensen was probably 40. From Aalborg. She insisted we call her by her first name, Klara. She had loose brown hair, but not as long as it flowed in the old photographs of Central Park. She was yoga-limber. She wore tight jeans and a sheer clay-red smock around the house. No shoes. A sardonic smile. Since I’d started coming over to play, I’d won Klara’s favour — singled myself out — by picking up her nylon-string guitar and finger-picking the Beatles’ “Mother Nature’s Son.” Klara must have seen some promise in me alone among Andrew’s friends, because she insisted I take home her hardback copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It was very dusty. I found it boring. But that night I said I loved it.

Us boys had spent the afternoon of Andrew’s birthday tobogganing down a slope on the far side of the creek. We used squares of tarpaulin that moved like magic carpets. The grass was thick and green. It had started to rain, and our toboggan path became a rivulet of mud. Now we were really flying down the hill. Andrew refused to let us heed his father’s demands from the paddock that we come out of the rain. Mr. Jensen had lost the fat moustache and sideburns I’d seen in the holiday photos. He wore a white panama hat. He was probably ten years older than Klara, and was definitely Mister Jensen. He was finicky about Andrew’s fingernails. We’d heard him yelling into the phone, telling a pizza delivery guy to fuck himself because he couldn’t spell ‘Jensen’.

One day when Mr. Jensen was out on business, Andrew had snuck us into his old man’s study to show us the porn stash: crinkly copies of Oui and Danish hairy-beaver stroke mags. Videos of Bilitis and Emmanuelle. There was also a framed Pink Floyd poster (Live at Pompeii) and a copy of Gödel, Escher, Bach. For years Mr. Jensen had worked as an audio technician for a public broadcaster, but he’d been retrenched and was now unemployed.

While we tobogganed Mr. Jensen lurked at the bottom of the hill. When it was dark we crossed the paddock to the downstairs laundry. We washed the mud off our legs and arms. Klara brought us into the kitchen and served big mugs of sugary coffee. Mr. Jensen lectured Klara in Danish, on and on and on, until she demanded in English, “Why are you so afraid of mud?” This made Mr. Jensen fume. He called her a “kaelling” (bitch) and left the house, took off up the dirt road in his Volvo, and didn’t return in time to drive us boys to ten-pin bowling as he’d promised. We had to skip it. I thought he was an ungrateful prick. But I did get to spend two hours that evening alone with Klara, who sat cross-legged on the sofa, fiddling with her grubby toes, as the rain drummed the roof. We talked about Denmark and skiing and yoga. She was drinking red wine, refilling her glass many times from a bottle on the carpet. Finally she fixed on my eyes and said: “Matthew, do you know this life has been absolute hell for me for years?”

Malicious Defamation Everywhere

I always liked the absurd idea of Dylan as a pistol-packing Porfirio Rubirosa. In “Idiot Wind” we hear the story about shooting “a man named Gray” and absconding with Mrs. Gray, who mysteriously “died”, leaving our narrator a million bucks. “I can’t help it, if I’m lucky,” quips Dylan. It feels like there is malicious defamation everywhere, not just inside the relationship that is ending. This is the paranoid central metaphor of “Idiot Wind”, a vision powered by an eruption of violent ill-will between spouses, where wrongs seem to transcend the personal and start to encompass an entire society “from the Grand Coolie Dam to the Capitol.”

The wrath of “Idiot Wind” has coloured the reputation of everything else on Blood on the Tracks. Dylan first recorded a slow acoustic version in New York — depressed, the insults as a last resort, no wind in his sails. Then he re-recorded it with a band for the final version of the LP — paranoid, full of rage. Even better, however, is the version on the live album Hard Rain, performed at Fort Collins, Colorado, on 23 May 1976, supposedly in front of the soon-to-be ex-Mrs. Dylan. This performance from the tail end of the Rolling Thunder Revue is funked up by Rob Stoner (bass) and Howie Wyeth (drums). It has a stop-start rhythm, a busy bass line and hard rimshots. It’s even angrier than the Tracks version, but somehow also exultant. The Colorado “Idiot Wind” is the culmination of the emotional turmoil that runs through the Blood on the Tracks era.

The vocal performance is inventive, all over the place. When Dylan accidentally starts a line of lyric too late or messes up the word order, he throws the remaining words ahead of him in striking improvised rhythms: “I haven’t know peace and quiet for SO long (beat) Idontevenrememberwhatitslike.”

If you see the video of the concert, Dylan seems to be having a great time. Here Dylan the hater is back with a vengeance, shouting lines nastier than anything in “Positively Fourth Street” or “Like a Rolling Stone”: “I can’t even touch the clothes you wear!” he excoriates. “I noticed at the ceremony, your corrupt ways had finally made you blind!” As usual it’s hard to tell whether Dylan’s fully inhabiting the persona of the spiteful husband like a method actor or just making an extravagantly macabre joke. What is striking is Dylan’s ability to be so heedless. Later on Dylan didn’t pretend to be a paranoid isolationist born-again Christian (“Sheiks walkin’ around like kings”); he fell into that lunacy with his own kind of sincerity, and it opened unforeseen artistic possibilities. It’s his modus operandi.

What takes this song beyond an awesomely spite-filled rant is the final verse, Dylan’s hopeless evocation of marital intractability:

“You’ll never know the hurt I suffered/Nor the pain I rise above/And I’ll never know the same about you/Your holiness or your kind of love/And it makes me feel so sorry.”

I listen to Blood on the Tracks not only from the point-of-view of a grown man but also from that of late Gen X kids listening to their parents talking. I hear the bitterness in the wake of dashed aspirations for the pastoral. For all of Dylan’s old world mythology of “lone soldiers” and “boxcars”, it sounds like a familiar account of marriage breakdown in the era of our parents. In Dylan’s evocations of marriage the pastoral dream vanishes and the relationship goes to hell, which is the heart if not every bone of the career-anchoring Blood on the Tracks.

Matthew Asprey is a writer holed up in Sydney’s inner-west. He teaches creative writing at Macquarie University, Sydney, and his short stories have appeared in Island, Extempore, Total Cardboard, and various underground ‘zines such as Sydney Samizdat, which he cranks out on an unregistered roneo at his own peril. He blogs at Honey for the Bears.