Blood on the Tracks can be viewed as an early example of the potential for a record to be a piece of interactive media.
When I was 16, I got a job working in the music department at Barnes & Noble. I worked there for years and bought hundreds of CDs, but I have particularly fond memories of the first few months. That was when I pigged out on Bob Dylan, filling the gaps in my collection until I owned everything from his debut through Desire, plus Biograph, The Bootleg Series, the Greatest Hits records, and the brand-new Time Out of Mind. Dylan was, at the time, my favorite artist, and he remains so to this day. I just can't thank my disposable teenage income enough. I was a Dylan fan already, and I really dug much of what I was then hearing for the first time. But the album that I latched onto with the greatest reverence was one that I pieced together on my own.
I must have bought The Bootleg Series before I bought Blood on the Tracks, but after I'd absorbed “Tangled Up in Blue” via radio and Greatest Hits Volume 3, because I remember being shocked by the Bootleg Series version. It was slower, longer, more reflective and wistful. I still loved the album version, but the acoustic take seemed really special. I enjoyed “Idiot Wind” and “If You See Her, Say Hello” as well, probably because they, too, were stripped-down performances. These tracks felt different from his earlier solo acoustic material. Rather than sounding like he was singing to the world, he sounded like he was singing to me.
This intimate music quickly became an obsession. I bought Biograph and discovered “You're a Big Girl Now” and “Up to Me”, and finally picked up Blood on the Tracks. My love for the rejected material that was on The Bootleg Series and Biograph led me to listen only to the songs that had that sound. And so, before I'd even heard the proper album in its entirety, and because I made tapes of everything back then, I made a tape of Blood on the Tracks as an acoustic album:
“Tangled Up in Blue” (The Bootleg Series)
“Simple Twist of Fate” (Blood on the Tracks)
“You're a Big Girl Now” (Biograph)
“Idiot Wind” (The Bootleg Series)
“You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” (Blood on the Tracks)
“If You See Her, Say Hello” (The Bootleg Series)
“Shelter from the Storm” (Blood on the Tracks)
“Up to Me” (Biograph)
“Buckets of Rain” (Blood on the Tracks)
Basically, if it had drums, I didn't wanna hear it. So “Call Letter Blues”, although somewhat inaccurately presented on The Bootleg Series as an early version of “Meet Me in the Morning”, wouldn't work on my version of the record.
It was for years, then, that my preferred mode of experiencing Blood on the Tracks was via this mix tape. Even though all of this material was available to anyone who wanted it, this act of revision seemed awfully clever to me in the days before Napster, before I'd ever owned a bootleg, and before I realized that there was a lot of controversy surrounding Blood on the Tracks. I knew that many of the songs had been re-recorded, but I didn't know the album had been pressed and slated for release in a form that was very similar to my tape, but also quite unlike it: “Up to Me” was discarded altogether, “Meet Me in the Morning” and an acoustic “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” were added, and the Bootleg Series cuts were actually alternates of the takes that appeared on the test pressing.
Meanwhile, blissfully unaware of the album's complicated history, I grew more and more obsessed with my Blood on the Tracks tape. I went to Italy in 1998 for a school-related spring-break trip, and the only tape I listened to while I was there was my version of Blood on the Tracks, with 45 minutes of Time Out of Mind on the reverse. (“They say I shot a man named Gray/And took his wife to Italy” is a permanent lyrical reminder.)
It would be years before I warmed up to the official version of Blood on the Tracks. “You're a Big Girl Now” and “If You See Her, Say Hello” really lost something, I thought, with all the extra instrumentation; I thought they sounded like elevator music, and I'm still trying to get over my misgivings. But it's tough to argue with “Tangled Up in Blue”, which isn't merely the best song on the album, but one of Dylan's five or ten best ever. “Idiot Wind” became one of my college jukebox favorites -- eight minutes of music for a quarter! I've always liked “Lily”, ever since I heard it years and years ago late at night when they played long, radio-unfriendly songs on St. Louis' classic rock station. Even “Meet Me in the Morning”, probably the least-impressive song on the album, has grown on me in the last year or so.
So my listening habits in regards to Blood on the Tracks have changed somewhat. I'm almost as likely to cue up the official release these days as I am the version I dubbed -- get this -- Blood on the Tracks (Acoustic). I find the sonic consistency of my mix pleasing, and I'm never one to turn down an opportunity to listen to a record that made a serious emotional impact on me, which that mid-'90s mix tape certainly did. But the finished, Dylan-approved album offers its own pleasures: perfect sequencing and momentum, variety, a warmth and beauty that none of his other albums quite achieve, and of course one of the best collections of songs he ever assembled, in performances that almost always fill me with awe. There's a reason his best albums since 1975 are inevitably compared to Blood on the Tracks: it's a hard album to top.