Like a Revelation: Interacting with ‘Blood on the Tracks’

Bob Dylan
Blood on the Tracks

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.

Instinct over calculation

It wasn’t until I started acquiring bootlegs (thanks to Napster and a now-out-of-business St. Louis record dealer) and delving into the wealth of other, illicit Dylan material that I began to see a connection between what I did to Blood on the Tracks by making my own version and what Dylan had done to his own album. Essentially, I’d created for myself an alternate reality of sorts: if I talked about Blood on the Tracks, I was talking about my tape, and in a strange way, I almost resented that Dylan had messed with it.

One can look back almost to the beginning of Dylan’s career to find him already starting to second-guess himself. His second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, was pressed and promoted, then withdrawn, then issued with different tracks. Those new songs were “Girl From the North Country”, “Masters of War”, “Talkin’ World War III Blues”, and “Bob Dylan’s Dream”, and I’m not sure many people would argue that he made a poor choice in revising the album. Similarly, although I’ve been partial to the stripped-down version of Blood on the Tracks, what Dylan eventually released can hardly be considered anything less than a masterpiece.

Dylan’s judgment since about 1980, though, has been more suspect. How much better would Shot of Love have been with “Caribbean Wind” and “Angelina”? Or Infidels with “Blind Willie McTell” and “Foot of Pride”? Or Oh Mercy, heralded as Dylan’s best album in years — the best since Blood on the Tracks, according to many critics — with “Born in Time”, “Series of Dreams”, and “Dignity”? All of these albums open themselves up to games of “what if?” and, yes, opportunities for fan mixes. (I’ll admit I’m guilty of this with all three of those albums, even if none of them comes close to the acoustic Blood on the Tracks.)

What Dylan did with Blood on the Tracks is different, though, in that it wasn’t just a judgment of which songs to include and which songs to discard. This was a rare case in which he re-recorded songs with radical new arrangements and wound up with a drastically different record. That both albums are brilliant in their own ways is, I think, what separates Dylan from lesser artists. The rejected songs are so few in this case – basically just “Up to Me” and “Call Letter Blues”; but the rejected versions are so plentiful and so truly different that it’s easy to just plug the New York solo takes into the sequence in place of the Minneapolis band ones, and you’re left with a radically different version of the same album. Very little imagination need be involved.

Why the re-recordings? Well, the agreed-upon explanation for Dylan’s change of heart is that the New York takes were too intimate, that they revealed too much of Dylan’s emotional state. It’s easy to see why: these are naked performances, and what little of the sound doesn’t come from Dylan himself — Tony Brown’s perfect bass throughout, Buddy Cage’s steel guitar on “You’re a Big Girl Now” — is so at one with Dylan that the songs need nothing more, and the sparse instrumentation certainly does put all the focus on the lyrics. There’s an argument to be made, though, that the sameness of sound also leads to a less dynamic album. In that sense, it’s hard to argue with some of the changes he made in Minneapolis. The most obvious improvement is to “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”, which was utterly lifeless in its New York incarnation. (I suspect this is why the New York “Lily” hasn’t seen an official release.) But “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Idiot Wind”, which were less in need of life support, were still rather impressively energized in their new versions.

The differences between the New York and Minneapolis tracks were not restricted to the musical. “Tangled Up in Blue” underwent some pronoun changes, “Lily” lost a verse — it wasn’t especially missed — “If You See Her, Say Hello” was given an anodyne new lyric to replace a line quoted in the liner notes (“If you’re makin’ love to her/Kiss her for the kid”), and “Idiot Wind” received a massive rewrite. (New York: “You close your eyes and part your lips/ And slip your fingers from your glove/ You can have the best there is/But it’s gonna cost you all your love/You won’t get it for money.” Minneapolis, preserving the rhyme but communicating something quite different: “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.”) The Minneapolis version is angrier, brasher, and due at least as much to the new lyric as to the raging full-band arrangement.

Strangely, I’ve never heard a New York-session partisan acknowledge the fact that Blood on the Tracks, as it was originally pressed, would’ve been a far from perfect record. “Meet Me in the Morning”, as the only full-band performance on the record, would’ve stuck out awkwardly amongst a bunch of basically solo recordings. And the New York version of “Lily” would’ve been regarded as one of the least interesting non-throwaway Dylan songs in memory. Other epic Dylan compositions, like “Desolation Row” or “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, don’t just hold interest: they impress. The New York “Lily” does neither.

The Minneapolis sessions wouldn’t prove to be the end of Dylan’s reworking of the Blood on the Tracks songs. Over the next year, he would continue to rewrite the lyrics, rearrange the songs for different contexts, and display an overall dissatisfaction with keeping the material static. True, this is not unusual for Dylan, but that he did this so soon after the album’s release and to such an extent makes his reconsideration of Blood on the Tracks unique.

“Simple Twist of Fate”, for instance, was rearranged for a small band for Dylan’s performance on a TV tribute to John Hammond, and underwent a number of lyrical changes. The final verse was most radically altered: “People tell me it’s a crime / To know too much for too long a time / She should’ve caught me in my prime / She would’ve stayed with me / Instead of going off to sea / And leaving me to meditate / Upon that simple twist of fate.” By the fall of 1975, Dylan was back to performing the song solo, albeit very differently from the album version, but retained the revised lyrics.

“Tangled Up in Blue”, likewise, seemed a little regressive in its Rolling Thunder Revue incarnation. Dylan had revised the third-person New York lyric for the Minneapolis sessions, and the classic version is sung in the first person. But on tour, Dylan was singing it in the third person again, and performing it as a solo acoustic number. (“Tangled Up in Blue” would go on to be one of the most frequently rewritten songs in the Dylan canon, which is unusual for such a standard.)

The most shocking updates of Blood on the Tracks material, though, would come in the spring of 1976. On the live album Hard Rain — the semi-soundtrack to a TV special which contains some of the most gripping performance footage of his career — Dylan turned “Shelter From the Storm” into a slide-guitar-driven electric howl, and slowed down “You’re a Big Girl Now” even more than usual, with piano, violin, and something like a Spanish-style guitar bringing the drama to the forefront. But both of those songs retained their original lyrics, unlike “Idiot Wind”, which was given its second major revision, less drastic than the first but possibly more bitter, if that can be imagined. (As one example, New York’s “Hoofbeats pounding in my head at breakneck speed and making me see stars” became “Visions of your chestnut mare shoot through my head and are making me see stars” in Minneapolis, and that in turn morphed into “Visions of your smoking tongue …” in the performance captured on Hard Rain. In the same verse, what had always been “One day you’ll be in the ditch, flies buzzing around your eyes” suddenly became “One day you’ll be in the grave.” Ouch.)

While Dylan would continue to play many of the songs from Blood on the Tracks for years following the album’s release, the year and a half between the New York sessions and Hard Rain would be the period in which he would mold the songs the most. Always a performer to favor instinct over calculation, Dylan clearly saw these songs as works in progress, rather than as finished pieces to stand back and admire.

In this way, Blood on the Tracks is a sort of early example of the potential for a record to be a piece of interactive media. Like a DVD that provides the option of viewing a scene from a particular camera angle, or a choose-your-own-adventure novel, or a video game that offers myriad decisions at your fingertips, Blood on the Tracks doesn’t have to be static. Just as Dylan must have done when he heard the test pressing, we can listen to the released album and say, “I think this could be better, or at least interesting in a different way.”

So go on, boys and girls, and play your hand. Dylan messed with Blood on the Tracks for years. You might as well give it a shot, too.