Music

Afterword: Rhymes of a Rolling Stone

Rodger Jacobs

Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks is a superb work of theater, a classic, albeit cryptic, tale of triumph over adversity.


Bob Dylan

Blood on the Tracks

Label: Columbia
US Release Date: 1975-01-17
Amazon
iTunes
“Why did you fall off the Earth, Tom Thorne, out of our social ken?

What did your deep damnation prove? What was your dark despair?”

-- The Atavist, Robert Service, Rhymes of a Rolling Stone (1916)

Whether the lyrical content of Bob Dylan’s 1975 musical masterwork Blood on the Tracks is autobiographical or “confessional” is a moot point as we arrive at the conclusion of this 35th anniversary retrospective.

In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times (22 April 2010), a contemporary and one-time close friend of Dylan, singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, expressed resentment at having her musical output labeled as “confessional” by critics and pop culture historians.

“It’s an ugly term,” the iconic artist explained to writer John Diehl, “it’s confessional if you don’t get it -- if you do get it, you see yourself in the songs. I usually use ‘I’ as the narrator in my songs but not all the “I’s” are me; they’re characters. It’s theater. Tennessee Williams’ plays are drawn from personal experience -- does that make him confessional?”

So, too, is Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks a superb work of theater, a classic, albeit cryptic, tale of triumph over adversity (“I’ve been double crossed now for the very last time/ And now I’m finally free”). From the first track (“Tangled Up in Blue”) to the last (“Buckets of Rain”) Dylan’s blood burns through the musical prose in a performance that is either cathartic or the finely-tuned work of a Method actor with a guitar or both.

Born of anger and despair, real or fabricated, the air bites shrewdly in Blood on the Tracks (to borrow an appropriate phrase from Shakespeare’s Hamlet) but there exists no singular line reading of the lyrics to the ten tracks on the album, as evidenced by at least two essays in this unique collection that examine new lines Dylan inserted into live performances of Tracks songs, effectively changing or altering the narrative... if a linear narrative existed to begin with.

“I would say people will always believe in something if they feel it to be true,” Dylan quipped in a 1978 interview with Playboy magazine. “Just knowing it’s true is not enough. If you feel in your gut that it’s true, well, then you can pretty much be assured that it’s true.”

In other words, as the French literary theorists are fond of repeating, all art is subjective so there can be no universal meaning to any song, novel, painting, or graffiti sprawl on a subway wall.

When the official studio recording of Blood on the Tracks was first released by Columbia Records in 1975 I was 16 years old; the album has remained a consistent part of my personal and cultural life over all the years since, its personal meaning changing with each byzantine step of my personal biography. How could it not be any other way? That’s how art works on and continually transforms the human soul. How dull life would be if we felt the same emotion every time we gazed upon Van Gogh’s Starry Night; art, an ethereal beast to begin with, refuses to be captured and identified like a butterfly in Nabokov’s net.

In the liner notes for Biograph (1985) Dylan discussed the opening track of Blood on the Tracks, the now-classic “Tangled up in Blue”, with interviewer Cameron Crowe:

“I was trying to deal with the concept of time,” Dylan remarked, “and the way the characters change from the first person to the third person, and you’re never sure if the first person is talking or the third person. But as you look at the whole thing it really doesn’t matter.”

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image