“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.”