Music

Bob Dylan: Blonde on Blonde

Scott Waldman

When the needle dropped onto the twirling black disc otherwise known as Blonde on Blonde, its crackling was as comfortable as the relief the gray skies were giving us from the heat.


Bob Dylan

Blonde on Blonde

Label: Columbia
US Release Date: 1966-05-16
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The percussive pittering of the rain on the attic roof shingles pattered in time with the beats of my heart. A few weeks prior I had donned the black robe, and accepted my college degree, the world's most expensive piece of paper, to the sound of clapping hands. Now, a part of my life had just ended and soon another part would begin, but before it did I had a summer of limbo. Just floating, like Dustin Hoffman in the pool in The Graduate. I was spending the rainy day photographing all the strange corners and objects in my attic room. In the corner my girlfriend of a few months was quietly drawing in the dull, yellow, light of an Indiana afternoon.

When the needle dropped onto the twirling black disc otherwise known as Blonde on Blonde, its crackling was as comfortable as the relief the gray skies were giving us from the heat. Bum. Baaa. Ba. Baaa. "Well they'll stone you when you're tryin' to be so good." What the hell did Bob Dylan mean by that? As unpredictable as he was, was Dylan really the type to write a drug anthem? Maybe he meant an old-fashioned stoning, where people threw rocks at a perpetrator, like they did in the Bible. More likely than that, he kept it vague on purpose; giving us listeners the song, to do with it what we wanted. Blonde on Blonde has so many different voices, faces, places, and sounds it has been relevant to every phase of life I have been in since I first bought it.

Now "Visions of Johanna", that was a drug song. And it was one of the greatest rock songs ever written. "Ain't it just like the night to plaaay tricks when yer tryin to be so quie-yiit / We sit here stranded, though we're all doin' our best to deny it". As a youngster, the first time I really heard that song, I revised my anti-drug policy, and went full fledge into experimentation. I had to see what he was talking about. But what was going on in that room where the heat pipes coughed was a much higher bridge than the one I was willing to jump off. Was Johanna really blood and freshly cooked heroin mixing in a needle and then flowing into a vein? Was this what salvation was like after a while, asked Dylan in the song. For someone not quite 20, a visit to the other, artificial side of reality was a look at salvation. Ah, the folly of youth, with the "gall to be so useless and all."

Even further back than that, when I first got the album as a college freshman, I saw it as dark, enigmatic party music for people who thought that John Keats was a lot more important to human history than Bill Gates. It was a whimsical soundtrack capable of sustaining a room full of inebriated fools in a singalong session with enough merriment and debauchery to be a contemporary twist on The Threepenny Opera. My closest guy friends and I would gather in a dorm room on a Friday night. Slowly, the volume on those boombox speakers would be pushed to the end of the dial. These sessions would eventually reduce those speakers to a quivering, shredded fuzz. For that year though, the speakers got loud when we needed them to. "You know it balances on your head / Like a mattress on a bottle of wine / Your brand new leopard-skin pill box hat". We were newly liberated from our parents and not yet on the rollercoaster of our 20s. Of course, well before we reached our goal of having a wall of forty 40-ounce bottles, the album revealed emotional depths that fell far below the surface scratching of malt liquor.

Back in that attic room, Blonde on Blonde was a love song, about individuals intertwined, and the risks of such an action. As the album played, for the first time I realized I was in love. It might have taken 21 years, but love had definitely reached me. Blonde on Blonde was the rain, and light melodies and persistent, driving rock beats soaked me, gathering into puddles on the floor. And then the camera stopped clicking and the pencil stopped scrawling and for a time two lost souls found each other in their dark caves and helped each other around the rocks they found there.

And later, when love followed those tempting signs that say "Only 100 miles to South of the Border" while I stayed up in the cold North, Blonde on Blonde came back out. It was my therapist that made confusing things a lot clearer and roped in feelings that ran amuck. "And when we meet again, introduced as friends / Please don't let on that you knew me when / I was hungry and it was your world." By that time, the album was so important I would only listen to it on record, and only a few times a year. It was an event, to be alone in my room, laid out on the floor by candlelight, with the vinyl turning next to me. It was an old friend, come to reminisce about other times, to shed light on the present, and to get me excited about what was to come.

And now, in New York City, where the initial recording sessions for the album were held, I lay on the wood floor of my apartment and listen to Dylan as he speaks to me. Blonde on Blonde still illuminates my life in ways that no other piece of art ever has. It's so vast I've managed to fit my life thus far into it, and there seems to be room for quite a bit more. Dylan's Night Watchman in "Visions" asked himself if it was him or them that was really insane. As I am washed on the waves of everyday life with this grooved, black, vinyl life preserver to keep me afloat, I find comfort in the fact that we all are insane and that, for at least the duration of this glorious album, it doesn't matter.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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