It was the summer of ’89, after my junior year of college, after my girlfriend dumped me, and after I’d sublet an apartment off-campus, that I first listened to Blood on the Tracks. Since I lived alone and didn’t have many neighbors, I staid up as late as I wanted, playing guitar and listening to music. I worked for spare change as a bus boy at Bonanza, but the job didn’t take up more than 15-20 hours a week. Why a friend, knowing I was an emotional wreck would loan me a copy of Blood on the Tracks is beyond me. I suppose it wasn’t as dangerous as a fifth of Jim Beam or a .45 Colt, though songs like “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” did lead me to contemplate jumping from my second story apartment window. While I haven’t spoken to the friend since college, and the girl somehow managed to live her life without me, Blood on the Tracks has remained a faithful companion ever since.
I’m not certain why it took me so long to listen to the album. I’d been a Dylan fan for a number of years and knew the album was important, perhaps his best. I was familiar with “Tangled Up in Blue” from the radio and played a rudimentary version of it on my acoustic guitar. Perhaps it was destiny, the stars lining up, or just a whim of the Great Mother that conspired to save the album for a special occasion when I’d be most receptive to it.
The magic thing about Blood on the Tracks is that it’s so emotionally raw; this is what makes the album cut so much deeper than Dylan’s earlier (and later) albums. On albums like Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, he wrote great songs, lyrics, and melodies, but remained detached. On Blood on the Tracks, he’s wearing his tattered heart on his torn shirtsleeve, and he paints a sad, tired tale of a man scraping bottom. Add to this the idea that Dylan is really singing about himself as he desperately tries to hold on to his wife, Sara, and pretty soon you’re feeling real sorry for the big lug. Sure, this might not be the real scenario, but when you listen to the music, it sounds pretty damn close.
Blood on the Tracks kicks off with three real downers, slowly miring you into the cheerless world of love gone to hell in a handbasket. “Tangled Up in Blue”‘s plot line follows two lovers as they lose and find one another over a period of several lifetimes. The point of view is as screwed up as it is in Shakespeare’s sonnets, with Dylan standing outside and inside the story at the same time. While the tale of the two lovers pulls you in, the strangeness — shifting from loggers in the great North woods to revolutionary France — keeps you off balance. The sadness thickens in “Simple Twist of Fate”, as happenstance — forgetting to drop a coin in a blind man’s cup — keeps lovers separated, and Dylan’s self-pity — at once condescending, resigned, and filled with pain — drops to an emotional low in “You’re a Big Girl Now”.
Just when you’re ready to break out a fresh pack of razors and slit your throat, Dylan cuts loose with an angry “Idiot Wind”, an epic “fuck you” song blown into cosmic proportions. It’s as though he combined “It Ain’t Me Babe” with “Desolation Row”, and then poured out a spleen full of viciousness he’d been withholding ever since Blonde on Blonde. He spits out: “You hurt the ones that I love best, and cover up the truth with lies / One day you’ll be in the ditch, flies buzzin’ around your eyes / Blood on your saddle”. Sure, he may be a little too pissed off to be objective here, but the song serves as a needed blood letting, cleaning out all the poison.
The emotional ups and downs continue, from bummers like “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” and “If You See Her, Say Hello” to the surprisingly uplifting “Shelter from the Storm”. I’ve never really understood the significance or appeal of “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”, but I’d miss it if it wasn’t on the album. It’s the seventh song and it lasts so long (about nine minutes), that it always surprises me when three more songs appear after it.
Over time, Blood on the Tracks has taken on a religious significance to me. I like to have the CD case lying on the bedside table, just so I can take a peek at it now and then. The lyrics, as they pile up on one another, as one song spills into the next, continue to reveal new tidbits of wisdom; they offer assurance, providing just the right phrase for whatever trial or tribulation I find myself in. In a way, the songs have become part of me, and playing the album more of a rite than a listening experience. I suppose when art reaches the level of Blood on the Tracks, it is religion.