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Blonde on Blonde Revisited and Reinterpreted for Today

'Blonde on Blonde': Dylan's Greatest Album? - Alberto Cabello

From a man as controversial as Bob Dylan, who reinvents himself regularly, it’s hard to choose one album to mark a pivotal turning point, but this is it.

In a 2006 review of the All-Time 100 Albums on Time, Alan Light included Blonde on Blonde (1966), coming at the end of a 14-month period of creativity from Dylan, that he never equalled. Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited preceded what became labelled ‘rock’s first significant double album’. Significant it was, and remains a seminal work.

Light described it as having ‘a tense, shimmering tone’, and after the ‘tiresome’ opener, Rainy Day Women 12 and 35, it went on to achieve Dylan’s greatest heights, ‘the very pinnacle of rock’. British Dylan devotee Roger Ford agreed, publishing a major work, reconstructing every facet of the album from recording techniques and history to lyrics, from quirks to personal touches.

Ford called it ‘the record that can’t be set straight’. He admits that it wasn’t necessarily better than other Dylan albums; it just caught him at the right time ‘to sink in deeper’. That’s how it captures many listeners over the decades. Ford was also drawn to the sheer range of issued versions with different editings and remixes: two mono, two stereo vinyl, different sleeve photos, song with no agreement on title, two CDs and an abridged version.

The Mysteries Explained

Which is the ‘real’ Blonde on Blonde? Ford attempted an answer, but wondered, in effect, if it mattered to only sound purists. They are all ‘real’, or none. Mixing and methods used to lay down recordings make differences to the way people hear songs. Later remixing, more/less bass or drums and stereo/mono issues have become a tangled web of confusion with this album.

Some versions have called Side 2 Track 2, Memphis Blues Again; the Dwarf Music Songbook called it Stuck Inside of Mobile With The. Rainy Day Women had the sound and feel of drugs, according to Stephen Webb in his book Dylan Redeemed (2006), but the lyrics ‘stone you jus’ like they said they would’, implied religious persecution. He looked at Dylan as born-again Christian.

He said that many Blonde on Blonde songs could ‘be classifed as druggy’, but his use of ‘intuitive associations and juxtaposed time frames’ could be traced to other influences, such as painting. He accepted that Dylan said marijuana was part of the musicians’ scene, but Dylan denied interest in psychedelics.

Also writing from a religious perspective, Michael J Gilmour in Tangled Up in the Bible (2004), said songs from the album have direct Bible references. Stuck Inside of Mobile with The ‘was an important person inviting strangers to his son’s wedding’ (from Matt 22:1-14 and Luke 14: 16-24).

Gilmour said Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands had the lines ‘sad-eyed prophet’ (from Jer 8:21-9:1, 13:17 and ‘kings of Tyrus’ (from Ezekiel 22:12). However, Nigel Williamson’s Rough Guide to Bob Dylan (2004) said of the epic 11 minutes of song: ‘it contains plenty of clever word-play and coded private imagery’, but Dylan’s devotion to Sara Lowndes (admitted on the Desire album, 1976) with phrases like ‘flesh like silk’ and ‘saint-like face’, was obvious.

He maintained that I Want You from the album, released as a single in 1966, was also a straightforward love ballad for Sara, among a list of typical Dylan characters, like ‘the guilty undertaker’, ‘drunken politicians’ and the ‘dancing child with his Chinese suit’. Dylan wrote many of these songs in the Chelsea Hotel, where he also spent time with Edie Sedgwick, who preceded Sara.

Williamson suggested Just Like a Woman was for the ‘mentally unstable Edie’, as was Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat. One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later) was a narrative, an inquest into a failed relationship, and thought it may have been for Joan Baez, but if it was, it was the closest Dylan ever got to thanking or apologizing ‘for using her as a stepping stone’ in his own career.

Of Visions of Johanna, Williamson said: ‘like much great poetry, literal interpretation is less important than mood and impression’. It attained a marriage of rock music and poetry for him, with potent lines like ‘the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face’.

Controversy Is the Key

Dave Rosen, writing on Ink Blot Magazine waxed lyrical about the album: ‘he distills the expansive surrealism he pioneered on the two groundbreaking albums that preceded it to a thematic thread’. This thread was subject to both speculation and disagreement. Rosen argued that the songs defied description and interpretation, coming soon after Dylan had shocked his trad-folk audience by going electric.

It was controversy from Dylan again. For Rosen: ‘Johanna wrapped the listener in a warm spangled word-veil of mystical psychedelia’; Most Likely You Go Your Way ‘chugs along like a magical train’. The folk messiah was reconciled with the prophet, in what Dylan himself described of Blonde on Blonde as ‘that thin, wild mercury sound’.

So, mystery poet/lyricist second to none of the 20th century, no mean musician and singer of a tremendous range of styles, this album was another Dylan turning point. When people say Dylan is not pop singer, not balladeer, not rocker, not poet, they haven’t listened. The man who wrote, for instance, Make You Feel My Love (1987), was the most gentle lover.

And the man who created Blonde on Blonde was at that point in his long, creative career that he couldn’t help but break new ground, set new benchmarks, raise expectations, felt still by those who listen. The fact is, this exercise of revisiting and reinterpreting Blonde on Blonde could have been done equally for John Wesley Hardin, Desire, Blood on the Tracks, The Times They Are A Changin’, Highway 61 Revisited, Shot of Love or Modern Times, such is the potency of Bob Dylan.

First published on Suite 101, 12 March 2011.

Image: ‘Blonde on Blonde’: Dylan’s Greatest Album? – Alberto Cabell

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