#16: Bob Dylan, "Blood on the Tracks" (1975)

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I’ve been writing songs since I was a kid, matching them with chords and melodies since I was a teenager. But it wasn’t until a few years ago, when I switched to an Apple computer that came with GarageBand, and found a midi keyboard, that I set out to record. Around that time, I was writing breakup songs, so my first self-published release was a breakup EP; I often wish I would’ve just kept the material to myself.

*

Fans and critics consider Bob Dylan’s 1975 release, Blood on the Tracks, a touchstone breakup album, but don’t tell him that. “I’ve read that that album had to do with my divorce,” Dylan remarked to interviewer Bill Flannagan in 1985. “Well, I didn’t get divorced till four years after that.” In the Biograph liner notes that same year, Dylan called those critics who saw a personal connection “stupid and misleading jerks.”

So Blood on the Tracks, at least, is an album of romantic separation, as referenced in the aching “If You See Her, Say Hello,” Dylan intoning, “Although our separation / it pierced me to the heart.” This separation parallels Dylan’s pre-divorce split with his wife of nearly a decade, Sara. In Dylan’s memoir, though, Chronicles Volume One, Dylan gestures to Blood on the Tracks as “an entire album based on Chekhov short stories—critics thought it was autobiographical—that was fine.”

It’s often difficult to take Dylan at his word. Online message boards float the idea that, by hinting at a Chekhov connection, Dylan was toying with his obsessive fanbase, sending them on a fruitless hunt through Chekhov’s stories for references and allusions. And they have, identifying a potential source text in Chekhov’s short story “The Steppe,” which begins as the album does: “Early one morning.” What’s more, the phrase “tracks of blood” appears in the story, proving… not much.

It’s more likely Dylan doesn’t want us to know where the songs came from—if he even knows. He wants us, instead, to appraise the tracks separately from his life. He wants us to leave him out of it.

Yet doleful songs like “If You See Her, Say Hello,” or the woman who was “married when we first met / soon to be divorced” in “Tangled Up in Blue,” or the backhanded compliment, “You’re a Big Girl Now,” do invoke Sara Dylan, implying some degree of personal connection.

“I’m going out of my mind, whoa,” Dylan wails in “You’re a Big Girl Now”: “With a pain that stops and starts / like a corkscrew to my heart / ever since we’ve been apart.” Never has Dylan expressed himself with such rawness, rendered heartbreak as such devastation. If this song isn’t autobiographical, then there truly is no such thing as listening to the “real” Dylan.

By the same token, Dylan has said that his songs come from an autobiographical place. “Songs are just thoughts; for the moment they stop time,” Dylan told Flannagan. “I usually have to have proof that something exists before I even want to bother to deal with it at all. It must exist, it must have happened, or the possibility of it happening must have some meaning for me.” So Dylan’s material emerges from experience—from dreams rather than fantasies, he said, and later wrote in Chronicles that “a song is like a dream, and you try to make it come true.” But those facts don’t box Bob Dylan, or Bobby Zimmerman, or whoever Dylan is into his songs.

*

I know where my songs came from: my breakup. I dated my now-ex through my late twenties. We moved to Boston together before breaking up. Around the same time, I got that MacBook Air and Line 6 midi keyboard.

There were six songs inspired by my ex, most written while we were still together and living in Tallahassee, and they arrived in various ways. The first came in a dream:

We’re light years apart
We’re farther than far
We’re satellites in orbit
Around two different stars

I rolled out of bed to my keyboard, found a spacey mode and key for the chords and melody, and finished the song the same morning. When I played it for my now-ex, she asked who it was about. I told her it was a fictional account of a troubled couple; my untruth seemed to satisfy her.

In the following weeks, another melody percolated up from my subconscious, and one day while lying on the couch in the three-room duplex we’d rented, I heard it for the first time in full. The lines, “This is something like torture / this is something like what torture is,” boomed in my brain, reflecting our inability or unwillingness to communicate in any honest or productive way. The scrap repeated in my head, running 3/4 time, with oohing background vocals. It made a fitting soundtrack for my unvocalized feelings.

Meanwhile a slow ska chord progression I’d banged out on the keyboard gradually took on some lyrics that went:

Girl I’m not happy being miserable
You’d better get that anger under control
I’m not saying I’m a perfect guy
But you got that homicidal look in your eye

These words I didn’t sing aloud, at least not in her presence.

But then, as if to remind myself of the domestic bright sides—the shared meals, the companionship, the inside jokes and banter—a brighter song occurred to me. “You and I got a good thing goin’,” it began. “Got a shotgun shack where our love’s still growin’.” There were upsides to this relationship, too, and in my mind this song developed as a celebration of our heterodomesticity.

Whatever optimism “Tallahassee” mustered didn’t last long. Another tune, “Didn’t Get Me,” developed from a recriminatory nugget: “You got everything you wanted / but you didn’t get me.” Near the end of the relationship, she moved to Boston a couple months ahead of me, as she’d gotten a new job in a glittering downtown tower, and I still had summer classes to teach. I cleared out our duplex, loaded my 2001 Chrysler Sebring sedan with the rest of our belongings and our two cats, and made the three-day drive alone, singing, You didn’t get me.

Two weeks later in Boston, I ended it, citing a dearth of affection, intimacy, communication. The fallout was nasty, but we split our things and went separate ways. Weeks later I was riding the city bus, on my way to my new teaching gig, when another melody arose, airy and ethereal: “I don’t wanna leave the past behind / don’t drive me from the ruins of my mind.” I missed her sometimes; that realization brought me relief, helped me feel like less of a loveless goon. It took months to find the melody, the chords, to record a demo.

Nothing was forced. It all came with time. Such an organic creative product must have integrity, right? Mustn’t it be correct?

*

So I get what Dylan means when he says the songs just come, as if he plucks them from the air. I remember each song’s arrival from seemingly elsewhere; yet I also maintain a sense of the events and emotions that prompted each tune. A composition, however, can reveal the circumstances of its creation: what the artist was reading, studying, thinking and feeling at the time. Likewise, the opening track of Blood on the Tracks, “Tangled Up in Blue,” belies Dylan’s influences. Those open, swelling chords provide Dylan’s speaker a platform for “standin’ on the side of the road /… / Heading out for the east coast,” launching into an American journey as epic as any laid down by Steinbeck or Kerouac, Ginsberg or Wolfe.

Dylan himself, when talking to Flannagan, invoked other modes of art to describe the song’s genesis. “I wanted to defy time,” Dylan said, “so that the story took place in the present and past at the same time. When you look at a painting, you can see any part of it or see all of it together. I wanted that song to be like a painting.” These new temporal connections renewed Dylan’s writing like a shot in the arm, and Dylan attributed the concept to his lessons from the painter Norman Raeben. The methodology concerned accessing the space where past, present, and future overlap. “I was trying to do it in a conscious way,” Dylan told Flannagan, “it” being inspired, impassioned songwriting. “I used to be able to do it in an unconscious way, but I wasn’t into it that way anymore.”

At the same time, Dylan exported his new artistic vision into his home life, deepening the rift in his marriage. “I went home after that and my wife never did understand me ever since that day,” Dylan said. “She never knew what I was talking about. And I couldn’t possibly explain it.”

Others couldn’t understand it, either. Dylan tested out the songs with blues-guitar whizz Mike Bloomfield, who hadn’t recorded with Dylan since Highway 61 Revisited. “It was one of the worst social and musical experiences of my life,” Bloomfield later said.

Likewise, Dylan tried out the material on Stephen Stills; according to Graham Nash, Stills later remarked, “He’s a good songwriter, but he’s no musician.”

Even in the studio, Dylan hurried the recording, as if he couldn’t sit with this material a day longer. During those four days in New York City, September 1974, Dylan would run through changes for the next song while everyone present was trying to listen to the previous take. He’d switch songs in the middle of a take. Eventually he trimmed the studio musicians down to just himself and the bass player.

For these takes, apparently, Dylan didn’t even remove his coat, as the buttons can be heard clacking against the body of his guitar—noisy friction indicative of Dylan’s psychic discord.

*

I played it all myself. The keyboard sounds, the layers of piano, guitar, bass, and more. I recorded myself beating on a ceramic drum, along with a shaker and a tambourine. I hauled in pots from the kitchen and smacked them with drum sticks. I resorted to the midi sounds to flesh out the percussion with snare, symbols, high hat, and bass drum. With the tracks laid out on in GarageBand I listened closely, ironing out sour notes, bad timing—even with the aid of a metronome, I couldn’t help rushing the beat. I read websites about vocal recording, learned about audio mixing. I became absorbed in nailing the arrangements, tweaking the solos until they hit just the right notes.

I stole away from my writing, teaching, studying, to work on the songs. And when summer came, I played all afternoon, broke for dinner, and resumed late into the night, then laid in bed unable to sleep, the sounds running loops through my mind. In the morning, I listened for my roommates to leave so I could wail out my lyrics, essaying different inflections. I grew so close with the material I couldn’t tell anymore if it was good, or bad, or even representative of me as an artist. I could only trust the process.

Second Person came to me as an apt title, since all the songs were told from that perspective, focused on my ex-girlfriend and the arc of our relationship. I hoped to bring a factual, reportage style into my songwriting, pumping the songs with details. I sang jokingly in “Tallahassee” about how our cats “match our personalities,” hers was “full of cuddles” and mine, “full of fleas.” In “Outta Your Heart” I complained about her “angry temper” because, after all, I was her “live-in boyfriend … The guy whose name’s beside yours on the lease.” Even more specific, amid the enumerations in “Didn’t Get Me” I mentioned her “lime-green Kia,” her “tattoo of a dog” that “looks like its puking flowers.” Each of these inclusions stemmed from an aesthetic decision to seek the universal in the particular, the poetic in the personal. I’d written about my experiences plainly, all in attempt to affect a style of realism, of immediacy. Such was my training as a nonfiction writer. I hoped to bring these storytelling elements into my songwriting.

I set a release date, worked on the album cover—the yawning jaws of the fat black cat my ex had adopted then left in my care—set up an account on BandCamp and continued moving notes, adjusting volumes, toggling levels. Tinkering till the end.

*

Dylan finished his album and sent it off to Columbia, who planned to release it in time for Christmas, 1974. When Dylan returned to Minnesota for the holidays, he brought the album, pre-release, and played it for his younger brother, David Zimmerman, a record producer in his own right. David convinced Dylan the product he had—dark, limp, morose—would do nothing for his career. So Dylan phoned Columbia at the eleventh hour to halt the release. David put together a session with local Minnesota musicians to re-record five of the ten songs. The group met in Minneapolis in late December, attempted to mimic the sound of Highway 61 Revisited as best they could, and as a result played their way onto half the album’s songs. To the band’s disappointment, when the album finally hit stores on January 20, 1975, none of them had received any credit on the cover, which had already been printed.

Despite their anonymity, the group resurrected much of the album. “Tangled Up in Blue” changed from pensive folk to hangdog rock. From groaning about the “Idiot wind / blowing every time you move your mouth,” Dylan now shouted the invective: “It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.” In that song, the story scraps about a “man named Gray” distance Dylan from his speaker, though the verse sneering to the song’s female target that one day she’ll lie “in the ditch / flies buzzing around your eyes / blood on your saddle” stands as the album’s most venomous lash, and Dylan knew it. “I thought I might have gone a little bit too far with ‘Idiot Wind,’” Dylan told Flannagan. “I didn’t feel that one was too personal, but I felt it seemed too personal. Which might be the same thing, I don’t know.”

*

My album spat its own venom. Yet I hoped the bookend confessions of ambivalent affection would bring it full circle. So I shared the links to social media, garnering a modest number of likes and comments, a couple shares. BandCamp’s statistics showed that several dozen people listened to the first track that first day, though less than half proceeded through the whole album. It wasn’t until the second day, when a comment popped up on my Facebook from a friend of my ex, that I knew there’d be pushback. “Is this for real?” she wrote with a straight-faced emoticon glaring from the screen.

My ex and I were no longer in communication, but I soon heard through some backchannels that she wasn’t happy. She didn’t like the reportage-style of the lyrics, felt they were one-sided, but that was all I heard. My mom emailed that she found the album “disturbing” and preached forgiveness. But when I pressed her on what exactly she was reacting to, she recanted, writing what she found disturbing was the fact I’d gone through such an experience, and that the words she should’ve used were “entertaining, satirical… a combo of Dylan and Weird Al.” A friend texted me that, “It’s great!... You should be proud.” Another blurted out that “Tallahassee” was “goofy as hell!”

One well-meaning, middle-aged man from Houston whom I’d met years earlier at a writers’ retreat wrote that he loved the songs, adding, “One or two are slightly misogynistic (but in the best sense of the word if that’s politically correct)!” I had to wonder, what was the best sense of “misogyny”?

I’d always imagined playing my songs for others, anticipating their reactions; now people had real opinions. And they all seemed to feel something different. By tracking the listens, I got the sense I’d failed to reach an audience beyond people I already knew. So my curiosity lingered: What did my EP sound like beyond my own social spheres?

Six weeks after the release, I received an email from a small album-review website. They said they liked the album (they liked it!), and that they’d review it, for a price.

I sent them sixty dollars and a couple weeks later, the review came out: 3.4 out of 5 stars. “Frivolous and quirky” the reviewer called the lyrics and delivery. The vocals, he wrote, were “something that you would hear on a kid’s show.” He latched onto the fact that “Tallahassee” didn’t “attempt any metaphors, puns, etc.,” and that the second track, “Farther Than Far,” has a “sing-along type vibe about 101 astronomy.” After those first two tracks, the rest of the album, though not “appropriate for children,” hardly seemed to register. The mix, he wrote, “was about average for home recording.” I bristled at the criticism, but his comments began to clarify the weaknesses in my first release. While I’d been focusing on the content of specific lines, in truth, my voice and word choice, along with the limitations of my home studio, were preventing wider appeal.

*

In the wake of my brief breakup album, the keyboards I’d played so diligently collected dust. I re-dedicated myself to my writing. Music just isn’t my primary mode of expression. Writing is. So here I am.

For Dylan, the inverse is true. He surmounts criticism of his songs with more songs. He writes songs any time of day. He writes them in cars, on the road. He writes them in his head while chatting with people, while milling in a crowd. And he enjoys how the songs don’t linger around; he gets them out and gets on with his life.

It’s time I do the same.

—Paul Haney