In “Together Through Life: A Personal Journey with the Music of Bob Dylan,” published today on Dylan’s 75th birthday, acclaimed critic Chris Morris reveals the role the iconic singer-songwriter’s oeuvre played in his own life. The candid, album-by-album memoir details Dylan’s catalog through 2016’s “Fallen Angels” and its impact on the author. Here, in a first-look excerpt from the book, a pivotal chapter centers on the seminal 1975 “Blood On the Tracks” release during a time of devastating heartbreak.
Blood On the Tracks
You have already met her, briefly, but here is what little else you need to know.
Her name, Constance, still rings like a bell on my ear. Everyone called her Connie, rightly, for she would prove inconstant in the end. Hair as red as an angry sunset spilled down to her shoulders, and she spoke with a soft Florida drawl. I wrote a poem about the red boots she wore everywhere in winter; I had it that bad. I met her just before I returned to school in 1971, and I was instantly infatuated. We lived together for a year in a wood-paneled one-room apartment near Fraternity Row. After we both graduated, she left me and went to New Orleans, while I returned to Chicago. Finally assenting to my increasingly desperate pleas, she joined me up north, but I wouldn’t let her breathe, and she soon left again, for good. One too many mornings. I did not stay on the rails. One night, I drank down a pyramid of 10 Wild Turkey shots and presented myself, raving, at my horrified father’s door.
On Aug. 9, 1974, the day Richard Nixon resigned, I walked into my boss’ office, threw the eighth revision of a press release about a new TV set onto his desk, said, “Fuck you,” and walked out the door. Two weeks later, I walked into the studio at the radio station in Wisconsin where I had worked part-time while I was in school, asked my former college radio buddy, now the program director, if he had any work, and was hired on the spot as a full-time DJ, working the overnight shift.
The following January, I was opening mail at the station and found a new Bob Dylan album in one of the boxes. I quickly pulled the LP out of its sleeve, placed it on the turntable, threw the cue switch, and dropped the needle on it. I did not know what to expect.
Early one mornin’ the sun was shinin’
I was layin’ in bed
Wonderin’ if she’d changed at all
If her hair was still red
That stopped me dead. I listened to the rest of the album in awe, my identification complete. Dylan may have been replaying his life in those songs, but he was recounting my own, in detail, right down to the hue of my lost love’s hair. Listening to it even now, I find myself living within those songs. I am sure I am not alone in this regard. The world embraced that record, and Blood On the Tracks, Dylan’s return to Columbia Records, became Bob Dylan’s second U.S. No. 1. People heard it in a very special way.
Undoubtedly inspired to a large extent by the gory dissolution of Dylan’s eight-year marriage, Blood On the Tracks is a record about being torn apart in love, and also about trying to recapture some of what was true and some of what was elusive in that love. It’s a ganglion of exposed nerves. Intensely personal yet truly universal in its scope, it ranges through the full spectrum of romance, filled with sorrow, rage, perplexity, bliss, dislocation, fleeting joy, and persistent hope. Dylan stops and gazes long at every signpost on a long and circuitous emotional road. In “You’re a Big Girl Now,” he quotes a phrase from Marcel Carné’s romantic spectacle Children of Paradise: “Love is so simple.” He disproves that maxim at every bend.
It was Dylan’s most carefully executed and assured album in some time; we would later learn that he had labored on it more mightily than he had on any record since Blonde On Blonde. After several sessions with Eric Weissberg’s group Deliverance in New York, Dylan was initially satisfied with his work, but he had second thoughts after playing an acetate for his brother David Zimmerman. He decided to postpone release of the album and re-cut several of the completed tracks – a wise decision, considering that people probably would have hurled themselves out of tall windows upon hearing the bare, seared original version. Setting up camp in a Minneapolis studio with a group of deft local musicians, Dylan revisited his songs and ultimately selected five re-cut tracks for the album, leading to a balanced and less arctic edition of the material. It became a poised and sonically inviting folk-rock opus, lacking the barbed, harder-rocking approach of his ‘60s records, yet warm even in its most starless aspect.
The Twin Cities players acquitted themselves most nobly on the set’s two longest tracks. From its still-startling crash of a kick-off – “Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press!” – “Idiot Wind” is a seething indictment that finally bores its way down to its source; the venom in the way he sings “sweet lady” in the second verse burns into the tune like acid. The band seems to flag a little in the later verses, straining over the course of nearly eight minutes to keep up with a relentless and ever-rising outpouring of bile. One has to look back to “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Positively Fourth Street” for such scathing condemnation; those songs sound polite in comparison.
On the flip side one finds “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” a nine-minute Western movie for the ears. Typical of Dylan, the reels are slightly shuffled, and maybe a few feet of film have been lopped out in the booth. Certainly the backstory is missing. Whipping by at breathtaking speed, it’s a storytelling complement to the more confessional songs: A shape-shifting outlaw (there’s Melville’s Confidence Man again) rides into town to raid a vault and redress some romantic scores. The set is crowded with archetypes, but Jack never really materializes completely before our eyes/ears, and justly so, for he exists less as a character than as a narrative whirlwind, bedecked in shadow, who rearranges the points on a delicate triangle. (Or is it a rectangle?) By the song’s end he has simply vanished, leaving death and disorder in his wake.
“Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” was an exception, for the rest of the album, mainly cast in the first person, sprang directly from a heart knotted with pain, but in the end still open. “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Simple Twist of Fate,” “Meet Me in the Morning,” “If You See Her, Say Hello” – despite their dissimilarities, these songs all flowered out of love’s cold ground, which Dylan tramps restlessly like a man determined to find some answers in the past, no matter how many miles he has to cover.
Finally, even the most broken soul can be warmed in a sliver of light: Each side of the original LP ended with a muted address to a new lover, “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” and “Buckets of Rain,” the latter of which builds an upbeat finale to the album on the back of a sunny Mississippi John Hurt guitar lick.
That complete and beautifully realized album clawed at my heart every day during that late winter of early ‘75. I played it incessantly on the air, and almost daily at home. One evening, some hours before my midnight shift at the station began, I attended a concert in downtown Madison, and ran smack into Connie, whom I hadn’t seen in a year, in the crowded lobby. After a minute or century of uncomfortable conversation, I fled the theater without hearing a note of music and headed for the nearest bar. On my show that night, I played what probably remains my favorite track from Blood On the Tracks; I was drunk, but I did not cry when the mic was open.
So: If you see her, say hello.
Released January 17, 1975
“Tangled Up in Blue”
“Simple Twist of Fate”
“You’re a Big Girl Now”
“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”
“Meet Me in the Morning”
“Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”
“If You See Her, Say Hello”
“Shelter From the Storm”
“Buckets of Rain”
Excerpt from TOGETHER THROUGH LIFE: A Personal Journey with the Music of Bob Dylan by Chris Morris. Reprinted by arrangement with ROTHCO PRESS. Copyright © 2016 by Chris Morris
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Chris Morris is a music journalist and disc jockey. He was music editor of the Hollywood Reporter and senior writer for Billboard. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, Spin, Musician, Mojo, LA Weekly, the Chicago Reader, Variety and other publications. The author of two books, Los Lobos: Dream in Blue (University of Texas Press, 2015) and TOGETHER THROUGH LIFE: A Personal Journey with the Music of Bob Dylan, Chris is also prolific on Facebook, Tumblr and (less so) on Twitter. He lives in Los Angeles.