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The fascinating story behind Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks",
This review is from: A Simple Twist Of Fate: Bob Dylan And The Making Of Blood On The Tracks (Hardcover)
Last night I attended "Blood on the Tracks Live" at the Pantages Theater in Minneapolis, " at which Kevin Odegard and the other uncredited Twin cities musicians who recorded with Dylan 30 years ago played the entire album live (some of the band members and some invited guest artists, such as Mary Lee Kortes of Mary Lee's Corvette, did the singing). Eric Weissberg was also in attendance, so the NYC contingent was represented as well. "A Simple Twist of Fate: Bob Dylan and the Making of Blood on the Tracks" is really the first book on Dylan that I have read, even though he is a native of the Zenith City (I was out on the deck grilling listening to his concert with Paul Simon when Dylan pointed out he had been born over the side of the hill), so none of this was old hat to me. This was also the first book about the making of an album so I was fascinated by the details: learning how Odegard's suggestion for changing the key for "Tangled Up in Blue" made such a difference in the vocals is an example of the memorable detail that made this book worth the reading.
The setting is thirty years ago, when Dylan's marriage to his first wife Sara Lowndes was falling apart and he recorded "Blood on the Tracks," considered by many to be one of the greatest breakup albums of all time. "Rolling Stone" magazine listed it as #16 on the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time List, putting it behind "Highway 612 Revisited" (#4) and "Blonde on Blonde" (#9) in terms of the Dylan oeuvre. The songs were all written in two weeks and originally recorded in just a week with the bluegrass band Deliverance in September of 1974. However, in December of 1974 Dylan played the album for his brother David Zimmerman in Minneapolis, who urged recutting some of the songs with unknown local musicians, thus setting up the great debate over which sessions yielded the greater glory. For the record (pun intended) the five Minneapolis tracks were "Tangled Up in Blue," "You're a Big Girl Now," "Idiot Wind," "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts," and "If You See Her, Say Hello." However, because the album covers had already been printed, Odegard and the rest (drummer Bill Berg, bassist Billy Peterson, guitarist Chris Weber, keyboard player Gregg Inhofer, and mandolinist Peter Ostroushko) did not get credit.
I also found it interesting to reconsider the album as setting "a new benchmark in confessional songwriting," because I have never really thought of "Blood on the Track" in those terms. I had known that Dylan repeatedly dismissed the idea that this album provided great insights into his psyche, but then that is not exactly the sort of thing you would expect a writer to easily confess to anyway. After all, he once introduced "Tangled Up in Blue" onstage as taking ten years to live and two years to write. For me the lyricism was always the main attraction. Ironically killing time before the concert we went to go see the less than worthy film "Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen" in which the title character gushes on about her rock star idol who is the greatest poet since Shakespeare; I have always considered Dylan a legitimate poet and would just point to the titles of songs like "Tangled Up in Blue" and "Simple Twist of Fate" as being emblematic of his stature as a lyricist.
Consequently, since "A Simple Twist of Fate" the book focuses more on the musical part of the equation. Specifics on chords and what key the harmonica is in are pretty much lost on me, but Odegard and his co-author, journalist Andy Gill, take pains to put such things in terms that neophytes like me can appreciate. For those who are interested in how current events and personal biography work their way into music attention is paid to that side of the creative process as well, although obviously Odegard is primarily concerned with what happened in the studio. The idea that "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts" could be done in one take boggles the mind.
The end result for me is more of an interest in reading more about the nuts and bolts of the act of creation for other great albums than in wanting to read more about Dylan. The MC at the show last night was doing a nostalgic trip down memory lane, asking the audience to remember what it was like the first time they heard "THE ALBUM," and when he pulled the LP out of the brown paper bag it was "Sgt. Pepper." Of course it is now sadly a pair of Beatles too late to really get the full story on that particular classic album, but I am sure we can all think of some other treasured albums that gets into this sort of detail and not the shallow skimming we get on VH-1 specials.
Final Note: Best songs in the concert? Clearly "Idiot Wind" with vocals by Adam Levy of the Honeydogs. The encore piece, when everybody came on stage to do "Tangled Up in Blue" again comes in second.