Thursday, September 02, 2010

album of the day: Blood on the Tracks

Blood on the Tracks is, I believe, the 3rd Dylan album I ever bought. When I was in high school, among my peers, anything approaching respect or appreciation for Bob Dylan was derided. He had released Infidels and Empire Burlesque, and while the latter was critically acclaimed and both were reasonably successful, practically anyone I heard say anything at all about music thought of Dylan as a washed-up, ridiculous anachronism. Of course, that drove me further into Dylan's catalog. (I had bought both Infidels and Empire Burlesque, and actually did like them, but haven't bothered to repurchase them on CD.)

So while any mention of anything vaguely 60s-related prompted very bad parodies of Dylan singing "Blowing in the Wind," I was secretly playing the Greatest Hits compilation over and over again, fairly amazed at how good the songs were. I never did, and still don't, observe any of the rites of the Bob Dylan cult, and I don't believe in his holiness or omnipotence, but I think anyone who fails to admit that Dylan's best work is enduring, timeless, genuinely poetic, and excellently composed (if musically derivative in the best folk tradition), is not taking the issue seriously.

And if a debate should arise regarding whether Dylan is really great, and I had to point to any single album as Exhibit A, it would be, without question, Blood on the Tracks. It can't be beat for range, good tunes, strong musicianship, and above all, emotional pitch. For instance, I love "Idiot Wind," which is just about exactly what you might need to hear thinking about a bad breakup, some years past. Dylan relentlessly attacks the memory of whatever lover it was, how awful she was, how wretched he felt then, and refuses to feel now. It's caustic and nasty and extremely satisfying. But the clincher, to me, is the twist at the end:

I can’t feel you anymore, I can’t even touch the books you’ve read
Every time I crawl past your door, I been wishin’ I was somebody else instead
Down the highway, down the tracks, down the road to ecstasy
I followed you beneath the stars, hounded by your memory
And all your ragin’ glory

I been double-crossed now for the very last time and now I’m finally free
I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline which separated you from me
You’ll never know the hurt I suffered nor the pain I rise above
And I’ll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love
And it makes me feel so sorry

Idiot wind, blowing through the buttons of our coats
Blowing through the letters that we wrote
Idiot wind, blowing through the dust upon our shelves
We’re idiots, babe
It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves

... because it takes two to fuck up so spectacularly.

The song I think most people think is the best is "Tangled Up in Blue," a story song in a way, about another memory of a former lover, this time sweetly but sadly reminisced upon (I don't know for sure, but I've always thought that the bit with the girl in the topless bar that brings Bob home and gives him poetry to read is just a girl who reminds him of the former lover. I have also always thought that, in the song, they don't do it). The refrain that people love is the title, sung over a totally predictable and ordinary chord progression that is just absolutely perfect.

This album has had a big influence on lots of musicians. Us, for instance.

Lauren and I have covered the long ballad/story song "Shelter from the Storm." She adores singing it because of the strain she can get in her voice. It's a lot different from Dylan's version. (It also inspired my own long story song "What I Lost in the Flood," which uses a true story - a flood that filled the basement of a place I lived in Pittsburgh destroyed about 12 years of my writing, including several plays and over 1000 poems - as an allegory for how I battled through a long, ultimately very bad relationship.)

Lauren wants to cover "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts," which is something like 7 months long and has 68,293 verses, and seems to be about events in a sorta Wild West town that cycle around each other. It's rather cinematic, and one wonders if Dylan was either recycling something from the Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid project, or hoping for another Hollywood gig. We're still in negotiations.

And I made an early crude recording of a bunch of solo guitar things that I made like 4 copies of for people, and named it "Buckets of Cheese," as a play on the closing track, "Buckets of Rain," which has always charmed me. It's a bit silly, but the silliness evokes how stupid being in love makes you. Dylan sings in what, for him, has to count as a sweet voice:

Buckets of rain
Buckets of tears
Got all them buckets comin’ out of my ears
Buckets of moonbeams in my hand
I got all the love, honey baby
You can stand

I been meek
And hard like an oak
I seen pretty people disappear like smoke
Friends will arrive, friends will disappear
If you want me, honey baby
I’ll be here

Like your smile
And your fingertips
Like the way that you move your lips
I like the cool way you look at me
Everything about you is bringing me

So, uh, yeah, I kinda go around singing "Buckets of rain, buckets of cheese. Got all them buckets coming out of my knees." Oh well.

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