Blood On The Tracks

“Wait. Tell me something. What’s your favorite Dylan album?” Without hesitation,

“Blood On The Tracks.”


I’m not the only person to hold this opinion, obviously. Eyolf Østrem gives his reasons on the site, and they are compelling enough. There’s much to admire about Blood On The Tracks, but two reasons stand out to me more than others.

The first is that this record marks the completion of Dylan’s sea change from protest singer/dilettante/rabble-rouser to songwriter. He’s no longer writing temporary music, music tied to a particular time or movement. He no longer feels the need to defuse sentiment by tossing something in like “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat”. Instead, what we have is a crushing tide of anger, of resentment, of bitterness

I can’t feel you any more
I can’t even touch the books you’ve read

In the years afterwards, Dylan would amend that to “the clothes you wore”. What an interesting way to soften the sentiment, to take the starch out of it. I prefer the original. I can’t even touch the books you’ve read. Thirty-five years later, the Lumineers would tell us that “the opposite of love’s indifference.” Not hate, indifference. When I’m in a mood to be acerbic, I like to say that “female emotion is AM, not FM”. It doesn’t matter how they feel, it’s how much they feel. There’s something female in Dylan here. He can’t even touch the books she’s read. Which means that he knows which books she’s read. You can follow that rabbit hole a long ways down. Certainly he’s talking about Sara Dylan here, certainly he’s referring to that long, languorous collegiate-style courtship where you sit around in the library and silently judge what the other person’s reading. I have some unforced sympathy for people who have never experienced that, people who have never fallen in love over the top of a book.

There’s no holding back on this album. I found it difficult for a while to understand why he finishes with — why he even includes — “Buckets Of Rain”. I think I know now. It ends that way because Dylan’s unwilling to punish the listener, the fan. Otherwise, it ends with “Shelter From The Storm”. You have to dig back out of the hole a bit before you let the needle come off the record. My common-law cousin-in-law (long story, having much to do with New York and Bryn Mawr and rampant, militant feminism and pretending to be poor and whatnot) recorded it very well here:

If you end with “Shelter” you’re in the position of Mitsusaburo in Oe Kenzaburo’s “Silent Cry”, sitting in a hollowed-out cellar with one working eye, waiting for a woman, or anyone at all, to come save you. “Buckets Of Rain” shows Dylan’s minstrel touch, his understanding of musical history. It smooths out the ending, it is a postscript, a cheering addition.

Unless, of course, you think Dylan was being deliberately hateful and manipulative.

I like the way that you look at me
Everything about you is bringing me misery…

You got all the love, honey, baby, I can stand.

Sometimes he sang it the other way — I got all the love you can stand. That’s a much more hopeful way to sing it. A thorough examination of the lyrics he performed in later years shows Dylan continually winding back the dark nature of the music on this particular album.

“A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album. It’s hard for me to relate to that. I mean, it, you know, people enjoying that type of pain, you know?”

So Dylan the considerate man took some of the worst sting out of his angriest music. For himself, for the listeners.

But I’m losing myself in Point The First and forgetting Point The Second, which is that Dylan decided to re-record five of the tracks back in Minnesota with local musicians and force Columbia to let him swap those tracks at the last minute. It’s a naked display of power on the part of the artist, it’s a tremendous effort of will, and it shows that, as Gil Scott-Heron sang,

No matter how far wrong you’ve gone
You can always turn around

It takes confidence to listen to or read what you’ve done and consciously abandon it, to turn around, to try again. I don’t mind doing that with something I’ve written, but I have more trouble doing that in my personal life.

Give your heart and change your mind
You’re allowed to do it
Cause God knows it’s been done to you
And somehow you got through it

When you can do that, with your music or anything else, you’ve grown a bit as a person. Or, perhaps, you’ve just become more selfish.

What’s the best track on Blood, so to speak? I have personal reasons for preferring a few, but I find myself returning to “You’re A Big Girl Now”. It’s the most sorrowful song here, because it’s personal and “Simple Twist Of Fate” isn’t.

Love is so simple, to quote a phrase
You’ve known it all the time, I’m learnin’ it these days
Oh, I know where I can find you, oh, oh
In somebody’s room
It’s a price I have to pay
You’re a big girl all the way

I came to Dylan late in life, really. Before I did, I wrote a song of my own that went like so:

Last night I heard that whistle cry
On the tracks behind my house and I
Was thinking about you lying there alone.
I know there’s nothing I can do
But I just can’t help wishing you
Would take that train and let it bring you home

Sometimes I close my eyes and see
The track that runs from you to me
And then I wish that train could bring you home.

We can’t be meant to be apart
Just two halves of a broken heart
And you’re so sick of sleeping on your own
The time is coming soon I swear
You wake up, I’ll be lying there
And you won’t need that train to bring you home

Sometimes I close my eyes and see
The track that runs from you to me
And then I wish that train could bring you home.

I dreamed that I was walking back
To lie down there across that track
My heart was cold and heavy like a stone
To float away and wait for you
You closed your eyes and lay down too
Beneath that train that couldn’t take you home

Sometimes I close my eyes and see
Me loving you so happily
And then I wish that train could bring you home.

Sometimes I close my eyes and see
The track that runs from you to me
And then I know that train won’t bring you home.

Opinions are divided on why Dylan called the album what he did, but I think I know. There are times when you just want to lay your burden down, lie down before an oncoming train, and give up. That’s the kind of despair that only love can bring you.

Blood on the tracks.

2 Replies to “Blood On The Tracks”

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