-A look back at Dylan’s seminal 1966 effort.

“EVERYBODY MUST GET STONED,” the curly haired, scarf wearing, presumably stoned Bob Dylan shouts over ramshackle, drunken marching drums and wailing horns. Bit of a change of pace from his previous efforts, huh? On the early folk records as well as the initial two electric efforts, Dylan would rarely crack a smile. He was cynical; he was the image of a jaded youth who casts his eye upon the world and passes some pretty harsh judgement. “Blonde on Blonde,” in a way, is more mature in its immaturity. Bob is still a cynic, but he lets his romantic and playful side show way more often. The surreal lyrical journeys he’s known to spin are simply sprawling visual landscapes, with no hidden meaning or societal metaphor. (There’s no “Tombstone Blues” here.) On “Blonde on Blonde” Dylan casts himself as the cool dude sitting in the corner, smoking a cigarette with a smile on his face, letting conversations flow to him, as opposed to railing against injustice or tearing down people who have done him wrong. “Blonde On Blonde” sees Dylan building people up. “Blonde on Blonde” sees Dylan happy.

The happiness of this album doesn’t just come from Dylan, but from the sound itself, which Bob described as “that thin, wild mercury sound.” But I’m gonna have to disagree with the man himself on that. “Blonde on Blonde” has a very full sound. Nearly every track features silky, sweet organ, husky drums, lightly strummed acoustic or strung out electric guitars, rumbling pianos, and of course Dylan’s metallic, shrieking harmonica. This album is like dipping your feet into a vat of warm water or sitting by the fireplace, sipping scotch and falling into the deep sound and Dylan’s weird and wonderful lyrical world. It’s warm, luxurious, and comforting. While his previous electric efforts, “Highway 61 Revisited” and the first half of “Bringing It All Back Home,” were loud, blown out, and urgent affairs, “Blonde on Blonde” is more than happy to lay back and let you come to it, not the other way around, albeit with a few exceptions like the aforementioned 4/20 inspiring opener, and the noisy, bustling, brittle blues rock of “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat.” Things also get quite majestic and driving on “One of Must Know (Sooner or Later),” with fast snare rolls provided by The Band drummer Bobby Gregg catapulting into an explosive chorus. But overall, “Blonde on Blonde” has a very balm-like quality to it. It’s perfect at night, when things are winding down or when you are just waking up; it’s an oasis for tired souls.

 

Bob Dylan is of the utmost importance to me. As a musician and lyricist myself, I’ve taken more inspiration from him than anyone else. As I said in my “The Life of Pablo” review, Kanye West is my Bowie. He’s made my musical home. Well, consider Bob Dylan to be my home away from home. The lyrics and one of a kind delivery hit me like a ton of bricks every time this guy sings (though I can never explain why), and inspires me to go and write surrealistic songs of my own. His youthful cynicism and confidence back in the day as well as his grizzled, tired delivery in his later years are infectious attitudes that have influenced my life outside of music, along with his hilariously sarcastic interviews. “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Bringing It All Back Home,” “The Times They Are A-Changin,'” “John Wesley Harding,” “Blood on the Tracks,” “Desire,” and “Blonde on Blonde” are all perfect or near perfect albums to me. I’ve simply been almost living by this man’s music ever since the Christmas Eve I listened to “Highway 61 Revisited” for the first time, and then listened to it again, and again, and again. I carry around a little flip book of the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” music video with me. I dressed up like him my last Halloween. Starting to get the point yet? I go months where I just eat, breathe, sleep, shit, live Bob Dylan to the point where my parents have said, “your obsession with Bob Dylan is getting a little weird.” Long story short, few people have inspired me, taught me, enthralled me, confused me, changed me, or given me greater joy than Robert Allen Zimmerman, so you must understand my excitement to write about him and this legendary album.

Though it’s impossible to put into words what makes Dylan and this album so great. I’ve talked about the impeccable sound, and I’ll say this: Dylan was a way better melody maker than people give him credit. His albums feature really catchy and memorable songs, and “Blonde on Blonde” is no different. But none of these things are the main draw, and they aren’t the draw of his other classics. I’m gonna repeat the classic cliche that I’m sure Dylan himself hates: it’s all about the lyrics. This guy has a way with words that hadn’t been approached before, and despite plenty of trying from other lyricists, has not since. But why? I’m at a loss, especially with this album. On his previous and following efforts, despite all of the lyrical ‘what the fuck is he saying?’ moments, there’s some kind of discernible meaning you could derive. Songs like “Tombstone Blues” and “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” are wide reaching critiques of a superficial world. “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Positively 4th Street,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” and to an extent, “Queen Jane Approximately,” are song length put downs. “Blood on the Tracks” is a direct portrait of heartbreak. And the list goes on. But here? “Blonde on Blonde” is arguably Dylan’s most lyrically abstract album. His eyelids are getting smoked, Shakespeare’s in the alley with his pointed shoes and bells, there’s pictures of wheelchairs hanging on the wall, the ghost of electricity is howling, infinity is on trial, etc. The best way to interpret these lyrics is to not interpret them at all. Because he himself probably hasn’t. There’s an old story that goes: after Dylan recorded one of his best songs, “My Back Pages,” for the “Another Side…” LP, he asked his friend at the studio if he ‘understood it.’ His friend said yes without really thinking, and Dylan said, ‘good, because I didn’t.’ His lyrics, especially here, are surreal, abstract, incomprehensible poetry that are more focused on engrossing visuals and imagery than telling a complete story or having a ‘message,’ as people often tried to pin on him. There’s nothing to get. There’s no meaning to phrases like, “the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face,” but it’s just such a cool visual. These songs take me on sprawling visual journeys that I can’t begin to understand, because there’s nothing to understand. Just let the imagery take hold and immerse yourself in Dylan’s world of historical characters, street people, artists, drugs, love, and Texas Medicine. It’s a world you’ll never want to leave.

 

Bob Dylan means a lot to me, and this might be the most ‘Bob Dylan-y’ album of his. He said it’s the album that got closest to the sound in his head, and thus, it’s the closest to what we think of in our heads. His voice on here is smoky and does that up and down, fuck real singing that reaches out and grabs people like me, and puts off others for lifetimes. Every song features that organ courtesy of Al Kooper, it’s got that folky, rootsy vibe that feels totally authentic, and of course the lyrics are some of his most impenetrable. It’s the sound and aesthetic you would replicate if you were to do a Bob Dylan parody or pastiche. I might have my druthers and put other albums in his catalog ahead of this, but this is no doubt the album where Dylan took all of his influences and aspirations and put them into one definitive, statement of a record, to the point where this album is brimming over with ideas. (And to no surprise is his longest album, and is rock’s first major double album, at 74 minutes.)

“Blonde on Blonde” is also a very holistic album. His previous works were very much collections of individual tracks, whereas “Blonde on Blonde” as a whole is set out to create an atmosphere, a vibe, a setting. It’s not really an album that you can pick and choose songs from, as the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a big picture album. But, these songs are still incredible, and there a few that stand out not only here, but in Dylan entire discography and in the annals of rock music. The four songs that are able to be taken out of context here were released as singles, them being “I Want You,” “One of Must Know (Sooner or Later),” “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat,” and “Just Like A Woman.” “I Want You” is one of Dylan’s poppiest and most accessible tunes, with its bouncy rhythm, warm sound, classic chord progression, and cute little melody that the guitar and organ double, that all add up and override the esoteric lyrics. There’s a reason it looks like Dylan is dancing on the single cover. Coming right after that is the aforementioned “One of Must Know,” which is one of Dylan’s most straightforward rock tunes, but what rocks even harder is the noisy “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat.” The guitar here is so sloppy and brittle and trashy, and the song moseys along with this confident strut, making it something a regular rock fan can probably get into, whereas the rest of the album will probably alienate them. (I also have to mention the absurdly funny lyrics: “Well, you look so pretty in it
Honey, can I jump on it sometime?
Yes, I just want to see
If it’s really that expensive kind
You know it balances on your head
Just like a mattress balances
On a bottle of wine
Your brand new leopard-skin pillbox hat.”)

“Just Like A Woman” is the polar opposite of that, however. Whereas “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat” was squelching, burning heat, this song returns to that warm, comforting sound, with its tender acoustic guitars and organ and a gorgeous melody, all based around a classic 6/8 drum beat. This track and “I Want You” are great examples of the pop songwriter that Dylan could be when he wanted to. But this album isn’t about that, as “Blonde on Blonde” has three centerpieces that are anything but pop: “Visions of Johanna,” “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again,” and the closer, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”

“Visions of Johanna” is the first lengthy song here, at 7 minutes and 33 seconds, consisting of 5 long verses. And this is one of those abstract Dylan songs where it’s so hard to describe why it’s so good. Well, I’ll try. For one, it establishes a setting about as well as any song can. I always picture a late night party in a hotel when I hear this song, with Dylan and his cigarette smoking, peacoat and scarf wearing entourage. The vibe is so entrancingly nocturnal and laid back that it can only be heard at night, in isolation. Just check out some of the imagery Dylan conjures up here: “Lights flicker from the opposite loft/in this room the heat pipes just cough/the country music station plays soft/but there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off.” I also love this line: “Jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule.” I couldn’t tell you what it means, just like I don’t know who Louise or why she’s holding a handful of rain, but it transports me to a different place, which is one of the primary goals of a lyricist and is something Dylan gets better than anyone else. “Stuck Inside of Mobile…” goes even further down the rabbit hole, becoming one of Dylan’s most incomprehensible tunes, lyrically. The music is actually quite catchy, but Dylan is not melodic here, basically just talking these lyrics into the mic, clearly emphasizing that this song is about the lyrical journey. And what a journey it is. He takes us up and down the block, through the alley, past the railroad, beneath a truck, beneath a Panamanian moon, and onto Grand Street, encountering Shakespeare, grandpa, neon madmen, the rainman, and a preacher. They’re words that your brain almost can’t fully keep up with, so you’re left with fragments; these scattershot images of dusty cities, burnt out deserts, deserted alleys, and of course, ‘smoked eyelids.’

But finally we arrive at the closer, the strangest wedding song ever written. It’s an open tribute to Dylan’s then wife Sara Lowndes, who he married the year before. But instead of getting all sappy and sweet (though the music is beautiful, with that rolling piano and gentle drums and warm organ that all build throughout), Dylan instead describes her, for 11 minutes. But he’s not saying she has ‘brown hair and she’s white,’ he instead talks about her ‘mercury mouth,’ her ‘eyes like smoke,’ her ‘basement clothes,’ and her ‘Spanish manners’ and her ‘mother’s drugs.’ He casts her as this angelic, immortal, all-knowing figure who has been around since the beginning of time. And he does this through arguably the most beautiful, moving, and poetic imagery ever put to song. Tom Waits, a fantastic lyricist in his own right, said of this track:

“It is like Beowulf and it ‘takes me out to the meadow’. This song can make you leave home, work on the railroad or marry a Gypsy. I think of a drifter around a fire with a tin cup under a bridge remembering a woman’s hair. The song is a dream, a riddle and a prayer.”

I couldn’t say it better myself. It’s one of the most spellbinding songs ever.

 

Bob Dylan was there at the start of it all. The 1960’s. The birth of the popular rock album that could be more than a few hit singles and some throwaways. But while everyone else in the game was just catching on, around 1966, Dylan had already moved onto the double album: “Blonde on Blonde.” And despite him being around since the start, his music endures. He has possibly the most enduring and consistently relevant discography in music. And “Blonde on Blonde” is no different. 50 years, and it holds up better than most albums from ten years ago. “Blonde on Blonde” holds this mythic like grace, and this unbounded, dreamlike magic like a handful of rain that will never allow it to sound dated. It’s not tied to any specific time, or place, or event. It’s tied to Bob Dylan’s mind, and that’s a mind that will never fade away.

5 stars

Standout Tracks: “Visions of Johanna” “One of Must Know (Sooner or Later)” “I Want You” “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat” “Just Like A Woman” “4th Time Around” “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”

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