It’s easy to develop a renewed obsession with Bob Dylan if you are already a fan and then move to the Catskills where he lived for many creative years.
Lately my obsession has focused on his 1975 album… “Blood on the Tracks”.
I have fond memories of the LP playing continuously at the Discount Records where I worked part time in my final year of college, and I also remember years later when living in New Orleans, driving with my English friend Chris Fisher out into the deepest marshes southeast of the city in search of the mythic fishing village of “Delacroix” mentioned in the album’s opening “Tangled Up in Blue”.
So I drifted down to New Orleans
Where I happened to be employed
Workin’ for a while on a fishin’ boat
Right outside of Delacroix
I’m sure Dylan probably just picked the poetic name off of a map but the imagery was wonderful and I remember our disappointment when we got there and how at the time I thought maybe it might have been best if we had left the images locked forever in our imaginations. There really wasn’t much to Delacroix… and what there WAS…was washed away by Katrina twenty years later.
For the one and only time in his career, Dylan had left the Columbia label in 1974 and made the studio album “Planet Waves” with his mid-sixties backing band “The Band” on David Geffen’s Asylum label. The album was highly anticipated… possibly TOO highly anticipated… as it had been almost four years since his last album and it would be the first (and ultimately ONLY) studio album with “The Band”. “Planet Waves” received mixed reviews and had moderate commercial success. It shipped nearly gold but only had orders for an additional one hundred thousand units in it’s first year after initial release in January of 1974.
Dylan went on to tour with “The Band” for the first time since 1966 to terrific reviews and sell-outs everywhere. Asylum quickly followed up “Planet Waves” with a double-live album from the tour. Planet Waves may have not met expectations… but Dylan was a MAJOR draw in the concert world. Legend has it that the custom of holding up lit cigarette lighters for an encore originated on that tour. The performances, as heard on the double live disc, are tighter and more polished than the mid-60s live performances but they DID still have a solid electric charge running through them (if not quite the amphetamine fueled wildfires of 1966).
After the fast “rise and fall” of “Planet Waves” Dylan re-signed with Columbia and went to work planning his first new album for his old label. It was very important for the album to be a success after the hype and then disappointment of “Planet Waves”.
Unlike any albums since his earliest, Dylan seems to have had a plan, an order, and a direction for “Blood on the Tracks” from the start. It is reported that he played the entire album, in order, in it’s entirety, LIVE to friends on at least four occasions before he began recording. It seems to have been conceived as a unified “whole album”, unlike most of his earlier releases, which emerged out of a more organic process of development.
The songs were also all new and were specifically written for the album. An “alternate ending” was recorded of a song called “Up To Me” which would have ended the album on a more downbeat note than the released “Buckets of Rain”. “Up To Me” is available on a Columbia compilation.
At first Dylan thought of it as an electric album as he got together with his former guitarist Mike Bloomfield and played him the entire album on guitar. But Dylan had written many of the songs in an “open D” tuning and Bloomfield had trouble playing along.
Dylan also brought in Eric Weissberg and his band “Deliverance” fresh off their soundtrack success, but also nixed those sessions as not being “right”.
He then decided the songs should instead be stripped down to just his guitar and sparse instrumentation.
The album was scheduled for a mid-January 75 release date and Dylan entered the studio in New York in September of 74. Dylan himself was the producer (with Phil Ramone engineering) as he returned to the old Columbia Studios The FIRST version of “Blood on the Tracks” was recorded in five days and was mastered for release in early December while Dylan was back home with family in Minnesota.
Dylan at the time was separated from his wife and was going through very tough personal times and trying to resurrect his career with a new album. This resulted in what is considered his most personal album of all, although he has always denied it and insisted the songs were fictional. His son Jacob Dylan has been quoted as saying that the songs on “Blood on the Tracks” are conversations between his parents. About half the songs are cryptic and hard to pin down but half seem obviously personal when listened to today.
According to legend, when Dylan played the finished album for his family in Minnesota just before Christmas in 1974, his brother told him he thought that many of the songs should have broader arrangements. This prompted Dylan to PULL the album from release after covers had been printed, and RE-RECORD five of the key songs in Minneapolis with local musicians set up by his brother. THREE WEEKS BEFORE THE ALBUM’S RELEASE! And to their credit Columbia made the release date. But the cover credits were all wrong. And the notes made no sense. And then the notes were nominated for a Grammy so after taking them OUT, Columbia had to put them back IN. So there are three versions of the cover.
The re-cut tracks were also four of the KEY emotionally personal songs that sounded so “open” and revealing in the New York sessions. But it is the LATER Minneapolis versions of the five songs that are heard on the final “Blood on the Tracks” album.
The album was a huge success, went to #1 on Billboard, and has been ranked #16 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the top 500 albums of all time.
There has long been a “what if” issue for extreme fans who have always suspecting that the original “New York” album was better. Both Joni Mitchell and Robbie Robertson are on record as saying that they felt the earlier takes were better and that the released album was something of a “cop out”.
FOUR of the five “re-cut” songs have been released in their “New York” versions on various Columbia re-issues, so with the exception of “Lilly Rosemary & The Queen of Hearts” (whose “New York” version has never been released), you can recreate the original “New York” album on an iPod. Which I recently did with the following conclusion.
The problem is simply “buttons”.
Yes… simple shirtsleeve “buttons”.
On the simple and frequently solo New York performances you can clearly hear Dylan’s shirt buttons clicking against the guitar. It’s not as bad on some songs as on others but it was totally distracting on “Tangled Up In Blue”. My question for the angels is… How the hell did Phil Ramone allow Dylan to keep recording, as he obviously HAD to hear “the buttons” while sitting in the control booth? Maybe Dylan WANTED the sounds? Who knows? But I suspect the buttons bothered his brother as well.
Of the four songs you can compare, the three personal songs of “You’re a Big Girl Now”, “Idiot Wind”, and “If You See Her Say Hello” are FAR more powerful performances in the earlier “New York” sessions. Idiot Wind stripped down in “New York” is particularly devastating. I completely re-interpreted the meaning of the song. And the buttons aren’t that distracting. And the original steel guitar and organ on “You’re A Big Girl Now” are much more sympathetic to the song than the relatively neutered version that came out of Minneapolis later.
“Tangled Up In Blue” is the ONE track from the Minneapolis session that is GREATLY improved over the original New York one.
In New York Dylan used “open D” tuning and doesn’t seem that comfortable with it. And the buttons are horribly distracting. Dylan also significantly changed the lyrics for the better. Particularly that line about the fishing boat in Delacroix… Which is NOT in the original “New York” lyrics… Which for me personally is criminal.
Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks / Recording Credits.
5. “Buckets of Rain” – 3:22 (A & R Studios – New York, NY – 9/19/74)