'Blonde on Blonde' at 50: Celebrating Bob Dylan's Greatest Masterpiece

'Blonde on Blonde' at 50: Celebrating Bob Dylan's Greatest Masterpiece

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'Blonde on Blonde' at 50: Celebrating Bob Dylan's Greatest Masterpiece news

Happy 50th birthday to Blonde on Blonde, the most mysterious, majestic and seductive of Bob Dylan albums – not to mention the greatest. Recorded fast with Nashville session cats who were used to grinding out country hits, Blonde on Blonde has a slick studio polish that makes it sound totally unlike any of his other albums, with sparkling piano frills and a soulful shitkicker groove. Yet the glossy surface just makes the songs more haunting. Released on May 16th, 1966, Blonde on Blonde remains the pinnacle of Dylan’s genius – he never sounded lonelier than in “Visions of Johanna,” funnier than in “I Want You,” more desperate than in “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again.” It’s his most expansive music, with nothing that resembles a folk song – just the rock & roll laments of a vanishing American, the doomed outsider who’s given up on ever belonging anywhere. “I don’t consider myself outside of anything,” Dylan said when the album came out. “I just consider myself not around.”

Blonde on Blonde is full of that “not around” chill – Dylan mixes up the Texas medicine and the railroad gin for a whole album of high-lonesome late-night dread, blues hallucinations and his bitchiest wit. Still only 24, writing songs and touring the world at a wired lunatic pace that would come crashing to a halt in a couple of months, Dylan was on a historic roll, dropping this double-vinyl epic just 14 months after going electric with Bringing It All Back Home in March 1965 and Highway 61 Revisited in August. He was moving too fast for anyone to keep up, and writing masterpieces faster than he could release them. Yet Blonde on Blonde still feels like it came out of nowhere, with a sound he never attempted again, and neither Dylan nor the rest of the world has ever quite figured out how it happened. As organist Al Kooper put it, “Nobody has ever captured the sound of 3 a.m. better than that album. Nobody, even Sinatra, gets it as good.”

If you want to argue that Blonde on Blonde isn’t as perfect as Highway 61 Revisited or Bringing It All Back Home, you may have a point. It’s a wide-ranging double album with some lightweights on Side Three and one profoundly annoying novelty song – which happens to be the leadoff track and hit single. “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” man – it’s like if the Beatles decided to begin Revolver with “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” or “Hello Goodbye.” But it’s his greatest album anyway, creating a sustained 68-minute spell unlike any other listening experience in rock & roll. Hearing Blonde on Blonde puts you in the position of the night watchman who clicks his flashlight at all the losers and freaks and neon madmen and wonders if it’s him or them that’s insane. In these songs, it’s probably both.

Dylan made Blonde on Blonde during a year of frenzied touring, facing audiences that were still full of outraged folkies who booed his new electric rock & roll flash, like the New York crowd in Forest Hills where hecklers yelled, “Where’s Ringo?” That was the ultimate insult for some people back then. (Dylan is coming back to play Forest Hills this summer. Maybe this time Ringo will show up.) “The only thing where it’s happening is on radio and records, that’s where the people hang out,” Dylan said soon after the Forest Hills show. “You gotta listen to the Staple Singers, Smokey and the Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas. That’s scary to a lot of people. It’s sex that’s involved. It’s not hidden. It’s real.”

Around this time, a hostile Australian reporter asked Dylan, “You came for the money, I take it?” He replied, “I take it.” That caustic wit runs all through Blonde on Blonde. (His whole Sydney press conference from April 1966 is one of his funniest. Q: “What is your greatest ambition?” Dylan: “To be a meatcutter.” Q: “Can you enlarge on that?” Dylan: “Large pieces of meat.”) He’d also secretly gotten married to Sara Lownds in November 1965, and the desire to shield his private life brought out his surly paranoid side, especially after she gave birth to their first son in January. Blonde on Blonde has his most brilliantly vicious barbs, from “You just happened to be there, that’s all” to “Everybody’s gone but you and me, and you know I can’t be the last to leave.” The man was cutting some large pieces of meat.

The new songs were like nothing he’d ever written – you can hear Motown and especially Smokey Robinson all over the album. If you play Highway 61 and Blonde on Blonde back to back, you can hear how Smokey was the decisive influence in between, with Dylan trying to stretch blues melodies around Smokey versecraft. Highway 61 is a whole album of folk quatrains – two of the songs have choruses (the first two), and one has a bridge (“Ballad of a Thin Man”), but otherwise the album is one four-line stanza after another. Yet on Blonde on Blonde, just a few months later, the song structures are totally different. They have middle eights, choruses, hooks, intricate Smokey-style rhyme clusters that Dylan pushes to the point of parody. “I Want You” and “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine” are blatant attempts to write his own Smokey songs, building Motown-style percussion hooks into the chorus, and the trick worked perfectly – “I Want You” became a Top 20 hit.

“Just Like a Woman” is an unmistakably Dylanesque ballad, but the prosody is pure Smokey, as in the bridge or the acoustic-guitar fill after the chorus – there’s nothing like that on Highway 61. Dylan clearly heard the Miracles’ “The Tracks of My Tears” or “My Girl Has Gone” on the radio and got inspired. (The Smokey Robinson influence has never gone away, of course – check out the 1981 single “Heart of Mine,” or the 2009 “I Feel a Change Comin’ On.”) But for Dylan, the trickier, busier song structures on Blonde on Blonde are just another way to build the mood of a chaotic, image-crowded, word-drunk mind on a rampage. 

'Blonde on Blonde' at 50: Celebrating Bob Dylan's Greatest Masterpiece news

“I Want You” and “Visions of Johanna” have Dylan’s most masterful singing, though from different emotional angles. “I Want You” is a romp, where his voice has the twitch of Chuck Berry’s rhythm guitar, each verse topping the last, until the climax: “I did it because he liiiied, and because he took you for a riiiiideuuuuh … because time is on his siiiide, and because I … want you!” The original mono mix, like the single, edits out the “uuuuh” stammer where Dylan rushes to think up a rhyme. Yet that’s the comic masterstroke that drives home the heartbreak of the song. “Visions of Johanna” might be the spookiest song he ever wrote – it’s certainly the most emotionally devastating, as Dylan shivers through a bleak night listening to the heat pipes in his heart cough as the country music station plays soft, with Louise in his arms but Johanna on his mind. In “Memphis Blues Again,” the whole band sounds lit up by the challenge of keeping up with him, especially drummer Kenny Buttrey. Dylan hangs in the alley with Shakespeare, watching him chat up French groupies. (“I dig Shakespeare,” he announced in March 1966. “A raving queen and a cosmic amphetamine mind.”) When the honky-tonk dancing girl Ruthie purrs, “Your debutante just knows what you need, but I know what you want,” you can tell the poor debutante doesn’t stand a chance.

As with so many rock masterpieces from 1966 – the Stones’ Aftermath and the Beatles’ Revolver, the Kinks’ Face to Face and the Who’s A Quick One, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and Otis Redding’s Dictionary of Soul and the Byrds’ 5D – there’s a sense of competition, as all these artists set out to top each other. Blonde on Blonde came a few months after Rubber Soul, and it clearly spurred Dylan to step up his melodic game. “4th Time Around” was his famous parody of “Norwegian Wood” – a song he cruelly played in person for John Lennon. (As Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1968, “He said, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘I don’t like it.'”) But talk about the anxiety of influence: Maybe Dylan had to mock “Norwegian Wood” just to hide how much Rubber Soul was lurking behind “Visions of Johanna” or “Sad Eyed Lady.”

He began the sessions in New York back in October 1965 with members of the Band (then the Hawks), coming up with the rowdy single “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” along with longtime bootleg faves like “Seems Like a Freeze Out” (an early draft of “Visions of Johanna”), “Number One” and “She’s Your Lover Now.” It’s hard to hear why Dylan was dissatisfied with the results, but by the end of January he’d only finished one song for the album: one of the highlights, the merciless “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later).” In February 1966, he fled the city for a three-day stint in Nashville, bringing producer Bob Johnston with him along with organist Al Kooper and guitarist Robbie Robertson. His Music Row crew was led by Charlie McCoy, with pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins, bassist Joe South, guitarist Wayne Moss and Buttrey on drums.

These guys were punch-the-clock pros, used to regular working hours and three-minute country sides, so they had to adjust to Dylan’s more eccentric approach. He kept them waiting around the studio office playing cards long after midnight, as he put the feverish final touches on a song he was still writing. He finally called them into the studio at 4 a.m. and started playing. But they were taken aback when the song didn’t end after three minutes – every time they thought they’d played the final chorus, this guy would jump right into another verse. “I was playing one-handed, looking at my watch,” Buttrey once said. “We’d never heard anything like this before.” Nearly 12 minutes later, they’d played “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”

In those three days, Dylan and the Nashville cats also crashed out “Visions of Johanna,” “4th Time Around” and “Memphis Blues Again.” He returned for another three-day stint in March, this time adding Henry Strzelecki on bass. They finished the album in one marathon all-nighter where they cut six songs, finally nailing “I Want You” at the break of dawn. But all the musicians sound energized by the chance to stretch out on these wild songs. In one of the outtakes, after Robertson’s guitar on “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” McCoy drawls approvingly, “Robbie, the whole world’ll marry you on that one!”

With so many great songs suddenly ready to go, Blonde on Blonde became a double album, released on May 16th with a fantastic Jerry Schatzberg cover photo – Dylan staring down the New York City winter with his houndstooth scarf and a mod coat. He wore the same coat on the cover of John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline. The gatefold sleeve also featured a shot of Italian movie star Claudia Cardinale, sadly removed from later pressings. (Claudia wouldn’t have been any more out of place in Nashville than Dylan was.) Two months later, Dylan abruptly dropped out of sight after his July 29th motorcycle crash (which may or may not have really happened) and slipped off to Woodstock to recuperate from the physical and mental damage of stardom. As far as the public was concerned, he was out of action for the next year. The rock & roll life had nearly finished him off. And from the sound of Blonde on Blonde, so had these songs. Fifty years later, Blonde on Blonde still sounds like an album Bob Dylan was lucky to escape in one piece.

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