Inside Dylan's 'Blonde on Blonde': Rock's First Great Double Album

Inside Dylan's 'Blonde on Blonde': Rock's First Great Double Album

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Inside Dylan's 'Blonde on Blonde': Rock's First Great Double Album news

“I was going at a tremendous speed… at the time of my Blonde on Blonde album,” Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone editor and publisher Jann S. Wenner in 1969. On Blonde on Blonde, all the tension and angst of Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing It All Back Home were blown wide open to reveal pure freedom. It’s rock’s first double-album monument, where the distance between Dylan’s imagination and his music collapsed entirely: “The closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind,” he famously said, “that thin, that wild mercury sound.” With its chain-lightning mix of rock & roll, novelty music, surrealist ballads, Chicago blues and psychedelic country, its peels of lyrical invention and epic song lengths, Blonde on Blonde might seem like the kind of work that involved long-term contemplation.

In fact, most of the album was knocked out between stints on the road during a historically intense bout of touring. In the fall of 1965, Dylan wanted to continue pushing his new sound, and tour with an electric band. A decision was made to split a series of upcoming concerts between an acoustic set and a plugged-in performance. At the suggestion of his manager Albert Grossman’s secretary, Dylan checked out Canadian band the Hawks, who had cut their teeth backing rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. Dylan was especially impressed by Robbie Robertson, the band’s 22-year-old guitarist, and asked the Hawks to play two shows, one in New York and one in L.A. At the New York show, held in front of a crowd of 14,000 at the Forest Hills tennis stadium in Queens, fans sat patiently through Dylan’s acoustic songs and then commenced booing during his electric set (some people sang along to “Like a Rolling Stone” and then booed when it was over). After they completed their West Coast date, the Hawks (soon to be renamed the Band) were hired for a year of shows that began in Texas in September 1965.

That October, just as the tour was beginning, Dylan and the Band went into Columbia Studios in New York and recorded the single “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” a curt blast of “Like a Rolling Stone”-style acrimony Dylan was so pleased with that he once kicked folk-scene grandee Phil Ochs out of a limo for saying he didn’t like it. Surprisingly, though, more attempts by Dylan and the Band throughout the fall and winter produced only one song that made it onto Blonde on Blonde, “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later),” a swirling haymaker that took 24 takes and had to be finished with the help of other musicians. “Oh, I was really down,” Dylan told writer Robert Shelton.

Salvation came from a surprising place. The previous summer, during the end of the at-times-difficult sessions for Highway 61 Revisited, producer Bob Johnston had introduced Dylan to multi-instrumentalist Charlie McCoy, a seasoned musician from Nashville who’d played with everyone from Elvis to Perry Como. After McCoy sat in on the recording of “Desolation Row,” Johnston suggested Dylan might like recording in Nashville. “See how easy that was,” Johnston said.

Nashville was uncharted territory for rock musicians. Grossman objected strenuously, but after the frustrating sessions with the Band, a new approach seemed worth pursuing. Taking advantage of a short break in his touring schedule, Dylan traveled to Music City for a few days in February 1966. Johnston and McCoy convened a world-class lineup, including drummer Kenny Buttrey, guitarist Wayne Moss, pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins and guitarist-bassist Joe South. Dylan brought Robertson from New York (the only member of the Band he invited) and trusted keyboardist Al Kooper. To create a more organic environment, Johnston had the partitions that separated the musicians from one another in the studio taken down and burned.

“I was only 22,” recalls Kooper. “It was the first time I had recorded outside of New York. Now I’m in Nashville, Tennessee. I didn’t know the musicians personally. As I got to know them, I realized they were really nice people. It was a very comfortable situation for myself and probably Robbie. 

Inside Dylan's 'Blonde on Blonde': Rock's First Great Double Album news

When Dylan arrived in Nashville with his new wife, Sara,
 and their one-month-old son, Jesse, he had a few songs ready
 to go.” The elegant “Fourth Time Around” was a direct (albeit never acknowledged) reference to the Beatles’ Dylanesque classic “Norwegian Wood,” with the lyrics “I never asked for your crutch/Now don’t ask for mine” possibly serving as a warning to John Lennon to stop ripping him off. “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” was a hilarious snatch of 12-bar Chicago blues that has long been rumored to be about Edie Sedgwick, reigning starlet of Andy Warhol’s Factory scene, who Dylan had been spending time with recently (when asked about the song in 1969, Dylan said he “mighta seen a picture of one in a department-store window”). 

The album’s first session would produce the epochal “Visions of Johanna,” which Dylan first debuted in 1965 at a Berkeley concert attended by Allen Ginsberg and Joan Baez (who insisted the song was about her). With Kooper’s organ and Robertson’s trebly guitar shadowing Dylan’s lyrics, which go on for five image-stuffed verses, the song turns a recollection of a hazy New York night into a liquid meditation on carnal obsession and spiritual desire. At seven minutes long, it also suggested this wasn’t going to be just another series of recording dates.

“It was really … ‘far out’ would be the term I would have used at the time,” said Bill Aikins, who played keyboards on the song. “And still today, it was a very out-there song.” As Dylan later said, “I’d never done anything like it before.”

The song set the tone for the rest of the sessions. Dylan got down to writing new songs and called the musicians in when it was time to record. For the crack team of players, this was an entirely new experience. Accustomed to Nashville’s sharp standards of professionalism and tight budgets, where a musician was rewarded for working quickly and the most efficient players might record a song an hour, they now found themselves being paid to be on call waiting for genius to strike. “There were some days when he would sit in the studio for six hours and work on the lyrics,” says Kooper. “We ended up getting there at 12 noon and going home at, like, five or six in the morning. We’d get there at 12 and wouldn’t record anything until four or five.”

Dylan concurred, saying in a 1968 interview, “The musicians played cards, I wrote out a song, we’d do it, they’d go back to their game and I’d write out another song.”

Inside Dylan's 'Blonde on Blonde': Rock's First Great Double Album news

When they were summoned, the songs that awaited were unlike anything they’d ever played on. The day after recording “Visions of Johanna,” Dylan laid down another landmark epic, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” which ended up stretching out past 10 minutes in the studio and took up the entire final side of Blonde on Blonde. An ode to Sara Dylan, it “started out as a little thing,” as Dylan later recalled, “but I got carried away somewhere down the line.”

“We started ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,’ a 14-minute ballad, at 4 a.m.,” McCoy recalls. “And concentration is tough at four in the morning, when you’ve been up all night, waiting to play, and nobody wanted to be that guy that messed up. But we did it, and then after that, everything went much smoother.”

With his creativity peaking, Dylan began entertaining the idea that the album might become a double LP. He left Nashville for some more concert dates and returned in mid-March to finish the record. The songs recorded during the March session were shorter and flowed faster than ever, with Dylan working on a piano in his hotel room and Kooper playing musical director, taking Dylan’s ideas to the session musicians to prep them so that when Dylan finally arrived with the finished song they’d be ready.

These sessions rendered a batch of classics, including “Just Like a Woman,” another likely ode to the star-crossed Sedgwick that stands as Dylan’s finest ballad; “I Want You,” the curt, catchy tune that provided the album with its initial working title; and “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35,” a shambling processional that may have been inspired in part by Ray Charles’ “Let’s Go Get Stoned” and became a Number Two single, despite (or because of) its overt drug allusion. As McCoy recalls, “Bob Johnston came to me and he said, ‘Listen, later tonight, he wants to do a song with a Salvation Army sound.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Oh, you know, some horns, a trumpet and a trombone.’ And I said, ‘OK. Does the trumpet need to be good?’ He said, ‘No! No, it’s Salvation Army.’ And I said, ‘OK, I’ll play trumpet.’ A couple drinks and it was done.”

After some final mixing in Los Angeles later that spring, the album was completed. Its cover photo, taken by Dylan’s friend Jerry Schatzberg on a cold day in New York, showed Dylan, dressed for winter in a suede jacket and checkered scarf. Many took its blurry image to be a drug allusion. But, as Schatzberg later recalled, “It was that we were outside, it was very cold and we were shaking. Both of us! That’s really what it was, and that’s how it turned out.”

If the photograph was truly accidental, it’s the perfect image of Dylan at the time, creating in a heedless rush too fast to stay in focus, even for a second.

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