Since bursting on to the New York folk scene in the early 60’s no one has been truly able to figure out who the ‘real’ Bob Dylan is. Dylan’s vast catalogue of work is full to the brim with metaphor and misguidance. Released in January 1975 during the much discussed marital troubles with his first wife Sara, Dylan’s 15th studio album, Blood on the Tracks, has all the tell-tale signs of a classic ‘break-up’ album. However, despite the powerful and raw emotion in Dylan’s voice combined with the deep, heart-breaking lyrics we still do not know the true meaning behind this iconic album.
By the early 1970’s, Dylan’s career seemed as though it was destined for a dramatic downward spiral. He split with manager Albert Grossman in 1971 and parted ways with long time record label Columbia Records, his home since 1961. Fame and adoration began taking its toll on Dylan and he spent much of the money he had made trying to flee the limelight of New York City, buying up property in California and Minnesota.
He craved an escape from his creative genius; to raise his children in peace, but fans never made life easy for Dylan. He was constantly berated in fan mail for abandoning his flock and one man even went as far as picketing outside one of Dylan’s New York apartments. This led to a physical altercation with the man in the street, but ultimately any dreams of an escape seemed hopeless.
This life also began to take a toll on Dylan’s marriage to ex-model Sara Lownds. They had married in 1965 and it was well known how Dylan adored Sara and her shy and reserved nature. Their marriage had transformed Dylan from audacious rock star to quiet family man, perfectly content with walking his daughter to the school bus and spending the day painting or writing.
In his autobiography Chronicles Dylan wrote; “I was fanaticising about a nine-to-five existence, a house on a tree lined block with a white picket fence…That would have been nice. That was my deepest dream.
During the 1974 comeback tour with long time group The Band, however, Dylan seemed on a dangerously low ebb and was known to constantly cheat on Sara. The group would pour through photographs of girls who lined up outside gigs and take their pick.
Many names of women claiming to have slept with Dylan began to hit the papers, including actress Ruth Tyrangiel who had said that her and Dylan began a 19 year long affair around this time. The rock star life had sucked Dylan back in, sending him into alcohol binges and heavy smoking stints. The life was too addictive and ultimately too much of a strain for Sara and the couple separated in summer 1974.
There are only a handful of interviews with Dylan in which he chooses to discuss the album and he has repeatedly brushed off the ideas that it is in any way autobiographical. In a 1985 interview that accompanied the Biograph box set, Dylan expressed his displeasure with the widespread belief that the Blood on the Tracks lyrics were rooted in his real life: “’You’re a Big Girl Now,’ well, I read that this was supposed to be about my wife. I wish somebody would ask me first before they go ahead and print stuff like that. I mean, it couldn’t be about anybody else but my wife, right? Stupid and misleading jerks these interpreters sometimes are…I don’t write confessional songs. Emotion’s got nothing to do with it. It only seems so, like it seems that Lawrence Olivier is Hamlet…“
However, Bob and Sara’s son, Jakob Dylan has acknowledged how his father’s work evokes memories of his parents’ marital problems. In a New York Times profile of Jakob, the former manager of the younger Dylan’s band The Wallflowers, Andrew Slater, recalled a revealing conversation; “I said, ‘Jakob, what goes through your mind when you listen to your father’s records?’ He said, ‘When I’m listening to ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, I’m grooving along just like you. But when I’m listening to Blood on the Tracks, that’s about my parents.’ I never asked him again.”
The album has inspired many covers including ones from the likes of David Gray, Chris Martin, Jack White and even as far as Miley Cyrus. Many of the songs rarely feature in Dylan’s concert set lists with “Meet Me in the Morning”, “Lily, Rosemark and the Jack of Hearts” and “Buckets of Rain” only being performed live once. Others, such as “Tangled Up in Blue” have been blasted out by Dylan thousands of times on stage.
The songs themselves are full of dark and savage imagery that would strike deep into any person that has experienced heart break or loss. In “Shelter from the Storm” Dylan’s three chord guitar playing moving over Tony Brown’s quiet bass goes hand in hand with the dark tale that unfolds about Dylan trying his chances with a woman that might be able to save him;
Suddenly I turned around and she was standin’ there,
With silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair,
She walked up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns,
Come in, she said I’ll give ya shelter from the storm.
The pickiness of Dylan has left us with multiple recordings of most of his songs over the years, so too with Blood on the Tracks. The early version of “If You See Her Say Hello” certainly seems to point toward his separation from Sara.
This song that opens disk three of the Bootleg Series 1-3 has numerous lyrical changes than the one seen in the final album version from ’75. A line from the earlier recording reads; “If you’re making love to her, kiss her for the kids”, surely referring to the former couples four children. However this line from the final album version reads; “If you get close to her, kiss her once for me”. Dylan here perhaps trying to throw us off the scent.
Despite the various opinions and conspiracy theories surrounding the album and the back and forth between Dylan and interviewers on the topic over the years, none of us except for Dylan himself can truly pin down what this album is really about. Ask a group of Dylan fans to name their most iconic album, however, and the answer will always be the same; Blood on the Tracks.