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Debunking the Five Biggest Myths About Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks

on December 05, 2018, 2:30pm

Vivid Seats Ticket promoThe career of Bob Dylan lends itself to tall tales. For Jeff Slate, that tendency comes straight from the man himself. “He walked into Morris Levy’s office in 1961 and dictated a biography, as he tells it in Chronicles, that was completely fiction,” Slate said. “The dead parents, the living in boxcars, all these odd jobs he’d had driving a truck.”

As the writer and researcher behind the liner notes for More Blood, More Tracks, Slate has spent more time than most sifting the truth out of the alternate takes, studio logs, and other primary sources that form the album’s historical record. That job also makes him duty-bound to straighten out the lingering misconceptions about Dylan’s 1975 masterpiece, Blood on the Tracks, that have added beguiling (if incorrect) color to the record’s commonly accepted narrative. If our recent phone conversation is any indication, it’s a task that he relishes, not as a scold, but as the steward of a truer story that’s even more compelling than the legends.

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Consequence of Sound and Sony bring you an exploration of legendary albums and their ongoing legacy with The Opus. Hosted by Paula Mejia, the first installment revolves around Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks in conjunction with the new Bootleg Series release, More, Blood, More TracksSubscribe now.

“Anybody who’s a music obsessive, or certainly a Dylan fan, is going to be completely mesmerized by a tale of a record that was recorded, scrapped, rerecorded, and released,” he said. “It was reviewed! Larry Sloman did a whole piece about the making of the record for Rolling Stone in November of 1974, and then it never saw the light of day in the form he wrote about.”

Forty-four years later, it’s time to amend the record. Below, we’ve given Slate the floor to debunk five of the most persistent myths surrounding Blood on the Tracks. Read on to discover the real stories about Dylan’s aborted sessions with his backing band Deliverance, the fabled Christmas sessions in Minnesota that produced some of the record’s most indelible moments, and the confessional voice that’s led many to call this his most personally revealing work.

More Blood, More Tracks, the latest installment in Dylan’s enduring Bootleg Series, is currently on sale. The deluxe edition includes more than 70 previously unreleased recordings from the sessions behind Blood on the Tracks, specifically outtakes, studio banter, false starts, and alternate versions of “Tangled Up in Blue”, “Simple Twist of Fate”, and “Shelter From the Storm”. Stream a preview of the collection below via Spotify.

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Jeff Slate: I think there’s this myth that the New York sessions made a better record. I don’t subscribe to that notion. I think that, individually, the performances are probably more powerful, but taken as a whole, as a record, I don’t think that would have been the record that would have reestablished Dylan as the preeminent singer-songwriter of his generation in 1975.

People kind of hold it near and dear because it’s this lost record, but I think the biggest misconception is that it’s a better record. It’s a cooler record, it’s a funkier record, it’s a more interesting and intimate record, but to say that it’s a better record does a disservice to the recordings he did in Minnesota. I don’t think that the original version of “Tangled Up in Blue” is superior to the one that he redid when he was up in Minnesota. It’s a cooler, solo, more intimate, more intense version, but to say it’s better is a subjective call. “Idiot Wind” is probably better. (laugh) But that’s a whole other argument.

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Slate: The biggest misconception, and I had it too, when I went into it, was that he went in with the band, and started with the band, and was difficult to work with, and didn’t give them direction, and kept changing the arrangements and the tempos, and would veer from one song and back and to another and back, and so forth. Now that we have the session notes and the tapes in chronological order, what we realize is a couple of things. The first thing was, he recorded 11 songs before the band even showed up. His intention, the way we and the team who worked on [More Blood, More Tracks] understood it, was to record a solo acoustic record. […]

Within the first half-hour, he’d cut four tracks: two versions of “If You See Her, Say Hello” and two of “You’re a Big Girl Now.” While the tonality of his voice changes, and little things change here and there, the guitar playing is identical, the solo breaks are identical, the harmonica solos are identical. So, this idea that he was unprepared or wasn’t sure what he was going to do – he was ready to get down, and he was kind of making Freewheelin’ for the mid-’70s: a more mature, world-weary version of the album that he’d made in 1963.

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Slate: Now that we can listen to the tapes, the first thing we realize is that he didn’t intend to record with the band, and when he did bring them in, it really doesn’t work. For whatever reason, those sessions didn’t connect. They were the guys who were available on the Rosh Hashanah holiday in New York City. I don’t know if they were the A guys or the B guys or the C guys, but they didn’t connect with him. I think the story that he was hard to work with and mercurial is more legend than reality, because we can hear him trying, over and over, to get a take with these guys, and instead of it getting better, it kind of falls apart.

Whatever was happening — and I know the drummer was in a booth, and Bob wouldn’t wear headphones — there were technical issues, but usually, when musicians are in that situation, they find a way to connect, and these guys just didn’t. But, he did connect with Tony Brown the bass player, who he brought back the next day, and who he returns to the next three days, recording basically by himself or with Brown on bass and a couple of overdubs here and there. […] That’s probably the biggest myth that we wanted to deal with, that he was making this record and he fired the band one by one. He wasn’t. He was probably making an acoustic record.

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Slate: People repeat this in stories as fact. We actually went back and researched this, and there’s no primary source — there’s no interview with Bob, no interview with his brother, nobody who was on the scene at the time who says it was David who convinced him to do this. I think there was a biography, maybe in the late ’70s or early ’80s, that just stated it as fact, and then after that, everybody just repeated it, because why would that not be fact-checked?

However, the reality is, as Ratso Sloman told me when I interviewed him […] nobody’s going to make Bob do what he hasn’t already decided to do. He’d been living with this record for a couple of months, it was going to come out, and he was probably having second thoughts because, by all accounts, he wanted to make a big artistic statement. After being at Columbia Records for the entirety of the ’60s, he’d jumped ship to David Geffen and Asylum Records in 1973, released Planet Waves and Before the Flood, and was now back at Columbia. He’s back, putting his stake in the ground as the preeminent singer-songwriter of that generation. Does he want to release a cool record or a great record? What people aren’t giving him credit for is that he knew, from an artistic standpoint, that it needed something more.

Probably his brother, because he was local and knew a studio and knew some local musicians, was able to present him with the opportunity to record while he was there for vacation. […] Kevin Odegard, who played guitar and helped put the sessions together, told me they went in to record one song. The idea was to record, on the first night, “Idiot Wind”, and maybe it would be a freestanding single separate from the album, or maybe it would replace the version on the album because he’d rewritten it so dramatically. However, it went so well that he immediately started recording another song and then another and then came back a couple nights later and recorded a couple more. So, I think that’s probably another one that falls into the category of myths, that he’d planned to do “Tangled Up in Blue” again. That didn’t come until the second night.

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Slate: I think the idea [that Blood on the Tracks is purely autobiographical] is a disservice to how good these songs are. Look, there’s no doubt that these songs are of a more personal nature than a lot of his other music. But, by the same token, he was taking these painting classes, he was fascinated with the Cubists, he was fascinated with the idea that when you look at something close up and then at 10 feet away and then at 30 feet away, it reveals itself in completely different ways, and he was trying to do that with songwriting. To find a linear narrative about one individual in those songs that have elements of love songs in them is to minimize the scope of the subject matter he’s dealing with. […]

It’s easy to pick up on this narrative that’s been told and retold, that it’s a breakup record, but the reality is, if you take “Tangled Up in Blue” and break out the story, is it about two people on the run and trying to find each other? Yeah, it is. But it’s also all these other things. Is it current day? Is it 100 years ago? Is it the ’50s? Is it the future? There are also all these other characters that come in and out of the narrative, in first-person and third-person, and all this other stuff going on. So, to say that it’s a straightforward song of breakup kind of minimizes the fact that he’s dealing with so many levels of emotion, and so many different styles of lyricism and storytelling. This is not a Neil Young ballad. No disrespect to Neil. He writes great songs, but this is a whole other animal.

Also, to say that this is his divorce record — he didn’t get divorced for three years after this. That’s a pretty long divorce! […] People do feel like this is the one time that he gave us a peek behind the curtain, and then it closed shut again in many ways; Desire had some confessional-ish songs on it, and they do exist throughout his career. But that’s all assuming that these stories are about him. We don’t know that. He’s not going to tell us. Why oversimplify them? Accept them for what they are, and let them do their magic. To think that it’s him writing about one individual limits the scope of these songs that are so large and full of multitudes, as they say.

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