- 15 Nov 18
His Back Pages
About seven years ago, those involved finally saw fit to release the long lost and talked about Beach Boys album, SMiLE, the tortured follow-up to Pet Sounds. One of the many highlights is a version of ‘Surf’s Up’ performed solo at the piano by Brian Wilson. Elvis Costello compared it to discovering a previously unknown home recording by Mozart. Finally getting to hear these sessions - the ones that Dylan Heads have been waiting for in the long and nearly always essential Bootleg series - in their entirety is very much like that. One of the great geniuses of 20th century music, stripped back, during what for many is his greatest period.
Indeed, depending on who you ask, and on what day you ask them, Blood On The Tracks is Dylan’s towering masterpiece – though it did have a protracted birth. The songs were initially recorded New York in 1974 and a test pressing was cut, but Dylan’s brother David thought it too stark and persuaded Bob to have another go at half the songs. The released album was a combination of the two sessions.
These alternate takes provide a more intimate experience, the painful wound of the original now further exposed. Dylan has always maintained that these songs are not autobiographical, claiming in his Chronicles memoir that they were inspired by the short stories of Anton Chekov, but that is still hard to believe given the raw emotion on display. ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ feels like Dylan is sitting beside you, asking what you think of his new song. ‘A Simple Twist Of Fate’ is heartbreaking, as is ‘You’re A Big Girl Now’, Bob “going out of his mind, with a pain that stops and starts.” ‘Idiot Wind’ is heavy with regret where it once spat hate. Everyone who has strapped on an acoustic guitar and coat-hangered a harmonica around their neck imagines they sound like this, but only Bob Dylan ever really has.
It was recently announced that film directorLuca Guadagnino is putting together a movie based on the album's narrative, which might seem a herculean task given the complexity of these songs, and given that, as Dylan has said himself, "there's no sense of time" - a result, apparently, of art classes with the painter Norman Raeben. One song that does lend itself to celluloid interpretation however is the mini-western ‘Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts’. This song always felt, to me at least, like this album’s ‘Yellow Submarine’ – good, just not as good as the rest of it, and I put this mostly down to the organ part which threatened to smother it. Without it, the song takes its rightful place with the rest.
‘Up To Me’ is the only “new” song, as such – it did turn up on the Biograph box, years ago – but If you’re completely obsessed, and have a lot of free time, there’s a six CD deluxe edition with every extant take of these songs included. If you do go down that road, keep an ear out for alternate takes of 'You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go' (Take 5) and 'Simple Twist Of Faith' (Take 3A) that sound more akin to 1976's Desire, which is very nearly Blood's equal.
The album released in 1975 remains, on reflection, the better one, which may be down to familiarity as much as anything else. But this is its essential companion.