Small confession. Like many people of my generation, I have grown up to the music of Bob Dylan. In the 1970s, his music was a big component of the soundtrack of my teenage years and pretty much all of his albums, particularly the early ones were in the shared collections of my friends and me. But, and here’s the confession, I can’t really remember when was the last time I pulled out a Dylan album – record, CD or mp3 – and listened to it. In the last five years? No. In the past 10? Probably not. His later albums, those he released after the late 1970s (the ones that followed 1978’s Street-Legal and 1979’s Slow Train Coming) I never really cared for. Dylan, for a long, long while was not on my playlist.
On October 13, however, there were no excuses. Almost unconsciously I picked out Blood On The Tracks, his 1975 album that always used to be my go-to Dylan record. It came soon after Planet Waves and our introduction to it was courtesy a friend whose father got the LP for him from the US in the summer of the same year it was released. We were in Class 10 and in the sweltering heat of Calcutta would gather often in my tiny room at my parents’ home listening to music, sometimes on a mono cassette player but when we had records, then on a primitive HMV stereo system. I remember when the album first debuted in that room. We would play it endlessly, tirelessly. The friend whose album it was is a gem – an artist and a singer who’d actually sing Dylan’s songs – and he generously let me tape the album on a cassette and then did the cover art for it.
Everyone has a favourite Dylan album. Many love Blonde On Blonde, a great album that came out nearly 10 years before Blood On The Tracks but it’s the latter that is my favourite. Like many of Dylan’s songs, those on that album are not happy ones. In fact, their mood may reflect his personal relationship issues at the time. But they are about love, fate and pain. They are confessional stories about a love affair, estrangement and anguish. But Dylan’s lyrics, and his poetry laced with black humour make that darkly moody album a winner for me. In the first song, Tangled Up In Blues, Dylan sings: “She was married when we first met/Soon to be divorced/ I helped her out of a jam, I guess/ But I used a little too much force/ We drove that car as far as we could/ Abandoned it out West/ Split up on a dark sad night/ Both agreeing it was best/ She turned around to look at me/ As I was walkin’ away/ I heard her say over my shoulder/ “We’ll meet again someday on the avenue”/ Tangled up in blue.”
Dylan’s son Jakob has said that Blood On The Tracks is about his parents – Bob and his mother Sara and their estrangement. We were too young in 1975 to realise all of these undertones that may have shaped that album and in any case, there was no internet or any real access to music writing. For us, for me, there were just the songs. Tangled Up In Blue, Simple Twist of Fate, You’re A Big Girl Now, the excellent Idiot Wind, Lily Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts , the longing of If You See Her Say Hello, all of them. And their lyrics said it all. On Idiot Wind, Dylan sings: “Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press/ Whoever it is I wish they’d cut it out quick but when they will I can only guess/ They say I shot a man named Gray and took his wife to Italy/ She inherited a million bucks and when she died it came to me/ I can’t help if I’m lucky.” Backed by a full band, and a striking keyboard riff those words quickly became an ear-worm for me 40 years ago. “Visions of your chestnut mare shoot through my mind and are making me see stars.”
In the days after October 13, I’ve been (and I’m sure many of you are too) listening to a lot of Dylan. But Blood On The Tracks has been spinning regularly. As I sit now and blast that album yet again, I can’t help but think of those early listening days that we spent with it, sometimes on the turntable but often just mono on the cassette player, with the fan whirring noisily in Calcutta’s humid summer afternoons and interruptions by vendors shouting down the lane outside my window or by the occasional raucousness of verbal duels between the neighbourhood’s maidservants near the tube-well pump nearby.
As I said, post-October 13, it’s been a Dylan redux for me. Many of his albums, including some of the later ones are getting big play. The studio ones, the live ones, such as Before the Flood and Live At Carnegie Hall 1963; but also the Bootleg Series, particularly Vol. 7: No Direction Home . Thank you, Nobel laureate. I shouldn’t have had that hiatus from your music.
From HT Brunch, October 23
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