In 1966 Dylan played a world tour, completed his novel, Tarantula, turned 25, his first son, Jesse Byron, was born and he recorded a double LP called Blonde on Blonde. Then Dylan fell from a motorcycle at his manager's house at Woodstock and was hospitalised into semi- retirement. And that was only what happened between January and the end of July.
Often overlooked in favour of the more accessible records, Blonde On Blonde is the culmination of Dylan's almost self-destructive desire to push his powers to the limit.
Blonde On Blonde was recorded in only six days at four different sessions. The first in New York with the Hawks in late January, (The Band minus Levon Heim) and the other three in Nashville in late February and early March with noted Nashville musicians including Joe South (guitar and bass), Ken Buttrey (drums) Al Kooper (organ), Charlie McCoy (guitar, harp, trumpet) Wayne Moss (guitar) and Robbie Robertson (guitar).
Dylan's ability to improvise sessions is legendary. For the Nashville sessions, producer Bob Johnston lined up the crack players and Dylan spent the day writing a song and then ran through it live in the studio. If a song didn't work on the first or second time Dylan generally threw it away. "She's Your Lover Now" (on the Bootleg Series) is an example of a wonderful love song that Dylan tossed aside because of a performance mistake.
The quality of the songs he trashed suggests exactly how high a creative peak he was actually on at the time.
Clearly some of the songs were more developed than others. "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" had been written for his wife at least a year earlier, but the recording was a first and only take. Has any love song begun with such enigmatic lines as the epic 12-minute ballad "Sad Eyed Lady:" ("With your mercury mouth in the missionary times/And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes.")
These songs reflected the turmoil of Dylan' world, his lovers (Warhol acolyte Edie Sedgewick in "Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat," 'Just Like A Woman,") his wife, drugs ("Rainy Day Women," "Memphis Blues Again"). There's also "Fourth Time Around," a sweet parody of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood." There is a chaotic sense of a life being lived at its most intense.
What excited me about Blonde On Blonde was the seamy dark quality of the lyrics, the upbeat rock & roll, the snarling barb-wire blues guitars and Dylan's mournful voice.
I would visit my friend Bernard's parent's house Friday nights after school and listen to Dylan. We'd lock ourselves in his bedroom for hours. We drank cider, smoked cigarettes and were very intense. The demands of youth being what they are, Bernard and I inevitably moved on. We gave up on cider, started smoking dope and listened to Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother.
I thought this is for me. These were more exotic worlds than the one I inhabited. Blonde On Blonde transformed my suburban life in something more exciting and simultaneously desolate. Dylan said, "The closest I ever got the sound I hear in my mind was on Blonde On Blonde. It's that thin, wild mercury sound. Its metallic and bright gold, with whatever that conjures up. That's my particular sound."
Now, 31 years later, I hate cider, don't smoke dope or even own a copy of Atom Heart Mother, but you still can't beat that thin, wild mercury sound.