Why An Album Became Vital (To Me) #3
It opens with the drunken party of “Rainy Day Women” (they’ll stone you, indeed) and moves into the surrealistic torch song of “Visions of Johanna,” and at that point I’m pretty well hooked.
I wasn’t new to Dylan when Blonde on Blonde hit my turntable, some time around 1968. My brother had given me Dylan’s second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, for Christmas, in 1965. The album was two years old by then, but it hadn’t made it to my suburban Pittsburgh life that early. In ‘65, though, my brother was a college freshman, and he was making discoveries about the broader world, and he was eager to serve as a guide to his little brother. When I unwrapped Freewheelin’, I was immediately charmed by the now-famous photo of this amiably casual young man with an even more charming young woman pressed to his side, keeping them both warm on a wintry Greenwich Village Street. My brother knew that I was unaware of what I might find on the album, and he advised me to listen to it several times before passing any judgments. “Don’t let his voice, which doesn’t seem like a good singing voice at all, steer you wrong,” he said. “Let it grow on you. You’ll be glad.”
He was right. I thought the songs were incredible. “Blowin’ In the Wind” of course was the first hit (Had I heard Peter, Paul, & Mary’s relatively insipid version of the tune at that point?), but the record is full of other classics: “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”; “Masters of War”; “Corinna, Corinna”; and the amazing “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”
But Blond on Blonde went further. It didn’t just knock me out. It shifted my consciousness. It shifted Dylan from the wunderkind of folk music to the madman visionary poet of the new exploding culture. It was with the lyrics of Blonde on Blonde that Dylan began his journey towards the Nobel Prize in Poetry.
There’s the opening to “I Want You”:
The guilty undertaker sighs / The lonesome organ grinder cries / The silver saxophones say I / Should refuse you. / The cracked bells and washed-out horns / Blow into my face with scorn / But it’s not that way / I wasn’t born to lose you.
And in track 2 there’s the selfish and yearning narrator, making love to Louise while longing for Johanna:
Louise, she’s all right, she’s just near / She’s delicate and seems like the mirror / But she just makes it all too concise and too clear / That Johanna’s not here. / The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face / Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place.
I love these lyrics, but I know it is lines like this that often drove my students crazy (though I never did teach Dylan lyrics), because such poetry left them angry that they were supposed to do the work of finding the “hidden meaning.” I would tell them that if the poet is hiding the meaning, then the poet is a narcissist or solipsist. What kind of poets hide what they mean to say? But it is possible that the words are written not to offer an argument or point of view. To appreciate art, we sometimes must, as David Byrne would have it, “stop making sense.” Some poems don’t lead with meaning; some primarily evoke a sensibility, a felt knowledge, just as paintings and rock videos and even commercials can sometimes say next to nothing explicit but pull us in and make us feel the world in a nonetheless meaningful way, perhaps even a strikingly new and provocative way. And even though Dylan also writes great lyrics that make perfect sense, that more surrealistic sensibility is what Blonde on Blonde gave to me.
I could offer my idiosyncratic readings of what Dylan’s more obtuse lyrics “mean.” I could go mad for my admiration of “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.” But if I did that, I’d also have to acknowledge that many of his lines are, for me, just painted images hanging in the corridors of the songs’ narratives. And then I’d happily fall back on the music. On the fact it sounds so spontaneous as to seem unrehearsed, until we realize how beautifully tight the band is. Or on the importance of Al Kooper, another revelation on the album. Or on the fact that the melodies are sometimes so joyfully jaunty, sometimes so terribly haunting. Blend those sounds with the poems and you see that Dylan can almost simultaneously be cruel and judgmental, compassionate and empathetic. [See “Just Like a Woman” and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”]
Blonde on Blonde taught me to recognize the paradox of egoism wed to empathy, set to music that made my heart and breathing open wide and dance.