Bob Dylan unintentionally put a punctuation mark on perhaps the greatest creative streak that any solo artist has had in the rock ‘n’ roll era with Blonde on Blonde. There seemed no limit to his creative productivity, so much so that this latest creation was released this month 50 years ago as a double album—a first for the recording industry.
Blonde on Blonde was the third studio album in only 14 months, following Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, in which the formerly acoustic Dylan used an electric guitar in pursuit of a "wild, thin mercury" sound. The lyrics had evolved, too, away from the early protest songs characteristic of so much folk music of the time to a more personal, poetic, phantasmagoric, even perplexing style.
Although artists such as Peter, Paul and Mary and the Byrds had already soared on the charts with Dylan-penned songs, Blonde on Blonde gave him more hits, rendered in his own offbeat voice, than any of his albums to date, including “I Want You,” “Just Like a Woman” and “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35.” For the free-form FM rock music stations that would take off in a few years, several other songs would also receive heavy airplay: “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again,” “Visions of Johanna,” “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine),” “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” and “Sad-Eyed Lady of The Lowlands.”
That summer, a motorcycle accident sidelined Dylan (a mystery-shrouded incident recounted in this prior post of mine). When he emerged with another studio album, John Wesley Harding, in 1968, it was as an artist more conscious of his mortality, obligations as a family man, and the need to tone down expectations of grandeur.
Not that Dylan hadn’t experienced a musical metamorphosis before. It had just been easier to ferret out on Bringing It All Back Home, where the acoustic songs were presented on one side and the electric ones on the other. In contrast, Blonde on Blonde listeners would be hard-pressed to determine which material was performed before Dylan switched recording from Columbia Records’ Class A studio in New York down to Nashville, where he could avail himself of veteran country musicians.
Among these players, Dylan felt comfortable enough to experiment with his vocals. As George Starostin, author of this post on the “Only Solitaire” blog, notes: “Bob sings here in a significantly lower register than he'd used to before; and since so many of the songs are taken at relatively slow tempos, this gives him the opportunity to draw out, twist, mutilate, and make otherwise suffer as many syllables as he wishes to — including that odd manner of adding a rising tone to everything that's stressed.” Don McLean’s “American Pie” alludes to Dylan as “The Jester,” and perhaps on no other LP (except as part of The Traveling Wilburys in the late 1980s) did Dylan don this guise so insistently as on Blonde on Blonde.
Over the years, other artists have offered stunning recordings of songs from Blonde on Blonde—notably, Richie Havens’ majestic “Just Like a Woman” and Cliff Eberhardt’s aching “I Want You” from the 2001 A Nod to Bob tribute album. But it would take live versions of a couple of others before I could properly appreciate them—in particular, “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine),” performed by Dylan with The Band on his 1974 tour (and released on the resulting album, Before the Flood), and “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” given a rollicking treatment by George Harrison in Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Tribute concert.
While “Just Like a Woman” is often claimed to have been inspired by Dylan’s affair with model Edie Sedgwick (see the line "her fog, her amphetamines and her pearls"), three of the 14 songs on the album are widely believed to have been inspired by the woman who became his first wife, Sara Lowndes: “I Want You,” “Visions of Johanna” and the 11-minute epic “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” (so long that it was given an entire side of its own). The breakup of their marriage also gave rise to what is arguably the last consistently great Dylan album, Blood on the Tracks.