55 Years Later: Revisiting Bob Dylan’s Unsurpassed ‘Blonde On Blonde’

One of the hallmark releases of Bob Dylan’s career, Blonde On Blonde (released 6/20/66) one-third of the history-defining trilogy including 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. Not only did these two companion pieces set the artistic and cultural terms for the Nobel Laureate’s career  for the immediate future—and for many followers right up until today—but the LP following a year later also certified Dylan’s status as a mainstream celebrity.

By most accounts, BOB is also the first studio double LP by a major artist (released just one week before Freak Out! by the Mothers of Invention). And yet, like so many similar works issued over the years, it would carry even more impact if it were considerably condensed on the order of its opener

“Rainy Day Women #12 & 35;” the edit of this second single from the album omitted the third and final verse and running about two and one-half minutes, was significantly shorter than the version as it appeared on the album. The entire set of fourteen tracks as originally issued would benefit in much the same way.

Regardless of length, the aforementioned song itself is one of the more slight compositions on the album. Its uproarious, Dixieland band mirth  might better appear somewhere in the middle to supply a change of musical and emotional pacing around solemnity “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later).” On the flip side of the coin and the opposite end of the album is “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” an eleven minute-plus cut that seems much longer than its duration because it is simply so monotonous: there are mere traces of the suspense and drama that permeates similarly-extended tunes like “Desolation Row” or “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” from the previous pair of masterworks

No question Dylan felt compelled to record the song as a personal emotional catharsis. Yet it would succeed more fully all around had it been shortened or, better yet, rearranged to include suitable instrumental breaks to enhance the ghostly atmosphere the likes of which it shares with so much of what precedes it. The Band’s guitarist Robbie Robertson and keyboardist Al Kooper both traveled to Nashville after the early album sessions in New York (which initially yielded “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” released soon thereafter as a single), so either would be a ripe candidate for some non-verbal flourishes that would enhance its elegiac mood. Perhaps too, if guitarist Michael Bloomfield had been involved, as he was on the previous album, devising arrangements and prepping the players, this song might well have truly become the magnum opus general consensus gauges it to be.

Were those two modifications made, the brisk lilt of“I Want You” would function even better to open this album. It would not only set an accessible, upbeat tone, but would also quite pointedly introduce the main theme of the record, that is, desire, in all its seemingly infinite permutations and ramifications (little wonder Dylan named a subsequent album after the word ten years later). Deep within the confines of solitude during the surreal “Visions of Johanna,” Dylan manages to avail himself of the succor of deep personal intimacy in a delicate “Just Like a Woman.” In surrounding intervals, he passes from outright lust (“Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” to abject devotion (“Pledging My Time”), then on to rejection (“Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine”) and ultimately a nagging frustration (“Absolutely Sweet Marie”). And, as “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” suggests, the transitions to and from those various states of mind (heart and body) can be nightmarish. 

The emotional turbulence that results from such vacillation(s) reflects the varied musical styles Dylan explores during seventy-two some minutes. Ranging from slightly reworked blues in “Temporary Like Achilles”  to the pristine nouveau-folk of “4th Time Around” (his response to the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood”), the diversity only escalates through the work of  accompanists who render the arrangements all with the taste and economy producer Bob Johnston was looking for when he suggested this Southern locale for recording. Still, the decidedly rootsy nature of much of  the material suggests Dylan was pushing out the songs, not capturing bursts of inspiration as with Blonde On Blonde‘s two predecessors. 

Much of the material for the record was written just before or during prolonged intervals when the assembled Nashville cats, including Kenney Buttrey and Charlie McCoy, were marking time, waiting for the author to finish composing. Yet, even under those circumstances, there’s little sense of anything forced: if the originals themselves didn’t exactly flow, the continuity of musicianship instills a fresh quality to, among others, “Obviously 5 Believers;” underrated jewel that it is, this penultimate track provides a dramatic prelude to the finish, notwithstanding the specific virtues or lack thereof in the aforementioned closing showpiece.

Ostensibly hurried circumstances were indicative of the manic pace Bob Dylan was maintaining at the time. Commitments for a book (Tarantula) and a film (Eat The Document) came to an abrupt halt, along with more extended touring, shortly after the release of Blonde On Blonde, with the famous motorcycle accident in the region of Woodstock New York. Long a respite for this ‘Voice of a Generation,” courtesy manager Albert Grossman, the rustic environs became a safe haven for Dylan and his growing family (for at least while) after the aforementioned mythic event, thus leaving the third entry in the hallowed triptych to echo over the years. More than ever now, at its half-century plus milestone, Blonde On Blonde remains an alternately liberating and confounding piece of work.

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14 Responses

  1. Geez, Doug, listen to the music! No doctoral thesis needed, it’s rock ‘n’ roll, not T.S. Eliot.
    You’ll never hear better ensemble playing and more sheer fun anywhere.

  2. Good grief! What a load of rubbish. Attempts to “improve” a masterpiece usually end up ruining it, and if these edits were made, they certainly would.

  3. “Rubbish” is indeed the definitive word I too would use to describe this review. How do you second-guess a masterpiece? I’d like to see this reviewer write a song or sequence an album one zillionth as monumental as this one is. Or anyone else, for that matter. This is the sort of nonsense one might come up with close to last call when you’ve already had more than enough yet feel certain you’ve unlocked the secrets of the universe.

  4. larry k and pete are right.
    you’re probably an alright guy but that article makes you sound like a pretentious dingbat.

  5. Larry & Pete: I clearly see and hear multitudes in Dylan’s work you do not. But that’s okay because, as the Nobel Laureate himself once wrote: ‘…You are right from your side and I am right from mine…’ OnWard & UpWard!!!

  6. Not a great idea to have a non fan write this. The author appears lost at sea–as if the asst. To write about this “masterpiece” was foisted on him. Someone with an actual appreciation for the work-an artist or musician who “GOT IT” – A BETTER CHOICE.This guy’s probably a big todd rundgren fan.

  7. Seriously ? You’re busy suggesting “improvements” to a masterpiece? Try relaxing and enjoying it and most of all rebelling in some of the best word plat ever devised. Dylan at his surreal best. Go critique some other work of art beyond your comprehension.

  8. All these years and millions of copies sold, it’s come to light that this critic could’ve done it better. Let’s hope that Bob sees the light and hands over his Nobel Prize for Literature to Doug the Critic.

  9. Blonde on Blonde is without doubt one of the greatest album’s ever made, in a great year for album’s, Revolver, Pet Sounds, Aftermath, Face to Face. However Bringing it all back home is my favourite Dylan album, with Blood on the tracks and Highway 61 Revisited second and third, but all are great albums. I don’t think there is a bad track on Blonde on Blonde.

  10. The description of Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands as ‘monitonous’ says it all. I’ve been listening to it for 55 years and it blows me away every time.

  11. What a load of rubbish. This album is a masterpiece that influenced artists for generations to come, not to mention the quality of the musicianship that was non-existent in rock music at the time. It seems like the writer wants to edit the songs down to the level of top 40’s pop tunes.

  12. There is a huge body of water called the Atlantic Ocean that may need someone to review it’s purpose also. That would be easier than changing people’s respect and love for Zimmy’s inspiring lyrics.

  13. What a colossally stupid take on this incredible album. “This great record would be better if it were shorter” is absolutely ridiculous. What makes you think painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa would improve it? Last I checked, you haven’t written any songs or put out any music of your own, which makes you totally unqualified to nitpick about this brilliant piece of work. Time to retire ?

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