Youíll get no dissent from me that Blood on the Tracks, Bob Dylanís best "post-accident" album and arguably the greatest sustained display of his literary genius, deserves a book about the hows and whys of its creation. Itís one of those records ó like the Stonesí Exile on Main Street, Sonic Youthís Daydream Nation, and Spiritualizedís Ladies and Gentlemen, Weíre Floating in Space ó that makes an initial grab for your attention with a couple of its catchier songs before revealing with each subsequent listen subtleties and nuances that eventually cohere into a monumental whole. And as far as nude, emotional impact goes, Billie Holidayís train wreck on Lady in Satin is one of the few recordings to rival Dylanís 1975 elegy. If itís 2 a.m., your relationship is shot, and you donít cry when playing "Shelter from the Storm," you werenít in love. So, yeah, Blood on the Tracks deserves to have its milieu limned, but it deserves better than Andy Gill and Kevin Odegard have given it in their new Simple Twist of Fate: Bob Dylan and the Making of Blood on the Tracks.
Hereís the main problem: if youíre enough of a Dylan fan to be reading a book about the making of a single album, the chances are good that youíve read at least one of the major Dylan biographies by Clinton Heylin, Howard Sounes, and Robert Shelton. Gill and Odegard have, and since they didnít have interview access to Dylan himself, thereís a persistent sense of readerís déjà vu as you plow through the 212 pages of narrative concerning the record. At points, itís tempting to crib a line from Dylan and ask, "Okay, Iíve had enough ó what else can you show me?"
The authors begin with a brief sketch of the meeting between Bob Dylan and Sara Lownds, their subsequent marriage, and their eventual break-up (the albumís ostensible raison díêtre). They touch on a few salient details of Dylanís domestic and creative life at the time, sketch the eraís post-Vietnam ambiance, and briefly chronicle the confessional singer-songwriter movement that was blooming while Dylan was writing and recording Blood on the Tracks.
All of this is documented elsewhere, and even though few would doubt that Dylan wrote the album to catalogue the emotional fallout of his failing marriage, the point hasnít ever been resolved, and the authors donít do so here. Cagy as always, Dylan denies itís autobiography but says in a radio interview with Mary Travers, "A lot of people tell me they enjoyed that album. Itís hard for me to relate to that ó I mean, people enjoying that type of pain . . ." Besides, the song "Sara," from Bloodís follow-up, Desire, pretty much kills any vestige of mystery. While summing all this up, the authors also manage to arrive at some dubious conclusions, one small example of which is that Dylanís Nashville Skyline was the template for the Flying Burrito Brothers. No, it wasnít. And throwing one of these mini-gaffes in at the beginning makes further assertions suspect.
The authorsí most relevant contribution is in tracking down the producers and musicians (Odegard was one of them) on the albumís sessions in New York City and Minneapolis. Although legend has it that the entire album was re-recorded in Minneapolis when Dylan decided he was dissatisfied with the first version, this is true of just a few tracks. Interviews with both groups of musicians ó all of them accomplished session players ó focus on how the spontaneous-minded Dylan rocketed through the songs, writing and recording almost simultaneously while the musicians scrambled for a toehold, but describe the moments when everyone fell into synch as stunning and unforgettable.
The authors give an inordinate amount of space, however, to producersí descriptions of their technical set-ups. Engineer Paul Martinson begins one stupefying paragraph by telling us that "Bobís vocal was through a Neumann U87 with a 2db, 10k shelving and a delayed EMT echo. We ran a tape loop on a Revox deck . . . " The most interesting interviews are with the Minneapolis musicians, who were hired by Dylanís brother David and who remain uncredited on the album ó and pretty bitter about the lack of recognition and performance royalties. In the end, though, what you donít get, and you were most likely reading for, is Dylan himself. There are a few anecdotes about him during the sessions ó ranking on a drunk Mick Jagger in a New York studio, deliberately pissing off steel-guitarist Buddy Cage to get the vicious, phantasmagoric solo at the tail end of "Meet Me in the Morning" ó but mostly heís an anonymous, albeit mercurial, presence. Itís a curious thing for a book about an album thatís so starkly personal.
Issue Date: March 5 - 11, 2004
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