NOVEMBER 7, 2018
BOB DYLAN’S Blonde on Blonde (1966) isn’t so much an album as a series of worlds through which the disoriented, mesmerized listener stumbles, hypnotized by each new sonic texture and pile-up of words. We begin in the midst of a raucous, inebriated street processional (“Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”), and swerve into a smoky, claustrophobic room with two mistrustful lovers (“Pledging My Time”), emerging into an eerily lonely, nocturnal cityscape peopled by chimerical figures like the fiddler, the peddler, and Louise (“Visions of Johanna”). We then wind up in a house of worship, where the singer keens an 11-minute paean to his lover (“Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”). Different as the album’s worlds are from each other, they have in common a sense of stasis, paralysis, and entrapment: “Well, the room is so stuffy / I can hardly breathe”; “We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it”; “But deep inside my heart / I know I can’t escape.” As Nashville-based music journalist Daryl Sanders notices, in his deep dive into the album, That Thin, Wild Mercury Sound: Dylan, Nashville, and the Making of Blonde on Blonde, many songs revolve around the narrator “being blocked in one way or another, resulting in sexual frustration.” Dylan’s lyrics teem with blindness, stuckness, and muteness.
These themes make sense when you consider that Dylan, who’d turn 25 in May 1966, was one of the most over-committed people on the planet: he owed Macmillan a novel, he was crisscrossing the country with his new backing band The Hawks, he was under pressure by Columbia to produce a follow-up to Highway 61 Revisited, and he’d just married (and had a child with) Sara Lownds, after breaking off what had most likely been overlapping relationships with Joan Baez and Edie Sedgwick. He literally hadn’t had time to finish the songs for Blonde on Blonde before the studio sessions.
Sanders largely confirms Lester Bangs’s claim that
Dylan wrote “Sad Eyed Lady [of the Lowlands],” as well as about half of the rest of Blonde on Blonde, wired out of his skull in the studio, just before the songs were recorded, while the sessionmen sat around waiting on him, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer.
(It sounds like they also played a lot of ping-pong.) Fifty years later, the studio musicians still remember cooling their heels, being paid to wait. One recalls,
I can remember [Dylan] sitting at the piano in deep, deep, meditative thought. He was creating, writing. So we were just on-hold as musicians, on the payroll, on a master session, and we were just hanging out. That’s the kind of budget they had for him.
Over the decades, the “on-hold” musicians at the Blonde on Blonde sessions have become almost a trope of Dylanology. Thanks to Columbia’s largesse, Dylan luxuriated in a more expansive time frame than the ultra-efficient session musicians — Nashville’s most in-demand and talented players, all of them, like him, in their 20s.
The story of how these talented Nashville musicians helped bring Dylan’s songs to life, at separate sessions in March and April 1966, makes for one of the most captivating aspects of Sanders’s account. Drummer Kenneth Buttrey “grew up loving black music,” and you can hear that love in the album’s shifting tempos, both between and within songs: check out his musical drag race with Dylan’s harmonica around the three-minute mark in “Absolutely Sweet Marie.” The haunting snarl of Jerry Kennedy’s electric guitar against Dylan’s acoustic strumming in “Visions of Johanna” absolutely makes that song. (In a research coup, Sanders credits Kennedy for a guitar part long attributed to Robbie Robertson.) Hargus “Pig” Robbins’s blues-soaked piano lends an off-kilter wooziness to “Temporary Like Achilles.” Master multi-instrumentalist Charlie McCoy’s blistering harmonica propels “Obviously Five Believers.” In vignette after vignette, Sanders makes the case that these Nashville players helped elevate the compositions, working in creative counterbalance to Dylan — with the singer’s obsession with paralysis juxtaposed to his backing musicians’ untrammeled artistic freedom.
The musicians’ quickness on the uptake may have contributed to one key aspect of the album’s creation: “[T]here was not any overdubbing on the Blonde on Blonde sessions.” Given the arrangements’ complexity and the sheer number of musicians on each track — often three or four guitarists, for a start — the eschewal of overdubs makes the sound that Dylan and the session musicians achieved seem like a virtuoso high-wire act.
Sanders emphasizes the overlap between the session players and members of Charlie McCoy and the Escorts, suggesting that the musicians were so tight because a core group of them formed a working band. Robertson, who played on the March sessions, raves: “That’s why they were so good because they were a band.” Sanders proposes that Southern musicians like McCoy and Buttrey were uniquely skilled in “that Bermuda triangle of rock and roll — blues, country, and R&B,” a magic combo that had captivated Dylan since his teens, when his musical idols included Hank Williams and Little Richard. Thus McCoy and Co. were able to help Dylan translate the music he heard in his head onto acetate. The artist reportedly exclaimed, “I just went in there — these guys didn’t know me, they didn’t know this music — I went in there, and they all just [got] in a huddle, and they figure[d] out quickly and [came] up with an arrangement, a whole idea for the song.”
Sanders’s emphasis on the Nashville cats’ ability to give the right sound to songs that Dylan was literally writing in the studio sheds new light on one of the 20th century’s central cultural artifacts. Chapter four, “The Nashville Cats,” delves deep into the backstories of McCoy and his cohort, who cut their teeth playing in bands like the Nightlifters and the Skipper Hunt Combo, as they worked their way up the recording studio system. The musicians who producer Bob Johnson lined up for the Blonde on Blonde sessions had reached or were nearing the top of the pecking order and were getting paid accordingly. McCoy, for instance, “was doing four hundred sessions a year — and that was on top of performing live on the weekends with his own band.”
At the same time, Sanders doesn’t present the Nashville musicians as full collaborators, instead portraying Blonde on Blonde as the triumph of Dylan the rock auteur. Juxtaposed against the many interviews with the musicians who played on the album looms the sphinxlike silence of Dylan, whom Sanders didn’t interview and whose comments to previous interviewers, when the latter quotes them, revel in misdirection. Jeff Gold cautions, “It’s a fool’s errand to try and get into the mind of Bob Dylan and figure out why he did something or what he was writing about or what he was thinking about.” Dylan was also an enigma to the Nashville musicians who backed him up: “Visions of Johanna” one of them recalls, “[is] a very out there song.”
One comes away from That Thin, Wild Mercury Sound with an understanding of how privileged an artist Dylan was in 1966. Columbia gave him carte blanche to spend as much time as he needed to in the studio and provided him with a producer who “didn’t want to miss anything that Dylan might do or say, so he usually had tape rolling continuously.” They let him release Blonde on Blonde as a double album, the first in American popular music. If the songs dramatize power struggles, Dylan himself — with his mod clothes, scraggly hair, and long fingernails — embodied power itself. He was untouchable and unapproachable, as Kris Kristofferson, who was then working a menial job in Nashville’s Columbia Studio A, attests: “I wouldn’t have dared talk to him. I’d have been fired.” That sense of remoteness insinuates itself into the songs themselves, in which, according to critic Robert Christgau, Dylan “represents himself as being part of the pop demimonde. […] He was no longer in your world.” Some of Sanders’s anecdotes ironically reverse the songs’ exploration of power dynamics. Earlier in the winter, for example, Dylan viciously kicked Phil Ochs out of his limo because Ochs had dared to criticize his latest single, “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” In the numerous takes of “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” including many breakdowns, Dylan shows the opposite of arrogance, repeatedly apologizing to the session musicians — “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I, uh, I am kind of jumpy” — because he’s still feeling his way through the song. You can hear Johnson’s frustration in the control booth when he drawls, “everybody hit a groove this time.” No wonder the producer wanted to wrap this song — “it was 7:00 AM when they finished [master] take fifteen.” Even Dylan the auteur, who had a plane to catch not long after the session’s end, knew when he was pushing the musicians’ limits.
Yet the keeper take of “Memphis Blues Again” doesn’t sound like a bunch of guys who’ve been up all night, getting more and more frustrated at their paymaster’s dilatoriness. The song’s musical highlight comes in “inspired exchanges” between Dylan’s ubiquitous New York sideman Al Kooper on organ and guitarist Joe South, who would hit it big with 1968’s “Games People Play.” The two sound like they have all the time in the world to trade licks while Buttrey keeps the song pulsing forward. This musical dialogue shows that New York and Nashville could get along just fine. Kooper’s circus-style organ, along with the lyrics’ “cast of absurdly colorful characters,” including the ragman, Mona, and the preacher gives the song a carnivalesque, anything-can-happen feel. “Memphis Blues Again” also embodies that juxtaposition of lyrics about stasis — “An’ now people just get uglier / An’ I have no sense of time” — with musical free-flight, making it, for me, the quintessential Blonde on Blonde song.
Sanders’s analysis of the session tapes on the 18-disc set The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12 — Collector’s Edition, as well as his study of the extant typed and handwritten drafts of Dylan’s songs, illuminate the latter’s quicksilver creativity as a lyricist. According to Sean Wilentz, whose chapter on Blonde on Blonde’s creation in his book Bob Dylan in America covers much of the same territory as Sanders, Dylan “seiz[ed] on inspiration so quickly it seemed like free association (and sometimes was free association).” While he brought partially finished lyrics of some songs to Nashville, often he was, according to Sanders, “still refining lyrics even after they began recording.” For a Blonde on Blonde junkie like me, in whose mind the album’s lyrics have been hard-wired for 30-plus years, it’s a revelation to discover that he sang certain lyrics literally moments after thinking them up. Sanders gets deep into the evolution of many songs’ lyrics, but I’ll just touch on one example, from “Just Like a Woman,” Dylan’s arch-misogynist putdown of a high-society woman who, like the addressee of “Like a Rolling Stone,” allegedly won’t concede that “she’s like all the rest.” From one take to the next, Dylan changes “But I gave you those pearls” to “With her fog, her amphetamine, and her pearls.” The juxtaposition of these three disparate items evokes the woman’s privilege and vulnerability more than any narrative could. “Fog,” of course, can be both literal and figurative; in this case it shades toward the latter, suggesting the woman’s entrapment in a haze. “Amphetamine” implies that drugs fuel the haze, but Dylan makes the word sound off-kilter by using it in the singular instead of the plural form, as if amphetamine is a quality as much as a drug. “Pearls” conjures the woman’s privilege and brings a literal quality to the line, while “fog” and “pearls” embody the opposition of the ephemeral with the solid. The three words summon a wealthy, narcotized woman drifting through life, untethered from reality. This very vulnerability embodies her appeal to the speaker at the same time as it fuels his contempt for her. Dylan’s use of juxtaposition and compression raise the line to the level of poetry, while Sanders’s analysis of the line’s evolution demonstrates the real-time shift from the mundane to the sublime that took place in Studio A.
Sanders’s blow-by-blow reconstruction of the sessions embodies his book’s greatest strength and weakness. Dylan’s playfulness certainly comes through, as when he gives “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” the working title of “A Long-Haired Mule and a Porkepine.” An amateur Dylanologist, I found the book gripping, but for the uninitiated, there’s not necessarily much narrative tension in the musicians’ retrospective discussion of the songs’ keys and tempos and in transcriptions of Dylan in the studio, stammering, for instance, “I think the drums should be there. I can’t sense it without the drums.” That Thin, Wild Mercury Sound requires a healthy dose of patience as Sanders runs down take after take of each song. A familiarity, if not obsession, with Blonde on Blonde may be a prerequisite for such patience. An unsympathetic reader might find Sanders’s attention to detail laborious. Readers not ready for the total immersion the book requires would do well to read Wilentz’s chapter, which covers the same time period and draws on interviews with many of the same Nashville cats as Sanders’s book. There’s no question, though, that Sanders interviewed more musicians (and got more out of his interviews) than Wilentz. Sanders gets priceless details, like guitarist Mac Gayden’s memory of taking “a nap on the floor in the back of the studio while Dylan worked on the lyrics at the piano and his wife nursed the baby in the corner.” It’s one thing for Dylan to evoke his new bride Sara “with the child of a hoodlum wrapped up in [her] arms” in “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” but the literal Sara’s maternal presence in Studio A adds a whole other layer to his beatific portrayal of her.
Sanders’s recovery of such moments becomes all the more valuable because, incredibly, there are no photographs of them. No one knew Dylan’s Nashville collaboration would produce some of the most significant moments in the history of 20th-century American popular culture. At the time, they were simply “the most bizarre set[s] of sessions [the musicians] had ever played on.” They didn’t know that they were participating in a transformation of American popular music, as well as the transition of Nashville itself into the musical mecca it became once other musicians heard what the Nashville cats could do on Blonde on Blonde. One of those players, Henry Strzelecki, articulates the tantalizingly indeterminate quality of the sessions before they became history: “I said, ‘You know, this is either going to be the biggest album in the world, or it ain’t gonna do nuthin’.”