Treble 100: No. 14, Bob Dylan – Blonde on Blonde

Bob Dylan Blonde on Blonde

See the troubadour. The generation voice. The genius whose skill set contains bullshit artistry of the highest order. Poet laureate of forces he seems at once to understand and be baffled by. He’s near to rail-thin, amphetamine-jolted most days with weed available for comedowns. He’s alternating a pose of controlled aloofness with furious contempt.

This is Bob Dylan in much of 1965 and 1966, captured with painful realism in D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary Don’t Look Back and, more importantly, immortalized in a trilogy of classic albums he released in this period: Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited (both 1965) and Blonde on Blonde (1966). Dylan began this temporal gauntlet in a whirlwind of controversy—a brief, audibly booed electric set at 1965’s Newport Folk Festival—and ended it similarly with an alleged motorcycle accident that might’ve been fabricated or exaggerated but undoubtedly removed him from public life until the mid-1970s.

It’s fitting that an artist as rife with contradictions as Dylan would navigate this period by veering back and forth between chaos and control. He wrote lyrics that could be dizzyingly complex, surreal verging on incoherent, straightforward yet absurd or achingly intimate, but did so in an ironclad process, particularly for Blonde on Blonde: using a typewriter for composition (as he often had before), the musicians he recorded with only saw finished tunes when Dylan was damn certain they were finished, which might be the middle of the goddamn morning. The album sometimes sounds like a deranged circus—and not just on “Rainy Day Women #12 & #35”; that’s simply the most obvious example. But Dylan and company put most of its songs to tape in tight, organized sessions that produced lean, powerful takes. The grand mystery of Blonde on Blonde befits the clear influence of Arthur Rimbaud’s poetry (and, well, the Bible, particularly the Old Testament) on its creation, but the record also contains some of the most empathetic portraits of very specific people ever put to song. To paraphrase a line from Blonde’s frisky organ-driven Side Three track “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” Dylan wanted both to be honest and live outside the confines of musical law.

Most important of all, everything above adds up to Blonde being a document of “that thin … wild mercury sound” Dylan famously claimed was closest to the sound he heard in his head back then. To him, he’d gotten it near-perfect, and that’s what mattered; what else should matter to us?


I first listened to Dylan in 2001, because I put way too much stock in Rolling Stone five-star reviews and “Love and Theft” got one. I didn’t dislike it, and now rate it pretty high among late-period Dylan, but let’s just say you aren’t going to ease an angsty kid off of nu-metal with that era of the man’s work. About three or four years later, my mom had bought Volume 6 of Dylan’s Bootleg Series and was playing it in the car. I remember laughing at “Talkin John Birch Paranoid Blues,” recognizing how Dylan’s satire of anti-Communism applied just as much to the Bush administration’s anti-Arab bullshit, but I feel like what grabbed me most was the fantastic imagery and sense of wonder that “Mr. Tambourine Man” exuded.

Although I can recall where I was for a few of my “I first heard [album] in [setting] at [time]” moments—e.g., Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks was the first album I picked from my parents’ vinyl collection and put on the spindle myself, in June 2006—I can’t do this for Blonde on Blonde. This seems fitting, because once I started listening to it regularly, I began to feel like it’d always been there—had never not been part of my musical understanding.

This is, in a way, true: A copy of Blonde on Blonde was packed in one of the many boxes of LPs jammed into a storage space under our staircase since I was kindergarten-age, when we’d moved from Brooklyn into the New Jersey house. About 16 years later, when my dad restored a few components on the Thorens and started playing vinyl again, I looked through the boxes, and that’s how I found Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Stevie Wonder, a bunch of Beatles and Rolling Stones … and, among other things, about 10 Dylan albums, including Blonde.

Although I’m listening to that vinyl copy as I write this, I first heard the album on a CD remaster. I also remember being annoyed that when I played the vinyl version, of all the songs, “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” would skip. I thought, you’ve gotten this far and played fine, 30-year-old vinyl; why the hell stop now


See the poet. The mad prophet (or the “blitzed-out-of-his-fucking-gourd” one, or maybe both). The preacher whose sermons were no longer overtly political and topical but could’ve only emerged out of mid-1960s American madness. He’s chain smoking, sardonic, petulant, destructive. This is the version of Bob Dylan shown in Pennebaker’s doc and depicted by an unrecognizable Cate Blanchett in Todd Haynes’ phantasmagorical “biopic” I’m Not There (as “Jude,” none of the movie’s Dylans carry the man’s stage name). He appears more ready for a nervous collapse than a recording session in New York City.

But in October 1965, that’s exactly where Dylan headed, with much of the group eventually known as The Band in tow (then called The Hawks) after they proved their mettle backing him for two Texas concerts several weeks earlier. But while The Hawks were an ideal road band—they’d also go with him on the world tour leading up to the June 1996 release of Blonde on Blonde—but only Robbie Robertson lasted through the entire recording process. “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” is the only song from the New York sessions to make the final tracklist, with Hawks/Band members Robertson on lead guitar and Rick Danko holding down the bass. (Those outtakes are scattered throughout The Bootleg Series and many ain’t bad, but they’re best described as the Hawks asking “What if we made Highway 61 Revisited Part II?” and Dylan saying “Uhhhhhhhh, no.”)

Instead, the deeply idiosyncratic hybrid of blues, rock ‘n’ roll, folk and R&B that comprises Blonde on Blonde is the product of a place you’d least expect it: Nashville—specifically Columbia Records’ Studio A. Dylan worked briefly with Nashville A-Team multi-instrumentalist Charlie McCoy on Highway 61 Revisited—check those gorgeous acoustic guitar leads on “Desolation Row”—but didn’t know fuck-all about the technical virtuosity and precision of the Nashville studio system. Dylan’s producer Bob Johnston knew it quite well and sold the frustrated troubadour on the idea. 

So that’s how you have A-Team players including but not limited to McCoy, drummer Kenney Buttrey, bassist Henry Strzelecki, guitarist Jerry Kennedy and pianist Pig Robbins (a George Jones favorite)—alongside Dylan, Robbie Robertson and Al Kooper. The album’s singular note-perfect madness makes sense when looking at the list of session musicians and seeing they’ve all been the secret weapons of God knows how many legendary country, rock and pop tunes. 

Longtime listeners of this album and new ones with particularly knowledgeable ears will be able to pick out moments where these session geniuses strut their stuff, but the songs work because of how closely in sync everyone is on the foundation of Dylan’s songwriting and Johnston’s production. Sure, you can’t imagine “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” without the freewheeling glee of Kooper’s organ parts or Dylan’s stoned-trickster vocal performance. But that song’s carefully plotted series of dynamic peaks and valleys wouldn’t work at all without Strzelecki’s steady bassline and especially not without the subtle but intricate rhythmic trickery of Buttrey’s drumming. The same corollary can be applied to virtually every other song on the album: The gorgeous melodic interplay of guitar (Dylan, McCoy and Wayne Moss) and organ (Kooper) is forever imprinted on any listener of “I Want You,” but the song is incomplete without Pig Robbins’ intermittent splashes of high-treble piano. (He gets his show-off moment with “Temporary Like Achilles.”) I could go on an immense tear giving similar “there’s this, but also that” examples, but that would bore the shit out of most of you. If you had to pick someone as the key session player, many would choose Robertson: He’s got a pretty excellent case, given the versatility of his playing—he’s just as comfortable laying down fierce electric blues on “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat” as he is with the laconic soul sound required for “Visions of Johanna.” But attempting to isolate one collaborator as the key isn’t worth one’s time. Even Dylan himself, as the songwriter, isn’t the thing that makes this album its perfect self. If that were the case, he could’ve released the New York versions of these songs with the Hawks arrangements. And he didn’t. He recognized the value of the right collaborators and found them in an unfamiliar but effective environment.

Of course, Dylan had great fun at times with his role as the effective bandleader amid players who were used to more clean-cut artists. The extended pun/Dixieland-on-acid rhythm of “Rainy Day Women” wouldn’t be what it is without the man’s insistence that various A-Team players ditch their usual instruments—for example, Strzelecki played demented keyboards while McCoy played trumpet and got trombonist Wayne Butler to the session on extremely short notice. Dylan also allegedly gave orders to, well, do as the song’s signature line exhorted: “EVERYBODY MUST GET STONED!” (The intoxication level is debatable, but it certainly approximates the feeling for the listener.) Later, with “Sad-Eyed Lady,” A-teamers not used to the length of some Dylan songs had to learn on the fly. But despite thinking the song would surely end at various points and almost getting tripped up, the players held it down, and it only took four takes (including one rehearsal) to finish.


Nearly 60 years since its release, Blonde on Blonde is as much an enigma granted form as it was then. Assigning a greater meaning to the whole seems almost a fool’s errand. While it generated robust praise then and prompts glowing retrospectives now (including this one), none of them are going to definitively tell you What It’s All About, because none of them know. Including—especially, IMO—the ones that claim to. I certainly do not. The album in toto is best thought of and experienced as cosmic American music, the term Gram Parsons coined to describe his own style (after Blonde came out, true, but if mid-’60s Dylan wasn’t as big an influence on Parsons as George Jones, psychedelia and the Beatles, I am a sentient water vole). Blonde is a tidal wave that careens you through a loose, anti-chronological history of American popular music while Dylan rhapsodizes apocalyptically and comedically. Perhaps reflective of his real life’s breakneck pace and intensity, his vocals sometimes veer into a manic cadence and his harmonica playing (forever a polarizing element of his sound) borders on freeform. It’s no surprise Dylan left the public eye for several years after the maelstrom period that Blonde on Blonde helped conclude.

Part of what makes the LP(s) so remarkable is how vastly different all the songs are from one another. They could only fit together in this specific whole, created at this specific time. Many of them are, to varying degrees, relationship songs, often bemused at the behavior of both parties: “Just Like a Woman” is the only kiss-off in his repertoire that approaches the vitriol of “Idiot Wind” (from Blood on the Tracks), but it also concedes that if she was peddling bullshit, he bought it willingly (and sold his own). “4th Time Around” uses layers of sharp, unexpected images (the forgotten shirt, the gum motif) to ponder the awkwardness of a one-night stand. And “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat” approaches the jilted lover’s lament with theater-of-the-absurd aplomb: Over razor-sharp blues delivered in overlapping electric leads and fills by Dylan, Robertson, Wayne Moss and Jose South, Dylan whines “I don’t mind him cheatin’ on me but I sure do wish he’d take that off his head/Your new leopard skin pill-box hat!” On the complete other end of the spectrum, you have two of Dylan’s most sincere, plaintive love songs: the addictive “I Want You” and the Song-of-Solomon testimonial that is “Sad-Eyed Lady” (the latter clearly about Dylan’s new wife Sarah Lownds, only rivaled in naked emotion by “Sara” the song Dylan literally sung to her in a recording studio while finishing Desire.)

Although I generally listen to Blonde on Blonde as a whole without zeroing in much on individual songs, I can’t deny the tracks I think of as blues fantasias—“Stuck Inside of Mobile,” “Absolutely Sweet Marie” and “Obviously 5 Believers.” I am subsumed by these songs, without fretting overmuch about how exactly someone “smoked my eyelids, and punched my cigarette” or who the hell the 15 jugglers and five believers are. (Large portions of Rimbaud’s “Illuminations” don’t make complete sense to me either, but I know the abrasive language rivets me; I feel Rimbaud’s horror at the “violent Paradise of runaway sneers!”) The impact Dylan’s songs—and, I believe, this specific style of Dylan song, which first emerged on Bringing It All Back Home but was perfected on Blonde—had on American music and literature is still reverberating in the undertones of too many modern artists to count.


See the troubadour. The jester who intermittently screams with rage. The world’s most unlikely rock star, at a time when that term and notion had yet to even coalesce in the cultural lexicon, who a photographer is inexplicably asking to “suck your glasses.” (Link not NSFW, but very weird.) As the LP we will soon know as Blonde on Blonde is mixed and mastered, he globe-trots and plays some of the new songs before audiences whose reactions alternate between wonder and fury, his pose of detachment wearing thin, the collapse nearing. We can never know whether he’s thinking and moving and making and exclaiming so much that the motorcycle accident is inevitable, or whether he’s planning how to stage a retreat—or if it’s somewhere in between those two poles. 

Whatever the answer, the resulting sabbatical will be best for all involved. The album speaks for itself through its marriage of precision and surreality. He’ll be making music again shortly: some with The Band, which won’t be heard for a while, but also two oft-underrated records (John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline) that again benefit from the virtuosity of Nashville A-Team players. In 1969 he’ll duet with Johnny Cash on national television, and later still he’ll determine how to fully control his public image, turning it into an alternating poise of theatrical bemusement and plainspoken sincerity—a cycle that continues today. He couldn’t have gotten there without stretching himself to his artistic and personal limits to produce Blonde on Blonde.


I’m listening to the vinyl copy and “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat” has my senses alive even though my current record player isn’t remotely in the league of my father’s rig. Robertson’s blistering guitar, Dylan’s stoned petulance and the firm foundation of the A-Team arrangement don’t sound dated at all. I feel the wave of psychic mania and hear the wild mercury.

When I get to “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” the side plays straight through, without skipping.

best double albums Blonde on Blonde

Bob Dylan : Blonde on Blonde

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View Comment (1)
  • Wonderful writing, as always, Liam. BoB has been a constant for me since I first heard it in 1971; you have captured its magical madness beautifully. I wouldn’t suggest it as the starting point for someone new to the man from Minnesota, but it is one of the giant peaks along the way to full-on Dylan mania.

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