Stephen King was at least partially responsible for my purchase of this album (which was in cassette form the first time, I’ll admit). I read King’s novel The Stand not long after it came out in 1978, and, as I recall, it had at least one epigraph quoting the song “Shelter from the Storm,” which was track #9 on Blood on the Tracks, released not long before in 1975. The Stand is a huge, dark fantasy novel about a quiet apocalypse brought about by an influenza plague. It was the first King novel I read, and it’s still my favorite all these years later.
Here’s the epigraph that appeared at the beginning of the novel:
Well the deputy walks on hard nails
And the preacher rides a mount
But nothing really matters much,
It’s doom alone that counts
And the one-eyed undertaker, he blows a futile horn
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give ya
Shelter from the storm.”
When I read the words, I thought they were cryptic, and vaguely spaghetti-western-ish. I also thought that there was a beautiful flow to the words that seemed more like poetry than merely song lyrics. And, it seemed that there was a story being sketched minimalist-fashion, with the lyrics painting in broad brushstrokes. I may not have been able to put this all into words back then (not that I’m doing that great a job of it now), but I’ve always had the impression that Dylan was leaving a lot of blank spaces on his sonic canvas, allowing the listener to fill in the details with his own imagination.
And this was from the lyrics quoted by Stephen King. As it turned out, “Shelter from the Storm” wasn’t my favorite song on the album. Not by a long shot. But, the epigraph was one of the reasons I bought the album.
Now, I wasn’t living in a monastery up to that time. I had heard of Bob Dylan. I knew he had a voice I prefer to think of as idiosyncratic, but that many people have described as “just awful.” I had some of his music before buying “Blood.” These must have been on compilation albums, like the type K-Tel used to put out. I know I had “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Just Like a Woman,” probably a few others. But, I wouldn’t own copies of the albums “Highway 61 Revisited” or “Blonde on Blonde” until many years later. If you had asked me in 1978, I probably wouldn’t have called myself a Bob Dylan fan.
I didn’t become one until I purchased “Blood on the Tracks.”
In fact, I didn’t even buy the album in 1978. It was a few years later, I think, while I was in high school. After a four-automobile accident that was 100% my fault, I gave up my driver’s license until I could pay for my own auto insurance. So, I was taking the bus to school, and doing a lot of walking again, just like in the days before I could drive. I had a Sony Walkman, and “Blood on the Tracks” became one of the cassettes I listened to a lot. To me, the album seemed to become the soundtrack to the movie that was my life. Yeah, I know: Sounds crazy to me as well. But, it was true.
I don’t think there’s a single track on the album that I don’t like. It was the first track on side one, “Tangled Up in Blue,” that made me understand why Bob Dylan was considered a great artist, though. The music is good, but it was the lyrics that made the song great. Dylan never stopped tinkering with the song, and I’ve heard live versions of it with slightly different lyrics. But, the album version is the definitive version for me. That thing I sensed in the words, in the Stephen King epigraph, was on display fully in the first song I listened to. There’s a story being told, but it’s not the whole story, just fragments, and not all fragments of the same story, since the point-of-view seems to shift and time seems fluid.
When I’ve heard people denounce Dylan being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, I often think about the lyrics in “Tangled Up in Blue.” I’m not an expert, but they read like poetry to me.
An example I find both wistful and humorous:
She was workin’ in a topless place
And I stopped in for a beer
I just kept lookin’ at the side of her face
In the spotlight so clear
And later on as the crowd thinned out
I’s just about to do the same
She was standing there in back of my chair
Said to me, Don’t I know your name?
I muttered somethin’ under my breath
She studied the lines on my face
I must admit I felt a little uneasy
When she bent down to tie the laces
Of my shoe
Tangled up in blue
The second track on the album was the back half of its one-two opening punch. “Simple Twist of Fate” is another musical poem, with lyrics like this:
He woke up, the room was bare
He didn’t see her anywhere
He told himself he didn’t care
Pushed the window open wide
Felt an emptiness inside
To which he just could not relate
Brought on by a simple twist of fate
Lots of showing instead of telling, with emotions that are easy to identify with. Rhyming patterns that always remain interesting.
I could point out the things I like in every track on this album. I’ve mentioned already that it’s one of my favorites, haven’t I? I won’t, though. I encourage you to go out and listen to it yourself. Several times. Like me, you will hear happiness and sadness co-mingled in the songs, lost loves mourned, and a red-haired woman who turns up repeatedly through all of the songs. There are rumors and stories that try to explain much of the imagery in the songs, but none which are endorsed by Bob himself. The man knows the value of a good mystery.
I can’t end this without mentioning three other tracks from side two, though.
“Meet Me in the Morning” is a straight-up blues song that I still love to sing, and sometimes play. 56th and Wabasha may not even exist in real life, but it sounds great in the song.
“Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” is a nearly nine-minute-long audio western movie that tells the only linear story on the album, though even it remains open to interpretation. I’ve read that there have been at least two screenplays written based on the song, though none have ever been filmed. I love this one, too, but it’s all about the words, not the music.
And, last, but not least, both on the album and in my heart, is “Buckets of Rain.” I sing it on rainy days especially. At a glance, the lyrics seem nonsensical, but they are also tinged with a bittersweet feeling that permeates the record. I really like the following two verses:
Life is sad, life is a bust
All you can do is do what you must
You do what you must do and you do it well
I’ll do it for you baby, can’t you tell?
I’ve been weak and strong like an oak
I’ve seen pretty people disappear like smoke
Friends will arrive and friends will disappear
I’ll do it for you, baby, because you’re near
Okay, maybe it’s not Yeats or Pound, but I like it. Throughout my lifetime, I’ve met people who loved “Blood on the Tracks” or flat out hated it. But, I’ve never known anyone who was indifferent to it.
You know my opinion of it now.
It’s a good record, man.