Bob Dylan: Blond on Blond – [Record 10]
Blonde on Blonde: is the seventh studio album by American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, released on May 16, 1966 on Columbia Records. Recording sessions began in New York in October 1965 with numerous backing musicians, including members of Dylan’s live backing band, The Hawks. Though sessions continued until January 1966, they yielded only one track that made it onto the final album—”One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)”. At producer Bob Johnston’s suggestion, Dylan, keyboardist Al Kooper, and guitarist Robbie Robertson moved to the CBS studios in Nashville, Tennessee. These sessions, augmented by some of Nashville’s top session musicians, were more fruitful, and in February and March all the remaining songs for the album were recorded.
Blonde on Blonde completed the trilogy of rock albums that Dylan recorded in 1965 and 1966, starting with Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. Critics often rank Blonde on Blonde as one of the greatest albums of all time. Combining the expertise of Nashville session musicians with a modernist literary sensibility, the album’s songs have been described as operating on a grand scale musically, while featuring lyrics one critic called “a unique blend of the visionary and the colloquial”. It was one of the first double albums in rock music.
The album peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard 200 chart in the USA, where it eventually went double-platinum, and reached No. 3 in the UK. Blonde on Blonde spawned two singles that were top twenty hits in the USA: “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” and “I Want You”. Two further songs, “Just Like a Woman” and “Visions of Johanna”, have been described as among Dylan’s greatest compositions and were featured in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list.
Record 1, Side 1.
1, Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.
2, Pledging My Time.
3, Visions of Johanna.
4, One of US Must Know (Sooner or Later).
Record 1, Side 2.
5, I Want You.
6, Memphis Blues Again.
7, Leopard-skin Pill-box hat.
8, Just Like A Woman.
Record 2, Side 1.
9, Most Likely You Go Your Way And I’ll Go Mine.
10, Temporary Like Achilles.
11, Absolutely Sweet Marie.
12, 4th Time Around.
13, Obviously 5 Believers.
Record 2, Side 2.
14, Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands.
Background: After the release of the Highway 61 Revisited in August 1965, Dylan set about hiring a touring band. Guitarist Mike Bloomfield and keyboard player Al Kooper had backed Dylan, both on his new album and at Dylan’s controversial electric debut at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Bloomfield chose not to tour with Dylan, preferring to remain with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. After backing him at concerts in late August and early September, Kooper informed Dylan he did not wish to continue touring with him. Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, was in the process of setting up a gruelling concert schedule that would keep Dylan on the road for the next nine months, touring the USA, Australia, and Europe. Dylan contacted a group who were performing as Levon and the Hawks. The Hawks comprised four Canadian musicians: Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson, plus Levon Helm from Arkansas. They had come together as a band in Canada, backing American rocker Ronnie Hawkins. Two people had strongly recommended the Hawks to Dylan: Mary Martin, the executive secretary of Albert Grossman, and blues singer John Hammond, Jr., son of record producer John Hammond, who had signed Dylan to Columbia Records in 1961. The Hawks had backed the younger Hammond on his 1965 album So Many Roads.
Dylan rehearsed with the Hawks in Toronto on September 15, where they were playing a hometown residency at Friar’s Club, and on September 24, they made their debut in Austin, Texas. Just two weeks later, encouraged by the success of their Texas performance, Dylan took the Hawks into Studio A of Columbia Records in New York City. Their immediate task was to record a hit single as the follow-up to “Positively 4th Street”. But Dylan was already trying to formulate the shape of his next album, the third he had begun that year backed by rock musicians.
New York sessions: Producer Bob Johnston, who had overseen the recording of Highway 61 Revisited, started work with Dylan and the Hawks at Columbia Studio A, 799 Seventh Avenue, New York on October 5. They concentrated on a new arrangement of “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?”, a song recorded during the Highway 61 sessions but not included on that album. Three further numbers were attempted, but none progressed into completed songs. Both the fragmentary “Jet Pilot” and “I Wanna Be Your Lover”, a quasi-parody of the Beatles’ “I Wanna Be Your Man”, finally appeared on the 1985 box set retrospective, Biograph. Also attempted were two takes of “Medicine Sunday”, a song that later evolved into “Temporary Like Achilles”.
On November 30, the Hawks joined Dylan again at Studio A, but drummer Bobby Gregg replaced Levon Helm, who had tired of playing in a backing band and quit the group. They began work on a new composition, “Freeze Out”, which was later retitled “Visions of Johanna”, but Dylan wasn’t satisfied with the results. One of the November 30 recordings was eventually released on The Bootleg Series Vol. 7: No Direction Home: The Soundtrack in 2005. At this session, they completed “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” The song was released as a single in December, but only reached No. 58 on the American charts.
Dylan spent most of December in California, performing a dozen concerts with his band, and then took a break through the third week in January following the birth of his son Jesse. On January 21, 1966, he returned to Columbia’s Studio A to record another long composition, “She’s Your Lover Now”, accompanied by the Hawks (this time with Sandy Konikoff on drums). Despite 19 takes, the session failed to yield any complete recordings. Dylan did not attempt the song again, but one of the outtakes from the January 21 session finally appeared 25 years later on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991. (Although the song breaks down at the start of the last verse, Columbia released it as the most complete take from the session.)
Around this time, Dylan became disillusioned about using the Hawks in the studio. He recorded more material at Studio A on January 25, backed by drummer Bobby Gregg, bassist Rick Danko (or Bill Lee),[a 1] guitarist Robbie Robertson, pianist Paul Griffin, and Al Kooper on organ. Two more new compositions were attempted: “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” and “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)”. Dylan was satisfied with “One of Us Must Know”; the January 25 take was released as a single a few weeks later and was subsequently selected for the album.
Another session took place on January 27, this time with guitarist Robbie Robertson, bassist Rick Danko, Al Kooper, and drummer Bobby Gregg. Dylan and his band recorded “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” and “One of Us Must Know” again, but Dylan was not satisfied with the recorded performance of either song. Also at this session, Dylan attempted a rough performance of “I’ll Keep It With Mine”, a song which he had already recorded twice in demo form. The musicians added some tentative backing, a rendition biographer Clinton Heylin described as cursory. The recording was ultimately released on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 in 1991.
A shortage of new material and the slow progress of the sessions contributed to Dylan’s decision to cancel three additional recording dates. Six weeks later, Dylan confided to critic Robert Shelton, “Oh, I was really down. I mean, in ten recording sessions, man, we didn’t get one song…It was the band. But you see, I didn’t know that. I didn’t want to think that.”
Move to Nashville: Recognizing Dylan’s dissatisfaction with the progress of the recordings, producer Bob Johnston suggested that they move the sessions to Nashville. Johnston lived there and had extensive experience working with Nashville session musicians. He recalled how Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, was hostile to the idea: “Grossman came up to me and said ‘If you ever mention Nashville to Dylan again, you’re gone.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘You heard me. We got a thing going here’.” Despite Grossman’s opposition, Dylan agreed to Johnston’s suggestion, and preparations were made to record the album at Columbia’s A Studio on Nashville’s Music Row in February 1966.
In addition to Kooper and Robertson, who accompanied Dylan from New York, Johnston recruited harmonica player, guitarist and bassist Charlie McCoy, guitarist Wayne Moss, guitarist and bassist Joe South, and drummer Kenny Buttrey. At Dylan’s request, Johnston removed the baffles—partitions separating the musicians—so that there was “an ambiance fit for an ensemble”. Buttrey credited the distinctive sound of the album to Johnston’s re-arrangement of the studio, “as if we were on a tight stage, as opposed to playing in a big hall where you’re ninety miles apart.” In addition, Dylan had a piano installed in his Nashville hotel room, which Kooper would play for Dylan to help in the songwriting process. Kooper would then teach the tunes to the musicians before Dylan arrived for the sessions.
On the first Nashville session on February 14, Dylan successfully recorded “Visions of Johanna”, which he had attempted several times in New York. Also recorded was a take of “4th Time Around”, which made it onto the album, and a take of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”, which did not.
On February 15, the session began at 6 p.m., but Dylan simply sat in the studio working on his lyrics, while the musicians played cards, napped, and chatted. Finally, at 4 a.m., Dylan called the musicians in and outlined the structure of the song. Dylan counted off and the musicians fell in, as he attempted his epic composition, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”. Kenny Buttrey recalled, “If you notice that record, that thing after like the second chorus starts building and building like crazy, and everybody’s just peaking it up ’cause we thought, Man, this is it…This is gonna be the last chorus and we’ve gotta put everything into it we can. And he played another harmonica solo and went back down to another verse and the dynamics had to drop back down to a verse kind of feel…After about ten minutes of this thing we’re cracking up at each other, at what we were doing. I mean, we peaked five minutes ago. Where do we go from here?” The finished song clocked in at 11 minutes, 23 seconds, and would occupy the entire fourth side of the album.
The next session began similarly—Dylan spent the afternoon writing lyrics, and the session continued into the early hours of February 17, when the musicians began to record “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”. After several musical revisions and false starts, the fourteenth take was the version selected for the album.
Second recording sessions in Nashville: Most accounts of recording Blonde on Blonde, including those by Dylan scholars Clinton Heylin and Michael Gray, agree that there were two blocks of recording sessions: from February 14 to 17 and from March 8 to 10 in 1966. This chronology is based on the logs and files kept by Columbia Records.
Dylan and the Hawks performed concerts in Ottawa, Montreal, and Philadelphia in February and March, and then Dylan resumed recording in Nashville on March 8. On that day, Dylan and the musicians recorded the take of “Absolutely Sweet Marie” that Dylan selected for the album. Historian Sean Wilentz observed that “with the sound of ‘Sweet Marie’, Blonde on Blonde entered fully and sublimely into what is now considered classic rock and roll”. March 9 saw the successful master takes of “Just Like a Woman”, and “Pledging My Time”, the latter “driven by Robertson’s screaming guitar”.
According to Wilentz, the final recording session produced six songs in 13 hours of studio time. The first number to be recorded to Dylan’s satisfaction was “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)”, when McCoy reinforced—on trumpet—a musical phrase which Dylan had been playing on his harmonica, changing the sound of the song radically. Dylan and his band then quickly recorded “Temporary Like Achilles”. The session atmosphere began to “get giddy” around midnight, when Dylan roughed out “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” on the piano. Johnston recalled commenting, “That sounds like the damn Salvation Army band”. Dylan replied, “Can you get one?” Johnston then telephoned trombonist Wayne Butler, the only additional musician required, and Dylan and the band, with McCoy again on trumpet, played a high-spirited version of the song.
In quick succession, Dylan and the musicians then recorded “Obviously 5 Believers”, and a final take of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”, powered by Robertson’s lead guitar. The session concluded with “I Want You”, where, as Wilentz notes, “Wayne Moss’s rapid-fire sixteenth notes on the guitar” are an impressive element of the recording.
Controversy over Nashville recording dates: Al Kooper, who played keyboards on every track of Blonde on Blonde, has contested the conventional account that there were two blocks of recording sessions in Nashville. In comments on Michael Gray’s website, Kooper wrote: “There was only ONE trip to Nashville for Robbie & I, and ALL THE TRACKS were cut in that one visit.” Charlie McCoy agreed with Kooper’s version. Wilentz analyzed the recording of Blonde on Blonde in his book Bob Dylan In America, concluding that “the official documented version jibes better with Dylan’s known touring schedule. It also jibes with the fact that five of the eight songs first recorded after ‘Memphis Blues Again’, but none of those recorded earlier, include a middle-eight section—Dylan’s first extensive foray as a writer into that conventional structure.”
Mixing and album title: Dylan mixed the album in Los Angeles in early April, before he departed on the Australian leg of his 1966 world tour. Wilentz writes that it was at this point it became “obvious that the riches of the Nashville sessions could not fit onto a single LP”, and they had “produced enough solid material to demand an oddly configured double album, the first of its kind in contemporary popular music.” According to producer Steve Berkowitz, who supervised the reissue of Dylan’s LPs in mono as The Original Mono Recordings in 2010, Johnston told him that they carefully worked on the mono mix for about three or four days whereas the stereo mix was finished in about four hours.
Al Kooper recalled that both the album title, Blonde on Blonde, and song titles arrived during the mixing sessions. “When they were mixing it, we were sitting around and Bob Johnston came in and said, ‘What do you want to call this?’ And [Bob] just like said them out one at a time… Free association and silliness, I’m sure, played a big role.” Another Dylan chronicler, Oliver Trager, notes that besides spelling out the initials of Dylan’s first name, the album title is also a riff on Brecht on Brecht, a stage production based on works by German playwright Bertolt Brecht that had influenced his early songwriting. Dylan himself has said of the title: “Well, I don’t even recall exactly how it came up, but I know it was all in good faith… I don’t know who thought of that. I certainly didn’t.”
“Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”: According to author Andy Gill, by starting his new album with what sounded like “a demented marching-band…staffed by crazy people out of their mind on loco-weed”, Dylan delivered his biggest shock yet for his former folkie fans. The elaborate puns on getting stoned combine a sense of paranoiac persecution with “nudge-nudge wink-wink bohemian hedonism”. Heylin points out that the Old Testament connotations of getting stoned made the Salvation Army-style musical backing seem like a good joke. The enigmatic title came about, Heylin suggests, because Dylan knew a song entitled “everybody must get stoned” would be kept off the airwaves. Heylin links the title to the Book of Proverbs, chapter 27, verse 15: “A continual dropping in a very rainy day and a contentious woman are alike.” Released as a single on March 22, 1966, “Rainy Day Women” reached No. 2 on the Billboard singles chart, and No. 7 in the UK.
“Pledging My Time”: Following the good-time fun of “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” the Chicago blues-influenced “Pledging My Time” sets the somber tone that runs through the album. It draws on several traditional blues songs, including Elmore James’ recording of “It Hurts Me Too”. For critic Michael Gray, the lines “Somebody got lucky but it was an accident” echo the lines “Some joker got lucky, stole her back again” from Robert Johnson’s “Come On in My Kitchen”, which is itself an echo of the Skip James 1931 recording “Devil Got My Woman”. Gray suggests that “the gulping movements of the melodic phrases” derive from the melody of “Sitting on Top of the World”, recorded by the Mississippi Sheiks in 1930. The couplet at the end of each verse expresses the theme: a pledge made to a prospective lover in hopes she “will come through, too”. Besides Dylan’s vocals and improvised harmonica breaks, the song’s sound is defined by Robbie Robertson’s guitar, Hargus “Pig” Robbins’s blues piano and Ken Buttrey’s snare drum rolls. The song was released in edited form as the B-side of “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” in March.
“Visions of Johanna”: Considered by many critics as one of Dylan’s greatest masterpieces, “Visions of Johanna” proved difficult to capture on tape. Heylin places the writing in the fall of 1965, when Dylan was living in the Chelsea Hotel with his wife Sara. In the New York recording studio, on November 30, Dylan announced his epic composition: “This is called ‘Freeze Out’.” Gill notes that this working title captures the “air of nocturnal suspension in which the verse tableaux are sketched…full of whispering and muttering.” Wilentz relates how Dylan guided his backing musicians through fourteen takes, trying to sketch out how he wanted it played, saying at one point, “it’s not hard rock, The only thing in it that’s hard is Robbie.” Wilentz notes that, as Dylan quiets things down, he inches closer to what will appear on the album.
Ten weeks later, “Visions of Johanna” fell into place quickly in the Nashville studio. Kooper recalled that he and Robertson had become adept at responding to Dylan’s vocal and also singled out Joe South’s contribution of “this throbbing…rhythmically amazing bass part”. Gill comments that the song begins by contrasting two lovers, the carnal Louise, and “the more spiritual but unattainable” Johanna. Ultimately, for Gill, the song seeks to convey how the artist is compelled to keep striving to pursue some elusive vision of perfection. For Heylin, the triumph of the song is in “the way Dylan manages to write about the most inchoate feelings in such a vivid, immediate way.”
“One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)”: When Dylan arrived at the studio on January 25, 1966, he had yet to work out the lyrics and title for what was to become the closing track on Blonde on Blonde’s first side. With Dylan piecing together the song’s sections, and the chorus that gives the song its title only emerging on take five, the session stretched through the night and into the next morning. It was not until the eighteenth take that a full version was recorded. The next take, the nineteenth, closed the session and made it onto the album four months later. Critic Jonathan Singer credits Griffin’s piano for binding the song together: “At the chorus, Griffin unleashes a symphony; hammering his way up and down the keyboard, half Gershwin, half gospel, all heart. The follow-up, a killer left hand figure that links the chorus to the verse, releases none of the song’s tension.”
“One of Us Must Know”: is a straightforward account of a burned-out relationship. Dissecting what went wrong, the narrator takes a defensive attitude in a one-sided conversation with his former lover. As he presents his case in the opening verse, it appears he is incapable of either acknowledging his part or limiting the abuse: “I didn’t mean to treat you so bad. You don’t have to take it so personal. I didn’t mean to make you so sad. You just happened to be there, that’s all.” “One of Us Must Know” was the first recording completed for Blonde on Blonde and the only one selected from the New York sessions. The song was released as the first single from the album on February 14, the same day Dylan began to record in Nashville. It failed to appear on the American charts, but reached No. 33 in the UK.
“I Want You”: Andy Gill notes that the song displays a tension between the very direct tone of the chorus, the repeated phrase “I want you”, and a weird and complex cast of characters, “too numerous to inhabit the song’s three minutes comfortably”, including a guilty undertaker, a lonesome organ grinder, weeping fathers, mothers, sleeping saviors, the Queen of Spades, and the “dancing child with his Chinese suit”. Analyzing the evolution of the lyrics through successive drafts, Wilentz writes that there are numerous failures, “about deputies asking him his name…lines about fathers going down hugging one another and about their daughters putting him down because he isn’t their brother”. Finally Dylan arrives at the right formula.
Heylin points out that the gorgeous tune illustrates what Dylan explained to a reporter in 1966: “It’s not just pretty words to a tune or putting tunes to words…[It’s] the words and the music [together]—I can hear the sound of what I want to say.” Al Kooper has said that of all the songs that Dylan had outlined to him in his hotel, this was his favorite, so Dylan delayed recording it to the very end of the Nashville sessions, “just to bug him”. Released as a single in June 1966, shortly before the album Blonde on Blonde, “I Want You” reached No. 20 in the USA, and No. 16 in the UK.
“Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”: Recorded at the third Nashville session, this song was the culmination of another epic of simultaneous writing and recording in the studio. Wilentz describes how the lyrics evolved through a surviving part-typed, part-handwritten manuscript page, “which begins ‘honey but it’s just too hard’ (a line that had survived from the very first New York session with the Hawks). Then the words meander through random combinations and disconnected fragments and images (‘people just get uglier’; ‘banjo eyes’; ‘he was carrying a 22 but it was only a single shot’), before, in Dylan’s own hand, amid many crossings-out, there appears ‘Oh MAMA you’re here IN MOBILE ALABAMA with the Memphis blues again’.”
Inside the studio, the song evolved through several musical revisions. Heylin writes, “It is the song’s arrangement, and not its lyrics, that occupies the musicians through the wee small hours.” On the fifth take, released in 2005 on the No Direction Home Soundtrack, midtake Dylan stumbles on the formula “Stuck inside of Mobile” on the fourth verse, and never goes back. The song contains two oft-quoted pieces of Dylan’s philosophy: “Your debutante just knows what you need/ But I know what you want” and “here I sit so patiently/ Waiting to find out what price/ You have to pay to get out of/ Going through all these things twice”.
“Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”: is a sarcastic satire on materialism, fashion and faddism. Done in Chicago-blues style, the song derives its melody and part of its lyrics from Lightnin’ Hopkins’s “Automobile (Blues)”. Paul Williams writes that its misogynistic attitude is “moderated slightly when one realizes that jealous pique is the underlying emotion”. In the lyrics, the narrator observes his former lover in various situations wearing her “brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat”, at one point finding his doctor with her and later spying her making love with a new boyfriend because she “forgot to close the garage door”. In the closing lines, the narrator says he knows what her boyfriend really loves her for—her hat.
The song evolved over the course of six takes in New York, 13 in the first Nashville session, and then one try on March 10, the take used for the album. Dylan, who gets credit on the liner notes as lead guitarist, opens the song playing lead (on the center-right stereo channel); however, Robertson handles the solos with a “searing” performance (on the left stereo channel). A year following the recording, “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” became the fifth single released from Blonde on Blonde, making it to No. 81 on the Billboard Hot 100.
“Just Like a Woman”: According to Wilentz’s analysis of the session’s tapes, Dylan felt his way into the lyrics of one of his most popular songs, singing “disconnected lines and semi-gibberish” during the earlier takes. He was unsure what the person described in the song does that is just like a woman, rejecting “shakes”, “wakes”, and “makes mistakes”. This exploration of female wiles and feminine vulnerability was widely rumored—”not least by her acquaintances among Andy Warhol’s Factory retinue”—to be about Edie Sedgwick. The reference to Baby’s penchant for “fog…amphetamine and… pearls” suggests Sedgwick or some similar debutante, according to Heylin.
Discussing the lyrics, literary critic Christopher Ricks detects a “note of social exclusion” in the line “I was hungry and it was your world”. In response to the accusation that Dylan’s depiction of female strategies is misogynistic, Ricks asks, “Could there ever be any challenging art about men and women where the accusation just didn’t arise?” The song reached No. 33 in the USA.
“Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)”: A bright blues “stomper” about lovers parting, “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” is one of the more literal songs Dylan recorded in his 1965–1966 period. The narrator has tired of carrying his lover and is going to let her “pass”. As in “Just Like a Woman” and “Absolutely Sweet Marie”, he waits until the end of each verse to deliver the punch line, which in this case comes from the title. “Most Likely You Go Your Way” was issued as a single a year later, in March 1967, on the B-side of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”.
“Temporary Like Achilles”: This slow-moving blues number is highlighted by Hargus “Pig” Robbins’s “dusky barrelhouse piano” and Dylan’s “brief wheeze of harmonica”. In the song, the narrator has been spurned by his lover, who has already taken up with her latest boyfriend. Referring to his rival as “Achilles”, the narrator senses the new suitor may end up being discarded as quickly as he was. The refrain that ends each of the main verses—”Honey, why are you so hard?”—is a double entendre Dylan had been wanting to work into a song.
“Absolutely Sweet Marie”: This song, described as “up-tempo blues shuffle, pure Memphis” and an example of “obvious pop sensibility and compulsive melody”, was recorded in four takes on March 7, 1966. Gill sees the lyrics as a series of sexual metaphors, including “beating on my trumpet” and keys to locked gates, many deriving from traditional blues. Nonetheless, the song contains what has been termed “one of the most oft-repeated of Dylan’s life lessons”, the thought that “to live outside the law you must be honest”, which was later invoked in many bohemian and counter-cultural contexts.
“4th Time Around”: When The Beatles released their sixth studio album, Rubber Soul, in December 1965, John Lennon’s song “Norwegian Wood” attracted attention for the way in which Lennon disguised his account of an illicit affair in cryptic, Dylanesque language. Dylan sketched out a response to the song, also in 3/4 time, copying the tune and circular structure, but taking Lennon’s tale in a darker direction. Wilentz describes the result as sounding “like Bob Dylan impersonating John Lennon impersonating Bob Dylan”.
“Obviously 5 Believers”: “Obviously 5 Believers”, Blonde on Blonde’s second-to-last track, is a roadhouse blues love song similar in melody and structure to Memphis Minnie’s “Me and My Chauffeur Blues”, and was described by Robert Shelton as “the best R&B song on the album”. Recorded in the early morning hours of the March 9–10 Nashville session under the working title “Black Dog Blues”, the song is driven by Robertson’s guitar, Charley McCoy’s harmonica and Ken Buttrey’s drumming. After an initial breakdown, Dylan complained to the band that the song was “very easy, man” and that he didn’t want to spend much time on it. Within four takes, the recording was done.
“Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”: Written over the space of eight hours in the CBS recording studio in Nashville, on the night of February 15–16, “Sad Eyed Lady” eventually occupied the whole of side four of Blonde On Blonde. Critics have observed that “Lowlands” hints at “Lownds”, and Dylan biographer Robert Shelton wrote that this was a “wedding song” for Sara Lownds, whom Dylan had married just three months earlier. In his paean to his wife, “Sara”, written in 1975, Dylan amends history slightly to claim that he stayed “up for days in the Chelsea Hotel/ Writin’ ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ for you”.
When Dylan played Shelton the song, shortly after recording it, he claimed, “This is the best song I’ve ever written.” Around the same time, Dylan enthused to journalist Jules Siegel, “Just listen to that! That’s old-time religious carnival music!” However, in 1969, Dylan confessed to Rolling Stone’s editor, Jann Wenner, “I just sat down at a table and started writing…And I just got carried away with the whole thing…I just started writing and I couldn’t stop. After a period of time, I forgot what it was all about, and I started trying to get back to the beginning [laughs].”
Heard by some listeners as a hymn to an other-worldly woman, for Shelton “her travails seem beyond endurance, yet she radiates an inner strength, an ability to be reborn. This is Dylan at his most romantic.” Wilentz comments that Dylan’s writing had shifted from the days when he asked questions and supplied answers. Like the verses of William Blake’s “Tyger”, Dylan asks a series of questions about the “Sad Eyed Lady” but never supplies any answers.
Album Cover and Release: The cover photo of Blonde on Blonde shows a 12-by-12 inch close-up portrait of Dylan. The double album gatefold sleeve opens to form a 12-by-26 inch photo of the artist, at three quarter length. The artist’s name and the album’s title only appear on the spine. A sticker was applied to the shrink wrap to promote the release’s two hit singles, “I Want You” and “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.”The cover shows Dylan in front of a brick building, wearing a suede jacket and a black and white checkered scarf. The jacket is the same one he wore on his next two albums, John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline. The photographer, Jerry Schatzberg, described how the photo was taken:
I wanted to find an interesting location outside of the studio. We went to the west side, where the Chelsea art galleries are now. At the time it was the meat packing district of New York and I liked the look of it. It was freezing and we were very cold. The frame he chose for the cover is blurred and out of focus. Of course everyone was trying to interpret the meaning, saying it must represent getting high on an LSD trip. It was none of the above; we were just cold and the two of us were shivering. There were other images that were sharp and in focus but, to his credit, Dylan liked that photograph.
The original inside gatefold featured nine black-and-white photos, all taken by Schatzberg and selected for the sleeve by Dylan himself. A shot of actress Claudia Cardinale from Schatzberg’s portfolio was included but later withdrawn because it had been used without her authorization and Cardinale’s representatives threatened to sue, making the original record sleeve a collector’s item. Dylan included a self-portrait by Schatzberg as a credit to the photographer. The photos, for Gill, added up to “a shadowy glimpse of [Dylan’s] life, including an enigmatic posed shot of Dylan holding a small portrait of a woman in one hand and a pair of pliers in the other: they all contributed to the album’s air of reclusive yet sybaritic genius.”
Critical reception and legacy: Blonde on Blonde reached the Top 10 in both the US and UK album charts, and also spawned a number of hits that restored Dylan to the upper echelons of the singles charts. In August 1967, the album was certified as a gold disc.
On its release, many critics argued the album was a major work. To accompany the songbook of Blonde on Blonde, Paul Nelson wrote an introduction stating, “The very title suggests the singularity and the duality we expect from Dylan. For Dylan’s music of illusion and delusion—with the tramp as explorer and the clown as happy victim, where the greatest crimes are lifelessness and the inability to see oneself as a circus performer in the show of life—has always carried within it its own inherent tensions…Dylan in the end truly UNDERSTANDS situations, and once one truly understands anything, there can no longer be anger, no longer be moralizing, but only humor and compassion, only pity.”
The album received generally favorable reviews in 1966. For Pete Johnson in the Los Angeles Times, “Dylan is a superbly eloquent writer of pop and folk songs with an unmatched ability to press complex ideas and iconoclastic philosophy into brief poetic lines and startling images.” The editor of Crawdaddy!, Paul Williams, reviewed Blonde on Blonde in July 1966: “It is a cache of emotion, a well handled package of excellent music and better poetry, blended and meshed and ready to become part of your reality. Here is a man who will speak to you, a 1960s bard with electric lyre and color slides, but a truthful man with x-ray eyes you can look through if you want. All you have to do is listen.”
The achievement of Blonde on Blonde seems to have lingered in Dylan’s memory. Twelve years after its release, Dylan said: “The closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind was on individual bands in the Blonde on Blonde album. It’s that thin, that wild mercury sound. It’s metallic and bright gold, with whatever that conjures up.” For critics, the double album was seen as the last installment in Dylan’s trilogy of mid-1960s rock albums. As Janet Maslin wrote, “The three albums of this period—Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited both released in 1965, and Blonde on Blonde from 1966—used their electric instrumentation and rock arrangements to achieve a crashing exuberance Dylan hadn’t approached before.” Mike Marqusee has described Dylan’s output between late 1964 and the summer of 1966, when he recorded these three albums, as “a body of work that remains unique in popular music.” For Patrick Humphries, “Dylan’s body of work during the 14-months period…stands unequalled in rock’s 30-year history. In substance, style, ambition and achievement, no one has even come close to matching Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde.”
Blonde on Blonde has been consistently highly placed in polls of the greatest albums of all time. In 1974, the writers of NME voted Blonde on Blonde the No. 2 album of all time. Demonstrating the transitory nature of such polls, in 1997 the album was placed at No. 16 in a “Music of the Millennium” poll conducted by HMV, Channel 4, The Guardian and Classic FM. In 2006, TIME magazine included the record on their 100 All-TIME Albums list. In 2003, the album was ranked No. 9 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. In 2004, two songs from the album also appeared on the magazine’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time: “Just Like a Woman” ranked No. 230 and “Visions of Johanna” No. 404. (When Rolling Stone updated this list in 2010, “Just Like a Woman” dropped to No. 232 and “Visions of Johanna” to No. 413.)
Dylan scholar Michael Gray wrote: “To have followed up one masterpiece with another was Dylan’s history making achievement here…Where Highway 61 Revisited has Dylan exposing and confronting like a laser beam in surgery, descending from outside the sickness, Blonde on Blonde offers a persona awash inside the chaos…We’re tossed from song to song…The feel and the music are on a grand scale, and the language and delivery are a rich mixture of the visionary and the colloquial.” Critic Tim Riley wrote: “A sprawling abstraction of eccentric blues revisionism, Blonde on Blonde confirms Dylan’s stature as the greatest American rock presence since Elvis Presley.”
Biographer Robert Shelton saw the album as “a hallmark collection that completes his first major rock cycle, which began with Bringing It All Back Home”. Summing up the album’s achievement, Shelton wrote that Blonde on Blonde “begins with a joke and ends with a hymn; in between wit alternates with a dominant theme of entrapment by circumstances, love, society, and unrealized hope… There’s a remarkable marriage of funky, bluesy rock expressionism, and Rimbaud-like visions of discontinuity, chaos, emptiness, loss, being ‘stuck’.” For Mike Marqusee, Dylan had succeeded in combining traditional blues material with modernist literary techniques: “[Dylan] took inherited idioms and boosted them into a modernist stratosphere. ‘Pledging My Time’ and ‘Obviously 5 Believers’ adhered to blues patterns that were venerable when Dylan first encountered them in the mid-fifties (both begin with the ritual Delta invocation of “early in the mornin”). Yet like ‘Visions of Johanna’ or ‘Memphis Blues Again’, these songs are beyond category. They are allusive, repetitive, jaggedly abstract compositions that defy reduction.”
That sense of crossing cultural boundaries was, for Al Kooper, at the heart of Blonde on Blonde: “[Bob Dylan] was the quintessential New York hipster—what was he doing in Nashville? It didn’t make any sense whatsoever. But you take those two elements, pour them into a test tube, and it just exploded.”