The more that I listen to my favorite albums, the more I find that they've become part of my waking life, as much as my favorite places to eat or what clothes I wear on a Saturday or what time I choose to exercise (if any). I know this is common to everyone reading this, but it makes sense - we tend to enfold artworks into our lives as we experience them, especially if we experience them more than once, building into them our own memories and personal way of looking at the world, to the point where they are inseparable from our day-to-day existence. And, like anything else that becomes ritual or habit in our lives, we try to find the proper way to compartmentalize our favorite movies/books/albums/etc., determining when it makes the most sense to us to experience them all over again. I wrote about Slint's Spiderland a few months back, and mentioned that it's not an album for a long summer's drive or a makeout session (and if you've heard it, I'm sure you'd agree with that assessment). But it's the perfect album for listening late at night, headphones over ears, so that the album's darkness can properly wash over you. This isn't true of everything - for instance, I can pop on something like Bee Thousand or Power, Corruption, and Lies any old time - but most artworks gain their popularity and the love of their fans as much through their mood and the emotions they elicit as anything else. And that ability to elicit emotion is a very, very personal thing.
I've had Blonde on Blonde as a part of my life for nearly a decade now. This is not meant to be some sort of braggadocio; after all, there are readers here that've had the album as part of their lives since the day it was released, whatever that day might have been. I bring that up because I've listened to it enough times over those years to determine a) what the album means to me, and b) when the proper time for me to listen to the album is. I've heard the album on my POS Discman on a bus ride through Ann Arbor, on a car ride from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, on the train ride from DC to New York I've gushed about, in my dorm room in college, and in my apartment in Fairfax during that glorious 2-year stretch where I lived on my own. And I've determined that the album is one of my personal favorites (at times the personal favorite), and that Blonde on Blonde is as perfect an album to be listened to at night, in the privacy of your own home, as any ever recorded.
That's not to say that you couldn't listen to the album, or even enjoy the album, with the sun shining or out in public or something like that. But when I cue up Blonde on Blonde on my iTunes late at night, there's just something different about those 14 songs, kind of like visiting the Strip in Vegas at night with all the neon blaring compared to visiting in the daytime with the sun washing out all the pretty signs. And, in some way, playing the album at night seems fitting, when you think about Dylan up all those nights, chain-smoking and popping pills, putting the finishing touches on "Pledging My Time" while his band played cards and drank and waited for their leader to emerge from hiding with the latest spewing from his brain in hand. Even if you didn't know that this album was churned out through a series of late nights in Nashville with some of the best studio musicians of the time backing Dylan on one wild song after another, listening to the album almost impresses that on you, like all those late nights managed to seep into the vinyl or CD plastic or whatever and, in turn, slowly enters your bloodstream as you listen to the album. There are some rockers here, to be sure, but the album just feels, for lack of a better word, tired. And I don't mean tired like "old hat", I mean tired like really, truly exhausted.
That leads me into my other point about Blonde on Blonde. For the most part, the albums we consider the greatest of all time could be considered their own little universes, completely in and of themselves. You think of the swooning heartbreak symphonies of Pet Sounds, the baroque chamber pop of Sgt. Pepper, the dark soundscapes of Endtroducing..., or the paranoid desolation of OK Computer, and you think of albums that are perfectly self-contained, where even losing one of the minor songs (say, "Why Hip Hop Sucks in '96" or "Let's Go Away For Awhile") would cause the whole thing to come tumbling down like a house of cards. And that is exactly how I think of those 14 songs that comprise Blonde on Blonde - Dylan wanted this sucker to be long, to stretch to double-album length, because that's what he heard in his head, and when you actually get that close to what you hear in your head, you want it to go as long as humanly possible. To be honest, it's a little scary thinking about Dylan wired to the gills, songs like "Stuck Inside of Mobile" just bouncing around in his cranium, begging to be released. And judging by the outtakes left behind (most notably "She's Your Lover Now" and "I'll Keep It With Mine", fantastic songs both), the album could have been even longer. But that would've disrupted the universe, and maybe not for the better. Dylan had his vision, and he put it together into something that occasionally defies even critical reason.
There's been a lot of ink spilled over what Dylan would have done had he not broken his neck at the end of 1966, where his career would have gone, both musically and popularly. Behind the Shades makes mention of potential shows at Shea Stadium and the Hollywood Bowl, and we have the hotel tapes of songs like "I Can't Leave Her Behind" to shed lot on the direction Dylan could have taken for the fourth electric album of his career. Of course, we have no idea if those scant song fragments would've become anything major, or even representative of what Dylan would've ended up writing, but they're all we have, and they point to two things: Dylan was still preoccupied with women, and Dylan was moving away from the poetic imagery of the Trilogy to something a little more emotionally direct (although not nearly as direct as John Wesley Harding). And obviously anything I write here is just speculation, but I feel pretty certain that a) Dylan would've become an even bigger star if he'd performed those shows, which could've changed both his career and popular music in incalulable ways, and b) Blonde on Blonde would have essentially ended his descent into the unknown and he would have found a different, much more "normal" direction to go in. Or, you know, he could've succumbed to drugs and gone the Hendrix route into immortality. One never knows with these things.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that, in my humble estimation, Blonde on Blonde was always going to be the capper on that period of Dylan's career, and that he was going to move on to newer things no matter what. And that makes the album all the more special, because we were never going to see its equal for a long time, from Dylan or anyone else. To be frank, we still never have seen its equal; a combination of immaculately performed music (much like a football referee, we know the studio guys did a great job because we never notice them - their music is essentially an extension of Dylan's vision, rather than their personal imprint on his songs), staggering lyricism and wordplay, and Dylan's wicked, drugged-out sneer, the blueprint for a billion horrendous Dylan impressions for the past four decades. We enter places so surreal they could only have been created in the mind of a true genius, see visions that are both impossible and entirely of our time, and consistently find ourselves immersed in the music of a man who knows what he wants to do and has the means to actually do it. And we can listen to it again and again, marveling at the tiny world this man has created, a world so well-defined and sharply voiced that it stays with you long after the final note of "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands". Dylan may never have gotten close to the sound in his head again, but he got close one time, and that one time is enough.
When talking to one Justin Shapiro about what I would do when I reached this album and this particular song, I made a joke that I would attempt to write this entire post without once mentioning the subject of drugs. He laughed and suggested I go for it, because let's be honest - that subject is pretty played out after all this time. Sadly, I would probably do the song a disservice to ignore that particular elephant in the room, no matter how much I might want to personally, so I'll be touching upon that little piece of business after all. Sorry, Justin.
I think you can infer from my tone that I don't actually want to touch upon this piece of business, and I imagine that many of you could hardly blame me. When Dylan had played "Romance in Durango" on stage for the first time in nearly 3 decades, I noted that it was probably better that Dylan had pulled it out at the intimate Brixton Academy (along with "Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread", another super-rarity) instead of the arena shows he'd just played recently because the big arena crowds probably would've been less excited to hear an honest to goodness from the vault song than to scream "EVERYBODY MUST GET STONED!" at the proper time. And, as our good friend Wikipedia has rightly noted, audiences do tend to yell that out when he plays the song, because tee hee, pot! Who doesn't like a good weed reference?
Now, look, I'm not going to suggest that there isn't humor to be mined from drug use, and even in some cases from drug abuse. But let's be honest here - very rarely can you find examples of drug humor that is both highbrow and actually anything original. You're much more likely to get references to how marijuana makes you lazy, gives you the munchies, and gives you the giggles, and who among us didn't already know that and already had a chuckle or two about those salient facts? There's a riff that David Cross did in his funnier days (before he thought just being angry about shit was a substitute for being funny about shit that made him angry) about High Times and how goofy and stupid the whole magazine concept is, and that's sort of a microcosm about what drug humor tends to be - this weird "them vs us" attitude where pot smokers deify a plant, for Pete's sake, and make out like they're in some kind of crazy secret society where nobody understands their culture, maaaaan. Never mind the fact that pot (and drugs in general) have become part of the mainstream and that there is nothing the least bit sexy or mystical about it anymore. We're sticking it to The Man, man!
And it's things like that that can trivialize something like "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35", a song that has been unfairly called "one big pot joke" in part by people that like to pretend that it actually IS one big pot joke. The problem with pot and drug jokes are because they're so prevalent in our society, people immediately make the assumption that because there's a potential reference to drugs in something, that must be what that thing is entirely about. You don't even have to know the Bible verse Heylin makes mention of to know that "stoned" is being used in a manner other than toking a doobie, and one can be sure that Dylan felt that way as well. I'm not suggesting that Dylan didn't at least think about how "everybody must get stoned" could've been taken with a nod and a smile, but that the song could just as easily been yet another shot at the folk establishment (if you want to stretch for it), or the sentiment that was rising amongst the youth that the establishment was out to get them and not let them live the way they want to, or just a plain old statement of fact that, at some point, all of us will be accountable for something or other in our lives. That gives the song a bit more resonance, I would say.
Then again, there is that pesky Bible verse Heylin quoted, and given that Bob's always had a familiarity with the Bible that rivals any Christian musician, I'd say that Proverbs 27:15 definitely plays a part in the song. We all know what kinds of songs about women Dylan was writing at that time, and it wouldn't be outside Dylan's capacity to write an extended metaphor, one which mixes in elements of drug humor and elements of the counterestablishment just to say what horrible shrews those harridans are (maybe he got his ideas from this website - ladies, pay attention!). Of course, it also wouldn't be outside his capacity to write something serious as I'd just described and use that Bible verse as his jumping-off point and a wink to the more well-read cats in his audience. I will say that I have a problem with the way Heylin chose to impart this information upon the masses, both in his smug snarkiness and in his apparent conviction that of course Bob had the Bible verse in mind and any references to the filthy demon weed is all in the imagination of you dirty, filthy hippies. I may not like drug humor all that much, but you'd have to do some real mental gymnastics to assume Bob didn't have drugs at least a little bit in mind.
And even a cursory listen to the song really ought to remove any doubt that Dylan at least had some drug humor in mind, even if he hadn't been stoned to the gills (which, apparently, he was). The entire recording sounds like a laid-back party, with an audience howling and yelling in the background (at one point causing Dylan to laugh on-mic, at another faintly shouting "fuck yeah!", whether or not in reference to America I cannot ascertain), the infamous Salvation Army brass band blaring away, and Dylan's harmonica squealing during the instrumental breaks with a flair that was distinctly absent in his acoustic work. Maybe that was meant to confuse the issue, or maybe Dylan just knew that the casualness of the arrangement warranted a bunch of dudes screaming like hopped-up frat boys while the band let loose behind him and a huge snare drum helped keep time. Whichever way Dylan was thinking, it worked in spades, and helped give Dylan one of his biggest commercial hits and most enduring songs.
I suppose I will return to this theme time and time again in this blog, but what gives this song so much staying power is that it can mean so many different things to so many different people. The casual Dylan fans hear a fun song, can shout along at "everybody must get stoned!", and laugh at every time Dylan has himself a chuckle, proof of just how much fun it must have been in the studio that night. The more intellectual amongst us can dissect the meaning of the lyrics, debate just what that Bible quote as to do with anything, and decide whether or not the song is actually even meaner towards women than "Just Like A Woman". And then, for those that have never heard the song before, they can listen to an honest to God masterpiece of a song, and the opener to an album far beyond the wildest edges of their imagination.