Blood on the Tracks Revisited
More Blood, More Tracks The Bootleg Series Vol. 14 (Columbia Legacy)
by Peter Stone Brown
When Bob Dylan released Blood On The Tracks early in 1975, it was more than a return to form. It was a return to the intimacy and at the same time the intensity of his greatest work, but on a whole new level. This new level included not only the lyrics – one could argue his most personal lyrics since Another Side Of Bob Dylan – but the performance as well. The singing and his guitar and harp showed him to be at the very top of his game.
Gone were the songs of domestic bliss that had marked every album of original material (with the obvious exception of the soundtrack, Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid) since Nashville Skyline. But to be fair, several songs on Planet Waves showed at the very least that Dylan was starting to again stretch out his writing. In retrospect it was the bridge he had to cross to get to Blood On The Tracks.
The initial sessions were recorded in New York in four days at A&R Studios (formerly Columbia Studio A where Dylan recorded his first albums) in September 1974, and vocally it is almost hard to believe this is the same guy who began that year by shouting his way across the country in his first tour in eight years. It should also be noted that the album was Dylan’s return to Columbia Records after briefly signing to Asylum Records and Dylan was clearly determined to make it a good one. It should also be clear that Dylan wanted the album to be primarily acoustic.
According to Larry Sloman’s article on the sessions that appeared in Rolling Stone not long after the album was recorded, Dylan ran into musician Eric Weissberg on the street and mentioned he was recording, but since it was the Jewish holiday Rosh Hashanah, he was having a hard time finding musicians. Weissberg told him he had a band.
Also in that article was George Harrison quoting verses from “Tangled Up In Blue,” and hardcore Dylan fans who’d read the article couldn’t help but notice when the album finally came out that the lyrics Harrison quoted were “And he was standin’ on the side of the road/Rain fallin’ on his shoes” while the version on the album went “And I was standin’ on the side of the road/Rain fallin’ on my shoes.” Also Pete Hamill’s liner notes which quoted from “If You See Her, Say Hello” again had lyrics which weren’t what Dylan was singing on the record: “If you’re makin’ love to her, kiss for the kid/Who always has respected her/For doin’ what she did” – when what Dylan sang on the record was “If you get close to her, kiss her once for me/Always have respected her/For doin’ what she did and getting’ free.”
In the Dylan world, which is like no other world, where his fans note every lyrical change major or minor, this set the question in motion of where is this other version and were there other changes on other songs as well. Eventually it was revealed that Dylan had recut half the album in two sessions in Minneapolis using Minnesota musicians at the end of December 1974 at the suggestion of his brother, who felt the New York sessions were too subdued and also that every song was in the same key, with Dylan playing the songs with his guitar in Open E tuning. It wasn’t long before bootlegs of the original New York sessions started appearing, sometimes on boots with other songs and sometimes on their own as “The New York Sessions” or “Blood On The Tapes.” Dylan fans have long argued about which versions are better. The answer to that is they’re both great for different reasons. That said, as an album I prefer the New York Sessions version, because there’s a cohesion of sound and feel that isn’t on the album as released. It simply has that special indefinable thing and an added intensity that as great as it is isn’t on the album as released. In addition, the less is more approach (something I always prefer no matter who the artist is) Dylan took in both the vocals and the instrumentation serves him well. One time, sometime in the past 20 years I put on the “New York Sessions” and I couldn’t stop listening to it for a month! I am not alone in feeling that Dylan never should have messed with it. Joining me in this are several friends and Larry “Ratso” Sloman, author of what I consider to be the best book on Bob Dylan because it is the only one that gives you a feeling of who Bob Dylan really is, On The Road With Bob Dylan.
The first officially released outtakes appeared on Biograph in 1985, with the originally scheduled “You’re A Big Girl Now,” and an incredible song that Roger McGuinn had covered, “Up To Me” that wasn’t on the album. The Bootleg Series Vol 1-3 released in 1991 had four more songs, none of which were on the original test pressing, “Tangled Up In Blue,” “If You See Her Say Hello,” “Idiot Wind” and “Call Letter Blues” which was essentially “Meet Me In The Morning” with totally different lyrics. In 2012 on the flipside of the single of “Duquesne Whistle” released for Record Store Day, an acoustic take of “Meet Me In The Morning” appeared leaving Dylan fans wondering whether the long-rumored bootleg series of Blood On The Tracks was finally going to be released.
Last summer it was announced that the 14th volume of The Bootleg Series, More Blood, More Tracks would be released. This was actually something I’d known since February, but had to keep quiet about it. Immediately Dylan fans who love to complain started arguing about the title, the cover design and what the album could possibly contain. The funny thing about this was none of them had heard it. The album as usual with The Bootleg Series is available in a couple of formats, and one-CD version also available as two LPs, and the Deluxe Edition which includes six 6 CDs, and in addition a hardbound book with the liner notes, plus a replication of Dylan’s somewhat legendary red notebook, which has his handwritten lyrics and changes. The Deluxe Edition is also a limited edition and once the initial pressing has sold, it will not be in production again. It is the Deluxe Edition that this review talks about.
The majority of the set is devoted to the New York sessions. As it turns out, the five Minneapolis tracks that appeared on the original album are all that could be found of those sessions. On a technical note, the Minneapolis songs have been totally remixed and the result is revealing. For instance, I never noticed a piano on “Idiot Wind” before, but there is most definitely one now. Also, Dylan had asked engineer Phil Ramone to speed up the original New York tracks. This is a not uncommon thing in recording studios. I’ve done it myself. The tracks have now been restored to their original speed and whatever effects Ramone may have added have been removed as well.
The only surprise song is an incomplete version of “Spanish Is The Loving Tongue,” a song Dylan first did (as far as we know) on The Basement Tapes, and again for the sessions for Self Portrait/New Morning. The song is with Paul Griffin on piano and Tony Brown on bass, and one wonders what would’ve happened if Dylan had tried it again. There are other surprises however, such as the first disc being Dylan solo, (apparently before other musicians showed up) playing guitar and harp. I am among those who firmly believe that when Dylan plays solo, it is almost impossible for him to do wrong. Two tracks from disc one have been heard before, “If You See Her Say Hello (Take 2)” which appeared on the very first Bootleg Series and “Lily Rosemary and the Jack Of Hearts” which was on the New York test pressing. There is another take of the song that’s aborted about midway through. The other songs on disc one include “You’re A Big Girl Now” in three takes, “Simple Twist Of Fate” and “Up To Me.” One of the things that makes The Bootleg Series important is you can really hear how Dylan works, and in this case how much he puts into it, doing take after take. On this set, while there are occasional subtle lyric changes, it’s more about how he’ll change the emphasis on words and lines and trying different tempos.
Disc Two features the unsuccessful sessions with Eric Weissberg and Deliverance and the other session musicians, guitarist Barry Kornfeld, keyboard player Thomas McFaul and pedal steel guitarist Buddy Cage.
Before I continue, I have to correct a misconception in the liner notes. Eric Weissberg and Deliverance were an existing band and been together for more than a year before the Blood On The Tracks sessions. They had an album on Warner Brothers Records, Rural Free Delivery. They were a country rock band with a big emphasis on bluegrass. They were not dubbed Deliverance for the session and the three musicians named above, Kornfeld, McFaul and Cage were not part of Deliverance. Weissberg put the band together when “Dueling Banjos” became a surprise #2 on the Billboard singles chart hit. Deliverance did not play on “Dueling Banjos,” which was recorded by Weissberg and guitarist Steve Mandell (a former member of the band.) Eric Weissberg had been part of the New York folk music scene since the 1950s. He was among the first New Yorkers to delve into bluegrass music, and was a multi-instrumentalist as well as a Julliard Music School graduate who played guitar, banjo, violin, mandolin and bass and was in-demand session musician who appeared on records by innumerable folk musicians, including Judy Collins and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. The other members of Deliverance were guitarist Charlie Brown, drummer Richard Crooks and bassist Tony Brown (not related to Charlie Brown). Thomas McFaul is a session musician. Barry Kornfeld is a guitarist who like Weissberg had long been involved with the New York folk scene. He was a member of Dave Van Ronk’s jug band, The Ragtime Jug Stompers and worked with Tom Paxton for several years. Buddy Cage is a Canadian pedal steel guitarist who started out with Ian & Sylvia’s country-rock band Great Speckled Bird and went on to become a longtime member of New Riders of the Purple Sage as well as doing sessions for several other artists.
For whatever reason and it becomes obvious as Disc Two goes on, Deliverance simply did not mesh with what Dylan was trying to accomplish, though “Meet Me In The Morning” did end up on “Blood On The Tracks,” presented here with an additional verse, and the very similar “Call Letter Blues” was released on Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3. I used to think they were the same track with Dylan singing different words, but the new remixed versions have me rethinking that. Dylan’s rhythm acoustic is much more prominent in these mixes and there are differences and also Buddy Cage’s pedal steel and lead guitar are slightly changed. On take one of “Call Letter Blues,” Dylan plays a harp solo that’s reminiscent of his first album, but then lets the end of the song collapse.
Apparently drummer Richard Crooks (who passed away a few years ago) isolated in a sound booth was having trouble hearing and would fall behind on the beat, while some of the other musicians were having trouble following Dylan’s changes and were unable to see what chords he was playing because he was in an open tuning. The sad thing about this is Crooks was an excellent drummer. I saw him in 2001 and 2002 backing the great soul singer Howard Tate and he propelled the band. Interestingly enough Crooks would work with Dylan again 20 years later on what is referred to as “The Bromberg Sessions.” Two tracks were released from those sessions on Bootleg Series, Vol. 8, Tell Tale Signs.
Still there is a not-bad rendering of “Simple Twist of Fate” that opens Disc Two and shows what might have been if they really worked on it. But Dylan is a ‘live in the studio’ guy who prefers to work really fast, get the song down and move on. There have been reports by various musicians involved that Dylan would be running down the next song on guitar in the control booth while the musicians were trying to listen to the last song they cut. More perplexing considering they were a country band is that they didn’t get close to nailing the most country sounding song on the album, “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.” On the first take Dylan runs down the song, humming the melody, which is fun to hear. They try it fast, they try it slow, and somewhere in between and it simply does not come together.
Before recording “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome,” Dylan or engineer Phil Ramone told the rest of the band to take a break and Dylan cut four takes of “Idiot Wind” with just bass player Tony Brown. Full disclosure. Tony Brown is my brother, so yeah I’m gonna be a bit prejudiced. These takes define what I mean by less is more. On take 1, he is almost gentle on his vocal, letting the words of the song take over and do the work for him. That changes on Take 3 where his phrasing becomes a lot more venomous and that venom pretty much remains for the next two takes. One other thing about “Idiot Wind” appearing where it does – when I told my brother that the set was coming out last winter, after looking at the sessionography at first in the Dylan book All The Songs, and also on Olof Bjorner’s excellent site About Bob Dylan, – he said to me, “That’s not the way I remember it going down.” It would be easy to attribute this to faulty memory, except 44 years ago, when I asked him about the sessions, he told me first day with Deliverance, second day him alone and with Paul Griffin.
What Bob Dylan had no way of knowing at the time was Tony Brown was a Dylan fan since 1963, had the albums, had sung many of the songs, and being a serious musician had paid attention to what the other players on Dylan albums were doing. In the case of these sessions in particular, he studied Charlie McCoy’s bass playing on John Wesley Harding, which he talks about in more technical detail in the book, A Simple Twist Of Fate by Kevin Odegard (guitarist for the Minneapolis sessions) and Andy Gill.
Disc 3 is where the sessions start to intensify, starting off with a sort of slow “Tangled Up In Blue” and continuing with “You’re A Big Girl Now,” take one with Paul Griffin on organ and take two with Buddy Cage on pedal steel, in addition to Griffin and Brown. Griffin played piano and organ on several tracks on Highway 61 Revisited and the truly astounding piano part on “One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later) on Blonde On Blonde. Take 2 was originally included on the test pressing and released on Biograph.
After briefly rehearsing the song with Griffin, Dylan does a much faster “Tangled” with Griffin on organ. Maybe it’s the tempo Dylan set for the song or perhaps Griffin was playing with “Highway 61” in mind, but his organ is a little too circus-like and doesn’t convey the mood of the song. Griffin successfully switches to piano for “Spanish Is The Loving Tongue.”
Next comes one of the more fun tracks of the set, a funky “Call Letter Blues” with Griffin on piano, which is followed by “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” with Griffin staying at the piano, mixed pretty far in the background. Then comes the very first take of “Shelter From The Storm,” with Griffin on piano. This take appeared on the soundtrack to Jerry McGuire, though on the album the bass was removed and the piano is barely audible. That’s it for the Griffin sessions, except for one unfortunate omission I’ll get to later on.
Dylan’s method of operation at this point seems to be try a song and if it’s not working try another song and come back to that song later. In the studio with just Tony Brown he does take 1 of “Buckets Of Rain.” It’s close to the album version, but not quite there as the call and response between Dylan’s guitar and the bass had yet to fully develop.
Next is another version of “Tangled” with Dylan emphasizing the chord slide he does at the beginning. Another take of “Buckets” comes next with Dylan putting a bit more into the vocal. The way he sings “buckets of moonbeams” is something special. This is followed by three more takes of “Shelter From The Storm.” On the first of these (take 2) the bass doesn’t come in until the second verse. On the next take he slows it down a bit but loses it in the middle and the song stops. Take 4 is the version from the album.
Disc Four starts out with “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” at a pace slower than the final version. The way Dylan sings the line “Situations have ended bad” should make any Dylan fan smile. On the next take they nail it, and this is the one that appears on the album.
The next day Dylan attempts “Buckets Of Rain” again, this time alone. It was the only song he would cut that day. Perhaps the rest of the day was spent mixing and listening. On the first take he almost gets through the whole song then blows the finger picking guitar part. He blows it in a way any guitar player professional or amateur should appreciate. On the second take he screws up again a couple of times in a different places, but keeps on going. On the 3rd take Dylan apparently had started playing. This may have been meant as an insert because he starts with the third verse. In any case the song stops after the guitar break. The next take is also aborted.
On the next day Dylan starts by revisiting “Up To Me” The first take starts in the middle, but the second take is complete though a bit slower than the Biograph version and Dylan sounds a little hoarse. On this version Dylan does a cool descending riff on guitar that is on all the versions except the previously released one. Still he’s not totally on in this take.
He then goes back to Buckets of Rain for four takes finally nailing it on the fourth, resulting in the album version. He then tries “If You See Her, Say Hello” for the first time with Brown, and they get it in one take, which appeared on the test pressing.
Next comes three takes of “Up To Me,” with the first at a pretty fast clip but Dylan aborts it after a couple of verses. The next take is equally fast, but the way he sings the final verse is full of emotion taking the song to a whole other level followed by a harp solo. This version in its own way is every bit as good as the version on Biograph. The third take is slowed down to a more moderate pace and it’s always interesting to see how he puts the emphasis on different lines and words each time around. The song contains some of the greatest lines Dylan ever wrote such as “I was just too stubborn to ever be governed by enforced insanity” and “In 14 months I only smiled once and I didn’t do it consciously.”
This is followed by a brief instrumental rehearsal of “Buckets Of Rain,” which is followed by two takes of “Meet Me In The Morning.” The first is the version released on the “Duquesne Whistle” single and the second slightly slower and doesn’t really go anywhere. Dylan then again tries “Buckets Of Rain” one more time perhaps not realizing he had the album take and what happens is very similar.
Disc five starts off with an instrumental rehearsal of “Tangled” which ends with some sweet guitar licks from Bob where he may have been thinking of another song entirely. On the third take they come up with the version that was on the test pressing. Though the notes say this is the version that was on the Bootleg Series, Vol. 1-3, that was a different take. This was the session that would yield the most usable takes. As Jeff Slate says in the liner notes, “Reading each other’s moves almost telepathically, they search for the performance that Dylan will deem worthy of release.” There are two takes of “Simple Twist Of Fate,” the second one making the album.
After a brief two minute rehearsal, comes the “Up To Me” previously on Biograph. A rehearsal and an aborted take of “Idiot Wind” comes next. This is followed by two versions of take 4, the first just Dylan with bass and the second with an organ overdub by Paul Griffin. Now in the track list (which includes musician credits), it says this is the same version that was on Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3 and also on the test pressing of the album (aka the New York Sessions). There is one problem with this. It is not the version on the test pressing. I have A/B’d it several times since receiving the set, and besides that, that version has been ingrained in my mind for 43 years since I taped my brother’s acetate. Griffin’s organ on that version is totally different, and quite a bit more subtle. He slips in and out of the verses and his part builds in one slow brooding burn, and by Dylan’s harmonica solo at the end the organ and Dylan’s harp mesh to become the wind. On the version on More Blood, the organ is more out front and at the very end Griffin plays dissonant chording that is reminiscent of Garth Hudson. That the test pressing version is not on this set is at the very least an unfortunate omission since a lot of people myself included consider it a high point of the New York sessions.
The answer may be in the track by track portion of Jeff Slate’s liner notes: “The producers have also chosen to include the raw take without Paul Griffin’s overdub.” The question is why especially since they’d already released that version on the first Bootleg Series.
Another take of “You’re A Big Girl Now” comes next, but fades out before the last verse. Two more takes of “Meet Me In The Morning” follow, but the first is aborted, and then Dylan tries a totally different approach slowing it down and is half talking, half singing, before abandoning that too. At this point Mick Jagger, visiting from a session next door, suggests Dylan play slide, to which Dylan responds, “I don’t want to play slide,” and then there’s a short bit of him playing slide, but when he hits a wrong note, says, “Not me.” Jagger says, “I’ll play it,” and Dylan laughs.
Disc Six opens with another attempt at “You’re A Big Girl Now,” Dylan gives it a couple of short tries, stops and says, “We ain’t gonna do it better. I just keep hearing that organ.”
After a couple of rehearsals, and apparently still not sure he has what he wants Dylan does one last take of “Tangled Up In Blue.” At first he sounds tired and a little hoarse, but as the song goes on his brilliant phrasing takes over and he starts delivering certain lines that just go right to your spine and it ends up being a remarkable take as well as the end of the New York sessions.
Late in December 1974, Bob Dylan went into the studio again at Sound 80 studio in Minneapolis and recut half the album with a group of Minneapolis musicians: Chris Weber and Kevin Odegard on guitar; Peter Ostroushko, mandolin; Greg Inhofer, keyboards; Billy Peterson bass and Bill Berg, drums. With the exception of bass and keyboards, there were no electric instruments. The solos were Dylan’s harmonica breaks, and what was created was a lush acoustic ambiance surrounding the songs.
On several of the songs Dylan took a more aggressive vocal approach, the keys were changed from the New York sessions and “Tangled Up In Blue” was speeded up and “Idiot Wind” turned from the slow burning dirge of New York into an out and out rocker. There is no doubting the power of any of these tracks, and as writer/musician Elijah Wald said to me in an interview a few years ago when we were discussing different versions of songs by various artists, “Why can’t I have both?” And while I prefer the melancholy blue feel of “Tangled” that appeared on the test pressing, it is doubtful it would have received the airplay on FM rock stations the Minnesota version received
and the same can be said for “Idiot Wind.”
Still, in rerecording the songs and through rearrangements and lyric changes, the Minnesota tracks created a slight distance between the singer and the material. The personal immediacy of many of the songs is not as hard hitting. As Robbie Robertson writes in his autobiography, Testimony about the New York version, “It was tough, bold and dark, more powerfully personal than anything I’d heard him do in a long time.” And then comparing the two versions, “This new version was more up-tempo and energetic, but the first recordings he had played for me still stuck in my mind.” The Minnesota versions however do have their own strengths. I remember listening to the then brand new album with a close friend back in the days when listening to albums with friends was a regular occurrence and when “If You See Her, Say Hello” (which opens and closes this set) came on, he said, “Bob is so sad.”
Blood On The Tracks has often been referred to as the greatest breakup album of all time. It was known at the time that Dylan had separated from his wife Sara though they would reconcile to divorce a few years later. Yet it would be a mistake to assume that all the songs are about that relationship. More than 20 years ago, a friend well versed in Bob said to me, “Did you ever consider that in “Tangled Up In Blue” it could be a different woman in every verse?
The Bootleg Series has always been about more than just presenting rare tracks and outtakes. In this case it provides an in depth look at how Bob Dylan operates in the studio and his creative process. While some takes are certainly similar, no two are exactly the same. There might be lyric changes, tempo changes or a difference in vocal approach. Dylan fans will now be able to create a few versions of the New York sessions. When I recorded my album, the engineer who was also for all intents and purposes the producer said to me, “We are operating on the idea that your first instinct is usually correct.” Whether in the case of Blood On The Tracks Bob Dylan should have gone with his first instinct will be a matter of debate for years to come. Either way More Blood, More Tracks has already brought me hours of pure listening enjoyment and wonder.
Photo / Barry Feinstein