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Bob Dylan’s Wiry and Mercurial ‘Blonde on Blonde’

How he refined a new sound at the close of his so-called “rock trilogy”

On November 17, 2022
Photo by Jerry Shatzberg

“Now the man who makes the trends…

has invented a whole new bag” 

–  Columbia Records advertisement for Bob Dylan, 1966 

“The closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind was on individual bands in the Blonde on Blonde album.”  

– Bob Dylan

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Released on June 20, 1966, Blonde on Blonde is the third entry in Bob Dylan’s so-called “rock trilogy” of the mid-1960s. Following half an electric album (Bringing It All Back Home) and a romping raw rocker (Highway 61 Revisited), Dylan refined the sound he was seeking with number three. As if youth and adolescence were capped with the sophistication and maturity of adulthood — the natural order of life. 

“I know my thing now,” he told a reporter in 1965 around the time recording sessions for Blonde on Blonde would begin. “I know what it is. It’s hard to describe. I don’t know what to call it because I’ve never heard it before.” Participating musician Al Kooper called it “the sound of 3 a.m.,” and years later Dylan referred to it as “religious carnival music” and “that thin, that wild mercury sound — metallic and bright gold.”

But words can’t fully describe the music on this double LP. There’s nothing like it, even in Dylan’s own work up to then. “Thin wild mercury” captures a lot: It’s simultaneously wiry and mercurial, skirting the border of out-of-control – too fresh to pin down with record store bin titles. Nonetheless it blends Chicago blues, Memphis soul and the sonics of Black gospel with lyrics reminiscent of the French Symbolists, black humorists and Beat scribes. Muddy Rimbaud and Big Bill Burroughs are pseudo nom de plumes that occurred to one listener while immersed in this combo of roots music matched with flashing chains of jump-cut cinematic imagery. To wit: lights “flicker,” heat pipes “cough” and country music plays soft in “Visions Of Johanna.” Always painterly (indeed, he’s also a painter), Dylan enables the listener to get the picture. 

Sessions for Blonde on Blonde began in New York in autumn 1965, but with the exception of “One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later),” Dylan was unhappy with the results. Producer Bob Johnston suggested moving the sessions to Nashville, where he lived and had a history, but Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman threatened to fire him if he brought the idea up again. Dylan, however, was intrigued and overrode Grossman. 

The rest of the album was recorded in Nashville with local studio musicians: the legendary Nashville cats. “They were the A-team,” says organist Al Kooper. “They played on every hit country record, but the thing that’s interesting is that they came from bar bands where they played soul music.” (As well as blues and rock.) 

Session leader Charlie McCoy had met Dylan in New York during the Highway 61 sessions when he played acoustic guitar on “Desolation Row.” Bob told Charlie that he owned a copy of “Harpoon Man” by the Escorts, the rock band that McCoy and other studio cats had graduated from. In addition to these top-tier local pickers, Dylan brought Kooper and Hawks/future Band guitarist Robbie Robertson from New York with him. “They helped his comfort level,” say McCoy. “He knew at least two people.”

The ringleader was producer and Texas native Johnston, who’d produced most of Highway 61. A larger-than-life ka-RACK-ta, he’d produce Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen, Simon and Garfunkel and a long list of other mavericks. “He should have been wearing a wide cape, a plumed hat and riding with his sword held high,” Dylan wrote of Johnston in Chronicles: Volume One. Perpetually at war with “the suits” at Columbia, he always took the creative’s side and believed in letting them do their thing and getting out of the way – perfect for Dylan. “An artist should not be dictated to,” insisted Johnston.

In Nashville, things were different from the beginning, largely because Dylan hadn’t finished writing all the songs yet. A piano was installed in his hotel room and Al Kooper would drop by, learn the changes and then go teach them to the pickers —  an unorthodox process. But the musicians were pros and were able to roll with the punches. Even when Dylan showed up, he spent much of the time writing or further tweaking lyrics, while the cats perfected their ping-pong game, played gin rummy or drank gallons of coffee. Sleep was for lesser men and sunrise often greeted them at session’s end. (“We were young and that helped a lot,” notes McCoy.) 

One time a reporter snuck into the closed sessions and saw Dylan sitting at the piano intently at work while others killed time. Albert Grossman had the interloper tossed out. When the man snuck back in many hours later, Dylan was still at the piano, still working. “What’s that guy on?” asked the reporter. Without missing a beat, Grossman replied “Columbia Records and Tapes” and out went the trespasser once again.

But the songs did indeed pour forth and they were terrific, including some of the best of Dylan’s extraordinary career: “Visions Of Johanna,” “I Want You,” “Just Like A Woman,” “Absolutely Sweet Marie” and the 11-and-a-half-minute majestic epic “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” that took up an entire side of the two long-players — itself new at the time for a rock artist.  

These are impassioned, delicate love songs, displaying an intelligence and sensitivity rarely heard, save for the scribes of The Great American Songbook like Rodgers and Hart, but all set to the roar – sometimes quiet, often not – of roadhouse rock and R&B. The sound was marked by the interplay of Pig Robbins’ piano and Kooper’s organ, Robbie Robertson’s stinging Telecaster mastery, Wayne Moss’s virtuosic lightning-fast guitar runs, Kenny Buttrey’s drum fills. And, of course, there’s Dylan’s trademark mouth harp and thoroughly unique trademark vocals: his raw, open-hearted bray, bristle and purr.     

The rollicking “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” was released as a single months before the album. With its “Everybody must get stoned” chorus, it remains one of the mightiest hippie campfire songs. But despite perceptions that it’s a so-called drug song, it more likely refers to the negative reaction Dylan was getting at some concerts for having “gone electric” – the analogy between booing and getting stoned (with stones) as punishment. Accusations of narcotic subversion didn’t keep it from reaching No. 2 in the U.S. charts.

After Blonde on Blonde’s release in June, it reached No. 9 in the U.S. album charts and No. 3 in the U.K. and would eventually be certified Double Platinum. That Dylan had followed Johnston’s recommendation and recorded it in Nashville also further expanded the town’s rep as Music City, now beyond the country music it was primarily known for. “It was like the floodgates opened,” says Charlie McCoy today. “I went on to work for Peter, Paul and Mary, Simon and Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot, Joan Baez…” And so on.

Most importantly, the album was a continuation of what Dylan created on his two preceding albums, brought to perfection on Blonde on Blonde: the sound of an entire branch of American popular music busy being born. “I’ve never heard it before,” Dylan had said of his own music at this time and no one else had either. A line was drawn and from here on in, rock songwriters and musicians were expected to elevate their standards to attempt to match what Dylan had achieved. What followed Blonde on Blonde was rock music as art. While the Beatles, Beach Boys and others had been artfully experimenting with great success, Dylan once again was leader of the pack and the bar had been raised. Popular music would never be the same.

Profile Picture of Michael Simmons
Michael Simmons

Musician/writer Michael Simmons was dubbed “The Father Of Country Punk” by Creem magazine in the 1970s, has written for MOJO, LA Weekly, Rolling Stone, Penthouse, LA Times and the New York Times and scribed liner notes for Bob Dylan, Michael Bloomfield, Phil Ochs, Kris Kristofferson, Kinky Friedman, Mose Allison and others.

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