Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde”

Blonde on Blonde album cover.This week, I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan‘s 1966 double LP “Blonde on Blonde” for what I can learn as a songwriting musician. I listened to Bob Dylan’s earlier “Highway 61 Revisited” for this project about two months ago. That has long been one of my favorite albums, but “Blonde on Blonde” was mostly new to me. Overall, Dylan got even better in the year between the two. The writing and performance are more focused and less chaotic. In its entirety, this double LP is remarkable with incredible high points. Some songs could stand to be cut to create a fantastic single LP album.

The album opens with perhaps the weakest song, Rainy Day Women #12 & 35. I like the raucous marching circus accompaniment; Still, the lyrics are really too silly to justify four and half minutes. No matter what interpretation you read into the song, yhe “Everybody must get stoned” pun doesn’t deserve this much celebration. I’ll also skip by “Pledging My Time“, a blues track that fails to grab my attention.

My absolute favorite song on “Blonde on Blonde” is Visions of Johanna. The accompaniment is primarily an acoustic guitar strumming a chord progression mostly based on I-IV-V7. The mid-section of each verse builds some suspense by repeating I-IV. A V7-I cadence closes each verse. Wistful lines of sustained notes are played on an organ in the right channel balanced by a twangy guitar’s occasional noodling on the left channel. A bass guitar in the center plays jugband bass-lines travelling the across chords. Dylan’s carries more emotion than typically heard on other songs; This is appropriate considering the subject matter, ambiguous as it may be.

The lyrics of “Visions of Johanna” made it quickly my favorite. It’s not particularly clear who or what Johanna is and if the “visions of Johanna” are memories, fantasies, or something else. Whatever they are, the speaker is uncomfortably haunted by the visions; they add a tinge of sadness to real experiences in the present. In a way, the visions “that kept me up past the dawn” remind me of Poe’s raven that visited “upon a midnight dreary.”

There are two female characters: the Johanna who is “not here” and Louise who is. There are several apparent male characters: the speaker in first person, Louise’s lover, the night watchman, the little boy lost, the peddler, and the fiddler. I wonder if all of these male characters are different aspects of the same person. Even Louise can act as a mirror forcing the speaker to look back within himself. Within that mirror the speaker sees himself replaced by the ever present visions of Johanna.

Louise, she’s all right, she’s just near
She’s delicate and seems like the mirror
But she just makes it all too concise and too clear
That Johanna’s not here
The ghost of ’lectricity howls in the bones of her face
Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place

Another song I love, “I Want You” feels more like walking alone passing through various scenes. The chorus is a straight-forward “I want you, I want you, I want you so bad”. I read somewhere that often in songwriting, the chorus provides the lens through which to interpret the verses and that’s definitely the case here. This simple chorus also provides a nice contrast to the verses in which so much happens. In all that the speaker sees and encounters, the desire for subject of the song. I actually first heard this song as covered by Sophie B Hawkins when I was 15. Here version brings out the feelings of longing and hurt more than Dylan’s, but I think both are excellent. I especially like the motif played on a clean electric guitar that plays throughout the verses of the Dylan recording.

I continue to find Dylan an amazing lyricist and I’m really appreciating his use of traditional chord progressions and instrumentation. About 10 years, I was concerned about using too many common chord progressions and basic chords. I thought of this as a weakness and that chord progressions were an area where being unusual and creative were a measurement for quality songwriting. When I started writing songs for Trip Gunn, I threw out this assumption. Many amazing songs have been written on little more than I-IV-V progressions.  Variety is good, but there’s nothing wrong with the familiar.

What I learn as a songwriter from Dylan on “Blonde on Blonde” is much the same as “Highway 61 Revisited” and that includes the lesson that it’s beneficial for instruments to be in conversation with each other. The difference is that on the earlier album the individual instruments were often playing independent of each other and on this album they are working together. While the lyrics on “Highway 61” are often more inventive than they are here, there’s a greater sense of meaning and expression on “Blonde on Blonde.” There rhymes also feel more natural this time around. I like the use of imagery and setting of scenes on this album.

Unfortunately, the album versions of these songs are not available on YouTube, but I’ve provided links to decent versions that are similar. Most are live.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Are You Experienced”

Jimi Hendrix Are You Experienced album cover

I devoted the past week to Jimi Hendrix Experience‘s 1967 debut LP “Are You Experienced” to learn as a songwriting musician. Hendrix did not much appeal to me when I was a teenager. His status as a god among guitarists gave me the wrong expectations, something like Joe Satriani, who I never liked anyway. I found Jimi’s guitar playing sloppy and didn’t initially care for his singing. Years later, I heard second chance without the expectations. What I heard as sloppy before, I now hear as human expressiveness. I hear an innovative guitar-player deeply connected with their instrument. In contrast to Joe Satriani’s technically brilliant guitar playing, Jimi’s confident playing exudes heart and soul.

Album opener “Purple Haze” starts with a short strange percussive march played on guitar and bass before breaking into one of rock’s greatest guitar riffs. Throughout the song, bass, guitar and drums work together to create a monument. The bass provides a full strong foundation upon which the fuzz guitar builds a wall of harmonics-ladens rock. At the 30 second mark, Jimi shouts “Purple haze all in my brain!”. The vocals drip with heavy reverb and are oddly panned full right.

The usage of panning throughout the album is often awkward and disorienting. The use of reverb on the vocals in “Purple Haze” make the panning feel even more unnatural, because the reverb also is completely in the right channel. I understand that these decisions were results of many era-specific factors: limitations of the recording equipment, a sense of youthful experimentation because stereo was still fairly new, limitations of listening equipment as some listeners were probably still on mono equipment. The drums were nicely recorded in full stereo, so they are spread across the stereo field in a way that feels natural. I’m obviously not saying that things need to feel natural, but the use of stereo effects on this album can distract from the music rather than add to it.

One of my favorites, “Love or Confusion“, makes a wonderful combination of guitar-playing and guitar-experimentation. While the bass provides a solid textural groove, Jimi strikes power-chords and individual notes letting them ring out with fuzzy bliss until they just start to grab a little feedback. My love of fuzz and feedback made this song instantly grab my attention. Unfortunately, they couldn’t keep their fingers off the pan knob and the guitar will occasionally dive left then right. This movement flattens the guitar by making it obvious that it takes up a single point in stereo field. But still, that use of drums and bass to create an rhythmic bed while the guitar produces an atmosphere of noise is amazing.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience arranged these songs strategically well. Instruments, including vocals, take turns having focus while the others pull back to support the lead. This often shows up with vocals and guitar taking turns as lead, which undoubtedly comes from the blues. In some songs, it’ll be that the guitars do something to punctuate the beat, then they fall back for a vocal line, then return to the guitar, then vocals.

For the most part, I find the lyrics on the album to be better than average, but not necessarily amazing. Most of the tracks, like “Manic Depression”, feature very direct lyrics that I think are well-written sincere expressions of their subject. This writing and performance without posturing contributes heavily to the album’s greatness.

The Wind Cries Mary” stand out for me as the best on the album, which was apparently written after he and his girlfriend (not named Mary) had had a fight. The last verse makes brilliant use of imagery in a way that everybody can relate to. Jimi uses word-choice here like a palette to paint this scene of loneliness and regret. The room is so empty that the speaker’s absence is felt even though they are in the room.

The traffic lights they turn blue tomorrow
And shine their emptiness down on my bed
The tiny island sags downstream
Cause the life they lived is dead

The song “Hey Joe“, written by “Billy Roberts, has long been one of my favorite songs. Even when I didn’t care of Hendrix so much, I enjoyed “Hey Joe” and it’s definitely for the music. I do like some murder ballads, but I don’t particularly enjoy the words of this one. The single chord progression repeats throughout the song. It feels like a non-stop coda from the opening that could go on forever. Probably because this song in E minor never fully resolves to the chord of E minor. The chord progression goes C – G – D – A – E (VI – V – VII – IV – I). That’s a very unusual chord progression for me, though it doesn’t sound strange at all. This leads me to think about the possibilities of not fully resolving a chord progression; I appreciate the non-stop cyclic feel it produces here.