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.

Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited”

Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" album cover

I listened to Bob Dylan’s 1965 album “Highway 61 Revisited” this week for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician. This album caught my attention when I was about 16 years old. As a child, I hated Bob Dylan’s voice, but I felt differently as a teenager. Within a couple of months, I knew all of the words and sang along to the whole album. My experience with this album proved a challenge, because my desire to sing along often prevented me from giving a closer listen. When I did, new layers of the songs showed themselves. Some refreshing, some disappointing.

The accompaniment in several of the tracks is a little chaotic, as if everybody knew the tempo and chords and had at it. The vocals and harmonica are the focus of all songs, so the other instruments are not immediately noticeable. While each instrument plays great accompaniment to the vocals, they are all playing the same song independently. This creates peculiar interactions, but more often creates the sensation that everybody is jamming along in the room. The exceptions feel more cohesive as songs. There’s a lesson here to remember the whole when writing and performing each individual instrument. I enjoy atmosphere of a loose group of traveling musicians having a chance meeting and playing songs together, but I do wonder how the songs would sound if they were better orchestrated.

This may be why Desolation Row feels so right; the last song of the album has stripped down accompaniment of two acoustic guitars over an unimposing bass guitar. In contrast, my favorite track Queen Jane Approximately sounds particularly unrehearsed with several instruments simultaneously playing as if they have are lead accompaniment without knowing what to do. The organist seems to be trying out different ideas with the tape rolling. I realized this after making a conscious effort to focus on individual instruments. The electric guitar’s activity fiddles about in a similar manner. The song opens beautifully with piano and guitar, but loses that sense of planning soon after the vocals start.

The lyrics drive this album; therefore, the focus is always the vocals that deliver them. Lyricists can learn a lot from the work of Bob Dylan. Though certainly dependent on the music, the words on this album read like formal poetry more than rock lyrics. Bob Dylan adheres to consistent structures of rhyme and rhythm for the words on all of these songs. Sometimes the determination to rhyme lead to some word choices that are at times amusing, clever, and inspired. Some of my favorite examples are in “Tombstone Blues”. Each verse is a pair of stanzas. For each stanza, the first three lines rhyme and then the last line of each stanza rhymes with the other. The third verse has the great rhyme of “sick in” with “chicken” making both lines even more memorable than they would be already. This verse also provides examples of Dylan’s ability to write meaningful lines with what would normally have been nonsense rhymes.

Well, John the Baptist, after torturing a thief
Looks up at his hero, the Commander-in-Chief
Saying, “Tell me, great hero, but please make it brief
Is there a hole for me to get sick in?”
The Commander-in-Chief answers him while chasing a fly
Saying, “Death to all those who would whimper and cry”
And, dropping a barbell, he points to the sky
Saying, “The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken”

Bob frequently uses an epistolary phrasing on this album. He is speaking TO somebody in particular. In narrative “Ballad of a Thin Man”, Dylan utilizes 2nd person perspective. However, the tone tends towards condescension. It’s like Alice in Wonderland, but whereas Alice was naive, curious and able to hold her own, the titular Mr. Jones is an uptight square that just doesn’t get it.

Most of what I come away from this album learning is the importance of working on and revising the lyrics; And also to not be afraid of the structures of formal poetry. That and to write individual instruments parts to be in conversation (not necessarily agreement) with each other.