Blood on the Tracks (compare prices) was one of the most important albums of the 1970s and, when it was releasesd Jan. 17, 1975, it was as if Bob Dylan poked a stick into a restless hive of music critics, stirring up a gust of opinions. After the baffling disappointment of Self Portrait and it's so-so successor New Morning in 1970, followed by Columbia's release of that embarrassing outtake album called Dylan in 1973, the critics had all but written Dylan off. But, with Blood on the Tracks, he surprised everyone, finally producing something worth throwing under the microscope.
Everybody had something to say. In Let It Rock magazine, Michael Gray called it, “the most strikingly intelligent album of the 1970s,” while critic Paul Williams called it “the best album of the last five years by anybody.” On the other hand, in his three-page Rolling Stone review, even though he gave it five stars, Jon Landau dismissed the album, writing “Blood on the Tracks will only sound like a great album for a while. Like most of Dylan, it is impermanent.”
Genesis of a Comeback
The buzz was enormous, but getting there was a journey apart. By 1973, with his marriage heading down the rails and his career on idle, Dylan was searching for new direction, and he found it in an old painting teacher named Norman Raeben, who awakened Dylan's slumbering muse, sending the singer-songwriter down all-new roads of creativity.
For two months in the spring of 1974, Dylan attended Raeben's classes at New York's Carnegie Hall, learning how to approach lyrics the way a painter approaches a canvas. Constantly berating his students, Raeben was the classic demanding European art teacher. Doing an assignment one day, Dylan was making a predominantly blue painting. “You're tangled up in blue!” Raeben scolded him, inspiring the song title that would soon unravel into an album of Dylan's most personal songs.
“He put my mind and my hand and my eye together in a way that allowed me to unconsciously do what I unconsciously felt,” Dylan told Jonathan Cott. After suffering a five-year spell of what Dylan called his “amnesia,” Raeben's influence was a major breakthrough, evidenced by the little red notebook Dylan would soon fill at his Minnesota farm with his kids and young lover, Ellen Bernstein, a Columbia Records rep for whom he wrote "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" (purchase/download).
A&R Studios, New York
The first session took place on September 16, 1974, at New York's A&R Studio under the direction of Phil Ramone, who on short notice pulled together a crack band of seasoned studio pros consisting of Eric Weissberg on guitarist/banjo (Known for the song on the 1973 film Deliverance), Charlie Brown on lead guitar, drummer Richard Crooks, bass player Tony Brown, and keyboardist Tom McFaul.
According to the players, working with Dylan was exhausting as he turned corners without warning. Drummer Richard Crooks told authors Andy Gill and Kevin Odegard, “It was only difficult in that you never knew what Dylan was going to do next... You couldn't rely on there being a predictable set of chord changes all the time; you had to be free-flowing enough to go with he flow.”
Nobody had told the musicians about Dylan's reputation for turning corners fast, switching keys midsong, cutting perfectly good takes, and expecting sessions players to keep up with him no matter what. Without rehearsals or cheat sheets, the players were forced to watch Dylan's fingers to know what chord he was in. But regardless, they managed to get through 30 takes of various songs in one night. Thus, with most of the album in the can, Dylan only needed the bass player for the next few days of wrap-ups. And that was it. The album was quickly mixed and signed off, with plans to press it in a couple of weeks.
Blood on the Tracks Take Two
When the pressing got postponed, Dylan had time to sleep on it, deciding to re-record it in Minneapolis at the behest of his brother David Zimmerman who, much like Ramone, pulled together a session band, consisting of guitarist Kevin Odegard, bassist and drummer Billy Peterson and Bill Berg (a famed regional rhythm section with serious credentials), Gregg Inhofer on keyboards, and local music shop owner Chris Weber on guitar.
Gathered at Sound 80 Studio, over two days and in just 14 takes, Dylan and his Midwest session band recorded five songs that all ended up on the final release of Blood on the Tracks, replacing those recorded in New York. Indeed, only one song from New York with the full band made it to the official album: "Meet Me in the Morning" (purchase/download)
When the New York session players learned that all of their work had been scrapped, feelings were mixed. Some were downright disgusted, while others were happy to have recorded with the legend, period. Meanwhile, the Minneapolis players were overjoyed that millions would be hearing their music. The problem was, 100,000 dust jackets had already been printed crediting the New York players. No worries, Dylan's people told the Minneapolis players, after those sell out, we'll get the proper credits on there.
Today, 35 years later, the jacket still credits the New York musicians “Eric Weissberg and Deliverance,” while the Minneapolis players have still never received due recognition. Among audiophiles, fans, and the those directly involved, preferences remain mixed. While some prefer the darker, searing pain of the New York sessions, others enjoy the less intense, slightly polished Minneapolis versions.
Upon its release, in the first month alone Blood on the Tracks sold more than 500,000 copies, going gold and becoming his all-time fastest and best-selling album. “It's hard for me to relate to that,” Dylan told Mary Travers (from Peter, Paul, and Mary) on her radio show. “I mean, people enjoying that type of pain.”
Recorded at the moment of Nixon's resignation when the nation was in as much chaos as Dylan's marriage, his studio performance was emotionally raw and intense as he poured his most personal songs ever into the grooves. As Phil Ramone put it, “[It] was an outpouring of the man's life, in a very troubled time for him..., it was more of a soul being revealed directly to tape.”