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Liner Notables: Bob Dylan – Blood on the Tracks

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Garnering an embarrassment of riches and a treasure trove of tidbits from note-perfect liner notes… 

Their minds are filled with big ideas, images and distorted facts…
Idiot wind blowing through the buttons of our coats
Blowing through the letters that we wrote…

Okay, so I exaggerate for effect when I suggest some senselessness to journalist and novelist Pete Hamill’s liner notes for Bob Dylan’s acoustic-based and soul-searing 1975 masterwork Blood On The Tracks. After all, Hamill — whose liner notes on the back cover were so lengthy they had to be reproduced in tiny print — did win that year’s Annotator's Grammy for his efforts. The commentary, nevertheless, was removed from and then restored to the jacket – creating two different traces of Blood.

A case could still be made that over a third of the liner notes should have been lopped off with not only no discernible ill-effects, but with better results overall. But I suppose – since I’m sure the esteemed Mr. Hamill didn’t just wander in off the streets into Columbia studios past Mr. Dylan and engineer Phil Ramone and slip by the art direction and album cover folk — that he didn’t hold the musicians’ cocaine hostage or something like that and force the powers that be to use his suspiciously parodic and sporadically tongue-in-cheek liner notes sight unseen and unauthorized.

Yet, undeterred, I will persevere in my endeavor to take up Blood’s disjointed liner notes, part of which — the “big ideas, images and distorted facts” part — are in contrast to the bittersweet confessional tone in which Dylan tries to musically reconcile with the end of his marriage as he asserts, in "Tangled Up in Blue," that “We always did feel the same / We just saw it from a different point of view.” Hamill‘s stance, in grandiloquent post-apocalyptic overstatement — with serendipitous election year message included — starts out better matched to the mythopoeic, wide-scale, and often-surreal and skewed sensibilities of such albums as 1965's Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde from 1966, 1983’s Infidels (“Jokerman”), Oh Mercy from 1989, and 2006's Modern Times ("Ain‘t Talkin’"):

    In the end, the plague touched us all. It was not confined to the Oran of Camus. No. It turned up again in America, breeding in-a-compost of greed and uselessness and murder, in those places where statesmen and generals stash the bodies of the forever young. The plague ran in the blood of men in sharkskin suits, who ran for President promising life and delivering death. The infected young men machine-gunned babies in Asian ditches; they marshalled metal death through the mighty clouds, up above God's green earth, released it in silent streams, and moved on, while the hospitals exploded and green fields were churned to mud…

“…And here at home, something died…” There’s a couple more paragraphs that go into more about the knowledge of something happening here — but you don‘t know what it is — unless you can riddle yourself something pieced together from the abundant literary and historical allusions and pop cultural likes of Betty Grable and Jo Stafford, and vivid images of a “brawling country of barnstormers and wobblies,” and how "we browned ourselves in the Creamsicle summers.”

Then an abrupt shift to Dylan erupts, as the topic hops: “Poor America. Tossed on a pilgrim tide. Land where the poets died. Except for Dylan.” But for the next five paragraphs Hamill is, despite Dylan’s reputation for repudiation, unnervingly building up a surviving spokesman for his generation with the larger-than-life imagery, as if he was Paul Bunyan emerged from the great north woods, a superhero with special powers or a mythic Greek god of inclement weather: “Dylan is the one who has most clearly taken the rolled sea and put it in a glass … Early on, he warned us, he gave many of us voice, he told us about the hard rain that was going to fall…”

But the pump don’t work. Eventually, Hamill does fix what’s broken by bringing the universal down to the personal level:

    And here is Dylan, bringing feeling back home. In this album, he is as personal and as universal as Yeats or Blake; speaking for himself, risking that dangerous opening of the veins, he speaks for us all. The words, the music, the tones of voice speak of regret, melancholy, a sense of inevitable farewell, mixed with sly humor, some rage, and a sense of simple joy.

Hamill makes a point of relating the reflective “If You See Her, Say Hello” containing its “love filled with honor, and a kind of dignity,” with contemporary history’s “moment at the end of wars” – and with his “right to speak of love, that human emotion that still exists, in Faulkner's phrase, in spite of, not because.”

As “If You See Her” is a simple song, so is the sprightly — as sprightly as Dylan gets — “Buckets of Rain,” with Hamill getting a lot out of a lot of thought-inducing drops adding up in life's bucket. After all, “Life is sad / Life is a bust / All ya can do / Is do what you must.” When life hand you lemmings, you don’t get in the car and follow them over the cliff. You head anywhere but: there’s no better restorative against resignation and disappointment in love and relationships than freedom and the highway and all that that evokes. “Buckets of Rain” is an ultimately hopeful song, then, for being

    Not Dante's Inferno, and not intended to be. But a song which conjures up the American road, all the busted dreams of open places, boxcars, the Big Dipper pricking the velvet night. And it made me think of Ginsberg and Corso and Ferlinghetti, and most of all, Kerouac, racing Dean Moriarty across the country in the Fifties, embracing wind and night, passing Huck Finn on the riverbanks, bouncing against the Coast, and heading back again, with Kerouac dreaming his songs of the railroad earth. Music drove them; they always knew they were near New York when they picked up Symphony Sid on the radio. In San Francisco they declared a Renaissance and read poetry to jazz, trying to make Mallarme's dream flourish in the soil of America. They failed, as artist generally do, but in some ways Dylan has kept their promise.

When it comes to the two most anomalous songs on Blood on the Tracks, the blistering “Idiot Wind” and the long narrative and third-person chronicle of "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts," Hamill has overarching associations for each to Dylan’s art and musical craftsmanship. Dylan knows that the idiot wind — whose “products live on the covers of magazines, in all of television, in the poisoned air and dead grey lakes” — blows through the human heart and “is the deadliest enemy of art.”

In "Lily, Rosemary” — in which “its real wonder is in the spaces, in what the artist left out of his painting” — Dylan sings, Hamill asserts, “a more fugitive song: allusive, symbolic, full of imagery and ellipses, and by leaving things out, he allows us the grand privilege of creating along with him. His song becomes our song because we live in those spaces. If we listen, if we work at it, we fill up the mystery, we expand and inhabit the work of art. His song becomes our song because we live in those spaces. If we listen, if we work at it, we fill up the mystery, we expand and inhabit the work of art.”

Oh my. As suggested here, Hamill gets a little full of himself as he goes on grandstanding for another couple paragraphs of increasingly hagiographic summation. It’s a wonder that he still knows how to breathe.

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