Simple Twist of Fate: Bob Dylan and the Making of Blood on the Tracksby Andy Gill, Kevin Odegard
In 1974 Bob Dylan wrote, recorded, reconsidered, and then re-recorded the best-selling studio album of his career. Blood on the Tracks was composed as Dylan's twelve-year marriage began to unravel, and songs like "Tangled Up in Blue" and "Shelter from the Storm" have become templates for multidimensional, adult songs of love and loss. Yet the story behind/i>
In 1974 Bob Dylan wrote, recorded, reconsidered, and then re-recorded the best-selling studio album of his career. Blood on the Tracks was composed as Dylan's twelve-year marriage began to unravel, and songs like "Tangled Up in Blue" and "Shelter from the Storm" have become templates for multidimensional, adult songs of love and loss. Yet the story behind the creation of this album has never been fully told; even the credits on the present-day album sleeve are inaccurate. Dylan recorded the album twice-once in New York City and again in Minneapolis, with a rag-tag gang of local musicians, quickly rewriting many of the songs in the process. For A Simple Twist of Fate, the authors have interviewed the musicians and producers, industry insiders, and others, creating an engaging chronicle of how one musician channeled his pain and confusion into great art.
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A SIMPLE TWIST OF FATEBOB DYLAN AND THE MAKING OF BLOOD ON THE TRACKS
By ANDY GILL KEVIN ODEGARD
Da Capo PressCopyright © 2004 Andy Gill and Kevin Odegard
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBOB DYLAN STOOD AT A ROW OF VENDING machines with his five-year-old son Jakob, feeding loose change into the coffeemaker, selecting the brew he would sip for the next three hours in the studio down the hall. At that moment, the studio door opened and Chris Weber, a local guitar-shop owner who had loaned the singer a rare guitar for the session, came out to tell Dylan the band was ready for him. Bob introduced Jakob to Chris, and the three of them strolled back down the hall to the studio.
As Dylan settled into his position in the vocal booth, Weber stood in the control room clutching his precious guitar, feeling like a fifth wheel. Maybe, if he was really quiet and unobtrusive, nobody would kick him out of the studio, and he would actually get to see the greatest songwriter of his generation in action, close up. But then Dylan peered through the glass of the booth and gave him a puzzled look, and his heart sank. Well, it was worth a try.
"I was just wondering," he asked, more in hope than expectation, "if I could stay and watch the sessions from the control booth?"
"No, man," replied Dylan. "I need you to play guitar on this."
Astonished, Weber left the control room in a daze and joined the band in the studio, where Dylan was about to change the course of his career by spilling his guts to a troubled world living through uncertain times. Times that were equally uncertain for the singer himself, as at that point everything he knew and loved seemed to be in flux. Rarely seen in public for the previous half decade, the world's most reclusive rock star had that year become its biggest concert attraction. He had changed record labels twice in as many years and scored his first U.S. No. 1 album. And his songwriting had recently been transformed by a course of art lessons that had revitalized his jaded muse.
Less agreeably, his marriage was on the rocks.
This personal turmoil would bring forth Dylan's most compelling batch of material in years, a song-cycle of love lost, love found, love made, and love spurned, which would eventually become the most acclaimed album of his entire career. But not just yet. He didn't like the way these songs had been recorded for his much-heralded return to Columbia Records, and he knew changes needed to be made there, too. So here he was, a few days after Christmas 1974, hunkered down in chilly Minneapolis with a group of unsuspecting unknowns, about to try and get it right, the way he heard it in his head. It was a gamble, but one he knew he had to take.
* * *
After his extraordinary achievements of the '60s, there should have been no doubt about Bob Dylan's position in the rock firmament. After all, he had almost single-handedly dragged pop music through its troubled adolescence to a new maturity. Then in 1966, at the peak of his powers and his popularity, his ferocious, drug-fueled schedule had been brought to an abrupt halt by a motorbike accident near his Woodstock home, resulting in his enforced retreat from public life.
Throughout the psychedelic revolution of the late '60s-a revolution for which he had served as one of the principal prophets-Dylan holed up in Woodstock away from prying eyes, recuperating from his accident and raising a family with his wife. Few of his fans knew at the time that he even had a wife. She was Sara Lownds Dylan, née Shirley Noznisky, a former model and Playboy bunny with whom he had become involved sometime in late 1964, and whom he married in a secret wedding ceremony in a judge's chambers in Mineola, Long Island, on November 22, 1965.
A divorcée friend of Sally Grossman-wife of Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman-Sara was a frequent visitor to the Grossmans' Woodstock home but lived with her young daughter, Maria, in New York's Chelsea Hotel, where Bob took an apartment in order to be close to her. It was Sara, through her work connections at Drew Associates, a film production company, who introduced Bob and his manager to the young cinema verité filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker, who would make the Don't Look Back documentary about Dylan's 1965 U.K. tour.
Apart from her great natural beauty, what probably attracted Bob to Sara was her Zen-like equanimity: Unlike most of the women he met, she wasn't out to impress him or interrogate him about his lyrics. An adherent of Eastern mysticism, she possessed a certain ego-less quality that dovetailed neatly with Dylan's more pronounced sense of ambition. Indeed, so self-effacing was she that for a long time their relationship remained a secret even to Dylan's friends, most of whom learned about their marriage several months after it had occurred. Ironically, a few days after the wedding, Bob was asked by Joseph Haas of the Chicago Daily News whether he ever hoped to settle down with a wife and children. He replied, "I don't hope to be like anybody. Getting married, having a bunch of kids, I have no hopes for it."
It's perhaps an indication of the depth of his devotion that he conspired to shield Sara from the public eye in a way that didn't apply to his other female friends. Their relationship, it appears, had been conducted along such secretive lines right from the start: Joan Baez's sister, Mimi Fariña, recalled overhearing Dylan making a secret date with another woman-whom she later realized must have been Sara-mere minutes after Baez had departed from a weekend get-together up at Woodstock shortly before Bob's April 1965 U.K. tour. The following year, Warhol Factory "superstar" Edie Sedgwick was shocked to find out that the young pop rebel she had been courting was actually a happily married man.
Short, dark-haired, and sad-eyed, Sara was a native of Delaware, where, according to journalist and Dylan insider Al Aronowitz, her father, a scrap-metal dealer, had been shot dead in a stickup. She had been married (and divorced) before, to fashion photographer Hans Lownds, who had transformed her into a magazine cover girl, but she had since set about building a new life of her own, moving from modeling to film production at Drew Associates, where filmmakers such as Richard Leacock and D. A. Pennebaker were impressed with her resourcefulness. "She was supposed to be a secretary," marveled Pennebaker, "but she ran the place."
Sara wasn't really a music fan; indeed, the first time Sally Grossman invited her over to catch one of Bob's television appearances, she apparently expected to be watching Bobby Darin. Bob, though, was immediately struck by Sara, telling Al Aronowitz shortly after meeting her that he was going to marry her, enthusing, "She's strong!"
"He obviously fell for her," Sally Grossman told David Hajdu, author of the memoir Positively 4th Street, "and he didn't like people prying into his family and the things that were really closest to him. If he was really serious about her, she had to be unknown. That was one of our [the Grossmans'] jobs, to help give him that privacy. Look-he just had a taste of a very public relationship [with Joan Baez], and that wasn't working out very well, was it?"
Sara was, claims Aronowitz, "always one of the most queenly women. She ruled with regal radiance and with the power to calm troubled waters. She'd never pull a scene, but when she was really pushed to it, she knew how to do an icy slow burn." David Hajdu describes her as "well read, a good conversationalist and better listener, resourceful, a fast study, and good hearted. She impressed some people as shy and quiet, others as supremely confident; either way, she appeared to do only what she felt needed to be done."
She appears to have been the perfect marital foil for Dylan, posing no threat to his ego and bearing him a string of children in quick succession. Possessed of a quiet but unimposing fortitude, Sara furnished him with a much-needed oasis of calm and sincerity away from the high-octane hurly-burly and habitual deceit of the entertainment industry. He appears to have found her just in time, as the downside of the fast life was beginning to take its toll. Old friends like Richard Fariña, Geno Foreman, and Paul Clayton had died-Fariña in a motorcycle accident, the others through drugs-and several of his own inner circle of friends, like David Blue and Bob Neuwirth, had slipped into drug addiction or alcoholism. Dylan himself had exhibited a fascination with death since his first album and had recently admitted to journalist Robert Shelton, "You know, I can think about death openly. It's nothing to fear. It's nothing sacred. I've seen so many people die." All around Dylan, darkness seemed to be closing in.
It seemed almost inevitable, then, when in July '66 he was badly injured in an accident while out riding his Triumph 500cc on Striebel Road, near his home in Woodstock's Byrdcliffe neighborhood. Dylan had been an avid rider ever since buying his first bike, a Harley 45, as a teenage tearaway back in Hibbing, Minnesota. He was, alas, a terrible driver. "He used to hang on that thing like a sack of flour," recalled Joan Baez of her times out riding with Bob. "I always had the feeling it was driving him, and if we were lucky we'd lean the right way and the motorcycle would turn the corner. If not, it would be the end of both of us." After the motorbike crash, it was reported that Dylan had broken his neck, and rumors swiftly spread that he was either dead or in a persistent vegetative state-the next worst thing to dead. As it happened, he had merely cracked a vertebra, but he grabbed gratefully at the opportunity to take time out from his schedule to recuperate. All of a sudden, the biggest rock star in the world became its most reclusive, as Dylan shut himself away from the world up in Byrdcliffe. For the next few years, he shunned public contact, settling down to raise a family, paint, and maybe make a little music when the fancy took him.
Al Aronowitz was a frequent visitor to Byrdcliffe, often schlepping the two-and-a-half-hour drive up there from his New Jersey home with the latest films he had borrowed from a movie business chum, or taking his wife and children up for backyard picnics at the Dylans'. Bob, he freely acknowledges, was hardly a model citizen, with a terrible temper and more than his fair share of bad habits, but Sara knew just how to tame his rages when they were directed at Aronowitz.
"Sara always went out of her way to be kind to me," he recalls fondly. "She treated me as if I was a close relative. Whatever predicament we happened to be in, she always knew what to say to turn it into a joke. I worshiped Sara as a goddess who not only could calm the storm but who also could turn Bob into a human being. Bob was never a nicer guy than when he was with Sara.... In the years following his motorcycle accident, Bob acted like a romantic cornball when he was with her. More and more, he depended on her advice as if she were his astrologer, his oracle, his seer, his psychic guide. He would rely on her to tell him the best hour and the best day to travel.
"For me, they were the ideal loving couple. They flirted with each other constantly. Their kitchen-talk, table-talk, parlor-talk, and general dialogue impressed me as certainly hipper than any I've ever heard in any soap opera or sitcom. She was always just as hip as he was. Bob and Sara put on an impressive show for me, a drama full of romance and wisecracks and everyday common sense. I felt proud to be the audience."
Another frequent visitor to Byrdcliffe was folksinger Happy Traum, who had known Bob since the early '60s, when as a member of the New World Singers he had often shared stages at Greenwich Village folk clubs such as Gerde's Folk City. In the mid-'60s, Happy and his wife Jane joined the snowballing artistic exodus from New York to Woodstock and met up with Bob again.
"When Jane and I came to Woodstock in the summer of 1966, we became reacquainted with Bob, with whom we had lost touch after his huge pop success," he explains. "By the following summer we had moved there full time and rented a cabin just a short walk from Bob and Sara's home in Byrdcliffe, the historic artist colony that gave Woodstock its initial renown. Bob was recovering from his motorcycle accident, and he was living a quiet country life with his family. We became quite friendly with Bob and Sara, and our kids liked playing with their kids. It was partly the family connection that brought us together, along with our past history and mutual friends from our Village days."
Happy and Bob would play music together, in a relaxed affiliation that would eventually be consummated on record when Bob asked him along to play on some new tracks he was recording for his Greatest Hits Vol. 2 album. Happy wound up fingerpicking blues guitar on "I Shall Be Released," adding fills and slide licks to "Down in the Flood," and playing banjo and bass-an instrument with which he was almost completely unfamiliar-on "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere." Like Al Aronowitz, he remembers Sara with great affection.
"Sara was lovely," he affirms. "Fairly quiet, very intelligent, with an understated but distinctly funny sense of humor. She and Jane got along very well, and we enjoyed her company. We often had meals together as a family and shared at least two Thanksgiving dinners at their home. Along with a very small circle of other Woodstock friends, many of whom were not musicians, we had fairly normal family contacts with Bob and Sara."
Happy and Jane stayed friendly with Sara after she and Bob parted ways, and she would sometimes drop in to see them when she visited Woodstock. On one such occasion, Happy had recently returned from a summer playing at folk festivals in Europe in a trio alongside future Dylan guitarist Larry Campbell and future Chris Isaak bassist Roly Salley, who had fallen hard for an Irish harpist they had run into several times during the jaunt. Roly was hanging out at Happy's place when a black limousine cruised up the drive and stopped in the yard. Like others before him, he was transfixed by the black-clad beauty (Sara) who disembarked.
Excerpted from A SIMPLE TWIST OF FATE by ANDY GILL KEVIN ODEGARD Copyright © 2004 by Andy Gill and Kevin Odegard. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Andy Gill is a leading critic for The Independent, and has edited or written for NME, Q, Mojo, Rolling Stone, GQ, and Maxim. He lives in London. Kevin Odegard was a brakeman on the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad when he was asked to play guitar on Blood on the Tracks. He has written for USA Today, Billboard, and other periodicals. He lives in Wayzata, Minnesota.
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