L I K E J U D A S K I S S I N G F L O W E R S
by Robert Forryan
Blood On The Tracks
I have never understood rock music, though often, in seeking to feel a part of something greater than myself, I have pretended to a knowledge and a range of feelings I never possessed. I have even written about these feelings – fraudulently really, for it was all idiot wind. Because I am a deceiver and rock is a cliché; a cliché which portrays itself as subversive and anarchic, and in so doing is every bit as deceitful as this writer. Rock is sentimental in the way that Louis MacNeice perceived a certain type of tough American literature to be – Hemingway, for instance – “soft at the core”, he wrote. But then, rock is American.
The truth, I suppose, is that my instincts are for me to recoil from rock music, particularly from its drums and bass guitar which represent its soul – or should that be its groin? I loathe their primordial, disordered, unmelodic natures; the way they disturb and intrude. Though I know they are essential to the medium. At concerts I feel the bass inside me; penetrating, invading my body, my privacy, my entitlement to my own space. I am defenceless and that is something I resent.
But once upon a time, there was a time, from 1964 to 1966 (the time before Judas, you might say), when I almost knew what was happening, despite having read an awful lot of F Scott Fitzgerald! At least, it seemed that my unhipness threatened to be briefly overthrown and that I might, albeit hesitantly, enter another world: the world of bohemian culture. A world inhabited by the coolly sophisticated. The world of those who knew what was happening. But normality returned gradually, beginning with that 1966 concert at Leicester where I learned that this human being was not the God I had taken him to be. And as my passion waned, and was finally dashed on the rocks that were “Nashville Skyline”, so was my prodigal uncool self returned to me. But it was of no matter, I had my books and my poetry – what else did I need?
Being of a serious nature, I turned away from music; my direction being determined for me by my own inability to respond to classical music, coupled with a snobbish disdain for anything to which the term ‘popular’ might be attached. So I read, with little understanding, the poems of TS Eliot. But understanding was not the central issue as long as I could infiltrate, somehow, a world of finer minds than my own. Like J Alfred Prufrock, I was “not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be”, instead I was:
And so, I invented myself. I became J Alfred Prufrock.
But there is a problem with self-invention. If you invent yourself, you can also re-invent yourself – and in the end you no longer know who you are. Sincerity becomes a lost option. You cannot trust yourself or be true to yourself because there is no real self left to whom you can be true; no self to trust. You may, if you are clever, authenticate the invented persona, but you have to be very clever indeed. And such authentication requires endless repetition; endless overlaying of the diaphanous film that constructs a personality in infinite steps; like the way a shape may be moulded in fibreglass. However, endless repetition is a costly process, and few can endure its mindlessness. So the temptation is to re-invent, and many fall.
Re-invention is confusing. To those who have come to know the invented self it can be so unsettling that it feels like betrayal. Never having felt the need to invent themselves they cannot, in their sincerity, understand what appears to be treachery. And so they cry ‘Judas’. They must be forgiven for they know not what it is that they do. How could they hope to see the authenticity of the artist when they are blinded by their own sincerity? What they have forgotten is that the self originally invented still remains, in Dylan’s case at least, and is available to them in memory, on tape, CD and film. If there are numerous identities, then each one of us can, if he or she is honest, accept or reject whichever of these inventions we choose. There is no compulsion to like or dislike all of the invented selves. Indeed, to do so is to display a mindless allinclusiveness – to betray an utter lack of discrimination. The real Judas is the one who refuses to choose (or is incapable of choosing) between the various identities offered. Failure to exercise taste or engage any faculty for critical appreciation is a denial of mature humanity.
* * * * * * * * * *
After 1969 there were several years without music – years in which I betrayed myself by my own indiscriminate all-exclusiveness; my wilful blindness to anything that might disturb my equanimity. The cultural explosion of the late-60s had passed me by, or rather, I passed it by on the other side of the road pretending to myself that I hadn’t noticed any change. It was 1975 before I heard a new song:
My attention was held. Not just because I had long felt blackness to be a virtue, nor because I saw myself as void of form, but simply that I recognised the voice. The artist had reinvented himself in a form accessible to me. Accessible in its understatedness and in the fact that it was something other than rock! (Oh, I know you could say that about ‘New Morning’ or ‘Self Portrait’, but they had simply not been heard). I was, as far as it is possible for someone so hesitant as myself, transfixed. That is perhaps an exaggeration – the road to Damascus is not for timid souls. But at least I bought the LP and took it home and played it and was engaged and played it ever after.
And so “Blood On The Tracks” was assimilated within my limited range of cultural appreciation. It became one of the few things I ever loved up until that time in my life. It is only the narrowness of my musical knowledge, my awareness of the degree of my own ignorance, that stops me from claiming it as the finest album ever recorded. But it is!
“Tangled Up In Blue” defines the album in its blueness and its ever-changing prismatic diversity. Blue is the colour of “Blood On The Tracks”. But it is multi-hued: from the bright blue of Tangiers to the midnight blue of “Idiot Wind”’s borderline. It is an intensely visual album – one suffused with variegated qualities of light. For despite the pain reflected in its title, much that is contained in the album is far from dark. Scenes and moods shift and change from song to song and within songs. Like a kaleidoscope, you never see the same picture twice. Each hearing reveals new patterns, altered states. It is truly Dylanesque. In the same way that “Tangled Up In Blue” and “Simple Twist Of Fate” perpetually metamorphose in live performance, so it seems does the whole album mutate with each spin of the CD. A fantasy of my imagination, no doubt. Or a reflection of my moods. But there is an elusiveness about these performed songs. I’m never quite sure that I’ve understood anything, for the effect achieved is temporarily blinding.
“Blood On The Tracks” is entire of itself. It is not a collection of unrelated performances. The songs are interwoven: sharing moods and feelings, so that it is easy to forget at times which song it is that you are hearing. At times, it doesn’t even seem to matter. This consistency, coupled with the unusually personal nature of the lyrics, is a further defining quality of “Blood On The Tracks”. And in this consistency is revealed a deliberately created and crafted sculpture – like nothing else Dylan ever released, and herein lies its magic.
For there is a romantic fallacy which says that great art has as its source something indefinable, intangible. A quality usually referred to as inspiration or the artist’s muse. Dylan himself has spoken of learning to do consciously what he had previously done unconsciously – as if he believed that inspiration was a gift of youth and, as such, unavailable to the mature artist. I’m not at all sure that this is true. Maybe it is more to do with the artist becoming aware of how he creates, of learning through experience. Maybe he doesn’t do things differently; maybe it is simply that he now knows what he does and why; has learned to manipulate consciously the instinctive. And yet… Dylan criticism, particularly with regard to live performance, is imbued with the banal truism that Dylan is at his best when responding to the inspiration of the moment. I could not disagree more. For what honour is there to the artist who merely acts instinctively; who responds unknowingly to the mood of the moment, instead of imposing his will consciously to create artistic form? How do we know Dylan is at his best then? What evidence exists? I was driving along recently listening to an old compilation tape from the mid-90s which a friend had sent me. What I had forgotten was that, in the middle of all this live stuff, he had left a copy of the studio out-take of “Shelter From The Storm”. The effect of hearing this in the middle of acoustic and electric band numbers was stunning. It made what had gone before seem like so much dross. It actually sounded fresher, more vibrant, livelier than the live stuff!
“Blood On The Tracks” has a structure, a conscious design; is the product of a choice exercised, maturely and deliberately; at least, this is how it seems to me. If the man from Porlock had entered the recording studio at an inappropriate moment, he would not have cut this poem short. For on this recording Dylan is not relying simply upon his muse or the inspiration of the moment; is not selling himself short as he has on a number of stages in the last dozen years. He is crafting, moulding, designing his masterpiece. This album in its finished entirety is the work of an artist.
It seems to me, also, that “Blood On The Tracks” was written and recorded with the individual mind in control, and in the process the heart’s unease and the soul’s torment are painted in as much nakedness as controlling intellect will allow. This is not Dylan in the Confessional; not quite. Something is always held back, behind the shades, but they may be the most transparent shades he ever wore. In 1975, as I listened to “Shelter From The Storm” for the first time, Dylan was instantly recognisable – was Dr Jekyll compared with the unrecognisable Mr Hyde that strode a Leicester stage in 1966.
“Blood On The Tracks”, thankfully, is not a rock album, though neither is it acoustic. It is electric, but it is not rock. How could it be? Rock is, by its nature, uncontrolled, visceral, inspired. It is music of the gut, the loins, the bowels; maybe even the heart. But it is not music of the mind – and it is not where you meet Bob Dylan, but where he hides. On “Blood On The Tracks” you come as near to seeing the real him as you ever will, not that this is at all the heart of the matter or even the main reason why it is such a great album. Because it is another romantic illusion that the real self, should you wish to find it, can be discovered in excess – through drugs, dreams, alcohol – by breaking down or letting go. That is sheer escapism – the Sixties at its cretinous, cultural nadir. The real self hides behind the eyes, in the mind. At least, that is how it seems to me. Perhaps I have no heart?
The conscious design of “Blood On The Tracks” is apparent in its structure: in the way the ten songs are ordered, performed and presented. There is thematic and musical coherence – a unity of style and content matched only, perhaps, by “John Wesley Harding”. There is little diversity, nor is it needed. The fundamental reason why “Blood On The Tracks” is such a great album lies in its power to transform our personal and individual vision of our own lives and relationships. It speaks to us morally and philosophically as does most great art (should that be all great art?). And like “Don’t Think Twice” it makes me feel better. Almost every time in the last twenty years that I have felt real pain I have turned to this healing album, especially to “Idiot Wind” – to kiss goodbye the howling beast, wherever I find it.
Claims are often made as to the alleged superiority of the out-takes to the officially released version of “Blood On The Tracks”. I understand that and can hear why that might be said. It is implied that the out-takes were too self-revelatory, too painful for Dylan to acknowledge. Maybe. But had it been done differently it would not be “Blood On The Tracks”, would not be the work of art or the artefact that we know, love and recognise, and which has become a major part of the Dylan myth. Like a time traveller who intervenes in the past, in changing this album we would be changing everything. It was known in its official guise for years before most of us knew that there were any out-takes. We all know now what we mean when we refer to “Blood On The Tracks”. It just wouldn’t be the same in another style. For this is the artist’s conscious choice. This is the mask, the self he chooses to present to us. This is what authenticates him and is how he wishes to be known – or how he wished to be known at that time. It says more about the real Dylan than does any other piece of music performed with the ever-present shades in place. Integrity is not found necessarily in the unseen self. Am I any more real because you see me when I get up in the morning, bleary-eyed and bestubbled? This is not the self I wish you to see. Give me time to present myself in the way that I choose and we will both enjoy it more. There is nothing attractive about the defenceless – except to the empire-building invader or the biographer. I have no wish to invade Dylan the way Garnier’s bass invades my being on the concert hall floor. No wish at all.
The Dylan portrayed on “Blood On The Tracks” is the Dylan I love, the way I always want to remember him. If I could only have one album, this would be it. You can keep all the live performances. For me this is the essential Dylan.
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