When I was 11 or 12, while most kids were plugged into the hip-hop and grunge metal on MTV, me and my friends in north Orlando were VH1 kids. We drooled over footage from Woodstock and the Monterey Pop Festival, wishing we’d had the chance to be full-blown hippies. These television shows, plus our parents’ burnt-out recollections of concerts and frayed record collections, were the closest we had to to escaping our own mega-label era. And when I finally got a CD player one Christmas, I began investing my allowance in a growing collection of greatest hits albums: the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, the Rolling Stones. Of these albums, Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits was the most consistent, the most self-assured. From “Mr. Tambourine Man” to “I Want You,” “Blowin’ in the Wind” to “Positively 4th Street,” this collection seemed to outline a decade of protest and experimentation, seemed to establish a roadmap for those other bands to follow. Dylan’s singing was suspect, but his sound was monumental.
Every day in high school, I carried a Walk-Man and my zip-up book of CD’s, cycling through a swelling set of classic rock and jam bands. But I’d always return to Dylan. To me, he was more than a musician—he was an image of the youthful disaffection I maintained. While the popular kids were wearing pressed Polos or baggy JNCOs, my favorite article of clothing was a black Dylan T-shirt that accentuated my frizzy white-boy dreadlocks. During class, I’d open the spiral-bound planner we were required to carry and scrawl lyrics imitating Dylan’s mid-1960’s stream-of-consciousness style. Highway 61 Revisited—the whole album—became my sustained anthem of anti-establishment thinking and surreality. I learned to play three of the songs on the piano. I wrote my senior research paper on that album.
Now I’m in my thirties, and it occurs to me Dylan has been floating through my head for more than half my life. He’s arguably the most influential artist to my own aesthetic, my personal style and taste. That said, I don’t always get Dylan. There are albums, mostly from the ‘80s and early ‘90s, that I’m not sure should’ve been made. There are times I’ve seen him in concert and, because he tends to rearrange his songs until they become unrecognizable, not known he was playing one of my favorites until picking out a scrap like “Memphis blues” or “big brass bed” from the refrain. And most recently, I bristled when Rolling Stone reported he’d called his critics “wussies,” “pussies,” and “evil motherfuckers” for pointing out he’d clearly plagiarized some lyrics on his later albums. Still, I’m willing to overlook his foibles as the eccentricities of genius. Nothing short of a Cosbyesque revelation of monsterhood could diminish the pantheon of brilliant Dylan albums: Freewheelin’, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, Blood on the Tracks. These releases, with their poetry and performance, their timeless arrangements, helped shape popular music, and they helped shape my own worldview.
So you’ll understand my dismay when earlier this year my buddy Alec, with whom I spent my teens poring through sixties vinyl, messaged me saying he was confused about Blood on the Tracks. After his last listening, he said, he felt the album consisted of “a couple classics and a lot of hokum filler.”
Hokum filler! Immediately, I wrote back and argued the album’s articulation of a new folk-rock aesthetic, its lasting influence: “Shelter from the Storm,” “Buckets of Rain,” “Idiot Wind.” Alec and I came from the same north Orlando neighborhood, grew up with the same CDs and record collections, the same distrust of authority. How could he not appreciate Blood on the Tracks, an elite album?
In his next message, he conceded the album’s influence, but wrote that to him the album seemed “a framework for greatness, but not greatness itself.”
My responses became sputtering, incredulous. Hardly able to gather my thoughts in writing, I abandoned the thread and a few days later gave him a call. It was a brisk, sunny day in Brookline, Massachusetts where I’d moved for graduate school, and I was trucking down the sidewalk. When he answered, on the other end I heard his newborn child—his first, Oliver—babbling from the Tampa apartment where he and his wife had settled down. Alec sounded like he had his hands full, but what I had to say couldn’t wait. On the whole, I began, Blood on the Tracks innovates by weaving lyrical storytelling and impassioned performance together with a coherent view of Americana musical tones—guitars and snare, organ and harmonica—gathered from boxcar hobos, wandering bluesmen, the Greenwich folk scene. It succeeds in packaging a fully realized, yet tastefully understated, sound. Its track listing comprises a roster of excellence…
“Hold on,” Alec said. He set the phone down to readjust his child, and when he came back on, he revealed the fuller scenario. A dishwasher at the restaurant where he worked hadn’t ever listened to Bob Dylan and wanted an introduction. “So I played him Blood on the Tracks,” Alec said. Not only did the album fail to persuade the dishwasher, it reminded Alec that, “for such an acclaimed album, I never really liked it.”
Heading through Brookline, I imagined those opening, rambling chords to “Tangled Up In Blue” resounding in a restaurant dish pit. I thought about the pensive, plaintive tracks to follow—“Simple Twist of Fate,” “You’re a Big Girl Now”—and the musical repetition of their verses and choruses broken only by harmonica solos. It wasn’t music to scrub dishes to, at least not without knowing the context, the Dylan lineage the songs emerged from.
And I got to thinking, for an artist like Dylan who prides himself on continual reinvention of sound and style, starting in the middle of his catalog might not work. The surreal storytelling of “Idiot Wind” would understandably ring hollow without the context of Highway 61 Revisited. The folksy wordplay of “Buckets of Rain” would fall flat without a foundation in Dylan’s early folk cannon. That Greatest Hits album had exposed me to the full range of early Dylan, from his folk roots to his electrified jangles. Alec, I was convinced, had forgotten his roots; I was sure he’d listened to Blood on the Tracks from his uninitiated coworker’s point of view. And while Alec held firm to his opposition, I was struck with a hypothesis: because of Dylan’s self-professed commitment to constant artistic reinvention, the best way to understand his music is to start from the first album and proceed chronologically.
To test this hypothesis, I figured, I’d better do it myself. So after we hung up, I opened a Spotify account, downloaded Dylan’s 33 studio albums of original work, and set to listening to them in chronological order. At first I was posting the cover images along with my findings to Instagram, but soon the project demanded a more spacious outlet (i.e. this blog). What’s more, my findings began to require I branch out from the studio albums to include select live and cover albums. Follow me here as I catch you up on my findings so far and continue to slap on my headphones—just like in high school—and churn through the catalogue to test my hypothesis.