Blood on the tracks: a critic's obsession

Three decades ago, Bob Dylan created a masterpiece. To mark the publication of his book about the record, Andy Gill charts a lifetime's infatuation with rock's most restless troubadour
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Today, in Minneapolis, a group of musicians will assemble at the Pantages Theater to perform Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks in its entirety. Dylan himself won't be there - rock's most restless troubadour will be performing in St Louis that night, on the latest round of his never-ending tour - and none of the musicians is exactly what you would call a household name. The closest to a celebrity is Eric Weissberg, the folk musician responsible for the "Duelling Banjos" hit from the soundtrack to the film Deliverance. The others are local semi-pro musicians whose lives were irrevocably altered 30 years ago when Dylan employed them in a last-ditch effort to salvage Blood on the Tracks, the album he had recorded in New York with Weissberg's band Deliverance, but that he had subsequently decided wasn't working.

Over the course of a couple of evenings between Christmas and New Year's Eve 1974, those musicians, quickly assembled by Dylan's brother David Zimmerman, helped to transform a patchy collection of lovelorn ballads into one of the greatest items in the Dylan catalogue. It has become one of his bestselling albums, and it's not hard to see why: it's the Dylan album that you can play to people who hate Dylan, full of catchy, hummable tunes, skilled musicality and fairly mellifluous singing.

Written while the singer's marriage was on the rocks, Blood on the Tracks is the most personal album of his career, a work that manages the trick - uniquely among "confessional" songwriters - of telling you everything you need to know about the Dylans' marital problems while revealing nothing at all. Instead, it throws light on the way that emotional turmoil affects - and is, in part, precipitated by - the songwriter's work, illuminating the space between the artist and his art, and the sometimes troubled interface between the artist's private and public realms.

Ironically, while Dylan subsequently had misgivings about whether he had revealed too much on the album, the musicians who helped him to salvage it have always regretted that their contributions went unrecognised. By the time their sessions took place, half a million album covers had already been printed crediting only the New York band, and the credits were never amended on subsequent re-pressings. And while virtually every player on every other Dylan album has since been pumped by fanzine writers for details of their sessions, the Minneapolis musicians have remained virtually anonymous, a mysterious crew who seemed to vanish back into the wintry wastes of Minnesota as soon as the album was recorded.

So the world never got to hear of how the guitar-shop owner Chris Weber delivered a rare Martin guitar to the studio, and suddenly found himself playing on a Dylan session; how the jazz-rock drummer Bill Berg was packed up and ready to depart for a new life in California when he received the call to play; how the bassist Billy Peterson didn't even realise that the session was for Dylan until he entered the studio; and how the guitarist Kevin Odegard suggested the crucial key-change that brought a new sparkle to "Tangled up in Blue".

Until now, that is. Today's concert has been organised to mark the American publication of the book A Simple Twist of Fate, written by me with Odegard, which recounts the circumstances behind the album, with the recollections of the musicians from both sets of sessions (except Dylan, of course). It represents my second voyage into the murky waters of Dylanology: the first, a song-by-song exegesis of his 1960s output, called My Back Pages (Carlton, 1998), was the cumulative result of a lifetime spent poring over Dylan albums, attempting to divine the hidden meanings. My interest in Dylan - OK, my Dylan obsession - was triggered the best part of four decades ago, when, as a callow pre-teen, I saw on television the famous opening scene to Don't Look Back, in which Dylan drops cards featuring key words to the song as "Subterranean Homesick Blues" plays on the soundtrack.

The effect was immediate and, it seems, permanent. Nothing I had heard before had prepared me for this torrent of verbiage, with its mysterious frames of reference, its impenetrable slang and its sheer acidic bite - it simply hadn't occurred to me that songs could be about things other than cars, dancing and teenage love. I had no knowledge of Dylan's earlier folk-protest output, and in any case, that wouldn't have been the slightest help in deciphering "Subterranean Homesick Blues", the rock'n'roll song that prompted his folkie fans into furious assertions of treachery. All I knew of folk music was that it was the province of earnest fellows with chunky sweaters and an unhealthy interest in the plight of fair maidens from centuries past. The notion that it might fulfil a more contemporary journalistic function had never crossed my mind.

Let's not forget, either, the impact of Dylan as a visual icon. Not even the Stones, The Kinks or The Pretty Things, until then the most reviled pop stylists of the era, looked quite as alien as this. They just had long hair, by that time the badge of any self-respecting rebel rocker; but Dylan's bird's-nest of back-combed hair was as clear a manifestation of his outlaw attitude as those black Ray-Bans, and a fitting tonsorial metaphor for the tangled imagery and lyrical knots of his songs. Here, clearly, was a man hell-bent on pursuing the path least taken - one that seemed so much more daring and intriguing than pop's usual course.

Before the clip had ended, I knew that I had to find out more. Accordingly, pocket money was saved, record tokens amassed, and Bringing It All Back Home became the first long-playing record I ever bought. It was a no-brainer, really: it even included the original version of that Byrds hit, "Mr Tambourine Man", and the sleeve-note, by Dylan himself, was this extraordinary stream-of-consciousness screed of Beat prosody. The mystery was already accumulating, in the place where you usually got some illiterate DJ's blurt of enthusiasm or an advert for the Emitex anti-static record-cleaning system.

This, if it comes down to brass tacks, is the main reason I first became obsessed with Bob Dylan: unlike every other pop star I'd encountered, he didn't appear to care whether fans liked him, or even understood him. His songs didn't directly address the same slim portfolio of concerns that other pop songs did, but instead left listeners with more questions than answers. Dylan was giving nothing away, and that secretive, disdainful attitude proved irresistible to a generation of questing kids.

Who else, one wondered, was in this game? Nobody, of course. The British folk scene quickly threw up its own ersatz Dylan, in the form of Donovan, but it was obvious from the start that he was a much cuddlier prospect than Dylan, who seemed to delight in vicious put-downs and veiled contempt. That, too, was something entirely new in the lovey-dovey world of pop music, opening a door on to vistas of emotional expression that none had previously dreamt of voicing: suddenly, it was OK to hate, to be angry, to be irritated and even to hurt. No longer would we be condemned to suffer like Brian Wilson, trapped by the secret shame and melancholy that it wasn't "correct" to express in sunny pop songs. From this point on, all channels would be open, all feelings worthy of discussion.

As successive albums extended further Dylan's impact on pop, the effect on me was extraordinary. Almost overnight, my English grades improved, to the obvious bemusement of my teachers. It was solely because they were mentioned in Dylan songs that I was spurred to read T S Eliot, Ezra Pound and F Scott Fitzgerald. I developed a previously unsuspected interest in poetry and philosophy, and assumed ill-fitting intellectual pretensions, reading Sartre and Camus in lunch-breaks, drinking Russian tea at the Kardomah on Saturday jaunts into Nottingham, and expatiating over choking chains of No 6 on the "meaning" of the most abstruse of Dylan songs. I was probably a bit of a fool, but I don't regret a moment. I was fortunate enough to be emancipated by Dylan, who enabled me to view the world in terms of endless possibility, and who gave me my first meaningful lessons in morality, aesthetics and literature.

Since then, he has been a more or less constant presence in my life and the most absorbing subject of my critical attention, though there have been a few waverings in my devotion, I'll admit. It was tough trying to defend the innocent country-music schlock of Nashville Skyline and Self Portrait; and Dylan's early-1980s re-emergence as a fire-and-brimstone Bible-thumper prompted a temporary parting of ways. His moves into other disciplines have also produced mixed results - I long ago mislaid my bootleg copy of his interminable, impenetrable film Renaldo and Clara, and can't say that I've missed it for a moment. But time and again, just when you think he's gone and blown it completely, he comes up with something that restores your faith.

He did it in 1989, with Oh Mercy, and then 10 years later with Time out of Mind and its follow-up, Love and Theft; but the definitive restoration of his reputation was back in 1975, when, after a series of mediocre records had convinced fans that he would never again produce a work of the calibre of Blonde on Blonde, he came up with Blood on the Tracks. From then on, it would be impossible to dismiss his work as a 1960s flash in the pan, even when he released albums as bad as Down in the Groove.

To hardcore Dylanologists, of course, there's no such thing as a bad Dylan album; just a less rewarding one. All of Bob's utterances are, to a greater or lesser extent, sacred to them, and worthy of diligent examination. And in some cases, rightly so: had the Dylan fan Chris Johnson not committed to memory the lyrics to Love and Theft, for instance, he might not have spotted the correspondences with and lines from Junichi Saga's book Confessions of a Yakuza.

But in some cases, such obsessive interest dispels the magic of the artwork in question, something that I have always been anxious to avoid when writing about Dylan. It's easy to lose one's way in a forest of footnotes and allusions, and easier still to march off down the wrong path, pursuing some specious interpretation, a common tendency among Dylan commentators that rouses the notoriously shy songwriter to bouts of anger. "Stupid and misleading jerks sometimes these interpreters are," he fulminated in one retrospective sleeve-note. "Fools, they limit you to their own unimaginative mentality..."

Since the song whose misinterpretation so infuriated him was "You're a Big Girl Now" from Blood on the Tracks, I was acutely aware, while writing A Simple Twist of Fate, of how intrusive it might appear. Few other pop musicians would prompt such qualms - let's be honest, most of them would kill for the kind of sustained attention lavished upon Dylan - but when writing about an artist as reclusive as him, one sometimes feels like a kind of stalker.

And certainly, Dylan has had his fair share of them. Mostly innocent saddos, such as the fan who books into the same hotels as Dylan's touring party and lingers all day in the lift with a concealed tape-recorder, in the hope of engaging the singer in small talk. Now, he really should get a life. Some, though, are much creepier, such as the wealthy woman who masqueraded as Dylan's wife, charging expenses to his account and mischievously cancelling his tour party's hotel reservations. She was eventually hoodwinked by a planted news report that Bob was jetting off to Jamaica: when she turned up at the departure gate, she was apprehended by the authorities. Small wonder, then, that Dylan is so protective of his privacy, more than once adopting a fetching Unabomber disguise of Wayfarer sunglasses and hooded anorak, even in broiling midsummer heat.

Critical intrusion is less avoidable and, I maintain, less damaging. Indeed, it is inevitable for an artist of his gifts, one who combines the protean talent of Picasso with the interpretative potential of James Joyce and the passion of the bluesman Robert Johnson. None of Dylan's pop peers excites such interest or rewards that interest with such a wealth of inspiration. That's why he commands such dedication, from fans and fellow-performers alike. The musicians congregating in Minneapolis today may have moved on in the intervening years - one became an estate agent, another a director of the National Academy of Songwriters, another a chief animator at Disney - yet they all jumped at the opportunity to celebrate that moment when, for a few brief hours, Bob Dylan passed through their lives.

That's the way it is with Bob. As a friend once noted, we are fortunate to live in his times.

'A Simple Twist of Fate' is published by Da Capo Press