Bob Dylan in 1966: the creation of a masterpiece, the decline into desperation

by Tony Attwood

At the very end of 1965 Dylan began working on Blonde on Blonde, and according to the information that has been provided by various sources, across the early part of 1966 the pattern of work involved him writing a song while the musicians waited, then teaching them the song, and then recording it several times until he had got a take he liked.

From November 1965 to March 1966 he worked on the songs.  The resultant album was issued sometime around July (curiously there is a fair amount of argument as to when it was actually released!)  Immediately after the recording of the double album was concluded Dylan extemporised one more song – “If I was a king” in a hotel bedroom.

Shortly after the release of the album Bob Dylan had his motorcycle accident, and he stopped writing.

Until writing this article in the series that considers Dylan year by year, taking the songs in the order they were written, I had thought of Blonde on Blonde as a double album I bought in my young days, and I thought of it in terms of what was on each of the four sides of the LP.   Sad Eyed Lady, as we all know, occupied one side.  Visions of Johanna and One of us must know – by far my absolute favourite tracks on the album, were thankfully next to each other and I would pick up the stylus time and again to play those two songs on side 1.  Side 3 had five songs, and so used was I to thinking of them as a sequence, that I reviewed them in the order they appear on the album, on this site, without any thought that maybe that was not the order they were written in.

But having reviewed these songs at odd times in the past few years, for this site, I find that when I come to look at the songs in the sequence they were written, a totally different album emerges.  An album that is much more about Dylan’s frame of mind as he worked through the writing of the songs.  A set of songs that makes me draw a conclusion as to what the motorcycle accident that followed the album was all about.

Here I will try and explain this new “understanding” if I may call it that, that comes from considering the album not in the way it is laid down on the LP or CD, but in the order in which the songs were written.

Visions of Johanna was the only song written the previous year – the last song of 1965.  The song is a monument; for many years my all time absolute favourite Dylan song, replaced only when, for this site, I studied Tell Ol Bill over and over and over, and began to understand what an incredible piece that is.

But to return to Visions, it is a song like no other pop or rock song before it.  A semi-abstract painting. A set of pictures in the mists; suggestions, ideas, implications, half heard sounds.   This was the starting point.

But when one starts on a project as momentous as a complete double album of new material with something as gigantic as Visions, what on earth is the composer going to do next?

Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again was what came next, and it seems to be a jolly conundrum with hints of links to WC Handy, but rather like Johanna, nothing very clear.   It’s fun, seemingly a lightheared tribute to the music of the past that Bob loves.

But then, but then….

Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowland is mysterious and removed from the everyday world like Visions, but this time about a person with whom Dylan is deeply in love.  Johanna, Louise and Little Boy Lost were observed from the distance.  The Lady is seen close up, although her messages and intents are not always clear.

Having written that monument of a song in one night, Dylan moved on and with Fourth Time Around suddenly we are back to the old format of disdain – disdain of the lady, and quite possibly of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood”.   You don’t get much more disdainful that lines like When she said “Don’t waste your words, they’re just lies” I cried she was deaf. 

This is one hell of a transformation.  From Visions in which Dylan peers through the mists with understanding and to some degree sympathy, and where even criticism is muted (OK there is nothing to turn off, but it doesn’t really seem to matter), on to Sad Eyed Lady, so carefully etched and recorded, image by image.

And they, just pure disdain.   And the disdain continues with Leopard skin pill-box hat,  He’s laughing at the lady, there is no sense of understanding here.

I wonder if at this moment Dylan thought the disdain element in his writing was getting too strong for next in the sequence of writing we have one of Dylan’s all-time great songs of lost love and leaving (both themes, it seems to me combined in this epic) with One of us must know (sooner or later).

Humility returns – it is the singer who didn’t meant to treat her so bad.  He really is sorry.

And besides just how much atmosphere do you want in a song?  Consider the lines

I couldn’t see when it started snowing
Your voice was all that I heard

If that isn’t atmosphere within two lines I really don’t know what is.   If I may be permitted to quote myself at this point (and I really do try and avoid this)

One of Us Must Know is the ultimate song of farewell, self justification and (to a small degree) apology.   And anyone who has been left by another whom they so deeply loved must feel this song inside out and from heart and soul.

I didn’t mean to treat you so bad
You shouldn’t take it so personal
I didn’t mean to make you so sad
You just happened to be there, that’s all

I once, years later, have a lady say that same sort of thing to me, although without such a clever use of language, and it is one of the most hurtful things you can ever have said to you.  “You just happened to be there, that’s all” reduces you to nothing.

But to return to the writing of Blonde on Blonde, track by track, if we pause at this point we can surely see there is a little, but only a very little, relief here.  Stuck inside of Mobile, could well be a song about not being able to find new themes and new ideas, and although that is a lighter song, matters don’t really improve thereafter.

And they don’t improve because we now have She’s your lover now which is more than a song of disdain (in that the songs of disdain were written about one person) – this is seemingly about disdain for two people.

The problem with the song however is that it is too similar (musically and emotionally) to Sooner or Later, and so had to be dropped.

Dylan then clearly tried to change his ways, for Absolutely Sweet Marie which was written next at last gives us a lighter note – but I think it is worth pausing here to see just how many songs of disdain, despair and leaving Dylan had processed to get to this point.  He’d ended the previous year with his mysterious epic Johanna, and started this year in a fairly positive if mysterious and fairly light hearted way, but now, unlike every year up to this point Dylan was using songs to deliver a ceaseless attack on people Dylan didn’t like.  He really was getting annoyed with people – and in particular with women.

And if we hadn’t quite got the message, we get “With her fog, her amphetamine and her pearls” from Just like a woman – a love song this ain’t.  It was attack, disdain and dislike, over and over.

Indeed I think that by the time of Pledging my time Bob had had enough.  After all what else makes such a great lyricist write

Well, early in the mornin’
’Til late at night
I got a poison headache
But I feel all right
I’m pledging my time to you
Hopin’ you’ll come through, too

Indeed as the writing continued, with the band waiting for the next song to emerge from the master, the pressures seems to be telling.  In Most likely you go your way and I’ll go mine we get

Sometimes it gets so hard to care
It can’t be this way ev’rywhere

Taken in isolation it could just be a line to fit in a song – when we look at the whole cycle of songs being composed one after the other, I believe a different meaning emerges.  He’s really, really feeling the pressure of writing and recording this album, while the band sit around waiting.

The theme continues in Temporary Like Achilles with lines such as ” How come you don’t send me no regards?”   He’s become lost, alone, isolated, unsure.

This state of mind probably explains the most curious departure from the dominant theme at this point into Rainy Day Women – quite unlike anything that he had done before.   One thing is certain – everyone really is now against him big time, and the only way out is for everyone to get stoned.

Obviously Five Believers continues this feeling of isolation.  It is a variant 12 bar blues, and a very simple song, but the message by now has become remorseless.

Yes, I could make it without you
If I just did not feel so all alone

This is a cry for help.

But then suddenly right at the death, Dylan finds his faith again, and composes a much lighter tune – I want you   He’s walked the streets at 3am, and has lost all sense of purpose and all sense of direction, before suddenly he finds at the very end that he does indeed have someone to believe in.

In a very real sense, “I want you” is a simple continuation of the two lines quoted above from the previous song – the admission of feeling alone – and it is interesting (to me at least) to see these songs in the order they were written – and written to order to complete the double LP, to see the mental journey downwards that Dylan takes during this time.

But as the end is in site there certainly is a lighter feel at this moment, although there is still the desperation of the chorus.  In this world of fairground freaks that now seem to populate Dylan’s mind, he just needs someone to hold on to.   It is as if the dreamer, or perhaps the script writer, has dreamed up too many odd characters all the way through the sequence of songs, and now finally he has to admit.  OK all these strange people are here, but I don’t want them.   I want them out of my head.  It is you that I need.

Thereafter it is so, so sad that Dylan never proceeded with If I was a king – the aftermath of the months of writing and recording Blonde on Blonde.  It would be be so wonderful to know where his mind had travelled to, knowing the album was all done and was ready to hit the streets.

After “If I were a king” we hear no more of Dylan, and the most common explanation is that it was the motorcycle crash that stopped him.  Maybe it was, but I can’t help feeling, listening to the Blonde on Blonde songs, not in the order they appear on the album, but in the order in which they were written, that this was a man heading towards a nervous breakdown.

So maybe the bike crash was a minor affair, but the doctor who treated him said, “for the sake of your sanity, stay here.  It’s not your body that’s got mangled, it’s your mind.”  Of course I don’t know, but it seems to fit the facts.

Dylan had composed and recorded in a very short space of time, one of the great, great musical achievements of the pop and rock genre.  But where he had changed from his compositional style of his previous years was the fact that he was no longer alternating between his favoured themes – love, lost love, disdain, the blues, humour, satire, songs of farewell, protest, moving on…  He had become stuck in one vision.  The songs were still great, but I fear his sense of well-being was not quite as high as it might have been.

As a song “Sara” doesn’t really tell the story of that era as it actually was, and many have pointed out that the implied chronology doesn’t work, but the line from that song

I’d taken the cure and had just gotten through

probably does relate to events after this extraordinary period of writing had come to an end.

Dylan had been pushed, or had pushed himself, into writing a set of songs while knowing that the engineers and musicians were just sitting around waiting for him.  It was the ultimate pressure.  Yes, I think he did produce a masterpiece – or at least a masterpiece in parts.  But I also think the cost to him was overwhelming.

The Discussion Group

We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase in, on your Facebook page or go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/254617038225146/  It is also a simple way of staying in touch with the latest reviews on this site and day to day news about Dylan.

The Chronology Files

There are reviews of Dylan’s compositions from all parts of his life, up to the most recent writings, but of late I have been trying to put these into chronological order, and fill in the gaps as I work.

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6 Responses to Bob Dylan in 1966: the creation of a masterpiece, the decline into desperation

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    The cross referencing of biographical material with an artist’s work…the psychological, surrealistic, psychedelical aspects therein…is a tricky business; sociological influences get shoved aside; the artistic milieu of the times ignored: that is, the Biblical, Romantic, Symbolist, Existentialist, Modernist, and Postmodernist viewpoints – all swarming around in the artistic culture of the day, to one degree or another.

    What does a songwriter do after creating what many of the popular music ‘literata’ still consider the greatest album ever made: Blonde On Blonde?

    John Wesley Harding, of course, a work of art that returns to a religious, a moralistic
    perspective, albeit an individualistc one, that harks back to the Romantic transcendalist poets, many of whom confront the demands of a hierarchical, authoritarian social structure; therefore demanding the use of ordinary, simplified language. The lyrics are what Dylan focuses on in this album along with acoustic music; as an artist seeking freedom, he veers away from the electronic music that had become the order of the day, away from “the fairest damsel that ever did walk in chains.” (As I Went Out One Morning), a song in which every word is carefully chosen.

  2. Larry Fyffe says:

    Mr. Attwood…..interesting reading….a note from a technopeasant….is it possible for the webmaster to place an asterick(*)beside the title of a song you have written about, recently or otherwise, after a reader has posted a recent comment thereon so it can be directly gotten to?

  3. Lucas F says:

    Wouldn’t this record be even more legendary if the tracklist was based on the order of writing ?
    Jut imagine this dream last side beginning with Pledging my Time and spiraling downwards to finally resolve in I Want You !

  4. TonyAttwood says:

    Utterly agree Lucas, but record companies and album producers are fixated with what is supposed to be the correct order. Time out of mind however turned that old logic upside down.

  5. Lucas F says:

    In what way Tony ?
    Ordered as composed ?

  6. Larry Fyffe says:

    Was it Ringo who said in effect : a number of Beatle records repeat the same songs, but they’re in a different order.

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