Blonde on Blonde: Bob Dylan’s Mercurial Masterpiece

by Jochen Markhorst

At the end of 2016, around the time that Dylan was awarded his Nobel Prize, I published in the Netherlands the book Blonde On Blonde. Bob Dylans kwikzilveren meesterwerk.

Translations of individual chapters have already been published here on Untold in recent years. But now, the entire book has been revised, expanded and translated into English.   There are details of the book in English here, and of the book in German here.

Here, by way of introduction is a “transitional chapter”, on producer Johnston, on Nashville Cat Charlie McCoy and on Dylan’s musical confidant Al Kooper.

Col. Jubilation B. Johnston & His Mystic Knight Band

Influential is the qualification one encounters in every discussion on Blonde On Blonde. One of the merriest, corniest and most tangible influences is the obscure long-playing album Moldy Goldies from the one-off occasional band Col. Jubilation B. Johnston & His Mystic Knight Band and Street Singers.

It’s an unserious, alcohol-soaked party album on which producer Bob Johnston, after the Blonde On Blonde sessions, holds the musicians and the atmosphere of “Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35” for a few more nighttime hours to replay current hits – but à la Rainy Day Women.

For example, Cher’s “Bang Bang”, “Monday, Monday” (The Mamas & The Papas), “Daydream” from The Lovin’ Spoonful, plus seven other hits all receiving a hilarious, pleasantly disrespectful treatment with hopping bar pianos, lots of carnival honking, sound effects, cough fits, laughter and cheers from the Nashville Cats.

In 2012, Nashville Cream asks for Johnston’s memories:

NC: […] you made an interesting record with the musicians from the Blonde on Blonde sessions, Moldy Goldies. It’s all cover versions of songs that were popular around 1966. How did that come about?
BJ: I got a bunch of those guys in there, and got ’em all stoned, and we played all night, and it was good. That was a funny record, wasn’t it?
NC: Yeah, and the versions of “Secret Agent Man” and “Rainy Day Women #13 & 35” are hilarious, as if you’re sending up the whole idea of pop music. It’s ahead of its time.
BJ: I had just done Dylan, and “Rainy Day Women” and all that shit, and I thought, what a great thing, we’ll use that band and get them all fucked up and take it sideways, and that’s what we did. And yeah [sings], “Secret Agent Man.” That was the guy with [Elvis] Presley, who was screaming on that. I can’t even think of his name, he was a — Lamar Fike, that’s it.
NC: Who else was singing on Moldy Goldies?
BJ: I don’t have any idea. I got these office girls to sing ’em, and a janitor, Lamar, and somebody. I just picked ’em random.

The album does not score artistically nor commercially, but it does achieve a certain cult status. And well, it certainly has a certain music-historical value. As if Rembrandt drew some caricatures from Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburgh after completing the Night Watch.

1          Bob Johnston

He is a master in downplaying his contribution to music history, the Texan Bob Johnston (1932-2015), who is in control of dozens of masterpieces. Johnny Cash’ At San Quentin and At Folsom Prison, Sounds Of Silence by Simon & Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen’s Songs From A Room and Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited and John Wesley Harding… and Blonde On Blonde, of course. It is just a small selection of Johnston’s extensive discography. Nevertheless, in all interviews the producer maintains modestly that he does not do much more than facilitate, ensure that there are session musicians and that the tape recorder is running. It is only towards the end of his life that he publishes an autobiography online, Is It Rolling, Bob?, in which he reveals what is involved in producing an album such as Blonde On Blonde in a more realistic, detailed and proud manner.

In the years before, experience experts such as Leonard Cohen and Dylan (in Chronicles) have already tried to word what is so great about this producer: all praise his passion, his boundless drive and his ability to create the right atmosphere for delivering top artistic performance. From Is It Rolling, Bob? it can be concluded that this also involves the necessary know-how and creativity. The technical knowledge does not come out of the blue: Johnston comes from a musical family and says he has been around in recording studios since he was four years old.

Inversely proportional to his modesty is his fanatic enthusiasm for his artists. “I love Dylan. He is a visionary, and everything he does must be recorded because of its historical value.” Dylan is a genius, he says, you don’t think that I am going to tell him how to do his job. Who am I? My job is just to start the tape.

Sympathetic and modest, and a colossal downplaying of his importance.

2          Charlie McCoy

The Supreme Cat of the Nashville Cats is a multi-instrumentalist who has been in the studio with all the greats. Playing the drums, harmonica, guitar, bass, keys, marimba, vibraphone, sax (on Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman”) and trumpet on records by Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, Elvis Presley, Simon & Garfunkel (the bass harmonica on “The Boxer”, for example) Perry Como, Ringo Starr … it’s a long, dizzying list. In 2015, at the age of seventy-four, McCoy himself counts about 13,000 recording sessions. In addition, Charlie McCoy has also scored hits, a Grammy Award and gold records under his own name.

Dylan gets to know him in New York, while shooting for Highway 61 Revisited. Producer Bob Johnston has lured McCoy and his wife to New York with tickets for a Broadway show. Well, if you’re here anyway, Johnston says, drop by the studio. We will be recording “Desolation Row” this afternoon.

McCoy gets a guitar pushed into his hands and plays the Spanish decorations off the cuff. Dylan is impressed. McCoy later understands that he was only a pawn in the cunning game of the producer:

“Bob Johnston said, ‘You know, I was using you as bait. I wanted Dylan to come to Nashville and he didn’t want to.’ So I was bait and it worked.”

In the same interview (with The Independent, June 2015) McCoy talks about the culture shock Dylan caused in Nashville.

“We sat there from 2pm till 4am the next morning and we never played a note. This was unheard of, everybody was on the clock. We couldn’t believe it. You’re figuring out ways to stay awake because he might decide at any minute that he wanted to record and we wanted to be ready for him.

I don’t know how many games of ping pong we must have played. Then at 4am he came up with “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, an 11-minute ballad. And everybody’s sitting there saying, “Please don’t let me make a mistake.” He just started playing it and kind of left it up to us to decide what to do. Every recording, there was no conversation.”

But along the way, McCoy, as the undisputed leader of the Nashville Cats, is developing a kind of communication form with that trio of crazy guys from New York, Al Kooper, Robbie Robertson and especially Bob Dylan.

“I’d say, “Bob, what would you think if we did this or that?” And his answer would always be, “I don’t know, man, what do you think?”

So I finally went over to the producer and I said, “You know what, I’ve got to quit asking because he’s not answering. If we do something he don’t like, maybe he’ll say something.” And the producer said, “That works for me, so go ahead.” So that’s the way that it went.”

And Nashville does thrive on the culture shock. Until Dylan’s arrival, the studio, and the town anyway, has a peasant image, is considered backward area. Only ready-made treadmill work, corny country songs, and old-fashioned folklore come out of the studio. After Blonde On Blonde, Nashville is suddenly the place to be, the city and studio are flooded with the hippest birds from both the East and West coasts.

3          Al Kooper

When Dylan has made the radical decision to abort the frustrating recording sessions in New York to try it further in Nashville, he doesn’t want to be totally lost and lonely and alone among strangers; he brings along the confidants guitarist Robbie Robertson and organist Al Kooper.

Kooper has acquired his position in a legendary way during the recordings for “Like A Rolling Stone” in June ’65. He is not on the payroll, those June days. Indirectly, as a friend of producer Tom Wilson, he is able to penetrate into the recording room and he just hangs around there, hoping silently to get a chance. He is a gifted guitarist, but has already seen that brilliant Mike Bloomfield has been hired, and with that the hope of participating in a real Dylan recording session has actually disappeared: “Just hearing Bloomfield warm up ended my career as a guitarist…Until then, I’d never heard a white man play guitar like that.”

From the control room, he then watches Dylan, producer Tom Wilson and the musicians struggle with the song. Producer Wilson moves organist Paul Griffin to the piano for yet another take.

Kooper sees his chance. Before Wilson can stop him, he is called away for a phone call, Kooper slips into the recording room and sits down behind the organ. Wilson sees him on his return, we hear him saying on the tape “What are you doing there?”, but he lets him go. “He was a very gracious man,” Kooper grins in 2007. “I’m always an eighth note behind everyone else, making sure of the chord before touching the keys.”

Dylan listens back to the recording and tells the engineer:

“Turn the organ up louder.”
Tom Wilson quickly replied, “Bob, that guy is NOT an organ player.”
Bob said, “I don’t care, turn the organ up!” Thus cementing my career as an organ player.

Dylan is right. That slight delay creates the energetic, hectic urgency that makes the song all the more exciting and Al Kooper has his entrance ticket to Dylan’s inner circle. A month later, he sits behind the organ at the legendary Newport Folk Festival performance, in which Dylan plays electric to the audible horror of part of the audience. Afterwards, Kooper participates in the recordings of the other songs for Highway 61 Revisited and subsequently again for Blonde On Blonde.

Kooper describes his special position in his beautiful autobiography Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards:

“Bob had a piano put in his hotel room, and during the day I would sit and play the chords to a song he was working on, like a human cassette machine, while he tried different sets of lyrics to them. (Incredibly, cassettes hadn’t been invented yet!) It was good ’cause I got the jump on learning the tunes and was able to teach them to the band that night without Dylan being bothered with that task. My favorite of the lot was “I Want You”, and each night I would suggest recording it to Bob, who saved it as the last song recorded, just to bug me.”


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