Bob Dylan’s Blues (1962): part I – A Greatest Hit???

by Jochen Markhorst

“Spent a week in the hospital, then they moved me to this doctor’s house in town. In his attic. Had a bed up there in the attic with a window lookin’ out. Sarah stayed there with me. I just remember how bad I wanted to see my kids. I started thinkin’ about the short life of trouble. How short life is. I’d just lay there listenin’ to birds chirping. Kids playing in the neighbor’s yard or rain falling by the window. I realized how much I’d missed. Then I’d hear the fire engine roar, and I could feel the steady thrust of death that had been constantly looking over its shoulder at me. [pause] Then I’d just go back to sleep.”

(“True Dylan”, by Sam Shepard, Esquire, July 1987)

On July 29, 1966, Hurricane Dylan comes abruptly to a halt. The mythical motorbike accident at Woodstock forces Dylan to cancel all upcoming commitments, concerts, recordings and whatnot, and the following recovery period is used as an opportunity to get out of the rat-race altogether.

Record company CBS and manager Albert Grossman do not mind the first, forced break that much; Blonde On Blonde has just come out and is doing well. Six days before the accident, on the 23rd of July, the first double album in pop history enters the Billboard 200 (on 101), a month later, August 20, the LP is already at number 15, in the week of October 1 Blonde On Blonde reaches its peak (number 9). It isn’t until months later, mid-February 1967, that Dylan’s masterpiece disappears from the Top 200 again, in the week that The Monkees are at number one and two (with More Of The Monkees and The Monkees, respectively – Dylan’s influence with regard to original album titles has still not found its way into every sub-region of the pop world).

So, from that side the money tap is still open, and the singles are still doing fine, too; when Dylan is in the hospital, “I Want You” is number 20 in the Hot 100 and on the sixteenth place in England, the successor “Just Like A Woman” reaches the Top 40 as well. But a few months later, in the spring of 1967, the well is starting to dry up. “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” has a go in March, but this single doesn’t really score (top ranking: 81). In West Saugerties Dylan is already making music again, with the boys of The Band in the Basement, but for the time being no income is to be expected from that endeavour. CBS fears – rightly – to miss the momentum, and decides to release Dylan’s first compilation album: Greatest Hits.

The compilation is released 27 March 1967 and is a huge success. It reaches “only” the tenth place in the charts, but has very long legs. In January ’68 gold, and it goes on into the twenty-first century; April 2001 the five millionth copy is sold, so Greatest Hits is now on 5 x platinum.

The tracklist is quite safe. All Top 40 singles, plus the songs with which others have scored a hit (Peter, Paul & Mary with “Blowin’ In The Wind”, The Byrds with “Mr. Tambourine Man” and The Turtles with “It Ain’t Me, Babe”) plus “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, which wasn’t a single in the USA, but was a Top 10 hit in England:

Side one
1. Rainy Day Women ♯12 & 35
2. Blowin’ in the Wind
3. The Times They Are a-Changin’
4. It Ain’t Me Babe
5. Like a Rolling Stone
Side two
1. Mr. Tambourine Man
2. Subterranean Homesick Blues
3. I Want You
4. Positively 4th Street
5. Just Like a Woman

In those years, when the record industry begins to grow into a multi-billion dollar business, the marketing departments are still dominated by big talkers and windbags, who get a hefty budget and have free rein to make their own work important and make their empty opinions the norm.

In England, it is decided that Greatest Hits needs a different tracklist. “Positively 4th Street” is deleted, “She Belongs To Me”, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “One Of Us Must Know” take its place. Six of one and half a dozen of the other, but still: nothing wrong with that, of course – and it has got two more songs. Why “All I Really Want To Do”‘isn’t on either compilator’s list is puzzling, by the way; that was a big hit for Cher in both countries. Or “Don’t Think Twice”, which was a big hit for Peter, Paul & Mary as well as for The Wonder Who?

Much earlier, but also much weirder, was the European mainland. In the early summer of 1966, well before the American and English editions, the first Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits is compiled in Hamburg: the so-called “stern music” edition. Since the 60’s, the German magazine stern regularly releases its own compiled records, in cooperation with the respective record company, which magazine subscribers can then order at a discount. Middle of the road, mostly (James Last, Herb Albert, and the likes) but occasionally special, attractive rarities – the beatles in hamburg, for example. And Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits. Although it is also possible that the album was compiled by CBS Holland, and then taken over by stern – in the summer of ’66 the stern musik-edition is already for sale in Amsterdam.  By the way, the Dutch edition has a now well-known motto on the cover: Nobody Sings Dylan Like Dylan.

The A&R-person of stern musik, or perhaps of CBS Holland, has an own opinion too. When the tracklist is to be chosen, presumably somewhere in the early spring of ’66, Dylan has only had one real hit on the European mainland: “Like A Rolling Stone”. Plus the three songs known in cover versions, but that’s about it – the record shall have twelve songs, so there are eight vacancies. Blonde On Blonde hasn’t been released yet, debut album Bob Dylan has no candidates. That limits the choice to five LP’s (Freewheelin’ up to Highway 61 Revisited), to 54 album tracks. With plenty of choice of classic, indestructible songs, but the final tracklist is surprising still:

Side one
1. Blowin’ in the Wind
2. Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right
3. Queen Jane Approximately
4. Maggie’s Farm
5. Mr. Tambourine Man
6. Bob Dylan’s Blues
Side two
1. The Times They Are a-Changin’
2. It Ain’t Me Babe
3. Subterranean Homesick Blues
4. It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue
5. Like a Rolling Stone
6. Highway 61 Revisited

“Maggie’s Farm”? “Highway 61 Revisited”? The compiler not only ignores the covers that were hits in Europe as well (Cher’s “All I Really Want To Do” was a Top 20 hit in the Netherlands, for instance), but also the singles Dylan did release on the mainland: “Positively 4th Street” and “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window”. Alright, Maggie and Highway are recent, earth-shattering signature songs, songs that define the new, electric Dylan – and in June ’65, “Maggie’s Farm” was released in Germany as a single (and flopped).

However, the choice of “Bob Dylan’s Blues” is incomprehensible. “Bob Dylan’s Blues”? That unsightly, hardly to be taken seriously album filler from 1962 a Greatest Hit?

To be continued. Next up: Bob Dylan’s Blues – part II

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Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold.  His books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

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