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Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde (Columbia Records, list price $7.98)

By Jeremy W. Helet

Mute as a stone, ambiguous as Tierasian, way out of focus, Bob Dylan unfolds like a playmets from Blonde on Blonde, his Opus 7. It is a double album, four sides, fourteen new songs. Sadly, a single disc could have distilled the four or five strong cuts scattered here, though the finest, "Sad Eyed Lady of the Low-lands," commands a full side to itself. The prophet has mined much slag this trip. This is not an entirely gratifying reward for Dylan devotees who have waited out his silence faithfully, the near year since last September's release of Highway 61 Revisited, Opus 6.

The full disappointment this record brings cannot be blamed on its uneven quality; Dylan has edited badly before, notably on Times Are A-Changin', Optis 3. What is troubling now is a studied inarticulacy--a consistent deverbalization--which marks good and bad songs alike on Blonde on Blonde. Emblematic of the present wordlessness stands the cardboard jacket, filled with snapshots where past albums abounded in liner notes (often awkward but sometimes incisive). The songs themselves, by profuse blues repetitions and by overlong choruses, generally blunt the listener's attention to the language of the songs.

Let us assume one thing: It is for his language that Bob Dylan is of interest to us, not for his melodies, not for his ideology. It may be hasty to speak of his language as "poetry." So far little that he has produced can stand by itself in print (except for intoned pieces like Opus 2's "Hard Rain), but needs his performance to make clear the stresses and quantities he intends. Only with these heard can one get a "poetic" sense of language opening through his songs, the exhilarating view of sound and sense stationed in strange surroundings. This is a trivial problem. Dylan's imagination can create new contexts for given words; all he really Jacks is a system of notation. We can compensate here with hyphens, dashes, and capitals to indicate compressions, prolongations, and eccentric stresses. Dylan will not be a poet, of course, until he can choose words which announce such rhythms by themselves, without abnormal punctuation.

A Retreat

Blonde on Blonde, taken as a whole, marks a retreat from experiment with language. The great successes it contains gain their power from hypnotic heavy rhythms against which any words would have to struggle, in a sort of "counterpoint," not from rhythmic or imagistic interest inherent in the word-phrases themselves. Thus the chorus of "Sad Eyed Lady" has

My--wAre--hOuse--Eyes,--mY arA--bian drUme

gaining its interest from a doubling of the natural number of stresses those words demand. Earlier, in Opus 6's "Desolation Row," a typical fine lyric operated within the confines of natural speech rhythm and normal stress:

They're sElling postcArds--of the hAnging. They're pAinting--the pAsspOrts brOwn. The bEauty pArior is filled with sAllors. The Circus is-in TOwn

Nine-fourteenths of these songs have no merit, gain no successes by any means. The "hit" cuts released on 45's represent the worst of the garbage. "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" enumerates ad nauseam all the situations in which "They'll Stone you..." and its triple rimes get maddeningly predictable, e.g. "when you're walking on the street," and "when you're trying to keep your feet." "I Want You," after two passable stanzas, degenerates into similar rime-tagging; it also suffers from the tedious triple chorus of its title. One half-decent stanza late in the song suggests the deficiencies of the rest:

I did it because you lied, Because he took you for a rided Because time was on his side, Because I want you....

The allusion in the third line promotes an aspect of compression rare in both the song and the album as a whole.

Side 3 of Blonde on Blonde bears a mother lode of vacuity, 4 of its 5 songs. "Temporary Like Achilles" adds some new verses to the great flop from Opus 6, "It Takes a Train to Cry," but it cuts out the yodel-like chorus that almost saved that earlier piece.

"Absolutely Sweet Marie" abounds with line-filler dilutions of meaning, like "well," "you see," "aw, now," and repetitions of line-fragments. It sounds improvised. It is also a coyer baring of private symbols than we've had to take in some time: here (and in "Memphis Blues Again") we get no clue to the significance of railroads though lyrics involve them obsessively. And Dylan's paranoia about petty law enforcement regresses here to the awkwardness of "Walls of Red Wing" (pre-Opus 1). What he integrated into the panoramic lists in "Chimes of Freedom," (Opus 4),

The mistreated, mateless mother, the mistitied prestitute, And the miedemeaner outler, chained and cheated by pursuit,

and tossed off facetiously in "Subterranean Homesick Blues," (Opus 5),

Look out, kid, it's somethin' you did. God knows when, but you're doin' it again,

he squeezes out obtrusively in "Marie"s penitentiary verses.

"4th Time Around" sounds like the Beatles's "Norwegian Wood." Like its model, it pushes a sitar or something into prominence, then narrates a man's seduction by some sore of Lamia, from his passive and clouded viewpoint. Once again triple rimes breed doggeral--this time in short, 3-to-a-line phrases like

ShE--bUttoned her bOst--strAlghtened her sUit--then she said "Don't get eUte"

The only pleasant line among the lyrics, YOu, yOu took me In, yOu loved me thEn, you nEver wAsted time, comes when the monotonous full rimes are minimized. What pleasure it thereby brings, unfortunately, is less that of normal theme-and-variation than that good feeling you get when you stop drumming your head with a hammer.

Full obituaries for all the corpees on the album would be too painful. A couple more failures may be mentioned, both of which try echoing past successes. "Obviously 5 Believers" has the word-obliterating background of "Subterranean," but has a subject less suited to chaotic rendering: a bluesy "baby, please come home" message that seems to justify the song's format, a blues repetition of each stanza's first line. But, as always, Dylan has bad luck with the blues format. The license for repetition seems to attract him to lyrics more banal than usual, when what is needed is something singularly well-chosen and repeatable. The other song, "Leopardskin Pillbox Hat," has the loose, talking-blues, shape of the "I Shall Be Free" and theirs, its jokes are mostly private or unfunny.

Two of the album's five successes are slick, mellifluous glances backward from a boy-girl breakup, "Most Likely You Go Your Way," and "One of Us Must Know." Like their ancestor from Opus 4, "It Ain't Me, Babe," these should yield the popular idiom a ripe harvest of epigrams.


"Just Like a Woman" is one of the very exciting things we have to deal with. Natural, seemingly without artifice but for a few lines, this is Dylan's tenderest humanism since "North Country Blues" (Opus 3). It defines with sincere concern and virtual clairvoyance the girl-woman, innocence-experience, stage of ambivalent transition. Its chorus echoes simply

She mAkes--love--JUst--like a wOman But she brEake--just like a little--girl

while a verse poses a less feminine, more universal problem:

NobOdy has to guEse--that bAby can't be biEased Till shE--Finally sEes that--ohEs like all the rEst.

At the end, focus is shifted strangely yet some-how comfortably from the anonymous woman to the previously unobtrusive narrator:

WhEn we meet agAin--Introduced as friends, PlEane don't--iEt on--thAt you knew me whEn I was hEipless--and it was yOur--world.

"Visions of Johanna," more exciting still, travels discreetly Dylan's whole range from realism to surrealism.

Lights flicker from the OppOsite lOft; In this-room the hEatpipes Just oOugh; The cOuntry-music stAtion plays sOft But there's nOthing, rEally nOthing tO tUrn Off, Just Louise--and her lOver--sO Entwined And these visions--of JohAnna--that cOn--quer mY mind.

Dylan sets "Johanna"'s scene with this richly connotative sketch, a vignette in line with such earlier triumphs of concretion as "Love Minus Zero," (Opus 5):

The--bridge-at midnight trEmbles; The cOuntry-dOctor rAmbles. BAnkers nieces--seek perfEction, ExpEcting All the gifts that wise-men bring. The wind hOwis--like a hAmmer, And the night blOws rAiny. My lOve, she's like some rAven, At my window with a brO--ken wing.

Parodic, iconoclastic, "Johanna" moves to

Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial. Voices whisper "this is what--salvation must be like after a while"

The "visions" are an obvious pretext for threading together autonomous images and scenes, the sort of pretext Dylan has abused in earlier long songs like "Desolation Row," (Opus 6). But here there is sustained a consistent, liking, mood of dim light, vast space, and timelessness, a mood common to the above examples, and to the following long line and image

We can hear the night-weishman click his ashlight, ask himself is it him or them that's insane

Dylan makes this monster function among five-stress lines, inflated by its 17 syllables to of hysteria.

Little can be said about the most powerful of these songs. "Sad Eyed Lady of the lands" has no lyric language quite as beautiful as its title; it could only be misrepresented by summary or excerpting. Let it be note that the "lowlands" seem to be the opposite of "pot's "highlands," and that the song seems already to have acquired some reputation psychedelic roadmap. No doubt they that will know will know. Here below, we can only await the next installment of Time Magazine's running gloss on pop music drug allusions.

In summary, it should be admitted that this is a pretty smooth album, low on outright cacaphony of the sort you get in "Tombaton" (Opus 6), or in "It's Allright, Ma" (Opus 5). To some extent this is just the problem of Blonde on Blonde is easy not to listen to, even played loud. Few lyrics are as said imposing as these reckless un-set texts:

Disillusioned words like bullets bark As human gods aim for the mark, Make everything from toy-guns that To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the it's easy to see without looking too far That not much is really sAorEd ("It's Allright) John the Baptist, after torturing a thief, Looks up at his hero, the commander-in-chief, Saying "Tell me, great hero, but please make it brief, Is there a hole for me to get sick in? ("Tombstone

Nowhere now do we find ambition, or excitement all running as high as 4's "Chimes of Freedom":

In the wild cathedral evening, the rain unravelled tales To the disrobed faceless forms of no position... Majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sound As we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

These older, reckles lyrics excited me because their contagion was evident; ears attuned to them gained appetites for "poeticism" and a lot of earnest, though not always men leapt up to supply them. Paul Simon (Garfunkel's partner) gives us lines freshly fallen silent shroud of snow," important, he gives us his own self-image: "A poet with a one-man band." "I have my bo--oks/And my po--e--try to protect me, he says. Mick Jagger write a 7-stress line Off My Cloud" and resuscitates the blues poetry of Sam Cooke, Otis Red Dog Herskovitz. The Lovin' Spoonful "jump-cut" provocatively among narratives, and interrogatives; such lively imagination no-one demanded or would have appreciated a few years ago. One can see Dylan's influence sifted down to the bottom of the heap when a dullard like P.F. Sloane ("Eve of Destruction") manages a rime as interest

The lOve I once fElt, I don't fEel and for-you; This time I'll Even--Open the door--for-you,,,

Dylan obviously interests me as a potentil cultural Messiah; he just as obviously care how he interests me, or you. I trick public eyes and ears into attention were his goal. It does not seem to be do not seem to be public; his artistic in seems to grow even deeper. After a disappointment, one came come to his abstention from our purposes and categories; Dylan can stand as a figure for freed.

I don't want to track or trace you Or define you or confine you

he said in one of the manifestoes on expecting some reciprocity. "I'll die first before I decay," he told a national magazine this month. Since the turn against ideology announced in Opus 4's "My Back has been true--if nothing else--to the caution sounded on that album in "Ramons

Everything passes, everything changes. Just do what you think you should

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