As every Bob Dylan fan knows, “Blood on the Tracks” remains the album by which the man’s music will be judged. The holy trinity of mid-1960s albums — “Bringing It All Back Home,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Blonde on Blonde” — may hold an unassailable place in history, but their magnesium-flare brilliance offers more light than warmth. “Blood on the Tracks,” by contrast, frequently boils over with love, regret and longing. It is often tagged Dylan’s “breakup album,” and some of the songs do seem to reflect the slow dissolution of his marriage. But it also sports sexy country blues (“Meet Me in the Morning”), a blast of raw vitriol that turns back on itself (“Idiot Wind”), a surrealistic western (“Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”), and “Tangled Up in Blue,” a landmark song that opened up possibilities that Dylan is still exploring onstage.
As almost every Bob Dylan fan knows, “Blood on the Tracks” exists in two versions. The original, recorded in September 1974 in New York City, sported backup from Eric Weissberg (he of “Dueling Banjos” fame) and sundry supporting players. The album was almost ready for release when Dylan pulled it back to substitute radically different versions of the five key songs, recorded in December with a group of Minneapolis musicians whose names are still too little-known because of screw-ups on the album cover credits. Though legend has it that luminaries like Robbie Robertson all but begged Dylan to release the original, the revamped edition served as the official 1975 release. Dylan would later become notorious for second-guessing himself in the studio, but in this case his instincts were correct — the Minneapolis players raised “Blood on the Tracks” to a higher level. But even the upgraded SACD version of “Blood on the Tracks” released last year continues to credit only Weissberg and company, ignoring their contributions.
It is the chief accomplishment of the new book “A Simple Twist of Fate: Bob Dylan and the Making of Blood on the Tracks,” and no small accomplishment at that, to bring those second-line Minneapolis musicians into the spotlight and even give credit to David Zimmerman, Dylan’s long-suffering brother, for what turns out to have been his crucial role in the project. Not only did Zimmerman supervise the Minneapolis recordings, but he also had the savvy to recruit a pair of jazzbos for the rhythm section, possibly reasoning that experienced improvisers wouldn’t be fazed by Dylan’s off-the-cuff approach in the studio. The shrewdness of his thinking is clear right from the opening notes of “Tangled Up in Blue,” in which drummer Bill Berg avoids a heavy backbeat in favor of a light weave of high-hat cymbals and fluttering snares. Where the original “Tangled Up in Blue” is resolutely earthbound, the Minneapolis version shimmers like a dream in motion — the perfect setting for a deceptively simple narrative in which points of view constantly shift according to some mysterious, half-understood plan. Berg ought to be a household name for this performance alone, so kudos to the authors for doing what needed to be done.
Sad to say, the kudos ends there. To frame the story of “Blood on the Tracks” without Dylan’s cooperation, Andy Gill, a U.K. music writer, and Kevin Odegard, one of the Minneapolis crew, have trawled through back issues of various magazines, dipped heavily and frequently into the two most up-to-date Dylan bios — Clinton Heylin’s “Behind the Shades” (the one Dylan book to read if you’re reading only one) and Howard Sounes’ “Down the Highway” — and added interviews with the few supporting players left to be heard from. The result is a hash of trivia, common knowledge and old news, written in a breathlessly hyped-up style often hilariously at odds with its mundane content. Have you been lying awake at night, wondering what sort of microphone was used on the bass drum during “Tangled Up in Blue”? Neither have I, but Gill and Odegard devote long stretches of their book to such technical arcana. In the journalism trade, this is called “dumping your notebook” — using a blizzard of factoids, fussy details and irrelevant asides to obscure the fact that the real story has gotten away.
What is the real story of “Blood on the Tracks”? It lies within the lines of the album’s 10 songs, in the sound that Dylan pursued and finally captured, in the landscape of regret, memory and hope that opens up whenever the album is played. To delve into these songs is to study some of the finest work found in American song. The job requires someone with the boldness and the breadth of knowledge shown by Michael Gray, whose hefty study “Song and Dance Man” puts the bulk of rock-crit writing about Dylan to shame. Unsuited for this task, Gill and Odegard opt to skim the surface of Dylan’s songwriting, then trot out samples from the reviews that greeted “Blood on the Tracks” in 1975. Among the too-familiar names are Paul Williams, whose fanboy gushing has produced some of rock criticism’s most embarrassing moments, and former big cheese Jon Landau, whose grudging respect for the album serves as a reminder that his abandonment of criticism to manage the career of Bruce Springsteen was, as they say, a win-win situation.
The official version of “Blood on the Tracks” had been in the stores barely a month when copies of the original version, taken from one of the many acetate copies floating around, became available as a vinyl bootleg called “Joaquin Antique.” The CD incarnation is widely available as “Blood on the Tracks — NY Sessions.” The revamped songs may be superior — though “You’re a Big Girl Now” loses some of its raw hurt — but that doesn’t mean the original versions were bad songs. A listening session with the two versions side by side is a rewarding experience for any Dylan fan. It will certainly put anyone closer to the beating heart of Dylan’s artistry than “A Simple Twist of Fate.”