“Memorize these lines, and remember these rhymes”: New York Sessions of Blood on the Tracks

ARTICLE BY Richard F. Thomas, Harvard University

This contribution is deliberately limited in scope, though I hope of interest in the broader implications about how a great work of art comes to be, even in the final, or penultimate, moments of its perfecting. Out of all the various stages of composition of the songs of Bob Dylan’s mid-1970s classic Blood on the Tracks (hereafter BotT) that are emerging from the Bob Dylan Archive in Tulsa, Oklahoma, out of all the changes that occur in the Minnesota sessions that gave us the studio album, and all the changes in performance that followed as Dylan began presenting songs in concert, starting with “Simple Twist of Fate” on November 8, 1975 at Patrick Gymnasium at the University of Vermont—out of all of these transformations I am here focused on only one aspect, what happened to the lyrics, that is the words, of the songs in A&R Studios in New York City between September 16 and 19 of 1974. With the issuing of the six-CD release More Blood More Tracks (hereafter MBMT) on November 2, 2018, we were provided with the eighty-seven takes from those four days that lead to the making of the album that famously did not come out till Dylan rewrote and rerecorded five of the songs in Minneapolis on December 27 and 30 of the same year. The now official bootleg of that album, its songs in the same order as on BotT, can be reconstructed from the six CDs: 5.3, 5.5, 3.3, 5.10, 4.2, 2.5, 1.11, 4.13, 3.15, 4.12. The only material extraneous to the four days that I include comes from what is acknowledged as the closest to a final draft, the 5 x 3 inch red notebook (hereafter RN) housed in the George Heckscher Collection of the Morgan Library in New York City, whose contents are reproduced in Stories in the Press, one of the two booklets issued with MBMT. At times RN agrees with initial takes of the songs, at other times with later takes against those initial ones.

The changes across the four days are generally small, slight changes that help the meter, emphasis or tone, while others reveal Dylan’s restless desire to get it right, even when it already seems just right, like the first two solo takes of “You’re a Big Girl Now.” What they show is an artist creating verbal and lyrical perfection in the midst of getting the music and accompaniment to the right place. I take no account of Ellen Bernstein, who may have helped here and there. My interest is Dylan and the artist working in his own head. I more or less ignore the changes in accompaniment (acoustic to “Deliverance” band to Dylan and bass), though do notice Dylan’s interactions with the various musicians, for which, as for much else, readers should consult Clinton Heylin, No One Else Could Play That Tune (Route 2018). I leave out “Up to Me” and “Call Letter Blues,” focusing only on the album that Dylan gave us.


“Tangled Up in Blue”

The first take of the song (I use “take” to indicate any attempt, corresponding to the track numbers of each of the discs), with Tony Brown on bass, came at the end of the first day (Disc 3.1). Dylan made it right through the song and after four more takes (3.5, 3.11, 5.1, 5.2), the song is where he wanted it, 5.3. For this song the lyrics changed very little between 3.1 and 6.3, but what changes do occur show Dylan working to get it right, even after it is hard-wired:

3.1                                             5.3
he was lyin’ in bed (RN)        he was layin’ in bed
this can’t be the end (RN)     this ain’t the end
and offered it to me               and handed it to me (also RN)
pourin’ out of every page     pourin’ off of every page (RN)

The first person verses 1–3 of the BotT version (“I was layin;” etc.) are consistently in the third person on all takes of MBMT (“he was lyin’”, “their folks”, “their lives”, “as far as they could”, “he was alone”, etc.). The complexity of the song’s pronouns twice causes Dylan to stop as he gets the gender wrong. On 6.2 he gives us “…bankbook wasn’t big enough / And she wa…,” just stopping where he should have sung “And he was standing…” At 5.2 he begins the second verse “He was married” stops playing, and in frustration says “Oh, she was married.” But generally the song was where he wanted it, including the completely different first nine lines of the penultimate verse, with no sign of Montague Street or revolution in the air: “He was always in a hurry … And when it all came crashing down.” All but one version give “He thought they were successful, she thought they were blessed” (RN “He thinks … she thinks”), only version 5.3 giving an interesting variant, presumably just a slip of the tongue, “She thought they were successful, he thought they were blessed.”


“Simple Twist of Fate”

The lyrics of this song went through some small but meaningful changes, with five takes on the first day, two solo (1.5, 1.6) and three with the band (2.1, 2.2, 2.3) then two on the last, Dylan with bass (5.4, 5.5), the second of these becoming the final BotT version. This was the first song accompanied by the band, and the difficulties show when in 2.2 Dylan stops in the middle of the second verse, noting “the drummer seems to … the drums are, uh, one second behind.” Uniquely, on this version he had also sung the second line “a little mixed up, I remember well”, though the previous solo versions have the clearly superior “a little confused.” In RN we find “mixed up” with superscript “shy.”

Across the two days Dylan wrestles with some key lines, eventually getting it right. For verse 3 RN had “the light bust through the beat-up shade” (with subscript “cut-up”), then repeats the verse, writing “bust through the torn-up shade.” But on the first solo take he sang “beat through a busted shade” (1.5), then “came through a beat-up shade” (1.6), before getting back to the sonorous “bust through a beat-up shade” (2.1ff). That sounds better, and as Dylan has said “you want your song to sound good” (Nobel Lecture). More than sound is involved in another set of revisions as the song’s male subject “hunts her down by the waterfront dock,” the morning after. In RN the incomplete fifth verse ends with things as they should and would eventually be, giving the woman agency: “Maybe she’ll pick him out again,” though the following “How long must he wait” is not yet there. In 5.4 and 5.5 Dylan gets there, though in the preceding versions on September 16 he wanders: “maybe she’ll spot him” (1.5) “maybe he’ll pick her out” (1.6, 2.1) “maybe he’ll spot her” (2.3). A final detail adds to the perfection of this song. In all but the final version guitar and harmonica riffs come between the second and third and the fourth and fifth stanzas, but by the final version Dylan has a final riff at the end of the song, and now for the first time in the very middle of the song, following the third verse in which she is leaving the strange hotel, and before the fourth in which he wakes to find her gone.


“You’re a Big Girl Now”

On September 19, in the final attempts to get the song (6.1), Dylan stops after the fourth line: “Na,” he says, “I can’t get into it. I think we must have had it on the other one.” “Want to do it?” he asks Tony Brown, and they start, this time only getting through the first two words (”Our conversation”), at which point he notes “it calls for a small transfiguration,” interestingly uttering the word that he will use 38 years later in 2012 in a Rolling Stone interview in which he talks about his own “transfiguration” in connection with his interaction with literary figures, going back to classical antiquity, Aristotle, Julius Caesar, Dante, Shakespeare (see Thomas, Why Bob Dylan Matters 119–27). What he meant by “transfiguration” in 1974 we will never know, but he launches back into a third attempt, this time getting through the first line of the second verse, “Bird on the horizon, sittin’ on a fence.” At this point he concludes “No we ain’t gonna do it better. I can just keep hearing that organ.” This presumably refers to the two takes with which he opened the session on September 17 (3.2 and 3.3, the latter of which, test pressing for BotT, was released on Biograph in 1985). In the event, the earlier versions were not deemed satisfactory. For BotT he made minor changes to the lyrics, mostly in the last verse: “can be extreme” becomes metrically superior in “is known to be extreme,” and “What’s the sense of changing horses in midstream?” is an improvement on “But it ain’t like changing …” Dylan may have been unhappy with the order of the verses. In none of the complete takes (1.3, 1.4, 3.2, 3.3) is the order as it would come to be on BotT. In three of these, verse 4 precedes verse 3, and in the other verse 4 precedes verse 2.


“Idiot Wind”

The song that would undergo the most extensive changes between September and December of 1974 was relatively stable across the seven takes in A&R Studios, the last (5.10), with organ overdubs, released on The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1–3. On the first take (2.7) “Heading down the backroads going south” in verse 2, is found nowhere else, and is just a slip, corrected in subsequent takes to “Going down…headin’ south.” RN already has the ultimate “Blowing down.” “Still can even breath” in verses 2 and 5 (2.7, 2.8) are already corrected to “still know how to breathe” (also RN) by the end of the first day. In the first take the priest “waltzed around on a tilted floor” (as in RN 1) the earliest take that gets that far into the song (2.8), but by the next take he “sat stone-faced while the building burned,” while in RN 2 he “waltzed around while the building burned.” Only the first version, and RN 1, have in the first verse “just don’t know how to act” for “just can’t remember,” though RN 1 has an erasure of “know” with superscript “remember.” In the next line both have the much less effective line “Their minds are filled with bad ideas/ideals, images and recorded fact”, with “big” ideas and “distorted” facts soon taking their rightful place and painting a more complex picture of his adversaries. Understandably, this challenging song has some false starts. In the first take (2.7) Dylan sings, in verse 3 the lyric of verse 1, “every time you move your mouth” (which, unlike the correct “teeth”, is not going to rhyme with “breathe’ two lines later, so after singing the next line “you’re an idiot, babe” he simply stops. On the fourth try (2.10) the song only makes it through “Someone’s got it in for me,” Dylan interjecting “No, let’s try it again, let’s run that back,” which he then successfully does. When he returns to the song on September 19, he restarts (5.8) in the middle of the first verse (“OK, one more time), then makes it through the first line of the third verse (“Woah. Let’s start again. Wipe that off”) before producing the version of the song that many consider its finest instantiation.


“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”

Another difficult song, with nine consecutive attempts on the first day (2.12–2.20) and with the initial take stopping after the first verse, as Dylan has problems with the band: “What’s the matter? We’re getting out of time.” After a false start (2.13), on the next try he gets halfway through the third verse, humming after stopping following “…if you don’t know.” Ironically the next line would have been “Can’t remember what I was thinking of.” On another version (2.18) he stops after adding syllables to the lyric and losing rhythm “And it always has hit me from below.” On another (2.17) he sings the fourth line of the fourth verse (“But there’s no way I can compare”) instead of that of the second (“This time round it’s more correct”), expressing his annoyance, several takes in: “No! Let’s try it again. Roll that tape back.” Fortunately, that doesn’t happen in spite of the response “OK, hang on” and the sound of a tape rolling back. After the first version that makes it all the way through (2.15) Dylan says “Let’s do it again,” perhaps because he transposed the two bridges, “You’re gonna make me wonder what I’m doing …” preceding “Flowers on the hillside bloomin’ crazy,” perhaps because of another inversion leading to a slight lapse in the lyric: “Relationships have all been bad / Situations have ended sad.” At 2.19 in the second verse he begins singing the fourth verse “All the way I” and stops with a disgusted “no!” “Chirping crickets talking back in rhyme” in earlier takes finally gets to the right place (“Crickets talking back and forth in rhyme”) in 2.20. As much as with any song what comes across with this continuous run is the determination of Dylan to get it right. That happens when he returns to the song the next day, the second of two versions (4.2) going onto BotT.


“Meet Me in the Morning”

RN does not include this relatively simple song, sung only once in performance, on September 19, 2007, the 33rd anniversary to the day after he sang it last, on September 19, 1974 (5.13). The changes across the five versions are all very slight, for the most part consisting of alternation of “Well you know,” “Honey you know,” and similar line beginnings. The first take, 2.5, was chosen for BotT, with the fourth verse, here audible, edited out, though printed in Bob Dylan, The Lyrics 1961–2012:

The birds are flyin’ low babe, honey I feel so exposed
Well, the birds are flyin’ low babe, honey I feel so exposed
Well now, I ain’t got no matches
And the station doors are closed

On 5.13 he begins halfway through the first verse, his voice cracks on “snow begins”, and he stops. At this point there is an exchange between Dylan and Mick Jagger about who can play slide. Following some discordant notes from Dylan, Jagger agrees with Dylan’s “not me.”


“Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”

A true marvel of the sessions, Dylan sang the song twice (1.10, 1.11) on September 16, the first day. The two versions are the same—preferring, with RN, Jim’s “I know I’ve seen that face somewhere” (BotT will prefer “before”)—up to the middle of verse six when 1.10 stops after Dylan gets the start of third line wrong, “But then the houselight did dim ..” and utters a pained “uh!” before going back to the beginning and doing all 16 verses, the ninth verse, “Rosemary started drinkin’ hard…”, coming before the eighth “The hanging judge came in unnoticed …” The omission of 1.11’s twelfth verse, “Lily’s arms were locked around…”, with words that make the Jack less enigmatic by giving us a glimpse into his head (“he felt she was sincere”, “He felt jealousy and fear”), will be the only substantive change in lyrics in the Minnesota remake.


“If You See Her, say Hello”

The uncertainties of the song that will go through radical and utter changes in performance are already apparent in RN, which is incomplete and heavily edits the third stanza (“If you’re making love to her…”). That verse of course will disappear altogether in performance and in the second (2004) and third (2016) official Bob Dylan Lyrics versions—bobdylan.com has the verse in its BotT manifestation (“If you get close to her…). But in A&R Studios Dylan seemed decisive about the entirety of the song, as he started out the first session with a pair of haunting solo versions (1.1, 1.2). He only needed one more take, with bass (4.13), to get it where he wanted, and only one change occurs between 1.1 and 1.2, the dropping of “both” (also absent from RN) in “I hear her name both here and there” thus allowing a lengthening and emphasis on “name.” So, the song that would go through wild changes, here comes across with all the sadness at the core of how it all came down so hard, tougher than what we heard in January 1975, but essentially beautiful.


“Shelter from the Storm”

The song got where it needed to get in four takes on September 17. The first (3.9, the version in the film Jerry Maguire) is the odd one out of these, and Dylan seems to have done some revisions before doing versions of “Buckets of Rain” an “Tangled Up in Blue,” then returning to “Shelter from the Storm” with three magnificent takes (3.13, 3.14, 3.15) getting to the master that would be released on BotT. In verse 3 “no risk involved” (3.9, 13, 14) reached its metrical ideal “little risk involved” (only in 3.15), and in the same verse 3.9 was not quite there: “Nothing up to that point had even been resolved” (for the much improved “Everything … been left unresolved” in the three later takes). In verse 6 “uneventful morn” (3.9) changed to “non-eventful morn” (later “long-forgotten”), and in that same first take verse 6 (“Now there’s a wall between us …”) comes after verse 8 (“I’ve heard newborn babies wailin’), while the sixth spot is taken up with a verse that rightly disappeared in subsequent takes:

Now the bonds are broken but they can be retied
For one more journey to the woods, the holes where spirits hide
It’s a never-ending battle for a peace that’s always torn
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”

The newborn babies of verse 8 are at first “cryin’” (3.9, 3.13) but end with exquisite initial-syllable rhyming “babies wailin’” in 3.15.


“Buckets of Rain”

Then there is the final song of Blood on the Tracks, like “Meet Me in the Morning” only performed once, in this case as the opener at The Fox Theater in Detroit on November 18, 1990. Seen as providing the album with a somewhat upbeat closing, it shows the most revision across the sessions of September 17 and 18, and of all the songs seemed most under construction during those days. This is borne out by the only evidence of the song in RN, a detached fragment embedded in the midst of rough drafts of “Idiot Wind”:

Little red monkey, little red bike
I ain’t no monkey but I know what I like
Excuse me baby while I vomit out my load
Your making me crazy, your putting on the road

The content of the throwaway lines 3 and 4 suggest that the song was barely begun, and the first take, on September 17 (3.10) along with subsequent attempts, confirms this suspicion. In the first two attempts (3.10. 3.12), there is no sign of the final verse that will close the song, and the album, with a note of resignation (“Life is sad / Life is a bust …”). Instead, 3.12 looks as if he meant to close the song with repetition of the opening verse (“Buckets of rain /Buckets of tears…”), such ring composition being a venerable form of Dylan’s art, as of folk songs and protestant hymns (“Girl from the North Country,” “Arthur McBride,” “Summer Days”).

I suspect he found repetition on verse 1 a little too upbeat of a closer (“I got all the love, honey baby / You can stand”), so on the night of September 17 or morning of the 18th, added the final verse with its more tentative ending as it would stand on the multiple takes of that next day:

Life is sad
Life is a bust
All ya can do is do what you must
You do what you must do and ya do it well,
I’ll do it for you, honey baby
Can’t you tell?

Perfect, though perfection was reached only in the last take, perhaps because he was still writing. Successive versions of line 3 and 4 suggest not so much that Dylan was stumbling over the words, but rather that the words were still coming together: 4.3 “You must do what you do and do it well”; 4.4 “You must do what you do and you do it well”; 4.6 “Oh you do what you do …” stops and exclaims “Ow!”; 4.9 “All you can do is you must do it well”; finally 4.12 “You do what you must do and you do it well”; 4.20 “and do it well.”

The material of verses 3 and 4 had also taken time to get to the final version, in a process that reveals the sensitivity and taste of the songwriter. At first verse 3 had “I like your lips / Like the way you move your hips / I like the way you love me strong and slow,” a progression that may have seemed too sexually graphic. So “fingertips” would replaces “lips,” “lips” replace “hips,” and the third line (“I like … slow”) moved to the fourth verse, where it followed the more playful “I ain’t no monkey but I know what I like.” On one try (4.11) Dylan slipped “I like your smile / And I like your hips / I like the way you move your lips.” He stops, then says “Yeah, this is hard making records like this. You’ve got to keep three or four things going at the same time—just like life.”

And so to conclude, this may not be the greatest song on the album, but it is one that perhaps reveals most about his songwriting in the studio across the days and nights of the sessions.


Dating RN

When did Bob Dylan write the songs in the red notebook? It has been called the “fair copy” It is fairer by far than the orange and blue notebooks in the Tulsa Archive (Box 99, Folder 05 and 06 respectively), though much is still far from fair. From the evidence I have set out RN is exclusively neither prior nor subsequent to those days in September, and I would guess he had it with him at the time. But that remains a guess.


Editors’ Note

For the Articles section of future issues of DR, the Editors invite submissions of full-length critical articles (not to exceed 7000 words) on any aspect of Dylan’s oeuvre from, for example, music and performance to painting and sculpture. All submissions, with the occasional exception of invited authors, will undergo a standard peer-review process.

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