The NYC history of Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks”

Bob Dylan (second from right) and The Band touring in Chicago, 1974. Photo: Jim Summaria, via Wikimedia Commons
By Jon Friedman

When fans of Bob Dylan — you know, the Nobel Prize winner — think of his relationship to New York City, they remember vividly the game-changing protest songs that he wrote in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s.

But the city also played a key role in the creation of “Blood on the Tracks,” widely regarded as his most personal album and one that ranks high on critics’ “favorite” lists. The album is back in the news these days, marking the release this month of “More Blood, More Tracks,” the 14th offering in Dylan’s generous and revealing “Bootleg” series. This selection highlights the songs that Dylan recorded in 1974 for his landmark album, which came out in January 1975.

Dylan was at one of his periodic crossroads on Sept. 16, 1974 (which happened to be Rosh Hashanah), when he arrived at the A&R Studio at 799 Seventh Avenue to record songs he had written the summer before, on his farm in Minnesota.

Earlier in 1974, he had barnstormed North America with The Band, embarking on his first tour in nearly eight years, an event so momentous that Newsweek put him on the cover. He had just returned to his longtime professional home of New York-based Columbia Records, after releasing two albums on Los Angeles-based Geffen Records. Most noteworthy, he and his wife of nine years, Sara, had separated earlier that year (and would divorce in 1977).

Music critics — mostly short-sighted and stuck in the past — had by then routinely panned Dylan’s records, griping that The Bard no longer wrote and sang with the fire of “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde on Blonde,” his classics from a decade before. Give the man a break!

Clearly, Dylan had a lot on his mind — and on the line — by late 1974. He rose to the occasion and recorded an album’s worth of remarkable new material in four days. The songs of lost love were alternately confessional, angry, defiant, sorrowful and revelatory. Columbia planned to release “Blood” in December, marking Dylan’s third release of the year, no small feat.

The stark sound of Dylan alone on an acoustic guitar, with a quiet bass and an occasional organ sound, would have generated splashy headlines, all by itself. Add to it the powerful songs purportedly about his failing marriage and you had the makings of a special album.

Then Dylan got spooked.

Prodded by his younger brother David Zimmerman, a music producer in their home state of Minnesota, Bob re-recorded five songs from the original “Blood” with a rock and roll sound. Columbia released the album in January 1975, featuring five songs from the New York sessions and five from Minneapolis. The critics raved.

In retrospect, over the years, lots of Dylan fans were left feeling unsatisfied by the popular “Blood.” Sure, “Idiot Wind,” in particular, had a sprightly, pulsating beat (didn’t that driving organ remind you a bit of “Like a Rolling Stone”?) and the brutally honest lyrics came through, even after he re-recorded some key songs in Minneapolis.

But something valuable was lost in the process. Dylan sacrificed unflinching, raw emotion — as gritty as the place on West 52nd Street where he recorded those songs — in favor of a rocking sound. Did Dylan pull his punches? Did he exchange record sales for authenticity?

For decades, fans have hoped to hear those original recordings. As usual, Dylan’s team has worked hard to produce something unique and worthwhile. Team Dylan puts a lot of work into these “Bootleg” packages. His management believes in putting out a new piece of product every year, a wise strategy to keep relevant a 77-year-old icon who tours all the time but writes precious few new songs.

Now, Dylan lovers can hear the way the songs sounded at their birth in New York.

At last.