Bob Dylan: Blood On The Tracks
Blood on the Tracks, by Bob Dylan, an artistic and commercial success, but should artists exploit personal tragedies for commercial purposes?
In 1975, folk and rock legend Bob Dylan released a powerful new album entitled Blood on the Tracks, and it became a watershed moment in his career. Indeed, Blood on the Tracks became the album by which all subsequent albums would be compared. Common hype for many of Dylan's 80's and 90's releases all contained the phrase 'his best since Blood on the Tracks'. Filled with bittersweet love songs and angst-ridden confessionals, the album continues to enlighten the new Dylan fans as to what this man endured throughout a bitter divorce from his wife Sara. Listeners cannot help but feel the psychic pain oozing between the lines as the individual tracks address every aspect of a loving relationship gone terribly wrong.
Indeed, one needs only to hear the primal scream of 'Idiot Wind' to understand the enormity of Dylan's sense of loss and betrayal. Some may consider that track to be a catharsis, while others may wonder whether or not such a naked and raw performance needed to be released at all.
Blood on the Tracks is first and foremost a brilliant commercial album, which has received its fair share of critical acclaim and rightfully so. But the success of the album commercially brings up another issue that should be explored. Is it proper for any artist, let alone someone at the level of a Bob Dylan, to use personal tragedy as a selling point for their commercial art?
For Bob Dylan, the tragic events that would ultimately inspire Blood on the Tracks began in the late 1960s, when he had semi-retired to his Woodstock home to spend more time with his wife Sara and their children. His recording label feared losing one of their best-selling artists, but negotiations between Dylan's representatives and the label had broken down completely by the early 70's. In retaliation, Columbia executives released an album consisting of substandard originals and poorly received covers that were collecting dust in the label's vaults. That album, simply entitled Dylan, was a commercial and artistic failure. Determined not to allow this album to be his swan song, Dylan threw himself back into his work full-time. Such a move may have saved his commercial career, but created a palpable tension between he and Sara. Extended road tours and countless hours in the studio compounded the mounting strain between them. When accusations of infidelity surfaced, as they often do in such circles, Sara reached her breaking point and began divorce proceedings against Dylan. As with any such desperate measures, emotions ran painfully high on both sides, but a settlement was eventually reached. What emotional impact this truly had on Bob Dylan may never be fully understood by his fans, but the immediate fallout of this tragedy was the first tentative tracks of a yet unnamed album laid down in a New York studio.
Dylan himself has expressed his own concern about the intensity and subject matter of 'Tracks' on many occasions. He has been quoted as saying that the blisteringly honest 'Idiot Wind' should never had been included, since it obviously was too close to his own feelings. But the decision to leave it on the album was partially Dylan's, so one must wonder what convinced him to leave the confessional track on the album. Without songs like 'Idiot Wind' or 'If you see her, say hello', the album would still succeed as a collection of well-crafted love songs, but would not have had the immediacy of the 'divorce' references. By including songs that pointedly referred to his private life, he may have inadvertently promoted sales of the album at the cost of some personal healing.
By creating such a passionate and intimate album, Dylan may have ushered in an era where recording artists' personal lives may be as much of an interest to their fans as their professional offerings, but this may not have been such a good thing in retrospect. One may take a second look at the tragically short career of Kurt Cobain to understand that some lines must still be drawn between the private lives of musicians and their public images. An artist with the emotional strength of a Bob Dylan may be able to put themselves through a 'Blood on the Tracks' experience, but care should be taken to insure that the audience can still separate the 'pain' expressed in the music from the real pain endured by the artist himself.
Blood on the Tracks is a brilliant album, and Dylan should be quite proud of his artistic triumph. But future generations who hear this album for the first time should understand that this brilliance came at a tremendous personal cost to the artist. Dylan chose to share that pain with his audience, so we must accept the bitter with the sweet when we listen to this powerful and honest album again.