CRP's Blog

‹ Back To All Posts
October 22, 2018

The Blonde on Blonde Fab Five


The Blonde on Blonde Fab Five

By Daryl Sanders, author of That Thin, Wild Mercury Sound: Dylan, Nashville, and the Making of Blonde on Blonde

When Chicago Review Press asked if I would a contribute a piece to the CRP blog about my five favorite tracks from the 1966 Bob Dylan album Blonde on Blonde, the making of which is the subject of my new book, I accepted without fully considering how difficult it would be to limit the piece to only five songs.

I settled on the first four pretty quickly, but there was a lot of competition for the fifth and final spot right up to the deadline. So here they are, my personal fab five from Dylan’s magnum opus, rock’s first double album:

“Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”

Before I began the deep dive into Blonde on Blonde that resulted in my book, the song I most associated with the album was “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” I discovered the song in high school and initially, it was the surreal cast of characters in the lyrics that pulled me into the song: the ragman drawing circles, Shakespeare in the alley, the grandpa who built a fire and shot it full of holes, the senator handing out tickets to his son’s wedding, the preacher with twenty pounds of headlines stapled to his chest, the rainman offering Texas medicine and railroad gin, Ruthie in her honky-tonk lagoon, and the neon madmen falling so perfectly. Despite the unusual and colorful cast, the song’s lyrics actually built on a traditional blues theme of longing for another place, often home. The final verse concludes with some of my favorite Dylan lines: “An’ I sit here so patiently / Waiting to find out what price / You have to pay to get out of / Going through all these things twice.” Years later as I began to consider the album more analytically, I realized that musically the song is one of the best examples of “that thin, that wild mercury sound” Dylan was pursuing. The interplay between organist Al Kooper and guitarist Joe South is stellar.

“Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”

“Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” is another song from the album that grabbed my attention early on. As I detail in my book, both musically and lyrically the song borrows heavily from Lightnin’ Hopkins’s “Automobile Blues,” an acceptable practice in the blues and folks world. Musically, the recording is a hard-swinging 12-bar Chicago blues featuring three future guitar legends: Robbie Robertson, Wayne Moss, and Joe South. Robertson takes the spotlight with some biting lead guitar and South flashes some soulful trills while Moss helps anchor the groove with some serious boogie riffing. Session leader Charlie McCoy was so impressed with Robertson’s playing that at the end of the one take it took to record the song, he quipped, “Robbie, the whole world’ll marry you on that one.” While musically “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” mines familiar territory, lyrically the song breaks new ground, hilariously satirizing the world of high fashion, the first rock song to do so. The lyrics are thought to have been inspired by original It girl, model/actress Edie Sedgwick, who was known to wear leopard-skin apparel.

“Visions of Johanna”

“Visions of Johanna” may be third on this list, but it’s the best song on the album, and one of the best songs ever. On it, Dylan showed he wasn’t abandoning balladry for rock and roll; he was just adding rock backing and in the process, elevating the rock ballad as as art form. It’s hard to imagine “Stairway to Heaven” without “Visions of Johanna.” Lyrically, the song is written from the perspective of a man caught between his current lover, Louise, and a long-lost love, Johanna. It was inspired by the Beat poets, but also by the poetry of T. S. Eliot, and contains some of his most profound lines, such as “We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it,” “Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial,” and “While my conscience explodes.” Dylan had attempted the song in New York with members of the Hawks (later the Band) and drummer Bobby Gregg but could never find the right groove. He found it Nashville, coincidentally (or not) on Valentine’s Day, 1966.

“Absolutely Sweet Marie”

“Absolutely Sweet Marie” represents one of the greatest moments in Dylan’s pursuit of the particular sound he heard in his head, that thin, wild mercury sound. Dylan’s sound was powered by a particularly potent blend of guitar, organ, and harmonica, a magical mixture in abundance on this song. More than any other track on the album, “Absolutely Sweet Marie” takes the listener on an exhilarating ride driven by Kenneth Buttrey’s dazzling drumming. Organist Al Kooper provided the song’s melodic hook, and the five guitarists—that’s right, five—built a wall of sound against which Dylan blew some truly inspired harmonica. Lyrically, the song is about unrequited sexual longing and includes two of the album’s recurring themes: gates and waiting. The song contains what may be Dylan’s most quoted line, “to live outside the law you must be honest.”

“Obviously Five Believers”

Originally called “Black Dog Blues,” “Obviously Five Believers’ is the hardest-rocking song on the album, just edging out “Absolutely Sweet Marie.” This is another song on which Dylan is mining the blues, in this instance borrowing heavily from Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Good Morning, School Girl.” Guitarist Robbie Robertson flashed his considerable blues chops, reminding everyone why he was invited to come down from New York and join the party for the second week of sessions in Nashville. Nashville harmonica ace Charlie McCoy finally got a turn in the spotlight on the song’s recurring melodic riff, which was something more in his wheelhouse than Dylan’s.

Honorable mentions: “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” “Fourth Time Around,” “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine),” “Pledging My Time.”

Daryl Sanders is a music journalist based in Nashville and is one of the foremost authorities on the city’s extensive rock and soul history. Sanders has been the editor of a number of magazines covering “the other side of Music City” dating back to the late ’70s, including Hank, the Metro, and Bone. He has also written for Performance, the Tennessean, Nashville Scene, City Paper (Nashville), the East Nashvillian, and the Nashville Musician. While his focus has been on music coming out of Nashville, in a career spanning nearly four decades Sanders also has interviewed many legendary rock, soul, and jazz artists not associated with the city, including Frank Zappa, Tom Petty, Joan Baez, Billy Gibbons, Robert Palmer, J. J. Cale, Al Kooper, the Neville Brothers, Betty Carter, Gary Burton, John Handy, Ian Astbury, and Cassandra Wilson.

That Thin, Wild Mercury Sound is available now!

[Buy the book]       [Request a review copy]


No Comments

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply