Rock albums don’t get any more iconic than Blonde on Blonde. Not only is the 1966 set, which marks its 50th anniversary on May 16, widely hailed as Bob Dylan’s finest achievement, it’s also credited with transforming pop music into epic sonic poetry worthy of critical analysis. And Dylan’s prodigious vision really is staggering. He was in his mid ’20s when he unleashed an entirely new musical language, one that would change the course of modern American culture. From New York’s Chelsea Hotel, where Dylan began composing Blonde on Blonde, to the studios of Nashville where the bulk of these songs came to life, we’ve gathered a smattering of intriguing facts and myths that help lend context to this timeless music.
Rock’s first double album. The ’60s produced a string of iconic doubles, including Electric Ladyland, the ‘White Album’ and Freak Out! Yet it’s Blonde on Blonde that has the distinction of being first.
*Amphetamines fueled Dylan’s composing — or did they? *Rock critics often cite Dylan’s all-night recording sessions as proof of his heavy use on speed in late 1965 and ’66. The man himself has wavered on the subject. In a 1969 interview for *Rolling Stone *he admitted, “I was on the road for almost five years. It wore me down. I was on drugs, a lot of things. A lot of things just to keep going.” However, in 1984 he walked back those words, saying, “I never got hooked on any drug.”
Richard Manuel (of The Band) and Bob Dylan listening to Blonde on Blonde on May 1, 1966.
(PHOTO: Jan Persson/Redferns)
Dylan ditches New York City for Nashville. He isn’t the first rocker to record in the Country Music Capital. Elvis, The Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison all beat him to the punch. Yet he certainly is the first counterculture musician to make use of the city’s outstanding studios, as well as ace session musicians like Charlie McCoy, Joe South and Kenny Buttrey, all of whom appear on the album.
High praise from Dylan himself. The rock legend famously described the record as, “The closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind… that wild mercury sound.”
“Like Bob Dylan impersonating John Lennon impersonating Bob Dylan.” That’s how Princeton University professor Sean Wilentz described album highlight “4th Time Around” in 2010’s Bob Dylan in America. It has been speculated the tune is a playful homage to The Beatles’ similarly sounding “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” which itself was inspired by Dylan.
What’s up with that blurry photograph on the cover? According to photographer Jerry Schatzberg, it certainly wasn’t intentional. “I know all the critics think, ‘They were trying to do a drug shot,’” he said in 2015. “It’s not true. It was February. It was really cold. And to his credit, he chose that photograph.”
Keep an eye on the janitor. Dylan recorded the bulk of the tracks at Music Row’s Columbia Studio B, where the guy mopping the floors and taking out the trash every night was a young songwriter-in-the-making by the name of Kris Kristofferson.
“Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” goes bluegrass. The world has coughed up far too many Dylan covers to keep track. One of the most idiosyncratic has to be Flatt & Scruggs’ rendition of the album’s iconic hippie drug anthem. “Everybody must get stoned!”
*Edie Sedgewick… Dylan’s muse. *Though his exact relationship with the Andy Warhol superstar is shrouded in rumor, it’s widely believed that two of Blonde on Blonde’s greatest cuts, “Just Like a Woman” and “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” are about Sedgewick.
“Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” is rock’s first side-long track. Recorded in a single take shortly before dawn, the 11-plus minute meditation on his then-wife, Sara Dylan, takes up the entirety of side four. 1966 was a pioneering year for rock opuses. In addition to The Stones’ “Goin’ Home” (11:13), there was Love’s “Revelation” (18:57) and the Paul Butterfield Blues band’s “East-West” (13:10).
Elvis Costello is a fan. A legend in his own right, the musician listed Blonde on Blonde in “Costello’s 500,” a list of essential albums that Vanity Fair published in 2000.
Dylan knew he was hitting a once-in-a-lifetime peak. According to Sherill Tippins, author of Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York’s Legendary Chelsea Hotel, the young Dylan sensed he would never again create something as singular as Blonde on Blonde: “He would continue making records, he told a friend after recording ‘Visions of Johanna,’ but ‘they’re not gonna be any better from now on’.”