Bob Dylan's Vivid, Warm & Biting 'Blonde on Blonde' Turns 50

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Bob Dylan photographed in 1966.

Is there a more liberating album than Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde?

By melding down-home blues with Beat poetry and Shakespearean lyricism, Robert Zimmerman reached the zenith of his musical genius with this 1966 masterpiece, released 50 years ago today (May 16, 1966). The vivid imagery, organic instrumental warmth, and paeans of love and heartbreak are spellbinding. It's Dylan's ultimate sell: Blonde on Blonde is as confident and divinely artistic as he wanted us to believe he always was. He said that it came closest to recreating the "thin, wild mercury sound" in his head. In other words, it's Dylan at his most Dylan.

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As the first double LP in rock music, Blonde on Blonde is the finale for his trilogy of albums released over 15 months in '65 and '66, beginning with Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. Dylan was settling into his new identity as a bonafide rock star. The young man who was the musical entertainment at Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech three years earlier buried his folk singer beginnings with his electric debut at Newport Folk Fest, and he was amid a frenzied run of plugged-in breakthroughs.

But Blonde on Blonde started in New York City with a thud. After five recording sessions -- almost the entire time it took to record Highway 61 Revisited, and two days more than it took to record all of Bringing It All Back Home -- Dylan had finished just one song. The sessions with his backing group, The Hawks -- later to be known as The Band -- were missing something. That something was in Music City.

At producer Bob Johnston's suggestion -- and despite protests from Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman -- Dylan and two members of the Hawks (organist Al Kooper and guitarist Robbie Robertson) flew to Nashville for sessions in February and March of '66. The rest of the LP's songs were recorded in just seven days total.

At Columbia's A Studio on Nashville's Music Row, Dylan, Kooper, and Robertson were joined by top session musicians, including harmonica player, bassist, and guitarist Charlie McCoy, drummer Kenny Buttrey, and pianist Hargus "Pig" Robbins. Johnston removed the studio partitions, positioning the new group tightly together for maximum groove. The result was a familiar-sounding country-blues band providing the canvas for an artist at his peak to paint emotive, impressionistic images in his own poetic style.

Blonde on Blonde opens with a statement, "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," initially dubbed a "drug song" due to its "Everybody must get stoned" chorus and wild, unhinged brass section. But there's deeper meaning -- Dylan later claimed the chorus was a metaphor for being stoned to death for his sins, perhaps by angry fans for his abandonment of folk music.

From there, though, Blonde on Blonde gets straight to the point: Women. Its songs cover all shades of love, heartbreak, resentment, and discovery. In the searing Chicago blues of "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat," Dylan uses high (pill-box hats) and low fashion (leopard skin designs) to cheekily diss a lady thought to be his former lover and Andy Warhol muse Edie Sedgwick: "I see you got a new boyfriend / You know, I never seen him before / Well, I saw him makin' love to you / You forgot to close the garage door." Ouch.

He vents his broken heart on the blasting brass kiss-off "Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)": "Time will tell just who fell / And who's been left behind / When you go your way and I go mine." Then there's the scornful "Just Like a Woman," including semi-veiled references of Sedgwick's pearls and amphetamine, and "One of Us Must Go (Sooner or Later)," the only album track salvaged from the NYC sessions, which finds Dylan telling the story of a doomed relationship: "I really did try to get close to you," he sings.

On "Visions of Johanna," one of his career masterstrokes, the troubadour compares two women and seeks an idealistic -- and perhaps unattainable -- true love. He tells his story in colorful detail: "Lights flicker from the opposite loft / In this room the heat pipes just cough / The country music station plays soft." It's vivid and personal, yet listeners the globe across can place themselves right there in that apartment.

On "I Want You," Dylan pairs a tightly-wound pop guitar lick with a repeated chorus of "I want you, I want you so bad." Yet the song crams over 20 characters into three minutes, including a guilty undertaker, a lonesome organ grinder, a drunken politician, a chambermaid, the Queen of Spades, and a dancing child in a Chinese suit. It's the album's poppiest and most surrealistic track.

Then there's the sidelong 11-minute closer "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," recorded in just one take at 4 a.m. Dylan had spent the previous eight hours writing the tune, while the band played cards in the studio. Finally, he called the group together, counted off, and had them follow his lead, driving each chorus higher and higher. Dylan kept the very first take for the album. This is Dylan at his most romantic -- it's a wedding song for his new bride, Sara Lownds: "With your silhouette when the sunlight dims / Into your eyes where the moonlight swims," he sings. Swoon.

Blonde on Blonde peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard 200 chart and produced two Top 20 hits, "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" and "I Want You." But its influence outsizes its commercial performance. "There is not a bigger giant in the history of American music," President Obama said when presenting the Medal of Freedom to Dylan in 2012. Dylan, the President said, redefined "not just what music sounded like, but the message it carried and how it made people feel."

Blonde on Blonde is the sound of Bob Dylan's America. The land of Woody Guthrie, Chuck Berry, Mark Twain, Coca-Cola, Walt Whitman, Levi's, barroom poker games, Cavalry General George Custer, Jack Kerouac, and other characters from bygone eras.

In our hyper-connected, info-gobbling digital age, cornerstone artists like Dylan and works like Blonde on Blonde are ever more rare. If there was a National Gallery of Art for music displaying the country's priceless works of sound, Dylan's Blonde on Blonde would be one of the stars (Disliking Blonde on Blonde is essentially an act of treason). It is, arguably, Dylan's best work. And in the story of America, Dylan is one of our greatest characters and authors.