It's difficult to imagine the momentum with which Bob Dylan's career travelled in the mid 60s.
Gestating, evolving with each passing month, the songwriter's pen seemed to move with a rare velocity. If 'Highway 61 Revisited' marked his first full foray into the rock theatre, then 'Blonde On Blonde' would see Dylan swap his new found electricity for the rather more conservative pastures of Nashville.
What emerged arguably still defines him. One of the first double albums in the history of rock music, 'Blonde On Blonde' ends with the mammoth, ten minute long recording 'Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands'. Still regards as one of the finest tracks in Dylan's canon, the story behind the song is described in Richard Buskin's new book 'Classic Tracks'.
ClashMusic is pleased to unveil an extract from the chapter dealing with 'Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands' – picking up with the failed recording sessions which preceded the move to Nashville.
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“Oh, I was really down,” Dylan told music critic Robert Shelton while touring a couple of months later. “I mean, in ten recording sessions, man, we didn’t get one song… It was the band. But you see, I didn’t know that. I didn’t want to think that.”
14th February 1966 was the date of Dylan’s first session at Columbia’s Studio A on Nashville’s famed Music Row. But this time, in addition to Al Kooper and Robbie Roberston, the line-up featured local luminaries such as guitarists Wayne Moss, Joe South and Jerry Kennedy; drummer Kenny Buttrey; keyboard player Hargus ‘Pig’ Robbins; bassist Henry Strzelecki; and Charlie McCoy on bass, guitar, harmonica and trumpet.
“Those musicians worked in their own way, and they knew what they did and didn’t want to do,” Bob Johnston explained. “However, I told them that if they quit during a take, they could collect their coats on the way out the door. I didn’t want the bass waiting for the guitar to come in before the pianist did his thing – ‘Play [together] all the way through. If you’ve got a band, it’s gonna be good; if you don’t have a band, it’ll sound like shit.’ So, that’s what they did.”
The initial Music Row session was a success, yielding ‘4th Time Around’ and ‘Visions of Johanna’. Then, returning to the studio on 15th February, Dylan asked to be alone and, while his fellow musicians hung out and eventually fell asleep, he spent over six hours working on a new composition. The gestation period was considerably shorter than that hinted at in the line from ‘Sarah’, on his 1976 album Desire, in which he recalled being in New York and “Stayin’ up for days in the Chelsea Hotel, Writin’ ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ for you.” Although poetically romantic, this version of events was almost certainly apocryphal. It was in Nashville that Dylan composed the haunting, image-laden song and ensured it was ready to be recorded. The only ones not prepared for his gentle, rambling, waltz-rhythm number were the musicians who he stirred from their slumbers just before four in the morning on Wednesday the 16th.
Drummer Kenny Buttrey would later tell Dylan biographer Clinton Heylin that he and his colleagues listened as Dylan played them a verse and chorus and said, “We’ll do a verse and a chorus, then I’ll play my harmonica thing. Then we’ll do another verse and chorus and I’ll play some more harmonica, and we’ll see how it goes from there.”
Assuming they’d be making a record that – in line with what country musicians were then accustomed to – would last two to three minutes, the guys were in for a surprise. Forget any notion of building to a climax following the second chorus – the tousled-hair ‘spokesman for a generation’ sang another verse and chorus… and another… and another, until Buttrey and Co. began to wonder what the hell they’d let themselves in for. “After about ten minutes of this thing we’re cracking up at each other, at what we were doing,” Buttrey would recall. “I mean, we peaked five minutes ago. Where do we go from here?”
Bob Johnston watched the scene unfold, although from a different perspective and with less uncertainty. “When we were two minutes into the song, Dylan started to gain momentum and the musicians started to gain momentum,” he said. “However, at the end of the first verse they thought they had cut the three-minute record. But then he started the second verse and they quickly latched on and started in again. This happened on every verse; they kept thinking it was the end of the song. Afterwards he came into the control room and said, ‘Let’s hear it back,’ and that was the cut we used. It was one of the prettiest things I ever heard in my life.
“Nobody ever counted off for Bob Dylan. ‘One-two-three’ – nobody did that. He had a metronome in his head, his foot started going, everyone else latched on and that was it. No matter what he cut, when he cut it, how he cut it or who he cut it with, it was always the same. He was a genius, and I never told him how to sing, when to sing, what to sing or where to sing. And I also never said, ‘I don’t like this,’ or ‘I don’t like that.’ I liked everything he did. I was awed by him and what he could do.”
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