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Tuesday, August 31, 2004

I picked up "A Simple Twist of Fate" in Northampton-- I had wanted to read it, and it is just the right length for that sort of, "I need something to read tonight, but tomorrow I'll have the Sunday papers," gap that sometimes occurs when traveling. Ashley Kahn has written two excellent books about the making of classic albums: "Kind of Blue" and "A Love Supreme", and among the albums in the rock cannon deserving of this sort of treatment, "Blood on the Tracks" has to rank pretty high. It is an iconic recording, with a great back story: by far Dylan's most confessional work, he recorded two versions: one in New York, with Phil Ramone producing, and then, after deciding he wasn't satisfied with that, a second, with uncredited musicians in Minneapolis. The version that was ultimately released has some of the New York tracks, but is mostly the Minnesota sessions. We have access to some of the alternate, New York tracks (including a version of "Simple Twist of Fate" that I had not known about, on the "Jerry McGuire" soundtrack)-- the lyrics differ slightly, and the sound overall is more introspective and intimate. What would the original have been like?

Regrettably, the book is not up to the standard Kahn has established for others working in this genre. When it focuses on the task at hand-- the making of the album, what went on during the sessions, the response to the record-- it is interesting stuff, albeit a little bit more technical than anyone probably cares about. I suppose the microphones that were used, and the makes of tape decks, and the brand of tape are interesting in a way, but not really so very interesting as to merit inclusion in an already thin book that has been puffed up with stuff about Nixon and Vietnam that reads like it was cribbed from some news magazine's end of year wrap-up. I'm really looking for more stuff like the fact that Mick Jagger was in the booth getting wasted while the steel guitar parts were being overdubbed. Or the thoughts of the musicians as they worked through this material. Or the backgrounds of the Minneapolis guys, who were, it turns out, local jazz musicians. Or the story about taking "Tangled Up in Blue" up a key, to A, forcing Dylan to sing at the outside of his range, and lending the song a haunted quality missing from the earlier take-- or subsequent live versions.

We probably know as much as we ever will about Dylan's personal life from the songs themselves, although some of the gossipy bits are interesting-- I enjoyed the stuff about the Columbia A&R woman he seems to have written "You're Going To Make Me Lonesome When You Go" was written about (so that's where Ashtabula is!). There is enough interesting new information here to make a worthwhile, in depth magazine article. The rest is so plainly filler that is actually annoying. I never fell for "Self Portrait", and I was never fool enough to buy "Dylan"-- the album of "Self Portrait" out-takes, but buying this comes close.

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