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'Blonde on Blonde': An examination of Bob Dylan's innovative 1966 masterwork

Driven by Dylan's singular vision and fueled by The Band's brand of rock and Al Kooper's spirited organ, the singer conjured 14 tracks that would change music forever.

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By Rush Evans

I got my copy of “Blonde on Blonde” signed in 2010. Not by Bob Dylan, but by the album’s producer, Bob Johnston. He wrote all over the previously wordless cover, on both sides of Dylan’s out-of-focus face. Here’s what he said:

“Thru the down the bend he came, and it will never end now, ‘cause he’s been on this roller coaster ever since he left Minn., and he’ll never have to ride twice. To Rush, a Goldmine in himself, Bob Johnston, March 18, 2010.”

Johnston’s observations were as poetic as some of the songs on this innovative album, deemed not only Dylan’s best but anybody’s best by a number of rock critics and fans. It’s No. 9 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Best Albums of All Time list (they put Dylan’s preceding album, Highway 61 Revisited, at No. 4).

A few months after meeting Bob Johnston, I saw Bob Dylan perform, starting his set with “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” following it up a few songs later with “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” These were two of Dylan’s most vivid, inexplicable, and engrossing songs, performed in 2010 with all the fire and fury they had an unbelievable 45 years earlier, when they were recorded for the “Blonde on Blonde” album.

After the show, Bob’s bus cut in line right in front of my car as I was headed out of the venue’s parking lot. A minute later, we were stuck at the same red light, me and the world’s greatest songwriter. I was listening to 24-year-old Dylan live in my car while the real live 69-year-old Dylan was right in front of me, riding that same roller coaster half a century after he got on board.

They’ve called Bob Dylan’s road the Never Ending Tour for a few decades now, with good reason. He doesn’t have to do this, but it’s what he knows, and it’s what he does. It’s hard to imagine this far into his career that this music hasn’t always been here, but it hasn’t. Once upon a time, a kid from Minnesota took the American folk and blues tradition to a new level of sophistication. And just when he’d reached a musical pinnacle, he pulled a fast one on his folk-loving audience, brought out a rock and roll band at Newport and then London, and conquered that musical world with “Like a Rolling Stone,” is still arguably the most effective and impassioned six minutes the genre has ever known.

The album on which it appeared, “Highway 61 Revisited,” changed music as we know it. Forever. But Bob wasn’t done. When he went back in the studio for the followup, he had a handful of complex and ambitious new songs. They were introspective, reflective, mournful, angry, funny, tangled in blues, and sometimes really long. Like a whole-side-of-a-record long. These 14 tracks, fueled by The Band’s brand of rock and Al Kooper’s spirited organ, would need a double album, and it would become “Blonde on Blonde.”

The record opens with the rollicking anthem, “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35,” in which the voice of a generation or three alerts his audience that everybody must get stoned. Was it about drugs or persecution? Who are the rainy day women? Why numbers 12 and 35? Who cares? This is rock and roll; just follow the instructions! Don’t step on my blue suede shoes, rave on, please please me, twist and shout, and, by all means, using whichever definition you choose, get stoned! One way or another, everybody must.

“Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” seemed to be about something specific, but the feeling from the blues-infused groove was universal. Its listeners knew the Memphis blues, no bus ticket to Tennessee required. “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” was pure rock and roll straight from the garage, and it was all about nothing more or less than a leopard-skin pill-box hat. Any questions?

The innocuous-at-first-listen “I Want You” would prove to be one of the most achingly beautiful heartbreak songs ever written, while “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” ran the full length of Side Four as well as the full range of human emotions from a relationship in progress. And then there was “Just Like a Woman.” It was brimming with sarcasm, anger, bitterness, pain, ambivalence, and vulnerability: “Please don’t let on that you knew me when I was hungry and it was your world.”

“Blonde on Blonde” changed music forever, and Bob Dylan is still singing it, still living it, stuck on the never-ending roller coaster with the Memphis blues again. No reason to ride it twice.