A drear-nighted December may not be the best time to listen to Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. Then again, is there ever really a bad time to listen to Bob Dylan? (Dylan haters to the side; this post’s not for you.)
I first heard the album in its entirety sometime between my sophomore and junior years of college. Sophomore year is when the Indigo Girls’ live album 1200 Curfews came out. I got a copy for my birthday, and we all listened to it incessantly on my hall and argued late into the night about just what Italian poet was being referenced in “Tangled Up in Blue,” which they cover on that album. At some point, it must have dawned on me that I needed to hear the real thing, and so on some trip home to Iowa City, I picked up cassettes (yes, I still bought cassettes in those days — my car then had a tape deck — as, for that matter, does my car now) of Blood on the Tracks as well as Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited.
(It should be noted here for those who are unaware that I was raised almost entirely without popular music. I did not hear the Beatles until I was a teenager. I knew “Blowin’ in the Wind” from singing it at camp, but Dylan was as unfamiliar to me growing up as I suspect Bach’s collected organ works are to most people.)
I don’t believe that my repeated listenings to all three albums that fall actually precipitated my first major depressive episode, although I suppose there are those who would argue that repeated exposure to “Desolation Row” and “Visions of Johanna” and “Like a Rolling Stone,” not to mention “Simple Twist of Fate” and “You’re a Big Girl Now” and “If You See Her, Say Hello,” are not really good for anyone suffering from unrequited love, perceived poverty, and ensuing clinical depression. But so it goes. Along with Elizabeth Wurtzel, I’ve always believed that the sound of Dylan’s “ragged, edgy vocal cords” is actually the sound of redemption.
I also spent a lot of time that fall sitting at a table at Chan’s, a Chinese place a few blocks from campus, eating chicken fried rice (I never ordered anything else) and reading exclusively books not actually assigned for any of my classes. I had gone that fall from seeing the cafeteria as a wondrous place wherein food appeared magically and dishes were swept away on a conveyor belt to seeing it as a place of overcooked pasta, stale cigarette smoke, putrid cooking smells, and social isolation. My best friends were living abroad or off campus or had become biochemistry majors and chained themselves to their desks, and so I mostly ate alone. Doing so at Chan’s, with the neon lights and the rain and the company of some Beatnik tome seemed infinitely preferable to doing so at the cafeteria. I worked more hours at patrol to make up for the expense.
I’ve always credited another Romantic poet — Coleridge — with saving my life that semester, later that December, when I was alone in my dorm room with nothing but some clothes and a handful of books I needed for my last finals (everything else was packed and stored for a month for my impending move off campus). Among those books was an anthology of the Romantic poets, and one night I opened it to “Frost at Midnight,” and somehow it had on me the same effect that the music William Styron describes listening to in Darkness Visible had on him: I decided to live.
But that was just one moment, one little, though crucial time. Dylan was a constant, and if he didn’t make me happy, exactly, he sustained me in some way, much the way those plates of chicken fried rice did. And now, tonight, with the rain coming down outside, that’s what I remember.