There is a tonne of drama surrounding Bob Dylan’s 15th studio album, Blood on the Tracks. The album, hailed as one of the greatest of all time, released on January 20, 1975, has been seen as a sonic exploration of Dylan’s crumbling marriage — in fact the singer-songwriter’s son, Jakob, has been quoted as saying the album is “his parents talking.” This is also the album, which post recording in New York in September 1974, saw Dylan abruptly returning home to Minneapolis to record again in December 1974. The final output had five songs with the New York recording and the remaining five with the Minneapolis recording, including the iconic ‘Tangled up in Blue’.
As the sleeves had already been done, the six Minnesota musicians who contributed to the album, Peter Ostroushko (mandolin), Bill Berg (drums), Billy Peterson (bass), Chris Weber and Kevin Odegard (guitar), and Gregg Inhofer (keyboards), were not in the credits. The musicians had to wait till 2018 and the release of More Blood, More Tracks, a compilation album of Blood on the Tracks to be credited for their work.
Paul Metsa and Rick Shefchik shine a light on this bubbling cauldron of an extraordinary album, a collapsing marriage, an artiste finding his voice again, a return home, and top-secret recording sessions, with Blood in the Tracks: The Minnesota Musicians behind Dylan’s Masterpiece.
In 2001, musician and songwriter, Metsa produced a 60th birthday tribute to Bob Dylan at First Avenue in Minneapolis, where incidentally, Prince recorded Purple Rain. “I called Kevin (Odegard), to see about the possibility of reuniting the Minnesota musicians who played on Blood on the Tracks,” says the musician and songwriter over a video call from Minneapolis. “We got everybody except Bill Berg.”
Metsa had a couple of hours of taping with the Minnesota musicians for a television show he was doing. “I had over 200 pages of transcribed interviews. A literary agent suggested I get a co-writer, I got hold of Rick and he can tell the rest of the story.”
“I was minding my business in Phoenix, Arizona, in the winter of 2021 when I got a call from Paul,” says Shefchik over a video call from his home office in Stillwater, Minnesota. “We have known each other over the years and actually even played a song together. Paul said he was looking for a co-author for a Dylan project.”
Having read Odegard’s book, A Simple Twist of Fate, which Shefchik, a journalist and author, felt was an accurate, in-depth description of the Minneapolis sessions, he chose to find out more about the musicians. “Paul and I decided there would be new material if we could flesh out who these guys were, what kind of lives they had led and what happened to them afterwards.”
Metsa’s transcripts, provided a solid start to the research process, says Shefchik. “The only way I know how to do a project like this, is to go to first-person sources. Unfortunately, two of the musicians, Weber and Ostroushko, died probably less than a month before we started working on this. The transcripts helped as we had their observations and memories of those sessions.”
Odegard, Metsa said, helped in preparing the ground for him and Shefchik to reach out to the musicians. Metsa who moved to Minneapolis in 1978, got to know the Minnesota musicians. “I played shows with most of them. One of the main thrusts of our book is the compatibility that Dylan had with these fellow Minnesotan musicians, which he didn’t have with the New York sessions musicians, great as they were.”
The Minnesota bloodlines that run through Blood on the Tracks are important, Shefchik says. “One of the sub themes of the book was that Dylan took an awful lot of criticism from some of his industry friends when he re-recorded the songs in Minneapolis. Some critics and musicians said the Minnesota tracks were not up to snuff because they were done with musicians that nobody outside of the Twin Cities was familiar with.”
Shefchik says the book makes a convincing case for the Minnesotan musicians. “If you contrast the Minneapolis and New York versions of the same songs, you’ll see an extra excitement and energy that elevates the album.”
Stories about Bob
Interviewing Dylan was not considered, Metsa says. “We didn’t think we would need Bob to tell the story. I got to know a lot of the people that Dylan hooked up with when he moved down in ’59. I knew Larry Keegan, who remained friends with Bob over the years. Dylan dedicated Street Legal to him. I’ve actually got quite a bit of the inside scoop on Dylan, but it wasn’t necessarily anything that would relate to what we were writing about in Blood in the Tracks.”
About the eternal fascination for all things Dylan, Metsa says, “He’s a walking dictionary of American, folk, blues and country music. He’s an intriguing character with his different personas over the years when he can go from the wild sound of 1965 and ’66 to being a country crooner on John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline in the late 60s, take seven years off and return with The Band to do his version of gospel music.”
Dylan, Shefchik says, is such a great songwriter that he inspires endless analysis. “People have always tried to get inside his head and understand where the songs are coming from and what they mean. He has always strongly resisted helping anyone figure out who he is and what inspires him.”
The best album
The book, Shefchik says, focuses on one of the most crucial periods of Dylan’s life. “His marriage was falling apart. He had decided that he wanted to return and be a force of popular music again, but he was also admitting that he was having difficulty writing songs the way he used to in the mid ’60s when they seem to drop out of the sky for him.”
Blonde on Blonde is Metsa’s favourite Bob Dylan album. “If I was told I could bring one Bob Dylan record to an island, I’d bring Blonde on Blonde because that’s the record that I came of age listening to and the one that probably influenced me the most. Over the last couple of years as I have dug in to Blood on the Tracks, I would have to wrestle with the Supreme Commander to bring that one along as well (laughs)”.
Bringing it all Back Home is Shefchik’s favourite. “That was the first Bob Dylan album I listened to and it blew my mind. There is certainly a case to be made for Blood on the Tracks being Dylan’s best. In the mid ’60s when he was doing Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde and Bringing it all Back Home, a lot of the songs and allusions were difficult for people to figure out and Dylan wasn’t interested in helping them do so either.”
With Blood on the Tracks, Shefchik says, his meaning is clear. “It was an album that was special to him too because as he said in an interview, at the time he wrote the songs for Blood on the Tracks, he had found a way to consciously do what he used to do unconsciously. I don’t think he’s written a better batch of songs since that album came out or recorded a more accessible album.”
Shefchik, who has written five novels, four of which are thrillers, was responsible for Blood in the Tracks’ pacy structure. “I was familiar with working with multiple characters, shifting the point of view and moving the action forward. It’s a difficult juggling act. Fortunately, there was a through story in the sessions as they took place. Once I was able to define who the musicians were, who were getting called and why, it unfolded like a thriller.”
The main story in Blood in the Tracks is about the recording. Apart from that, one gets a sense of the music scene in the 1970s and the ’80s. “We also wanted to describe the Twin Cities in a slightly broader sense,” says Shefchik. “If you hadn’t lived in Minneapolis, and were reading a book about a session that took place there in 1974, as opposed to New York, Los Angeles or Nashville, you wouldn’t know much about Minneapolis. We felt the book should provide a context about why Minneapolis and what a great musical city it is.”
There has been some talk on a movie supposedly based on Blood on the Tracks. “Nothing happens with Bob Dylan that he doesn’t want to have happen,” Shefchik says.
Blood in the Tracks: The Minnesota Musicians behind Dylan’s Masterpiece; Paul Metsa, Rick Shefchik, University of Minnesota Press, $24.95.
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