Blonde on Blonde is full of that "not around" chill – Dylan mixes up the Texas medicine and the railroad gin for a whole album of high-lonesome late-night dread, blues hallucinations and his bitchiest wit. Still only 24, writing songs and touring the world at a wired lunatic pace that would come crashing to a halt in a couple of months, Dylan was on a historic roll, dropping this double-vinyl epic just 14 months after going electric with Bringing It All Back Home in March 1965 and Highway 61 Revisited in August. He was moving too fast for anyone to keep up, and writing masterpieces faster than he could release them. Yet Blonde on Blonde still feels like it came out of nowhere, with a sound he never attempted again, and neither Dylan nor the rest of the world has ever quite figured out how it happened. As organist Al Kooper put it, "Nobody has ever captured the sound of 3 . better than that album. Nobody, even Sinatra, gets it as good."
If you want to argue that Blonde on Blonde isn't as perfect as Highway 61 Revisited or Bringing It All Back Home , you may have a point. It's a wide-ranging double album with some lightweights on Side Three and one profoundly annoying novelty song – which happens to be the leadoff track and hit single. "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," man – it's like if the Beatles decided to begin Revolver with "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" or "Hello Goodbye." But it's his greatest album anyway, creating a sustained 68-minute spell unlike any other listening experience in rock & roll. Hearing Blonde on Blonde puts you in the position of the night watchman who clicks his flashlight at all the losers and freaks and neon madmen and wonders if it's him or them that's insane. In these songs, it's probably both.
Dylan made Blonde on Blonde during a year of frenzied touring, facing audiences that were still full of outraged folkies who booed his new electric rock & roll flash, like the New York crowd in Forest Hills where hecklers yelled, "Where's Ringo?" That was the ultimate insult for some people back then. (Dylan is coming back to play Forest Hills this summer. Maybe this time Ringo will show up.) "The only thing where it's happening is on radio and records, that's where the people hang out," Dylan said soon after the Forest Hills show. "You gotta listen to the Staple Singers, Smokey and the Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas. That's scary to a lot of people. It's sex that's involved. It's not hidden. It's real."
Around this time, a hostile Australian reporter asked Dylan, "You came for the money, I take it?" He replied, "I take it." That caustic wit runs all through Blonde on Blonde . (His whole Sydney press conference from April 1966 is one of his funniest. Q: "What is your greatest ambition?" Dylan: "To be a meatcutter." Q: "Can you enlarge on that?" Dylan: "Large pieces of meat.") He'd also secretly gotten married to Sara Lownds in November 1965, and the desire to shield his private life brought out his surly paranoid side, especially after she gave birth to their first son in January. Blonde on Blonde has his most brilliantly vicious barbs, from "You just happened to be there, that's all" to "Everybody's gone but you and me, and you know I can't be the last to leave." The man was cutting some large pieces of meat.
The new songs were like nothing he'd ever written – you can hear Motown and especially Smokey Robinson all over the album. If you play Highway 61 and Blonde on Blonde back to back, you can hear how Smokey was the decisive influence in between, with Dylan trying to stretch blues melodies around Smokey versecraft. Highway 61 is a whole album of folk quatrains – two of the songs have choruses (the first two), and one has a bridge ("Ballad of a Thin Man"), but otherwise the album is one four-line stanza after another. Yet on Blonde on Blonde , just a few months later, the song structures are totally different. They have middle eights, choruses, hooks, intricate Smokey-style rhyme clusters that Dylan pushes to the point of parody. "I Want You" and "Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine" are blatant attempts to write his own Smokey songs, building Motown-style percussion hooks into the chorus, and the trick worked perfectly – "I Want You" became a Top 20 hit.
"Just Like a Woman" is an unmistakably Dylanesque ballad, but the prosody is pure Smokey, as in the bridge or the acoustic-guitar fill after the chorus – there's nothing like that on Highway 61 . Dylan clearly heard the Miracles' "The Tracks of My Tears" or "My Girl Has Gone" on the radio and got inspired. (The Smokey Robinson influence has never gone away, of course – check out the 1981 single "Heart of Mine," or the 2009 "I Feel a Change Comin' On.") But for Dylan, the trickier, busier song structures on Blonde on Blonde are just another way to build the mood of a chaotic, image-crowded, word-drunk mind on a rampage.