I love Sylvie Simmons' writing.
A functioning music journalist needs to get the job done, but Sylvie does it with such vigor and élan that you can't look away. I know that a lot of the 70s/80s generation rock journos' considered themselves as important as their prey; auteurs (often 'failed' or frustrated musicians it seems) who used their chosen oeuvre as a platform for... themselves. Nowt wrong with that; ambition and confidence/arrogance have been essential armor and ammo for many a fine writer. It's just that Sylvie writes with such admirable restraint about her chosen subject. You know that she's been there, done that; ticked many a box, and yet you also sense that she's holding much back; perhaps to keep her powder dry, perhaps out of modesty or in coy respect to some 'gentleman's agreement'. And yet she applies herself keenly to each piece of writing with such vim that it almost feels as though she's pitching her first curveball. It's that knowing naiveté that is so infectious. Whatever her subject she always leaves a little bit of herself in there, not so much a careless statement of ego, more as a personal endorsement and recognition of the irresistible and undeniable effect that this thing we call 'rock and roll' has upon us. That's her 'style' and perhaps the reason that she's successfully bridged the decades that span the vagaries of our beloved rock of ages.
If it's your Mum and Dad that 'f*ck you up' then it's rock and roll that puts you back together again. And there's Sylvie, to walk us through the wonder of it all.
Here she considers an album that came to be her 'breakup record'.
It's Bob's 'Blood on the Tracks' and her investment is so infectious and honest that it made me rush to put it on again this morning even though I fell asleep to it last night; surely the sign of great writing.
"Sylvie's Bob Dylan party Part 3. Some of you might have seen this already but hey, it's my party and I'll post if I want to. It's something I wrote for a fine publication called Radio Silence, based in the SF Bay Area - the first of three pieces I wrote for a triptych called 'The Best Part of Breaking Up.' The idea was to take three albums I loved that coincided with some heartbreak or other in my life. My first choice was a Dylan album. They were set to appear in a book that Radio Silence published, but the magazine lost its funding and went under. (An aside to any rich tech companies reading this; if you've got any spare money over from all those tax breaks, perhaps you can do a good deed and bring Radio Silence back to life).
Anyway, here it is:
The Best Part Of Breaking Up, Part I © Sylvie Simmons
Blood on the Tracks
Columbia Records, 1975
Of course it was love—me and the boy who gave me the album, I mean. It had just come out, and I was young; I didn’t have money, and he didn’t either. He said he’d won it in a card game. Likely he stole it, and stealing an LP—well, you couldn’t just slip it in your pocket like a compact disc; it was hard work stealing music back then. The kind of thing a guy would do for a girl he loved. So for me, this was a love album. I played it in my room on my portable record player over and over. Eighteen days later, when the boy tore my heart out, I knew it was a breakup album. One of the greatest.
Blood on the Tracks is a masterpiece of torn-up love, the shreds of Dylan’s marriage. The hours I spent with that album in 1975, gouging its life out, rubbing its salt in my wound. The intensity of its emotion, the depth of its pain seemed the very essence of what I thought romantic love was meant to be: theatrical and hyperbolic, a Romeo and Juliet with an alternative ending, odium instead of (the far preferable) death.
So here we are again, almost forty years later. I still have the original LP, but it spits and jumps—half of “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” was rendered unplayable after a bead of burning hash fell on it—so I’m listening on CD. Nothing of it has faded. I could feel tears welling up during “If You See Her, Say Hello.” There’s something about that spare, acoustic melody, its timeless North Country Fair–ness, the words that are all the more effective from being plainspoken, direct, and unfeigned. At least he sounds heartbroken. But pick a track, any track, and he might sound exhilarated.
So many colors in this painting. Where once I only saw darkness and pain, there’s spleen—glorious, gleeful spleen—and liberation where I just saw loneliness. “I haven’t known peace and quiet for so long I can’t remember what it’s like,” Bob sings in the least-heightened (and probably least-quoted) lyrics of “Idiot Wind,” and though they might refer to the horror of being a public figure, or an abandoned husband, they can also turn a harrowing song of love and hate into a “Positively 4th Street” filtered through the clichéd line of a long-suffering spouse. It wasn’t that long before this album that life in Woodstock with his wife, Sara, and the kids and a paintbrush seemed so congenial—listen to “The Man in Me” on New Morning or “You Angel You” on Planet Waves. But their straightforward, unheightened, almost mundane lyrics only lulled us into a false sense of coziness that was shattered by Blood on the Tracks.
Dylan could be as scathing as all fuck about women in his songs (“Like a Rolling Stone” is an instant example), but in his love songs (“Love Minus Zero, No Limit” in 1965; “Beyond the Horizon” in 2006), he elevated them, idealized them, treated them with great courtliness. He and Leonard Cohen had that in common—although Dylan’s chivalry and worship didn’t come with the carnality of Cohen’s. (I do have to say that Leonard’s unmade bed seems a far livelier proposition than Bob’s big brass one.) And if both of them could turn on a woman if she should fall from grace, Cohen would find it hard to beat Dylan’s rapturous contempt and irresistible causticity.
Blood on the Tracks is all mood swings: It’s love, it’s hate, he wants her back, he doesn’t, he respects her for going, he sends his love through a third party, he crawls past her door, pities the next stranger or poor blind bum to whom she hands a dime, and then goes off and writes that rambling, “Rocky Raccoon”−like script to a TV Western, “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.” And all of it feels true. The popular view is that it is true, that this is Bob putting his black and bleeding heart on display for the world to see. His marriage had hit the rocks (this much can be verified), and Blood on the Tracks was the revenge porn video, the divorce-court transcript in which Dylan admits to having faults (“I can change I swear”) though nothing as numerous and vile as his wife’s, apparently (“I bargained for salvation, she gave me a lethal dose” is one of my favorites).
But in reality, the album is so full of false leads and riddles and characters—Jesus on the cross, a rich heiress, a gang of bank robbers, Verlaine and Rimbaud—drifting from first-person to third-person (and both in “Tangled Up in Blue”) that Dylan’s supposed most personal album might really be about anyone, or lots of people, or no one at all. Which come to think of it might be the perfect way to write about disintegration, marital or otherwise.
But I wasn’t a rock writer then; I was a kid, and none of this mattered. No, all of it mattered, and mattered so much that Blood on the Tracks became one of those records which I have, which we all have, in our armory or in our medicine cabinet or under our bed, and go to whenever we need it, whatever we might need it for. And of course it will always be the first album that a man I slept with won for me in a card game. Maybe the only album a man I slept with won in a card game; I’m not saying.
The Best Part Of Breaking Up, Part I © Sylvie Simmons