Shirley Marlin Noznisky was born in Delaware in 1939. She moved to New York City in 1959, marrying a magazine photographer and changing her name to Sara at his request. The marriage quickly began falling apart as Sara began exploring the Greenwich Village folk scene, eventually meeting Bob Dylan. The two fell in love and were married in 1965.
It’s hard to tell which of Bob Dylan’s early songs were written about Sara. It’s generally agreed upon that “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” (my least favorite track from the otherwise perfect Blonde on Blonde) is about her, while other songs, like “She Belongs to Me” and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” from 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home, could just as easily be about her. However, it’s undeniable that their marriage, which was becoming increasingly strained and unhappy in the mid-1970s, was a reference point for his painful 1975 album Blood on the Tracks, 40 years old as of today.
Blood on the Tracks is as great an example as any of pain’s effect on art. Almost all of Dylan’s ‘60s albums are essential. His early ‘70s stuff less so. Self Portrait is a famous train wreck; New Morning is a pretty great record that it’s hard to be ecstatic about; Planet Waves is a decent effort; but none of those were anything to be excited about. Blood on the Tracks brought back the quality of his early work, musically as well as lyrically, after which he would retreat back into lesser quality work until 1997’s Time Out of Mind.
The album sticks to slow tracks so often that, when it gets a little more upbeat, the songs really stick out. Opening track “Tangled Up in Blue,” very wordy but far from slow, is the one song on the album that has become a classic on its own, ranking #68 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Meanwhile, “Meet Me in the Morning” has a bluesy sound that makes it perhaps too individualistic for consistency, but it’s a nice change of pace.
For the most part, though, Blood on the Tracks sticks to typical Bob Dylan folk songs. In terms of sound, “Simple Twist of Fate,” “Idiot Wind,” and “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” could all be featured on any number of older Dylan records. When you start focusing on the lyrics, though, you begin to notice lyrics like “It was gravity which pulled us down and destiny which broke us apart/You tamed the lion in my cage but it just wasn’t enough to change my heart” and “He woke up, the room was bare/He didn’t see her anywhere/He told himself he didn’t care, pushed the window open wide/Felt an emptiness inside to which he just could not relate/Brought on by a simple twist of fate.”
It’s this theme of heartbreak, not to mention fear, that makes Blood on the Tracks something special, even when it should be infuriating. From its title, you’d guess that “You’re a Big Girl Now” would be as chauvinistic as Cat Stevens’ “Wild World.” But Dylan never pretends like this isn’t coming from a place of pure hurt and anger. When he gets to the final three songs, “If You See Her, Say Hello” (my favorite on the album), “Shelter from the Storm,” and “Buckets of Rain,” he comes out looking a lot better than most people who are going through a breakup, and he reveals himself to truly care about what happens to Sara, even if he’s not around to see it.
Blood on the Tracks has become a classic, acknowledged as one of Dylan’s finest albums and a true standout in his discography. The album is worth the acclaim. There were surely breakup albums before it, but none that influenced the breakup album like this one did. And few of the ones that came after topped it, anyway.