Thursday, January 9, 2020

That Thin Wild Mercury Sound by Daryl Sanders Turns Readers into Blonde On Blonde Insiders

This past October I listened to an audio version of Daryl Sanders' That Thin, Wild Mercury Sound. It was great. So much so that I asked for it--and received it--for Christmas. And yes, I am reading it again.

The book is self-described like this:
That Thin, Wild Mercury Sound is the definitive treatment of Bob Dylan’s magnum opus, Blonde on Blonde, not only providing the most extensive account of the sessions that produced the trailblazing album, but also setting the record straight on much of the misinformation that has surrounded the story of how the masterpiece came to be made.

Four things are impressive here. First, how much homework Mr. Sanders has done, tracking down every living person who was in Studio A when this album was produced. Second, how much access Sanders gained to the session tapes so that it's as if the reader were a fly on the wall while these songs were being recorded. Third, how well written the book is so that you can't put it down. And fourth, how badly I wanted to listen to Blonde On Blonde upon finishing the book, which I immediately did.

And that last point is the one I really wanted to make. I own and have read maybe 30 or more Dylan books, but I can't recall ever having a book take me so forcefully back into an album in quite this way before. The descriptions of each session are so vivid, showing how the artist did his magic, how the things he was doing were so totally different from anything that ever preceded it.

I wan't the only one to feel this way. Debbie Mac, one of the reviewers at, made a similar statement: I’m not even that much of a Bob Dylan fan, but, when I finished the book, I immediately downloaded a few Blonde on Blonde songs. Having witnessed their intimate creation, I listened with a new ear.

Not only does Sanders give you a front row seat regarding how the songs were written and produced, but he even does al the legwork to find how the photos that were on and in the album were selected.

I'm sure some of these anecdotes and stories have been floating around, but never so painstakingly verified and assembled. Sanders sifted through all the major and minor Dylan bios and books by or about the various players including Al Kooper, Robbie Robertson and others. In short, this book has both authenticity and authority.

* * * *
My painting of Dylan based on photo
by Jerry Schatzberg that became
the album cover.
The story begins with how Bob Johnston became Dylan's producer, replacing Tom Wilson after a falling out. Dylan was on a quest, and Johnston was just the man to help the young artist open Aladdin's cave, to release the genie, to find the North Star, to achieve the unachievable.

I found it intriguing to see how Dylan and producer Bob Johnston were able to win over--or win the cooperation of--these young Nashville studio musician hotshots, whom I never realized were so young themselves. They proved to be so malleable, enabling Dylan to obtain the sound he was looking for. This is almost as much of the story as the incredible manner in which Dylan himself adjusted lyrics to capture the essence of what he was saying in each song.

It may have been Johnston who won over Dylan. He (Johnston) certainly played a central role in pulling the pieces together. But, as Sanders shows, it's clearly Dylan that was the master magician.

"I know my thing now. I know what it is. It's hard to describe. I don't know what to call it because I've never heard it," Dylan said,  trying to describe his new music.

* * * *
Chapter 12 of the story details how the photos were taken and selected for the cover and inside spread. This, too, was all Dylan. Jerry Schatzberg, who had done the official photo shoot, was projecting the results of the shoot onto a bare wall as Dylan and Robbie Robertson watched. Schatzberg was giving a running commentary on each picture. On the key photo Dylan stopped him and said, "I like that slightly blurry one." Since then, as with nearly everything else Dylan touches, the photo and album cover have become iconic.

* * * *
This past summer I began writing a blog post about Absolutely Sweet Marie, but I never completed it. Now I'm glad I didn't as I feel Sanders has added significant insights that I'd been missing. That post will be sometime soon.

I've also gained a new appreciation for Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, among others in this major triumph.

I have a friend who long ago convinced himself that Dylan always has a few "throw away songs" on most of his albums. I'm not really sure. There are a few songs here on B-O-B that I didn't get into before, which I now have a greater appreciation for. Naturally songs like Visions of Johanna have been universally appraised as masterpieces, but Sanders brings new light to the lyric development on all the rest of these cuts, helping fans gain renewed satisfaction from these songs, so many of them dealing with frustration and thwarted longing.

The book is subtitled Dylan, Nashville and the Making of Blonde On Blonde.
Rating: 5 Stars out of 5.

Related Links
Dylan, Cash & the Nashville Cats
Dylan, Cash and Bootleg #15, Travelin' Thru
From Freeze Out to Visions of Johanna


Anonymous said...

maybe everyone has noticed this except for me. Is B londe O n B londe intended to simultaneously be BOB?

Ed Newman said...

Haha.... I deliberately did that because Sanders explores various ideas surrounding the title of the album, who the blondes were and other ideas, and states that someone (maybe many) caught the acronym BOB in the title. Pretty cool, eh? I do not know how widespread that is, but did intentionally attempt to draw attention to it.

Thanks for the quick observation.

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