Subscribe

(Credit: Alamy)

Music

How Bob Dylan based 'Blood on the Tracks' on Anton Chekhov's short stories

It’s common for artists to deny that their work is autobiographical. Sure, Paul McCartney thought ‘Hey Jude’ was about him, but he’s much more reluctant to admit that ‘Yesterday’ might have stemmed from childhood trauma. George Harrison went out of his way to deny Pattie Boyd’s influence over ‘Something’, favouring Ray Charles’s looming influence on the piece, and Carly Simon still refuses to name the cad who inspired ‘You’re So Vain’, decades after it came out. 

This is why it’s not surprising that Bob Dylan is loathed to admit any personal connection he might have to Blood On The Tracks. According to The New Yorker, the songwriter says the writings of Anton Chekhov inspired him. Typically, Dylan wrote off any accusations of autobiography as “fine” by him. 

Bolstered by mystery, Dylan seems content leaving his work open to interpretation, much to the delight of his authors. Certainly makes for more exciting fodder than the usual “he said”, “she said” dribble nominally read in rock bios. 

“It’s amazing to get a peek behind the curtain and see the entity form,” says producer Steve Berkowitz. “[Dylan] didn’t make records, he made music. If the music was right, then he’s done it and moves on. He’s made his art. It’s very different from anyone else.”

Not everyone is convinced by Dylan’s claim, however. His son, Jakob, feels an emotional connection to the record: “When I’m listening to Blood On The Tracks, that’s about my parents,” he said. George Harrison, meanwhile, felt the album held a revealing quality to it: “Every single thing he does represents something that’s him,” he told Melody Maker. “He may write better songs tomorrow, sing high on this album and low on another, go electric or acoustic, go weird or whatever, but the basic thing that causes all this change is an incredible character named Bob Dylan.”

Dylan later singled out ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ as a true story. He can be heard on the towering live Bob Dylan At Budokan album introducing it as, “Here’s a simple love story. Happened to me.”

But let’s entertain his theory: He recognised the pain within the short stories, and likely enjoyed the modernism movement, for their vitality and honesty. Pain seeps into Blood On The Tracks, whether it’s the yearning of ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’ or the finality of ‘You’re A Big Girl Now’ (later covered by The Waterboys), the songs feel like a narrator drifting from one plain into a different, perhaps darker, abyss. 

Whether or not Dylan will ever feel comfortable revealing the true nature of his work is not worth speculating on. Ultimately, it makes no difference: Whether it was events in his home life or actions in his books that spurred him to write a work of great power, restraint and aspiration don’t matter. What matters is whether the work is worth listening to. And Blood On The Tracks is definitely worth listening, re-listening, and re-listening again. 

Let’s take a listen to ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’ for good measure.