Bob Dylan, particularly in the ’60s, was an artist who appeared in every pocket of progressiveness and every collection of ‘cool’ in New York City. After a series of growing releases, his album, Blonde on Blonde, captured a certain frequency within the wind that was elusively blowing around in the city throughout the decade; a feat that only a masterful wordsmith and melody maker like Dylan could achieve. Bob Dylan is a sponge, especially during the ’60s when he hung around with the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, and other notable artists. During this time, Dylan learned of an artistic technique, called cut-up.
The genius of his 1966 album, Blonde on Blonde, is that it so finely walks that line between the surreal and the poignant. The beautiful chaos of his lyricism is timeless, perhaps there is an actual tangible method behind this. If we are properly tuned in, we may get a sense of what he is talking about at times. The real majesty of his lyricism on this album is the wordplay. The truth is, Dylan cared more about the sounds of the words than their meaning.
In songs such as ‘Visions of Johanna’, or ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Low-Lands’, it is obvious that he cares little about the perceived and intended meaning. There is something more visceral and spontaneous about this collection of songs. They are full of alliteration, allegories, and personifications, that make these tracks seem like they have been more so painted as opposed to written. In footage from 1965, Bob Dylan shows a journalist an example of the mysterious cut-up technique, and how he has used it on songs of his — most likely for his Blonde on Blonde album.
Writer, painter and filmmaker, Brion Gysin, showed the famous American beat author, William Burroughs, the cut-up technique before it was then popularised. In fact, Burroughs implemented the technique for part of his Naked Lunch book. Burroughs best explains why an artist may use this technique: “In fact all street shots from movie or still cameras are by the unpredictable factors of passers by and juxtaposition cut ups.
“And photographers will tell you that often their best shots are accidents . . . writers will tell you the same. The best writing seems to be done almost by accident but writers until the cut up method was made explicit– (all writing is in fact cut ups. I will return to this point)–had no way to produce the accident of spontaneity. You can not will spontaneity. But you can introduce the unpredictable spontaneous factor with a pair of scissors.” The technique was famously adopted by David Bowie who himself created some weird and wonderful lyrical landscapes.
The spontaneous nature of cutting up pieces of paper may explain how some of the songs from Blonde on Blonde, came about. The footage below sees one of those moments take place but also offers a crystalline vision of just how dynamic Dylan was at the time. His interviewers are captivated by him, they see him almost as an extra-terrestrial pop idol, using artistry to befuddle them all.
Watch the footage of Bob Dylan demonstrating the technique: