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A Conversation with Daryl Sanders, Author of “That Thin, Wild Mercury Sound”

Daryl Sanders, author of new book-length deep dive on Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde writes, “When Bob Dylan arrived at Columbia Records’ Nashville studios on Valentine’s Day in 1966 to continue work on the follow-up to Highway 61 Revisited, he was a man on a mission, a musical mission, searching for a particular sound he could hear in his head, a sound he would describe twelve years later as ‘that thin, that wild mercury sound—metallic and bright gold.’” Sanders’ new book, That Thin Wild Mercury Sound, is a full archeological excavation, in the author’s words, of session details, personal anecdotes, and first-hand interviews put together to help us better understand one of Dylan’s most celebrated and monumental works. The Dylan Institute recently had the opportunity to speak with Sanders about the book, and the crucial role Nashville played in Dylan’s revolutionary process.

 

Dylan Institute: First of all, thank you very much for being willing to talk to us: we’re excited about new research and criticism that can deepen our understanding of the artist’s towering legacy.

Let’s start with the title of your new book, That Thin Wild Mercury Sound: Dylan, Nashville, and the Making of Blonde on Blonde. It derives from a comment Dylan himself made about the album years after its release.  What do you think it means?  And how would you describe that sound he first heard in his head?

Well, of course I can only speculate as to what Dylan meant when he described the sound he heard in his head as “that thin, that wild mercury sound, metallic and bright gold,” but it clearly had something to do with the blend of electric guitar, organ, and harmonica he pursued on Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. But beyond that, I think what he may have been referring to was a sonic quality inherent in the music that first inspired him to pick up an instrument and begin to write songs, music that had a quicksilver quality: weighty, yet slippery. When you think about the recordings of the artists who inspired Dylan — Hank Williams, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, etc., their recordings had a quality one might describe as metallic and bright gold. I think Dylan wanted his music to have that same quality, a quality that excited and inspired the listener.

DI: There is a growing body of biographical work on Bob Dylan, much of which is referenced here in your book. What gaps does your book fill?  And what are the advantages, do you think, of focusing so intently on a single album or set of recording sessions?  

It was not my goal to join the ranks of Dylan’s biographers, for whom I have the utmost respect. Instead my motivation for writing the book was to tell an important story that had never been fully told, a story about what is arguably Dylan’s greatest album, an album that transformed popular music and the city of Nashville, as well. It is surprising to me the story had not already been fully told, and I think that was in part because it’s a story mostly set in Nashville. Being based in Nashville and covering the rock and soul scene here for the past forty years, I was acquainted with most of the Nashville musicians who worked with Dylan on the record. I was also acquainted with Al Kooper from his time living in Nashville in the ’90s. I think one of the advantages of focusing on not only a single record, but this record in particular, was it allowed me to take the readers on a deep dive into Dylan’s process when he was at the peak of creative powers, and give them a ringside seat in the studio as Dylan and the musicians recorded his masterpiece.

DI: You address the sexual longing and the preoccupation with women as a central theme in Blonde on Blonde. This may be a rather endless question but in short, what is the album about? And why do so many critics and fans hold it in such high regard?

With one notable exception (“Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”), Blonde on Blonde is an album of songs about romantic relationships that appear to be primarily inspired by Dylan’s relationships with three women: Joan Baez, Edie Sedgwick, and Sara Lownds, who would become his wife. But those relationships were just the jumping off point for a set of songs that adroitly addressed universal themes.

As for why it is held in such high regard, I think more than any other Dylan album, Blonde on Blonde combines trailblazing songwriting with superb musicianship and does it in a way that forever changed popular music. Blonde on Blonde gave songwriters permission to go beyond songwriting conventions on every level, from lyrics to song structure to the length of the song. For example, it’s hard to imagine we would have “Stairway to Heaven” without “Visions of Johanna.” Plus, being rock’s first [double] album, it paved the way for other trailblazing albums like The Beatles and Exile on Main Street.

DI: You are based in Nashville yourself and the book references a number of interviews you conducted with musicians and other who were actually around the studio when Dylan recorded on Blonde on Blonde.  Can you tell us something about the research behind this book?  And, based on your interviews, what does it take, do you think, to be able to work well with Dylan?

My goal was to produce the definitive account of the making of Blonde on Blonde, so I tried to uncover any and all potentially relevant information I could, leaving no stone unturned, as they say. Long before I started work on the book, I was aware there had been a lot of misinformation published about the album, so I didn’t rely on any single source, even the firsthand interviews I did with the musicians because I was asking them to remember events that took place 40-50 years ago, and let’s face it, our memories are not infallible. Unless noted as such, I didn’t include any information that I was unable to corroborate. I liken my process to archeology: I would find a piece of pottery and see if it fit with another fragment of pottery. As you can see in the endnotes, my book is heavily referenced.

Regarding what it took to be able to work well with Dylan, in the case of Blonde on Blonde, first and foremost it took musical flexibility and the patience to wait hours before the record light was lit. It also took a certain musical intuitiveness to know where Dylan was trying to go with the music on any particular song because he couldn’t always put into words what he was hearing in his head. Fortunately for Dylan, the musicians gathered in Nashville at Columbia Studio A in 1966 were highly intuitive in that regard.

DI: Dylan went on to record other albums in Nashville, of course, but seemed to move on from the city after 1969.  What do you think he found in Music City?  And why did it eventually lose its creative appeal?

I think what Dylan found in Nashville was a group of world-class musicians who were in tune with his musical vision. As I note in my book, the Nashville musicians were all around his age and had been inspired to pick up their instruments by the same music that inspired him — blues, country, R&B, and early rock & roll— so they could go in any direction he wanted to go.

As for why he didn’t continue to record in the city after 1969, my best guess on that is he took issue with producer Bob Johnston’s growing relationship with Leonard Cohen. Of course, Johnston was one of the main reasons Dylan was working in Nashville, and by 1969, Johnston was not only producing Cohen’s records, but also was managing him and even touring with him beginning the following year. As I understand it, there was some friendly competition between Dylan and Cohen, so I think Dylan decided to move on from Johnston — and Nashville.

DI: You mention that author, historian and collector Jeff Gold has spent lots of time with Bob Dylan’s various notebooks and drafts, most of which are now housed in the Bob Dylan Archive. He has concluded that tracing Dylan’s influence, meaning, and references might be “a fool’s errand” (41). How do you think access to the archive can inspire scholarship about Dylan, his process, and his legacy?

That isn’t precisely what Jeff said. His point was that it’s not really possible to fully know what Dylan’s songs are about, although one might be able to discern what the initial inspiration for a song was. There are a lot of ridiculous interpretations out there regarding the meaning of Dylan’s songs, and that’s what Jeff was referring to. The great thing about the archives is there is now a wealth of material in one place that writers and researchers can access. Before the Dylan archives opened, it was much more difficult — and in some cases impossible — to track down important sources of information. Now with so much information collected in one place, it ensures the conversation about Dylan’s artistry can continue in a highly informed way well into the future. Personally, I can’t wait to visit the archives.

Be sure to pick up of That Thin, Wild Mercury Sound: Dylan, Nashville, and the Making of Blonde on Blonde at a local bookstore near you!